How much of your job can you really do on an iPad?

Tim Cook recently said that he performs 80% of his work on an iPad--and he thinks everyone should do the same. But is that really realistic?

The answer depends, of course, on the kind of work you do. Perhaps Cook spends his entire day working in email and a browser. If that's the case, the iPad could be entirely adequate. When he was quoted, Cook was specifically touting the iOS-compatibility that will come to many corporate apps, thanks to Apple's new alliance with IBM. So if you're living in apps that your company built for itself, the iPad could someday be all you need.

But what about the rest of us, whose work tools lie somewhere between a Web browser and bespoke corporate software? To get a take on how well the iPad suits at least one specific job-description, I asked some editors here at Macworld, as well as at our sister publications PC World and Greenbot, to tell me: How much of your job do you currently do on an iPad? And how much could you do if you really had to?

Christopher Breen (Senior Editor, Macworld)

What little work I do on my iPad happens after normal work hours and consists of things like email, Web browsing, and Twitter. Otherwise, my job requires me to string words together and record and edit media, and I find a computer to be a better tool than the tablet for that.

Taking care of work communications wouldn't be difficult in an iPad-only world. The Mail app doesn't have the power I need for sorting PR pitches and working with attachments, but it's entirely workable for quickly swapping messages with co-workers. Likewise, there are plenty of solid iOS chat tools for coordinating stories and events on the fly. I could also get by with an iPad for writing and editing. With an external keyboard, typing is doable. I'd miss the keyboard shortcuts and macros I have on my Mac, but I'd survive.

But actually producing those stories in Macworld's Web-based content-management system (CMS)--the closest thing we have to a customized app--would be impossible on the iPad. Those tools aren't built for mobile devices at all. (Some would argue they weren't designed for modern-day computers, either.) Producing stories often requires me to have multiple apps open at the same time to separately manage words, images, and media files. Without real multitasking (yet), iOS just doesn't cut it.

Also, while I know it's possible to edit audio and video on an iPad, I'd do it only upon threat of termination. I try to be very precise in my edits, but using a finger to implement them is inescapably clumsy. I find that editing multiple tracks requires the extensive onscreen real-estate that only a computer monitor can provide.

Serenity Caldwell (Associate Editor, Macworld)

Circumstances have, on occasion, forced me to use an iPad for work; at those times, I found it feasible but not comfortable. So, though I spend a good chunk of my work time testing and playing with iOS apps, when it's time to write about them I invariably go back to the Mac.

That's partly a matter of convenience: If I'm writing about an iOS app, it helps to have it open on one device while I'm writing on another. That's not to say I don't like writing on the iPad: I've written many things on both my iPad mini and iPhone. I find doing so can help center me and tune out the noise that comes from constantly switching applications, monitoring chat rooms and Twitter, and checking email. But those projects are usually personal, rather than professional; I find that I prefer a multi-screen workflow for work-related content.

As Chris mentioned above, our content-management tools aren't built for a touch screen. Nor is it practical to constantly be switching among applications to, say, be sure I haven't missed an important bit of information in our newsroom while I'm working on something else.

Given the right job and the right software tools, it's certainly possible to do all or nearly all of your work on the iPad. But at the end of the day, it's about matching the device to the task. I don't know what Tim Cook's daily schedule looks like. But I imagine it involves a lot of email, viewing Web-based reports and the visual output of designers, and the like--all tasks that are eminently achievable on the iPad. And if he runs into something he can't do with it, he knows who to call to make the tool he needs.

Jason Cross (Executive Editor, Greenbot)

I currently do zero percent of my work on my iPad. But if I really had to, I could probably do 90%--maybe even 100%--of it on Apple's tablet. But it would be slow and laborious.

For one thing, having multiple windows open--preferably on multiple monitors--is a core component of my daily workflow. I need to be able to drag an image from a webpage to my local machine, then into Photoshop (real Photoshop, not just any old image editor). I need to drag multiple images from my local files into our CMS, copy and paste large blocks of text, and quickly highlight text for comments, links, or edits.

Can the iPad do all this? Sure, at least in some roundabout way. I can save an image, then switch over to an image editor and edit it. It would take more time to resize those images precisely (for which I have simple presets on the desktop). It would take more time for me to manage multiple files at once, just as it would take longer for me to open email attachments from writers, edit them, send them back, then take the next round of revised text and put it into our CMS.

I'm sure with the iPad I could do all of this. It would just take vastly more time, and make me way less productive.

Dan Frakes (Senior Editor, Macworld)

Most of my routine writing and editing happens on my desktop Mac. But I do use my iPad a good number of hours each day--in the morning, at lunch, in the evening, and during writing breaks--to read my innumerable RSS feeds, triage email, and perform other tasks that don't require the complex workflows and multitasking I get on my Mac. For these tasks, the iPad is simply a better tool for me.

That's not to say that I couldn't do more on my iPad during the work day. I always have an external Bluetooth keyboard handy, so longer bouts of writing and email are easy enough. (In fact, I'm writing this on my iPad with Logitech's Ultrathin Magnetic Clip-on Keyboard Cover.) An external keyboard is great for serious email correspondence, too. (Alas, I find editing on an iPad to be a chore because of iOS's fiddly text select/copy/cut/paste mechanism.)

Dropbox and Google Docs make it easy enough to work with documents on my iPad, and to transfer them to and from my Mac. I'm also able to use the iOS versions of various communication apps (HipChat, Slack, Messages) to keep in touch with my colleagues.

In fact, when it's time to go portable, such as on a business or family trip, these days I bring my iPad and an external keyboard instead of my (now lonely) MacBook Air. I've found that I prefer doing enough things on the iPad, and I'm able to do enough of the other things, that I haven't taken my laptop on a trip in over a year.

For me, the biggest obstacles to being truly productive on the iPad are the aforementioned multitasking limitations, the lack of automation capabilities, and an in-house tool (the CMS) that's unfriendly to iOS. Most of my work requires the use of multiple apps simultaneously--say, a Web browser, an image-editing app, and a text editor--and iOS makes that kind of quick task-switching frustrating. (Sadly, sometimes iOS "multitasking" means opening one app on my iPad and another on my iPhone.)

I've got my Mac set up with utilities such as TextExpander, LaunchBar, Keyboard Maestro, Automator, and more, which collectively allow me to automate repetitive tasks, script tedious or difficult ones, and initiate many of those tasks using custom keyboard shortcuts. I can approximate some of those workflows on the iPad using apps such as Editorial, Launch Center Pro, and Drafts, but even when I do, I still feel like I'm working one-handed. That's just one reason why I'm really looking forward to seeing what developers do with some of iOS 8's features.

Mark Hachman (Senior Editor, PC World)

In general, I treat the iPad as I would any other tablet: as an alternative to my ThinkPad that I turn to only in a pinch. For me, a tablet can serve as a great second screen--for covering a keynote, say, or for keeping open a reference document. But that's about it.

One big impediment to using the iPad productively is Apple's reluctance to enable real multitasking on the iPad; switching from app to app nearly useless. That's why I treat the iPad as a glorified netbook, switching from browser tab to browser tab to get things done. (I use Chrome, but to each his own.) So if I want to keep one tab open as an Outlook browser while reserving another for business chat, I can.

The other big impediment is that I can't deal with typing on a sheet of glass. Fortunately, there are plenty of great Bluetooth keyboard stands for the iPad that can alleviate that problem.

In other words, I do about about zero percent of my actual work on an iPad right now. I simply have too many alternatives.

Roman Loyola (Senior Editor, Macworld)

For me, it isn't a matter of whether I can do my job on the iPad, but whether I can do so efficiently. My work habits involve switching between apps constantly, a seamless thing to do on the Mac. Sure, you can switch between apps easily on an iPad, but it's not seamless, and all that shuffling tends to wear on me after a while.

So much of my work involves our CMS that I don't think I could do even 50% of my job on an iPad--as others have pointed out, our CMS simply isn't built for mobile devices. It's worse for me than for some other editors because, as Macworld's reviews editor, I not only have to edit reviews: I also have to maintain product records in our database. Doing that requires those same touch-unfriendly CMS tools. And to create and edit those product records, I need to do research on the Web, find product images, and transfer data such as URLs from the vendor's site to the CMS. They're all relatively simple tasks that I can finish quickly on a Mac. But I can't keep up my preferred pace on an iPad.

When I do use an iPad for work, it's all about communications: email and social media. I almost prefer doing work email on the iPad--I say "almost" because I use Microsoft Outlook's Web interface, and its non-standard UI is horrible on the iPad.

I could reassess my work habits and, instead of fitting the way I do things now to the iPad, start over from scratch and create a new iPad-based workflow. But, to be honest, who has the time? I don't think I'll be giving up my MacBook Pro any time soon.

Dan Miller (Editor, Macworld)

I do use the iPad for work, but not much. I could use it more, but frankly I see no reason to: I have a perfectly good (if heavy) MacBook Pro, which I don't mind lugging around and which I find better as a work tool than the iPad.

That said, I could use the iPad for more of my work if I had to. As others have pointed out, the bulk of my job involved processing text. For most writing and editing, I work primarily in plain-text format these days, for which almost any iOS text-editor would do. Ditto for taking notes in meetings and elsewhere. (I generally use nValt on my MacBook for this, syncing its plain-text notes via Dropbox.) For those outside writers who still use Word, we have iOS tools for that, too.

But I still don't like the iPad for writing or editing, largely because I don't like the iPad's onscreen keyboard. I'm a pretty fast keyboard typist, but I'm all thumbs when it comes to typing on glass. I could get a Bluetooth keyboard, but that'd be yet another thing to remember (or, more accurately, to forget). With the MacBook, I can just grab one thing and go.

Similarly, my image-editing needs are pretty simple--mostly resizing and cropping. I could certainly do that on the iPad. But, again, why switch? If I was actively editing and producing stories on the tablet, it'd make sense to edit their images there too. But I'm not, so I don't. And, as others have pointed, our particular work app, that content-management system, is unusable on an iPad. Perhaps Apple and IBM will fix that.

I do take care of off-hours work communications on the iPad (if I haven't brought the MacBook home). Email is great, as is Hipchat. The typing demands for those apps are lower, so that's not as much of an impediment. And the portability means I can reply to people from wherever--the bus on the way home, the couch at night, the breakfast table in the morning. But at work? Again, I have a better tool at hand.

Ditto for off-hours Web browsing, Twitter, RSS, and other sources of work-related information. I'll typically do a round of news reading first thing in the morning; I often do so from my iPad instead of my home Mac. It all depends on where I am when the urge strikes. If I'm walking by our iMac with coffee in hand, I'll stop there. If I'm near my shoulder bag, where the iPad lives, I'll grab that instead.

The fact is, I generally reserve the iPad for not working: After staring at a computer monitor for eight or nine hours a day, I'd rather not stare at one at home. So if I'm going online after hours--for Facebook, RSS, email, ebooks, or Netflix--I prefer the iPad then.

Dan Moren (Senior Editor, Macworld)

As someone who has on occasion forced himself to work on the iPad, I know I can get my job done from Apple's tablet. While those iPad workflows have yet to beat what I can do on my MacBook Air, I've gotten to the point where I can accomplish most of the tasks I need to do in a day--albeit slowly.

As many of my colleagues have pointed out, an external keyboard is imperative for writing anything longer than a tweet or short email. I could write a full article on the touchscreen keyboard if I had to. But as someone who touch-types more than 100 words per minute, the onscreen keyboard feels like running through a molasses spill.

That said, for mundane tasks like checking email, posting to Twitter, reading RSS feeds, accessing my calendar, and chatting with colleagues on via instant message or HipChat, the iPad is more than sufficient. I can even access remote file servers via Google Drive, Dropbox, and GoodReader. And, in a pinch, I can use Screens to access my Mac's desktop, which I have absolutely never ever done while sitting at the couch because I was too lazy to walk to my desk. Ever.

Overall, the biggest frustration about working on an iPad is the difficulty of multitasking. Part of that stems from having a slower iPad. My iPad mini (the original) essentially has the specs of an iPad 2, which means that every time I switch back to an app, there's a noticeable pause before the app is responsive again.

Even worse, simultaneously using multiple apps is still impossible. I can't, for example, easily look at a webpage and type up a story based on notes there; when I try to work on my iPad, I find myself using my iPhone as a second screen. For this reason, I'm really looking forward to iOS 8: Among other things, extensions should ease some of the pain of transitioning between apps. That alone could make a big improvement in my daily workflows, opening up all kinds of new possibilities.

In the end, it's not hard for me to imagine that Tim Cook can get 80% of his job done on an iPad--then again, he's also the CEO of a major company, meaning that he is also probably available to delegate a lot his day-to-day activities. Not that his job isn't intensive, but it's a different sort of gig from the kind of stuff the rest of us do all day.

Jason Snell (Editorial Director, IDGCSMB)

For a large part of my job, I'm on my MacBook. However, if I've got a meeting, I just bring my iPad mini, rather than my laptop. I can use the little tablet to take notes, check my schedule, and even call up a document I've got stored in Google Docs, Dropbox, or Office 365.

And when I'm working at home, I'm much less likely to be using the laptop (unless I'm specifically writing or editing a story). Instead, my iPad springs into action: I read and respond to a huge amount of email, check my calendar, schedule and reschedule meetings, and use Twitter endlessly. I can also keep up with colleagues with the HipChat app and, of course, Messages.

I could do almost everything involving my job on my iPad if I had to, especially if I had access to an external keyboard. The administrative part of my job is all email, Excel, and Google Docs; these days, the Microsoft Office apps for iOS and Google's excellent suite have eliminated the barriers to editing those documents on the iPad. (Google's Sheets app has transformed my use of the iPad; I have Google spreadsheets for roughly half a billion things in my life, personal and professional.)

The writing part of my job can be solved by any of the countless number of iOS editors out there, though these days I prefer Editorial, which has a bunch of nice built-in macros and the ability for me to build my own. I can (and do) write articles in Editorial using nothing but the iPad's on-screen keyboard, but for really motoring through stuff fast, an external keyboard is essential.

The big problem for me with using the iPad full time is that, in addition to writing, editing, and management, I am a podcaster, and iOS just isn't quite there yet when it comes to podcasts. To record a podcast, I use Skype and Call Recorder (which saves Skype audio) on my Mac. I've yet to find comparably solid tools for this on the iPad alone. When I'm recording my show, I'm also usually streaming it live, viewing listener comments via IRC, consulting my notes, modifying my live-stream server via a terminal window, and more. My little 11-inch MacBook Air can handle all that with aplomb. (Hooking up an external monitor certainly helps.) My iPad just can't, at least not yet.

Surprisingly, one of the areas where my iPad can cut it in terms of podcasting is multitrack editing. I've used the Auria app to edit a podcast, and it really does do the job. But it's much slower to edit a podcast with touch controls than it is to use a keyboard, a trackpad, and Logic Pro X. I can edit a podcast on my iPad, but it would take me way too long, so I don't.

So podcasting aside, why I don't I used my iPad more often? For the most part, it's about speed. I'm faster at most tasks on my Mac than my iPad, and when I'm heads-down, cranking away at a story, I need all the speed I can get. Also, an 11-inch MacBook Air isn't that much less portable than an iPad, especially with an external keyboard.

So to answer Tim Cook's challenge: Yes, I could do everything in my job that doesn't involve podcasting with my iPad. But I don't, because my MacBook Air feels like the better tool for the job most of the time. Now, if I could plug my iPad into my big external monitor...

This story, "How much of your job can you really do on an iPad?" was originally published by Macworld.

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