The tablet experiment: iPad Pro field report

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A few columns back I promised to report on my progress using a tablet as my main computer. I'm happy to say that so far it has been a successful experiment. 

Here's an example:

A couple of weeks ago I researched and wrote a newspaper article about coffee culture in my hometown, Hamilton, Ontario. I took my tablet (an iPad Pro) with me to the coffee shops. That's where I did all the interviews, and most of the writing, for the piece. And, hang on here for a bit, because I'm going to nerd out with detail.

During the interviews I took handwritten notes with the Apple Pencil using Notability, an iOS app that can record audio as you write. When I was reviewing those notes, I could tap on a word and the audio skipped to exactly the point in my scribbling.

I also took photos for the piece. I grabbed reference shots (names of coffee brands, café logos, atmosphere pics) with my iPhone. I used my micro-four-thirds camera to take photographs to illustrate the story. I transferred my iPhone pics to the tablet via Airdrop (a short-range wireless protocol) and used a fast USB 3 card reader to pull the images off my camera over to the iPad. Each picture, which I shot in JPEG format, took under a second each to transfer.

While I was still sitting in coffeehouses I did post-processing on the images that would potentially appear with the piece. Most often I used the great photo-processing app, Snapseed. 

Next, I researched some of the ideas mentioned in the interviews and saved the sites I read in Safari's reading list.

When it came time to write the piece (which I also did in a coffeehouse), I used the split-screen feature of the tablet to have my writing app of choice, Ulysses, open on the left side of the screen. On the right side, I swapped between my handwritten notes, my saved web articles and my reference pictures, as the writing required. I used an external Bluetooth keyboard to write the first draft, but switched to onscreen keyboard to do some edits and rewrites. Because the Ulysses documents are stored on my iCloud Drive, I also did some editing using the iPhone version of Ulysses.

When I had a first draft completed, I had the tablet read the story back to me. I have it set to an Irish woman's voice, which is charming. I find that read-back helpful to spot problems with word repetition and cadence. I then emailed the final draft to my editor.

In many ways, I think the tablet is a superior tool for journalists over a laptop. I never had to worry about battery life, could take smooth, handwritten notes (with synced audio) and could carry the tablet around in a lightweight bag. It is ridiculously thin, even if you opt for the Smart Keyboard cover. As I was working on this piece, Apple announced the smaller iPad Pro that offers all these benefits in a 9.7-inch format. And, of course, many of these benefits are also true of Microsoft's Surface tablet. 

This setup might also be ideal for students. I was recently in a coffeeshop where I saw a young woman with her paper notes and printed-out PDFs spread over her table along with a ThinkPad laptop. The whole mess could have been replaced with a tablet.

The number of apps that take advantage of the power and design of tablets keeps growing. Ulysses is an excellent example of that. It is a word processor and document management tool that is built for tablets. It's hard to explain how it differs from Word or Pages until you try it, but it feels completely at home with the screen and the device.  I think this is especially true of the iPad Pro, which sports a large screen that makes running two apps side-by-side practical and easy to read. 

As I write this, I've just returned from covering a conference in Mexico -- far from a Best Buy or Apple Store. While I took a laptop as a backup machine, I didn't crack it open. I did all the writing and post-production and uploading of the words, videos and stills I produced on my smartphone and tablet. My favourite example of the freedom the tech allowed? I filmed a 5K race using my iPod Touch and had the video edited during the 15-minute ride back to the conference hotel. I could show attendees the final product on my tablet before their hair was dry from their post-run shower. 

So, how is my experience with using a tablet as my main machine going? A few months in, I have to say, I can't imagine going back.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Photo: Takuhito Fujita/flickr

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