iPad for Writers: iPadOS 13 Review

I’ve never reviewed an operating system before. It’s daunting and there’s no way I’d be able to devote months of my life to discussing every little feature inside. Instead, this review was written with a very specific demographic in mind: writers. I’ve broken it down into sections based on my own use case and what I think would benefit any writers interested in switching from a PC or Mac to the iPad.

  1. Introduction
  2. Homescreen
  3. Multitasking
  4. Files and iCloud
  5. Shortcuts
  6. Safari
  7. Apple Pencil
  8. Text Editing and the Keyboard
  9. Fonts
  10. Dark Mode
  11. Conclusion

At this year’s WWDC, Apple unveiled the newest operating system to its already growing lineup. In addition to WatchOS, tvOS, MacOS, and iOS, we now have iPadOS, a dedicated platform disconnected from the iPhone’s own operating system.

As soon as the betas got relatively stable, I installed iPadOS on my iPad Pro to really see if it would be possible to migrate away from my MacBook Air and use the iPad as my primary computing machine.

I’m a writer. I used my MacBook Air for writing and research on Cabinet of Curiosities, and I wrote half a dozen novels and short stories in Scrivener on it. It was how I got work done for a long time, but the iPad lifestyle intrigued me. Writers like Federico Viticci and Matt Gemmell saw the possibilities of an iPad-only future early on, even before iPadOS offered such expanded functionality. They altered their workflows and made use of clever hacks to achieve their goals. I figured I’d give it a shot, too.

I love the iPad. It’s slim, light, and versatile. This review won’t go into detail on every feature and app enhancement iPadOS brings. For that, I suggest you take a deep dive into Federico’s review on MacStories. It’s enormous and thorough and incredibly thoughtful.

I’m tackling this review from the perspective of a writer, discussing the features and apps I use and determining whether other writers looking to make the switch can—and should.

So, let’s get to it, shall we?

An iOS Shortcut to Make Querying Easier

I’d thought about posting this as part of my “iPad for Writers” series, but I felt it spoke to a larger piece about automation I plan on writing eventually, so instead I’m just publishing it as kind of a how-to for anyone interested.

The more I use the iPad to do my daily driving, the more I find myself looking for ways to simplify the tasks I perform each day. When compared to the Mac, the iPad seems limiting in what it’s capable of, but I’m finding the opposite. It’s not that it’s limiting, it’s that we’ve been doing things one way for so long, anything different seems wrong.

Which brings me to my current dilemma. As with every book I’ve written, I now find myself emailing literary agents my query letter, as well as any other materials they request, including sample chapters and/or the dreaded synopsis.

My previous process worked thusly:

  1. Find an agent I’d like to query.
  2. Start a new email.
  3. Look in my Sent folder for a previous query with some or all of the materials they’re requesting.
  4. Copy/paste from the old email to the new email.
  5. Change all identifying information (agent’s title and last name, what’s been included below the query).
  6. Verify all formatting is correct.
  7. Go back to website for agent’s email address.
  8. Copy/paste into TO field of new email.
  9. Check it again.
  10. Send.
  11. Realize I made a typo in the agent’s last name.
  12. Curl up under my desk and cry like the failure I am.

Okay, maybe those last few steps were a bit melodramatic, but my old process did leave a lot of room for error. I once realized I hadn’t included my name and address at the top of the query after I’d sent it because I hadn’t copied it. I even forgot to include the pages I’d said I’d included and had to resubmit the query.

The whole process was tedious and prone to mistakes. I had dabbled with automation here and there on my Mac. I dumped my query letter into a TextExpander snippet so I could populate an email with it just by typing ";query" into the message. It had a place to fill in the agent’s name and select what was included at the bottom. Unfortunately, TextExpander is limited on iOS, forcing me to open up Drafts, start a new draft and invoke the TextExpander snippet, then share the draft to an email or copy/paste it into a new message.

There had to be a better way.

Enter Shortcuts. In my previous experiences with Shortcuts, I’d installed a few pre-made shortcuts that calculated tips and set alarms for specific times. I’d never really explored the capabilities of the program. Then I had an idea: what if I could automate the querying process using a shortcut? Nothing existed already that would accomplish the task, so I set out to build my own solution.

Here’s how it works:

  1. I find an agent I want to query and copy their email address from their website.
  2. The shortcut asks the title of the agent I’m querying (Mr. or Ms.)
  1. Then I enter their last name.
  1. Those values are dumped into the query letter at the top ("Dear Mr./Ms. [LAST NAME]").
  1. I’m prompted to enter the number of chapters/pages I’m including (or I can delete that line entirely if I’m just sending the query).
  1. I select from a menu what I’m including (Query, synopsis, up to three chapters)
  1. A new email message is generated with my selections, a pre-populated subject line, and the email address I’d copied at the beginning dumped into the To: field of the email.
  1. I do a quick look-over of the message and once everything looks okay, I send it–all from within shortcuts.

No more copying/pasting. No more hunting through old emails for submission materials. I spent about an hour and a half configuring something that will save me roughly 10-15 minutes per query I send. Well worth the effort.

Here’s a link to a version of my shortcut where you can replace the stock text values with your own query letter, synopsis, and chapters. Then add it to your homescreen and/or your share sheet so you always have access to it.

DOWNLOAD QUERY EMAIL SHORTCUT

Hope this helps other iOS-focused writers and/or anyone looking to make the query process that much less painful.

iPad for Writers — Part 3: Keyboards

If you plan on doing any kind of longform writing on the iPad — you know, more than the occasional tweet or email — then it’s probably safe to say there’s a 100 percent chance you’re going to need an external keyboard. Before I got my iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard Folio, I tried a lot of third-party keyboards.

I’m going to discuss a few options out there that should hopefully help you find a sweet spot for your own needs, or at the very least, put you on a path to that one true keyboard you’ve been looking for.

Apple Wireless/Magic Keyboard

I bought the first generation iPad soon after its release in 2010 and at the time we didn’t have nearly as many keyboard options available as are available today. There was the keyboard dock, Apple’s own wireless keyboard used with its various desktop computers, and little else. We didn’t have Brydge, or Logitech, or Belkin providing all manner of keyboards at varying form factors and sizes.

Since it was cheaper than the dock at the time, I opted for the wireless keyboard and an Incase Origami workstation case to carry it in. The case unfolded into a kind of cradle where you could prop up your iPad as you worked. One advantage it had over the dock was that it allowed me to use the iPad in vertical or landscape orientation.

While the Origami isn’t really an option anymore given the Magic Keyboard’s redesign from the original Wireless Keyboard, there are similar products available that perform essentially the same function.

Studio Neat makes what appears to be the best solution and it comes the closest to what the original Origami offered. The Canopy is a $40 sleeve for your Magic Keyboard that kind of folds over on itself when closed, then unfolds into a tented stand for your iPad. the button strap keeps it closed during travel and holds the stand together when opened. I haven’t tried it myself, but Studio Neat is a very well-known and trusted company and at $40, it’s worth a look. One thing MacStories writer John Voorhees noted in his review of the Canopy:

Sliding the Canopy around on a table works well, but in my lap I’ve run into a couple minor issues. The added friction of sliding the Canopy in my lap sometimes causes the snap to come undone. In addition, when I use the Canopy in my lap, my iPad sits lower in it than it does on a table or in the Smart Keyboard Case, which can make it difficult to swipe up to activate Control Center.

Something to keep in mind if you’re looking into using your Mac’s keyboard as your iPad keyboard, too.

Brydge

One thing you’ll often hear from skeptics is "the iPad isn’t a laptop." On a fundamental level, they’re right — though that’s all changing with the upcoming iPadOS. However, there are ways to bring the laptop experience to your iPad and one way is by using a laptop-class keyboard. If you want your iPad to feel like a MacBook, look no further than Brydge’s own Bluetooth keyboard. When I still had my 9.7-inch model, I used a Brydge keyboard with it and I loved it.

Not only does it feel like typing on a MacBook Air, but the keys are backlit and there are dedicated function keys for things like the Home button, Siri, and volume and brightness adjustments — keys not found on Apple’s own Smart Keyboards. You just slide your tablet into the rubberized clips on each side, sync up the Bluetooth connection, and you’re ready to write. The screen is protected when closed over the top of the keyboard, just like a laptop.

The battery life on a Brydge keyboard is arguably the best of all Bluetooth keyboards, the company promising it will last 12-months per charge. I never let mine get that low, but even charging it once a week was more than okay considering I need to charge my iPad about once a day anyway.

The new Pro models for the 2018 iPad Pro allow for 180-degree viewing, meaning you can flip the iPad around and either prop it up to watch a movie, or close the back of it over the keyboard and use it as a chunky tablet. There’s even a magnetic cover for the back of the iPad as added protection. The 12.9-inch model comes in at $170 while the 11-inch version runs $150, about $30 cheaper than Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folios. Not bad, considering the Brydge options offer greater functionality and protection than Apple’s own keyboards.

For a deeper look, I suggest you check out Jason Snell’s Brydge keyboard review over at Six Colors.

But for many users, owning an iPad is all about portability. You might not want to lug another laptop around, no matter how good the keyboard is. You want something you don’t have to charge, that you can remove in a second without having to fiddle with bulky cases or rubber grips.

That’s when you turn to Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio.

Apple Smart Keyboard Folio

In a recent piece about keyboards on the Verge, Sam Byford threw a bit of shade at Apple’s offering, saying, "Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio is the best option if you value portability and don’t plan to use your iPad Pro as a primary writing machine."

While I agree on the portability aspect, I think it’s more than adequate as an option for people who plan to use their iPad Pro (or Air) for writing. I’ve been editing my latest novel on it and while I expected not to like typing on such rubbery keys, I got used to it pretty quickly. One thing I didn’t like about the Brydge keyboard was how bulky it made the iPad. The beauty of the iPad is in its form factor — thin, light, easy to carry. Not that my MacBook Air isn’t also light and thin, but sometimes I don’t need a keyboard and I don’t want to have to struggle with removing the iPad from the Brydge’s clips.

Since it’s attached using only magnets, the Smart Keyboard Folio comes right off and pops back on without a problem. Where I struggle with it is in its "lapability." The Smart Keyboard Folio offers two angles of working — a steep, almost vertical angle and a slightly more tipped-back inclination, which is where I usually keep it when I’m typing. I certainly can use it in my lap, but it’s not as stable as a laptop or when using the Brydge. Keep that in mind if you don’t often use a desk or table at Starbucks when typing.

Other Options

Logitech, Belkin and a host of other third party companies make all kinds of keyboard cases for the iPad. They’re designed to protect the device on all sides while providing a kind of laptop experience. I’m not a fan of these. They’re bulky and getting the tablet in and out of them can be difficult. Basically, once it’s locked into the case, that’s where it stays.

There are also folding keyboards from companies like iClever. I have one and it’s good in a pinch or if you have limited space in your bag, but the keys are cramped and I have difficulty typing on it with my big, fat fingers.

Final Thoughts

Just like with your choice in word processor, your choice in keyboard is entirely up to your personal preferences. I love the Smart Keyboard Folio and use it daily. It’s the most portable of all of them and I don’t mind typing on the thinner, rubberized keys.

To keep things simple, here’s a quick recap of possible needs and the keyboard that would best suit them:

Apple Bluetooth Keyboard + Stand

  • You often write at home
  • Don’t travel much
  • You demand the same typing experience on the iPad as you get on the desktop
  • You want to be able to type in any orientation (portrait or landscape)

Brydge Keyboard

  • You want a laptop-style typing experience for your iPad
  • You want dedicated iOS function keys
  • You want backlit keys
  • You often find yourself typing with the device sitting on your lap
  • You’re looking for a cheaper alternative to Apple’s Smart Keyboard covers

Smart Keyboard Folio

  • Size and portability are your biggest concerns
  • You don’t mind getting used to the feel of a new keyboard
  • You often type at a desk or table, rather than with the iPad on your lap

Keyboard Case

  • You want ultimate protection for your iPad
  • Looking for laptop-like experience
  • Price is an important factor for you

Good luck in your search for the perfect keyboard for your needs. Hopefully this piece saves you the heartache and walletache I’ve gone through in finding what works for me. And if you haven’t caught up on the other pieces in this series, I invite you to check them out below:

iPad for Writers — Part 1: Changing Behaviors

iPad for Writers — Part 2: Scrivener and Apple Pages

Whither the MacBook?

I never expected this site to turn into a tech blog again, but here we are.


One week before WWDC, Apple quietly refreshed its Touch Bar model MacBook Pros with faster processors and improved keyboards. At the time, the question posed by bloggers and podcasters was, "Why not the 13-inch Pro without Touch Bar, or the Air, or the base model MacBook?"

The MacBook Air was only given a major refresh a few months ago, so I get why they didn’t extend similar upgrades there. However, after watching the keynote on Monday and getting a glimpse into the future of the iPad, I think I have a better understanding as to Apple’s thinking.

I believe the lower-end MacBook line will disappear within 3-5 years.

The company’s deliberate forking of iOS into two separate operating systems–iOS for the iPhone and iPadOS for the iPad–demonstrates the company’s focus on propelling the tablet into a true "real work" machine without being held back by the smaller screen of the iPhone.

We got a glimpse of this in last year’s "What’s a Computer?" ad where a young teen went about her day with her iPad Pro and Apple Pencil at her side, reading comics, creating Pages documents, and chatting with friends. The ending line always made me cringe–obviously you know what a computer is. You’re not that young, but the farther away from that "get off my lawn" mentality I get, the more I’m willing to accept how that person’s experience might become the default in a handful of years.

The iPad has grown from a fun in-between device for watching movies and playing games into a real, viable option for people looking to shed the PC life. Split View multitasking was the start. Being able to use two apps side-by-side seemed to appease users who wanted computer functionality, but found themselves hampered by Apple’s one-app-at-a-time UX.

With iPadOS, multitasking is elevated to a whole other level. App Exposé, Slide Over, and Split View combine to provide access to your apps in new ways while retaining the clean interface iPad users have come to love. Slide Over in particular seems like a great way to keep reference apps and file directories handy without having them take up an entire half of the screen, and the ability to cycle through a bunch of different apps, then swipe them away only makes it better.

There’s also the addition of SMB server support and external storage support in the Files app, two features that were heavily criticized for being omitted in last year’s major update, especially with the debut of the 2018 iPad Pro. Calling something a "pro" anything, for better or worse, carries a certain weight. In the case of the iPad Pro, users found it hard to consider the device a true laptop replacement when it didn’t do nearly as much as their MacBooks. That’s all changed this year.

Even iCloud on iOS (and iPadOS) has gotten a bump, with shared folder support across all devices. And Safari on iPad’s shift from mobile browser to desktop-class browser with download manager means your favorite web apps, like Google Docs, Trello, Basecamp, and more work the way they’re supposed to–the way they work on your laptop.

Most importantly, there’s Apple’s new universal app development initiative, Project Catalyst née Marzipan. A lot of people saw it as a way to bring beloved iPad apps to the Mac more easily, saving developers time, effort, and money by letting them build one app instead of two or three for Apple’s various platforms. But I see Project Catalyst going the other way, as less about bringing iPad apps to the Mac and more about bringing Mac apps to the iPad. As I’ve said before, Scrivener on the iPad, while a terrific app, lacks much of the functionality of its desktop counterpart. That doesn’t have to be the case anymore.

And with Photoshop coming to the iPad soon, we may see Adobe Premiere, After Effects, and even Apple’s Final Cut Pro make the move to the tablet in the future. Project Catalyst on the desktop will make Mac users more comfortable when switching to the iPad and give iPad users access to the apps they know and love from the Mac.

Which brings us back to my initial thesis: the end of the MacBook.

It won’t happen immediately, but I do see it happening sooner rather than later, starting with the 12-inch MacBook. Its last update was in 2017 and even then, its processor and RAM options were paltry compared to its Pro brethren. When the new Pro models came out last week with 8-core processors and the MacBook was left out of the cycle, that told me the warden pushed up the runt’s execution date. Dead computer walking.

The same goes for the 13-inch "Escape" model Pro (the one without the Touch Bar). The difference between the MacBook Escape and the MacBook Air is $100 and, as Macworld’s Michael Simon pointed out in his comparison of all three MacBook models back in November 2018:

The $1,299 non-Touch Bar model has a better processor than the MacBook Air, but not overly so, and it has the same base storage, RAM, ports, and screen. The Air is lighter, feels thinner due to its wedge design, and has better battery life.

At that size and form factor, I don’t imagine most people, especially students and hobbyists (amateur photographers, podcasters, writers) would opt for the higher priced Pro when they could get an Air that’s lighter and cheaper with better battery life.

Now, enter the iPad Pro, with its blazing-fast A12x chip and Liquid Retina display. It’s a powerful machine made even more powerful with the updates in iPadOS. Students looking for an ultra-portable machine to carry with them to class may likely find the Pro to scratch just that itch. They can read digital textbooks, email professors, take notes using the Apple Pencil, and chat with classmates while using the device as a pure tablet, or with a keyboard. It’s incredibly versatile and should grow even more so once Project Catalyst takes off.

A 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 256GB of space, the Smart Keyboard Folio, and the Apple Pencil comes in at a little over $1,500. That’s more expensive than the base model 13-inch MacBook Pro and the base MacBook Air. Laptop pricing for a true laptop alternative.

The updated iPad Air is no slouch either. It boasts an A12 chip, Apple Pencil support, and even uses the old Pro’s Smart Keyboard cover. A 256GB WiFi model clocks in at around $650. Add the keyboard and Pencil and you’re heading into the one grand territory. Again, laptop pricing.

Like I said, I don’t see Apple dropping the MacBook lineup tomorrow. I imagine it starting out slow, with the 12-inch models falling off the website, followed by the 13-inch Escape-model Pros. The 15-inch Pro will stick around. A portable machine capable of high-end video, audio, and graphic work will always be in demand, but the days of low-end Apple laptops for students and casual web surfers may be coming to a close. As it stands right now, Apple offers:

  • 2 MacBook models
  • 2 MacBook Air models
  • 4 13-inch MacBook Pro models
  • 2 15-inch MacBook Pro models
  • iPad mini
  • 9.7-inch iPad (Pro)
  • iPad Air
  • iPad Pro

I see that eventually becoming:

  • 2 13-inch MacBook Pro (Touch Bar) models
  • 2 15-inch MacBook Pro models
  • iPad Mini
  • iPad Air
  • iPad Pro

Yes, I also predict the 9.7-inch iPad fading away as well. Especially since the Air is less than $200 more and could feasibly come down further in price to better accommodate the education market, as well as consumers who don’t want to spend the coin on a Pro model.

I won’t be surprised if anyone disagrees with me. It’s a bold claim, but Apple isn’t a company that’s afraid to change things up, especially when they have a chance to move an entire industry forward. iPadOS is just the beginning.

In less than a decade, I can see my son turning to me with a puzzled look on his face and asking me, "What’s a computer?"