The best tools are designed purposefully. A tool designed to do anything might be great in certain circumstances–if you’re stranded without a corkscrew in the Swiss mountains, for example–but I’d argue that the best tools are those that have been designed with a user, and a use, in mind.
This is a philosophy that Apple seems to share, at least most of the time. And it serves the company well.
One of the maxims that TV food personality Alton Brown used to repeat on his late, great Food Network series Good Eats was that in the kitchen, tools with only one use–unitaskers–were generally a bad idea. And I’d generally agree, especially in a field (kitchen gadgets) littered with junky one-trick-pony products frequently advertised on TV. (Look at that tomato! Now how much would you pay?)
But while a certain amount of flexibility is always welcome (I got rid of our rice cooker once I tried Brown’s approach), the best tools have a point of view. You might not use the tool as intended, it’s true–in fact, most great software is used for all sorts of things for which it was never designed–but it was probably designed with a vision for particular uses, or at least users.
iPad in Mac’s clothing
I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot this week, as I’ve been using the Logi Create keyboard with my 12.9-inch iPad Pro for the first time.
The Create, $150 on Amazon, was the first third-party accessory to take advantage of the iPad Pro’s Smart Connector, the same one Apple uses for its ultra-slim Smart Keyboard. But while the Smart Keyboard attempts to tuck an ultra-thin fabric keyboard inside a slightly swollen Smart Cover, the Create does something entirely different: it replicates a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air keyboard, right down to the backlighting and silver finish. Snap the iPad Pro into a plastic housing and it’s suddenly a laptop.
On the surface, it seems like a brilliant idea: Why type on a thin keyboard cover with very little key travel when you can get a no-compromises laptop-style keyboard instead? But after using one, I can’t help think that the Create is exactly the wrong approach. As much as its keys replicate those on my laptop, my iPad Pro is not my laptop.
The Create negates so many of the advantages of the iPad without adding enough to make it worth it. I write on my iPad Pro all the time, with an external keyboard, but with the Smart Keyboard or an external Bluetooth keyboard I can rapidly pick up the iPad and treat it like a tablet. The Create requires me to remove it from its tight plastic housing.
The Create is an accessory that tries to make my iPad into a Mac, and that’s not a use it’s suited for. I love my iPad Pro a lot, and use it for real work, but it’s not a Mac and trying to make it one does it no favors.
Similarly, the Mac is not an iPad Pro. My daughter’s Chromebook has a touchscreen, and it’s convinced me that although touchscreens are vital on tablets and smartphones, they’re superfluous on computers. Macs and PCs were purpose built for control from a perpendicular surface–a keyboard and a pointing device are the right tools to use to control them, and all their software is built with those underlying assumptions.
Still, writing a lot on an iPad Pro is not without its challenges. The Smart Keyboard is thin and light, but if you try to place it in your lap and treat the iPad Pro like a laptop, you’ll find that it’s a bit rickety. The 12.9-inch Smart Keyboard will sit in my lap, and I can type on it, but I’m constantly aware that I’m propping the whole thing up with my legs. Hitting the keys makes the keyboard bow and the iPad shake.
The 9.7-inch Smart Keyboard, on the other hand, does the job and does it well. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s lighter weight makes all the difference. It’s a better experience all around.
If I did most of my writing with a device on my lap, I’d probably choose a MacBook over an iPad. That used to be the case–I traveled a lot more, and didn’t have a home office so I had to work while sitting on a couch or a bed.
But these days I do most of my writing at a desk or table, and the iPad Pro works quite well in those scenarios. My preferred method of writing on the iPad Pro is very old school: I type on an external Bluetooth keyboard (Apple’s Magic Keyboard works great, but you can take your pick) with a simple stand to prop up my iPad. I can readjust the keyboard as I need to, and the iPad stays right where it is.
I’ll admit that when I’m writing on my iPad, reaching up to the touchscreen doesn’t feel good. Apple has improved its support for keyboard navigation in iOS, but there’s probably still more work to do on this front. However, unlike my Mac, if I want to switch from typing to reading a comic book, all I need to do is pick up the iPad and it’s suddenly a big, beautiful comic-book reader. My laptop’s just not a tool made for that job.