Why My iPad Is Not My Laptop

I have been reading a lot of talk about iPads and their growing capabilities as creative tools. Most of you reading this know of the “my ipad is my laptop now!” hype. Problem is, I come up empty handed whenever I try to figure out why there seems to be such a need to validate the ipad as a  personal computer, of course its a PC! What is there to even debate or dwell on? The input device of choice doesn’t define what a computer is, and neither does the operating system, its as simple as that. A touch screen device like an iPad is a perfectly natural evolution of personal computing. The part of this whole thing that interests me, however, is the software.

I would say a good 90 percent of the debate on the iPads usefulness as a computer is coming from writers and casual users and this is where I find the debate getting a little one sided. Of course a writer would like the ipad. The tools most needed to get their work done are right there for the taking, you can hunt and gather all day long and it does make a fantastic, distraction free space to write in. I can wholeheartedly agree that the iPad is an increasingly great tool to gather ideas, write stories/articles, and stay in touch but for the time being this is where the road unfortunately ends. For many, including myself, the iPad is still not much more than a high tech note pad.

When it comes to many jobs within the professional creative community the iPad is still more or less incapable of handling any honest workload. At least as far as things stand at this point in time. There are no designers that I am aware of using it to create much outside of concepts. There are niceish vector, sketching, and image editing apps available but nothing with the horsepower or precision that it takes to complete a finished product. The same goes for web design, coding, print design, industrial design, etc. Writers can sing praises all day long about how nice it is not to use a laptop to write and how easy it is to focus with one but its still far from useful within many areas including the creative field I am closest to, photography. It seems to me that most photographers today trying to use the iPad as an honest tool are doing it for the novelty. The simple fact of the matter is that it’s still kind of a pain in the ass to manage photos. There is still no easy way to manage files outside of iCloud/Dropbox integration or the clever but usually awkward attempts at using a LAN network to transfer files back and forth. Apples weird little iTunes app file window is sadly obscure and tedious.

I’ll admit there are a few nice photo editing apps available but you still always hit the same dead end. Cloud services can only get you so far, especially when dealing with full resolution RAW files. I can not dump 8Gb of RAW images onto my iPad and expect to get any real work done on them. For most professional photographers, a couple days of shooting equals large amounts of big files which takes forever to import and export, even with access to cloud storage which is not nearly as fun when you are dealing with anything other than small files. There is an obvious bottleneck that has no current solution for a larger quantity of high resolution image files.

For instance, while traveling you would think the iPad would be a great tool for the job, small, light, an endless battery, but as a photographer who has tried this a few times I can say that it is woefully inadequate for my needs. In my times trying to use the iPad as a point in the food chain of shooting while traveling I come across the data bottleneck get lost. RAW images saved to the iPad with the camera connector feel trapped. Getting them on and off is a buggy and frustrating endeavor that takes much longer than it should. In my experience it takes multiple attempts to pull off all of my photos and laves me frustrated and nervous about loosing images.

There was one instance where I thought it would be a wonderful tool while out on a shoot at a company campus. I had appointments with individual employees within a department and between each shoot I moved the images from my 5D to the iPad so I could show them the results afterward with a bit of flare and ease. The process ended up so slow that I had to juggle between cards to make it work and later nearly loose the images to the transfer process. While conceptually it was a nice idea, it was far too unstable for me to try again as things are.

I have tried using the iPad as a photography tool more times than I care to admit, that is, until I finally gave up on the idea and now take my laptop with me whenever I know I will be shooting a lot. I would be curious to hear what others experiences are that may have tried similar things.

For such a supposedly simple to use device the iPad it sure makes it complicated to move files around. In this case, Apple is entirely responsible with their rebellious idea to avoid traditional file structures. I can not fathom why it would be so difficult to have a system level file management area that is as convenient to use as the notification system they have so diligently been working on. Something which is not so flawed and cumbersome as the hidden data that lives within each app.

iCloud’s photo stream is clever but simply mirroring your photos doesn’t really do a whole lot of good for someone like me, especially with the current limits in place. In my opinion things either need to go full cloud or stay local, and full cloud is simply not possible yet. Network data and staying connected to the net at all times is simply not affordable or widespread enough.

Outside of data management failure, software is only really halfway capable. If I were a casual photographer shooting JPEG images I may be able to get by sometimes but as it stands I can’t honestly use any current app to edit photos. In fact, I can’t even come close to my normal work flow for creating content for fiftyfootshadows. I cannot accurately crop images or re size them for posts, more or less add my watermark, zip files up with my terms of use, and upload them to my server. So for a process so simple on the surface (edit, crop, compress, share) it involves details in the process that iOS can not handle as it is. Everyone seems to sort of tip toe around the topic as though they are afraid to admit that it really is not all that well suited for a number of things. Sure, you could mow your lawn with a pair of scissors, but do you really want to go through all the extra effort?

Then there is iPhoto on iOS, something I was looking forward to since the first iPad and its hugely lacking photo viewing app. I know people have been ragging on the interface since its release but that’s not all it fails at. iPhoto is a black hole within a hole where edited photos from your “camera roll” somehow end up in limbo within the app and you have to send edited versions back to the photo roll to do anything else with them other than making a journal. Talk about a mess. Your edited photos then end up piling up on top of duplicate versions of the unedited ones. It’s obvious they tried to do something interesting and capable but their own horrible file system keeps biting the hand that feeds it. Please, correct me if im wrong here but the whole process feels very un-Apple. Also, have you tried “beaming” photos back and forth from the iPhone to the iPad? Every time I have tried  to accomplish this seemingly simple task it has taken multiple attempts to the point where I simply let myself forget that it was even possible.

As it stands, the iPad is amazing. I use it every single day for writing, browsing the news, sketching ideas, and reading though email or tech riders and I love every minute of it. It f complements my daily life and on days when I don’t need to get any real work done, I leave my laptop at home. But when it comes to honest creative work I can not help but find the iPad as little more than a sidekick. I can say with certainty though, that this is far from the last word on this. I can clearly see a future where touch screen devices such as the iPad become more and more viable for the kind of things I have discussed here today. It is still new territory being explored and I for one can not wait to see where it takes us.

*The above image was shot on my iphone 4S and edited with TiltShiftGen and VSCO CAM, then cropped and compressed in Photoshop before posting.


  1. Fixxel - May 7, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    I read your article via google Currents on my iPad ;) – and the whole time I thought: Dude try android! It has not this freaking lack of filesystem iOs has. So you should probably give Samsung’s Galaxy Tab or Asus Transformer a try (with keyboard +quadcore). Sure they have not that uch power a Laptop has, but do you realy edit pictures on a Laptop?!?

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  3. Paul Anthony Webb - May 7, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    *Finally*, someone who speaks for the average user.

  4. SoundMan - May 8, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Wow is this space about to get interesting. Great article.

  5. Jason Stoff - May 8, 2012 at 1:58 am

    Nicely said.

    After graduating, my first creative director insisted upon designers having G5 Macs, as design work needed all the power in the world. And at the time, it was true. I used a G3 for the first part of my time at that job, and it was woefully slow.

    Then, the Intel switch happened. And MacBook Pros happened. And the next machine I had at that job was a Mac laptop.

    Now, we’re in a similar situation hardware-wise — tablets don’t have the horsepower of laptops (yet). But they will, in time. Software, and precision input, will come.

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  7. Ictus75 - May 8, 2012 at 5:43 am

    Yes, the iPad is wonderful for writing & browsing, but as a musician who uses his MacBook as a recording studio, I have run into similar problems as you have with photography. Big files and cloud computing just don’t work yet. I need more onboard storage, plus outboard hard drives to make things flow smoothly. While it would be nice to have a touch screen on the MacBook, I have no problems using the trackpad. I’m sure this will all change a few years down the road, but we’re not quite there yet.

  8. wonderwall - May 8, 2012 at 8:36 am

    i couldnt agree more. i have tried so many ways to have my work done on my ipad, but the best was only to write notes, reminders and ideas. i am an architect, even i went back looking for papers to sketch on. for presentation, or discussion on images, ipad might be useful. (there seems great apps for architects in project managements, design etc, but damn..they are horribly expensive!!)
    for me, i use ipad as a helping tool in my works. to replace a PC, never. However, i think ipad was never design with intention to replace PCs or laptops.

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  10. dan - May 8, 2012 at 10:00 am

    well, iPad is only 2 years old.

  11. Bob D - May 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Yes, high end audio/video/photo editing is not a need well served by the iPad. Editing 8GB RAW files is not going to be practical until another generation or two of iPads with much bigger storage (I carry a 32GB Wi-Drive for some extra storage, but that won’t come close to your typical laptop hard drive).

    That doesn’t mean that you can’t get an awful lot besides writing and web browsing done. There are a log of very good photo editing programs available for smaller files, both surprisingly powerful and easy to use. I have edited hour long audio podcasts, and even edited some short videos that I shot on the iPad. Mind mapping apps work far better with the iOS touch interface than with a mouse and keyboard. There are also many niche applications that simply don’t exist in Windows/OS X. iOS is still very early on in its development, but even now an iPad is a lot more than a consumption device.

    As for file management, GoodReader does a pretty good job of reducing the clunkiness, It hooks into Dropnox FTP, WebDAV, etc and can download and open filed in other apps, as well as viewing just about any file type and annotating PDFs.

  12. Denny - May 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    Areas I am finding the iPad most useful is as noted above writing reading browsing but also coding HTML and CSS using Textastic. I live in a remote cabin where 3G or 4G is the only internet option. I used the first generation iPad which was jailbroken as a hotspot and did most of my work via MacBook Air. That first gen iPad was too slow and lacked memory so I didn’t get much done with it. I sold it when I got the new iPad which is an entirely different story because it allows for switching between apps with no problems. I can work in Textastic and then hop over to Safari and then back to Textastic with great speed. because most of my work stays within Textastic where I have all of my project files in folders I don’t notice the lack of a visible system/user filesystem as much.

    The camera! While it is certainly not of the same quality that a digital SLR is, the camera and video has been of great benefit as well.

    While my iPad is not my laptop, it is now my primary work machine and has been for nearly a month. I don’t know that I would be saying that if I had another method of accessing the internet from home. I don’t feel that my work or productivity have suffered, just that my workflow required an adjustment.

  13. Doug - May 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    It seems your criticism of the iPad keeps coming back to one thing. File structure. That is the great weakness of the system and though you can use services like Dropbox, there is no doubt, it still feels like a bolt on solution.

    I think most people that use the iPad as a laptop replacement are either writers or business people who do a lot of writing or consume a lot of information through email and other services.

    I am not sure I understand your problem with shooting photos and then offloading to iPad to show clients. I am using the eye-fi card for that purpose along with their iPad app and it works great. Like butter. The photos are added to my iCloud photo stream and are immediately synced with my machine back in my office. I have not tried this with RAW,so not sure if the iCloud portion works with RAW, but it should work great otherwise.

    I am not sure the solution you were using that left you unsatisfied, but I would recommend you revisit that scenario if you like having that capability.

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  15. Michael - May 8, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    I believe @wonderwall hit the nail on the head… the iPad is not intended to be a PC or laptop replacement. Apple still sells plenty of Mac Book Air and Mac Book Pro machines (not to mention iPhones, looking in the other direction) and I would reason that they have no intention of phasing out one of these devices in favor of another. Choosing which device to buy and use is now a matter of balancing trade-offs rather than simply deciding if you want power or portability.

  16. Leonardo Zevallos - May 8, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    It’s just a matter of time my friend, just a matter of time. Multitouch was unimaginable in a device the size of a deck of cards 7 years ago. Technology would take care of your actual needs in a near future.

  17. Sheri Sims - May 9, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    This is excellent information. People ask me this question often.

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  20. Drury - May 10, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Another thanks for sticking up for average users, and users who have different work requirements than simply writing for the web (a noble and important job, just one that is fairly straightforward in terms of apps).

    I’m a math professor, before 11am every morning I probably do about a dozen different things that would either be impossible on the iPad or take tens times longer to complete.

    First off, I don’t have a university provided computer, so I have to bring something from home, which means I need a laptop. I have to print to non-AirPrint enabled printers, I have to use TestGen, which as far as I know doesn’t have an iPad version. I use Numbers to manage student grades, and need files and folders to store the hundreds of documents I’ve created in Pages, Word, Keynote, Powerpoint, Numbers, Excel, Grapher, etc.

    I write emails, of course, and I need to be able to refer back to previous emails from other people, which you can’t do on an iPad or in Full Screen Mail in Lion. I attach documents, and download documents which I then need to organize.

    I publish to a blog, ftp files to a blog, I command-tab between Keynote, Numbers, and Safari while I’m teaching a class on the presentation screen

    I have tried to use iWork on the iPad, and Documents2Go and all of those things. It’s there, but it’s not something that I would choose to use to get work done. Plus, since iWork doesn’t have real iCloud or Dropbox sync, I wouldn’t choose to edit anything on the iPad because I’m sure I’d run into syncing issues.

    I also love my iPad, for relaxing consumption. I don’t see why it’s such a sin to suggest that the iPad is ideally suited to consumption. I’m not taking a hard stance in saying one can’t create (obviously you can), but I also see no reason to force the iPad to be something it’s not. Like cutting the grass with scissors, or biking cross country, or cutting steak with a butter knife. Sure, you can do it, but computers are meant to increase productivity. I don’t see why it has to be a practice in ascetic minimalism or deprivation.

    The “iPad replaces my laptop” theme going through the ranks of tech writers is biased at the least, and misleading to the average user at the most. Someone who buys the iPad thinking they will get a lot of mileage out of NUmbers, or Keynote, or printing, or whatever, may find that it gets frustrating fast.

    Plus, Steve Jobs said “if you have a stylus you blew it.” I think it’s also “if you have a keyboard, and a stand” you blew it. It’s not honest to say you’re using your iPad as a laptop replacement unless you’re using the on screen keyboard. By the time you bring along a stand and a keyboard, you’re basically back to the same clutter, and because of bluetooth, reduced battery life. I bet none of these guys would be ok using just the onscreen keyboard to get work done. I’ve tried, and it seems silly when the MacBook Air is awesome, fast, comfortable, only 2.5 pounds, has keyboard, screen, and stand all combined into one handy package, and gets 6 hours of battery life.

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  22. Michel Dupre - July 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Creo que leo este articulo un poco tarde, dado que ya me compre el IPad, pensando que en un futuro cercano sea mi mano derecha en mi trabajo.
    Pero como un amante de la fotografía debo admitir que las aplicaciones para el trabajo de archivos RAW sigue siendo deficiente (hablando a nivel profesional).
    Yo no me gano la vida con la fotografía, pero es util para enseñar al cliente lo que estas realizando y lo que quieres como producto final, y eso es un punto a favor.
    Para finalizar, creo que para trabajar archivos de gran tamaño sigue siendo necesario, cómodo y practico un ordenador ya sea Mac ó Pc.

    Saludos y ahora a esperar el avance de la tecnología.


  23. Ray - August 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    “Thanks for sticking up with the average user”. A common theme from the posters. A graphics designer, a mathematician and an architect. “Average” users???

    While I fully agree the iPad and raw files is not an acceptable solution. However, all other arguments, including the file system is silly. Yes, all edited work needs to go back to an album in the Photo app. Just like all your work on a laptop goes back to a folder. I use 4 photo editing apps and getting around is hardly an issue. Can’t crop accurately in a iPad? Lame. Photo editing software is not strong enough? For the “average user” it’s just fine. Especially considering the fact it’s jpeg limited.

    I won’t even start on a discussion of 8-bit raw file limitations on virtually any laptop that supposedly provides sufficient capability for the “average” user.

  24. John - August 2, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Ray, Sounds like you have it all figured out within your personal workflow and that’s good to hear that your able to make it work for you. Maybe my workflow using only aperture for my raw files is over simplified but it’s enough for my needs. As for the file structure, I realize apple is in the process of reinventing concepts within that space and I am excited to see the end result after there is more unification between concepts.

    Of course casual editing and cropping is certainly possible with an iPad but if I want to get any honest preparation work done for a printing or design I would most certainly have to take it to my laptop to complete the process. While writing from my point of view, which is a little more on the pro side of things, I discovered that I was unable to complete any heavy lifting using only my iPad.

    That’s the trouble with opinion articles, they don’t always represent everyone’s potential needs and this was simply my take on the state of things at the time I wrote it. At any rate, thanks for the input, it’s good to hear from someone who has a good workflow figured out!

  25. Fullstor Ipad eller Macbook Air 11? - January 16, 2013 at 7:03 am

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  26. Virgil - March 2, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    You hit the nail on the head! Holy crap Apple for a creative company, support professional photographers on an ipad. IOS 7 photo app sucks. Moving files sucks. I don’t want to edit files, but travel, backup, viewing should be easy. Right now it’s really bad. The photo app in ios 7 is marginally usable. I now use “FileBrowser” app and DropBox, but it still not quite right.

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