My iPad Setup

For almost a year now, my iPad has been my main computing device while traveling (the only other device being my phone). Making the switch has been relatively easy, once I decided to buy any (and every) app I thought would make my life easier. Any downsides I’ve come across have been more than compensated by not having to carry around 5 extra pounds of laptop. In this post I’ll detail some challenges and highlight the best apps that I’ve found.

My Recommendations

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Before I get too into the weeds, here is the bottom line up front. These are my must-have apps. The prices may be higher than most apps, but I guarantee that they are worth every dollar.

Name Price Description
Texpad $19.99 TeX and LaTeX editing and compiling
GoodNotes 5 $7.99 Digital notebook, for the Apple pencil
Working Copy Pro $15.99 Git & GitHub
Blink Shell $19.99 SSH terminal
Prompt by Panic $19.99 SSH terminal
iA Writer $8.99 Plain text writing app
PCalc $9.99 Calculator with all the bells and whistles
Terminology $1.99 Dictionary & Thesaurus

Hardware Setup

Of course, it all starts with an iPad. I have a 9.7-inch iPad Pro (generation 1), with 32 GB of space. It’s small and light. The small screen means that it’s not great for multitasking / split-screen, but it’s usable when I need it. I also have the Apple keyboard cover (approximately 1 pound). I also have an Apple Pencil, but I don’t usually carry that with me. I would consider the next generation iPad just for the Pencil magnets.

Some thoughts on the Apple Pencil

I often take handwritten notes, but digital notes just aren’t quite the same. That said, I did give it a shot and found GoodNotes to be an absolutely stunning app. It allows you to create different notebooks and comes equipped with great page templates. As a bonus, users of GoodNotes 4 (which I purchased back in 2016 when I first got my iPad) were given a free or subsidized upgrade to GoodNotes 5 when it was released earlier this year.

Some other fun apps, just to use the pencil:

The Holy Grail

I already told my story of compiling slides at 30,000 feet and I cannot recommend Texpad enough. If you need to do any TeX at all, get Texpad, it works. The TeX/LaTeX suite is such a beast, with tons of packages, and archaic flags. I’m a CLI person, but I still use MacTex’s provided TexShop GUI app to actually compile my tex files. What even is the comiple command, pdflatex --some --flag? I don’t actually know the magical incantation. But Texpad knows. And Texpad works.

Coding

The technical aspects of my day job are coding. Heck, with Emacs and Org-mode, even writing, text editing, building a poster, making slides, etc. is coding. Coding on an iPad can happen in two ways:

  1. SSH into a remote machine (say, a desktop sitting back in your office)
  2. Download source to the iPad and edit it directly.

My preferred method is (1) SSH-ing back to my office desktop machine. This means that any work I do is waiting for me when I return from my trip, plus I have access to emacs, compilers, Unix, the office intranet… There are two very good apps for this: Panic’s Prompt and Blink. While I love and support the folks over at Panic, my go to is Blink. Blink allows key remapping, meaning caps-lock is control and ` is Esc. Thank goodness because typing on a plane is RSI-inducing enough. Blink also supports MOSH, which I haven’t yet tried.

Sometimes, I don’t want to SSH anywhere, or I want to do some git work without internet access. For that there is Working Copy (unlock all the features with an in-app-purchase). This app is a dream. It has fully functioning support for git, with built in code editing and diff viewing (including an image diff viewer). The built-in text editor is great and did I mention it does all of git!? Pushing to GitHub does require some set up: you have to request permission for the app from any organizations that you want to push to.

Plain Text Editing

It’s taken me a long time to figure out a good text editing app, one that works great for plain text, not necessarily code. Of course, org-mode has spoiled me. I really want plain text… but with some syntax highlighting. I’d also really like the readline shortcuts to work (C-a, C-e, C-f, C-b, etc.). And a dark mode with fixed width fonts (Inconsolata or Fira Code please). With these “simple” requirements, it’s taken me quite a while to find a text editing app that I like.

The best plain app I’ve found is iA Writer. I’ve heard good things about this app for a long time, but with emacs on my Mac I’ve never had a good reason to invest. These folks really understand plain text. Doesn’t get in the way or force markdown on me, smooth to use, and files are stored as .txt (or even .org) which are easily accessed by the File browser.

Missing Essentials

There are two basics that are completely missing on the iPad: a calculator and a stand-alone dictionary/thesaurus app.

For a calculator I use PCalc, based on recommendation from Daring Fireball. PCalc is great and has every feature you’d ever need: unit conversions, paper tape, hexadecimal/octal/binary conversions, color themes, and more. Plus, it gives you a chance to practice your reverse Polish notation.

I frequently use the built-in MacOS dictionary when writing, mostly for the thesaurus. On the iPad, I’ve found Terminology. It has great support for keyboard shortcuts, works offline, and provides tons of related words (from the Princeton WordNet lexical database).

The Rest

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If you are gearing up to use your iPad as your main computing device, there are a bunch of apps you should have just in case. Mostly, they are the typical suites of office software and video conferencing tools. Personally, I wouldn’t choose to use any of these, but no one asks me. That said, when I have had to use these office-suite apps, I have been surprised at how seamlessly they work. It is completely possible to edit a budget spreadsheet (full of advanced macros) while waiting for your flight.