Hacking the iPad Smart Keyboard Viewing Angle with an Apple Pencil

I’m generally pretty happy with the iPad Smart Keyboard cover. It takes little space and the keyboard is good enough to get work done when I need to type on the road. My biggest gripe is the viewing angle. It’s engineered to be angled up when the iPad is in your lap (or down near lap level). When I sit at a higher table, however, the viewing angle is tilted a little too far back and there is no way to adjust it.

When I find myself in that position, I set my Apple Pencil behind the iPad between it and the the Smart Keyboard iPad rest wedge, pictured below. It adds about a quarter of an inch and makes the screen easier to view. If that’s not enough, you can angle the screen even further with an AirPod case.


Sparky’s iPad screen angle hack. 

Glad I Brought the Laptop

A few weeks ago I wrote about my little nerd-crisis as I prepared to go on a trip. It was largely a trip for fun and I was hoping I could get by with the iPad but I had a few things cooking at the day job that made me ultimately decided to bring the laptop along. I thought I’d report back on that.

I got by just fine with a 9.7 iPad Pro for most of the trip. It’s an excellent computer to use on an airplane and combined with the smart cover, I can type pretty damn fast on it. Moreover, despite my constant grumbling about file management on iOS, I got a significant amount of work done between Microsoft Word, Apple’s Pages, and Numbers. Likewise, the day-to-day management of email and OmniFocus was just fine.

As expected, as I tried to rely on the iPad, I found a few areas that could use automation improvements and the experiment resulted in a couple clever new Workflow recipes.

Overall, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself about not needing the Mac … until the last day. 

On the last day a client contacted me with a new contract that they needed to turn around quickly. In the law game, most contracts are provided to you in Microsoft Word and sometimes even Apple’s Pages. The real rare snowflake is a contract provided to you as a Google document. Lawyers just haven’t adopted Google documents very much. Its track changes features (which Google calls “suggestions”) are fairly recent and still a little clunky. Something I didn’t know until the fateful day is that the Google Docs app for iPad doesn’t include support for Google document change tracking. You can see other people’s suggestions. You can even accept or reject them. You just can’t add your own. If you go to the Google website they explain that the way to suggest an edit on the iPad is to “open a document, spreadsheet, or presentation on your computer.” That’s right. If you want to make suggestions with your iPad the trick is to put it down and open the file on your computer. 

So on the last day of my trip I was forced to pull out the MacBook and do some work. My grand experiment was struck down by Google.

That’s the thing about trying to get by with your iPad alone. It works great until it doesn’t and then it doesn’t work spectacularly. Over the years the percentage of work you can complete and iPad has steadily increased. I’m at about the 90% range. That doesn’t mean I can work just as fast on iPad but I can work on an iPad. The trouble is, however, that last 10%. It’s not a simple problem that Apple can fix with a single software update. In this case, it was Google’s delay in adding a feature that is common on every other platform for their software except the iPad.

I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to travel that additional 10% but I expect it’s going to be an uphill climb for a while. As much as I’d like to have the freedom of using my iPad only on trips, for the time being I’m still going to have to bring a laptop. That won’t, however, stop me from continuing to try.

Five Weeks

Today Apple announced an update to the MacBook. Overall, the new machine looks pretty solid. Faster SSD. Better processor. More battery life. The shocking thing to me is how little I care. Last week I had to get my laptop out and found a letter open on it that I had started writing … five weeks ago. I knew it had been awhile since I used the laptop. I didn’t realize it was five weeks.

Don’t get me wrong. I spend hours a day using my iMac. But for mobile work, the iPad Pro has largely been getting the job done for me. As iOS further matures, I’m just not so sure I’ll have much need for a laptop. Trust me. I’m as surprised by this realization as anybody else.

Which iPad Pro?

Since Apple’s big announcement earlier this week, I’ve received a lot of emails from people asking me whether or not I would keep my jumbo iPad Pro or, if I had the choice, trade it in for the newer, smaller, 9.7 inch iPad Pro.
 In my case, I would keep the big one. In my head, I’ve run the little mental exercises watching a truck run over my big iPad Pro (cringe) and then determining which one I would buy. 

The new 9.7 inch iPad Pro has some additional features in terms of a better camera and a screen that adjusts ambient light but none of that is really a reason to choose one over the other for most people. To me, the big question is whether you want it really big or just kind of big. I can understand why some people hate the big iPad because of the unwieldy screen size but I’m just so damn productive with it. 
Split screen on the big iPad Pro is amazing. Apps are nearly full size and super easy to read and manipulate. Reading and annotating documents on the large-size iPad Pro is also a joy. Combined with the Apple Pencil, I’m chewing through hundred page contracts like nobody’s business. One of my most productive workflows is annotating a document on the iPad Pro with the pencil while sliding in the Dragon Anywhere app to dictate notes about certain sections as I read and annotate. I then send the annotated contract along with my notes to the client.
Another workflow that I’m enjoying is Apple Mail on the left and OmniFocus on the right every morning as I work through my email and task list. I find this more efficient then working through the same data on my laptop and, just as importantly, more delightful.
Another benefit is the general category of typing. The Apple keyboard cover works just fine for me and takes very little space. The big iPad Pro is also the first iPad that I’ve been able to easily type on glass, particularly in landscape. I’ve tried a lot of 9.7 inch iPad keyboards and none of them are as good as what I’m using on the big iPad Pro. They are just too cramped.

While all of these workflows would be possible on the 9.7 inch iPad Pro, they would also be more difficult. I’m sure I would like the increased portability of the smaller iPad Pro but for me it’s not worth it. One way I’ve cheated on this a bit is that I have an aging iPad mini that works fine when portability is king.

I get that everyone is different and, frankly, for most people the 9.7 inch iPad Pro is probably the right answer but I can also tell you that having used the large iPad Pro now for several months, it’s the most productive I’ve ever been with an iPad and I’m not giving it up anytime soon.

Typing on the iPad Pro

David Chartier is getting pretty good at touch typing with an iPad Pro and he is not alone. I’ve heard from a lot of nerd friends that are really pleased with their typing times on the iPad Pro. That makes sense.

The iPad Pro offers a full-size touchscreen keyboard. That’s the first time we’ve ever seen such a thing on an iOS device. No longer do your fingers need to figure out the jujitsu that’s involved with typing on a glass keyboard where every key just a little bit smaller and closer together. I have never been particularly fast typing on glass. Nevertheless, I’m at my fastest when my iPad Pro is laying on a table and I’m tapping away on it.

The problem, for me, is when I need to look at something else. I’m a touch typist and I can easily type while reading a book or something on the screen. When I try this on the glass with the iPad Pro, my fingers inevitably shift a bit and while my fingers are tapping in approximately the right places, my hands are not situated properly. When I do look at the text, I find that I’ve typed a bunch of gobbledygook.

So while typing on the iPad Pro glass is possible and superior to prior iPads, it still requires you to keep an eye on your fingers as you’re going at it. I’d also argue it’s still a bit slower than a traditional keyboard but not so much slower that it isn’t worth doing.

For me, the real sweet spot with the iPad Pro is Apple’s Smart Keyboard cover. It’s just slightly thicker than a standard smart cover and it has a keyboard. It is a mechanical keyboard but just barely. Nevertheless, the tips of my fingers can feel when they’ve drifted off the key. For just the tiny bit of added weight and bulk, I get a keyboard that I can fly on.

As full disclosure, I am hardly a keyboard snob. I can type on just about any physical keyboard. I’m used to and don’t mind at all the controversial keyboard on the new MacBook (that a lot of people hate) and the Apple Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro is equally acceptable.

Initial Thoughts on the Apple iPad Pro Keyboard

I’ve been using Apple’s iPad Pro keyboard now a few weeks and thought I’d report in:

  • They are still difficult to acquire. I ordered mine at launch and it took several weeks to ship. I was in an Apple Store a few days ago and told they are still difficult to stock.
  • The keyboard-in-cover design has been done by third party hardware companies (and Microsoft) for some time but this the first time I’ve seen the keys molded into the cover. It’s nicer than I expected.
  • The feel is alright. There’s more travel than the new MacBook keyboard. I don’t hate typing on it but also I’ve been a minimal keyboard guy for some time now.
  • The keyboard size seems about right. It doesn’t feel cramped like some of the cover-keyboards I tried on the iPad Air. Of course, they have more room to work with on this jumbo iPad.
  • The sound is weird. It’s louder than you’d think and doesn’t sound like a typical mechanical keyboard.
  • The whole monkey-works is just a bit thicker than a normal Smart Cover and it includes a functional, working keyboard. It really feels like no extra weight or thickness bringing it along.
  • I sure would like some dedicated iPad keys but not at the expense of making the existing keys smaller. I suspect that’s why we don’t have them

When the iPad Pro was first announced I knew there would be a lot of third party keyboard cases and I figured the winner for me would end up being something from Logitech. However, the Apple keyboard has the right amount of balance between minimal profile and working keyboard that I think it is the keeper for me.

Checking in with the iPad Pro

I’ve now been using the iPad Pro for several weeks. There are lots of great reviews already out there so instead I’m going to share a random collection of thoughts:

  • The iPad Pro is A LOT bigger than my iPad Air. On paper it doesn’t seem like it. When you pick it up, however, it is something entirely different. As a result it is significantly less portable and I suspect that will be a deal breaker for a lot of people. I’m seriously considering keeping my iPad Air around for this reason.
  • I’m typing with the on screen keyboard on the iPad Pro more than any previous iPad. (I’m still waiting for the Apple Keyboard cover to ship.) The best I could do on the iPad Air was thumb typing in portrait. With the iPad Pro I can lay it on my lap in landscape and go to town. I do, however, need to keep an eye on my fingers to make sure they don’t drift off-key.
  • Split screen on iPad Pro is great. This feature alone could justify the purchase.
  • I’ve already written about Duet. I still love turning my iPad into an extra monitor for my iMac when required.
  • Over the weekend I had to read and annotate a 100 page contract in tiny print. Using the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil I killed that project.
  • Speaking of the pencil, it’s pretty great. I’m not much of an artist but enjoy playing with it. Also, this is the first time I’ve ever been able to take handwritten notes and reliably mark up contracts and documents with a stylus.
  • The silicon inside this thing is fast. Also, not losing Safari tabs (thanks to 4GB of RAM) is even better.
  • The speakers are much better than you’d expect from a flat piece of glass. That said, I rarely use it to play music.

I’m going to keep writing about this jumbo iPad as I use and wrap my head around it more. If you want something portable, this is definitely not the device for you. However for getting work done on an iOS device, the iPad Pro is pretty special.