The iPads Identity Crisis

Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

My computer needs are different from pretty much all of my coworkers at Gizmodo. I’m not a gamer, I’m not looking to build my own PC. I don’t even need to use it to word process all that much—I’m a social editor, only occasionally moonlighting as a blogger. So when the 2012 MacBook Pro I had shat the bed two years ago, just as I got my first full-time job as the Earther social editor, I wasn’t going to shell out $1200 for a Netflix-and-iMessage machine. I considered Chromebooks, and there are a lot of Windows machines in the $500-600 range that could pack a punch for the functionality I needed. But being so fully enmeshed in the Apple ecosystem, switching over felt like paying a moderate price to be inconvenienced. After nearly two months using the $330 10.2 inch iPad, I’ve realized I’m essentially damning myself to the same fate all over again.

Before using the iPad this fall, I’d never spent time with a tablet. I’m not not a gadget person, but getting an iPad never made sense to me. As already mentioned, I’m not a gamer, and I’m not a creative type that needs the Apple Pencil (even if it can be fun to use). For me, the iPad needed to solve a couple of issues in order to be worth it: web browsing, iMessage, emailing, basic word processing and work-from-home-ing, and streaming services like Netflix. Going into it, I knew that the iPad wouldn’t be able to replace a computer—even though that’s what Apple’s trying to position this new generation of iPads as, with their USB compatibility, file sharing, and USB-C screen mirroring capabilities.

Apple is pushing the iPad at people like me, people who have an iPhone, likely have AirPods, and are looking for a device that they can use at home when their only real computer is what they’re given at work. We’re deep in the Apple ecosystem, and have been for years, and here’s another opportunity to stay in it without paying too much of a premium. That’s the idea at least.

The iPad is pretty good—and it could be a lot better if I could get over the identity whiplash I get every time I use it. My biggest problem is that while it’s leaning hard towards being a laptop, Apple’s indecisions about its other qualities keep dragging it back into this murky grey area that doesn’t make it the perfect substitute that Apple’s marketing wants it to be. This isn’t about the OS or the keyboard. It’s almost entirely an apps problem. 

Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)

The biggest (and worst) way that this rears its head is how the iPad, upon setup, downloads all of the apps that have ever been in your iCloud—even if they’re not iPadOS compatible. After deleting all of the superfluous apps that I don’t use anymore (here’s looking at you, flashlight app from 2009), I was left with many of the ones I use on my phone like Google Drive/Docs/etc (ones that seemed obvious that I’d be using on the iPad), but also ones that I use all the time, but absolutely suck on the iPad, like Co-Star and Venmo.

While I might find myself using an iPhone-first app like Instagram or Tinder on desktop in a pinch, I almost always reach for my phone since they’re apps… clearly designed to be used on my phone. The iPad OS versions are a different kind of as useless as the desktop variants. Many are the iPhone version, stuck in portrait mode and teeny tiny in the center of the screen. Yeah, I could use them, but it’s a shitty experience that leaves me picking up my phone instead.

For most people, it doesn’t make sense to have these iPhone only apps on the iPad if they’re trying to use it as a stand-in for the laptop: If you’re not going to use these apps on desktop, then you absolutely don’t need them on this device.

Venmo on the iPad is lame!
Photo: Emily Lipstein (Gizmodo)

So from the second you sync your brand new device with your iCloud login, you’re left confused about why Apple’s replicating your phone on something bigger and with a keyboard. There should at least be an option to opt-out of getting all of the apps to immediately start downloading to the device.

For many of the apps like this that get automatically downloaded when you sync your login, there aren’t even iPadOS compatible versions, and that’s a huge blow off the bat for the credibility of the iPad for someone like me. It’s a big issue for Apple if they still can’t get Instagram to make an iPad-compatible version of the app after all these years, and yet it still automatically shows up to disappoint users.

Google’s another problem. Obviously Google wants you to be using Chrome OS. But even so, you want a Google Docs app on the iPad that’s a full-fledged replica of what you have in-browser on desktop. But that’s not what you get, neither here nor in the Gmail app either. There are some key formatting functions that are missing, like being able to add a hyperlink in an email. So even though the apps are theoretically compatible with iPad, the functionality is closer to that of what you’d find on your iPhone. The young people that Apple is targeting with the iPad aren’t all using Pages or the Mail app, and if Apple needs to get these devs on board if they want that demographic to get their product instead of a Surface or cheap Chromebook. Apple may own the tablet market, but it’s clear that they’re still dragging developers in.

These identity issues continue to the hardware too. The attachable Smart Keyboard mostly gets the job done, but its flimsiness makes it nearly impossible for me to actually use it on my lap on the couch, which is where I’m writing this review (for transparency, I started off writing it on the iPad, but since this is for work, eventually I caved and ended up finishing it on my GMG-issued 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro). It also tends to tip over when it’s not on a flat surface, which isn’t ideal for one of the two main activities I’ve used my iPad for while reviewing it: Watching Bon Appetit’s Gourmet Makes YouTube videos in bed as the melatonin kicks in.

My natural state.
Photo: Emily Lipstein (Gizmodo)

But beyond apps and hardware issues my number one annoyance with the iPad’s design is that I can’t turn the sound notifications completely off without having them be off forever. It doesn’t have the ring/silent switch, which would have been the one holdover from the iPhone that I would actually love to see on the device. How hard should it be to watch a video without also hearing the pings of messages I’m receiving if that’s status quo on the iPhone?

But all that being said, trying to use the iPad as a computer isn’t a total failure. It can work, but it’s going to frustrate you and have you grabbing for your work computer if you, like me, are just looking for a cheap way to not have to forfeit your privacy by using your work computer for personal things.

I’ve really liked how Split View and Slide Over allow me to multitask, to some extent. I can have my all-important iMessage window open as I use my browser, or can use Slack and read Gizmodo if I have to use the iPad while working from home. Yes, I like how I arrange multiple windows better on a laptop, but the iPad works for what it is.

And while I’ve been frustrated with the iPad’s half step between phone and desktop there are also some apps that I like using better on the iPad than I do elsewhere. I’m really into cooking and bought the Google Home Hub last year to use in the kitchen for its recipe functionality. And while that’s fine, it’s still not compatible with the New York Times Cooking App. But that app looks gorgeous on the iPad, and sits perfectly on my toaster oven (while not in use, don’t worry!) for me to reference while I’m making dinner.

The question that remains is whether or not it’s worth buying. Even with all of the flaws, the iPad is still a “cheap” alternative that might be worth it for me. The privacy concerns of using your work computer for personal tasks should freak us all out, no matter whether it’s for doing taxes, or watching Netflix. The iPad can be a great tool for more general tasks, like reading articles while I’m at the hair salon, watching videos, or dicking around on the internet. You just can’t go into using one expecting a computer, because you’re going to be disappointed. You can’t believe that they’d be able to deliver what you get on a MacBook Pro on a device that’s nearly $1000 cheaper. It’s Apple! At the end of the day, the iPad feels like a cautionary tale for what happens when you’re too enmeshed in the Apple ecosystem. And if you’re not? Go buy a Chromebook.