Toward Using the iPad Pro for Development

I’ve been following a number of people that use iPad Pros for “real work”. I’m going on vacation for a couple weeks to Europe and I wanted to leave my laptop at home. That being said, I still wanted a “lifeline” computing device so that I could do some light writing or SSH into a server if necessary.

A lot of the work I did over the past year has been over SSH/Mosh connections to remote development servers. I even did a big chunk of work on a Chromebook over the Summer, and the majority of my work in the fall (while on a MacBook) was remote. It seems overkill to use a beefy laptop as a thin terminal to a remote devserver when really all you need is a decently competent OS with a good terminal emulator.

I bought an iPad Pro 9.7” when it came out and have been using it for taking notes at school. I was already planning to bring my iPad on my vacation; outfitting it with a keyboard and some developer apps made it a surprisingly competent secondary development machine.

External Keyboards

Attaching a keyboard to an iPad really makes it feel like a different type of device. I was never going to write code on a software keyboard (the couple times that I’ve SSH’d into a server with my iPhone were harrowing), but with a hardware keyboard I could see myself actually doing some “real” work on iOS.

There are a surprisingly large number of external keyboards available for the iPad Pro and they all involve a tradeoff. You can either get a compact keyboard optimized for portability or a larger one that’s more ergonomic.

Smart Keyboard: The first keyboard I tried was Apple’s own “Smart Keyboard”. It attaches directly to the iPad via the smart connector and thus needs no external power or Bluetooth connection. However, I found the keyboard to be cramped and was annoyed with the lack of a function/media key row. The keys themselves don’t have a lot of travel and are made of a membrane material. Surprisingly, the keys don’t feel as “squishy” as I feared. It’s obvious you’re typing on a membrane, but I think I could get used to the feel of the keys (but hey, I’m someone that can get used to typing on the new MacBook Pro keyboards, so take my opinion with a grain of salt).

Perhaps the best thing about the Smart Keyboard is it’s ease of connectivity. You can leave it attached to the iPad and it works as a screen cover. Or, detach it and reattach it as necessary – and it connects and is usable instantly. Apple sells additional cases that protect the back side of the iPad as well that work with the Smart Keyboard.

However, in the end I couldn’t stand how cramped the keyboard felt. Typing on such a compact keyboard made my wrists bend in an uncomfortable way. I couldn’t see myself using this keyboard for extended sessions. As I use a 9.7” iPad, I’m in the worst-case scenario as far as Smart Keyboard size. Perhaps if you use the 12” iPad, the ergonomics wouldn’t be as bad.

Magic Keyboard + Canopy: The keyboard setup that I eventually settled on is Apple’s Magic Bluetooth Keyboard and the Canopy keyboard case by Studio Neat. The Magic Keyboard is just a “regular” Bluetooth keyboard, but it plays well with iOS – for example, you can see it’s battery level in the iOS battery widget and it’s media keys work with iOS.

The Canopy cover makes the Magic Keyboard a great companion fo the iPad Pro. It serves 2 purposes: First, it’s a case – making it easier to toss the keyboard in your bag. Second, it folds out as a stand for your iPad.

Folded Canopy Case

Folded Canopy Case

It’s worth noting that the tradeoff you make is compactness and connectivity. You’ll have to charge the Magic Keyboard separately (it has a lightning connector), and connect it to your iPad over Bluetooth. Fortunately, it seems to pair pretty quickly with my iPad, and I haven’t had any issues with the Bluetooth connection dropping out.

iPad Pro with Canopy + Magic Keyboard

iPad Pro with Canopy + Magic Keyboard

The Canopy + Magic Keyboard setup has great ergonomics. I’ve used it at desks, on Plane Tray tables, and on my lap. It’s more stable on a hard surface, but is also surprisingly useable on your lap. It’s also great because the Magic Keyboard is just a regular keyboard. It’s layout closely matches the 13” MacBook Pro, which is what I’m used to.

Honorable MentionBrydge Keyboard: As a disclaimer, I never bought/used the Brydge keyboard, but it was the next one on my list to try. It uses a more laptop-like hinge design. I prefer a design that allows me to use the keyboard in tablet and/or “laptop” mode without taking my iPad in/out of a case, so this design didn’t appeal to me. Brydge does have cases that work with their keyboards, but they’re on the pricier side for what features they offer.

Jason Snell and Myke Hurley have both spoken highly about this keyboard, so if the first two options don’t work out, I’d try the Brydge.

Apps

SSH Clients/ Terminal Emulators

Local Text Editors

iOS Tips

Conclusion

I’m really excited about the future of iOS for “real” work. iOS hardware has been capable for the last few years, and it seems like the software ecosystem is starting to catch up.

I was able to write and publish this post entirely from my iPad, mostly while on a plane. I’ve never found working on my laptop to be workable on planes/busses, so that’s one additional benefit to the iPad form factor.

The one “missing link” is a richer code editor like VSCode for iOS. You can hack together an IDE with Working Copy and something like Coda (though as a disclaimer, I haven’t tried this combo), but it doesn’t feel like there’s a great story for editing code locally on an iPad that doesn’t cost you $50+ in apps.

Here’s hoping that iOS development software continues to mature!