iPads at Work / by Erin Wade

It's like clockwork, like some anti-celebration: Every year about this time folks come out with a series of articles about how one cannot do actual work on an iPad (or, as a variation: the iPad cannot replace a laptop). This is perplexing to me, given that I've been regularly doing my work on an iPad - which replaced my use of laptops - since the device was first released back in 2010. I wrote about it back then, and it continues to be the case.

This spate of articles came my way via Daring Fireball this past week. John Gruber linked to this article by Joanna Stern in which she makes an attempt to use several different tablets in place of her laptop. And one wants to give her a bit of credit, in that she actually tried each of them out. Allowing for that, her article still presents with some fundamental flaws. The first is the Turkey Bacon Problem (TBP) - the mistake one makes of trying to use something to replace something that it is not. A tablet is not a laptop. Yet in this article she is clearly trying to use each of the tablets in exactly the same fashion. In many ways this is like a carpenter purchasing a pneumatic nailer to replace his hammer, but using the device by trying to drive traditional nails and complaining that it doesn't work as well.

Additionally, she clearly doesn't have a full understanding of the capabilities of her iPad. In her section on multitasking she notes:

...using the iPad, which displays one app at a time and requires you to press the home button twice to switch apps...(Emphasis added)

Actually no - the iPad doesn't require you to press the home button twice to switch between apps. You can also turn on multitasking gestures in the settings to allow a four finger swipe to move back and forth between recent apps, and a four fingered swipe up to get to the app menu. Admittedly, this is somewhat of a power-user approach, but so is the use of alt-tab - the command combination for which she is pining - to switch between apps.

Which brings up my final point with respect to her approach. Ms. Stern indicates that, to write this article she borrowed the tablets in question (though the article suggests she does own an iPad Air). This would suggest that her evaluation of each item came from a relatively short time with each device. This shows in her evaluations of the keyboards, in which each and every one comes up wanting:

There was a tie for best keyboard. I was able to type 82 words a minute on the Surface Pro Type cover and the Galaxy Note Pro's keyboard cover, slightly down from my usual 92 words a minute. The Samsung keyboard was the closest in size to my laptop's, though my fingers felt most at home on the Surface's firm, backlit keys... I typed 80 words a minute on the Nokia keyboard case, and 72 on the iPad's Logitech cover. All of these let me type faster than on a screen. (Again, emphasis added)

Along with the Turkey Bacon Problem, there appears to be an expectation that there will be no learning curve when moving to a completely new tool. Not to beat the carpentry metaphors to death, but this is a little like buying a circular saw and manually moving it back and forth across the wood, and then proclaiming that you can cut faster with your trusty old hand saw.

I'm happy for her that she typically types at 92 words a minute (pretty specific number there - 92, not 90... But I digress). I suspect that's on the keyboard of a laptop with which she is extremely familiar. A few hours, or even a day or two of practice on an unfamiliar device is unlikely to gain the same results.

There is also an inherent assumption here that I see made over and over again:

All of these let me type faster than on a screen.

There has been a long-standing assumption that use of a hardware keyboard will always be a faster input option than typing on-screen. This was an oft-repeated trope when the original iPhone was released, and it persists in relation to the iPad. However, it seems to me that this should be taken as an empirical question, rather than something accepted a-priori.

Back when I first got my iPad I compared my typing on glass to my typing on the iPhone and on a mechanical keyboard, and found that it was faster than the iPhone, slower than the keyboard, but improving over the month or so that I had owned the device. It's been nearly four years since I first wrote that review, and I've been using iPads on a daily basis since then. This article made me curious to see where I was at with all of that practice under my belt.

In the interest of brevity those results - including the methods of measurement - can be seen here. By way of summary, let me note that I came out with the following average wpm on each device:

  • iPhone - 57.50 wpm
  • iPad - 74.17 wpm
  • iMac -79.33 wpm
  • iMac corrected for errors - 74.67 wpm

A couple of items stand out to me here, and are relevant in context of Ms. Stern's article. The first is the level of improvement between 2010 and 2014. My performance on the iPad is considerably higher than back in 2010 - 74 wpm compared to about 64 back then. But it should also be noted that my performance on the iPhone is also considerably higher - 57 wpm compared to 33 in 2010.

I say this not to pat myself on the back (though yes, my arm is a little sore from doing so), but to point out the practice effect from using these devices on a daily basis over the past several years. One is going to be more proficient with a tool - any tool - used with regularity than with one that has just been picked up.

The other thing I noted was that my current results on the iPad are comparable to my results on the iMac with its hardware keyboard. In particular, when the iMac results are corrected for errors - relevant here because autocorrect on the iPad significantly decreases my error rate - the results are nearly identical.

In fact, when I ran a second test - using the same website for both iPad and iMac - they were even closer: 74.83 and 76.50 respectively.

I am, of course, only one person - an n of 1 - but as Andy Braren at thinkertry can attest, there are others who have found similar results. We fall short of real science here, but these results clearly suggest it is possible to learn to type as quickly on glass as on plastic, mechanical keys.

To be clear, people should use the tools and devices they want to use, the ways they want to use them. It's when information is presented as fact when it is clearly opinion based upon limited experience that I balk.

I suspect we are approximately one generation away from all of this being a non-issue. Children being born now are likely to wonder why we tied ourselves to these hulking devices - desks, big screens, keyboards - when we could have been comfortably working on things in our laps, laying on couches, etc.

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