1. Computer Skills

How to Be Productive on an iPad

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Read Time: 6 min

This summer I did something for the first time: sitting in a bar, I wrote, edited and submitted an article on an iPad. This was a big milestone for me.

Since the first generation, the iPad has been a great device for consuming media. There’s nothing better for reading comics, watching Netflix or working through an Instapaper queue. It’s easy to kick back and relax with a tablet.

Apple, however, has other ideas. For years they’ve been trying to position the iPad as a device you can do real work on. Starting with iOS 8, and now with iOS 9 and the iPad Pro, they’ve finally achieved that.

While it’s still not time to ditch the Mac and use an iPad as your main computer, it’s now possible to get a surprising amount of work done with one. 

If you’re travelling light for a few days, out in a coffeeshop when you get an urgent call saying that your website is down, or sitting in a bar when you get told you need to write an article ASAP, you can probably do everything you need to do on an iPad. 

In this tutorial I’ll show you how to do it.

Invest in the Right Apps

To be productive on an iPad you need the right software. The default Notes app is never going to be a good place for me to write an article but, fortunately, there are plenty of great iOS apps that are. 

Developers have really begun to create professional level software for the iPad. What sort of work you do will determine what apps you need. Writers and developers will need totally different apps.

Many great Mac apps have companion iPad apps. For example, I wrote the article during the summer on my iPad using Byword for iOS, the iOS version of my favourite Mac markdown app. Ulysses, the app I use for writing longform content also has an iPad app.

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A draft of this article open in Byword for iOS.

It’s not just small indie developers who are porting their professional Mac apps to the iPad. Microsoft has released iOS versions of their Office suite. You can now use Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint and Microsoft Excel on an iPad—although you will need an Office 365 Subscription to unlock all the features.

Similarly, Adobe has embraced the iPad. Photoshop Fix, Photoshop Mix and Lightroom are just three of their apps that are designed for use on Apple’s tablet. Other developers have released powerful apps for creatives like Paper, Pixelmator and Procreate.

Even developers are well served. Coda for iOS, Transmit and Prompt, all from Panic Inc., allow developers to edit their websites, transfer files over FTP and SSH into their main servers.

While you won’t need all the apps I’ve mentioned above, one or two will likely fit your workflow and let you work properly on an iPad.

Get the Accessories You Need

A touch screen is an amazing input device for some things, however, for others like typing or drawing it’s less than ideal. Typing on a touch screen keyboard requires a lot more effort than doing so with a physical one. You’ll be able to get by in short bursts with just the iPad but, if you’re serious about being productive, you’ll need to consider getting some accessories to help.

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Apple's Smart Keyboard cover.

Apple has released the Smart Keyboard specifically for the iPad Pro but if you’re using a different iPad there are plenty of other options. Third party manufacturers have developed their own iPad keyboard cases or you can just use any Bluetooth keyboard.

If you’re planning on doing any drawing, a stylus is a must. Again, Apple’s developed the Pencil for the iPad Pro but it should also work (without the pressure sensitive features) with other iPads. There are also other options from third party manufacturers.

Use Multitasking

New in iOS 9 is multitasking. This is a huge change and especially important if you want to be productive on an iPad. Instead of swapping back and forth between different apps, if you’re using one of the latest iPads, you can now have two up side-by-side with Split View.

Whether you’re writing something and using Safari to find references, drawing and using photos from your Camera Roll for reference, or responding to emails while keeping your todo list open, Split View completely changes how you can work.

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Split View on iOS.

To use Split View swipe in from the right side of the screen and select the app you want to open. The two apps will display side-by-side, each taking up half the screen. Not all apps support Split View but the majority of professional apps do.

Sync Between iOS and OS X

Unless you’re planning to make the iPad your main device, you’ll probably be swapping back and forth between a Mac and an iPad. To make this easy to do you need to use the syncing features built into iOS and OS X.

Apple’s iCloud Drive now comes with a real file system and is great for syncing files between devices. Many of the apps I’ve already mentioned use it as their syncing solution.

With Continuity and Handoff you can even swap one device for another and pick up exactly where you left off. For example, I’m writing this article using Byword on my Mac. If I pick up my iPad and open Byword for iOS it will open up this article’s draft. This is all built in to iOS.

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The iCloud Drive folder for Byword.

Even if an app doesn’t support iCloud sync, it probably allows you to use another service like Dropbox. To make the most out of an iPad it needs to be set up to sync with your main computer.

To enable iCloud Drive on iOS, go to Settings > iCloud and turn iCloud Drive on. For Apple's OS X you enable it in the iCloud System Preferences pane. Each individual app may need to be configured to sync so make sure to do it.

Tip: If you make heavy use of iCloud Drive you’ll quickly fill up your free five gigabytes of space. An additional 50GB is available for £0.79/$0.99 a month and is worth it.


With the release of the iPad Pro and iOS 9, the iPad has gone from a consumption only device to one on which you can do some real work. I discovered this, myself, when I was able to easily write and submit an article on my iPad Mini. To make the most of it there’s a few things you have to do.

First, you need to make sure you have the right apps. Ideally, the iOS versions of your favourite Mac apps. Next, unless you’re only doing a small bit of work, you should consider getting a physical keyboard or stylus. When it comes to actually doing work, you need to use the features built into iOS such as multitasking and iCloud Drive. They make using an iPad a far more productive experience.

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