Review: Using an iPad Pro for Professional Business Travel

Review: Using an iPad Pro for Professional Business Travel

I travel across the vast Asia-Pacific region for business quite frequently. In the calendar year 2019 I clocked almost 190,000 miles in the air, most of which were to countries between Japan and Australia. The majority of the year I used my work-issued MacBook Pro 13" to conduct business while traveling, whether meeting with internal teams, sitting in the hotel developing PowerPoint decks or proposals, or meeting with customers. In every instance, the MacBook Pro flawlessly performed its required tasks as you would expect.

Near the end of the year our team made a decision to purchase the larger sized iPad Pro for all of us. The primary impetus was one based on risk: traveling to less safe countries means a higher than average chance of the MacBook Pro being stolen, and therefore locally saved sensitive corporate data potentially being lost.

iPad's are designed to be used online, with almost no point in their being used in an offline manner similar to a traditional laptop. Thus, as the risk management team discussed, if an iPad Pro is lost the likelihood of corporate data residing on the device is considerably low, coupled with a higher than average possibility to remotely wipe the device compared to a MacBook Pro. These are acceptable risks unlike actually losing a company-owned MacBook Pro.

So in early December I received my iPad Pro and Pencil in the mail. After unpacking the goods I promptly headed over to an Apple Store and bought a Smart Keyboard. After all, if this is to be used as a MacBook Pro replacement than the setup needs to be able to, at the absolute least, produce a nearly identical typing experience.

The idea of traveling with an iPad Pro sounded exciting. Although I do use the lighter weight MacBook Pro 13, the iPad Pro 12" is noticeably less heavy and excels in areas where a traditional laptop does not. Where the iPad Pro excels is actually of immense benefit to travel users. Notwithstanding its weight, there is no need to stow the device during air travel takeoff and landing, it offers a superior consumption experience compared to traditional laptops, and just feels easier to use. The latter is absolutely subjective, and I cannot determine how to accurately quantify that feeling, but it is nonetheless present.

For one, there is no actual iPad Pro login. FaceID takes care of rapidly getting right to business. As soon as the Smart Keyboard cover is flipped open, the iPadOS home screen is staring back at me waiting on my app selection decision. Notifications from VIP mail senders, and other important information, is only a flick or two away as opposed to the lengthy process required to access corporate data with the MacBook Pro.

Soon after receiving the iPad Pro, I setup the device in accordance with corporate policy, configured my iCloud account, and installed all the software I use on my personal iPad Pro. I was, in essence, ready to drive the car out of the garage.

My first real test with the iPad Pro came when I had to travel to Australia for approximately ten days. This trip had me visiting four different cities within those ten days, all accessed via domestic air travel. So a lot of time being mobile.

While away I would not only be meeting with clients, but would also be expected to develop proposals for clients, work on PowerPoint decks, keep up with business email, access the company's product portal to read threat intelligence on a near daily basis, and conduct demonstrations of our product for clients. With the sole exception of email, I had never used an iPad for any of these tasks.

So I looked at this trip as a challenge, threw out any preconceived notions I had about using an iPad for business, and jumped into the deep end of the pool with my new travel companion. My goal on this trip was to be as open-minded and objective about using an iPad Pro for business travel as possible. I wanted to tackle any problems through native iPad solutions rather than duct taping traditional methods with new ones. At least to the maximum extent possible.

Here are my thoughts, now somewhat cleaned up after I sharing an unedited stream-of-consciousness report with my colleagues upon returning from the trip.

  • As a general rule, the iPad Pro worked like a charm. The lightweight travel was very refreshing, although my travel goals are always to travel as light as possible. Connecting to airport or lounge wifi, hotel wifi, and my iPhone as a hotspot felt quicker and easier than my laptop.
  • I meeting with clients on a daily basis, and need to connect to HDMI and/or VGA to share either PowerPoint slides or display our product portal in a web browser. The Satechi Slim Aluminum Type-C Multi-Port Adapter V2 was the perfect tool for this job. While my MacBook Pro had problems with other HDMI and VGA adapters, even the official Apple ones, I ran into no problems using the Satechi adapter.
  • Displaying PowerPoint slides using the iPadOS PowerPoint app worked flawlessly. It even automagically downloaded the various non-standard fonts our corporate deck uses, and displayed them well.
  • Having said that, PowerPoint editing is an interesting experience. It is okay but has limitations. Using touch to reposition objects is nowhere near as precise as using a touchpad or mouse. Simple, quick text-based updates work just fine. To make more sophisticated modifications will take either purchasing a mouse or rethinking the designs to be better touch editable.
  • Demonstrating our corporate product UI in Safari on iPadOS was fine, although the fonts and links are definitely not conducive to a touch environment. Nor should they be as the product is designed to be used in a traditional manner. I did find some hiccups here and there when using Safari but overall the experience worked well.
  • Email was a mixed bag. Composing and reading emails was extremely easy. However, calendar invites are problematic. I am not sure if this is due to our internally hosted Microsoft Exchange environment compared to O365, or if it is an inherent limitation in both iOS and iPadOS. Sometimes the invites display properly, allowing me to accept, tentatively accept, or decline. At other times, the invite contains an .ics attachment that, when touched, attempts to download the attachment in full, but then never actually shows the invite.
  • Not only are calendar invites troublesome, but email is as well. Our company uses corporate generated S/MIME PKI certificates, with internal email being digitally signed and encrypted by default. There were a number of seemingly random occasions where an encrypted email from a colleague would show "there is no content" in the body of the email. This is apparently due to PKI certificate issues, or potentially something cert-chain trust related. When I returned home, while these emails remained inaccessible on the iPad, I could quite easily read them on my MacBook Pro. In my experience this is a rather widespread issue. Hopefully once Microsoft finishes adding PKI to Outlook iOS, which is currently in beta, we can use that app and this problem will go away. One can hope!
  • We have corporate licenses for the entire Google suite of apps. In preparation for our receiving the iPads I redid our proposal document from Microsoft Word to Google Docs. Overall, the native iPadOS Google apps work wonderfully. There are some minor quirks with how the interface functions on iPadOS compared to within a web browser, but once over that hump it is super easy to be productive. As a quick aside, in Google Sheets there does not appear to be a way to add a carriage-return in a cell while on an iPad. It works on a PC or Mac, but not iPadOS for some peculiar reason.
  • We have a number of internal tools protected by a VPN. Unfortunately, even though installed the VPN software and can seemingly successfully connect, access to those internal tools is basically non-existent. SSL certificate issues are preventing the ability connect to various internal servers where these tools are hosted. This can likely be solved with a little elbow grease and discussion with the corporate IT staff.
  • We are huge proponents and users of Zoom. On iPadOS, quick frankly, it sucks. Sharing the iPad screen is easy despite the confusing wording Zoom uses in its native iPadOS app. Rather than share screen like on macOS, Zoom opted for broadcast screen. Why the disparity? There were a lot of audio issues while screen sharing. For instance, some customers said when I was sharing, and they were talking, they could hear themselves talking. This became an issue because some customers use Zoom for on-site screen sharing across multiple sites rather than direct HDMI or VGA adapters. I also ran into this problem when doing just standard Zoom sessions. Merely joining a Zoom session is fine, but actively running one and sharing a screen was no fun.
  • For expenses, we use Expensify to upload receipts and get reimbursed for corporate travel and other things. I generally prefer to directly upload PDF files of hotel bills or airfare receipts, but this is just not possible using the native iPadOS Expensify app. Sure, they can add that support, but have yet to do so. The only current native solution is to upload a picture of a receipt. To get a PDF into an expense report requires using an Expensify email forwarder, which means clogging email up with somewhat large attachments. It is not a major issue, and ultimately does work, but did require changing my standard workflow to support iPadOS capabilities (or lack thereof).
  • I absolutely adore Atom on macOS for text editing. Thus far I have not been able to find a similar tool on iPadOS to meet my text editing needs. For taking notes I use Bear, which I guess is somewhat similar, but it also has its own peculiarities. Although not a major issue, not finding text editor paradise is disappointing.
  • Lastly, as I mentioned previously, I found the “always on” of the iPad to be comforting. There is no need to login to the Mac, login to a VPN, open up the exceedingly slow Outlook for Mac, and then wait while mail and attachments are downloaded and synchronized. Being able to mix corporate and personal calendars into a single view to see overall availability increases decision-making effectiveness. I already do this on my iPhone, which has corporate email and calendaring installed, but the iPad Pro's larger screen is nice for the older ones with worsening eyes on the team.
  • During downtime in the hotel, while sitting in a cafe, hanging out in an airport lounge, or even on a flight, being able to use native consumption apps is a much better experience. Netflix, Apple TV+, Spotify, Overcast - apps for watching TV shows and movies, and listening to music and podcasts, just feels easier and superior compared to macOS.  

After returning from my trip I felt like I thoroughly enjoyed the iPad Pro experience. As stated above, basically everything - with the sole exception of Zoom - worked without any major problems. However, I always had this nagging feeling in the back of my mind. Something felt missing or just not right. It was as if my security blanket was missing. This was definitely more psychological than any objective issue I can place my finger on.

Having used a traditional laptop for twenty-ish years has led me, and countless other people across the globe, to make certain assumptions about the iPad workflow. This bias makes it difficult to adapt at times but it is all about perseverance. It is about re-training your brain to the new way of doing things. The more I take this iPad Pro on travel, the likelier and closer I will be to fully understanding its utility in this environment.

The Australia trip was a great first start. Commencing in February I will be traveling again, and I have a decision to make. Do I stick it out with the iPad Pro and continue to work on solutions to the problems I face? Do I go back to what I know, and bring the MacBook Pro to solve that irritating discomfort? Or do I opt for slightly heavier travel and bring both, using the iPad Pro as my primary device and falling back to the Mac when necessary?

At this stage my heart is telling me to go with option number two while the competitor in me is saying to just bring the iPad Pro and make it work. No matter what decision I make, the iPad Pro is a great business and will get the job done. It is a lot of fun to use and, with a little elbow grease, any challenge can be destroyed.

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