Stranger in a Strange Land

I’ve had a HP Envy convertible laptop with a Wacom Bamboo Ink pen for a while now and it’s been an invaluable part of my creative process and whilst the initial hope had been that it would serve as a portable pen and paper notebook replacement a combination of a lack of really reliable note taking software for windows, the poor ergonomics of its use in tablet mode and its size meant it’s not as portable as I’d hoped.

Whilst no-one is doing much travelling at the moment, I’ve found myself wanting something smaller that I can use for sketching, for reading and for reference. A tablet. I, years ago, owned a Nexus 7 and it was a wonderful little device if over time marred by the lack of support for tablets in the android ecosystem. Sadly, in my research, android has only gotten worse in the intervening seven or eight years since. Windows tablets have come on, and I do still own a Linx 10 Windows based tablet but it’s 32 bit atom processor is basically a paperweight at the moment and an increasing amount of new software just doesn’t support 32 bit Windows. Additionally, there’s just no good mid-price point Windows devices on the market at the moment. Your choices seem to be either super cheap shovelware devices from no-name OEMs or the likes of the Microsoft Surface, which are excellent computers with a £2500+ price tag to match.

The elephant in the room is the iPad, and the iPad mini to be precise. With an RRP of about £400 and available for considerably less if you know where to look, it’s a lot of computer for not a lot of money. Add on the Apple Pencil and it’s a perfect little artist’s companion.

Despite historically being something of a critic of Apple and their products, I clicked buy about a week ago and it arrived last Friday. It’s the first Apple product I’d owned since my ancient iPod Nano circa 2008. This post charts my initial impressions and thoughts as I dive into the Apple ecosystem.


Despite knowing how big the device was, the size of the packing box Amazon sent it to me in surprised me. Like all modern Apple products, the unboxing experience was pretty nice. No scrabbling to try and remove the shrinkwrap from the box thanks to a handy tab and it arrived with a solid 75% battery life meaning I could get started straight away. I’d pre-established a new Apple ID before the device arrived, and the first major bugbear is the lack of support for long passwords on the device. In the first few days of owning it, it demands you enter the password on the device keypad several times and this doesn’t sit well with my usual password manager managed 20-30 character passwords.

The onboarding process itself went mostly smoothly but several times I was left wondering if it had actually accepted my input because I’d missed some tiny spinner in one corner of the screen. It’s a tiny thing, but didn’t gel with my understanding of Apple as a company that cares about the little things. It is maybe also a harbinger of Apple expecting you to already know how their software and tools works, but more on that later.

Once I was in, the process of loading it up with apps started and some of the rough edges started to show their face. It asked me during initial setup to add a card to apple pay, which I did, but this doesn’t work with the app store. It then later asked me to confirm the CCV of the card so I could use Apple TV+. It asked for my Apple ID password a few times, but now seems to be happy with the fingerprint. Whenever you download an app, free or not, it says it’s processing a payment (I am certainly more sympathetic to people who’ve accidentally spent significant sums of money on in-app purchases now that I’ve seen the process up front).

That said, the App Store is mostly a very nice experience. Once I’d realised the first position is almost always an ad and therefore to be ignored, it’s easy to find what I want. I quickly installed twitter, discord, gmail and procreate and have since bulked this out with a note taking app called Nemo. I’ll talk a bit about these shortly. The process of installing the applications is nice and simple, and the pre-loaded office suite is a nice touch.

Garageband is, for those unaware, a music editing suite with a built in synthesiser for multiple kinds of instruments including pianos, keyboards, strings etc. And it’s basically entirely what I’ve wanted for quite a while now. An easy way to mess about with music in the same way I doodle on paper. It wasn’t part of the reason I bought the device, but now I’ve got it I can’t imagine living without it.

Procreate was a £10 purchase, but so far it’s proven to be a very capable painting app. Combined with the Apple Pencil, it’s a great experience and I can see myself using it for a lot of quick sketches going forward as well as planning out various things. My only gripes with it so far relate to it’s very minimal interface which has confused me more than once. But this is an ongoing complaint with a lot of software for ipadOS.

Nemo is a handwriting-to-text note taking app and I have to say, it’s almost perfect. It can convert, with almost perfect accuracy, my god awful doctor’s chicken scratch into text instantly and whilst I’m looking forward to the wider handwriting recognition in the rest of the UI with ipadOS 14 I can’t imagine giving up Nemo any time soon and I’ve only been using it 48 hours.

The Apple Pencil is mostly a lovely piece of hardware marred by one really, monumentally stupid decision. The charging port is on the end behind a little magnetic cap. WHY? Not only does charging it leave me with the fear it’ll snap off, what do you do with the cap? It comes with a little female-female lightning adaptor so you can charge it with a standard lightning connector but using inductive charging or hell, just putting the slot on the side like the HP Envy official pen would have been so much better.

It’s a little bit of a dead horse, but I would have really appreciated it coming with either a lightning to USB-C adaptor or just a USB-C port. Or a lightning to 3.5mm port. The speaker is decidedly okay in most scenarios. If you hold the device portrait, it’s pretty good, but landscape mode leaves you with very lopsided audio. It’s frustrating when using garageband which only works in landscape.

The screen though is amazing. It’s so far worked in moderate sunlight to almost darkness with no user intervention, the colours are pretty spot on and even with a matt screen protector on it it’s a pleasure to read on. This might be the device that gets me back into ebooks.

Where it comes to learning how to use the OS, my long time friend Ryan has been helping me with advice and tips, and the OS occasionally pops up little “did you know”, but overall I don’t rate the discoverability of features that highly. Apple seem to think everyone “just knows” how stuff works and a lot of gestures seem to do double or triple duty. Swiping up from the bottom might go to desktop or might open the switcher. Pulling down from the top might open the quick settings menu or might lock the screen. Various two, three, four and even five finger gestures do stuff. I get it, you popularised multitouch gestures. Give it a break Apple or give me a damn manual.

Finally I need to address the elephant in the room. I’d love to develop for the iPad. There’s software I’ve written I’d love to port to it and I’m sure as I go on I’ll find new use cases and new software I want to write. But I can’t because Apple refuse to make the SDK and tools available on anything other than MacOS and whilst I’ve got the iPad now, I’m too invested in many Windows only tools to make the switch over to the Apple ecosystem entirely and even the cheapest macbook is a thousand pounds. Not exactly an impulse purchase.

Expect another update in a few months once it’s fully embedded itself in my life, but I’m happy with it so far.