A bit of background

I stopped taking a Mac to campus back in 2011 when the iPad 2 came out. It was much more portable than the 17” MacBook Pro that I had at the time, and typing on the display was never much of an issue for me. However, I’d been supplementing the iPad with a paper notebook in math and language classes.

I started college in the Fall of 2013. I picked up an iPad Air for class and a 15” MacBook Pro with Retina Display for working at home. And, since I wanted to go completely digital in college, I bought a generic stylus for the iPad on Amazon and the Notability app by Ginger Labs. FiftyThree released the Pencil shortly after and I picked that up too.

I tried handwriting all my notes in Notability at first but that ended up being a terrible idea. In additition to losing the ability to search my notes, the quality of them took a huge hit. It didn’t take long for me to go back to just typing again, but Notability and the Pencil gave me the added benefit of being able to write the occasional math formula or draw a quick diagram when I needed to. (I should note that I never stopped taking a notebook to my Arabic class. That would have gone horribly.)

Hereon out, all instances of the Pencil are referring to the Apple Pencil; not the FiftyThree Pencil.

I’ve been using the above system — the iPad on campus and my Mac at home, with Notability running on both — until I decided to tweak it this semester. Some of of my professors have great lecture notes which are made available to us online, and I noticed that a lot of what I type in class ends up being repeated there. I started importing their notes into Notability and annotating them but it wasn’t a great experience. Notability is designed to create notes from scratch and treats imported PDFs as nothing more than background paper. It also saves them in its own proprietary format which makes sharing my notes a pain. I started looking for an app to manage and edit PDFs iOS and came accross this roundup by the fantastic Ben Brooks, writing for The Sweet Setup.

As per his reccomendation, I decided to buy PDF Expert 5 by Readdle on both Mac and iOS, and moved all my course documents to it. This gave me the ability to highlight & underline text and fill in text boxes, in addition to the freehand writing tools available in Notability. I’m a little disappointed it took me so long to get to this point but I’m very content with my current system.

Now, let’s talk about the iPad Pro.

I went to the Apple Store and picked up a Space Grey, 128gb model with Cellular connectivity on the morning of its release. Setting it up was a breeze; I pulled everything from an iCloud backup (which was a lot faster than I expected it to be), and added the device to my AT&T Mobile Share plan using the preinstalled Apple SIM card.

I had a hard time initially doing anything with the iPad Pro. It took me 5 days from that Wednesday to acclimate to the device, during which I was heavily rotating between it and my iPad Air 2. After the weekend, I decided to take the new iPad for its first full week of class.

I’m registered in 4 classes this semester, each with its own content distribution system and rules for submitting assignments: Intro to Astronomy, Intro to Linguistics, 5th-semester Arabic, and Linear Algebra.


My Intro to Astronomy class has 3 main components:

  1. I have to read chapters from the textbook before lecture, and take notes in lecture.
  2. I have to submit a homework assignment on paper at the start of lecture every other week. These assignments usually involve a few short-answer questions with a bit of math in them, and a couple of short essay questions.
  3. I have to attend lab once a week, conduct some experiments, and answer the questions in my lab report. Reports must be printed and submitted at the start of lab every 2 weeks. This is what a typical lab assignment looks like.

I bought the textbook for the class before the semester to clear my conscience, and then proceeded to pirate a PDF of it. On Sunday nights, I like to sit on the couch and read the assigned chapter for the week on my iPad, highlighting things I think might be important. PDF Expert does a great job of collecting everything I highlight, underline, or comment on so that I can refer to it later. I could do this on my MacBook pretty easily but I’ve long preferred the reading experience of an iPad; there’s something about holding the document up in front of me and directly touching the words to annotate them that helps me retain the information better. The iPad Pro felt a little uncomfortable to use on the couch at first but, after adjusting to the increased size and weight, I definitely prefer it to the iPad Air now — the bigger screen size makes for a much more enjoyable reading experience.

This has been my first semester taking notes in lecture with PDF Expert. My Astronomy professor doesn’t provide us with lecture notes but she does make the presentation slides available on the course website. I converted those to PDF and I’ve been typing quick comments on top them. Lecture is really just an elaboration of what we read at home in the textbook so I don’t need to note down much more than a few homework or exam hints that get given out. Nothing exciting here.

Doing Astronomy homework usually involves me typing up the written part, leaving blank spaces for the math questions, while referencing the textbook. I either do all of it on my Mac with Split View, or I do the written part on my Mac and reference the textbook on my iPad. I print out the assignment when I’m done, answer the math questions by hand, and put it in my backpack to submit the next day. I have an AirPrint printer so while it’s been possible to do all of this on my iPad Air since the release of iOS 9, it always felt a little cramped and there’s been no real benefit over doing so on my MacBook. The iPad Pro changed that. Working with both Pages and the textbook side-by-side is as good as doing so on the MacBook, especaially when paired with a keyboard, and now I can do all the math questions with the Apple Pencil in Notes and just copy them as image files into my assignment. That’s enough of an advantage to make the iPad Pro a clear winner here for me. I now do the entire assignment, including printing, on the iPad Pro.

Lab reports are supposed to be printed out before the start of new lab assignments and filled out over the 2-3 weeks that we work on them, but I’ve been using my iPad Air instead. I download the PDF from the repository the night before we start the lab, import it, and type out the answers to the questions. If there’s a chart that needs to be drawn, I type the data in a table and either create the chart in Numbers later or print the report and draw it by hand. Using the iPad Pro in lab was initially a little frustrating — it’s a much harder device to hold and walk around with while noting down my observations — but it’s still doable, and it’s definitely better than doing so on a Mac. I’ve been setting it down on my desk and typing my answers in Notability, and now I can also sketch diagrams & fill tables more efficiently with the Pencil. So while I’ve lost some of the portability of the iPad Air, the tradeoff has definitely been worth it.

Note that I’ve been using both PDF Expert and Notability for different tasks this week. That’s because while both have been updated to take advantage of the iPad Pro’s resolution, only Notability works with the Apple Pencil. Readdle say a PDF Expert update is in coming “a bit later.”


My Intro to Linguistics class has 2 main components:

  1. I have to read chapters from the textbook before lecture, and take notes in lecture.
  2. I have to submit a homework assignment on paper at the start of lecture every other week. These assignments often involve tree diagrams and phonetic IPA symbols.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a PDF of the textbook that we use for this class online. This has long been one of my biggest hurdles in being digital-only in school; even though I’m willing to buy PDF copies of textbooks, that’s usually not an option. I’ve also made this harder for myself by stubbornly insisting on making all my book purchases in iBooks, which has a terrible selection for textbooks. And even if I can find what I’m looking for in the iBookstore, I’d much rather have it alongside all my other course documents in PDF Expert. What I usually end up doing is buying all my textbooks on Amazon at the start of the semester, pirating PDFs of whatever I can find online, and then selling the physical textbooks at the end of the semester. It’s a waste of money but stops me from feeling like I’m stealing from the publishers.

A quick aside: I’ve noticed that I tend to fall way behind on readings assigned from my physical textbooks. I’m currently several chapters behind schedule in my Linguistics class.

My Linguistics lecture added another workflow to my iPad setup. Our professor has fantastic handouts that he gives us whenever we start a new topic, but he only makes them available online after we’ve completed the topic. I emailed him to try and see if he could put them up earlier but got no response, so I took to The Sweet Setup again in search of the best document scanning app on iOS. I bought Scanbot as per their reccomendation and have been taking pictures of the handouts as soon as I receive them. Scanbot has great OCR recognition, supports multiple pages, and its new Magic Color Filter makes the documents look great. I take these pictures on my iPhone (because doing so with an iPad just looks silly) and then export them from Scanbot to PDF Expert in iCloud Drive. The document shows up on my iPad seconds later, text ready to be highlighted and underlined. It’s not ideal, I’d obviously much rather have my professor make the handouts available online before lecture, but I’m happy having this workaround. I annotate notes a lot more often here than in my Astronomy class and I’ve really started to enjoy the precision of doing so with the Pencil.

I’ve been doing my Linguistics homework on my MacBook for most of the semester, and it’s been such a chore. Between creating tree diagrams online and copying phonetic IPA symbols from the internet, my homework assignments have felt extremely laborious and not at all enjoyable. I haven’t yet had a chance to work on an assignment on the iPad Pro but I imagine doing so with the Pencil is going to be a much nicer experience. Sure, my documents will look a lot less professional, but this class is a non-major requirement. I’d much rather get it done quickly than neatly. (In hindsight, I’m not sure why I haven’t just been doing these on pen and paper until now.)


Language classes have always been a huge stumbling block in my digital-only quest, starting with French in high school and more recently with Arabic in college. Boston University requires that I do 4 semesters of a foreign language which I completed last semester, but I decided to take it again for a 5th semester out of interest.

The class has several main components:

  1. I have to complete homework assigned from the textbook before class 3 times a week.
  2. I have to take notes in class.
  3. I have to type and submit two essays via email at set dates in the semester.
  4. I have to watch a short video online and answer 5 multiple choice questions on it every other Sunday.
  5. I have to record and submit two video presentations online.

I’ve flirted with the idea of using an iPad in Arabic every semester but ultimately end up failing. The daily homework has been a large part of why. A lot of what we need to do is assigned from the textbook, but some of it requires watching or listening to content on the textbook website which, much to my bemusement, stores all its content in Flash. I pull out my Mac for these and write my answers on paper. After using the Pencil for a couple of days I decided to try writing in Arabic on it. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn near close. This inspired me to take pictures of the textbook with Scanbot on a per-chapter basis and start doing my homework in Notability. I’ve done a few fill-in-the-blanks assignments and written a bunch of sentences, and so far it’s been pretty good. I still need my Mac for the online content but I don’t need paper at all anymore.

Most of class is spent going over the homework we did (or, more accurately, were supposed to do) at home. We also go through a few additional assignments from the textbook and do some speaking drills. It’s not too intense so I’ve been able to keep up using the iPad Pro pretty easily. She occasionally gives us a handout to work on and I have to break out my iPhone and Scanbot. These assignments are usually completed within 10-15 minutes with a partner so the time spent scanning and uploading them is much more noticeable than with the lecture notes in Linguistics. Anyways, while I’ve only had 3 Arabic classes with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil so far, it’s had an extremely impressive start. I’m curious to see how it fares over the rest of the semester.

I also had the chance to work on an Arabic essay on the iPad Pro last week. I’ve always typed my Arabic essays on my iPhone or iPad because I prefer typing on the software keyboard over an on-screen one, but I’ve also kept my Mac nearby for referencing vocabulary on Quizlet and for Google Translate. Split View on the iPad Air allowed me to ditch the Mac and do the first essay entirely on the iPad by having Pages open on the left and Safari with a couple of tabs open on the right, but it felt a little cramped with the keyboard taking up half the screen and there was a noticeable amount of lag when cycling between keyboards. The iPad Pro alleviated all of that for the second essay; there was enough room on the display for everything, and switching keyboards was smooth.

Another quick aside: on the iPad Air, the emoji key turns into a globe when you have 2 language keyboards enabled; but on the iPad Pro, the Caps Lock key becomes a toggle for both languages and the emoji key remains untouched, as shown here.

The video for the multiple choice assignment is hosted on YouTube so I can watch it on any of my devices. I’ve pushed the video to my Apple TV through AirPlay a couple of times but it’s always felt like overkill. I’ve recently taken to watching them in Picture in Picture mode on my iPad (à la YouPlayer). This lets me reference the questions without having to switch tabs or look up at the TV. Picture in Picture on the iPad Pro is huge; I miss none of the detail of the video working this way.

I recorded and submitted both video presentations before getting the iPad Pro so I can’t attest to how well it would work, but given that I recorded, edited, and uploaded the second presentation entirely on my iPhone, I think the iPad would work fine. iMovie is great for adding quick titles and transitions, and for direct upload to YouTube. (In case you were wondering, I recorded the first presentation entirely on my MacBook, and I’ve recorded several presentations on my iPad in the past.)

Linear Algebra

My Linear Algebra class has 2 main components:

  1. I have to read chapters from the textbook before lecture, and take notes in lecture.
  2. I have to submit a homework assignment online every week. These assignments involve a lot of vector math.

As with my Astronomy class, I bought a copy of the textbook for this class before pirating a PDF. I sit on the couch with my iPad every Monday night and read the assigned chapters for the week, highlighting important definitions and examples. I don’t have anything more to add here than what I already said when discussing my Astronomy class.

My Linear Algebra professor makes fantastic lecture notes available online at the start of the semester. These complement the textbook what’s said in lecture very well. I have the notes in PDF Expert and follow along in lecture, highlighting anything I may need to refer to later and adding the occasional comment. I would love to use the Pencil to write comments instead of typing them here, but I’d rather wait for an update to PDF Expert than increase the number of files I’m shuffling between it and Notability. It’s not that big of a deal.

I saved writing about my experience doing Linear Algebra homework for last because it is, by far, my favorite anecdote about the iPad Pro. I usually have the assignment sheet open on my Mac in front of me, the textbook open on my iPad to my left, and sheets of A4 paper scattered everywhere else on my desk. I first go through the assignment, making lots of mistakes along the way, then rewrite everything again neatly on the second run. Next, I scan the 10-15 pages to my Mac, merge them into a single PDF document, and upload them to the course server. The entire process takes about 3-4 hours depending on the number of questions assigned and leaves me with a pulsing wrist every time. Last week, I did the entire assignment on the iPad Pro. I had both Notability and PDF Expert open in Split View; the former was a blank canvas where I wrote down my answers and the latter had both the assignment and textbook open in tabs. I was able to erase mistakes as I made them and I didn’t have to scan anything afterwards, both of which saved me a tremendous amount of time. I uploaded the document in Safari using iCloud Drive when I was done.

Almost immediately after I got the confirmation email, I decided that I wasn’t going to be returning the iPad Pro.

Closing thoughts

The iPad Pro is an odd device to think about. Compared to the new MacBook with Retina Display, it has both a larger, clearer display, a faster processor, better battery life, and it’s thinner & lighter to boot. Even as an iPad, it isn’t for everyone.

The iPad Air wins in any situation where you need to hold the iPad and do something; its portability can’t be touched by anything other than the iPad mini, and I’m going to miss being able to get stuff done on the train or while walking between classes.

The iPad Pro wins anywhere you can sit it down; be it on your lap when reading an article, in bed when watching a movie, or on a desk when doing work, its power really shines through. And when it comes to getting school work done digitally, no device does that better than the iPad Pro.

In an ideal world I’d be keeping both iPads, but I can’t justify buying a new Mac, iPad, iPhone, and Apple TV in a single semester without selling something. I’ve been using both my MacBook and iPhone more than usual since I got rid of the iPad Air, and I think I’m okay with that. I’m actually a little glad my MacBook is getting some use. I might decide to pick up a base model iPad mini as a couch computer in the future, but if I had to pick just one iPad, like I do now, I’m happy to have that be the iPad Pro.

I can’t stress just how much the Apple Pencil increases the utility of the iPad Pro. Its precision turns the device into a true digital textbook and makes it incredibly easy to eliminate a lot of paper workflows in college. I’m typing all my comments in PDF Expert for now but as soon as the app gets updated for the Pencil I’ll start writing those out, simply for the increased memory retention of writing vs typing. (Ben Brooks had an interesting discussion about this recently which you should check out.)

Apple’s Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro still isn’t out for sale so I picked up a Magic Keyboard and TwelveSouth Compass but I’ll be returning those and getting the Smart Keyboard as soon as I can. I don’t need a physical keyboard very often; in the time I’ve had the iPad Pro, I’ve only ever connected the keyboard to it to write about the device itself. I’m comfortable typing anything up to 1,000 words at a time using the on-screen keyboard. I also like writing on the couch which is hard to do with a bluetooth keyboard — I ended up writing several chunks of this article on my MacBook for that reason. I don’t think I’ll be using the Smart Keyboard as a case though; it’s probably just going to sit folded in the accessories section of my backpack, alongside the Pencil, until I need it. I didn’t put a case on my iPad Air, and I won’t be doing so with the iPad Pro either.