Using an iPad Pro for development

illustrations illustrations illustrations illustrations illustrations illustrations illustrations

Published on 13 January 2022 by Andrew Owen


This is my 2018 iPad Pro. It has replaced the Hackintosh workstation I built that I ended up installing Windows 10 on (story for another day) as my main computer outside work hours. The only local builds I can do are under iDOS (MS-DOS emulator, no-longer available in the app store), but I’m looking at setting up a Raspberry Pi Zero hanging off my NAS drive as a build server.

There are a lot of things I don’t like about modern laptops: The 16:9 displays. The glossy screens. The chiclet keyboards. The operating systems (I have a slight preference for macOS over other desktop OSes, but I’m not fond of any of them). What I really wanted was a modern take on my old PowerBook 165. You can’t build your own laptop. But you can put together a portable computer based around a tablet. I used an iPad, but you could build a similar system around a Windows or Android tablet if you really wanted to.


The iPad Pro has a 4:3 aspect ratio screen, which is close enough to my favorite (16:10). I applied a paper finish screen protector that makes it more comfortable to use the Apple Pencil, and also makes the display less reflective (like my old PowerBook). It’s also possible to use it in portrait mode, just like the monitors I used to use when I was learning QuarkXpress back in university.

When pairing the screen with a Mac (using sidecar) and using the Apple pencil, it effectively becomes a replacement for a Wacom tablet. You can drag the work area window of your favorite creative app, for example Photoshop or Illustrator, onto the iPad screen and use the pencil as the input device. Depending on the app, you may be able to use other input devices connected to the iPad as well.


I’ve been using mechanical key switch keyboards since the late 1980s. I’ve used Cherry MX (Atari), Alps II (Apple/Matias) and buckling spring (IBM/Unicomp). My personal preference is Alps II, but they don’t make them anymore and the Matias version is only available on Matias keyboards (which have flimsy cases).

For the iPad, I went to WASDkeyboards who produce one-off custom UV printed keyboards. I designed a set of keyboard legends based on the keyboard layout at the back of the PowerBook 165 User’s Guide. I went with the darkest gray available for the keycaps, and Cherry MX green switches (the most resistant clicky switches—I learned to type on an Olivetti Lettera 32).

The keyboard itself is a Vortex Pok3r. It uses a USB mini-B connector, so I got a cable with that on one end and USB-C on the other. That way I can plug it in directly to the iPad or into the data port on my USB-C hub. The keyboard is programmable, but even without doing that, it mostly matches the iPad layout. I wanted an ISO layout because that’s what I’m used to. If you don’t need custom printed key caps, the US international layout is cheaper and easier to find.


On my work Mac (which I mostly use as a desktop, even though it’s a laptop) I use a left-hand ergo mouse. I’m not left-handed, but I find mousing right-handed all day gives me cramp. For the iPad, I went with a space gray Magic Trackpad 2 (discontinued—bad Apple). It uses a lightning connector to charge which is great for me because I never need to charge my phone and trackpad at the same time.

Multitouch works brilliantly with iPad OS to the point that you can use it with an external screen and never need to touch the iPad’s screen. It also makes it much faster to navigate around apps and the home screen. And as a plus, it’s bigger than the trackpad on even the biggest MacBook.


I went with the Apple Smart Case, which is fine for propping the screen up in landscape mode. But for portrait mode you’re going to want a stand, ideally with a cutout for the USB-C port. I went with one from Lamicall.


I use a Sony DualShock® 4. It works pretty well with most games. You can pair it using Bluetooth by holding down the Share and PlayStation buttons at the same time.


When I originally wrote this back in Januray 2022, there was one app that I wanted that was missing from the iPad lineup: a desktop publishing package. As of November 2022, Serif has finally released Affinity Publisher 2 for iPad as part of its V2 design suite (including Photo 2 and Designer 2).

Here are the main apps I use that didn’t come with the iPad:

  • art:
    • raster: Procreate
    • vector: Affinity Designer V1
  • development:
    • 2FA: Last Pass Authenticator
    • code editor: Textastic
    • Git client: Working Copy
    • Lua IDE: Codea
    • ssh: Termius
  • miscellaneous:
    • price comparison: Hagglezon
    • screen writing: Final Draft Mobile
    • teleprompter: PromptSmart
  • publishing
    • font management: iFont
    • page layout: Affinity Publisher V2
    • scanning: Genius Scan
  • travel:
    • maps: HERE WeGo
    • weather: Dark Sky (now integrated into the Apple weather app)
  • utilities:
    • archival: iZip
    • keyboard: SwiftKey
    • password management: Last Pass