How to Make Your iPad More Like a Laptop

Nicole Nguyen


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said iPad sales went bonkers during the holiday quarter. The company reported a $2.4 billion revenue increase from a year earlier—the first year-over-year iPad sales growth since 2014. Apple also said about half the customers who purchased iPads were new to the tablets.

With so many fresh iPads out in the wild, I decided to revisit one of my favorite topics: Can an iPad actually replace your computer?

I know, I’ve referred to the iPad as a spork. It tries to do two jobs—be as mobile as a phone and as powerful as a computer—and in doing so, it makes compromises. But I’m realizing its versatility outweighs the compromises. Proof? Lately, I’ve found myself reaching for my iPad far more often than my MacBook. Here’s why:

The iPad is faster. It takes far less time to boot up and load apps than my Intel-powered MacBook Pro. When I get a phone call, I can fire up the iPad and immediately start taking notes with a keyboard or the Apple Pencil. And there’s no spinning Beach Ball of Doom when there are too many browser tabs open.

The iPad is more flexible. If I want to read a Kindle book or binge on a


show, I can easily disengage the keyboard and curl up with the device on the couch.

The iPad doesn’t overheat. I never hear fan whirring, like I do with my 2017 MacBook Pro, because the iPad doesn’t have one! (The more power-efficient M1 MacBooks don’t overheat either.)

The best keyboard cover for iPads with USB-C ports is Apple’s Magic Keyboard, which is sturdy enough for typing on your lap and adds another port for charging.

The iPad can do 95% of the things I do on my Mac. There are some specific exceptions, including these:

• Browser extensions don’t exist in iPadland. For example, while the LastPass password manager works in the Safari browser, it can’t detect and store updated credentials like it does on a laptop browser.

• Many PC-exclusive games, like the titles on Steam, can’t be played on an iPad. Apps that bring desktop gaming to iOS devices, such as Rainway and Steam Link, still require access to a PC.

• You can’t download MP3s from, say, SoundCloud or Bandcamp, and add the tracks directly to the iPad’s Apple Music app. You have to use a computer. (Yes, there are people who download actual music files in the year 2021!)

• You can’t reformat external hard drives to the faster, iOS-optimized APFS format without a Mac. (More on this below.)

While an iPad isn’t a direct replacement for a MacBook—and doesn’t have the integrated PC powers of, say, a Surface tablet—it can do pretty much everything most people do on a laptop. You just might need some new accessories and productivity apps. Here’s how to go full computer on your iPad:

Get a mouse and keyboard.

If you’re updated to the latest system software, iPadOS 14.4, or at least running iPadOS 13, you can finally use a mouse. (Supported models include iPad Air 2 and newer; iPad 5 and newer; iPad Mini 4 and newer; and the redesigned iPad Pro and Air models with USB-C ports and no home buttons.)


What do you use your iPad for? Please share your tips. Join the conversation below.

Some apps feel more natural than others—in Microsoft Word, for example, you can select text as you would on a laptop, by clicking and dragging. In Google Docs, you have to double-click a word before dragging to highlight, similar to the way you’d select text on an iPhone.

Now, for the keyboard cases: For models that are a few years old, I like


Combo Touch ($149) because it’s protective and lightweight, and it connects via the Smart Connector, a port on some iPads that provides power and data through compatible accessories. It means you don’t have to mess with Bluetooth settings.

If you want to use your iPad literally on your lap, try a more stable option from Brydge. Starting at $50, these covers make your iPad look and feel like a MacBook. Brydge’s covers for older iPads don’t come with trackpads and only connect over Bluetooth, however.

I like to use a full size Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, plus a stand for ergonomics. (And yes, I do realize the down arrow key is missing!)

The best keyboard cover on the market is Apple’s Magic Keyboard for iPad, which is compatible with the latest USB-C models. The typing experience is fantastic, and because of its solid build, it doesn’t bounce around on your lap. The case also adds an additional USB-C port for more convenient charging.

My initial gripe with the Magic Keyboard is its $299-and-up price. But I’ve seen big markdowns lately: You can find the smaller Magic Keyboard at




for $199 right now.

When I’m at my desk, I prefer pairing a typical full-size wireless keyboard and mouse to my iPad and propping it on an adjustable stand. Any affordable model should do.

When the iPad is connected to a monitor, it simply mirrors the display—unless it’s running an app with special second-screen support, like Procreate, which previews your canvas on the big screen while you multitask on the iPad.

Use an external display.

One of the iPad’s biggest limitations is its small screen, which can be remedied by plugging in a monitor. In general, you can only mirror what’s on screen. However, these apps have special support for second screens:

• Shiftscreen ($5) is a must-download for two-screeners. Essentially a browser that takes over the connected monitor, it allows you to open four windows side by side. You can open web apps such as Google Docs, Slack and YouTube. Then, on the iPad’s own screen, you can run a separate app.

• Netflix, Prime Video and Apple TV app content will play in full screen on the monitor, freeing up the iPad for another app.

• In Twitch, opening a stream will prompt the live-video feed to play in the full screen, while the iPad’s display shows the comment section.

• Apple’s Photos app and Google Photos display images full-screen on the monitor, while you can browse through your library on the iPad.

• Procreate ($10) is a drawing and illustration app that projects your canvas on to the big screen. On the iPad, you can zoom in and work on specific areas.

• In the movie-editing apps LumaFusion ($20) and iMovie, you can view playback on the big screen and work on the editing timeline on the iPad.

If you only want your iPad screen mirrored, you can beam it wirelessly to any Apple TV or AirPlay 2 display. But if there’s a weak Wi-Fi signal, there will likely be some latency issues.

Shiftscreen ($5) is a must-have app for people who work with an external monitor. It allows you to open up to four web apps at once, including Slack and Google Docs.

Expand your peripherals.

To connect your iPad to a monitor, you will need an HDMI or DisplayPort adapter. For older models, get a Lightning-to-HDMI adapter. Newer iPads with USB-C ports can use any accessories available to USB-C laptops and tablets. With a hub, you can connect webcams, external hard drives or even wired headphones. (The new iPads lack a headphone jack.)

I like Anker’s 8-in-1 USB-C hub ($60) which has eight ports. In addition to HDMI, it has ethernet and an SD card reader. Fledging’s Hubble for iPad ($100) is a connectivity hub cleverly integrated into a protective case. Just note: It doesn’t work with Apple’s Magic Keyboard.

Get to know the Files app.

This Files app is a little like the Finder on a Mac, only it shows the files on the iPad along with what’s stored in your cloud services—iCloud, Google Drive,


and the like. Let’s say someone sends you a link to a worksheet, and you want to save it. In Safari, in the top right corner, tap the up-arrow share icon, then select Save to Files.

iPadOS now supports external hard drives, which you can access through the redesigned Files app.

If you plug in an external hard drive, you can access the drive’s contents through the Files app. And if you want to move photos and other documents to the drive, you can put the Files app on one side, in split view, and your Photos app, for instance, on the other side, then drag files across.

While multiple drive formats are compatible with the iPad, you’ll get the fastest speeds if your drive is formatted to APFS, Apple’s file system. Unfortunately, that reformatting requires the Disk Utility app—on a Mac.

(Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a commercial agreement to supply news through Apple services.)

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Appeared in the February 16, 2021, print edition as ‘Make Your iPad More Like a Laptop.’