Engineering
October 7th, 2021

A guide to writing code on an iPad

author avatar
Erik Bledsoe
Technical Writer

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Each new release of the iPad Pro generates a slew of reviews proclaiming this is the one that will finally(!) replace your laptop or claiming that it still isn't up to that task.

At the same time, though, the availability of cloud-based IDEs has reduced the need for powerful local machines by moving the compute-intensive tasks to the cloud.

Perhaps the iPad doesn’t need to replace your laptop; perhaps the cloud has already done so?

In this post, we'll take a look at the options for ditching your laptop in favor of an iPad for writing code on the go.

Why Code on an iPad?

So why would anyone want to code on an iPad? Convenience. They are smaller and lighter than most laptops, making them more portable, and the most recent generation of iPad Pro is more powerful than many laptops with its Apple M1 chip (the same chip used in MacBook Pro), 8-core CPU, and 16GB RAM.

Having a single device you can use to check email, watch movies in bed, and write code just makes life easier. And I’m not the only one that thinks so. Adrian Twarog, whose development and design-focused YouTube channel has over 100K subscribers, tried coding on an iPad for a week and racked up over 300,000 views in three months.

Being able to code with an iPad means you don't need to haul around a heavy laptop when traveling

The Choice: native iPad apps vs. using a cloud-based IDE

There are two possibilities for writing code with an iPad. You can elect to use a native iOS app or use the iPad as a thin client to connect to an IDE running on another machine or server.

Using native iPad apps for writing code

Let’s get this out of the way up front — there is no native iOS app for VS Code — the most popular code editor by far — and given that iOS is incompatible with the Electron framework upon which VS Code is built it seems unlikely that there will ever be a VS Code iOS app. For some, this may be a deal-breaker for choosing to use a native app.

The biggest hurdle to using an iPad for coding is its lack of a runtime environment for most languages, forcing you to move your files to a server for compiling and testing.

That being said, there are a ton of code editors in the iOS app store, many of them fairly mediocre. Here are a few of the best and most popular ones.

Textastic

Textastic is probably the most popular code editor for iOS, and for good reasons. It supports syntax highlighting of more than 80 programming and markup languages. Its interface is snappy and uses the native iOS framework Core Text. You can access files via FTP, SFTP and WebDAV or from Dropbox or Google Drive. It also integrates with the iOS Git client Working Copy (more below), allowing you to access projects on GitHub, GitLab, and other repositories. It has an SSH terminal built-in to let you connect to your remote servers. And, of course, it has a dark mode. It also integrates with TextExpander to help reduce some typing.

Editing an ePub file with Textastic

Koder

Like Textastic, Koder has been around for over a decade. Its feature set is very similar to Textastic as well, with syntax highlighting, support for FTP, SFTP, WebDAV, Dropbox, and Google Drive file access, and integration with Working Copy for Git repositories. It is slightly less expensive than Textastic ($5.99 vs. $9.99) if you are on a super tight budget, but really the choice between the two could just come down to personal preference.

Accessing files via SFTP with Koder

Pythonista

While Textastic and Koder take the Swiss army knife approach to supported languages, Pythonista, as you might guess from the name, focuses solely upon Python. I include it here because 1) Python is my current language of choice and 2) Pythonista is a great example of an app that integrates with the OS that it runs on.

Pythonista provides a full-featured editor, includes some popular libraries like NumPy and MatPlotLib, allows you to run your scripts directly on your device, and has an integrated debugger.

Pythonista gives you a full IDE for Python on your iPad

One of the best things about Pythonista is its integration with iOS. Your scripts can access data from the clipboard, your contacts, reminders, and photos, as well as your device's motion sensors and geo-location data. It also supports the split-screen feature available on iPad Air2 and newer iPad Pros.

However, you are limited to using either Python 2.7 or 3.5. Additional libraries can also be a bit of a pain to install at times.

Working Copy

If you are going to use your iPad and a native editor or IDE for anything more than playing around, you are going to need to install Working Copy so that you can access Git repositories. Working Copy is the standard Git client for iOS. The free version allows you to clone repositories, but if you want to push your commits you’ll need to purchase the paid version.

Working Copy brings Git to the iPad and dramatically improves the functionality of native editors that support it

Native development — not quite there

With the right apps, the experience of coding on an iPad using a native editor can be very good. There are workarounds for tasks like compiling that can’t be accomplished on iOS, but they are just that, workarounds. It’s fine for a hobbyist or someone learning how to code, or even occasionally for a professional developer who needs to make a quick fix while away from their primary machine. But if you make your living writing code or just spend lots of time coding, using the native apps will be too frustrating in the long run.

That’s where cloud computing comes in.

Using a cloud-based IDE for writing code on an Ipad

Cloud-based IDEs offer the developer an experience much more similar to working on their local machine. If you use your iPad as a highly portable client to access your cloud-based development environments then you can use fully-featured IDEs and skip the workarounds needed when using native iOS apps.

For professional developers and serious hobbyists, this is the way to go. Cloud-based IDEs are accessible from any device, whether that is the workstation you use on a daily basis or an iPad that you use on occasion. In many cases, they also provide far more compute power than is available on your iPad or even your laptop. And you have lots of options to fit your needs, whether you are working solo or as part of a team. Here are some of the best.

code-server

Thousands of developers use code-server every day to run VS Code on any machine and access it through the browser. It’s an open source project maintained by the developers of Coder (more specifically about Coder later). Depending upon your needs, you can install it on an old machine you have lying around or on a beefy VM. I have it running on an older Mac Mini in my home lab, and many others have installed it on a Raspberry Pi or on a low-cost (or even free) platform like Railway.

Once it is installed you can use your iPad (or any other machine) to connect and work just as if you were running VS Code locally. There’s even a page in the docs specifically for accessing your code-server installation using an iPad.

A really handy feature of code-server is that if you start it with the --link command you'll get TLS, authentication, and a dedicated URL for accessing your IDE out of the box — no having to mess with Let’s Encrypt certificates.

Starting code-server with the --link command provides you with a custom URL and sets up HTTPS and GitHub authentication

It’s also amazingly snappy. Developers who have tried coding remotely with RDP or VDI are often surprised at the lack of lag when using code-server.

With code-server you’re limited to a single user login per installation, so it’s not well suited for teams, but if you are an individual and you use VS Code exclusively, then it may be the perfect solution. It’s free and you just need to pay for the hosting.

Projector

What code-server does for VS Code, Projector does for the JetBrains family of IDEs, including IntelliJ, PyCharm, PhpStorm, RubyMine, and others. Projector is an open-source project from the folks at JetBrains. Install it on a machine and as part of the installation process it will ask you which IDE you want to run and it will download and install it as well.

Testing a python script in the terminal while using PyCharm running through Projector

Codespaces

If you are part of a team of developers, you’ll probably need to step up from code-server to something more robust. GitHub Codespaces has recently launched in general availability. With a click of a button on a GitHub repository, you can launch a workspace running VS Code with up to 32 cores fully configured for working with that project. It’s powerful, it’s fast, and it’s iPad friendly.

Visiting a repository in a browser and pressing the period key (.) was all it took to start up a Codespaces instance

There are some limitations, however. Since Codespaces is tightly integrated with the GitHub interface, it can’t be used with any other repository other than GitHub. VS Code is currently the only supported IDE. Also, it is only available to organizations using GitHub Team and Enterprise plans, although individuals who managed to acquire an invitation to the beta can continue to continue to use it indefinitely.

Coder

Coder is the commercial product from the developers who created code-server and builds upon it to add enterprise features. Like Codespaces, Coder provides easy one-click launch of developer workspaces. Coder’s platform takes a more agnostic approach to the products it supports than does Codespaces, however. Coder supports not only VS Code, but also Jupyter, RStudio, IntelliJ, PyCharm, and any other JetBrains IDE, as well as all the major Git repositories.

Coder allows you access to multiple editors, even from an iPad

After Coder engineer Joe Previte had to send his MacBook in for repairs, he wrote a blog post about how he was able to continue working productively using Coder on an iPad for two weeks.

Conclusion

It is absolutely possible to write code while using your iPad. Most people would still agree that the experience is better using a laptop, if for no other reason than for the larger screen options that usually provides. But in a pinch or for short periods of time, the experience can be quite nice.

For years, many developers have been waiting for the iPad hardware to improve to a point where it could be considered more than just a toy to play at coding. Ironically, just as the iPad Pro has achieved that milestone, the growing adoption of cloud-based IDEs makes the hardware you have in your hands less important than the workspace you can connect to in the cloud.

Try Coder for free

If you’d like to give Coder a try, we are currently offering a free trial.

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