iPad Pro Review

For the past two years there has been a lot of speculation about whether or not Apple would release a large-scale version of its iPad devices. I can remember very distincly the feeling I had when I first heard about this product, and it was one of pure joy. I have wanted a light-weight device with the power of a Mac and the portability of an iPad for some time now, and hopefully Apple was finally going to give it to me. Earlier this year, during one of the most jam-packed keynotes in Apple history, Apple debuted their long-rumored iPad Pro. I was instantly hooked. The only problem was that I had to wait until November to get my hands on it. Well, that day has come and gone, and as you may have read I wasn’t impressed with the rollout of the device. Since that day, however, I have gotten my hands on the iPad Pro and all of its accessories, and I’ve been putting it through its paces. In this article I’ll share my thoughts and render my final verdict on whether or not I’m ready to insert the iPad Pro into my digital lifestyle.

iPad Pro with Apple Pencil

Size, Shape, and Design

There’s nothing really revolutionary about the design of the iPad Pro. It is every bit an iPad from head to toe, but there are several areas that Apple has revised or refined which really make this large-screen device a joy to work with. The size of the device is a little jarring at first, but once you get used to the enhanced size, you start to see all of the attention to detail that went into making it. Even though the device has a 12.9 inch screen and weighs as much as the original iPad (give or take a few ounces) the iPad Pro doesn’t feel that bad in your hands. The weight is spread out over that surface area in such a way that it feels like you’re holding nothing more than a large magazine or book.

The screen is in a class all by itself, really. As I mentioned above it runs 12.9 inches diagonally at 2732 x 2048, giving you a whopping 5.6 million pixels of full-color awesomeness to work with. This is the highest resolution screen that Apple has ever produced; even besting that of its Retina MacBook Pro line of laptops. There’s also a lot of technology built-in to this screen. For example, when you’re using the Apple Pencil with the iPad Pro, the screen can ramp up to a 240Hz refresh rate to minimize latency. When the screen isn’t being used for intensive tasks, the screen can scale back to a 30Hz refresh rate, which will maximize battery life. These are the types of details that you’d expect from Apple, and they certainly delivered big time with this device display.

at some point you have to think about the function and not just the form.

Although I love the design of the iPad Pro overall, there are some things that I feel could’ve been included that aren’t. For example, there’s no rotation lock button on the outside casing, which means you have to do that via the swipe-up control panel in iOS. There’s also no mute toggle alongside the volume controls. This is something I use quite a bit on my iPhone 6S, and frankly I’m a little shocked that Apple didn’t include it here. The only way to mute the device is via settings on the device or by holding down the volume button until mute is activated. I realize that Jony Ive is all about simplicity and removing as many buttons and widgets as he can, but at some point you have to think about the function and not just the form.

Speed and Battery Life

Remember when I said the iPad Pro was every bit an iPad from head to toe? Well, this is especially true in the battery life department. Normally I can get several days of use out of my iPad Air, maybe even a week if I don’t use it all that much. Since I’ve begun using and testing the iPad Pro I’ve yet to run it down past 50% battery life. This includes using it as my primary device while on a trip to Denver to speak at the Photoshop Conference. While I was there I also used the iPad Pro in several impromptu demos, on stage presentations, and even watching Netflix in my hotel room at night. Each day as I was doing a battery level check on all my devices before going to bed, the iPad Pro would still be there, standing proud, at 50% or more. I was very impressed.

According to teardown reports the iPad Pro has 4GB of RAM in it, and it is also equipped with Apple’s latest A9X processor. What does this mean? Speed. That’s what. The iPad Pro is the zippiest iPad I’ve ever used. You’ll notice the speed increase when doing things like processing photos, saving and exporting videos, and even scrolling through webpages and switching apps. In the iOS world, there’s really no comparison. However, that doesn’t mean that the iPad Pro is a desktop-class machine. There are plenty of devices out there, like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, that best the iPad Pro in benchmark tests. The performance level of the iPad Pro is very dependent on the type of work you’re doing, so your mileage will vary based on how you use it. If you’re crunching through 4K video clips all day, this might not be the best device for you, but for most “everyday tasks” the iPad Pro will almost certainly shine.

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Multimedia and Sound

The iPad has always been a device that I carried with me while traveling so that I could watch what I wanted to watch, either on a plane or in my hotel room. The problem I had with all previous generation iPads was the sound. No previous generation iPad has a decent sound setup, and as I’m sure many iPad users have done, I found myself constantly cupping my hand around the speaker in order to funnel the sound back to me at a more reasonable volume. Well, fear not iPad cuppers, our prayers have been answered with the iPad Pro.

This makes watching TV and movies on the iPad Pro an amazing and immersive experience…

I’m not sure what kind of wizardry is going on inside this device, but the sound is absolutely phenomenal. Even when you rotate the device, the speakers automatically adjust to the rotation to provide you with the best stereo sound possible. The volume is much louder than previous generation iPads, and the sound is crisp, clear, and very dynamic to my ears. This makes watching TV and movies on the iPad Pro an amazing and immersive experience, and in my opinion it’s one of the best things about the device overall.

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On-Screen Keyboard

Let me preface this by saying that I hate software keyboards, so there’s really nothing Apple could’ve done here (short of making it have tactile feedback) that was going to impress me all that much. That being said, the on-screen keyboard for the iPad Pro is much better than that of previous model iPads. The touch targets are larger, making typos less frequent, and there are more function and shortcut keys built into the initial view, making it easier to type without having to switch into a secondary keyboard or menu.

My main issue with on-screen keyboards is that there’s no way to reset yourself to the “home row” after you’ve begun typing. Oftentimes I’ll begin typing and midway through a sentence realize that I’ve somehow migrated to the row above or below the home row, and thus my typing looks like gibberish. This means I have to keep my eyes on the keys and the screen at all times, and that’s not how I work. I take a lot of notes by hand, so I like to look at my notebook while I’m writing to incorporate those notes into whatever it is I’m doing. Not having tactile feedback makes this very difficult to do with a software keyboard. Granted, Apple has provided a hardware keyboard solution for the iPad Pro, but at $170 that’s an expensive convenience that most users expect from a real computer right out of the box.

smartkeyboard

Apple’s Smart Keyboard Cover

While we’re on the subject of keyboards, I’ll just go ahead and throw in my two cents on Apple’s Smart Keyboard Cover for the iPad Pro. The design of the keyboard is pretty great at first glance. The Smart Keyboard Cover, when folded onto the device, has a profile that isn’t much thicker than a traditional Smart Cover that you’d put on any other iPad. The keyboard connects to the iPad Pro using the all-new Smart Connector port on the side of the device. This makes it possible for the keyboard to be powered and paired with the device without using Bluetooth, which I think is a fantastic idea. That means I could just snap this onto any iPad Pro and begin using it, without the hassle of going through the Bluetooth pairing process, which is often frustrating on iOS devices.

functionally it sucks as a keyboard.

The look of the Apple Keyboard Cover is probably the best thing about it, because functionally it sucks as a keyboard. Sure, you can type on it, and the keys are laid out pretty well in my opinion, but the lack of function/shortcut keys and backlighting make this accessory feel limited and unfinished. I’ve also been using the Logitech Create Keyboard case with my iPad Pro, and it blows the Apple Smart Keyboard Cover right out of the water. Since iOS isn’t very Mac-like in how it does certain operations, like app switching and multi-tasking, it would be nice to have some buttons built into the Smart Keyboard Cover to aid in those operations. This keyboard is bare-bones, having only one shortcut key, the international keyboard key. This makes for easy access to emoji, but not much else. Contrast this with the Logitech Create which has dedicated keys for accessing the homes screen, volume controls, sleep/wake, screen brightness, and media playback. Why Apple left these off of their product is beyond me, but given the hefty price tag of the Smart Keyboard Cover, I’m inclined to suggest that people look elsewhere for their keyboard needs on the iPad Pro, because Apple simply didn’t deliver on this at all.

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Apple Pencil

It’s fair to say that the Apple Pencil was the part of the iPad Pro that I was most excited about. I’m no artist, mind you, but I do like to sketch and create artwork in my spare time. I’m also a huge proponent of using devices like Wacom tablets in a graphic design workflow, so naturally the Apple Pencil piqued my interest. Unfortunately the Pencil is still very difficult for most users to obtain, so even if you’re really excited about it you’ll have to wait a few weeks to get your hands on one. I detailed my thoughts on this in a previous article though, so let’s move on. The Pencil is probably one of the best Apple products I’ve ever used. Period. Not only does it deliver in all of the ways Apple said it would, but it actually exceeded my expectations in many ways as well.

I love how the Apple Pencil feels in my hand. It’s balance and weight are absolutely perfect, which is something many stylus makers (including Adobe and Wacom) haven’t been able to achieve with their products. The nib of the pencil comes to a pretty fine point as well, which is in stark contrast to other stylus devices like the Pencil from FiftyThree.

I actually felt as though I had a real graphite pencil in my hand, and I was able to control it just as I would the real thing back in my high school art class.

Drawing with the Pencil is amazing. Several apps, including Adobe Sketch and Procreate, have already been optimized for the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, and it shows that Apple has been working hard with these third parties to make the experience as good as possible. The device is able to recognize pressure, rotation, and direction almost instantly, with virtually no lag. I have noticed that the latency of the Pencil is very much app dependent, leading me to conclude that developers will need to do some tweaking in order to get optimal performance for this device. Adobe is hands-down the winner in this category, as I was unable to discern any lag while drawing in their Sketch app using the Apple Pencil. What really blew me away is how this device reacted when I turned it on its side to do shading. I actually felt as though I had a real graphite pencil in my hand, and I was able to control it just as I would the real thing back in my high school art class. Apple has also done something, either with the nib of the device or the iPad Pro’s screen, that mimics drag on paper. I can feel just a enough resistance as I drag the pencil across the screen that it feels like I’m actually drawing on something textured, like paper, and not glass. Again, I’m unsure of how this is being done, but it is masterfully implemented nonetheless.

The Apple Pencil connects to the iPad Pro via Bluetooth, but you don’t have to pair it in order to begin using it. All you have to do is take the end cap off, which will expose the Lightning connector, and then plug it into the iPad Pro’s Lightning port. The iPad Pro takes care of the paring process for you, and you can instantly begin using your pencil once it’s finished. This is also how you’ll charge the Pencil whenever it runs out of battery (something I’ve yet to accomplish). If there’s one thing I can nitpick about the Pencil its this. You have to insert the pencil into the Lightning Port of the iPad Pro, which leave the Pencil protruding out. I have a feeling that somebody (probably me) will wind up breaking off the Pencil while its charging, so I’m not sure this was the best design choice. I’d love for the pencil to charge inductively through the iPad, and maybe even have a magnetic way of attaching it to the side of the device, because storage of the Pencil is another thing that it appears Apple left off the list of to-dos before shipping these devices. There’s no holder on the iPad Pro for the Pencil, no loop or slot on the Smart Keyboard Cover, and no magnets to hold it in place either. Since the Pencil costs $100, it’d be a shame to lose it, so I’d like to have a better way of keeping tack of its whereabouts.

Software and OS

Many developers are working to optimize their apps for the iPad Pro, and some have already begun pushing those updates out. Microsoft and Adobe are two of the “big boys” who have already released iPad Pro versions of their apps, and many other developers are following suit. I feel a little funny saying this, but Microsoft has really outdone themselves with their release of Office 365 apps for the iPad. Before this I had all but abandoned the MS Office suite for Google Drive, but after seeing what they’ve done with these apps for iOS, I think I may be swinging back around to Team Microsoft for my everyday document needs. I’ve been using Word, PowerPoint, and Excel quite frequently on my iPad Pro, saving documents to OneDrive, and they haven’t missed a beat. Pair these apps with the Logitech Create Keyboard, and you’ve really got a powerful word processing machine.

iOS 9 also delivers many new experiences for the iPad Pro, including the new split-view multi-tasking capabilities, which allow users to run two apps side-by-side simultaneously. This isn’t unique to the iPad Pro, but it certainly is better on the iPad Pro because of the larger screen real estate. I love being able to browse the web while Tweetbot sits next to it, and being able to have 1Password open while logging into sites and apps has really been a great addition to my iPad experience.

That being said, I think Apple still has some serious work to do with iOS and the App Store in general when it comes to the iPad Pro. iOS is a great mobile operating system, there’s no denying that. But in order for a device to be worth of the Pro monicker, I think it needs to have a true desktop-level operating system running on it. The problem with iOS is that it’s too limited. There are things that professionals need to be able to do that it just can’t do. For instance, there’s no central file system on the device. That means that you either have to save your files locally within each individual app or rely on cloud services like Dropbox and OneDrive. While those services are great, and I use both of them daily, there are still times when I want to just make local folder and store documents in there, and I can’t do that on iOS. I also find myself frustrated with inter-app communication. Where normally I would just drag something from one window to another, I’m forced in iOS to copy/paste or rely on developers creating “deep links” in order for me to exchange information between two applications.

We used to be Apple’s bread and butter, but now we’re the minority…

In order to understand why these limitations exist, we must first look at why iOS was created in the first place. Apple designed iOS with the mass market in mind. They’ve simplified the OS to a point where anyone, regardless of age or technical prowess, can pick up an iOS device and start using it within minutes. That’s great, and I understand why they did it. The consumer market is a much greener pasture than the pro market. We used to be Apple’s bread and butter, but now we’re the minority, and Apple has seemingly moved on from us in favor of the soccer mom crowd. As professionals we like things that are rich, powerful, and customizable. Everyday users want to click a button and have it done right then and there. That is what iOS was designed to do. It was designed to be convenient, and an unfortunate side effect of that is that we lose the configurability and complexity we’ve grown to love and rely on in the professional world.

There’s also the issue of the App Store itself to consider. Ever since the iOS App Store came about there’s been this unspoken rule between developers and users that no piece of software should cost more than a few dollars, or anything at all, really. It’s a race to the bottom, and that means that big name developers are going to be reluctant to put much effort into the platform because they’re unable to make a decent profit. I look at some of the paid apps in the App Store and just shake my head because 5-10 years ago they’d be able to charge 2-3 times what they’re charging now and nobody would bat an eye. Pixelmator is a great example of this. By all accounts Pixelmator is quickly becoming a viable option to replace Photoshop for users who aren’t interested in subscribing to Adobe’s Creative Cloud service. Yet even with that amount of buzz, and a rich feature set that closely resembles that of Photoshop, Pixelmator for iOS costs just $4.99. This makes zero sense, and it’s a problem that Apple needs to fix ASAP.

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A Workhorse with Compromises

The big question on everybody’s mind is whether or not the iPad Pro can replace their laptop while at the same time still allowing them to do their work. The answer to that is… I don’t know, can it? The iPad Pro is designed to serve a lot of masters, but none of them specifically. No matter what you intend to do with it, the iPad Pro definitely has something to offer you, but you’ll most likely have to make some compromises too. Ultimately you have to decide whether or not the iPad Pro is worth the time, money, and effort that it will take in order to work it into your life.

For a casual user, this device could very well be all that you need.

At this point I don’t think any working professionals are going to be able to go all-in on the iPad Pro as a their daily driver. There are just too many walls and ceilings to bump into right now. However, for a casual user, this device could very well be all that you need. Again, it just depends on what you want to do with it. If you’re a person that relies on software like Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign to do your job, the iPad Pro will most likely just fall into the “nice to have” category of devices. If you’re somebody who browses the web, occasionally needs to work with Microsoft Office, and accesses email, the iPad Pro is maybe something you should look at more closely.

For artists and creative professionals the iPad Pro could slowly work its way into your workflows, but that will depend heavily on the software and tools that are developed for it in the future. As it stands now, there are only a handful of apps that I would consider pro-level, and even then you have to make some pretty big compromises in order to work them into your routine. It’s clear to me that Apple has no plans to do any OS-level modifications to accommodate power users, so it’s all in the hands of third-party developers now. Hopefully as the device and its platform matures we will get a better idea of who is using this device, why, and how they’re using it in their work. Once developers have that data I think we’ll start to see more targeted experiences being created for the iPad Pro, but until then I’m just not sure if there’s enough here for someone to pull the trigger on a $1,000+ setup that doesn’t give them a complete, powerful solution.

Conclusion

Tim Cook recently said that we’re living in the Post-PC Era, and he questioned why anyone would buy a PC at this point. I would argue that we’re currently in a PC-to-Mobile Transition Era, but we still have a long way to go before the majority of us leave our desktops and laptops behind. My experience thus far with the iPad Pro has shown me that it can come really close to becoming a laptop killer. Maybe even as close as 90% of what I need. It’s that last 10% that is most crucial, and I just can’t get past it. Therefore the iPad Pro, while great for a lot of things, just isn’t a great fit for me. That’s not to say that it won’t be a great fit for you, but that’s something you’ll have to figure out on your own.