Review: The iPad Pro is a line in the sand 

The iPad Pro is a strange device for someone like me.

I run my business, record and edit my podcasts and do my writing all from a 15-inch MacBook Pro. In the war of work, it’s my weapon of choice.

Even if I could work from an iPad full-time[1] like Federico Viticci, I’m faster and more productive with OS X at my fingertips.

That’s not a slam against the iPad or iOS itself; Apple’s mobile operating system has a seriously impressive set of tools under the hood. While it may make me a dinosaur one day, the Mac is home for me, and has been for a long time.

And that’s why the iPad Pro, with its crazy-powerful CPU, super-accurate Pencil and 12.9-inch screen is such a mind-bending device to me. The hardware is more Mac-like than ever, and iOS is more flexible now than ever before. In many ways, the iPad Pro feels like a line in the sand. Will we all cross it eventually, or will the computing world remain fractured between those who can use a tablet for everything, and those who can’t?

For me, the iPad has never really graduated beyond consumption device. I have written with one, yes, but I’ve never pulled it out of my backpack, forgoing the comforts of my Mac when it’s time to do anything more serious than put words on a page.

However, with this iPad, that’s starting to change.

Hardware

It’s tempting to bunt on this section. If you go pick up an iPad Air 2, you already know a lot about what the iPad Pro is like. But as with many Apple products, the delight is in the details.

Even though its screen is some 78% larger than ones on 9.7-inch iPads, Apple’s done a good job with the weight. Yes, it’s heavier than my original iPad,[2] but it feels nowhere as dense as the 2010 device.

Part of that is because instead of just filling the larger chassis with battery, Apple chose to once again hit its intended target for battery life on this iPad.[3]

Instead Apple is using the expanded space inside this iPad for a new 4-speaker sound system that is, quite frankly, damn good. No, it doesn’t sound as good as my television or speakers on my desk, but it’s louder and clearer than the speakers on my 15-inch MacBook Pro and miles better than the one, dinky-ass speaker in my iPhone 6s Plus.

The speakers do all sorts of clever things to make sure the balance is right, no matter which way you’re holding the device, and while its tempting to jump on the complaining-about-battery-life train, I think Apple’s real choice was about weight, not battery life, and I’m mostly okay with with where they settled here.

While the sound system in the iPad Pro is impressive, this device — like all iOS devices — is about the screen.

While the iPad Pro’s display retains the 264 ppi found on the iPad Air 2,[4] at 2732 x 2048, there’s much more that developers can do now. No longeris iOS a world that fits in my pocket or in the palm of my hand. When upright with the Smart Cover or a stand, the iPad is every bit as immersive as a notebook. The increased screen size demands I take this machine more seriously.

There are some downsides, though. I used to grab my Air 2 to check Slack, Twitter and email in the morning and evenings in bed, and now I’ve gone back to my phone for that, as the Pro is just way too large for me to use laying down. Part of my brain keeps bugging me with the thought that an iPad mini would be nice for these situations, but as I’m not CGP Grey, I’ll power through it.

The rest of the hardware is what you’d expect from a modern iPad. The lines are clean, the chamfer can be too shiny at times, and the lack of a mute/rotation lock switch still drives me crazy.

A Brief Aside on Accessories

I have a Pencil, but don’t feel as equipped to talk about it as some people are.

I can say that the Pencil, as a device, is remarkable. The fit and finish is such that’s it easy to forget there’s actually a teeny, tiny computer in the thing.

The way the Pencil pairs and charges is weird, but makes a lot of sense in practice. Yes, I worry about losing the cap or breaking off the Lightning plug like other people, but so far, so good here.

Using the Pencil is a revelation. Apple’s palm rejection is crazy good, and the latency in most apps is hardly noticeable. While some developers need to fine-tune things, in my very scientific testing,[5] the Pencil is a delight to use. If you are at all interested in sketching or drawing on a tablet, I think the iPad Pro deserves serious consideration alongside the Surface Pro 4.

The iPad Pro’s Smart Cover — inexplicably only available in gray and white — is notably heavier than previous iterations. It feels more sturdy than the iPad Air 2’s due to its sheer size, but it isn’t going to win you over if you don’t like the Smart Cover.

I have only used the Smart Keyboard in an Apple Store, and wasn’t at all impressed in my brief time with it. I’ll be using the iPad Pro as I am right now as I type this: with a Smart Cover and Magic Keyboard.

iOS 9

There’s no real need to get into the myriad ways that iOS 9 improved the iPad experience. Things like Slide Over, Split View and Picture in Picture mark the first time that the iPad has gotten significant features that the iPhone hasn’t. Historically, it’s important, as Apple’s splitting iOS features based on the device the OS is running on. That’s a good thing for the iPad, and I hope that the tablet continues to get individualized attention when it comes to iOS development by Apple.

(Especially if it means the homescreen is improved next year. You could drive a bus between the icons on this thing.)

In hindsight, a bigger iPad was inevitable when Apple showed off these new features at WWDC. While Slide Over and Split View are perfectly usable on the iPad Air 2 and smaller iPad mini 4, they are cramped, and fall back to iPhone size classes far too often for my tastes.

On the iPad Pro, however, running two apps side by side is a dream. The popular comparison to having two iPad Air 2s strapped together is a good one. Even with the onscreen keyboard up, there’s plenty of room to see what’s going on:

When the iPad Pro is paired with an external keyboard it’s even better. iOS 9 feels at home on this larger display, and it’s one reason I’m switching to the iPad Pro. Using the iPad Air 2 now feels too cramped, like picking up an iPhone 4S after using a 6 Plus for a year and a half.

But with iOS, the feel of something is just as important — if not more so — than how it looks.

To be truthful, every iPad since the iPad 4 has felt buttery smooth out of the box, but with the iPad Pro, I feel like Apple’s shipped a device that’s going to feel smooth for a long time to come. Even the Air 2 — my iPad up until now — feels a little sluggish in places compared to this thing.

The performance is about more than raw CPU and GPU force. With 4 GB of RAM, moving between apps and returning to previously-loaded Safari tabs finally feels good. Yes, Safari on the iPad Pro will dump its content now and again, but it’s far less likely then on previous models. While iOS 9 still insists on blurring apps as they are resized in multitasking, apps snap back to attention, ready for input, instantly.

When multitasking first came to the Macintosh, it was slow and clunky on most systems. It wasn’t until a couple of releases into OS X that it felt good and reliable. With iOS 9 on the iPad Pro, Apple’s approaching that on its mobile operating system as well.

That’s not to say iOS 9 is perfect. There’s a lot that I wish Apple would address. While the iPad Pro is theoretically capable of more than other Lightning-equipped devices, the other shoe has yet to drop in terms of what the tablet may be able to do with outboard hardware.

As mentioned above, the audio subsystem is still limiting for my work. Likewise, file management on iOS is still too simple; Document Pickers are a far cry from having the Finder a keystroke away.

However, iOS 9 on this hardware has made it easier for me to take on a lot of my non-audio work without my MacBook Pro in front of me. In those cases, the more streamlined experience and simpler interface lets me more easily focus at the task at hand, whether that be deal with my Inbox, balance the company checkbook, prepare for a podcast or write an article.

Moving Forward

I don’t know what the future holds for the weird sibling relationship between the Mac and the iPad. At the edges, things are blurrier than ever. Sitting here, typing on an iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard is pretty damn close to sitting here, typing on a MacBook with Retina display. Yes, there are fundamental differences when it comes to the operating system and software between the two platforms, but for many, many users, those distinctions are less important now than ever.

I predict that will continue to be the case. Steve Jobs’ famous soundbite about tablets and PCs being cars and trucks feels more true than ever before.

“We like to talk about the post-PC era, but when it really starts to happen, it’s uncomfortable,” Jobs said. I think many of us are feeling that for the first time this year.

The iPad may not be selling in the numbers it once did, but it’s still a huge business for Apple, and one that I think will level off at some point soon. The iPad isn’t going away, and if the iPad Pro has anything to say about it, all of us — even people who prefer the Mac — are going to be using tablets for work more and more.

I know I am.


  1. I’m looking at you, Skype and audio-recording apps.  ↩

  2. I happen to have an original iPad, and did a blindfold test with my wife. She guessed which hand I laid the iPad Pro in two out of three times. Don’t say I don’t do my homework for these things.  ↩

  3. Consider this: the iPad mini 4 and the iPad Pro are rated for the same battery life.  ↩

  4. The iPad mini still rules the iPad roost at 326 ppi.  ↩

  5. Read: Just farting around in some drawing apps. There’s a reason I changed majors away from graphic design two years into college.  ↩