The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a strange device. Like other Apple products, it has a premium, polished design and is (in some ways) delightful to use. But it also shows Apple playing the unfamiliar role of follower – and (in some ways) not doing a particularly good job of it. Read on, as Gizmag reviews the fun but slightly illogical iPad Pro.
Apple isn't pitching this first iPad Pro as a 2-in-1 that can rival the Surface; it's mostly people like us in the media that are doing that. But despite Apple's framing of the iPad Pro as an extra-immersive iPad that's great for artists, you'd be naïve to take that at face value: this is a huge tablet with keyboard and stylus accessories. It doesn't take much reading between the lines to realize this is a first step in transforming the iPad into a Surface rival.
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Like a child taking its first steps, the iPad Pro shows the promise of what could eventually be. But as adorable as that moment is, the kid still has a ways to go before he can beat Usain Bolt.
As a tablet, the iPad Pro is huge but feels incredibly light in hand. If the iPad Air is like a magazine and the iPad mini is like a paperback, then the iPad Pro is like a newspaper. Lean back, take a sip of coffee and furrow your brow as your absorb the day's headlines (or the new season of your favorite show ... or your latest creation in Minecraft). "Immersive" sounds like a cookie-cutter description that every reviewer uses to describe any device with a bigger screen, but immersive it is. It's 12.9 inches of Retina glory.
Whether Apple succeeded at making a giant-sized, more powerful iPad Air 2 isn't the question. The question is why we need such a device in the first place, and whether it makes sense to spend over US$1,000 on it. That's where the iPad Pro starts to become a confusing – perhaps even bizarre – proposition.
A tablet this big and expensive only makes sense if a) you're a digital artist who wants a huge canvas for your creations or b) you can transform it into a laptop. The iPad Pro could be great as the former, but Apple doesn't launch brand new iOS devices just to serve the artistic community. Its long-term purpose is as the latter – rejuvenate the iPad as the harbinger of the post-PC era, and put the brakes on Microsoft's snowballing success with the Surface and Windows 10.
Apple's unwillingness to market this 1st-gen iPad Pro as a 2-in-1 tells us that the company realizes it isn't ready to fight in the Surface's weight class. iOS isn't yet a legit rival to Windows 10 as a 2-in-1 operating system (not by a long shot) and, despite some fun highlights, we think the iPad Pro's hardware is also inferior to Microsoft's latest Surfaces. It's a seed planted for developers to make the apps that convince us all that desktop operating systems are a thing of the past.
Those may be ingredients for an interesting product, and a conversation-starter about the future of computing. But they aren't the ingredients of a product that we recommend buying right now. Not for $1,060 or more, when you include its keyboard and stylus (erm, Apple Pencil).
It's not that the iPad Pro can't work as a laptop replacement for some people. The problem is that those people are, more or less, the same people who could already replace a laptop with an iPad Air. The iPad Pro is bigger and faster than the Air 2, but other than that, doesn't stretch much closer to being a legit laptop rival.
Let's break down some of the things that an iOS-running faux laptop doesn't give you:
- no trackpad or mouse/cursor input of any kind
- no direct access to the file system (which means getting content from one app to another is clunkier and slower ... if possible at all)
- no windowed or staggered apps – it's either one app in full-screen or two in split screen, with nothing in between
- no apps that can roam beyond their own Apple-sanctioned sandbox, making system-wide third-party tweaks (like text expanders or app launchers) an impossibility
- no browser extensions (though iOS app extensions in Safari do come close)
Maybe you don't need any of that stuff. But, again, if that's the case then you probably could have been using an iPad with a keyboard as your laptop for the last few years. The 1st-gen iPad Pro doesn't redefine the iPad as a laptop killer, so much as it gets a little better at being the same "laptop killer for some people" that the iPad has been since the second or third models arrived, back in 2011-12.
"Pro" means different things to different people, but many things I do for my work are impossible on the iPad Pro (not the least of which is working with many-layered product comparison templates in Photoshop). The iPad Pro assumes that a "Pro" product requires little more than a keyboard, desktop-class performance, office suite and the ability to retouch photos. If that's you, then the iPad Pro may work for you. If that's not you, then we recommend looking into something like the Surface Pro 4, Surface Book or (a "Pro" Apple product that does live up to its name) the Retina MacBook Pro.
Apple's iPad Pro stylus, the awkwardly-named Apple Pencil, is very good. In sketching apps, you can write with nearly imperceptible latency and great pressure sensitivity, making it feel a lot like writing on real paper. It also makes for a good tapper/pointer device when scrolling through apps or web pages.
But you know what else does all these things? Microsoft's Surface Pen. And it happens to be tied to devices that make sense in all the ways that the iPad Pro doesn't. There are some differences, like the Pencil's ability to do shading while scrubbing at a nearly horizontal angle, but those are niche use cases. On the whole, the Apple Pencil is a nice accessory that doesn't present enough of an advantage to justify the iPad Pro's other shortcomings.
Apple's Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro fits with the same theme. Well-made for what it is, but what it is still doesn't make a lot of sense.
When you aren't using the device, the keyboard folds over to protect the screen – and it folds over a second time to prevent the keyboard from touching the display. The keyboard provides a solid enough typing experience with its island style keys, though they do feel a bit squishy and we prefer the Surface Pro 4's latest Type Cover.
Again, though, the big omission is that there's no trackpad, which means the most the iPad Pro can hope to be is a great faux laptop. In our book, to remove the "faux," you need a touchpad.
If you do decide to buy the iPad Pro, you may notice that Apple's keyboard is nearly impossible to find at the time of publication – and may be tempted to get Logitech's Create keyboard cover instead. Despite its great (and backlit) keys, we don't recommend doing that, as the Logitech cover is heavier and makes it very difficult to remove the iPad when you want to use it in tablet mode. And if you leave the cover on for tablet mode (we're assuming that's what Logitech expects you to do), you just killed one of the iPad Pro's only killer features: its crazy-light weight (for its size) in tablet mode.
Battery life is solid enough. In our video streaming test (with brightness set at 75 percent), the iPad Pro dropped 14 percent per hour. For comparison's sake, the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 each dropped 9 percent per hour in the same test.
The iPad Pro is a fun device today that may be planting seeds for great products a few years down the road. Once developers follow Apple's lead and make iOS apps that are better suited for this kind of device and once Apple (presumably) adds a few features of its own in iOS 10 and 11 that make it a better 2-in-1 operating system, the iPad Pro could eventually be a true Surface rival. Maybe.
Right now this is a niche device that we only recommend to a select few. If, before the iPad Pro, you've already been able to use an iPad as a laptop replacement – and simply wished you could have the same device with a bigger screen and faster processing power – then the iPad Pro will fit all your needs and be a pleasure to use.
For everyone else, though, this is a product that's more about meeting Apple's long-term ends than it is meeting your ends today.
Why buy the iPad Pro today when there are much better 2-in-1s out there already? The Surface Book is just as big, light and "Retina" as a tablet, both it and the Surface Pro 4 run software that's already excellent for 2-in-1s and they both have trackpads and ports for your accessories. They live up to the "Pro" branding for nearly anyone.
The fun but slightly illogical 1st-gen iPad Pro is available now, starting at $799 for the huge tablet by itself. The Apple Pencil adds another $99 and the OEM Smart Keyboard rings up for $169.
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