iPad Pro early impressions: Promising as an artist's tablet, diluted as a 2-in-1

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The iPad Pro is like a gigantic, more powerful iPad Air 2(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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The iPad Pro is clearly Apple's attempt to make a Surface-like 2-in-1, though the company is framing this 1st-gen version more as a canvas for artists. We have the new tablet in house, along with some early thoughts.

The iPad Pro may be Apple's most bizarre new product since before Steve Jobs returned to the fold in the late 90s. As a gigantic iPad, it's exactly what you'd expect. As a Surface knockoff, it isn't very good right now.

On one hand, Apple's A9X chip is ready to compete with laptop processors on a raw power level: its benchmarks are off-the-charts for a mobile device. Its humongous screen looks brilliant and immersive when you're using apps that have been updated for it, it has excellent speakers and it's light for its (enormous) size.

But on the other hand, iOS isn't ready to compete with Windows 10 as a 2-in-1 operating system. On Day One, the iPad Pro is a bit like a 13-inch iPod touch – which is to say it doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense.

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro (left) with the 9.7-inch iPad Air 2(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

Surfaces have trackpads, USB ports, SD readers and software that was designed for both laptops and touch. The iPad Pro has one Lightning port and mobile software.

Apple will point to the App Store's selection of work and creative apps as evidence that PCs are on their way out and this is the future. And someday that future may very well arrive, and we'll all look back on the iPad Pro as an important step in that shift.

But when I sit down to use the iPad Pro today? Fun for play and light work, but my workflow ain't happening on this thing.

The lack of a trackpad (or mouse support of any kind in iOS) is huge. Sure, you can reach out to touch the screen instead – and the lack of a touchpad does mean the screen sits closer to you than it would on a laptop. But constantly reaching towards the screen, when repeated many times over, feels awkward and ends up requiring much more effort than swiping and clicking on a trackpad would. You also can't adjust the angle of the screen in either Apple's or Logitech's keyboards, making the iPad Pro less than ideal on lap (you end up looking down on it from above, rather than straight-on).

We get it: Apple wants to kill the PC and bring the iPad back to relevenace. But in this case, long-term strategy is coming at the expense of present-moment practicality, making for a clunky and illogical experience. It's like an even more exaggerated version of Apple's one-port MacBook that launched earlier this year: trying too hard to change the world, when making the best possible product right now might take care of that part on its own.

As developers start updating their apps for the iPad Pro and designing brand new ones specifically for it, there can eventually be enough great content to make the iPad Pro a pretty good work machine. And if any company deserves the benefit of the doubt that developers will flock to a new device and turn it into something that matters, recent history has shown us that it's Apple.

Right now, though, any pleasure that would come from using the iPad Pro as a full-time laptop would come from the patriotism of enlisting in Apple's army to overthrow the evil PC (if we cared about such things).

The iPad Pro is like a 1st-gen Surface – simultaneously polished and clunky – only coming three years later and aimed at people who prefer iOS over Windows.

You may notice from our photos that we're handling the iPad Pro with the third-party Logitech Create keyboard, and not Apple's Smart Keyboard. We did play with both Apple's keyboard and the Apple Pencil in an Apple Store, and didn't find any of our impressions to change when using Apple's own accessories.

The Apple Pencil does have outstanding latency (or lack thereof): scribbling in the iOS 9 Notes app feels a lot like writing on real paper. That isn't just a metaphor – if you don't stop to remind yourself, it's easy to forget that isn't what you're really doing.

iOS has no handwriting recognition, though. That alone makes the Apple Pencil a bit more limited as an input device right now than the Surface Pen is.

We'll wait to spend extended time with both the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard before running our full review; first impressions can change course when you keep an open mind, and we promise to do that.

It's fitting that Apple is framing the iPad Pro as a tool for artists. Right now it makes more sense as a huge tablet used for sketching than it does a Surface rival. As a tablet, it does feel similar to the Surface Book (above) in Clipboard Mode away from its keyboard – which is a good thing. The iPad's big advantage is that its full battery lives inside the tablet part. The Surface Book's big advantage is that it's so much better as a laptop it makes the iPad Pro look like a joke.

Despite Apple's marketing angle, don't think for a second that artists are the biggest reason Apple made this device. It's an awkward first shot in Apple's revised battle strategy in its holy war to replace PCs with iPads. No matter what we think after spending more time with it, we won't see Apple's real vision start to unfold for another generation or two.

The iPad Pro is available now, starting at US$799 for the huge tablet alone. The Smart Keyboard costs $169 and the Apple Pencil $99. The Logitech Create keyboard case we're using right now costs $150.

Product page: Apple

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