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iPad Pro Review: Bigger, Better, And Built To Create

PC-like power and slick keyboard and stylus accessories tailor Apple's big tablet for productivity and art—but it remains very much an iPad.

iPad Pro Review: Bigger, Better, And Built To Create

iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil

[Photos: courtesy of Apple]

First, a disclaimer. For the past four years, I've used an iPad—equipped with a third-party keyboard and stylus—as my primary computer. I’ve written magazine cover stories, blogged, wrangled spreadsheets, edited photos and videos, marked up PDFs, recorded podcasts, drawn and painted, and pretty much done all the other things I was once most likely to do on a conventional computer. I started back when a fair number of people confidently maintained that iPads were useful only for consumption, not creation, and have never stopped.

What I'm trying to say is that this is not going to be one of those dispassionate reviews in which a product tester does nothing but calmly dispense buying advice for various types of consumers. The iPad Pro comes as close to checking off all the items on my personal wish list as any gadget I can remember, and I intuitively get what Apple is trying to do with it.

My affinity may be a minority view. When the company unveiled the device at its September press event, some of the snap judgments I saw on Twitter bristled at the notion of a computing device that’s priced like a top-of-the-line PC, with a PC-sized screen and components of PC-like computational muscle . . . but only works with streamlined apps designed for a mobile operating system. You might call it the "can’t run Photoshop" argument.

That stance usually segues into a comparison of the iPad Pro with Microsoft’s Surface tablets—which, with their click-on keyboard covers and pressure-sensitive pens, invented the category which Apple is now entering with the iPad Pro and its optional Smart Keyboard and Pencil. Two competing pieces of hardware have rarely been more conceptually similar.

Here’s the thing, though: Both devices are shaped as much by their software as the hardware, and they represent divergent visions. The Surface crams an operating system meant for running full-blown PC apps—some of which have been around for decades—onto a touch-screen device. The iPad Pro, by contrast, upscales iOS’s simplified, touch-first experience to a larger display.

From front to back, the iPads Mini, Air 2, and Pro

Microsoft finally figured out how to explain the Surface Pro when it began to pitch it as "the tablet that can replace your laptop." The key thing to understand about the iPad Pro is that it doesn’t want to replace your laptop, if that means attempting to do all the things a laptop does in much the same manner, using the same software. Instead, it's about upping the iPad's game to excel at industrial-strength productivity and creativity—without losing the simplicity and lack of distractions and interface cruft that make iPads attractive in the first place.

I've been living with the iPad Pro and its accessories, provided by Apple for review, for more than a week. They have their limitations, quirks, and at least a few outright bugs, and will be dependent on third-party developers updating their apps to take full advantage of what's new. But if the idea of using an iPad for serious work strikes you, like me, as an appealing proposition—rather than a waste of time or an impossibility—they add up to a breakthrough package.

The Device

The iPad Pro’s 12.9-inch screen is not its only interesting new feature—I don't even think it'll be the most significant one for every user—but it’s surely the tablet's signature attribute. It’s 78% bigger than the 9.7-inch display on the iPad Air 2, and well over twice as big as the 7.9-inch one on the iPad Mini. It’s about as large as a typical magazine. It even approaches the size of screens on the 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro—the second-largest laptops Apple sells.

The iPad Pro can display magazines that are the same size as magazines. Photo: Harry McCracken

Resolution-wise, Apple chose to retain the 264 pixels-per-inch count of the iPad Air 2, which works out to 2,732 by 2,048 pixels on the 12.9-inch screen. But the company is quick to explain that simply maintaining the same image quality, pixel density, responsiveness, and battery life with a far more sprawling piece of glass required plenty of re-engineering. For instance, the iPad Pro introduces a technology called variable refresh rate that slashes screen updates in half when the display is static, helping to preserve the traditional 10-hour battery life.

One thing Apple didn't do is endow the iPad Pro's screen with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus's new 3D Touch capability, which lets you do things such as preview images by pressing your fingertip more firmly. If there's an iPad Pro 2 next year and it doesn't introduce the feature, I'll eat this year's model.

The company packed this new display into a design that looks and feels a lot like an iPad Air 2 stretched out to more generous proportions. (Among other things, that gives it enough room for four really loud speakers.) At 6.9 mm, it’s a skosh thicker than an iPad Air 2 but a little thinner than the original Air, and the the 1.57-lb. weight of the Wi-Fi version is—as Apple has pointed out—about the same as the original 2010 iPad. You aren’t going to stow this 2015 model in a coat pocket or thumb-type on it. You might even consider it to be too much tablet for a task such as perusing the web over breakfast. But I didn’t find the size or weight unwieldy when I was using the iPad Pro for the tasks it emphasizes: hands-on productivity and creativity. Mostly, I used it balanced on my lap or propped on a table.

The iPad Pro packs a new high-end Apple chip, the A9X, the most potent processor the company has ever put in an iOS device, with double the iPad Air 2's CPU and graphics performance, according to the company. It doesn’t officially disclose how much RAM the tablet has, but pssssst: it's got 4GB, or double the allotment of the iPad Air 2. The combination of a high-end processor and graphics system with copious RAM adds up to the most tangible, in-your-face advance in performance I can remember in iPad history.

As iPad apps have grown more ambitious over the years, the platform has lost a bit of the instantaneousness—I hope that's a word—that it once had. With the iPad Pro, it gets that back, and then some. Everything happens fast, and the tablet rarely has to pause to reload an app or browser tab that it's previously flushed out of memory. It feels like it was born to run computationally intensive tools such as Apple's iMovie and uMake, a nifty new app that lets you turn sketches into 3-D shapes.

uMake, a new 3-D sketching app, as seen on the iPad Pro

The Keyboard

Just as the iPad Pro isn’t trying to replace a laptop on the laptop’s terms, Apple’s $169 Smart Keyboard isn’t attempting to pass for a laptop keyboard. Instead of offering a clacky, full-travel feel and dedicated keys for functions such as adjusting volume, it provides QWERTY in its most minimalistic form—but with big, well-spaced keys that make for comfy typing.

Apple's 12-inch MacBook (left) and the iPad Pro with its smart keyboard Photo: Harry McCracken

The basic idea is straight from Surface: Build a low-profile keyboard into a whisper-thin cover that clicks on via a magnetic "Smart Connector," draws power from the tablet rather than requiring its own battery, and can be folded back when you don’t want to use it. Unlike the Surface, the iPad Pro has no kickstand, so two of the cover’s panels fold to brace the tablet, which snaps into a ridge above the keyboard. It works fine—contrary to early speculation, I found that I could balance it on my lap without fear of the whole contraption collapsing—but you lose the Surface’s ability to adjust to any viewing angle.

The Smart Keyboard in all its fabric-covered glory

The keyboard is a spill-resistant, one-piece design, covered in fabric. Instead of reminding me of any other tablet keyboard I’ve used, the feel is most reminiscent of the keyboard on Apple’s own 12-inch MacBook, with similar scooped-out, short-throw keys and the same stainless-steel dome switches underneath. As with the MacBook, I found the experience odd for a couple of days, and then forgot there was anything unusual about it. Only my reservations about the lack of backlighting and steep $169 price lingered.

Logitech Create

And if you want a keyboard that errs on the side of familiarity? Well, In a move that is anything but typically Apple-esque, the company worked with Logitech to produce a Smart Connector-enabled third-party keyboard case, the $150 Create, which is arriving alongside the iPad Pro. Reminiscent of Logitech’s cases for smaller iPads, the cloth-covered Create protects both sides of the iPad Pro and sports a truly laptop-like keyboard, with full-travel keys, backlighting, and a row of keys for adjusting volume, screen brightness, and the like. It’s way thicker and heavier than the Smart Keyboard—and probably thicker and heavier than it really needs to be—but a nicely done option for anyone who wants the iPad Pro to be as laptop-like as possible. Apple will also offer access to the Smart Connector to third-party manufacturers through its Made for iPad program, which will presumably result in even more iPad Pro keyboards for even more kinds of people.

The Pencil

Apple calls it a Pencil. Microsoft calls it a Surface Pen. In both cases, it's a pressure-sensitive stylus, designed for drawing, painting, note-taking, and—if you want—simply pointing your way around your device's interface.

The newest version of Microsoft’s stylus is certainly the more fully refined take on the idea: It uses magnets to snap to the side of the Surface, lets you erase your work by flipping the stylus around as if it really had an eraser, and has a posh metal barrel. By comparison, the Pencil has no provisions for transport, no eraser, and a plasticky feel. I also found that its tip had a tendency to fall off unless I made sure it was screwed on firmly. (The stylus ships with a spare.)

The Surface Pro stylus takes a dinky AAAA battery and promises a year of life before you’ll have to swap in a new one. Apple, however, rates the Pencil’s rechargeable battery for only 12 hours of use—and though I didn’t attempt formal testing, that estimate may be on the optimistic side, judging from my experience.

Apple's Pencil (front) and Microsoft's Surface penPhoto: Harry McCracken

One thing that concerned me about Pencil when I attended Apple’s launch event turned out not to be a big deal. You charge the stylus by popping off a cap to reveal a connector that you can plug into Lightning port on the iPad Pro. The result looks silly and precarious, and it prevents you from charging the tablet itself at the same time. But the Pencil charges quickly, and I found that the best way to keep its battery happy was to top it off occasionally, as if the iPad Pro’s Lightning port were a vertically oriented inkwell.

When I started to doodle, paint, and jot notes in apps that have been updated to work with the Pencil—including Evernote, Paper, Photoshop Fix, Photoshop Mix, Procreate, OneNote, Apple's own Notes, and others—I quickly forgave the stylus its idiosyncrasies. Using most third-party styluses with earlier iPads has always felt like drawing with a gumdrop, and even ones which go to absurd lengths to work around technical limitations have not been entirely satisfying. But by designing the iPad Pro’s touch screen for the Pencil as well as your fingertips, Apple has decisively overcome all of these issues. On-screen tools such as pens and paintbrushes reacted beautifully as I adjusted the pressure I applied, and I could rest my palm on the display without interfering with whatever I was writing or drawing. Rubbing the edge of the tip along the screen even produces the sort of broad stroke you’d get if you were drawing with, well, a pencil.

Drawing and painting with the pressure-sensitive Pencil in Procreate

More Pencil-enabled apps are on the way, such as Autodesk's Sketchbook Pro. I can’t imagine that any serious developer with an app that would benefit from Pencil support won't want to implement it as swiftly as possible—and I think that artists will go gaga for this accessory and the expansive canvas that the iPad Pro provides.

The Overall Experience

Before further considering what it’s like to use the iPad Pro, it’s worth reviewing what it’s like to use a Surface—or, for that matter, any Windows device that is part PC, part tablet.

Windows gives you apps built for its new touch-first "modern" interface—but not enough of them, especially in categories relating to productivity and creativity. There are apps written for the old "desktop" interface that have taken serious measures to accommodate touch, such as Photoshop and Microsoft’s own Office suite. And there are desktop apps—scads of them—that do nothing to acknowledge that a machine like the Surface is a radically different beast than a standard-issue laptop from a decade ago.

Windows 10 is more coherent on the Surface Pro 4 than on any other device I’ve used. For one thing, its trackpad is by far the best one that Microsoft has ever put on one of its keyboard covers. But the fact that it has a trackpad at all is still a sign that the tablet is straddling the past and future of personal computing. (Reading articles that argue that the iPad Pro's lack of a mouse is "alarming" makes me want to bellow "THE LACK OF A MOUSE IS THE WHOLE POINT!!!" into my screen.)

The iPad isn’t about monolithic applications with every imaginable feature, and it doesn't need to worry about supporting software that was conceived in earlier eras. Like other modern operating systems, it’s built around smaller, sprightlier, touch-first apps, all of which feel like they belong on the same machine. (That's why Adobe concluded that Photoshop should be several apps in its mobile incarnation, not one kitchen sink.)

For the first time on an iPad, you can put two of those apps on-screen at once, thanks to iOS 9’s new Windows 10-like Split View mode, which also works on the iPad Air 2 but was obviously conceived with the Pro in mind. It lets you swipe in from the right to dock a second app alongside the one you’ve been using, either in a form that occupies 50% of the screen or a skinnier version that looks like a tall iPhone app. With apps that support it—lots of them, but not everything—it works wonderfully well. (I'm already addicted to watching Slack or my email out of one corner of my eye while I work in Safari.)

Safari and Twitter sharing the iPad Pro's display, courtesy of Split View

The iPad Pro won’t live up to its full potential until every major app that would benefit from being customized for it has undergone that process. Some already do: Slack, for instance, uses the additional on-screen elbow room to display more features at all times rather than hiding them behind menus. It's the best version of the app I've used on any platform.

But right now, many applications (such as Facebook and Gmail) just scale up their entire interfaces, so they don’t take advantage of the new real estate and text is a bit oversized and less than perfectly crisp. Others (including Twitter) display sharp, normally sized type, but haven’t (yet) been rethought for the big screen. And some apps I tried were just plain glitchy, especially with the Smart Keyboard attached. Google Sheets, for instance, sometimes displays blank space where the on-screen keys would otherwise have been.

And hey, there’s also plenty of opportunity for Apple to rethink the traditional iOS interface for the big screen. On the iPad Pro’s vast home screen, app icons are spaced so far apart that they must all have their own zip codes. Why not stick more on the display at one time, or let you divvy off space for something like a persistent view of your notifications?

The early signs leave me guardedly optimistic that developers will quickly rise to the challenge presented by the iPad Pro, as they usually have with past iOS sea changes. When I started writing this review last week, for instance, Evernote didn’t work well at all on the iPad Pro. A few days later, it auto-updated itself with a version with Split View and Pencil support.

No matter how good iPad Pro apps get, they aren’t going to seduce every single person who currently uses a Windows PC or Mac. I’m aware that this is a tautology, but if you require apps that can only run on a PC, you should use a PC. However, the list of things you truly can’t do on an iPad has been shrinking all along, and the iPad Pro only accelerates that trend.

At Apple's September event, Tim Cook called the iPad Pro "the clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing." That would suggest that the current trend of iPad sales—which have slumped over multiple quarters—hasn't fazed him. But even if this new tablet turns out to be nothing more than an iPad that's tough to push to its limits, it's going to make some of us happier and more productive.

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