When Apple launched its iPad Pro, my eyebrows went up. A gigantic, 13-inch tablet for $1,000 (even more with the nearly essential new keyboard and Apple Pencil stylus)? Who would want such a thing? What benefits will this bring to the table — besides actually being the table? Could it finally be the long-prophesied laptop replacement the sages have been spoken of — at least those of us not yet down with the wickedly good Microsoft Surface Pro? Also, how soon can I get one?
It arrived last week, and I’ve now spent five days huffing and puffing my way around with it. For the most part, it’s everything Apple promised it would be and, not surprisingly — given the Pro’s capabilities and its natural appeal to photographers — I totally, thoroughly dig it. Sure the overall reception may be stymied by a fairly narrow target audience, the Pro’s overall bigishness, and a few hardware choices that critics will second-guess. But, it makes both work and play much better, and for that, it’s well worth discussing.
First, Let’s Celebrate the Good
The iPad Pro is downright, straight-up gorgeous. The 12.9-inch Retina display contains 5.6 million pixels, and each one of them pops beautifully when looking at pictures, watching videos, gaming, or whatever you’re up to. Thanks to a new slate of display management tech — including a timing controller to manage pixels independently and an oxide thin-film transistor to ensure uniform brightness (it’s borrowed from the 27-inch iMac Retina 5K display) — this is the richest, most satisfying iOS mobile device by a grand margin.
The iPad Pro is downright, straight-up gorgeous.
It’s also fast. The new desktop-class A9X chip offers double the processing speed and graphical capabilities of the iPad Air 2, and it makes even the most complex games fly, lets you edit several streams of 4K video in iMovie, and permits large-scale split-screen use of two apps at once. You notice the speed improvements immediately with even the simplest tasks — saving photos, switching apps — and really appreciate it if you remember how much more work is required to manage a display that’s 78 percent larger than its next-closest sibling in the lineup.
The speakers receive a big upgrade, as well. Instead of two, there are now four — one at each corner. The bottom speakers deliver bass only, while the top speakers produce bass, middle and high frequencies for a richer, more dynamic sound. They automatically re-orient this arrangement if you flip the tablet from landscape to portrait mode, and vice versa. It makes the iPad a legitimate media hub that doesn’t necessarily require headphones to be enjoyable.
Accessories Make the Tablet
Of course, much has been said about the key new accessories intended to make the iPad Pro a next-level instrument for power users — the new Smart Keyboard and the Pencil stylus. The keyboard uses a new data connector on the edge of the iPad to instantly pair and power the keyboard, and the keys themselves are fully enclosed and covered in stain- and water-resistant fabric. They feel substantial, click nicely, and even wobble a bit in harmony with natural finger movement. The keyboard replicates a conventional Mac layout, and lets you type emails and text documents naturally along with hitting command-tab to cycle through apps. As with the Microsoft Surface Pro, you’ll find yourself quickly getting used to alternating between the keyboard and your own finger on the screen, bringing you closer to a mouse-free existence.
The Apple Pencil also nudges you closer to upending the mouse. Dual sensors in the tip help gauge writing angle and pressure, which allows apps to collect more data points for more precise use. Whether you’re drawing, selecting items, marking up emails or PDFs in your own hand, or just flicking through images or buttons on apps, it’s a nice bonus functionality (and one that’s essential for many of the power users who’ll be drawn to this — designers, engineers, etc.). This engages well with pro-grade apps specifically designed to exploit the iPad Pro’s power, such as Adobe’s tools, Autodesk’s design and sketchbook apps, and more. The Pencil also comes with a built-in Lightning connector to quickly charge the device, and its only real drawback is that it’s prone to potential misplacement. For that, there’s no practical solution. Storage via magnetic attachment to the side of the iPad is no more practical, as it will bump off with the slightest nudge, and an internal storage slot is impossible with a tablet this thin. You’ll just have to treat the $100 stylus with the same care you’d give a $100 pen. In short, it’s on you not to lose it.
So, Who Is This Big Gun For?
All the terrific bumps in performance and features will likely appeal to power users — designers, artists, engineers, photographers, filmmakers and others who need bigger screens and more speed. As a photographer, I’ve loved it. I can interact with my images in a far deeper and more natural manner, and via Pencil I can bring the image closer more easily and make subtle tweaks and enhancements more precisely.The rest of the consumer world, however, should try it out in person before committing. After all, the iPad Pro really is a very big thing. When you try to pick it up casually, as you would a conventional iPad, it reminds you of this fact. It’s not that it’s hugely heavy — it’s 1.5 pounds — but the weight is distributed over a large area. As a result, the tablet pitches downward when you lift it from one edge. The Pro is thus a bit unwieldy, and you’ll find yourself inventing new ways to hold it so it doesn’t tumble out of your grasp. I’ve created one grip in which you hold it from the bottom with one hand, three fingers behind, thumb and pinkie in front. You’ll also find that the magnetic Smart Cover — so familiar from smaller iPads — flops around a bit when tucked behind the tablet, a victim of the extra mass infused into it to cover the Pro’s big front yard.
I do take modest issue with some of the other hardware choices — including the 8MP rear camera (rather than the 12MP camera in the latest iPhone) and the Touch ID fingerprint scanner. Both are previous-generation versions, not the state-of-the-art currently offered in the iPhone 6s. I understand that the camera and fingerprint sensor aren’t relied on as aggressively on tablets as they are on smartphones, and I’m certainly the last person who would advocate using a monster tablet as a camera — but it’s disappointing that whey wouldn’t appear here regardless, since the tech is conveniently available. There are certainly times when a decent camera could come in handy, such as when integrating images into workflow (as would designers or engineers), and if you’re used to how the updated Touch ID works on your iPhone, it would be nice if your tablet worked identically. The iPad Pro could be the flagship product for Apple’s mobile lineup — and with all its hardware chops, it certainly seems like it is. Why not just bump this thing up those final two notches?
The Pro Justifies Its Own Existence
Sometimes things get built just because a company has the infrastructure and wherewithal to do it. So even though Apple knows the iPad Pro won’t be a bestseller, it’ll likely do well enough to justify its own existence, for the same reason halo products, specialty items, and low-volume line-toppers in any industry succeed. As to whether this is a laptop replacement — well, we’re still not quite there. We worker bees still prefer mouse controls and file-management systems where we can easily grasp folders, drag-and-drop, etc. Perhaps finger-and-stylus controls, coupled with keyboards, will one day suffice, but right now, it’s just not how we work. The iPad Pro will suffice in a pinch and can displace laptops for brief periods, but work marathons are another matter.
Still, it’s a capable tool for users who need or want this kind of resource. The strongest selling points of the iPad Pro are the power, the screen and the added versatility, and for those who appreciate a prolific realization of these qualities in a device, the Pro will serve you very well — even if it’s never embraced by the less-demanding masses.