iPad Pro – Review

Does it replace a laptop? (Spoiler: No)

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Way back in 2010, I was sort of non-committal about the iPad. Straight out the gate people were writing it off as being nothing more than a bigger iPhone. To quote my uncle: “It’s just a big iPhone, except it isn’t a fucking phone!” It’s now 2016 and the iPad has done extremely well. Tablets in fact have taken off and are now stagnating a bit – probably because there’s no compelling reason to upgrade. Each new iPad release can be summed up as “It’s faster, thinner, and the screen is better.” The iPad Mini is described as “a smaller iPad” and really that’s about all there is to say. While iPhones tend to get bigger changes with each release, iPads remain stagnant.

Tablets in general have had a few changes. Android manufacturers have released a glut of different tablets. Some are great, most are absolute arse. Microsoft have been battling on with their Surface line of tablets, except they’re often a compromise between being a relatively difficult to use tablet combined with a decent yet uncomfortable laptop – and that’s partly because Windows 10 still isn’t a good tablet OS. Where once tablets were considered a failure (remember the early 2000s and WinXP for Tablets? Yeah, it was atrocious!) they are now considered a standard form factor. Your mum and dad have tablets. Your grandma probably has one too.

Anyway, iPads.

What is it?

It’s a really big iPad. The end.

Oh okay, that’s probably underselling it. It’s a really big iPad with a keyboard attachment and a stylus. This thing has a 12.9″ display, which is almost like having two iPads side by side, at a resolution of 2732×2048 (ppi 264). And that’s basically it. Apart from having 4 speakers instead of the usual 2, it’s more or less a big iPad. It has the same Lightning connector, the buttons are in the same spots, it has the standard complement of cameras… the only deviation is the proprietary “Smart Connector” on the bottom that powers a keyboard accessory. The base WiFi only with 32GB of storage sets you back nearly $1250 AUD, or you can get 128GB for $1500. If you want a 4G connection too, you’ll have to hand over $1700(!) for a 128GB version (no 32GB cellular available).

You can’t talk about the iPad Pro without also mentioning the keyboard and stylus – sorry, Apple Pencil – accessories. The keyboard sets you back $270(!) and attaches to the Smart Connector via magnets. It folds up much like the standard Apple iPad cases except with an extended part that contains the keys. It’s almost full sized with no wrist wrest, and the keys are surprisingly responsive and tactile, not mushy like a Surface’s keyboard cover. The Apple Pencil is $165 and is more than just a stylus. It offers pressure and tilt sensitivity, and has a battery life of about 12 hours. It charges via a Lightning male plug concealed in the tip – you can plug it straight into the iPad for charging, but it also comes with an adapter for use with a traditional charging cable.

Supposedly, Apple put this forward as a laptop replacement. Allow me to deviate from my usual prose and say: “Lol.”

What’s Good?

It’s an iPad. Having used several Surfaces, a couple of higher-end Android tablets, and plenty of iPads, I can safely say that iOS is generally the better mobile tablet OS. Android does more, there is no disputing that – but I’ve found their tablet implementation to be pretty damn clunky compared to iOS, and for most end-users running uTorrent on their tablet isn’t a priority. Windows 10 still isn’t a good tablet OS – the Microsoft App Store is still devoid of useful apps and the UI still looks like a mess with poor use of space. It’s often easier to just use desktop apps, which aren’t designed for a touch screen. Unless Microsoft killed legacy support for their future apps, it’s just not going to work out. iOS has limitations, some of which are ridiculous in the modern age, but iOS is fast, responsive, has a good app store behind it, and has refined a lot of the tablet experience. iPads arguably ended up setting the benchmark (no, they weren’t the first, but they were the first to popularise the tablet) and it shows.

That said, it’s still just an iPad. There are a few tricks with iOS 9 that make it slightly more useful. For example you can have apps side by side now – either taking up roughly a quarter of the screen or a full half. You can play (some) videos as a picture-in-picture player on top of other apps. This increases the utility of the iPad Pro, especially since the old iPad ethos was “one app at a time” with limited multitasking (which, incidentally, helps give it an excellent battery life). But it isn’t all great – as we’ll talk about later.

Already you can do quite a few general tasks with an iPad, and the Pro makes it better. Microsoft Office has a suite of apps that are fairly competent for most general users. If you’re using macros or doing complex things with Excel obviously it isn’t going to work, nor if you’re working with complicated formatting under Word (or using a lot of automated features). But if you’re just writing up a letter or a general document, it’s more than up to the task. It’s likely that this will grow as the platform continues to mature (Microsoft are genuinely committed to iOS, Office is updated frequently). You can check emails, do general internet browsing, and watch YouTube fine on an iPad Pro – even do two of these things simultaneously (note I said two – it’s only one or two, never more). Once upon a time the iPad was condemned for not having Flash support, but now we all hate Flash so nobody cares!

When I look at how I used my Macbook Pro, that’s basically all I ever did. I typed up relatively simple documents and worked on a spreadsheet for my home budget, browsed the internet and watched YouTube. I have a high powered PC that destroys high-end laptops, so if I do anything processor-intensive, I use that. The majority of my things are in the cloud these days, so in my particular circumstances an iPad Pro works out okay to replace that laptop.

The keyboard is quite good although it takes some getting used to. It’s one of the better keyboard covers I’ve used. It has a chiclet appearance and feel which I don’t really mind too much. Where the Surface keyboard covers feel spongy, this one feels quite tactile, and I can generally type competently on it. Curiously it lacks any shortcuts for things like volume controls or brightness. I think this is a missed opportunity. The Apple Pencil is remarkable – it’s very responsive, very precise, and kind of fun to use. But I’m not an artist and it won’t replace a graphics tablet, so it’s still kind of a gimmick.

Critically, using the Pro as a tablet is still intact. Where the Surface Pro is borderline difficult to use as a tablet, the iPad Pro is fine. It’s big, and you’ll have to brace it against an arm, but it’s very light and iOS is still a touch interface first and foremost. You can do all your regular iPad stuff – it’s just on a comically large screen. Interestingly, I find I use the Pro in landscape more than any other iPad (where I prefer portrait mode). About the only time I don’t is for web browsing, but even then I’m leaning more towards landscape.

What’s Bad?

Let’s get down to brass tacks – this is iOS on a large screen, and it shows up the flaws in iOS. Firstly, the home screen icon grid is a joke on the Pro. There’s a lot of unused space, and it looks ridiculous. Apps will have to be rewritten specifically for the Pro – apps that aren’t are upscaled, and they don’t look particularly good (it’s iPhone to iPad or Retina display all over again). In fact app compatibility is actually a big problem – in order to use neat features like having two apps open at once, or picture in picture, or the advanced features of the Apple Pencil, the app needs to support it. For example at the time of writing I can’t use YouTube in picture-in-picture mode. While many major apps – like Office or any Apple app) will work side by side, plenty of others won’t – they’ll pop in on the side but then immediately disappear when you go back to the other app.

Also it’s still just a big iPad. You can’t plug in USB drives and access files off them. The apps aren’t desktop-class, no matter what developers might say. In general it can’t replace a laptop – especially if that laptop is your only computer. In my case I have a powerful desktop PC and used a laptop for light computing tasks – something the iPad does exceptionally well. But if you step beyond these boundaries, you’re going to run into the iOS walls. While iOS is fast, and having an always-on system that sips power is awesome, some basic things like having true multitasking or external storage access is almost certainly going to never come to the platform.

Some other limitations, like being able to open some things only in some apps, or being forced to use some apps as defaults, are kind of frustrating. There’s been a few times where all I’ve wanted to do is save a PDF for use elsewhere and it’s been a mission to get it done. That said I use OneDrive for most of my storage needs, and I can export a lot of things to OneDrive (like PDFs or documents) so this isn’t much of an issue. But I can’t take a USB drive from a friend, open up a Word document on it, make some changes and then save it to the drive. I don’t really do this but it’s something to consider.

Some people also whinge about not having clear file system access, but I don’t see this as a massive issue. Firstly iOS does have a file system, anybody who says otherwise either meant to say that it’s hidden from the user, or they’re a complete moron. For me I don’t find this to be much of an issue – I don’t mind having files show up for specific apps so long as I can still have some sort of directory structure and easy navigation. Apple are moving in that direction in part. I don’t mind going to Word to open up my document instead of using a file browser – so long as I can still quickly search for what I want. For others though this is a massive issue – although when I was on Android I pretty much did the same thing and ignored the internal directory structure.

Also it goes without saying that any heavy duty desktop app won’t come to iOS. There will never be a Maya, or Final Cut Pro, or full featured AutoCAD, or MATLAB, or whatever else professional/technical app you use. There may be cut-down versions, but nothing like the real thing. That said, you need a powerful system for these, and sometimes a desktop is ultimately the better choice over a laptop unless portability is much more important.

I guess the issue is that so many laptop things that we do simply can’t be done on iOS. While there are some excellent general-duty apps, there are some things you just can’t do. Limited access to external storage is a big one, as is the currently poor split-screen app support (which relies on app developers after all). But if you’re not doing these things and are generally doing one thing at a time, you can do it on a Pro. I can type up most documents on my Pro. I can browse the internet and watch YouTube. These general tasks are easy to accomplish. It’s a companion to my desktop PC – it doesn’t replace it, but it did replace a laptop.

Also that price! Getting a base model 32GB WiFi Pro, the keyboard cover and the pencil pushes you up to nearly $1700. That could buy a whole lot of laptop!

Verdict?

The iPad Pro is a strange device. Let’s ignore the price for a second and look at its capabilities. At the end of the day, it’s just a really big iPad with some split screen tricks and neat accessories. And that’s fine, because the iPad is a great device. The Pro works well with the keyboard on a desk, and it works well as a tablet too. It has a number of useful apps that make getting simpler computer tasks done easy. The fact that it’s always on with about 10 hours of battery life (without being too conservative) and is extremely quick is icing on the cake. I can pick this thing up and start working on a document within seconds. It’s always checking emails, it’s always ready to go when I’m ready, and I don’t have to wait more than a second or two before my app starts up. Can some laptops manage that? Yes, but they’re usually not good as tablets.

But does it replace a laptop? No. No way in hell. If you need a full featured office suite, you need a laptop. If you need to work with USB devices and use thumbdrives as a primary means of trading files, you need a laptop. If you need desktop-class software, you need a laptop. Where the Pro ultimately shines is as a companion to a desktop. I have an extremely powerful desktop computer, I don’t need a laptop. But I’d like a portable device to do some general word processing and to surf the internet – and a larger screen helps with both.

Where this all falls down a bit is the price – the Pro is incredibly expensive for what it is, especially when you add on the accessories, and you can get a laptop (even an Apple laptop!) for much less – and arguably, you’d get more utility from it. But these laptops generally don’t function as tablets or don’t function particularly well as tablets. So who is the Pro for? It’s for someone who basically wants a bigger iPad because that larger screen does increase utility. It works for me because I basically wanted the benefits of an iPad/iOS with a larger screen. But if I needed to use desktop apps, I wouldn’t get one.

TL;DR: It’s a really big iPad, with all the joys of iOS. If you aren’t after that, or think the price is too high, skip it and get a laptop. But if you like your iPad but wish the screen was bigger, it’s worth checking out. But get the accessories too.

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