As I sit here at 1AM on a Friday evening (Saturday morning?) contemplating what exactly I have to add to the pile of reviews that have come in on this product, I find myself poised rather delicately between a number of the differing opinions which have surfaced in response to its release. In short, I love it, though I believe I may be in the minority by saying that. I also admit that it suffers from some important shortcomings. Let’s explore.
First, it should be clarified that, at my core, I am an artist. I also am a developer, a photographer, a writer, and a musician. I bought the iPad Pro to be a glorified sketchbook, but I am rather shocked to find myself contemplating its use as a full-time, light-weight laptop replacement. Am I certain it can fulfill this task for me? No. But I am definitely surprised to realize how close it already is and what little it would need to fully make the jump.
My daily workflow consists of development work (on my laptop/desktop this involves mostly Sublime Text, Terminal, and a web browser, or Xcode), design work (Photoshop, Sketch, Illustrator, etc.), communication (Outlook, Slack, message client) and working with documents (Acrobat, Word, Excel, etc.) While the iPad Pro is not yet ready to take on some of these more involved tasks, it does appear to be gearing up to do so, and there’s even a good chance that, with some mental adjustments, I could take it with me when traveling and expect it to manage a web development workflow.
Let’s start with a few of the less obvious points.
First, this is clearly the beginning of a new class of device that has a lot of kinks left to iron out. The iPad Pro is a sort of hybrid character, left hanging somewhere in the gap between touch-based tablet and full-fledged laptop. It’s clear that the software isn’t quite ready to handle everything that this hardware can truly offer, but it’s surprisingly close, even if realizing that takes a little adjustment.
Without spending the time with it, one might be tempted to write it off as an oversized iPad without enough functionality to be a serious contender. And for some of us early adopters, the experience may be somewhat disappointing since a lot of the elements of this release felt extremely premature. For me, however, it is not. I am excited. The trick is spending the time to discover the strengths and determine how best to interact with it to yeild a productive workflow. The more I experiment with it, the more I discover. I am very curious to see how this develops in the near term and what impact it has moving forward.
In the past, I never had much interest in pairing a keyboard with my iPad Air 2 as my main use for the device was sketching, reading, surfing the web, and checking (but typically not composing) email. Typing was for my laptop or desktop, and I didn’t really see any value in performing that type of work on such a small screen.
The iPad Pro has changed all that.
Obviously, the additional screen real estate is a huge factor in this. Having the room to realistically pair two apps side-by-side (not to mention gaining the ability to do so only recently) makes for some compelling use cases. But the real game-changing factor where my productivity is concerned has been the addition of keyboard shortcuts to the OS, including support for the traditional Cmd + Tab task switcher combination.
This is huge, and it makes working on the iPad tenable for a shortcut junkie like myself. Granted, the feature is so new that app support is minimal at the moment, but discovery is made very easy with the ability to hold the Cmd key to trigger a system overlay of all available shortcuts from within a given application.
You can return to the home screen by holding Cmd + Shift + H, and once you’re there you can enter Spotlight search with Cmd + Space. All your installed apps are available from within the Search dialogue as well as a set of relevant results collected from a variary of sources. This is a fantastic start, but it’s missing a critical component: the ability to navigate and launch the results via the keyboard.
If you want to leave the search, you must reach up and tap “Cancel” (the esc key should back you out to the home screen from here, but it does not) while if you find what you are looking for, you must reach up and tap the result to launch it (either the tab or arrow keys should serve to navigate the list here, with enter to launch, but again, no such luck). If this support were added, it would be entirely possible to move from app to app as needed without ever leaving the keyboard. Adding Cmd + Q to quit a running app and exit to the home screen would bring the process full circle.
I’m admittedly surprised to encounter these oversights given the obvious intention of the Pro as a productivity machine. I’m hoping to see support for this soon, as it would make a marked difference in the experience of navigating the OS at the system level.
I wish I could say that I had a week of experience with the Pencil stylus to weigh in with, given that this was originally my sole reason for purchasing the device. Sadly, I, like just about every other interested party on the planet at the momet, am stuck waiting a month while my Pencil makes its way through the supply queue to my door.
That said, I still have my Wacom Creative Stylus and my (alternate) Pencil (from 53) to work with while I wait. And even with those devices that were never built specifically for the Pro, the difference in output is striking.
It is my understanding that the main improvements with the iPad Pro’s input relate specifically to the Pencil (the Pro scans at 240 Hz when detecting the Pencil’s input) but in all my tests, it would seem that this is the rate used for all input scanning, as my plain ol’ Bluetooth styli respond amazingly well by themselves, and the difference over the iPad Air 2 is obvious (the Air 2 scans at 120 Hz, respectively).
As a primarily left-handed citizen in a left-to-right reading culture, my adolescense was full of graphite drawings blurred to incomprehension by the advance of my hand across the page. Similarly my words would smear; my hand, a messy testament to my irregularity. As a result, I learned early on to float, to eliminate almost all contact with the page (though I was still relieved to discover wax paper as an alternative to this approach). Because of this, palm-rejection, the other touted innovation and major selling point of the Pencil, has never been a feature that I had much use for. And so even on the iPad Air I had little issue with this, and probably won’t notice a difference when it comes to working with the Pencil.
By all accounts, the battery life that people are experiencing with the Pro appears to be through the roof. I wish I could say the same. While it hasn’t been horrible, I actually found myself having to significantly decrease the screen brightness in order to eek as much life out of it as possible. I’m running the screen at a 25% setting, and with that I manage about a day and a half on a single charge. Anything higher, and I find myself needing to charge nightly.
Which introduced me to the only major bug I’ve encountered thus far, but it’s a scary one the first time it happens: when I charge the Pro overnight, in the morning, nothing will wake it. It’s like a sleeping giant, and I must kick it with a hard reset (hold the home and power button until the Apple logo appears) to rouse it from its slumber.
I’m not very happy about it, but I’m hoping a software fix is in the works, as I have seen wide-spread reports of this problem at this point, and I’m almost hoping for Apple’s sake that it is not a hardware issue.
There has been a lot of talk about the screen, the sheer size of the device, and Apple’s seeming lack of preparation to account for it within the operating system.
The complaint I hear the most has been related to the home screen setup, while second place is awarded to complaints on how impractical it is to read on the device.
Regarding the home screen, everyone seems to find the icon arrangement ludicrous and a complete waste of space. I have begun to suspect that everyone is missing a very important point in this category: the iPad Pro is meant for power users. Most power users don’t like systems that slow them down. I am no different in this regard. I hate swiping to access new pages of icons on iOS and as a result, on both my iPhone, and my iPads, every single application I use is relegated to a folder. The most frequent apps (if they have not already received a sacred spot on my dock) are the first on the list, with the lesser-used apps occurring in priority order down the list. This way, I rarely have to swipe to access anything at all, with most apps being two taps away at any time. When using folders for everything, the iPad Pro display does not seem strange at all. In fact, it feels natural.
This is not to say that there is nothing to improve on here, but honestly, it is not nearly as bad as everyone claims once you organize it in this fashion. True, the space could be better utilized, but gone is the sense of pure gigantism that plagues the screen when single application icons populate the view.
Likewise, the other complaint I hear relates to reading on the device. Again, I have to wonder why no one seems to be figuring this out, but the whole problem here is that everyone is reading their books one page at a time, and yes, at that scale, the iPad Pro is just too darn big. In fact, it is so big that it is the size of a large hardcover book spread open with facing pages showing. So, in my opinion, it should be used like one. I don’t know about iBooks, but the Kindle app certainly has support for a two-up layout, and in this orientation, reading is natural and maintains the expected flow. Observe:
The Ultimate Test
The real question, and it is certainly the question everyone is attempting to answer, relates to whether or not this machine can adequately replace a laptop in a professional/production workflow. There are some factors that I am incredibly excited about in this regard, and some that, without even testing, clearly need work.
That said, I will be traveling across the country in a week’s time, and it should prove to be the perfect test of this device to find out just how far I can take it and just how far it can reach in replacing my laptop.
I am most excited about the slim profile and light weight. Though I do not yet have access to the Smart Keyboard cover (yet another item lagging on order at the time of this writing) the idea of a laptop-like device less than a half an inch thick when stowed, and under two pounds, is incredible; I would not have expected this much power in such a small piece of tech even a few years ago. We’ve come a long way, Apple.
It remains to be seen just how often I will find myself reaching for my laptop when attempting to use this as my primary device. I was able to compose this entire piece on it, and even edited the photos. That said, I’m still looking for some better contenders on the design front. There are some really great painting apps (Procreate tops my list) but true design tools are lacking so far. On the web development end, Textastic is pretty darn strong, and the built-in web server makes for a tidy solution. It lacks a few features of Sublime that in my use so far have been rather sorely missed. That said, however, I have yet to attempt anything of any real scale with it, so I am interested to see if it can keep up.
I am honestly quite excited for this experiment. You can expect a follow up with my experiences on the road. I will take my laptop as a backup, but I will also do my best to avoid its use, just to see if I can. Let’s see just how far the Pro will take me.
To be continued…