Steve Jobs’ vision of a “post-PC” future really resonated with me. As a dedicated Mac and iPhone user, I was a day one fan of the original iPad, and have spent countless hours enjoying every full-sized iPad released since then. When the iPad mini came out, I happily shifted over to the smaller form factor until buying an iPhone 6 Plus, which pushed me back to full-sized iPads. Like many people, I wouldn’t want to give up my iPad, and would be thrilled if it could replace my laptop.
If any iPad had laptop replacement potential, the 12.9″ iPad Pro was it. So I was the first person in line at the local Apple Store to buy one, hoping that it would supplant either my iPad Air 2 or Retina MacBook Pro. But after a week of daily use, I’m convinced that the iPad Pro won’t replace anything, and am still trying to decide whether to keep or return it. Below, I’ll explain why…
As foreign and “unnecessary” as they were to some people, the iPad and iPad mini form factors instantly made sense to me, and it didn’t take long for either of them to fit into my daily life. The original iPad became my preferred reading, web browsing, and video playing device, relegating my iPhone to a lesser role as… well, a phone, pocket-sized music player, and portable game console. When the iPad mini came out, I started to use it for basically everything “fun” except phone calls, and I’ve continued doing that with the iPad Air 2. At this point, I use my iPad for every leisure activity, and my Macs for all my work activities.
The iPad Pro is positioned directly at the intersection of “work” and “play,” so in theory, it could replace both a iPad and a MacBook — Apple CEO Tim Cook has suggested that he’s done just that with his iPad Pro. I would have been pleased if it had replaced either my iPad Air 2 or my MacBook Pro. But it doesn’t feel like a better alternative to either of them. For the time being, the iPad mini 4 and iPad Air 2 strike me as much better iPads for most people, and any MacBook at any price will deliver a better computing experience… unless something radically changes with the iPad Pro in 2016.
To start with the positives, the iPad Pro is just what I expected based on early reports. It looks and feels almost exactly like a giant iPad Air, has a gorgeous screen that feels more compelling than a typical 13″ Retina display because you can get closer to it, and somehow emits a sense of potential. Just as iPads really aren’t “just big iPod touches,” the iPad Pro isn’t “just a big iPad.” Screen size matters. CPU and GPU power matter. The hidden USB 3 controller matters. With better software and accessories, the iPad Pro will probably feel like something “new.”
Right now, the iPad Pro is able to do something that’s really exciting to me: display magazines at full size. I subscribe to a handful of digital magazines, and have found them pretty easy to read on the 9.7″ iPads, but a hint too small on iPad minis. On the iPad Pro, they’re awesome — pages look full-sized, and consequently, more engrossing. They’ll look even better if magazine app developers update their apps to support the iPad Pro’s higher screen resolution. (The same “engrossing” effect also applies to movies and games when you get closer, though perhaps not safely so, to the screen.)
Another widely overlooked positive will matter to some people: the iPad Pro’s Display Zoom feature, a setting that can be flipped on or off like the iPhone 6/6s/Plus, has the potential to be a game-changer for visually impaired users. For the first time in five years, the iPad’s icons (and text labels) have a way to physically grow in size, and not trivially: Display Zoom enlarges the entire 9.7″ iPad interface to fit the 12.9″ screen — a 33% jump that makes icons roughly four times the size of an adult fingertip, and more accessible to iOS users who have squinted at smaller displays.
Other tweaks to the iPad Pro are welcome, but not huge from my perspective. It has faster processing than prior iPads, clearer and more powerful speakers than a 13″ MacBook Pro, and new screen technology to support a regrettably expensive and hard-to-find stylus. In practice, none of these things have made much of a difference to me in daily use, though I might feel somewhat differently if the Apple Pencil was actually available for purchase.
What’s Not Good
Even though I’ve been actively trying to find a place for the iPad Pro in my daily life, it’s been very difficult. I can’t really use it for work because of the basic way iOS handles complex and multiple apps — both necessities for productivity. And I’ve found it awkward to use for fun because of its large size.
My biggest gripes with the iPad Pro are largely software-related, and all traceable to iOS 9. Apple did a truly half-assed job of readying iOS for the iPad Pro, leaving core apps sloppily formatted for the 12.9″ screen — uncharacteristically, there’s plenty of wasted space, poor text formatting, and an overall lack of design cohesiveness. Given that this is a “Pro” product, that it’s clearly been in the works for years, and that the underlying OS is now 9 (public) generations old, the overall user experience feels shockingly unpolished. (I’ll put aside issues with iOS 9’s split-screen multitasking, which deserves partial credit just for working at all, even though OS X does a much better job of using the same or less screen space.)
Similarly, most third-party iPad apps, including really important ones, currently run as upscaled 9.7″ iPad versions on the iPad Pro. In addition to revealing pixels in “Retina” apps, this creates obvious inconsistencies between text and graphic elements from app to app. Apps like Facebook and Reeder — mainstays on my iPad Air 2 — merely look “too big” on the iPad Pro, without settings to fix the issues, while other key third-party apps such as Twitter and Instagram appear to have never been thoughtfully reformatted for any iPad screen. Most apps will eventually be fixed for the iPad Pro, but what usage paradigm will UI designers consider “normal” for this tablet when picking font and graphic sizes: the three-foot screen distance of a laptop on a desk, or the two-foot distance of a tablet in a lap?
One particularly sore point is the iPad Pro typing experience. I like the 9.7″ iPad’s keyboard and love the 7.9″ iPad mini keyboard, but the iPad Pro’s on-screen keyboards are fatiguing. They’re big — a challenge when you’re trying to support the 12.9″ tablet — and bizarrely have half-height delete/backspace and number keys, which are easy to accidentally miss. Every time I type on the Pro’s screen, I wish for a physical keyboard instead. But the iPad Pro keyboard accessories I’ve tested are sort of iffy, and I’m reasonably convinced after using Logitech’s Create (reviewed here) that heavy keyboard cases aren’t well-suited to the iPad Pro. Zagg’s Messenger Universal (reviewed here) is more affordable and lighter, but a better alternative is needed.
The iPad Pro doesn’t fare much better as a non-work device, because it can’t slip effortlessly into any of the situations where the iPad Air or iPad Air 2 feel perfect for leisure use. Apart from reading magazines, which still feels a little weird given the Pro’s huge chassis, I’ve found the 12.9″ tablet too big for pretty much everything else. As shown in the photo above, it hangs off the edge of my nightstand when I set it up to play videos, feels precariously large when I walk with it from room to room, and all but demands to be supported with two legs, a bed, or a stand. I’ve had to force myself to keep using it instead of the iPad Air 2. Two of my colleagues have described it the iPad Pro as a “giant Netflix machine” or “the best entertainment iPad yet,” which I don’t discount, but wouldn’t spend $799 or more to purchase.
iPad Pro makes the iPad Air 2 look like an iPad mini
Keep It Or Ditch It?
Because I write for 9to5Mac, I’ll probably wind up keeping the iPad Pro despite the issues above — but I don’t think my decisions are typical. I’ve been so satisfied with my iPad Air 2 that I probably wouldn’t have bought the iPad Pro in the first place, and if I had, I would almost certainly have returned it after finding that it wasn’t a better substitute for either my iPad or MacBook. Right now, it occupies the particularly uneasy space between those two devices — a space that very few “pro” Mac users would even say exists. For this group, it’s going to take time, better software, and probably a new stand/dock of some sort before the iPad Pro really lives up to its name. To be clear, I’m optimistic that the software will improve over the next year, and that someone (maybe Apple, maybe not) will figure out the right iPad Pro keyboard-dock-stand combination.
But there’s another audience that Apple appears to be targeting with the 12.9″ iPad — non-Pro PC users who have a desktop machine and an iPhone but not a laptop or a tablet. When Tim Cook asks “why would you buy a PC any more?,” this is exactly the customer he’s speaking to — someone who sees a $799 tablet as a better choice than a new PC laptop. The original iPad destroyed the market for netbooks; it’s possible that the iPad Pro could eat away at the market for budget Windows notebooks. If that happens, the iPad Pro will enjoy great success no matter what professionals think about it.