I want one. That should come as no surprise to anyone. Like the original iPad, I feel like there is a use-case for it somewhere in my life. I just can’t pin down what it is. I’ve been looking forward to the iPad Pro two years before it was announce. It is a product that has been much rumored, and I suspect, much delayed. My guess is that even Apple was unsure of the direction they wanted to take it. This writing is my attempt to sort out my feeling about the product now that its market debut is imminent. Also, this is my real-time musings on how I might actually use the product, in an attempt to sort the fantasy from the soon-to-be reality.
iPads Then and Now
I have owned almost every iPad since the original back in April, 2010. Most of the time, I felt like my iPads were underutilized. In the beginning, I had fun discovering the many uses of the iPad. But there is a difference between discovering the uses, and actually using it for anything. I was less a user, and more a discoverer. After a while, my iPad settled in as a convenient, about the house computer. I played the occasional game, and watched the occasional video.
I seldom did anything on the iPad that actually involved writing. It is not that I couldn’t write well enough on the iPad. It is just that it was a bit too awkward to write on while holding, and touch-typing on glass never felt completely natural. I quickly gravitated to external keyboard covers and cases, of which there were always plenty from which to choose. That helped a lot. Unfortunately, when I had a keyboard attached to the iPad, I seldom used it as a tablet.
Somewhere along the way, I started writing for a living. I couldn’t afford to buy a laptop at the time. That’s when I started using the iPad as a full-time laptop. It was during that period that I used my iPad to its fullest potential. I bought an iPad-sized carry bag, and took it with me everywhere I went. But there were many compromises using the iPad as a laptop. While some people can manage it, for me, it was always going to be an exercise in frustration. Here’s why:
- Accessibility - In laptop mode, the iPad was not as accessible as an Apple laptop. Fonts were not adjustable. The resolution was fixed. Sitting at laptop distance, the screen was too small. VoiceOver was too limited for the type of work I did.
- Web browsing - Without going into a lot of unnecessary detail, suffice it to say that web browsing was much less full-featured on the iPad than on a computer. I found that I could only do certain parts of my work on the iPad. The rest had to be deferred till I could get home to a “real” computer.
- Spell checking and autocorrect - Despite many humorous examples to the contrary, the iPad has always done an admirable job autocorrecting typos. But what you might not be aware of is that autocorrect is disabled when using an external keyboard. On the Mac, autocorrect is ubiquitous across the entire platform. On the iPad, you are left to do a lot of manual editing. That becomes a tedious productivity suck when writing 3,000 words a day.
Now, I am the proud owner of a 12” Retina Macbook. And I love it. I seldom leave home without it. I love the keyboard. The battery life is excellent. I have never come close to running out while out and about. It has already paid for itself. Unfortunately, it has also relegated my iPad back to occasional game and video player about the house. It is more underutilized than ever before. This makes it all the more difficult to understand why it is I want an iPad Pro as much as I do. Let’s dig deeper:
The Myth of the Giant iPad
Long before the iPad Pro was announced, it had already reached mythical status. It became the blank canvas on which tech enthusiasts painted all their hopes and dreams. Speaking of a blank canvas, the ultimate artist’s tool is one of the things it was rumored to be. These rumors were further fueled by the fact that we knew Apple was working on a stylus. But patent filings only tell us so much about Apple’s future direction.
The thing is, I’m not an artist. There is no reason for all the artist stuff to get me excited. I have used the iPad to take hand-written notes. But my handwriting is rough. Having a digital legal pad is handy. But it is hardly the stuff of enthusiast dreams. Despite all that, I am excited about the stylus-based aspects of the product. I definitely want a good stylus even though I already know that it will be woefully underutilized.
The earliest rumors were that the iPad would be about 13”. It would be like ripping the display off Macbook Pro and using it like a tablet. Any fan of the even more mythical TouchBook Pro can’t help but be excited about that. There is also the belief that more size unlocks more capability. Even with the same OS, the larger smartphones are more capable than their smaller counterparts. An iPad mini is even more capable. And a full-sized iPad, more capable still.
One of the reasons a Mac notebook is inherently more capable than an iPad is that it has an even bigger display. Though it is hard to say how it will work out in practice, I also believe that a bigger iPad will be a more capable iPad.
Finally, it was envisioned that a bigger iPad would be the catalyst for a new class of apps and accessories. Developers would be able to write desktop-class apps for more interesting and versatile hardware. Along with that software would come peripherals that reenergized prosumer music production, podcasting, and other creative endeavors. I was personally excited by all this potential. How does this stack up to the reality as we know it today?
The iPad Pro Becomes Real
As we have learned by now, no Apple product is real until someone from Apple gets on stage and officially announces it. That is precisely what happened in September. The years of anticipation were finally over. But did the announcement live up to the hype? Actually, yes. Here is a short checklist of what we got:
- 13” display
- Desktop-class CPU and graphics
- Multi-app OS (two apps side by side)
- Pressure-sensitive display with accompanying stylus accessory
- full-size keyboard accessory
In other words, Apple went down the checklist and ticked off every box submitted by the rumor mill. But here’s the thing: All of that represents potential. And as one of my teachers was fond of saying, potential means “ain’t worth nothing yet”. Although the components are in place for a great product, It will still need further development before that greatness can be realized.
Despite all the potential of what was announced, there is also some potential for disappointment. Adding size to a thing changes the way you use it. Therefore when you add size, you have to rethink form factor. I’m not convinced Apple did this. If you think about the transition from the iPhone 5s to the 6, there was a huge size jump. Apple made a number of changes to the phone, including moving the Lock button from the top to the side where it could be more easily accessed. What changes did they make to accommodate the additional size of the iPad Pro?
To be sure, they did make some changes. They went from the anemic speaker system to a much more robust, four-speaker system that dynamically changes as you rotate the device. That makes a lot of sense in a device that is big enough to appreciate stereo separation. They put their fancy new docking connector on the side of the device, necessitating a landscape use for most things. This is a different approach for Apple. Until now, the iPad has been presented as having a neutral orientation. Now, it is biased towards landscape.
I believe these are necessary changes for a device of this size. The one change they didn’t make is that they didn’t add a builtin kickstand to prop it up. I have railed against the use of kickstands in smaller devices like the Surface Pro when it was first introduced. It came down to two things: First, the Surface Pro was too small to need a kickstand in my opinion. It wasn’t much bigger than an iPad.
Second, a kickstand suggested a device that was to be used as a passive display. If the device is a passive display, then it is no longer a tablet: a product which is intended to be used while being held. Putting a kickstand on it just turned it into a computer monitor: one that was way too small.
At 13”, the iPad will definitely be used as a passive display at least some of the time. Apple’s own promotional video shows it being used to display photos from an album. In this video, people are awkwardly propping up the device with one hand. This looks like a suboptimal way to interact with a device of this size. Also, no one is going to want to hold the device for two hours during movie playback. That is definitely one of the use-cases of the iPad Pro. I believe Apple has a blindspot in this area that could make using the iPad Pro less appealing in some cases.
The Apple Pencil, as technically interesting as it is, does not have a clip, nor is there any way to attach it to the iPad with magnets. It has neither eraser nor buttons. It is a smooth, white surface that will easily be lost. There is a reason writing pens come with clips. That said, most pencils do not. Then again, most pencils do not cost $99.
I absolutely love what I can see of the keyboard. However, there is one giant caveat. I don’t believe there is any autocorrect in play when the keyboard is in use. While there has been no direct statements to that effect, this image makes a strong case.
The typo in the image is the sort of thing one would expect autocorrect to do something with, even if it’s wrong. If Apple’s own connected keyboard cannot do autocorrect on the iPad Pro, that would likely be a deal killer for me. Right now, there is no solid evidence one way or the other.
I’m a writer. And I do writer things. Currently, I do them on a 12” Macbook when I’m out and about. It’s kind of perfect for what I do. So I don’t really have any gaps that I need to fill in my workflow. Adding yet another device would only complicate matters. That said, let the complications begin.
The iPad Pro’s screen will be bigger by an inch, than the mobile I currently use. With my eyesight, an inch could be a big deal. Sometimes the most accessible thing you can do when the print is too small is hold it close to your face. That is a lot easier with a tablet than with a laptop.
I do take in video on occasion. I expect the iPad speakers will be better than what comes on the Macbook. Every app I use on the desktop can be duplicated on the iPad. The split-screen function on the iPad is more useful than on the Macbook. If I want to take a quick note (as I sometimes do) I can use a pen on the iPad. I suspect the iPad Smart Keyboard will be about the same as I am using now.
As you can see, there is a lot to recommend the iPad Pro. But there is also a lot about which to be concerned. While I am using my notebook on a table at a restaurant, I sometimes use it on my lap depending on the situation. I doubt the iPad Pro will be very lapable with the external keyboard. Laptops are made for laps. Tablets with attached keyboards, not so much.
There are one or two obscure accessibility features unique to the Mac that I miss when using an iPad. My Macbook has a builtin pointing device. The iPad does not. I don’t want to have to reach up and touch the screen every time I want to move the insertion point.
As a writer, the two things I need a mobile to be great for is typing and researching via the web. Without having used an iPad Pro at the time of this writing, I already declare the Macbook the winner at those tasks. That said, the Macbook is a non-starter for taking quick, hand-written notes and doodles. I much prefer iOS gaming. I do all of my reading on my phone. But given the choice between an iPad or a Mac for reading, the iPad wins every time. I also like the iPad for video.
I guess what I am saying is there is a constellation of tasks. Some are better done on a notebook, while others, the iPad. It doesn’t have to be all about work. My desktop is a better work machine than my laptop. That doesn’t mean I don’t get work done on my laptop. Having done so for several months, I know I can get work done on an iPad. It’s just different.
At the end of the day, it is the differences that matter. I am not excited about the iPad Pro because it will be the same as using my Macbook. I’m excited about the different ways I will find to use the tech. The peripherals have the potential to be more interesting. And the apps can enable all sorts of new things.
But that is also the problem. We really have to wait and see what developers do with this thing before we know for sure how useful it will be. Apple did not introduce any first-party apps to showcase the potential of the iPad Pro. And that I find very disappointing. Microsoft and Adobe had some new things to show off. But where is Logic or Final Cut for the iPad Pro? I worry about a platform where Microsoft and Adobe are leading the way.
Am I going to buy one? Really? Did you even have to ask? But there is no guarantee I will keep it. As excited as I am about it, the iPad Pro still has to prove itself. And I think Apple only made half the case for why we need it. The other half of the case will be proven with experience. And that’s the half that matters.