Chained To My Desk By The iPad Pro


The iPad Pro sparked some violent disagreements. They quickly escalated into bloody skirmishes. Well, mental skirmishes. Held entirely within my head. Turns out, it’s hard to decide the fate of a $1,000+ device that you alternately find to be enticingly elegant yet also a malformed Franken-tablet that channels the Chevy El Camino.

The El Camino in all its sublime glory

At first sight I thought, “This iPad is comically oversized!” On the one hand, I loved the spacious screen. Text is supremely legible and photos look amazing. An empty canvas for sketching on that mammoth screen felt limited only by human imagination rather than the space between the bezels. But that very size also made the iPad Pro feel unwieldy.

This thing could be used as a cafeteria tray!

The software keyboard is as much like a physical keyboard as smooth glass pixels can be. It has a permanent row for numbers. When a number key is long-pressed a popover with the matching symbol appears. Swiping your finger upward types the symbol. Describing this feature is way harder than using it. There is almost never a need to switch keyboard modes for numbers or punctuation.

The iPad Pro on screen keyboard in all its glory

When I first picked it up, the iPad Pro felt lighter than its surface area led me to believe. The powerful A9X SoC and the 4 gigabytes of RAM can easily handle anything I need to do. Animations are buttery smooth and Safari rarely reloads tabs. The four speakers put out shockingly loud sound. The highs come out of the top speakers and the lows from the bottom speakers regardless of orientation–I found that to be the cherry on top.

But despite all these accolades I returned it.

Half Baked

It has been well-articulated elsewhere that iOS 9 doesn’t take full advantage of the iPad Pro. In particular, the home screen and Control Center seem almost purposefully exaggerated on that 12.9 inch screen. Many third party apps haven’t yet been updated for it either, though that will come. I make my living writing mobile apps so I would love to see Apple allow it to run developer tools like XCode or R Studio. Then it could be my only machine that won’t fit it in my pocket. For now I can only wistfully imagine writing code on my iPad.

Split screen multitasking is fantastic. When in landscape orientation with apps split 50/50 it’s almost like having two iPad Air 2s side by side in portrait. Each app is big enough to avoid the cramped feeling you can get in split screen with smaller devices. Restricting multitasking to two apps at once is underwhelming with that enormous screen. I forsee the use of as many as four simultaneous apps in iOS 10 for the iPad Pro.

The good news is that these are software shortcomings. They can all be fixed with updates.

Too Big To Hold

The iPad Pro is a whole new class of device. It’s not a laptop replacement with tablet-like features like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 or the Surface Book. I think Horace Dediu said it best in this video. It’s a tablet for the desktop. It’s the first iOS device that is not as portable as many laptops.

Some have said that with the four speaker audio and the big screen it’s the perfect content consumption device. I disagree. It works great for watching Netflix at a table. But sitting on the couch with it was as unnatural as holding a cafeteria tray up on its edge at a 45 degree angle in my lap for an hour.

It lacks the ability to casually be held with one hand, despite Apple’s marketing photography. Even with two hands you will want it solidly placed in your lap.

One handed? This hand model must have trained hard for this photo shoot

Maybe I am just fidgety but when watching videos or writing while sitting on comfy furniture I like to hold the iPad without resting it on anything. Then I assume any relaxed posture I want; I can place the iPad as near to my face as my position dictates. It allows for pleasant use on an airplane even if the jackass in front of you reclines their seat and is effectively laying in your lap. That flexibility is also helpful for reading in bed.

I had occasion to give a brief speech that I read off the iPad Pro. There was no podium available so I held the right edge in my left hand with my left arm underneath the iPad. Then I was free to scroll with my right hand. It worked but felt cumbersome.

Clearly Apple wants the iPad Pro to be king for content creation on iOS. In many ways it is. But again, it’s size is also limiting. That software keyboard is great, but the screen is too big to thumb type in portrait orientation without resting it on anything. Even if Apple hadn’t removed the split keyboard it’s doubtful that thumb typing in portrait would work well. Landscape is better for typing but it needs to be propped up and sitting on a table. I find that typing in landscape can be done awkwardly in my lap.

Jason Snell astutely observed:

“I started to think that users of the iPad Pro might want to consider having a smaller iPad around for more casual lean-back use. That’s somewhat damning.”

I kept coming back to this idea myself: it made me want to have two different-sized iPads because the Pro just felt too unwieldy away from a hard surface. For my iPad use I need it to work in casual and “get-stuff-done” contexts. This was the single biggest problem for me.

The iPad Pro isnt quite this oversized.

Accessory to a Flawed Launch

The Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil are key differentiators for the iPad Pro. Unfortunately neither was available at launch time.

Luckily my local Apple Store had some floor models set up with these accessories so I could briefly play with them. I immediately disliked the Smart Keyboard. It felt odd to type on, and I didn’t like the extra bulk it added to the already gigantic tablet. Also it folded so many times that I found it confusing to take on and off the device.

The software keyboard on the iPad Pro is so good that I couldn’t see myself needing a tactile keyboard too often anyway. And for the few occasions where I would, I have the standard Apple Magic Keyboard with the Origami Stand.

The Pencil is the more interesting device. In my brief experience it was a joy to use. It felt good in my hand, there was little lag, and the precision for writing and drawing felt just like a real pencil. I loved how angling the Pencil produced exactly the kind of shading I expected. Paper by 53 worked well, but I noticed that it actually worked even better with Apple Notes. I suspect that Paper will receive updates that will improve the experience with the Pencil.

Not For Me Yet

There are many reasons why creative people might love the iPad Pro. It has been shown that people are better able to think creatively in rooms with high ceilings; low ceilings tend to promote detailed work. This is called the cathedral effect. I can’t help but wonder if some variant of this might apply to work done on that expansive iPad Pro display.

The iPad Pro has much to recommend it. Unfortunately its value proposition inherently makes it less flexible in where it can be comfortably used. This was a price that I was unwilling to pay for the benefits it offers today.

I returned it after 4 days of heavy use and got an iPad Mini 4 instead. The screen seemed miniature at first, but I can use it anywhere. I don’t need to have a bag for it–it will fit in my jacket pockets. Perhaps I would have been more willing to put up with the iPad Pro’s bulk if I had been able to acquire an Apple Pencil. I eagerly await the day when Apple Pencil support is built into all iPads.

If I could do development work on an iPad Pro I would be willing to make the trade off. It might be right for you if you prefer to use it on a surface or find it natural to use sitting in an easy chair despite its size.

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