Imagining the iPad Pro

It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s coming.

Let’s not beat around the bush - it’s coming. Assuming its existence has not been a very tough logical leap ever since the iPad line began to diversify late last year with the mini. Apple is not being subtle with the "iPad Air" name, and there’s a whole lot of smoke surrounding a larger-screened iPad, though nobody knows exactly what it'll be like. There is going to be an iPad Pro, and it’ll be here soon.

The conversation now moves from "Will Apple make a bigger iPad?" to "What is this bigger iPad for?"

Why iPad Pro?

First things first: why would something like this exist? Apple is not a company that throws mud against a wall to see how much of it sticks. When they introduce a new twist on an old classic, it has a clear purpose, and they spend a lot of time justifying it. Without agreeing or disagreeing with their logic, here’s some of the justifications they’ve put out for past new variations on existing products:

MacBook Air: Optical drives and spinning hard discs are dead technology.

4-inch iPhone: More space for content without sacrificing any one-handed usability.

iPad mini: Ultra-portable, just as capable as the original.

So, forced to boil down the justification for the iPad Pro into one keynote-friendly sound byte, what will Apple say? Before presenting my own thoughts, I'd like to take some time and address the two prevalent hypotheses on the internet today:

1. Will the iPad Pro will be a "no-compromises" experience that runs both iOS and OS X?

Well… no. To be blunt, any attempt at a "no compromises" kind of product ends up pointless at best and awful at worst. Apple knows full well that OS X as it exists today, without some sort of Metroesque reboot, wouldn’t make sense on a touchscreen.

And beyond the user-facing concerns, thinking about the technical headache this sort of system would create for developers is enough for us to cast this idea out the window completely.

2. Will the iPad Pro will have an attached keyboard, making it a "mobile workstation" to edit all your iWork documents on the go?

This one’s a bit more realistic (but not by much) since there’s clearly a very large market for iPad keyboards. However, the people who would make use of this kind of "iPad Pro" are text-based professionals, who would be much better served with a MacBook Air. Which is why most of them already have them.

And regardless, what can really be accomplished by slapping an iPad together with the bottom half of a laptop? Wouldn’t that actually be worse than having, say, a Logitech keyboard cover, since you wouldn’t be able to remove it as you saw fit?

I don’t believe there’s a market for "laptop-iPad hybrid", and if there is, it’s incredibly niche. I think Apple could put out a killer keyboard cover for their iPad line and it would sell like gangbusters, but I don’t think an accessory should be the defining characteristic of a product.

So here I’ll propose my own hypothesis. I could, of course, be completely wrong. But that’s half the fun, isn’t it?

The iPad Pro is a tool for professional creatives in the visual media.

I’m kind of surprised I don’t see more people suggesting this. I guess it has to do with the incredible penetrative power of the iPad: all of us, creator or consumer, visual or textual, could have our lives improved by the iPad. Or maybe it's because Microsoft has already poisoned our perception of what a "Pro Tablet" should be, much like they poisoned our pre-2010 perception of what a "Slate PC" should be.

But when you really think about it, what kind of professional would be best served by a big Retina-grade slab of glass with accurate multi-touch and an incredibly accurate display?

Here’s a hint: It’s not accountants.

Necessary Edits

Obviously, the iPad as-is is great for hobbyists in these fields. But what would a professional tool look like? What changes need to be made to the iPad for it to become a genuine option for those looking to work on their projects on the go?

Before I get into this I would like to stress that I am not a visual creative professional. I am a college student majoring in a field that will likely have me reading and writing for a living, so I don’t know exactly what professional photographers, designers, or engineers would want from this device. I’m taking a stab, but don’t crucify me if I leave out something crucial or include something superfluous.

1. Ports: SDXC card slot and USB port.

Yes, yes, I know.

People have been whining about this forever, and those of us with rational minds have been laughing it off for as long as we’ve heard it - "you don’t need those things, you can use adapters if you do, the rest of us want a thin and light iPad."

But this is a different scenario. These users actually *do* need those things. This is a pro-level machine for pro-level users who use pro-level peripherals. Apple could just include a couple Lightning-to-(port type) adapters in the box, but throwing in a couple dongles, the classic Apple response to these kinds of things in the past, strikes me as an incredibly inelegant solution when discussing a device whose entire target audience would make use of these features.

Most iPad users don’t need these ports, so I don’t think they would (or should) be brought down to the rest of the iPad line, for the sake of thinness and lightness. But here, in the iPad Pro, I truly do think they have a home.

2. Wacom Digitizer and included stylus.

Again, yes, I know.

But, again, think of the target audience for this device. A more accurate touchscreen with a pen that allows for more fine-grained manipulation of what’s on your display? Sounds right on the money to me.

Now, will the pen come with any Galaxy-Note-esque extra features? I’m inclined to say no, because again, Apple doesn’t just shove crap into their products for the sake of a better commercial or longer spec sheet. But considering that this is a device for people who know what they’re doing, I wouldn’t rule it out.

The only "feature" I’d say they would have to include is the ability to ignore your hand when the pen is in range of the screen, or maybe set it up so that capacitive inputs from your fingers can still be used to pan and zoom while the pen remains in "edit mode". Again, just spitballing.

3. High storage capacity.

This is a no-brainer. While I foresee Apple sticking with the 16/32/64/128 gigabyte model on the standard iPad lines for as long as possible, that just won’t cut it when you’ve got people dealing with tons of high-resolution photographs, long 1080p videos, and (an example provided by Apple itself) CAD files.

If I were Apple I’d set 128GB as the baseline, but then again, if I were Apple, 32GB would be the iPhone baseline, so let’s be real here. I could see this thing coming in a lineup of 64/128/256 gigabytes, with a $100 price jump between models.

4. Heaver, thicker.

This almost goes without saying, but when one product is called the "Air" and one is called the "Pro", you can bet your sweet bippy that the latter’s going to be thicker and heavier for the sake of that pro-level performance while retaining great battery life.

iPad mini is around three quarters of a pound, and iPad Air is a full pound. I’m no engineer so I can’t offer any kind of "this is how much a device with all this stuff would weigh" analysis, but I would see this product’s appeal starting to taper off at around two pounds. Anything between a pound and a half and two pounds is probably the sweet spot.

5. A bigger, better screen.

Ahh, the elephant in the room.

We can hem and haw all we want about the internals, the ports, the storage, but when it comes down to it, the iPad is a big screen. That's its appeal, its defining characteristic.

How much bigger will this bigger iPad be? What resolution will it have? Would they change the aspect ratio?

I submit my predictive answer to these three questions: iPad Pro will have an 11.8 inch screen, running at a resolution of 2304x3072, retaining the 4:3 aspect ratio.

How did I come to those numbers? Simple: 2304x3072 is exactly three times the resolution of the original iPad. Nine times, if you want to be pedantic. This has the same appeal as pixel-doubling: it’d be incredibly easy for developers to optimize their applications for this display, and even if developers don’t update their apps, they won’t have to be stretched or distorted in any way.

That last point is important, because as a pro-level product, not as many people will be buying it, so developers will be under less pressure to create 3x assets for their applications. The best ones will do it immediately, but the middle of the pack won’t be under as much pressure to do it as they were when the iPhone 4 came out. It’s more analogous to the first Retina MacBook Pro in 2012: developers didn’t all immediately rush to Retina-optimize their programs, because they knew that while eventually all MacBooks would have this kind of resolution, for the moments it was a niche product.

As for the size: 2304x3072 at 11.8 inches works out to exactly 326 pixels per inch. Sound familiar?

11.8 sounds kind of small, but it's actually a full 2.1 inches bigger than the current iPad Air. That'd provide a ton more screen space while keeping the device around the size of a small laptop. It's still a portable device, remember. Let's not go crazy here.

6. Price?

Buckle up, my lovelies.

Reading everything above, you might be thinking "Well Kevin, sure, that’s all technically possible if you allow for a slightly thicker and heavier device, but how could Apple possibly get all that into a product that they could sell at an acceptable profit margin?"

You already know the answer to that question.

I’d be shocked to see this device coming out for anything under $1000 for the base 64GB wifi-only configuration.

So, when can we expect it?

iPhone, iPad, and iPod are consumer products. The come out around the holidays for maximum appeal.

MacBook Airs sell well to university students. They come out during the summer for maximum appeal.

Professional products like the Retina MacBook Pro and the Mac Pro come out whenever they damn well please, because the target audience isn’t the kind to ask for it for Christmas. They’re the kind to go out and buy it as soon as it’s available.

I’d expect to see a springtime release, since that was a barren time for Apple last year and led to a lot of "Waah waah Apple’s not releasing anything" doomsaying. But we could also see it at WWDC, or maybe even at the iPad event next fall. We'll see it when it's ready.

Or maybe we'll never see it because I'm completely wrong, and Apple will just release a bigger version of the iPad Air next year.

Considering this is all simple conjecture, that's probably what I'd put my money on.

Updates:

Changed Thunderbolt to USB after being informed by user wonderboyP8NT that Thunderbolt could not technically exist on an iPad.

Slightly restructured the introduction wherein I dismiss the idea of an iPad running OS X or an iPad with an attached keyboard, because apparently that wasn't clear enough.