Mossberg: The iPad Pro can’t replace your laptop totally, even for a tablet lover
Graphics folks will love it, but I’m sticking with my iPad Air
I am a tablet man, specifically an iPad man. I do love my trusty, iconic, MacBook Air laptop. But, except for heavy writing, I'm likelier to grab my iPad Air or even my diminutive iPad mini to get work done.
That includes everything from email to photo cropping; from reviewing and annotating PDFs to signing legal documents and editing articles and spreadsheets. I surf the web on it, run Slack on it, use it for Facebook and Twitter, business and personal video calls, and even keep my calendar on it.
Of course, I also use my iPads for consuming content — videos, photos, books, and music. But, contrary to the conventional wisdom, I see the iPad as a productivity device as well. While the iPad hasn’t entirely replaced my laptop, it has replaced so many of the scenarios for which I used my laptop in the past that I turn to the laptop much less often.
So I was quite intrigued when Apple announced the iPad Pro, a new, jumbo-sized iPad with an optional snap-on physical keyboard cover and stylus for drawing. This whopping slate can be ordered starting today, and I’ve been testing it for the past week. In fact, I wrote much of this column on an iPad Pro with Apple’s Smart Keyboard. For comparison, I also used a new iPad Pro keyboard from Logitech, and a MacBook Pro to write portions. And of course I’ve reviewed the Microsoft Surface Pro and its Type Cover in the past, and used a variety of third-party iPad keyboards as well.
The iPad Pro is a huge tablet. Its 12.9-inch screen is almost as large as the 13.3-inch display on the MacBook Air, and has much higher resolution. The display is 78 percent larger than the screen of Apple’s standard-sized iPad Air 2. When encased in its keyboard cover, the iPad Pro is longer, wider, thicker, and heavier than Apple’s smallest Mac laptop, the 12-inch MacBook.
You’d think an iPad guy like me would be over the moon about the iPad Pro, despite its hefty base price of $799 for a Wi-Fi-only model with 32GB of memory, which stretches to $949 with 128GB of memory, and soars past $1,000 with cellular capability.
But I’m not.
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It isn’t that I don’t admire the device. I do. In its typical fashion, Apple has managed to design something thin and beautiful, yet capable. Despite its jumbo size, it’s actually thinner (without the keyboard case) than my 2013-vintage iPad Air and about the same weight as the much smaller original iPad from 2010. And the gorgeous, large display makes great use of the new split-screen feature, available on recent iPads, that allows two apps to run at the same time. The optional stylus, called the Apple Pencil, is brilliant.
While I didn’t do a formal battery test, in my use of the Pro, it easily met Apple’s 10-hour battery claim, even at 75 percent screen brightness and with Wi-Fi going all day to collect emails from three accounts, plus God knows how many Tweets, texts, Slack, and Facebook posts.
On one particular day, I used the Pro to handle all my communications and web browsing, watched a movie that lasted over two hours, participated in a company-wide video call, typed up pages of notes, and played hours of music. And it lasted over 12 hours.
My problem with the iPad Pro is threefold. First, I found it just too big and bulky to hold and use comfortably for long periods. And that was when held horizontally. Held vertically, it was worse, because it felt unbalanced to me.
Second, I was disappointed with Apple’s optional keyboard case. It’s essentially a shallow Mac keyboard, with keys like Command that mean something only in Mac OS X, but not a single shortcut key to an iPad function, like Home or Search. It’s also not backlit, and it has only one angle in which it holds the screen. Additionally, it’s so light and small compared to the screen that I find it difficult to balance properly on my lap for typing. It’s also really costly, at $169.
Apple’s keyboard is actually cleverly made, with flat keys that depend, for their minimal travel, on a special springy fabric that covers the whole thing, which means the keys don’t seem like individual units, but behave that way. I got used to typing on it, on a flat surface. But I just kept looking for shortcut keys that weren’t there. And I kept wishing for a trackpad, so I didn’t have to keep reaching for the screen.
The Logitech Create keyboard for iPad Pro, by contrast, has real individual keys, is backlit, and has a whole row of iPad shortcut keys. Also, it acts as a full case and is $19 less.
Of the three keyboards I used to write this column, I found that the MacBook Pro was best, the Logitech Create second, and Apple’s iPad Pro Smart Keyboard dead last.
Third, I found few apps that took advantage of the greater screen real estate to display panels or functionality often hidden on mobile devices. One of the iPad’s great advantages over other tablets is that it boasts 850,000 apps that have been optimized for tablet use. But few of these used the much bigger screen on the Pro. One example is Google Docs, which still places comments in a text-hiding pop-up window, instead of in the margin as on a laptop. One exception is Slack, which, on the Pro, moves a previously hidden right-hand menu to a permanent position.
I also ran into one bug: the Pro wouldn’t let me add photos or location when creating a tweet in Twitter’s official iOS app, while my other iPads do this just fine. Apple replicated the problem and said it will work with Twitter to fix it.
Apple CEO Tim Cook suggests that this is the iPad that can finally replace the laptop in your life. Another very senior Apple exec I spoke with last week said that he, personally, has stopped using his MacBook in favor of the iPad Pro, though for the occasional heavy task, he still turns to his desktop iMac.
But, for me — a person already using his laptop a lot less in favor of the iPad — the Pro is just not likely to eliminate my laptop use entirely. And I say that knowing that, for instance, there will be better keyboard covers and cases. There already is one: I prefer the the Logitech Create I used to write part of this column. But it still doesn’t work nearly as well in my lap as a MacBook Air, partly because, like Apple’s keyboard, it only has one angle.
But, even if the iPad Pro doesn’t fully replace a laptop, it does have a killer app: graphics, in all its forms, when used with the optional $99 Apple Pencil.
I’m not a graphics guy. I’m bad at drawing, photo touchups, and even taking notes in freehand on a screen. But even I am blown away by the Apple Pencil. Coupled with the large, highly sensitive iPad Pro screen, it’s an excellent stylus. In my tests, it had no discernible latency and drew on the screen like your favorite pen on paper. It easily sensed pressure and darkened or thickened lines, and it even could be held almost parallel to the screen, like a real pencil, for creating shading with the side of the point.
The Apple Pencil has no buttons or batteries — it charges using Apple’s standard Lightning connector, which is a mixed blessing — it gives you one more thing to charge, but spares you from hunting down batteries. Apple claims up to 12 hours between charges, but you can get an extra half-hour in only 15 seconds by just removing a cap on the end and plugging it into the iPad itself.
The major downside of the Pencil is found in the Pro itself: there’s no place to store it, or even to magnetically attach it when it’s not in use. That means you could easily lose it, and be out $99 smackers. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 does have that magnetic snap-on feature.
I can see the iPad Pro appealing to big businesses
There’s already a bunch of new or revised graphics apps bound for the iPad Pro, including two photo apps from Adobe, Photoshop Fix and Photoshop Mix for editing and manipulating photos.
I can also see the iPad Pro appealing to big businesses, a key new tablet market for Apple, where a huge screen that can show a big spreadsheet or presentation could have real value.
People will naturally compare the iPad Pro to Microsoft’s Surface Pro line of tablets with snap-on keyboards. Though the keyboards are different, Apple has clearly emulated Microsoft’s basic idea here, down to the inclusion of a special keyboard connector on the edge of the device.
But the iPad Pro is thinner and lighter than the Surface Pro 4, despite having a bigger screen. The Surface Pro’s keyboard is more complete, with a row of shortcut keys and a trackpad. And the Surface Pro starts at $100 more.
They really aren’t comparable, however, because — as Microsoft frequently points out — the Surface is intended to be a full-blown laptop, running standard Windows, while also having a tablet mode for full touch use.
The iPad Pro isn’t a complete replacement for a great laptop like the MacBook Air — even for a tablet guy like me
Apple, on the other hand, is keeping its laptop and tablet operating systems separate, and has a far better-developed app ecosystem for the latter than Microsoft does. Indeed, Microsoft contributed to this by creating a beautiful iPad version of its Office suite, long before it did one for its own hardware.
You can get a lot more done with iPad apps than with the paltry selection of tablet / touch-first apps available for the Surface. But, because Apple hasn’t made a great keyboard, the iPad Pro isn’t a complete replacement for a great laptop like the MacBook Air — even for a tablet guy like me.
The iPad Pro will no doubt make a lot of Apple users happy, especially if they use it for graphics. But I won’t be buying one, and I don’t recommend that average users do so either.
Photography by Chris Welch and Vjeran Pavic