iPad Pro Initial Thoughts

I’ve been working on an app intended for use with the Apple Pencil, so I went to the store and picked up an iPad Pro this morning. (Sadly no Apple Pencil or Keyboard, both are deeply backlogged it seems.) At my desk I have a Mac Pro, I carry a Macbook Pro for working on the go, and I have an iPhone 6 Plus and iPad Air 2, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how the iPad Pro fits in with my workflow as it is now.

I might publish more thoughts on it as I spend more time with the device, but I’ve already had a few reactions and thoughts on it, both good and bad.

Good: The Hardware

On the outside it looks a lot like a bigger iPad Air 2, which isn’t a bad thing. Apple has added speakers on the “top” near the lock button, and the “bottom” near the Lightening port (or the left and the right of the iPad if you hold it in landscape.) There are two sets of holes on each edge for stereo sound in both orientations.

The speakers sounds very good for an iPad. The bass is audible, and the volume is much much higher than my iPad Air 2. I’m not sure if it sounds as good as the built in audio on my Macbook Pro, but it’s at least pretty close. The built in output is not a replacement for a decent pair of speakers, but it sounds great for a portable device. My only complaint is that Apple is still opting for side mounted speakers instead of front facing speakers. I hold the device by the sides, and it’s very easy for my hands to cover the speakers and for the sound to become muddled.

I’m writing this without an Apple Keyboard or Pencil, but I’ll say the typing experience is miserable without them. Worse than the iPad Air. The keyboard is simply too big on the larger screen. Typing two handed is bad enough, but with one hand it’s unbearable. I’m not this is going to be a good replacement for a laptop even with a physical keyboard, but if you’re going to be doing anything as basic as typing medium sized emails, do yourself a favor and get the hardware keyboard. Long term, I’d love to see Apple add handwriting recognition, even if it’s not super. They at least have a starting point with the Mac’s handwriting recognition that’s available for graphics tablets.

The performance is good. I’ve seen the synthetic benchmarks that make the performance look very favorable compared to the iPad Air 2. But some of the numbers I’ve seen in running my own apps indicate that performance of applications may actually be imperceptibly slower. The extra CPU gains Apple made with the A9 may be getting used up driving the larger display. The iPad Air 2 always felt like a snappy device, so if Apple is just able to deliver the same user experience on the iPad Pro, it’s not a significant issue. But if you’re coming from an iPad Air 2 I’m not convinced things are going to feel significantly faster.

Speaking of the display size… It’s big. I told someone earlier it feels like I’ve been given a novelty giant iPad as a joke. Not in a bad way, I like the extra real estate, but it’s not an easy to carry device like the smaller iPads. Most of the time I use it I let it lay completely flat on a desk instead of holding it (which makes me regret not buying the Smart Case to prop it up with.)

I’ve been tinkering with creative apps on it, and the extra screen size is great. As I mentioned, I don’t have my Apple Pencil yet, and I’m sure the hardware will feel even better once it arrives.

The one thing I’d like to see on a future iPad Air is support for Thunderbolt, and beyond that support for pointing devices. One impressive thing about the Surface Pro is the transition it can make to a desktop PC when you plug it into a docking station. It would be nice to be able to plug an iPad Pro into a Thunderbolt display, and make use of the wired network, keyboard, mouse and other accessories.

Bad: The Software

When I talked about the hardware, I mentioned a lot about how it just felt like a bigger iPad Air 2. This is a good thing. With the software, it’s pretty much the same thing: it feels like a bigger iPad Air 2. This is a bad thing.

Originally I was on the fence about whether I should buy an iPad Pro or a Surface Pro. The attractive thing about the Surface was the lack of boundaries put in place by the software. Want to run real Photoshop with a bunch of windows? Go ahead! Mount network shares or plug in a USB printer? No problem! Run a DOS emulator to play a 20 year old game that happens to be touch friendly? Go for it!

A lot of apps have been updated, but there are still some strange gaps. Garageband doesn’t seem to be updated for the iPad Pro screen. Neither has the WWDC app. (One of my favorite third party games, Blizzard’s Hearthstone, doesn’t seem to be either.) I was expecting a premier Apple application like Garageband to be updated before launch. Apps like Keynote have been updated, and they look great on the display. Apps that haven’t been updated simply appear to be stretched, and they look pretty clearly pixelated compared to other modernized applications that look brilliant on the iPad Pro display.

Some apps that have been updated have an annoying habit of leaving the additional space empty. Apps like Messages, Twitter and News all have the habit of dealing with the extra space by just leaving ridiculous margins around content. I’m hoping in time this issue gets fixed.

The big problem with iOS on the iPad Pro is it still struggles with the productivity basics. Multitasking has been nice on the iPad Air 2, and it’s certainly better on the iPad Pro. But it still can only run two apps at the same time. Navigating between applications is slow and cumbersome. And worse yet, you can still only have one window an application open at a time. Want to compare two Excel spreadsheets side by side at the same time? Nope, out of luck.

Initial setup was also not great as I realized how fragmented applications have become. Panic and Adobe both have excellent apps on the iPad Pro, but both have their own sync services with their own separate logins because Apple has placed restrictions on iCloud usage, and doesn’t provide any sort of single sign on service to make up the gap. (And to be clear: I’m not blaming Adobe or Panic for a situation that is rooted in how Apple treats Mac applications.) I dug into the Adobe apps only to realize I didn’t have my stock artwork available. I couldn’t login to my network share to copy the artwork down, and I couldn’t download a zip of it from the internet because there is no app to decompress the zip, and no filesystem to decompress it to. Adobe seems to have a way to load the artwork into their proprietary cloud, but I haven’t done so yet, and I shouldn’t have to set up a new proprietary cloud system for every application just to load some files in.

The iPad Pro still shares the same basic problem as it’s older iPad Air 2 sibling: Productivity on the device is killed by a thousand tiny paper cuts. I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t buy one, but I’m saying that you should expect to have the same productivity on it as you would an iPad Air 2. The screen size can’t solve the productivity issues without the software.

I’ll revisit this when the Apple Pencil comes out. I’ve heard really great things about it, and I’m sure for artists this will be a great supplemental device. But I don’t think anything about the iPad Pro has changed to make it a dramatically better PC replacement device than the iPad Air 2. If the iPad Air 2 has been a good PC replacement for you, the iPad Pro will continue to be, but with a larger screen size. Otherwise, Apple’s continued resistance to making iOS more serious for professional workflows will just slow you down compared to a Macbook.

I don’t mean to be too down on the iPad Pro. I’ve mostly been talking about the iPad Pro as a PC replacement because Apple has been talking about the iPad Pro as a PC replacement. The hardware is great, and I can definitely see some sort of future here. I’m not totally convinced that a touch based tablet can take the place of a laptop with dedicated keyboard and trackpad (something Apple themselves have repeatedly said in response to other faux-laptop tablet combos like the Surface Pro), but for me it’s easy to see this as a good ultra portable device. And as a developer, I see all sorts of cool things I could do on a touch based device this large and this powerful. But as a user, the software still holds me back from getting things done as efficiently as I could on a laptop. I know my needs are greater than most PC users, but I’m just not convinced that the iPad Pro has changed the decision making process someone goes through for buying a tablet vs. buying a PC.