In Depth: A month with the iPad Pro

Apple’s big tablet is the ultimate (literal) laptop, and with the right accessories, a pretty good desktop replacement

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Imagine holding two iPad Air 2 tablets in your hands, side by side. If you could combine them into one tablet, you’d likely be more productive, right?

That’s what using Apple’s new iPad Pro is like. When held in landscape mode, its 12.9-in. display offers the same screen real estate you’d get from two iPad Air 2s. Which means whether you’re editing a movie in iMovie, working on a year-end report or term-paper or simply watching a high-def movie, it lets you do more, faster and in ways an Apple tablet has never before offered.

After spending a month with the top-end iPad Pro – 128GB of storage and Wi-Fi/LTE connectivity – I can confirm my initial impressions from last month: The first version of Apple's tablets to go bigger rather than smaller is fast, responsive, lasts all day on battery, and with optional accessories like the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard, I expect it to further encroach on the territory of traditional laptops in the office.

Specs and speed

The iPad Pro readily zips through tasks and apps thanks to its third-generation, 64-bit architecture – particularly an improved storage controller, which allows for faster read/write speeds. In the past, that’s been the biggest bottleneck of modern PCs. With 4GB of memory, a custom-designed Apple A9X chipset and 12 GPU cores on a 128-bit bus, the iPad Pro out-performs the 12-in. MacBook in CPU benchmark scores. And it’s faster than the current MacBook Pro with Intel's Iris 5200 integrated graphics in GPU benchmarks.

That’s noteworthy, given the debate about whether tablets can fully replace laptops. For that to happen, you need a flexible OS – more about how well iOS 9 works with the iPad Pro below – and laptop-level hardware under the hood. The iPad Pro delivers on both counts, whether you pick the base 32GB model ($799) or the most-expensive version I bought for myself ($1,079).

Weight shouldn’t be an issue, though it will affect how you use this tablet. (Both the Wi-Fi and LTE models weigh just over a 1.5 pounds, but the tablet’s design makes it feel lighter than it is.) It’s just 0.27-in. thick -- thinner than an iPhone 6S. Although extended use without support will induce wrist fatigue, on a table or in your lap the iPad really shines.

iPad Pro lock screen Michael deAgonia

The iPad Pro.

All about the display

The first thing that strikes most people, not surprisingly, is the iPad Pro's size, but you do grow accustomed to it after the initial shock wears off. The Retina display is vivid and bright, and, at 264 pixels per inch, it's difficult to see individual pixels. It's also highly advanced, offering faster pixel charging and uniformity enabled by the oxide thin film transistor; a new timing controller for better manipulation of the 5.6 million pixels; and, for the first time, a variable refresh rate that provides better energy efficiency by reducing refresh rate to 30 frames per second (fps) instead of the usual 60fps, depending on screen content.

As important is the technology triggered when the optional Apple Pencil is in use. When the display senses the Pencil is near, the input sensor scans at 240 times per second, much more than what's used for touch input. The result is that drawing on the iPad Pro with the Pencil produces markings without lag; it's as close to actually marking on a piece of paper as currently technically possible. The reduced latency is the best available on the market -- that includes the Surface Pro 4 -- which will be a boon to digital designers or fervent note-takers.

apple pencil REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Apple Pencil

The display also offers palm rejection technology, which makes it easy to draw without worrying about inadvertently altering a sketch if other parts of your hand touch the screen. This feature isn't limited to when the Pencil is in use; palm rejection means you can rest your hand on the iPad screen while flicking a finger to scroll or using other multitouch gestures like closing apps with the fist-clench move.

The one thing the iPad Pro does not have are the 3D Touch/Force Touch capabilities found in the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, and Apple Watch. 3D Touch and Force Touch add additional functions to apps based on the amount of pressure applied to the display, triggering shortcuts to frequently used actions, and even more features without adding more interface elements.

iOS 9 -- built for the iPad Pro?

Without the right software, even the best-looking hardware is a brick. It's clear many of iOS 9's features were designed with the iPad Pro in mind. Specifically, Slide Over, Split View and Picture in Picture really take advantage of the larger screen. I've found I can be as productive writing on the iPad Pro (working with Safari on one half of the screen and Pages on the other half) as I am using a similar setup on my 15-in. MacBook Pro.

The only caveat is that software needs to be able to take advantage of the bigger screen. This isn't a problem for built-in apps from Apple, but third-party apps need to get on board. The best example is Facebook; the current iOS 9 app simply scales up content to fill the screen, wasting a lot of space. Viewing Facebook in Safari is a better option on the iPad Pro.

There are other benefits to the larger screen: the virtual keyboard in landscape mode nearly imitates the spacing of a physical keyboard, which allows for easier 10-finger touch-typing. The virtual keyboard also has room to accommodate a number column above the traditional letters, saving a screen press whenever numbers and punctuation are entered. There are also buttons for more functionality like font selection, text formatting (including options for smaller/larger/bold/italics/underline), and paragraph formatting.

Virtual keyboard and Split Screen Michael deAgonia

The larger iPad Pro screen allows for a more full-featured virtual keyboard and Split Screen view.

Another feature introduced in iOS 9 makes it easier to use the virtual keyboard as a virtual trackpad. Placing and holding two fingers anywhere on the screen activates this virtual trackpad, allowing you to drop the text cursor precisely where you need it. You can also use taps and drags to highlight and select words or entire paragraphs.

The enhancements to the virtual keyboard in concert with AutoCorrect and text dictation help make the case for the iPad Pro as a real productivity tool for anyone writing for fun or profit. When combined with optional accessories, the iPad Pro makes a better case for use as a primary computing device.

Pencils and keyboards

There are plenty of add-ons for the iPad Pro. For the past month, I've been trying out the $169 Apple Smart Keyboard, the $149 Logitech Create backlit keyboard case and the still-rare $99 Apple Pencil.

The Apple Pencil isn't just a stylus; you can manipulate and navigate the interface with the Pencil, sure, but that isn't what it was made for. The Pencil is designed for situations where precision is important and was engineered specifically for the iPad Pro. Onscreen markings depend on the tilt of the Pencil tip and how much pressure is applied while drawing: light and hard presses will produce correspondingly thin or thick lines, and using the Pencil at an angle will create shading. I'm not a graphic artist, but it works really well in practice.

The Pencil doesn't feel like a cheap plastic bit in the hand; it's weighted, but not so heavy as to be uncomfortable. On a full charge -- you pair it up to the iPad Pro and charge it by removing the end where an eraser would be and plugging it into the tablet's Lightning port -- it will last for 12 hours. Fret not if you’re ever low on battery life; plugging in the Pencil and charging it for 15 seconds will give you 30 more minutes of use.

As someone who is not a fan of stylii in general, I’m impressed with the Pencil -- though it’s pricey. It is not something everyone will need, but those who draw and design will appreciate how well it works. The only missed opportunity is that the non-pointed end doesn't work as an eraser when you slide it across the screen.

iPP and Logitech keyboard Michael deAgonia

The iPad Pro with the Logitech CREATE keyboard.

I’ve also tried two keyboard cases, one from Apple and the one made by Logitech. Both use the new Smart Connector found on the side of the iPad Pro, which gives power and data to devices that require it. Both protect the iPad’s display, but the Logitech version fully envelops the iPad Pro in a shell capable of taking a decent beating. This comes at the expense of bulk and weight, which is a negative when you consider that tablets are designed with portability in mind.

At the other extreme, the Apple Smart Keyboard case protects the display but leaves the backside exposed. It's much thinner than the Logitech case, barely larger than the standard Apple Smart Cover.

apple smart keyboard ipad pro REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Both keyboards work well, but the Logitech case feels more like a MacBook Pro keyboard then does the Apple Smart Keyboard case. The Logitech case also has backlit keys, just like the MacBook Pro. And since it's drawing power from the iPad Pro, it doesn't need to be charged.

Unlike the Apple keyboard, the Logitech keyboard has dedicated buttons for shortcuts, including traditional Mac-specific keys like Command, Option, and Control as well as dedicated keys for Search, exit to Home Screen, Lock, and brightness controls. Not coincidentally, iOS 9 supports physical keyboards much better than before, and if you require hints about what apps can do, pressing and holding modifier keys like Command displays a pop-up list of keyboard shortcuts.

An important caveat: In the middle of this review, Apple released iOS 9.2 for iPads, iPhones and iPod touch -- and it made |using the Logitech keyboard case a nightmare. Typing became slow and the keyboard responded randomly, or not at all, to various keys being pressed. I wasn’t the only person to see the degradation. Hopefully, an update will remedy the problem soon.

Interestingly, the Apple Smart Keyboard was not affected, nor are other Bluetooth keyboards. One step forward two steps back.

All about the software

There's no denying the iPad Pro is a productivity device. I've written many reviews on my iPads, but the Pro is particularly adept at getting things done. This review was written on the iPad Pro; about 85% written and researched sitting on my lap in landscape, without any accessories at all. The other 15% of my time was spent trying out the two keyboards.

I was also able to edit 4K video using Apple's iMovie app, which makes it easy to do on the go. iMovie for iPad is not as comprehensive a tool as Final Cut Pro for OS X, but that doesn't mean you can't produce good works; iMovie for iOS lets you create basic trailers via drag and drop as well as detailed and complex edits. Whether I was editing Standard definition or 4K video, iMovie remained responsive and fluid -- a credit to the beefed up hardware inside.

Thor on iPP Michael deAgonia

Content consumption, a.k.a. watching movies like Age of Ultron, can be an immersive experience with the large screen and four speakers.

Another surprise has been watching movies; they’re surprisingly immersive. That has everything to do with the great display, as well as the incredible sound the iPad puts out. This is accomplished via four speakers near each corner of the device that have been engineered to deliver really good sound. No matter which orientation the iPad is held, the top speakers play high frequencies while the lower speakers emphasize bass. During a recent trip to New York, I watched the film Interstellar for the first time and was totally caught up in the experience. I had to remind myself that I was watching this on a portable device.

Which brings us to my next point: the iPad is much larger than the iPad Air 2 -- as I mentioned before you can sit two iPad Air 2 tablets in portrait mode over an iPad Pro in landscape mode. The overall footprint of the device brings it to notebook-sized levels, but the thinness and weight make this an easy device to tote around. Using just the iPad and the virtual software keyboard, I've been able to be productive in locations that make it awkward to bring a full notebook, doing tasks that aren't ideal on even my large screen iPhone 6S Plus.

Conclusions

There's a good reason I think the iPad Pro will suit a broad audience: Its inherent flexibility. It serves a broader range of needs than any previous iPad, especially when you factor in the Pencil and physical keyboards, which allow it to be used more effectively when precision is needed.

With the productivity features of iOS 9, I think the iPad Pro is a remarkable tool. The size and weight make it more portable than my MacBook Pro; the built-in LTE access makes me long for the same in my notebook; and the battery life lasts the 10 hours Apple promises.

Even better, the TouchID fingerprint system built into the Home button in concert with a strong passcode doesn't trade portability for security; you can have both. Opting for the LTE model with GPS makes more sense for road warriors when you consider that as long as there is a cellular signal, you’ll be connected. And you can use Apple's Find My iPhone feature to track down the exact spot if the iPad Pro is ever misplaced.

There's a lot to like here. No wonder Apple has been attracting attention from business; and this iPad Pro is clearly a play for more. Even without additional accessories, it can be used in more instances as a standalone device rather than as a desktop companion; when you factor in the Pencil and keyboards, it can indeed servce as a real-world desktop/notebook replacement.

Software needs, not the iPad Pro itself, will dictate just how far this tablet worms its way into the workplace and how well it stands up against the Surface Pro 4. If the software you require for fun or work is available to you, and you love iOS more than OS X, the fast architecture and enormous Retina display of the iPad Pro should prove to be a winning combination.

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