By Jason Snell
October 30, 2018 9:15 PM PT
Brooklyn event impressions: The iPad Pro is a computer
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
With the new iPad Pro, introduced Tuesday at Apple’s media event in Brooklyn, Apple got a chance to apply everything it’s learned in the past three years about what makes the iPad Pro different from the iPad, and everything it learned in building the iPhone X and XR. It got to address nagging issues with the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil. This is a reboot of the iPad Pro, and I’m so here for it.
Let me offer up a little disclosure right at the top: I love the iPad Pro. I basically don’t use a Mac laptop anymore. When I’m not at my desk on my iMac Pro, I am almost always using the 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my device of choice. The prospect of a new and improved iPad Pro was the thing I was looking forward to the most as I headed to the event on Tuesday morning. I wasn’t disappointed.
All the right moves
I love the new design of the iPad Pro models. The flat back with the flat sides, which remind me of the original iPad design and the iPhone 4/5/SE, is a delight. But when you pick one up, the first thing you notice is that the bezels are even all the way around—and they’re almost, but not quite, gone entirely.
This is the iPhone X factor, applied to the iPad. The home button is gone, replaced with a TrueDepth camera system that allows Face ID to work from any orientation. It’s surprising and impressive when you see the iPad unlock using Face ID when you’re holding the iPad upside-down. The camera can still see your face from down there? Apparently so.
I did immediately worry that my fingers were touching on the screen due to the small bezels, and that it would lead to a bunch of mistaken touches. I can only assume that Apple has applied the same software (or an updated version) that they wrote when the side bezels shrunk on the iPad Air—it does a surprisingly good job of ignoring fingers when they’re holding the iPad rather than tapping and swiping.
And if you hold your hand over the camera when it’s trying to unlock, it warns you — displaying a “camera covered” alert while also pointing at the camera with an arrow, to help you quickly realize which hand is doing the blocking.
We’ll see if there are quirks about any of this in practice—it’s very hard to get a real idea when you only get to handle the iPad for a few minutes in a very crowded, noisy room. (Having that TrueDepth camera also means that the iPad Pro can shoot portrait selfies and do Animoji, which is fun and cool.)
As it approached changing the design of the two different sizes of iPad Pro, Apple made the right decisions. The 10.5-inch model seemed like a great size, so they left it alone—and just stretched out the screen, creating an 11-inch diagonal model. The 12.9, on the other hand… that screen is gorgeous but there’s no denying that the iPad felt big, heavy, and awkward. (And I’m saying that as the guy who has used one for three years.)
So Apple kept the big, gorgeous screen and reduced the volume of the 12.9-inch model by 25% by shrinking the bezels and making it thinner. Again, it’s hard to judge by a few moments of holding it, but I’m hopeful that this will result in a device that’s better balanced and easier to hold. I was thinking that maybe this time I’d opt for the smaller iPad Pro, but having held the new 12.9-inch model, I’m starting to think that I’d rather take the big screen in a smaller package. We’ll see.
It’s a laptop, okay?
Apple made a bunch of announcements about the iPad Pro that I could summarize as: “Yes, this is a computer.” (No matter what that one iPad ad says.) It started with Tim Cook’s charts, comparing last year’s iPad unit sales to the unit sales of the top laptop makers. (The iPad sold more units than any of them.)
Then came the comparison of the A12X Bionic processor to PC laptops. According to Apple, the new iPad Pros are faster than 92 percent of all the portable PCs sold in the last 12 months. The larger point here is that the iPad Pro is not a low-powered device. It’s faster than your laptop, probably, so don’t write it off.
You know, fast storage is great. Lots of storage is great. The iPad Pro has both, offering a high-end option with a terabyte of storage. That’s the kind of storage real computers have. (I didn’t even have a terabyte of storage on my old 5K iMac!)
You can use all that storage for Photoshop and Autodesk files, I guess? That was probably the most predictable part of the iPad Pro announcement, given the fact that Adobe had previewed Photoshop for iPad on stage at Adobe Max a couple weeks ago. Still, the refrain “this is real Photoshop” is important. Real computers run real Photoshop. The iPad Pro is a real computer.
Which brings us to USB-C. The iPad Pro is the first iOS device to ditch Lightning for the port standard favored by computers. This is another sign that the iPad Pro is really embracing being a computer—but the sad fact is, it’s hamstrung by iOS itself. The hardware is willing, but the software is weak. iOS’s support for USB devices is sorely limited. It will import photos and videos from cameras and memory cards. You can hook up a keyboard or an Ethernet adapter or a microphone or audio mixer. And I assume the iPad Pro will be able to power a much wider array of devices than could have been powered by the USB 3 Lightning Adapter without a power assist.
But plug in a hard drive or flash drive and you can’t view the files in the Files app. Plug in a USB webcam and I assume nothing happens? There’s more to be done here. On a standard computer we have an expectation of what happens when we plug in a USB device. iOS has holes. Maybe the existence of USB on iPad will finally prompt Apple to prioritize better USB device support in future versions of iOS.
In the meantime, yes, it’s cool that the iPad Pro can drive a 4K or 5K external monitor—even though you can’t use it for input, so it’s just for mirroring or as a second screen for video previews, slide presentations and the like. And it’s cool that you’ll be able to use your iPad Pro to charge your iPhone! But there’s more to be done here.
Finally, if it’s a fast as a computer and it has ports like a computer and runs software like a computer and has storage like a computer… it’s going to have a price tag like a computer. And these iPad Pros do. Both of the base prices are higher than the previous models. (In fact, Apple’s keeping the old 10.5-inch iPad Pro in the price list at the original price.) So now you’ll shell out $799 for the base model 11-inch iPad, and $999 for the base model 12.9-inch. Throw in LTE or more storage and the price rapidly increases.
Again, you’re getting more so you’re paying more. And Apple still makes a low-cost iPad (with support for the Apple Pencil!), so there’s still an option for people who can’t envision spending $1000 on an iPad. I don’t love that these things cost more now, but I’ve come to heavily rely on my iPad Pro, so it’s worth it for me.
Pencil No. 2
When the iPad Pro made its debut, so did the Apple Pencil. Now it’s time for a second generation Pencil, and Apple has addressed all the major issues with the original.
This Pencil has a flat side that doesn’t roll off the table and attaches magnetically to a spot on the wide side of the iPad Pro. This means you can attach the Pencil to the iPad Pro and keep it there rather than having to look for it whenever you want to use it. (My podcast pal Myke Hurley stuck a loop on his iPad Pro so he could keep his pencil secure at all times.) The magnet’s not a light attraction, either—I shook an iPad Pro a bit, striking fear in the heart of the Apple employee responsible for its well-being—and it didn’t budge.
But it’s not just a magnet! That little spot is also an induction charger, so the Apple Pencil doesn’t just stay attached, it stays charged. And the first time you attach the Pencil to that spot, it offers to pair it with your iPad. Gone is the weird Lightning plug hiding under a rattly plastic cap.
Then there’s the desire many users had for gesture or button support on the pencil. Again, Apple sort of went its own way here. So far as I can tell, the Pencil must have an accelerometer inside it, just like the AirPods do, so it can detect when you do a double tap with your finger. Individual apps can decide what that double-tap gesture means; by default the Notes app considers it a toggle between whatever tool you’re using and the eraser, but you can also set it to just toggle between your two most recently used tools.
Finally, the accessory I’m always the most interested in: the keyboard! I have always liked the Smart Keyboard, introduced with the Pencil and the iPad Pro back in 2015. Well, that’s not entirely true—I think it’s a pretty good keyboard in terms of typing feel, but the 12.9-inch model was always a victim of the massive area of the iPad itself. With the new 12.9-model being much smaller, I have some hopes that its keyboard accessory will also be less awkward.
But what we’re not getting with these models is another Smart Keyboard. Instead, Apple has relocated the Smart Connector to the back side of the device and created the Smart Keyboard Folio, which attaches magnetically to the device’s back and provides front and back protection.
We’ll see how easy it is to attach and detach the folio in practice, but it seems likely that it will be a little less fiddly than trying to attach the Smart Keyboard to the side of an iPad Pro. It’s also possible that this magnetic attachment will make the entire thing more stable, making it easier to use in your lap as well as on a table.
Apple seems to think it will, because it’s also put two grooves above the keycaps themselves, both of which allow you to place the iPad in a different display angle. Apple says one is more optimized for using on a table or desk, and the other for sitting in a lap.
As someone who has taken to clipping my iPad Pro into a metal shell in order to get a laptop-style feel, I’m fascinated by Apple’s new approach here. I’m going to need to use it in my lap before I decide how I feel, but I’m optimistic? It’s funny that Apple, after going entirely away from the front-and-back case approach in recent iPad generations, has apparently embraced it again with these models. I really like the Smart Cover, though, and I’m going to miss it if these models truly don’t have magnets in the right places to make a simple front cover work.
Speaking of keyboards, I need to once again bring up the Brydge Keyboard I use with my current iPad Pro. I’m curious how companies like Brydge and Logitech, which has made keyboard cases for previous iPad Pro models, will approach this new device. Brydge’s current design requires you to drop the iPad Pro in to two clips that go up against the device’s bezels. Welp! Those bezels are basically gone. Could the magnets on the back of the device be enough to hold an iPad Pro in place? Will any other vendor have access to the new Smart Connector location? Assuming people buy the iPad Pro, someone will try to provide alternatives to Apple’s keyboard. But what form that will take is anyone’s guess.
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