New Apple kit
Our verdicts on the iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard
From £679 Manufacturer Apple, apple.com Available capacities 32GB, 128GB Display 12.9-inch, 2732x2048 pixels Colour options Silver, Gold, Space Grey Other 8MP camera (rear), 1.2MP camera (front), 4G on the top-end model, Touch ID, A9X processor
The way some creationists see it, evolution is bunk because they cannot imagine how useful adaptations come around if not all at once. Throw a gerbil off a cliff, they think and, if those scientists are right, it’ll evolve wings on the way down.
The thing is, that’s not an entirely ridiculous analogy for the tech industry, and if it’s true then with this newest iPad we’ve caught the process halfway down; the result, while impressive and definitely a good thing as the ground rushes terminally upwards, is just as odd and sometimes unsettling as a gerbil in the middle of sprouting wings.
At one level, of course, you can say the iPad Pro is just a big iPad, because at that one level that’s exactly what it is. You can choose between the 7.9-inch iPad mini, the 9.7-inch iPad Air and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and in theory the only major thing that differentiates them is the size of the screen. And yet, the iPad Pro, simply by dint of being the size it is – allied to the fact that Apple has made an optional keyboard cover for it – plus iOS 9’s ability to run more than one app at a time with Slide Over, Split View and so on – continually prompts you to think of it not as an iPad at all, but as a more traditional computer.
It certainly has the grunt to square up to a laptop. The A9X at its heart is a hugely capable chip, and you have to be doing very computationally intensive work for the iPad Pro to feel anything other than utterly slick and assured, but of course the iPad Pro is not a laptop. That would be fine – great, even, depending on your particular needs – but after decades of using desktops and laptops, when presented with something that, when docked in a keyboard case, looks a lot like a laptop, your brain just starts to think it will work like a laptop, and when it doesn’t, you’re more reminded of iOS’s limitations than you are of its benefits.
Some of the things that trip you up are big, system-level things: iOS doesn’t support a mouse, and we lost count of the number of times our thumb twitched towards a non‑existent trackpad. Clearly, this has always been the case with iOS, but the iPad Pro’s size, plus the fact that we’ve been using it lots with a keyboard case, makes this lack of support even more apparent.
Some issues are tiny. iOS now supports an app switcher, accessed with ç+†, just like on a Mac, but because of how iOS handles running apps, it’s limited to just your 10 most recent, and you can’t press Q with an app highlighted to quit it. Neither is in and of itself a bad thing, but they can cause tiny moments of confusion throughout the day when things don’t work as long-term Apple users expect them to, and while in the past you wouldn’t have even had that expectation, the fact that iOS has now adopted some of OS X’s conventions, albeit not with perfect fidelity, creates a slightly uncomfortable tension when your muscle memory fights with reality.
iOS 9’s split-screen multitasking features are genuinely of huge benefit here, even more so on the
iOS 9’s split-screen multitasking stuff is genuinely of huge benefit here, even more so on the Pro’s bigger canvas
Pro’s bigger canvas compared to the iPad Air, letting you write in one app while having Safari open on the right of the screen for research, or draw in one while looking at source material in another, say. But while it’s welcome, there is confusion and compromise. Apps have to be updated to allow them to run as these ’secondary’ apps on the right (and it does have to be the right), and, because the way the apps display themselves boils down to ’behaving like iPad apps’ when the divider is in the middle of the screen, and ’behaving like iPhone apps’ when it’s further towards the screen’s right edge, their interface can change completely. Take Safari. On an iPad, you add a tab by tapping a plus icon at the top-right corner; on an iPhone, you tap the overlapping squares at the bottomright corner, and then tap a plus icon.
So depending purely on where the dividing line between apps is on your iPad Pro, the control for adding a new tab to Safari when it’s on the right of your screen is not just in a different place but in one case behind an entirely different button. Again: this isn’t necessarily bad, but it adds unwelcome friction.
Power and flexibility
Don’t, however, leave with the idea that the iPad Pro is a bad product. It’s ridiculously powerful and flexible, and it’s likely that with time not only will we adapt to these conventions but that developers will come to embrace them.
Besides, that big screen is just glorious – for showing photos, for drawing and painting, for editing video – and while the iPad Pro initially strikes you as comically large, it’s lighter than you expect, and its scale soon stops seeming silly. It’s surprisingly comfortable to wrangle in an armchair.
The speakers – proper stereo speakers, which switch orientation with the device – are far richer and fuller than any other iPad; you probably still want an external wireless speaker for really enjoying music, but they are surprisingly, delightfully accomplished. (Had the speakers taken up less room internally, Apple could probably have pushed the iPad’s battery further than its now standard 10 hours, but we think most will be happy with that trade-off.)
So, do you buy this, maybe adding the Smart Keyboard (see p87), rather than, say, a MacBook? It is – or at least, depending on configuration, can be – cheaper, even with the pricey keyboard, yet depending on your needs it can be both a simpler and more fun computer, while also doing the majority of what most of us want a laptop to do, and some stuff a laptop can’t do. Plus, these days it’s not uncommon to find you want to use apps and games that only exist on iOS, not OS X.
If you’re of an artistic bent or spend a lot of time sketching diagrams, it’s currently an easy decision; the Apple Pencil (see p87) is such a joy that you should buy the iPad Pro, whose larger canvas suits creative work – though we expect Pencil support to be rolled out across the iPad line soon, which will muddy things a bit.
For everyone else, it’s much less clear-cut. The iPad Pro is a genuinely wonderful piece of tech – powerful, pleasing, impressive, joyous – though we can’t help but feel that the iPad line in general is at an awkward point in the process of evolving into something new.
Once it grows its wings it’s going to fly, but at the moment it feels, more so with the iPad Pro than any other model, that it’s neither fish nor flesh, nor a good red herring. Christopher Phin
The iPad Pro is powerful enough to be a laptop, but it isn’t one – and it shows.
The iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil are a compelling creative pairing, so good is the Pencil’s implementation.
A lack of shortcuts means the Smart Keyboard is not an essential purchase.