By the time I got around to writing this article, I had owned the 2017 iPad Pro 12.9” for 5 months and that’s a lot of time to let something get into your life, see how it has affected your workflow and changed your day-to-day.
I apologize for the length of the article. Kinda.
In The Long Long Ago of college, I had subjected myself to a particular kind of torture. I had opted to make my primary computing platform an Asus Transformer Prime (TF 201). The platform had some pros and cons – there were USB ports and the hard keyboard base acted as an extended battery and SD card reader. Everything else was hot garbage. The Android 3.0 Honeycomb update for tablets was late in coming to it, the WiFi antenna in it was so bad that there was a class action lawsuit (I got $17 and a USB WiFi dongle), the built-in office suite for it (Polaris Office) was a nightmare. When Google Docs and associated programs came to Android while I owned it, it was a massive step up.
Even then I did most of my paper-writing in the library computers.
So why would I ever, ever, decide to risk such an experience again for the computing device that will get most of my eyes-on time?
I can’t help myself.
It worked out, though: the 2017 Apple iPad Pro 12.9” is, in a word, delightful — so long as it fits your use case. My entire experience with the iPad Pro, however, comes down to this:
While an excellent device, the iPad Pro cannot be your only computer.
If you already have a computer (even a Chromebook), the iPad Pro really comes into its own. I use a desktop for my more intense computing tasks, so the iPad Pro is simply a mobile device that allows me to do 2D concept work, (very light) 3D modeling, and most of my day to day tasks (article writing, freelance proposals, research, emails, etc.).
Living with the iPad Pro has been very good because it fills that niche so well. Not everything has been easy; there have been delights, struggles, and challenges. All the research in the world won’t keep surprises away!
And I love surprises: they force you to grow.
Adjustments to iOS
I have not owned an i* (or Apple) product since a U2 branded iPod in the early aughts (it was black on the front and chromed on the back [I am not, nor have ever been cool]), so as in all things, there may be a little bit of maneuvering for the new digs.
The day to day adjustments were rather easy, though! The Google Drive suite I am accustomed to is here (with most of the bits and bobs I need), I experimented with Microsoft OneNote (a delightful program!), and some other software workflows for my day to day tasks. My Gmail and Outlook inboxes are well synchronized, the UIs are easy to deal with, and the 12.9” screen gives me loads of real estate to work with on reading & writing projects (like this one). Some thing had gone a little awry, though.
First off, podcasts gave me trouble. On my Android & desktop applications, I had been using Google Play Music for my podcast access (and my RSS reader before that). I didn’t know coming into it that:
1. Google Play Music has not brought podcasts over to the iOS platforms. Whether that’s a strategic thing, a thing from Apple, or something else I’ll never know, they’re just not there.
2. The web version of Google Play Music does not allow you to run in the HTML5 experimental mode, nor allow you access to the podcasts there.
3. Manually downloading podcasts on my RSS reader is kind of a pain in the neck.
Luckily, though, there is a savior: PocketCasts. It’s a paid platform, but they are available on iOS, Android, and the Web for a couple of bucks on each platform (all one-time fees). Which is great, because the iPad Pro has become my most prolific podcast machine (more on that later). I am usually hesitant (or even loathe) to pay for a service I could once get for free – usually opting to jump through hoops instead – but $10 total purchased a genuinely excellent podcast experience across all three platforms.
The next weird thing is that there is no mouse input. I had not expected this at all – even Android tablets & phones support mouse inputs. iOS simply does not. More detail on this later, but it is not necessarily mission critical.
A feature that I had taken for granted in Android is that you can set a default app to open a certain kind of link. Links to forums, YouTube, Imgur, etc. can all be set to open the app. Android politely asks you if you would like to open links in your web browser or in the app for the platform. If that is a feature in iOS, I haven’t found it. It results in some weird internal browser options for Inoreader (RSS feeds) & a legion of open tabs in Safari (which I never use because I prefer Chrome). It makes catching up on video subscriptions a little inefficient.
The last thing that is weird is the file system. I can’t make new folders in the root directory – only applications can do that. I genuinely hate it. Even Chromebooks let you set up sub folders in the directory (which is all just under “Downloads” or “External Storage” for SD cards), but this restricts you to setting things up in specific app subfolders (like “Pages”) and that just hdfjkalhfdjahfuidahk. Many Android file managers let you make files where you please.
Files for iOS just seems kind of…useless. I really and truly hope that this becomes a more robust true-blue file management service because iOS would genuinely be better off without it. A lot of files don’t support sending attachments from Files, it’s the only part of the experience that is just bad and I don’t know why it’s here. It is – at best – half baked.
A Mobile Platform
And that bit about Files gets to the heart of the iPad Pro – it is a mobile operating system, not a desktop one. I generally identify as a multitasker and always as a power user. I hesitated with the prospect of iOS as my primary device because I need my windows! Scores of browser tabs, email applications, chat platforms, everything, I need these things.
At least on the iPad Pro I don’t. The requirement to monotask has been a dramatic boon. Distractions are minimal. I am able to write and write uninterrupted. No extra monitor tugging away at my attention. Switching among recent apps may even be faster than on my desktop with double-tapping the home button over Alt+Tab or trying to remember where I left a window. The occasional push notification is easy to ignore when the outside world invades (thoughts on the Android vs iOS notification systems would be for another post at another time).
I will say this, though: the above being a boon is precisely because the iPad Pro is an auxiliary device, not my only device. It would be much more difficult – maybe impossible in The Year of Our Lord Two-Thousand & Eighteen – to justify the iPad Pro as one’s sole computer. It simply isn’t there yet, & much of that is because it is a mobile platform above all else. Could it be one’s sole mobile & entertainment device? Positively. Could it be one’s primary productivity device? No. Not yet.
The iPad Pro shines in the way it fits into your life. The main reasons I bought it – portability, battery life, productivity – have led to this device nestling into my everyday life in ways that I had not expected.
When I move rooms, the iPad Pro comes with me. I look up recipes on it in the kitchen. I play podcasts with it when I shower (and in the kitchen). I use it as an auxiliary screen in the office. I play music on it constantly. Most of the things I use for my Chromecast come from this iPad instead of my phone. My RSS feed works more like the newspaper I wanted it to be with the large form factor screen. It really and truly comes everywhere because it’s easy to carry.
The speakers on the 2017 iPad Pro 12.9” are stellar for a portable device. My laptop, a $1,500 gaming and multimedia machine from 2015 are hot garbage in comparison (I just tried them out the other day for the first time in years and I remembered why I carry headphones all the time). They won’t blow most folks away, but they’re about equivalent with my $35 Bluetooth speaker (marginally worse bass but we’re nitpicking at that point). I do wish, though, that the bezel space (“forehead” and “chin”) were used for front-facing speakers, but that may have been a trade off for having more zone-filling audio over directional audio.
For (fellow) podcast enthusiasts, the speakers are sure to please. I can fill a room (like my bathroom) with a podcast and hear it over environmental noise, like cooking (or showering).
The DAC & amp solution built into the 2017 iPad Pro 12.9” is pretty stellar, too. I know Tim Cook is gunning for headphone jacks, so I was afraid that the audio solution here would be neglected. It was not. My Massdrop special headphones (HiFiman HE 4XX and AKG 7XX) are all driven marvelously by the tablet. They’re not the hardest headphones to drive, but they can sound anemic on portable solutions, furthermore it can be hard to isolate audio hardware in an adequate way but Apple have delivered here.
The screen size & quality compared with the audio outlay above have made the iPad Pro an exceedingly potent video & movie-watching machine. YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime Streaming, everything is really and truly exceptional.
In the Decision Space article, I outlined that a non-16:9 screen aspect ratio was important. Reading & writing have a lot to gain with taller screens, and those activities are certainly ameliorated by the 12.9” iPad Pro’s 4:3 screen (Microsoft’s Surface & Google’s Pixel laptop lines utilize taller ratios as well).
The form factor of the 2017 iPad Pro 12.9” is spectacular. I am in love with the fabric/foldable keyboard + tablet form factor. The Surface Pro series, Eve V, & upcoming Windows ARM computers (among others) all use this form factor. This makes it feel like we are at a very interesting moment in design for portable computing platforms. 2-in-1 hinges are fine, but the fabric keyboards offer too many advantages for the majority of use cases:
• They’re easier to clean
• They don’t get greasy & shiny
• When in tablet mode you’re not constantly pressing down keyboard keys
• It’s easy to replace
• A mote of dust won’t lay out the entire computer (looking at you, MacBook Pro)
• They are lightweight
• They can deliver an as-good or better typing experience than most laptop keyboards.
For folks who need a certain port selection, one or two USB-C ports (or a single Thunderbolt 3 port!) will satisfy 99% of use cases, and one would imagine that these will be much more frequent in 2018 and beyond.
This is not to drag on regular clamshell laptops — I will continue to be a user of mobile workstations for the foreseeable future (hopefully by 2020 or so when I’m looking at a new one, that means only an SD card slot & USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports). But as said above, this is not a primary device. The iPad Pro will only do you any good by being used in addition to another non-iOS computing platform.
The Smart Keyboard
I was nervous going into this – I spent a lot of time finding the right mechanical keyboard switches for me (MX Blacks). I was less than stoked with the overall typing experience on the Steelseries branded keyboard on my MSI gaming laptop (really a portable desktop given its battery life). How would this skinny sleeve looking thing be? This hesitation is what made me sure I understood the return policy on this whole setup because if word processing wasn’t at the very least acceptable let alone good, then this would fail in one of the major tasks I needed it for.
The typing experience on the Smart Keyboard is quite lovely. It’s not the best thing ever. There are some ergonomic compromises, but each key has a crisp feeling on depression, bottoming out is not jarring or noisy, and it just feels springy and responsive. There are bumps on the F and J keys to give touch typing enthusiasts like me that extra level of reassurance, and my favorite thing about the Smart Keyboard/iPad Pro word processing experience: most of the keyboard commands work. Copying and pasting are all quick keystrokes away! There are some weird hinks in there (WordPress isn’t super pleased with using my arrow keys in the main composing box), but overall it has been an excellent experience.
The construction quality of the Smart Keyboard is interesting. After these months, I have a few rough spots on it from daily carry. If I have to replace it each year, that will be a little upsetting – it would add $170 each year to the cost of ownership, but the damage is not that severe. (Aside: There is an argument to be made for being able to replace the cover & keyboard whole cloth when it starts to get torn up or in rough shape where with a laptop you’re kinda stuck with it, but that may be its own post).
The Apple Pencil
The Apple Pencil has been a standout input device. There are certain reptilian cravings and a lifetime of adaptation that makes me want to miss using a mouse , but outside of 3D modeling I really don’t. The UIs across the app and in the browser scale rather well, I rarely miss my tap-marks, and for more precise workflows, the Apple Pencil is as accurate as the user.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully the Decision Space and this long-term review have been able to get across a single, important fact: the iPad Pro is great if you already own a computer.
If you are considering purchasing an iPad Pro in The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Eighteen as your only computer:
If you are in need of one computer and your heart is set on a mobile platform, get a Chromebook. If you want an Apple product, pick up one of the less expensive MacBooks. Really. Don’t get the iPad Pro 12.9” as your only computer.
All that said:
Has the iPad Pro invaded every aspect of my life? Yes. Am I sitting at a bar writing this conclusion? Yes. Have I been out and about all day writing & sketching on it with plenty of battery life to spare? Sure have. It does an impeccable job being my out-and-about device. If you need to do things like print, record audio, or operate in a way that requires non-mobile versions of the internet, though, it just won’t do you any good.
I adore the iPad Pro. I really do. I just happen to fall into this incredible niche where it is the right device for me. If you don’t need to do 2D and 3D art on the go, the Dell XPS 13, MacBook, Pixelbook, or Samsung Chromebook Pro (at half the price!) may be the superior options.