“What’s it for?” That was the response we kept getting when introducing friends and family to the iPad Pro. It’s a good question. Apple’s latest tablet is its largest, with a 12.9-inch screen that’s 3.2 inches bigger than the iPad Air 2, when measured diagonally. It’s an almost comedic step up in size. For a while there, it seemed like big cellphones and small tablets were racing to meet in the middle, and that all handheld computing would take place at roughly six inches. Now, Apple hopes to reverse that trend, and expand our notion of what a tablet should be.
We should note that other manufacturers have made tablets larger than 10 inches. In fact, Microsoft beat Apple to the punch by more than a year with its Surface Pro 3. But the Surface Pro never felt like a fully formed tablet, and we wound up using it as an ad hoc laptop. It was clear from the outset what the Surface Pro was for — work. But is that what the iPad Pro is for, too? Or, as we predicted when the device was first announced, is the giant-size iPad nothing more than a luxury tablet, with a luxury price tag to match (it starts at $800)? To find out, we spent three days with Cupertino’s biggest gamble since the Apple Watch.
Despite using big-screen tablets before, the quality of the iPad Pro’s 12.9-inch display is literally stunning. Apple rates its resolution at 2732×2048, with 264 pixels per inch. That’s the same pixel density as the iPad Air 2, so despite more real estate, the display is just as crisp and detailed. But there’s more to screen quality than raw resolution, and Apple’s image and video processing is still the tech to beat in this class. High-res photos and streamed shows look breathtaking when viewed full-screen. For anyone who watches a lot of content on flatscreen TVs, binging through shows and movies on a tablet often feels like a compromise in image quality and immersion, no matter how close you jam that screen up to your face. But the iPad Pro doesn’t seem like a consolation prize. Watching video on this thing feels indulgent. But the 1.57-pound Pro is simply not as portable as other tablets. Where other iPads excel at walk-and-tap computing, carting this around feels like transporting a laptop, and clutching it with both hands during use is awkward because the on-screen keyboard is too big for you to comfortably type anything with your thumbs.
Watching new shows on Netflix and Amazon sound great since Apple finally righted the iPad’s biggest wrong: tinny, non-stereo audio. The Pro has four speakers, one for each corner, and it’s a huge upgrade. It even pulled off some of the virtual surround sound wizardry that we’d only experienced with higher-end Kindle devices. One other thing that caught our attention right away: A premium power cord. The lightning cable that comes with the Pro is thicker than the standard, Apple-issue cord, and roughly twice the length. So far, the Pro isn’t a workhorse device, the Ford F-150 of tablets. It’s the Lexus of tablets, and as well-appointed as you’d expect from a luxury product.
On our second day with the tablet, we put it head-to-head with the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, as a highly mobile work machine. This, it turns out, was not a fair fight. From a design perspective, the iPad Pro is thinner than the Surface, and its operating system is more intuitive, and less buggy, for viewing e-mail and browsing websites. But for most of us, to really work on any device means typing on a physical keyboard, and having quick and easy access to lots of files. Compared to the Surface’s keyboard cover, Apple’s Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro is a huge downgrade. Its keys are looser, with none of the satisfying click of Microsoft’s keyboard. It’s also missing a trackpad, which seems like a no-brainer, since iOS doesn’t support mouse cursors.
And that’s the real problem with trying to work on any iPad, no matter the size. Where the Surface can function like a laptop, with a traditional desktop and folder-based file storage, the iPad Pro still operates like a great big phone. Files are locked away in specific apps and can’t be organized in a central storage system. And good luck trying to get files on or off of a USB thumb drive when using iOS. The iPad Pro is, like other iPads, a serviceable work machine for emergency use. It’s not, however, suitable for business trips, or as anything resembling a laptop replacement. At the end of the day, we finally figured out that using a silicone case was a necessity when holding the Pro, and that we had to hold it from underneath rather than gripping it between our fingers and thumb like previous iPads.
If you’re a graphic designer or an illustrator, and you fork over an additional $99 for the Apple Pencil, you can put the Pro back in iPad Pro. The Pencil is the best iPad stylus we’ve used by a mile. Other models have claimed to use Bluetooth to reduce lag and allow your writing or drawing hand to rest on the screen without sending it into convulsions, but this is the first stylus to fully deliver. And pairing, which is a frequent headache with other active styluses, is appropriately Apple-simple: Turn on Bluetooth, then plug the Pencil into the Pro’s lightning port, and it automatically pairs. With compatible apps, the Pencil becomes force-sensitive, applying darker lines with a harder press. The Pro has the real potential to become a tool for precise sketching, illustrating, and possibly even photo retouching. It was also superior to the comparatively stubby styluses on the market — the Pencil comes to an actual point, whereas most other models have a blunt, eraser-like tip. You can also write notes with much more speed and accuracy than with previous setups. But a scrap of paper and a ballpoint pen are still the superior option. And unless image creation and manipulation are your profession, or your passion, it’s hard to recommend dropping nearly $100 on this stylus, no matter how innovative and class-leading it might be.
It’s tempting to say the same about the iPad Pro, in general. Illustrators and designers who are in legitimate need of new gear could justify spending $800 for the baseline iPad Pro, plus $99 for the Pencil, and another $79 for the silicone case (or something similar). For everyone else, though, it’s time for some soul-searching. Like all tablets, the Pro excels at being primarily an entertainment machine. Graphics-intensive games look amazing on that huge screen, and streaming on HBO Go is so impressive that we’re considering finally making the cord-cutting leap to HBO Now. Even apps like Garage Band are more appealing on the Pro, in part because of the screen, but also because of its force-sensitivity. Reading sites and app-based magazine issues is more appealing. Pinterest, with its emphasis on gorgeous, high-res images, is leaps and bounds better. Everything that’s fun on a tablet is more fun on the iPad Pro.
If you can afford to buy the best version of the iPad ever made, go for it. Just don’t kid yourself that it’s a productivity booster. And if you can’t afford it, take heart. After using the Pro for a few days, going back to a non-Pro iPad was unsettling. Netflix seemed dim and tiny. Games were cramped. And there was no way we were tinkering with Garage Band. Whether the iPad Pro is a bona fide hit, a niche-market product, or an absolute flop, this is the shape of tablets to come. Giant tablets are too much fun to be anything other than the new status quo. [From $799; apple.com]