One week with iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

In pitching the iPad Pro at its subdued media event in March, Apple set its sights on the millions of people using computers that are more than 5 years old. This iPad, they think, is good enough and powerful enough to completely replace your ageing Windows PC.

With its “desktop-class” processor, highly portable form factor and support for new accessories like the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil - the company’s new-ish Bluetooth-enabled digital stylus - this device is squaring up to cheap or ageing laptops, but also competitor tablet devices from the likes of Samsung, Lenovo and even Microsoft’s own Surface.

Apple wants your iPad Pro to be your primary computer; but is it good enough?

The big iPad, only smaller

The new 9.7 inch iPad Pro has an almost identical feature set to its bigger sibling, the 12.9 inch iPad Pro, that was announced late last year. It has the same A9X processor powering the device, the same high sensitivity display technology to support the Apple Pencil, the same “smart connector” to power a range of accessories, and - of course - it has the same operating system, iOS, now running at version 9.3.1.

In fact there are only 4 major differences between this iPad and its larger sibling:

  • the new 9.7 inch model has only 2GB of RAM, compared to 4GB in the larger device1
  • the new model has a new True Tone sensor that adapts the colour and intensity of the display to ambient light, making the screen more comfortable to read from
  • this iPad features the upgraded 12 megapixel camera from the iPhone 6S
  • and, of course, the device is physically smaller - almost indistinguishable from the iPad Air 2

The same iPad, only more powerful

In a nutshell, using iPad Pro is much the same as using any other iPad; just better. That’s not really much of a surprise - this iPad can do everything its predecessors can do, after all.

This new iPad Pro, like its larger sibling, isn’t a revolution in itself. Everything feels lightning fast - but performance hasn’t been an issue on iPads for some time now - and the better display and camera are welcome additions, but if you already have an iPad Air 2, and you choose not to take advantage of the new Smart Connector or the Pencil, you’d be hard pressed to notice the difference.

Apple isn’t trying to replace your iPad Air 2 though, they want the iPad Pro to be the iPad that replaces your old Windows PC. Whilst it’s certainly powerful enough to compete with some fully-fledged Windows computers, it’s not the hardware that would prevent someone from being able to trade in their “truck” PC for their “car” iPad Pro. That’s the iPad’s operating system which is still constrained in increasingly fewer but evermore confusing ways.

Take split screen multi-tasking for example. Despite being a feature of iOS for over a year now, most apps still don’t support it. Even Apple’s apps don’t all work in split-screen. In those that do, you still can’t drag content from one app to the other.

I don’t pretend like these are easy things to design and build in, but they’re just some examples where iOS lags in feature completeness to its desktop rivals, and it makes the proposition of going “iOS only” nearly impossible - though it’s easier with every software update.

So if not the device itself, or the software, what makes this iPad so special?

Apple Pencil.

Apple Pencil meets digital paper

It’s somewhat ironic that an iOS device’s defining feature would be a stylus, given Apple’s history. Steve Jobs famously killed Apple’s first stylus-enabled product, the Newton. It was a decision that spawned the company’s pursuit of multi-touch displays, and the birth of both the iPad and the iPhone. Bringing back the stylus, though, is a stroke of genius.

Part of the reason Steve Jobs hated styli so much was because they sucked. Apple Pencil does anything but suck. It’s called a pencil for a reason; using it is just like writing on paper, and it’s really where the new iPad Pro comes into its own.

Combined with the processing muscle of the A9X, iPad Pro and Apple Pencil make apps like Adobe Draw, Photoshop mix and Pixelmator sing. Being able to manipulate content fluidly, with no lag and near perfect precision makes iPad a joy to work on creatively like no iPad before it.

It also enables new experiences, like handwriting recognition, in a way not possible before2. That’s because - unlike with most styli created for iPad before - it actually works! In fact, I’ve written this entire blog post using the Apple Pencil - I haven’t typed a single key stroke.

In the past week, I’ve been using it to minute meetings, edit photos and more. Compared with a laptop it’s so much less obtrusive, and compared to a notepad and pen it’s infinitely more versatile.

If you’ve ever wanted to be able to write, or draw, or paint, or even pen music on to a digital medium, this is the ultimate way to do it. I’ve never used a stylus like it. It’s ultra-fast, amazingly precise and despite the overly slippery exterior casing, very natural to use.

I’m so impressed with Apple Pencil, I’d go as far as to say that just this feature alone justifies the £499 starting price for the new iPad. (The Pencil itself costs an additional £79).

“Apple Tax” taken to new extremes

If there’s one reason to avoid this new iPad though it’s Apple’s other accessories for the device. Being somewhat the Apple fanboy, I usually stomach a lot of the company’s steep pricing, but the iPad’s new Smart Cover and Smart Keyboard were too difficult to swallow.

The keyboard - priced at over £120, and only available in US keyboard layout - is daylight robbery. In fact, if you’re considering buying it, I’d suggest you look at one of the many Bluetooth keyboards on the market instead; at least they won’t be obsoleted in 12 months time when the iPad hardware design inevitably changes again.

The Smart Cover is a worse offender though. It’s inexplicably priced £10 higher than the equivalent cover for iPad Air, despite the cover being made from exactly the same material. In fact the only discernible difference is that the magnets are aligned differently in the two covers. I’ve plumped for this excellent Moleskine case instead.

Just another iPad, but better

If you’re in the market for a new tablet, there’s no doubt this new iPad is an exceptional choice. Most people won’t need the extra horsepower, and unless you have a specific use for the Apple Pencil - like drawing or wanting to take notes - you probably won’t need the iPad Pro. But, if you do and you want to get the best tablet you can get, then this is probably the one for you.

  1. Whilst more RAM is always better, and much is being made of this difference in the tech press, in practice most of the larger iPad’s extra RAM is probably needed just to drive the larger, 12.9 inch, display. Real world usage isn’t showing this 2GB of RAM to be holding back the smaller device. ↩︎

  2. iOS 9 doesn’t support handwriting recognition by default, but you can install a number of apps and custom keyboards to enable this great functionality. ↩︎