Let’s face it: The iPad has grown a little stale since it arrive in 2010. Sales have trended downward for Apple’s tweener touch device for some time now. Why? There are many theories, but part of the blame lies in its compromises. The iPad has never been as portable or connected as the iPhone, which is Apple’s most essential device to everyday life, and it’s never really satisfied anyone who wanted to get some work done, either.
Enter the iPad Pro.
Apple is hoping that a massive 12.9-inch tablet with a bevy of new artistic and productivity functions is going to revive its sagging tablet lineup. Only time will tell, but what we saw today is a true step forward for anyone who wants to create more than consume.
There’s nothing mysterious about the iPad Pro. It looks exactly like the iPad Air and iPad Mini have for a couple years now. The only difference is that it’s ginormous. With a 12.9-inch screen across, the first time you hold it, you’re in awe. It’s almost like you angrily ripped off the the screen of a laptop and decided to pretend its totally normal to carry it around. That feeling of absurdity fades away as soon as you start to use it.
Here’s a good way to visualize it’s size: If you have a regular 9.7-inch iPad Air, set it down and picture another iPad air sitting next to it. Combine them and you have an iPad Pro. It’s about as thin as other iPads, and for its size, its downright lean at 1.6 pounds. Just a few years ago, nearly every small tablet weighed that much, and spread across this size, it doesn’t feel heavier than it should.
Many people will argue that 13 inches is insane, and simply too big for a tablet. We cannot disagree. For a lot of people, this iPad would be an preposterous purchase. With the accessories and a decent amount of memory, it’s going to cost you about $1,000. It’s more of a Surface Pro or laptop alternative than a tablet as we know them today.
There have been a bunch of large 13-inch tablets, and most of them have failed. The difference here is that Apple does have some unique ideas that are more useful with the larger screen. And if you like eye candy, the screen really pops with 2,732 x 2,048 pixels — that’s more than any other iOS device to date.
Tim Cook may have criticized Windows 8 a couple years ago, but iOS 9 on an iPad Pro does borrow some of Microsoft’s better ideas. The best of them is the split-screen multitasking. This works on the iPad Air 2 too, but it’s best on the Pro. Simply start an app, and then swipe in from the right side of the screen to bring in a list of other apps you can open. The OS very naturally lets you choose an even split screen between two apps, or a compact side screen, like a list of tweets.
A swipe down from the top, upper right lets you replace apps on the right side, and a handy keyboard shortcut that all PC users should know — Command + Tab — lets you speedily switch between open apps. A few other small features, like the ability to have a video hover around the screen, are nice as well, even if Samsung may have gotten here first.
The multitasking menu needs to speed up, but outside of that glitch (we hope), it’s very natural to multitask on the Pro, and the big screen does wonders. Essentially, it lets you have two full iPad apps running side-by-side. On stage today Microsoft (of all companies) showed off its Excel and Word apps next to each other. The demo was compelling, and the Pro felt a lot like a full PC when we used it, thanks in large part to a very Surface-like keyboard cover.
It will cost you $170, but you can finally buy an Apple keyboard for an iPad. It’s powered by a special data and power transmitter on one side of the iPad, right where the cover magnetically attaches, which looks like three small circles.
As a cover, the keyboard is unwieldy. You have to fold it one too many times, making it awkward to quickly maneuver shut. However, when you prop it up, the keyboard snaps into place. We weren’t able to use it on our laps, but because it’s magnetic, there is a chance it might not be too awkward to use sitting down. It has some flex to it, but it doesn’t feel cheap.
Covering the keyboard is a slick fabric mesh of sorts. Apple says it used special fabrics to transmit power through the keyboard, which sounds a little like magic, but seems to work, somehow. The Pro keyboard has a better feel than Microsoft’s Surface Pro keyboard, though they’re similar in size. Each key has a solid click to it, and an indentation that helps your fingers know where to rest. Oddly, we liked the keyboard a little more than the shallower keyboard on the new MacBook.
Better still is iOS 9 support for keyboard shortcuts. Holding the Command button down in any app will bring up a menu of possible keyboard shortcuts you can use. As we mentioned earlier, the best of these is Command + Tab, which lets you scroll through recent apps at a breakneck pace.
Overall, is it worth $170? Probably not, but I’m not sure you’d want to buy an iPad Pro without it. Unless you’re into doing things by hand.
iPad owners have long been able to buy third-party drawing tools, but Apple claims its new Pencil is faster and more responsive than other stylii on the market. A head-to-head comparison will help us figure that out, but in our first experience, it felt far more natural to use and write with Pencil than other stylii we’ve used in the past. A pressure-sensitive tip fully recreates what a pencil, marker, or paintbrush might look like as you apply pressure or reorient the tool. The iPad Pro’s extra-large size is a doodler’s dream come true, and we imagine a lot of them will try out the Pencil.
Impressively, the Pencil charges via Lightning cable. Just lift off its cap and you’ll find a Lightning connector you can pop it into the iPad Pro to charge. Fifteen seconds of charging should let you draw for a half hour, and a full charge should give you 12 hours of drawing, so battery life shouldn’t be an issue.
Because it’s the actual size of a pencil (or close to it), and lacks any noticeable lag, the $99 Pencil will attract a lot of pen-and-paper enthusiasts who might have otherwise set up shop on a Galaxy Note.
You don’t need an iPad Pro. But iPads are rarely necessary for anyone. Unless you lack a phone or PC, an iPad is always luxury tech. But the iPad Pro is some damn nice luxury. It’s fast, has an eye-popping high-res screen, sensible multitasking modes that increase its usability, and two accessories that make it useful to whole new groups of people.
This is an iPad that will do more than play some games, help you read email, and stream Netflix in your bedroom (if you’re like me). Apple wants its iPad to grow up, and the iPad Pro might just help it get a job. But hey, don’t worry. On the weekends it’s even better at streaming Netflix than your old iPad.