Two new iPad Pro models were revealed at Apple’s developers conference last week. Credit Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
When Steve Jobs introduced the first iPad in 2010, he described the tablet as a product that sat somewhere between the laptop and the smartphone, excelling at tasks like browsing the web, reviewing photos and watching videos.
Five years later, Mr. Jobs’s successor, Timothy D. Cook, took the iPad a step further. Unveiling the iPad Pro, a souped-up tablet that worked with Apple’s keyboard and stylus, he remarked that people would try the product and “conclude they no longer need to use anything else, other than their phones.”
That prediction has not appeared to come true. Many professionals say they use an iPad in addition to a personal computer, and sales of iPads have shrunk quarter after quarter for more than a year, an indication that hordes of people were not trading in their PCs for tablets just yet.
That situation is unlikely to change with Apple’s newest iPad Pro, which will be released this week. The professional tablet, which comes in two screen sizes — 10.5 or 12.9 diagonal inches — is incrementally improved from previous models. It is faster, with a brighter display and a higher refresh rate that makes motion look buttery smooth. In addition, the screen on the smaller iPad Pro has been enlarged slightly from 9.7 inches.
But after about a week of testing the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, I concluded that Apple’s professional tablet still suffers from some of the same problems when compared with a laptop. Most important, keyboard typing is not comfortable, and some tasks are better done with a mouse than with a touch screen. In the end, I would still recommend a traditional laptop for most professionals.
What Has Improved
The most significant improvement to the iPad Pro is speed. The new tablet is notably faster: In speed tests run with the app Geekbench, the new iPad Pro was roughly 50 percent faster than its predecessor.
That means if you upgrade from an iPad older than last year’s model, you will get a tremendous speed increase. The speed boost makes the new iPad Pro better at intense tasks like juggling multiple apps, editing high-resolution photos and playing graphics-heavy games.
The new iPad Pros also include a higher screen refresh rate. That makes motion look smoother, which is noticeable when opening or closing apps and scrolling through documents or websites. It is also supposed to make some games look better, but as of this writing, game developers had yet to update their apps to support the higher refresh rate.
The other notable change is the increased screen size of the smaller iPad Pro. Apple slimmed down the bezel — or the border surrounding the screen — to make more room for the display; the tablet’s body is also slightly larger and heavier. Over all, this is a better size for the smaller iPad Pro, partly because the increased size also gave room for Apple to make a slightly larger version of its physical keyboard, called Smart Keyboard.
Apple also made a nice improvement to its accessories for carrying and protecting the iPad Pro. It now sells a stylish $129 leather sleeve that includes a holder for its stylus, Apple Pencil, which addresses a concern that people could easily lose the stylus. The sleeve is just roomy enough to also hold an iPad Pro with a Smart Keyboard cover folded over it.
What Falls Short
Enlarging the smaller iPad Pro was an effort to address the tablet’s greatest weakness: typing. The Smart Keyboard is essentially a protective cover for the screen with a keyboard and magnet built into it. When you open it, the tablet rests on top of the keyboard, held in place by the magnet.
Here’s the problem: The Smart Keyboard is thin and the keys do not click well or feel as satisfying to type on as the keyboards on a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air; after a long period of typing, the Smart Keyboard felt flimsy. The keyboard for the 10.5-inch model is still small and cramped compared with a MacBook keyboard.
The other issue is ergonomics. Using the touch screen in combination with the Apple keyboard can be a pain on the wrist.
Say, for example, you are using the keyboard to scroll through an email or website: If you want to open a link, you have to lift your hand away from the keyboard and tap the link. Or say you want to adjust the screen brightness or hit pause on a music track while typing: Both actions require reaching up and touching the screen. These keyboard-to-touch-screen reps get tiring.
In my experience, using a keyboard and trackpad on a laptop feels like a more comfortable combination for crunching through a busy day of emails, messages, documents, spreadsheets and calendar entries.
The other issues with the iPad are related to software and may be resolved this year. For example, you can have two apps open side by side with the iPad Pro. You can use each app independently, but the two apps cannot interact with each other easily: You cannot drag and drop a photo or file from one app to the other, for example. Fortunately, Apple is set to release a drag-and-drop feature this fall in iOS 11, its next mobile operating system. The operating system will also add the ability to display up to three apps at the same time and introduce a file system, which could make juggling tasks between applications easier.
Who should buy one?
In its current state, the iPad Pro is in an awkward position among Apple’s product lineup. A small set of professionals who do not do much typing — like artists and illustrators — could probably get away with using an iPad Pro with a stylus as a stand-alone computer. But most professionals would probably benefit from using a personal computer combined with a smartphone and tablet.
There is little reason to consider an iPad Pro, which starts at about $649, if you are not also planning to purchase the optional $159 Apple Smart Keyboard or $99 Apple Pencil. It would be overkill to spend that much on an iPad without the accessories.
If all you are looking for is a tablet for casual purposes like streaming Netflix, reading books or sending email, a standard iPad that lacks compatibility with the Apple keyboard and stylus costs $329 and will be powerful enough to suit your needs. (Or you could just get a big-screen smartphone and skip tablets altogether.)
As for me, I must confess: I used the iPad Pro in research and outlining for this review. But when it came to writing it while reviewing notes simultaneously, I switched back to my MacBook Air, largely because the keyboard felt better to type on and it was easier to multitask with several apps.