It’s hard to overstate how big the iPad Pro is. While its screen size of 12.9 inches might not sound like a huge increase over the 9.7-inches of the iPad Air 2, in the flesh, the Pro proves monstrous, with a footprint that’s only a little smaller than a 13-inch MackBook Air.
While it’s not overly heavy and is quite thin, its large size means that this is a tablet that needs to be held firmly with two hands, plonked on a desk or, at the very least, nestled in the crook of an arm.
That ‘Pro’ in the name should make it clear where Apple’s pitching this one: at the creatives and business users who’ve slowly been warming up to tablets over the last few years.
While Apple CEO Tim Cook may have repeatedly poo-pooed the very concept of 2-in-1 tablet/laptop hybrids, the Cupertino company’s new iPad Pro sails pretty close to the Surface Pro design, what with its optional keyboard cover and stylus.
The Pro certainly has the specs to live up to that promise on the hardware side of things. That 12.9-inch display has a higher 2,732 x 2,048-pixel resolution and is powered by a new dual-core Apple A9X processor — a higher-end version of what’s in the iPhone 6S — paired with 4GB of memory (twice any other iOS device) and a 10,000mAh battery that delivers Apple’s promised 10-hour battery life.
This is a blazing-fast tablet — the quickest ARM-based device we’ve ever seen — that’s about 50% faster than the iPad Air 2 across the board. As with all the other iPads, there’s optional 4G data support too — something you don’t get with Microsoft’s competing Surface line in Australia.
Singing in the key of business
On its own, the iPad Pro arguably isn’t much more than a bloody big iPad. It’s largely through accessories that it’s ‘pro’ pitch starts to solidify.
The Pencil is the first part of that equation, a comfortably sized and weighted Bluetooth stylus that offers about 12 hours of use per 20-minute recharge — something that requires you to slightly clunkily plug it into the iPad Pro’s Lightning port.
Apple calling this stylus the Pencil isn’t just about giving it a hipster name either. Like a real pencil, the angle at which you use it controls the stroke width, so in supported apps, it makes for an excellent sketching and painting tool that’s quite intuitive and organic in use.
The other half of that productivity formula is the Smart Keyboard, effectively one of Apple’s smart covers with a keyboard attached to the end. This can initially be a tad clunky to unfurl and attach, but once you get used to how it works, it’s fairly smooth (though never quite seamless).
The keyboard has a sealed design that should make it more resistant to spills, and keys have a slightly rough texture, like synthetic fabric.
Like many other iOS hardware keyboards, this one packs the traditional Mac system keys (Control, Option and Command) which means you can use many OS X keyboard shortcuts, including cutting and pasting, Command-Tabbing to switch between apps, or using the arrow keys for quicker navigation in text.
There’s some funky tech inside the keyboard too — it doesn’t use Bluetooth, instead connecting physically to the iPad Pro and drawing power from the latter.
On the go, it works better on the lap than the Surface Pro, too, thanks to a flatter base design that keeps it more stable. It’s not as good as a real laptop, mind you, but you can get by.
There’s not much to complain about with the Smart Keyboard, although we do feel that its closeness to the screen isn’t ideal. Every now and again during vigorous typing sessions, we found one of our ring fingers would accidentally tap the screen, moving the cursor off to some random point and needing to be repositioned again.
It’s also a little heavy, adding 337g to the iPad’s 713g and taking the whole package to just over a kilo.
Working with iOS & mobile apps
The extra physical screen size has allowed Apple to put in an almost full-sized software keyboard, complete with a row of number keys and predictive text line.
In updated apps, you also get to see more on screen, which means more characters per line and more rows of text when you’re editing documents, more cells in spreadsheets and more room for tools and brushes in image-editing apps.
Having that kind of expanded view does undeniably make the Pro a better device for getting stuff done, and it makes iOS 9’s split-screen multitasking mode a lot more usable.
Many of iOS’s best productivity apps have been updated to take advantage of the Pro’s new dimensions and some design-oriented ones have even added Pencil-specific support.
iOS isn’t as productivity-friendly as a desktop OS, and it requires compromise and adjustment to use the iPad Pro in place of a laptop.
Beyond work applications, there’s a lot to like about the Pro. Gaming — and, in particular, playing intense 3D titles like racing games — is a spectacular experience, and better speakers (of which there are four) make it great as a portable movie player, too.
Despite everything the iPad Pro does right, there are still elements that have been overlooked or just don’t live up to Apple’s much-vaunted design ethos.
A key one of those is the lack of built-in handwriting support. OS X has had some form of handwriting transcription for over a decade, so it’s perplexing to see it missing here.
Yes, you can cludge it in via third-party keyboards and cloud-connected apps that will upload your scribbles and translate them to typed text (such as Microsoft’s OneNote), but not having handwriting as a universally accessible feature is a serious shortcoming. It’s something the Surface line has done well since version one, and limits the Pro’s capabilities when it comes to work flexibility.
There’s also nowhere to dock the Pencil when it’s not in use and the Smart Keyboard only lets the iPad sit at one angle, which may not suit taller users.
And iOS feels a bit Fisher Price in some areas: despite all the extra real-estate, you still only get 20 icons per home screen (with a lot of empty space).
Then there’s the price. While the base iPad Pro itself is reasonably affordable — the 32GB Wi-Fi model costs $1,249 and the top-end 128GB/4G option is $1,699 — to get the full 2-in-1 solution, you’ll need to pay $165 for the Pencil and another $269 for the Smart Keyboard.
The best option for productivity?
This is a device that’s most successful within one specific niche — graphic designers who use pen-driven apps.
Some of the other elements feel like very un-Apple-like compromises. For now, if you want a tablet for general productivity, the Surface Pro 4 is the more flexible choice.
Verdict: A gigantic, powerful iPad with some unique 2-in-1 capabilities… if you’re willing to fork out for the accessories.
Price: From $1,249