Increasingly dated

iPad Pro

So now that I've spent a little while with the iPad Pro, what's it like? Firstly, you certainly won't be holding it in one hand; at best you'll be cradling it like a small child.

Secondly, yes it still engenders a healthy mixture of “can I see it with my fingers”-fascination and “how do you like it”-skepticism when out and about. My stock response of “the pencil's great, and it does some things very well, but it'll take a few years before it's ready for prime time” sweeps over the finer details.

No more.



As previously noted, the Pencil remains an unmitigated success. While it's handy for a quick-charge, it still looks silly when charging in the iPad's lightning port, but beyond that it's the best new thing Apple has done in years. Thanks to it, I spend by far most of my time on the iPad Pro in FiftyThree's Paper, sketching UI wireframes for future Squarespace projects. But more than that, I want to go back again and again, it feels that great.

Unfortunately the Pencil (or simply ‘Pencil’ if you want to do like Tim Cook, which I don't) is also at the center of one of the more annoying things about the iPad Pro, namely transporting it. It's a big boy, and while not particularly more or less unwieldy than a laptop (less without the Smart Keyboard, more with as it ‘scoots around’ a bit), there is just no good place to put the Pencil. That the Smart Keyboard or the Cover don't have a little elastic pouch for stowing it is mind boggling.

When you want to just use the iPad Pro itself, all naked-like, you have to stash the peripherals somewhere, and unless you're well organized, the Pencil is likely to go and get itself lost. If not that, at the very least it's just kind of floating around the apartment or office searching for a more permanent home. It's uncivilized, is what it is.

This also means that when I ferry the iPad Pro around the office, to meetings and my team's tables, I have to either hold the Pencil in my hand with the iPad Pro (as I navigate doors and stairs), or deposit it in my pocket. Luckily I have relatively deep pockets, but some day I'll sit down and regret that I didn't check the Pencil's position in the pocket first, potentially regretting not having had children earlier to boot.

The Pencil finds its way to the bottom of whatever bag you're likely to put it into, which makes fishing it out a frustrating little affair in itself.

A thousand cuts and everything.



Another point of some awkwardness is setting up the whole affair once you get to the next meeting. But let's back up for a minute.

The Smart Keyboard remains largely good for typing. The arrow keys aren't great (compressing the up and down arrow keys into the space of a single normal-sized key is the worst new thing Apple has introduced in years, by the way), sometimes I feel like it isn't picking up my Command + TABs and I continue to accidentally hit the Language key because my brain often wants to delete the character on the right hand side of the caret. On a MacBook this requires the Fn key, which lives where the Language key lives on the Smart Keyboard, and Delete.

That of course switches me to either an emoji keyboard or to Danish (or English if I was on Danish, which I never am). It works much like the Language/Globe key on the software keyboard, in that pressing it repeatedly sends it on a slightly unpredictable course through the available keyboard layouts. Without descending into too much detail, it can be maddening to suddenly be interrupted because you accidentally hit it and now the output from your English-language hardware keyboard is being corrected with a Danish dictionary.

There also seems to be a tendency for it to sometimes get caught in the wrong language, and since as opposed to the software keyboard, there is no clear indicator which keyboard layout you're using, it's doubly confusing. Sometimes I have to disconnect and reconnect the Smart Keyboard to literally snap some sense into it.

On the whole the keyboard connection seems a bit buggy. As I'm typing this for instance, the language key doesn't actually work at all, while everything else seems to work perfectly (I updated to iOS 9.3 beta 1 yesterday, from iOS 9.2 non-beta, so that might be why, who can tell?).

I see the usage for the language key on a hardware keyboard, although I would love the ability to disable it for good. It can be helpful for the occasional emoji, but perhaps there's a software solution around pulling up a software emoji keyboard with the Smart Keyboard still attached. It all feels very 1.0 and experimental at this point.

Anyway, these things aside, it honestly seems downright funky to set this damned thing up for typing in a meeting, as it unfolds like a piece of origami and, you try to wrangle the right magnets to line up and snap into some sort of sensible shape.

I don't think it's better or worse than Microsoft's Surface in this, but speaking of the Surface...



The iPad Pro has a whole heap of ergonomic question marks around it. While it's largely equivalent to a laptop with the Smart Keyboard is attached, it most obviously suffers from the lack of a hinge to adjust viewing angle with. In upright 'writing' position it's not too much of a concern, but since it's a tablet, it doesn't just do what a laptop does.

This is one place where Microsoft really knocked it out of the park with the Surface 3 and its kickstand. I have many issues with the Surface as a whole, and I wasn't too sure about the kickstand either when the first Surface came out, but credit where credit is due, Microsoft stuck with it and iterated to what is now a pretty enviable place.

Credit: Gizmodo

Credit: Gizmodo

The iPad Pro essentially has three positions, requiring different paraphernalia. Flat on the table comes for free, of course. I love working like that with the pencil, it feels very natural and flexible. Tilted to a shallow angle for better typing requires the Smart Cover, while a more vertical angle requires either the Smart Cover or the Smart Keyboard.

Going back to the initial point around ergonomics, and transportation, you now have to make some decisions around what you intend to use your iPad Pro for every time you move it.

How much do you anticipate typing? Do you bring the Smart Cover or the Smart Keyboard? Neither? It depends on whether you think you'll be typing a substantial amount or not. You can bring both of course, but if you're like me, that means schlepping them in a bag on the subway, and then when you're there, do you keep them in the bag and take them out when you need them, or just go with one of them for the most part? It sounds stupid, but this becomes the decision making process every time you pick it up to move it, even when it's just from the bedroom to the living room, say.

If it did have a kickstand, there would be no choice but to bring it, and then whenever you would need it, there it is.

As it happens, I don't type a lot at meetings, and on the rare occasion that I have to, I'm okay with the software keyboard that I don't need the Smart Keyboard, or even the Smart Cover for that matter, so I tend to leave both of them somewhere else, usually at home and simply go with just the iPad Pro and with the Pencil in my pocket. This of course causes my fat fingers to grease up the screen as I'm hauling it from one floor to another, and laughter ensues as I try to polish the screen across my chest.

Nit picky enough for you yet?

Realistically, I'd be better off with the Smart Cover for the added versatility, but I also don't like how what would be referred to as the 'spine' of a book part of the cover has enough 'give' for the cover to scoot about when it's wrapped around the back of the iPad, where the magnet isn't strong enough to hold it properly in place.

Which brings us back to the enviability of the kickstand.

Preferably Apple will find a way to give us a detachable keyboard cover which will the most important bits of the flexibility of the Surface's kickstand, while relatively unobtrusive (although not as much as the Surface's kickstand is). Optimally the way I'd like to work with the iPad Pro would let me switch fluidly between full-on typing, and drawing in one move. The Surface very nearly does that, and I want it.

To swing back to the software keyboard: When it works, it's quite good, but there are some pretty significant gotcha's that often trip me up, and the biggest one is the 'trackpad' feature that lets you move the cursor by placing two fingers on the keyboard and moving them around. This feature also allows you to select a word by tapping two fingers on the keyboard, as well as selecting a sentence by tapping twice, or the paragraph by tapping thrice. 

Ironically this feature was introduced in an attempt from Apple's side to up the productivity factor of the platform, but what ends up happening instead is that when I write fast, which I generally do, I delete large chunks of my text because my fingers strike close enough to each other in time and space to trigger the word or even the sentence selection, which is then replaced with the next thing I type. 

This literally happens so often that it's causing me micro anxiety. Presumably 3D Touch to the rescue (although I have intermittent problems triggering that on my phone as well, so...)

The two-finger trackpad functionality is a great idea, but it in itself suffers in various ways. Sometimes when I want it to trigger, it doesn't. It won't seemingly trigger for instance if one of my two fingers is over a modifier key, something which easily happens in the heat of battle.

I also wish the number keys would be full-height, instead of the half-height that they are. I can certainly appreciate wanting to save space in the vertical, but this means that the Delete key is also half-height, which is frustrating.


Slide-Over & Split-Screen

It still lacks drag and drop between split-screen panes, but on the whole split-screen is off to a good start. The biggest problem for my money, is the pull-down app selector in the secondary pane.

It shows representations of the most recently used split-screen compatible apps, one on top another, with room enough for about three of them when using the iPad Pro in landscape mode. This works well as long as you've recently used the app you're looking for. If you haven't it's hell on Earth, as you crawl your way back through a list of apps in the order of last usage... A simple search here would do wonders and presumably incredibly easy to implement. It's not there in the iOS 9.3 beta though, so I assume it's not in the cards for the immediate future.

When in split-screen mode, it's largely impossible to easily determine which app has focus. This isn't important when you're talking about a direct-interaction model like touch, except when you suddenly bring a keyboard into the mix. Suddenly it's spot-the-caret time.

Keyboard shortcut support remains high on my wish list in general. It's confusing and frustrating that I can't switch focus between the split-screen apps with my keyboard for instance, or that iMessage and Slack support using Enter as Send, whereas Messenger does not.

Presumably Apple will do their darnedest to help developers get behind these things by giving them tools and reminders to get on it, but for now it is one of the main things that make this feel not quite ready for prime time.

Less of a concern, but it's odd that split-screen can only be initiated from the right-hand side.



I use Google Docs, Spreadsheets and Gmail on my iPad Pro for work, and their apps are straight up horrendous. To begin with, none of them are optimized for the display, which means using a traditional sized iPad software keyboard stretched to comical proportions. Furthermore I'm not sure anyone at Google has ever given Spreadsheets for iOS a run for its money, because it's a mess of inscrutable interface decisions.

I have my issues with Material Design on the whole, but I understand why Google would want to carry it through to iOS, if for no other reason than trying to save some effort on cross-platform design. But it follows that it feels alien in the midst of everything else. From the outside it sometimes seems as if Google has next to no people committed to keeping up apps like Docs, Spreadsheets or Inbox; not so much an iPad Pro issue, but a general commentary on Google's lackluster commitment to iOS (the Google app and Google Maps have both been properly upgraded, I should note).

Development time is costly, but it always feels odd to see huge companies unable to maintain what from the outside seem like very successful apps.



On the rare occasion that I bottom it out and plug it in, the iPad Pro actually has problems recharging the battery as fast as it depletes. I'm currently hovering around 10%, which has caused a warning to be triggered twice in a row as it went below, then above and back below.

<pause for 30 minutes>

Even now it still hasn't risen above 12%.

Recharging this beast is an over-night ordeal, and one best not forgotten, lest you spend the next day tethered awkwardly to the nearest outlet.

When it is charged however it gives you the ten advertised hours, and quite frankly I love how consistent Apple has been with the iPad on this point. It's like Steve Jobs himself commands from beyond the grave that ten hours of battery life is the very cornerstone upon which Apple itself is built!


What Else?

It's an amazing device in many ways and I'm completely in love with the Pencil. I also find myself grabbing the iPad Pro whenever I want to read image-heavy sites or news, and often for simply writing in a more focused environment.

I still very much need my Mac though, sadly.