When Apple announced the release of the iPad Pro back in November, I tried not to read the press releases or watch the introductory video. For the most part, I was successful in my avoidance. Then when it was actually released in December, I tried to avoid reading the myriad reviews. I didn’t fare as well there. And, when my Dean offered to loan me his iPad Pro setup, it was all over for me. I couldn’t help but dive in, explore the features and really try to understand how well this new device and related accessories would meet the needs of most academics. Please note, this won’t be an exhaustive or very technical review (find those here and here). I was just interested in seeing how it stood up to the main kinds of tasks academics might use it for.
First, what is the iPad Pro?
The iPad Pro is a really big iPad. So big it almost looks silly. If you have a standard iPad in front of you, imagine two of them side to side mashed together and you roughly have a sense of the size of this thing. It has a 12.9 inch screen, which is equivalent to “medium sized” laptops. If you’re used to working with an iPad (or especially an iPad mini) it seems “goofily” big. Interestingly, though, it’s still very thin and light – noticeably lighter than my 11-inch MacBook Air. The size certainly takes some getting used to, though.
One other way that it differs from either the iPad or iPad Mini is the power. This is a really, really fast device. You unlock it with a thumb scan on the home button. It’s so quick that you almost don’t need to consciously pause. Once logged in, an app like Microsoft Word launches instantly. Think about that. You can roll into a meeting, and in less than five seconds you can be logged in and typing in Word. Also unlike the iPad or Mini, Apple makes its own keyboard cover. I’m typing this review on that keyboard and I’ll tell you it’s almost as good as the excellent keyboard on my MacBook. I’ve been using a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for a year or so and this keyboard (and whole experience) is heads and shoulders above. More than just a handy device to play a game, read a book, or watch a video, this is a serious computer.
It’s almost a laptop replacement
Let’s get this part out of the way. Nearly every review published since December tried to answer the question of whether the iPad Pro could replace your laptop. Honestly, as powerful as this is and with as many Apps available in the iTunes Store, it would still be difficult for most people to replace their laptop with an iPad Pro. For one thing, while you can link up with your cloud storage services (I have Dropbox, OneDrive and Box all linked and working smoothly), it can still be difficult to figure out how to get a file onto your device if you don’t live in the cloud, or get an attached file out of an email, edit it, and then send it back. All these things can be done, but you have to want to figure it out. This is one of those areas that doesn’t “just work” right out of the box.
That said, the Office applications (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook) are great on the iPad Pro. You can, of course, get these on your iPhone or iPad, but the larger screen and the keyboard cover make them much, much more useable. In fact, the experience is so good, I find myself picking the iPad up rather than my MacBook most of the time. The App Store is great for Apple devices. Compared with the relatively minuscule offerings for the Surface, you can find just about any app for the iPad Pro. Though many don’t yet take advantage of the larger screen as well as they might, I’m sure they will in time.
All in all, if you find yourself mostly living in email, editing Word and PowerPoint documents, browsing the Web and using apps, the iPad Pro would probably work well for you – if you’re willing to figure out how to accomplish some things that you take for granted on your computer. For example, if you rely on sharing a lot of files via flash drives, need multiple monitors, edit lots of video, or record podcasts, while you can probably make this work, I’m not sure it would be worth the effort.
Document reading and annotating is a game changer
Most academics read a lot of documents. In a given week, I refer to several books, dozens of PDF files, read over students’ Word documents, and explore Web resources. All are amazing on the iPad Pro. Unlike a Kindle or typical tablet, you don’t need to squint to read the text or do a lot of scrolling to fit a reasonable page size on the screen. An A4 (letter-sized) document fits nearly perfectly on the screen. So, when you’re reading a PDF of a journal article on this device, it’s the perfect size. Same for Word documents. And for me, it’s so much more comfortable to read on a flat screen than on the monitor of a computer. Assuming you read a lot, this experience alone almost makes it worth purchasing.
When you add the Apple Pencil to the mix, it is like magic. When I’m reading something, to really understand it, I have to mark it up. I’ve been trying different PDF annotation apps and different styli for years on my iPad and for the last year on my Surface Pro. Nothing comes even close to writing on the screen compared with the Pencil. You can write with such precision that you can make legible handwritten notes on a PDF document as easily as writing on a piece of paper. Using an app like PDF Highlighter you can change from a pen to a highlighter, adjust the colors, etc. with a single button. It is an outstanding experience.
The other experience I really enjoy is handwriting notes in meetings and just to capture my ideas. Using the Pencil with an app like Apple’s built in Notes app, Evernote, or Penultimate is a great way to take, organize and store handwritten notes on your iPad Pro. With MyScript Memo you can even translate handwritten text into printed digital text. Even with my chicken scratch, this works great. The Pencil and these apps also enable me to do some Sketchnoting – which is all but impossible with a typical nubby stylis on a tablet. For me at least, this ability to interact with an excellent stylus on a tablet has me sold on this device.
Is it right for you?
I’d argue that the iPad Pro isn’t right for everyone. First of all, it’s expensive (they range from $799-1079). You also have to buy the keyboard and Pencil separately. This combined cost quickly climbs up to MacBook Pro or a nice Windows laptop price point quickly. But, I think if you value really great performance, an excellent touch interface, the ability to read and annotate full size documents very comfortably, then you’ll have to weigh the cost.
I think given how much reading, annotating and note taking I do, it will be painful for me to return this device to its rightful owner. I’m just hoping I can scrape together enough grant money to buy my own.
What do you think of the iPad Pro?
Please post your comments below.