Can iPad Pro really replace your iPad AIR or Macbook?

iPad Pro with keyboard
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

Apple CEO Tim Cook calls the iPad Pro a laptop replacement. Here's how it really measures up

When I opened the box in front of my family my first reaction was, "This thing is awkwardly huge." My wife asked if it was a PC monitor. And when I put the iPad Pro next to the iPad AIR 2, I said to myself, "I am not going to carry this huge device around."

But I forged ahead, and decided to give it at least a week to see whether it would grow on me.

The hardware

iPad Pro Swapnil Bhartiya

The hardware is great.

iPad Pro, at 6.9 mm, is actually a bit thinner than the iPhone 6S Plus, although it’s .8mm thicker than the iPad AIR 2. The iPad Pro weights 713 grams and is 276 grams heavier than the iPad AIR 2.

It’s housed in a sleek and lean aluminum body. It’s an Apple device and as expected feels sturdy and sleek when you hold it.

It has a Touch ID fingerprint reader on the home button, two cameras and power and volume keys.

Apple is using its  64-bit 2.26 GHz ARMv8-A dual-core CPU called Twister. The new CPU seems powerful enough to drive resource intensive apps and content, mainly drawing apps and games.

The display of the iPad Pro is gorgeous. With 2,732 x 2,048 (264 ppi.) resolution, iPad Pro’s 12.9 inch display is second only to the iMac 5K screen. Apple has taken advantage of the oxide thin film transistor in the iMac Retina 5K display and adapted it for the Retina display on iPad Pro. Watching ultra high definition content, whether images or videos is awesome.

dsc 4303 Swapnil Bhartiya

At this size, the sharpness, clarity, and millions of pixels makes it a battery guzzling display, but Apple has made significant improvements in that area. The company claims that, “For the first time in any of our devices, iPad Pro knows when the content on your screen is static and cuts the refresh rate in half, to 30 times per second instead of 60. This means that the screen isn’t just big, beautiful, and bright. It’s also incredibly energy efficient."

At the front you have the basic 1.2-mp camera for video chat. The back of the iPad Pro has an 8-MP camera that is equipped with f/2.4 lens and can shoot 1080p and slow motion video. And although I don’t want to see anyone trying take a picture with a 12.9 inch device there are some neat use cases for the camera. Thanks to the bigger screen it can be quite useful for sports training and other such activities where you want to record it and immediately analyze the activity on a bigger screen.

Dismissing any stylus for iOS devices Steve Jobs once said, “So let's not use a stylus. We're going to use the best pointing device in the world. We're going to use a pointing device that we're all born with - born with ten of them. We're going to use our fingers.” He was right, fingers are the best pointing devices. But they're not the best drawing or sketching devices. For that, Apple has created a stylus called Pencil.

This is not an ordinary Pencil, and it’s certainly not a stylus. Apple has baked in many technologies within the display itself to make the Pencil more effective. Apple claims, “iPad Pro knows whether you’re using your finger or Apple Pencil. When iPad Pro senses Apple Pencil, the subsystem scans its signal at an astounding 240 times per second, giving it twice the data points it normally collects with your finger. This data, combined with Apple‑designed software, means that there’s only milliseconds between the image you have in your mind and the one you see on the display."

That’s good and bad news. The bad news is that Pencil will not work with other iPads and some styluses may not work with Pro. What’s not known at this point is whether Apple will keep the Pencil exclusive to the iPad Pro or make future iPads compatible with it.

iOS devices are not known for their built-in speakers. Apple has tried to make a ‘sound’ improvement by cramming four speakers inside the Pro’s thin body. The result is added bass and improved overall sound quality, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. I never liked the speaker placement on iOS devices; front-facing speakers like on the Nexus devices offer a much more immersive experience. If you are looking to enjoy music and movies on the iPad Pro, I would suggest using headphones.

Finally, this $1000 device lacks many of latest hardware components, including the faster Touch ID used in iPhone 6s Plus and the much talked about 3D touch feature, which I like very much on the iPhone 6s Plus.

On the software side

There is nothing on the software side that qualifies the device to earn the ‘Pro’ moniker. Besides the improvements made for the Pencil to work with the device, you get the stock iOS 9 that you experience on iPad AIR.

The biggest disappointment is the interface, which hasn’t been optimized to take advantage of the bigger screen. There are still 5 rows of apps, leaving big gaps between them. You get the same split view that you get on the iPad AIR: 50/50 or 75/25. I didn’t notice any optimization in apps -- everything is either big or there is too much white space.

The onscreen keyboard is also way too big to do any serious typing; you do need a physical keyboard -- and both keyboards that are currently available have their own drawbacks.

Apple’s own apps like Mail could have used the extra space to show more information as you get on Mac OS X. But apps like Music, Messages, Contact, etc are filled with white space.

Apple Mail app Swapnil Bhartiya

Is it going to replace my laptop?

To give the iPad Pro a fair test, I decided to use it for a week without touching my iPad AIR, Macbook or Linux desktop. Of all the work I do, there were only two tasks that I could do reasonably well on my iPad: writing and online research for stories.

While there are versions of Photoshop and Lightroom for iOS, they are mobile versions and not full versions. I have invested heavily in presets, plugins for software such as Nik Software and Topaz and I can’t use them on iOS. I can’t even use LibreOffice to work on my stories.

Apple doesn’t support trackpad and mouse on iOS devices, and I find it extremely painful to take my hands off the keyboard while working to touch the screen. On top of that, it’s an ordeal to select, highlight or copy & paste text.

Working between multiple apps is also restricted to only two apps at a time. And there is variation in how apps behave when using a physical keyboard: iOS has different shortcuts for different apps and there are no shortcuts for some of the core features of iOS such as split view.

There is an endless list of things that the iPad Pro can’t do to replace my laptop, and most of these limitations comes from the restrictions Apple has put on their software.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of iPad Pro is that it is locked down to the App Store. If the app that I need for my work is not permitted by Apple, I can’t install it. On my laptop I can install any app, from anywhere.

Another big setback for iPad Pro is lack of any file management on iOS. On a Mac OS system I have full control over my storage device. I can save files wherever I want, move them around and access them easily across applications. iOS doesn’t do that. I have either photos or iCloud to store my documents. And I have to rely on iTunes to manage music, movies, and other files. If I am buying a 128GB iPad Pro for work, I want to know where my files are and I want to manage them as I see fit. For this reason, iPad Pro is not a laptop-class device.

But can it replace my iPad AIR?

iPad AIR Swapnil Bhartiya

I used my iPad AIR to primarily to read eBooks and watch movies, and in most cases I am holding it in one hand -- that’s not possible with this 12.9 inch tablet.

It’s way too huge to be placed on the corner of kitchen counter to check a recipe. It’s not comfortable to carry around the house.

Due to its sheer size, I can't stick the iPad Pro in the top pocket of my LightPro bag. It has to be crammed in the pocket that is claimed by the Macbook Pro.

The bottom line

With iPad Pro, I don’t get either a mediocre laptop experience nor do I get the portability I expect from a tablet. It fails in both cases. So when Tim Cook said that iPad Pro can replace the laptop for many users that was just bluster, and I'm willing to bet that with the bigger iPhones, a majority of users will never need a tablet again. Those who do need a bigger screen than the iPhone for tasks like reading ebooks, browsing the web, and consuming media may be better off with the iPad Mini or iPad AIR.

iPad Pro may find its niche. Perhaps among graphic artists (although I expect that many would prefer a full-fledged Adobe Suite and access to all plugins). Or maybe in certain industries like medical or kiosks. But I don’t see any general purpose use cases.

So am I going to keep mine? For now, yes -- even though I don’t like it as much as I loved my iPad AIR 2. I am getting it on T-Mobile’s Jump on Demand program and if Apple comes up with second generation of the iPad Pro within the year, I will try that one; otherwise I will go back to AIR.

iPad Pro would have been a game changer if had run Mac OS X instead of iOS. Then it might have been a true laptop replacement, combining the power and open app ecosystem of Mac OS X with the portability of iPad.

The only thing truly holding the iPad Pro back from becoming a laptop replacement is the software.

My question to you is: Would you buy the iPad Pro if it was running the full version of Mac OS X? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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