For the first time – I love my iPad (an iPad Pro review)

I’ve owned two iPads over the years, a hand me down first gen, and a first gen mini which I needed for a job. The original I tried to enjoy in the capacity that made most sense to me – couch browsing – but always found it was never on hand when/where I needed it and my iPhone was always there. I passed it along to my mother-in-law who loved it and certainly got more use out of it than I did. I bought the mini to run a wireless live display on stage in a theatrical production (running Keynote Remote via an iPhone from the wings) and it performed famously. Outside of the occasional practical use in the theatre, I tried to use it for all manner of other things – iBooks, web browsing, video watching, writing; I even tried it out on ProCut X, the iOS app purporting to be a versatile jog/shuttle device. Unfortunately, ProCut X was next to useless, as was almost every other purpose I tried to apply my iPad to. Other than iBooks (which again was more convenient on my iPhone) the iPad ended up relegated to laying around on the charger but otherwise unused.

iPads for me, a self-diagnosed power user, came to represent a device with highly specific uses. We handed out a handful of iPads to cast to read the latest versions of scripts when new versions were flying thick and fast, or it was used as a clapper board on film sets using the terrific Movie*Slate app. I had a few artist friends who were using iPads more and more to create digital artworks with Procreate which was awesome, but the iPad still showed little appeal for me. The Pencil, however, changed everything. It was one dark day, neck deep in a massive edit and with a desk covered in notes that I found myself picking up a 9.7″ iPad Pro with a pencil and a keyboard cover. We had several viewings coming up, during which were bound to be copious notes from others as well as myself and I knew my edit space couldn’t deal with another pile of papers being crammed all over the place. I had read that the iPad Pro could also ingest and edit files from the Panasonic GH4 at their native 4K 100Mbps and it seemed that could come in handy on the road in the upcoming months.

Taking notes during a viewing was a breeze

What I didn’t expect was to find the iPad “all grown up” so to speak. I knew to a degree my iPad Pro was a risky investment. It could well have ended up laying about, going unused, and being resold at a loss shortly down the track. What surprised me, however, was how versatile iOS had become. The multitasking features in iOS9 which I had only read about and never seen used significantly reduce the compromises of the iPad without affecting the simplicity of iOS at all. Even something as simple as being able to have a video window hovering over another app was a virtual revelation, as rather than being rudely kicked out of apps to do one thing or another you can simply continue working. Slide Over makes messaging on iOS as seamless as on the desktop, with easy access to iMessage and Facebook, as well as allowing for a fast and dirty Safari window if you need to do any browsing while working. There’s also Split View which runs two apps side by side, but I’ve so far actually had no use for it. Being able to watch Netflix and quickly pop into Safari either full screen or via Slide Over without skipping a beat is also fantastic, and goes a long way to helping the iPad feel a lot more like a Mac, effectively doing multiple jobs at once.

A floating video window and a Slide Over Safari window

The Pencil is a wonderful stylus with a few caveats. In use, it is accurate and feels nice in the hand. It’s weight is right about perfect. I much prefer it to the Wacom Intuos 5 stylus I work with every day. The pressure sensitivity works really well, and the ability to angle and shade is a nice touch. Overall it is exceptionally responsive and accurate, and the wonderful brushes in apps like Procreate make me feel like I’m really drawing with soft graphite or using paint and markers. As a student in College if I had an iPad Pro with me I would have been able to collapse my whole bag of books and art supplies down to a single thin and light device, and I honestly am envious of the students of today who have this kind of option available to them. If your only computer through school is an iPad Pro, you honestly won’t be very limited at all.

There have been complaints about the lack of an eraser, but to be honest even with my Wacom I always felt that turning the stylus over was significantly slower than simply hitting the shortcut for the eraser and using the nib. On the iPad, this feels as though it would be even more of a chore as the controls are usually large and apparent on screen, and a simple fast tap takes you from one to the other whether in notes or Procreate or whatever you may be drawing or writing in. It’s an odd complaint too, as no artist’s pencils usually have an eraser on the end – I would always be reaching for my good quality soft erasers. It seems the whole idea of an eraser at the end of our stylus is a skeuomorphism actually born of the digital age with tablets like Wacom rather than on how anyone actually worked before digital.

The Pencil in a MoxiWare Pencil Magnet sleeve
The infamous Lightning charging port

The absence of the eraser is of course for the controversial Lightning charger hidden beneath the cap. Around this plug revolve the compromises of the Pencil. Firstly, in order to charge it you either have it hanging out of the iPad’s Lightning socket, or you use a tiny and easily lost male to male Lightning adapter. The Pencil hanging out of the iPad is just itching to be bumped or shifted and thus snapped off in place. The genius of the design however, is that in only 30 seconds you can get quite a bit of charge into a flat Pencil – no adapters or hardware required but the Pencil and iPad themselves. The second compromise of the Lightning plug is an obvious one, the Pencil has to be charged. It seems that even when not in use it loses charge rather fast. If it’s on your desk and away from the iPad and sitting stationary, it simply sleeps and lasts a fair while. But if you’re carrying it in your pocket or your bag as you go about your business, you may find that it’s charge is constantly diminishing. It appears that when it is stationary, it enters sleep mode, but an accelerometer wakes it up when it is moved and it automatically resumes its wireless connection to the iPad. This is great in one way – it’s always ready to use when you want to use it, but on the other hand I have some serious questions about how quickly the battery will cycle and lose its capacity. The best option seems to me (I think) to keep it on the charger when not using it, though this may depend on how much you use it. Mine is used for occasional drawing and note taking, and as such it is probably better served not *always* being on hand.

The Pencil being on hand is another caveat. There’s just nowhere to stick the darn thing; all the more frustrating if you don’t carry a bag wherever you go. I ordered two different carrying alternatives, the Stylus Sling and a magnet case. The Stylus Sling just didn’t sit nicely with the keyboard cover, making enough of a gap that the magnets didn’t keep the keyboard part closed when you weren’t using it. It was a compromise that could be coped with, but it didn’t suit me at all (and moving it to any other position prevented the keyboard cover from being used at all by resting the pencil either underneath the iPad on the table or behind the screen). The magnet is much better, adding a “barely-there” sleeve and a bit of a bump. The aesthetic appeal is obviously a little lower, but the magnet holds the pencil strongly in place and is less intrusive than the sling in my opinion. It also gives you a way to stick the Pencil out of the way when you’re jumping over to reply to a message or do something else without leaving it on a table or surface where it could fall and be damaged.

The Stylus Sling on the left, and the MoxiWare Pencil Magnet on the right

The keyboard cover is in a similar boat to the Pencil with the drawbacks. On the plus side, the cover is fairly slim and behaves very similarly to the magnetic covers available for all models of iPad (including the first? I actually can’t remember). The keyboard bump isn’t much of a problem and honestly is barely noticeable. The cover does add a bit of weight to the iPad overall, but the magnetic connection means it is easy to simply push off and set aside when on the couch or in bed browsing or watching something. Using the smart connector means no flakey Bluetooth connections and no additional batteries required to charge or monitor. The keys are spaced nicely, and I have no trouble typing on it as quickly and easily as I did on my MacBook Pro or Air despite its diminutive size. I’ve never been a fussy keyboardist, though I have preferred the chiclet style keyboards of the modern era to the older spongey keys, and this one feels like a modern keyboard with a shallow key travel, though surprisingly less shallow than the MacBook. The ability to use keyboard shortcuts also makes typing anything of length much easier.

It’s a tiny keyboard!

However, this is where my biggest complaint with the keyboard cover comes in (and I presume all iPad keyboards). There is no fine control over shortcuts and they cannot be edited individually or deactivated. This means that you can guarantee at least a few times a day you will accidentally brush Command+Space and invoke the “search” command. On a Mac, this pops out the little Spotlight window in the top corner of the screen. I have hated this shortcut with a passion for as long as I can remember, and is almost always one of the first things I turn off when setting up a new Mac, because an accidental Command+Space brings up that search box and anything typed afterwards is often lost to the aether. On iOS, it’s even worse, as the command takes you out of whatever app you were in, back to the home screen, and then to iOS’s search dialogue. If you are replying to a message in Slide Over and accidentally hit Command+Space, you’ll be shunted from your message and the app you were originally in, and find yourself having to take a number of steps just to get back to where you were. The obvious fix for this would be to deactivate the shortcut, or simply remap it to something like Command+Option+Space, a much harder combo to hit by accident. Alas, iOS9 has one single option for keyboard shortcuts – On or Off – so you either learn to live with it for Copy/Paste or compromise the second biggest advantage of the keyboard besides typing. The keyboard also doesn’t contain the “command row” most third party keyboards have, but I don’t mind the omission if it keeps the keyboard compact. Volume are the main ones I’d use, and they’re available via hardware buttons on the top edge of the iPad (in landscape mode) anyway. A universal media pause button would be nice perhaps, and I often find myself hitting tilde when I want to hit escape to cancel an incorrect autocorrection.

iOS9 doesn’t allow editing of keyboard shortcuts

The other caveat with the keyboard cover (and this is an extremely minor one, trust me) is that the alternate “display” mode (I believe called “viewing mode”) is pretty hazardous to your iPad’s health. In the standard “keyboard out bottom like a laptop” mode it is stable and the viewing angle is very good. In the “viewing mode” or whatever it is called, obviously intended for watching videos, the angle the iPad sits up at is so extreme that it topples over very easily, straight down onto its screen. This apparently isn’t the case with the larger 12.9″ iPad Pro which sits at an angle similar to the standard iPad Smart Cover, but on the 9.7″ it’s just an accident waiting to happen. I don’t see it as much of a drawback honestly, as the viewing angle in keyboard mode is adequate for pretty much everything, but it is something to be aware of, especially if your iPad Pro is sitting up somewhere high.

It’s a slight nudge away from a tumble

In terms of functionality, iOS is always going to be a bit of a bug bear for power users and the “technological élite”. iOS remains the same as ever – the file system is not accessible by the user and the apps are sandboxed as always. iOS9 is getting close to reaching the best level of compromise with the share sheets, and apparently iOS10 goes further still, but the inability to manually manipulate will still frustrate those who want it as much as it always has. As such, without the file system there is still no expandable memory and no memory stick or card compatability. There are third party options made specifically for iOS, but as always these are pretty poorly reviewed for being clunky and limited. In my opinion, Apple will never reveal the file system to the end user in iOS, so if you’re holding out you might as well give up and find an alternative option that better suits your needs.

One element of the iPad Pro that really stood out to me was the improved sound. It’s not just a jump ahead of the older iPads, it’s practically a revelation. The four speakers give crisp, loud audio and make it possible to watch Netflix while cooking for example, something that was often an exercise in futility on the older models of iPad with their single small speaker at the bottom. A few times I tried using my Bluetooth headphones while cooking, but almost always ended up just bringing a laptop if I really wanted to watch anything. The MacBook Air’s speakers may be fairly pathetic, but Boom 2 improved the loudness appreciably. The iPad Pro has negated any need to carry a laptop at all for my usual “round the home and office” computing needs. Obviously if I need to edit on the road it’s another story, but for all intents and purposes once the iPad Pro landed in my hands the MacBook Air went on the shelf – and I didn’t use it again. Then I sold it.

I’m impressed at how much I’ve gone from being fairly blasé about the iPad to being a big fan. It’s compact, it’s light, the battery lasts forever, it can be charged off any USB battery pack, the screen is nice, I can write with Scrivener and create with Procreate. iMovie allows me to (with a little hoop jumping) create edits on the road with Panasonic GH4 footage in 4K and transfer it to FCPX when I get back into the suite. For such a tiny computer, it packs a heck of a lot of punch, and it feels fast while doing it all too.

A quick note on the GH4 front – iPad Pro (and iPhone 6S) will happily take footage from the GH4 via the Lightning SD card adapter. I tested 4K in both .mov and .mp4 as well as 1080p50 in .mp4 and .mov to test the limitations, and iMovie would see them and allow normal editing (and mixing in one timeline!) Rather impressive. However, don’t bother shooting AVCHD or any other “legacy” formats the GH4 might support, as iMovie and iOS won’t read them.

In my ideal world, Apple announce a FCPX companion app for iOS alongside the next FCPX update, that would allow the loading of a full project in .mp4 proxy for shot selection and assembly editing on the road, with the edit proper done in the suite. If I could have sat in the living room with my family silently marking clip ranges and keywording and favouriting on the documentary project I have been working on, I could have both felt more connected at home with them, and also got a lot more done. Especially on days where I had to go away, I could have taken the work on the plane, in the car, waiting in line, anywhere. With 50Tb of raw data, it’s safe to say our project was big. Big big. It took months to collate all the metadata, but it saved so much time in the edit every minute was worth it, but I still kept wishing I could have done more, allowed more refined searches, more detailed data. The iPad could have been the perfect companion tool to get that job done.

If you’re considering an iPad, you really need to think about how it will suit your work and lifestyle. For me, I wanted to be able to hand write notes that would sync to my desktop, and beyond that I wanted a personal computer. One that I would write on with Scrivener and watch movies on and use Facebook on. The iPad suited me well. If you’re editing on your laptop, or you have specific apps you need to use, or even if you just love data wrangling, just second guess your decision. The iPad is still a limited computer, it’s just much less limited than it was before. It still comes with a fistful of caveats, and you need to be aware of the compromises to really be able to make up your mind. But all that said, if you’ve long written off the iPad as a toy, maybe it’s time to give it a second look. Things really have changed that much.

It’s 95% of the way to being a full laptop replacement
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