When Apple first introduced the iPad, the company pitched it as a creation device. The iPad was supposed to be a sort of super-powered digital notebook perfect for the moments when creativity strikes. Then-Apple chief executive Steve Jobs saw it as a post-PC device, and many thought it could take us away from our desks and prompt us to find inspiration in the real world.
The reality of the tablet for most, however, has been as a consumption device — a second screen perfect for watching streaming video in bed or to give to the kids in the back seat on road trips. With the iPad Pro, however, Apple has taken a real shot at bringing the tablet up to that original promise.
With the latest 9.7-inch iPad Pro, I think it's gotten awfully close. For the past week, I’ve been using an iPad Pro provided by Apple. I've spent some days trying to make it my primary machine, while taking others to try and work it into my existing daily routine. And while I’m no nearer to throwing out my laptop, the iPad Pro has made me rethink how I use tablets.
Don't get me wrong, the first iPad Pro, with its 12.9-inch display, also showed a lot of promise as a laptop replacement. But ultimately, I found it a little too big, a little too limited to work that way. The same is true of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, which goes on sale today. But while bigger can often seem better when it comes to screen size, the smaller form of this tablet seems to work to its advantage.
It helps the new iPad Pro that I was traveling for much of the week that I tested it. For example: As an airplane device, the smaller iPad Pro is just about perfect. It fits just right on a tray table, and rises to about the level of work that you want to do above 10,000 feet. Balanced on my lap in waiting rooms and at airport gates, I found this smaller iPad Pro much more comfortable to use. It's also proved its mettle when I wasn't on-the-go, thanks to its stunning speakers, which ably filled echoing silence of a dreary motel room. In that way, I could see it being an excellent replacement for older iPad models used now mostly for media consumption, while offering quite a few extras with the same 10-hour battery life.
As with the first iteration of the iPad Pro, this 9.7-inch version is best with its add-ons. The $99 Apple Pencil and the $150 keyboard add a significant amount to the overall package — in fact, I would hesitate to recommend this device without it, which brings the total price up to at least $850.
Apple's Pencil was particularly useful for a tablet with this screen size. I'd say this latest iPad Pro comes as close as anything else I've tired to replacing trusty pen and notepad. That may sound like faint praise, but it isn't. What I really want is something digital to replace the legal pad and stacks of notebooks I take just about everywhere. (People find this particularly hilarious for a tech reporter, for some reason.) And when it comes to digital ink, Apple's Pencil and iPad Pro are the best I've tried so far, even eclipsing the performance of the latest $900 Microsoft's Surface Pro 4. I was able to take notes by hand with about the same speed as I could on paper, and didn't feel like I was scrawling notes on a poster — the smaller iPad Pro screen was just right.
Despite all that, the iPad Pro does have its limits. Like its predecessor, this iPad Pro can run two apps simultaneously while also running a movie in a picture-in-picture mode. But I found that still didn't quite meet my work needs. It might be good if you want to focus, and remove the temptation of attention-grabbing background apps, but that's really putting a positive spin on what I see as a limitation. You can cycle through many open apps easily, but the flow still isn't quite the same as on a laptop, especially if you've gotten used to using multiple desktops as you can on a Mac or PC. The lack of mouse support or a trackpad is also noticeable if you're working for long stretches of time; sometimes you just don't want to use the touchscreen. Typing can also feel a bit cramped. Although I adjusted in a couple of days, that could be a setback for those who like a lot of space when they type.
Overall, however, I was impressed with how the iPad Pro fit into my gadget-saturated life. For drafting and planning, or checking quick emails, it was faster and less obtrusive than booting up my laptop and much easier to handle than my phone. It was easy to cozy up to in bed in my off-hours, but powerful enough to let me get some serious work done. And the normal iPad screen size made it very easy to transition from one use case to the other, and to tote around without a fuss.
So can the new iPad Pro replace your laptop? The answer for me is still no. I still want more out of a primary work device than it can offer. But if I were looking to update my iPad? I'd absolutely buy it. It's not quite everything we were promised the tablet could be, but — at least for me — it comes pretty darn close.