Filing expense reports with my finger frustrated me to the point I wrote a sonnet to my missing mouse. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. How your speed and precision fill my days.
The new iPad Pro, arriving in stores on Wednesday in two configurations — $800 for the 11-inch and $1,000 for the 12.9 inch — is the biggest design change and price hike ever to Apple’s tablet. It might be great for artists or people who have to work mostly standing up. A substitute for a work laptop, though, it is not.
Ironically, iPads now outsell Macs and every other laptop on the market. But that doesn’t mean people are creating with them. iPads are great for watching video, playing games and reading. For that, you can spend a third as much as a big Pro on a regular $330 9.7-inch iPad, which got a speed boost and Apple Pencil stylus support this spring, though not an Apple-made keyboard case.
Yet Apple, eager for us to spend on pricier upgrades, is doubling down on the idea that the iPad is good for a lot more than consuming. The iPad Pro is its answer to Microsoft, which began to blend touch screens into full-powered Windows PCs and Surface devices back in 2012.
Apple isn’t wrong to call the iPad the future. Ask any two-year-old who already knows how to use one. It just has to figure out finger-first experience for a generation raised on doing work with a mouse and trackpad.
More powerful than most laptops
The changes to the new iPad Pro attempt to narrow the gap with laptops by focusing on portability and power.
The home button and fingerprint reader have been replaced with the finger-swipe gestures and FaceID scanner now standard on the newest iPhones. It’s mostly convenient, except when the iPad is sitting on a table and can’t find your face, which happens more often than with a phone.
The reason you might want this change is that Apple filled the space where the button and cameras used to be with more glorious screen, so you end up holding less total volume. The original iPad Pro with a 12.9-inch screen was about as tall as a box of cereal, while the new version is closer to a standard sheet of paper.
At 1.4 pounds, the larger iPad Pro weighs a pound less than the new MacBook Air, and has a battery that lasts almost as long.
The $130 Apple Pencil stylus, available since the original, also joined in the makeover. An artist friend, who drew me a quick illustration on the new Pro with an app called Procreate, raved about its increased responsiveness. The bigger news for me is that the Pencil magnetically snaps to one side of the squared-off iPad Pro edge for storage and charging, giving me more of a fighting chance to not lose it.
Inside the new iPad, there’s also a new A12X chip Apple says is more powerful than 92 percent of laptops available on the market. It was robust enough to handle any processing task I sent its way, including editing and sorting through thousands of photos in Adobe’s Lightroom. (Next year, Adobe says it will bring to the iPad Pro a full-fledged version of its Photoshop app, too.)
A new kind of port on the iPad Pro can also drive a second screen. I plugged it into my office monitor just like I do my laptop. That idea intrigued me: What if the iPad Pro had become powerful enough to be a transformer? Imagine if you could use it with fingers on the go, then get to the office and plug it into a docking station and it became a MacOS device working with big screen, keyboard and (yes!) a mouse?
Nope. Even driving an external monitor, the iPad Pro remains an iOS device you have to control with fingers (or Pencil) on the iPad, and run with apps designed only for iOS. The full PC transformer is actually the idea with Microsoft’s Surface Pro, sold for $800 and up, which flips between touch screen and traditional desktop mode, and works with a trackpad or mouse. Apple’s iPad Pro is unapologetically a finger and stylus-only machine.
The finger-first experience
Just because the iPad Pro is as fast as a laptop doesn’t make it as useful as one.
Sitting inside its serviceable keyboard case, which props up the screen like a laptop, the iPad Pro can balance on a table. But on my lap it feels top-weighted, so my hands on the keyboard have to be a counterbalance. (The Surface Pro has a kickstand in the back that helps keep it from falling.)
There’s also a posture challenge. Since you need to touch the screen to swipe through apps or select things, I couldn’t quite figure out how to sit with the iPad. Hunched over? What about while writing, where the screen is propped up in that case but you still need to reach up to do things? Apple has in the past criticized other tech for causing “gorilla arm syndrome” with vertical touch screens, but it’s done little new to address the problem here.
The iPad Pro’s biggest problem is its software. In iOS 12, the iPad has some ability to make between two and four apps share the screen simultaneously, but not all apps play ball. For example, you can’t make Spotify split the screen with Google Docs or Microsoft Word. Getting apps into these sharing modes also requires finger yoga that’s a lot more work than moving around windows with a mouse.
While iOS 12 has a few keyboard shortcuts that help zip between apps, what I was missing was a degree of information density. Everyone has a different way of working, but sometimes on a Mac I’ll have five windows open at once, passively monitoring messages, email, Slack, Twitter and music. On the iPad, I had to keep flipping through apps in an attempt to stay tuned in. Some iPad apps don’t even show you the time and battery level along the top edge.
(One unexpected benefit: it’s probably easier to concentrate on a single task like writing on the iPad.)
Most of the best examples of professional finger and stylus-first are apps for artists who benefit the most from working on top of a screen. Too many other iPad apps are still compromises designed for very light work. There are a million little things missing: For example, the iPad app I used to make the GIF in this article — the best of a half dozen I tried — didn’t give me control over the size of the final product, a critical factor for publishing that my MacOS GIF maker offers.
And there are still lots of workplace software and websites that presume you’re using a mouse or trackpad for precision pointing and selecting. It’s especially true of spreadsheet or data-entry apps. My employer’s expense system is one.
It’s ultimately about ergonomics. I called Jack Dennerlein, a professor at Northeastern University who studies the way our bodies interface with tech. “Before the mouse and desktop computing there was a pen or pencil and paper,” he reminded me. My affection for the mouse and trackpad is misplaced, he said: we put them between us and what happens on a computer screen out of technological necessity. It’s actually pretty unnatural — just trying signing your name with one.
When Apple first popularized the mouse in the 80s, people complained it required so much wrist motion. When the iPhone first arrived, people complained it lacked a physical keyboard.
I’m sure we’ll look back on the iPad Pro in the same way, but it still has some evolving to do. Until then, bring back my mouse.
Read more tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler: