iPad Pro 9.7” long-term review

Posted by

The 9.7” iPad Pro is an odd device. It has been replaced by the 10.5” version, ensuring that it will always be a one-off. Physically, it is a dead ringer for the iPad Air 2. That said, it is arguably the pinnacle of the original iPad design that debuted in 2010.

I have used and owned many iPads over the years. In that time, I haven’t felt strongly enough about any of the iPads to warrant a review. For my purposes, they have always been add-on devices that supplement my computer use. I also haven’t felt comfortable enough with it to feel that I was reviewing it from a solid place of understanding of the use cases and advantages of the device. Now that I’ve been using an iPhone full-time for a year and have had this 9.7” iPad Pro for almost a half year, I’ve decided to write about it. I still don’t know if I have addressed my concerns, but if I wait until I have, I may never write this.

I’ve typed the majority of this on the iPad Pro, though not wit the Smart Keyboard. I am reviewing it with iOS 11.2 Beta. With iOS 11, the iPad is much more useful. However, for me it’s still a device that is best used when not trying to replicate the computing use cases of a traditional laptop or desktop machine. For a point of reference, I bought the iPad Pro just before Apple announced the heavily-rumoured 10.5” replacement. I bought a 32GB device second-hand on eBay with the Pencil and Smart Keyboard for $800CDN, which essentially meant that the keyboard ($199CDN) and pencil ($129) were “free” compared to buying each device new.

The actual hardware of the iPad Pro itself is quite nice. The speakers are loud and clear, the screen is fantastic. This iPad was the first to feature the TrueTone colour and brightness auto-adjustment feature that is spreading out across the line for all iOS devices. It works very well. However, as nice as the screen is, for me, it isn’t that far off from the normal iPad day-to-day

The 9.7” iPad Pro, it looks almost exactly the same as the iPad Air 2. It fits the same cases and accessories but I’m not sure if it’s the same case connectors. For sure it’s different than the original iPad Air or the current iPad. The 9.7” iPad Pro is faster than the Air 2 or the new iPad but in day-to-day use I don’t see a difference. This is the fundamental problem with the 9.7” iPad Pro. It’s just not that much different than the iPad Air 2 and it is a lot more expensive. Really, what you are paying for is the improved screen, better speakers, the pro connector that allows for the use of the Smart Keyboard, and the ability to use the Pencil. These are all nice features but are hard to justify for most iPad users, myself included. However, let’s drill down to the major differences in detail by looking in-depth at the Smart Keyboard and Pencil.

The Smart Keyboard

My thinking when I bought the iPad Pro was that, in the worst case, I would be able to use it as a test iPad for work for a very long time. I opted for the Pro rather than the iPad I had at home so that I could test and recommend the Pencil and Pencil apps, and ideally I hoped to use it with the Smart Keyboard for meetings and in my job. After owning it for over six months, the reality is that it hasn’t worked out the way I’d hoped. I actually prefer the new iPad that I have at home. Don’t get me wrong, the iPad Pro hardware is a little better, but not that much better, and the Smart Keyboard really has me using the iPad Pro far less than I’d hoped. It puts the iPad at an awkward angle, makes it heavier, and takes away many of the advantages of a stand-alone iPad without really adding anything much over a decent Bluetooth keyboard, many of which offer superior typing experiences.

Five paragraphs in to writing this article, I gave up on the iPad Pro “Smart” Keyboard and switched over to Logitech’s excellent Keys-To-Go Bluetooth keyboard because I just couldn’t take the terrible keys of the Smart Keyboard.. The Keys-to-go keyboard is the same size as the Apple keyboard case but is much nicer to use with a great feel. Honestly, Apple should buy the rights to this one and use it for future iPad Pro keyboards. This is how to make a good mobile keyboard.

The Smart Keyboard is very expensive while managing to be a worse case than an average case and a worse keyboard than far less expensive keyboards of the same size. I haven’t had the opportunity to use the Logitech Create Keyboard Case, but if you’re planning to buy an iPad for Apple’s Smart Keyboard, I’d recommend using it in the store for a bit first. It is a truly terrible typing experience. For me, just owning the Smart Keyboard has limited my use of the iPad Pro. Simply removing it and switching to the Logitech keyboard has prompted me to use it more in the last week than I had in the previous four months. Really. I find it that unpleasant to use.

The Smart Keyboard is really, really awful. It feels like a compromise in every way and is my least favourite part of using the iPad Pro. I’m shocked that Apple sells it, to be honest. It’s an extremely unpleasant typing experience. I would so much rather use a Logitech Keys-to-go keyboard with a standard case. Given how strongly many Apple customers stick to Apple-only accessories, I honestly wonder if the Smart Case has reduced the use of the iPad Pro as a computer replacement or supplement for many people. It certainly had that effect for me. Now that I’ve figured that out and have come to terms with the bad investment of the case, I have ordered a standard iPad Pro case and am happily using the Logitech Keys-to-go keyboard.

The Pencil

I haven’t used the Pencil much in the last six months. I just haven’t had the time or inclination to use it. And I lost it for several months. Then I found it and while writing this, decided to test it out a bit more and had a most enjoyable cold, rainy afternoon drawing with my son. The Pencil was great, now I think I need to spend more time drawing with it.

So far, my drawing app of choice is Sketches. The free version is decent but the unlocked $7 version turns the app into a full-fledged drawing tool that’s about as clean as MyPaint, my desktop drawing app of choice. (Yes, an open source Linux-first drawing app is my app of choice. And yes, I’ve used and own Manga Studio, PhotoShop, Painter, and many other closed “pro” apps.)

Getting back to the Pencil, Apple really did make an excellent stylus for the iPad. It feels great in the hand and is the most responsive and natural way to draw that I have ever experienced electronically. If I was a professional artist, I’d have a 12.9” iPad Pro just for the Pencil.

However, there is plenty of room to improve on the Pencil. For starters, charging it is downright icky. It feels dangerous just hanging out the end of the iPad. Pairing it is fine, but honestly, plugging it in to the end of the iPad again feels odd. I really think that Apple should have made it so that you plug the Pencil in to charge, like they do with the AirPods. Giving it a nice AirPod-like case would have been good too. Charging it in a nice pen holder would work and would protect the Pencil.

Also, it is Apple simple, so there are no buttons. No eraser, no second functions. I wish that Apple would license the ability to make compatible products to people like Wacom. They should keep selling the Pencil but let “Pro” computer arts companies make “Pro” Pencils.

Failing that, they really ought to expand the line. To offer Pencils with more features. While they do that, they should also add a little dock for the Pencil to have it charge without plugging it dangerously into the bottom of the iPad.

Another problem with it: What to do with it when it’s not in use? It’s very slippery and feels like you need to treat it with care. I’m worried that the fiddly end will fall off and I’ll lose it. I’m also reluctant to leave it in the bottom of a bag. For now, my fix is to have purchased a mediocre case for the Pencil. I’ve lost it, with the Pencil, once already. And, keeping the Pencil physically close to the iPad Pro drains the battery of the Pencil.

Actually using the device as intended is a joy, all other aspects of owning it are a drag. This is an area where Apple did way better with the AirPods. You’d think the charging case would be annoying, but honestly, it slips into the pocket just fine, doesn’t take up that much space, has real utility in that it protects the AirPods and charges them, and even looks nice. The stark contrast to the lack of thought of how to store the Pencil at rest couldn’t be clearer. Even avid users of the Pencil will have it at rest far more than in use. Apple should have done better for such a premium accessory to such a high-end product.

iOS in Daily Use

I have such mixed feelings about iOS in general, and how it works on the iPad in particular. I’ve tried to use the iPad to do “computery” tasks but it is always hard. For me, working with the iPad to do “normal” asks always feels like I’m trying to bend the machine to what I want to do. A case in point would be this document that I’m working on right now. I always start with a text editor and writing to a .txt or OpenOffice file either in FocusWriter or a text editor. I save to a folder in Dropbox. How best to do this was not clear to me using the iPad Pro. It turns out that Dropbox has the ability to edit text, so fine, but figuring out how to do that was a bit of a chore. There are apps in the AppStore that claim to do this, but still I find navigating the “file system” such as it is to be a chore.

When I stop trying the push a square peg into a round hole and just use the iPad for specific tasks, it’s quite nice. The browser is great, the mail client is quite good, Sketches for drawing is a lot of fun, and the choices of apps and games are nice. I do find the constant in-app purchases and lack of trial versions of apps in the App Store to be problematic. I am very happy to pay for software. I’m happy to pay “a lot” for good programs. But if it’s more than a cup of coffee, I’d at least like to be able to take it back if I don’t like it.

Here’s an example: I think I’d like Affinity Photo. It’s $20. If it’s good and I like it, $20 is a no-brainer. However, if I don’t like how it works and give up on it after a day or two, I don’t want to be out $20. There are many apps that claim to be a better text editor than the one built-in to Dropbox. Again, I’d happily pay for a good app, but there are so many and I have no way to test them out. I think this is a big problem for the platform. I hope Apple does something about this soon. If I were a developer, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

I will say that iOS 11 is a good step in the evolution of iOS as a productivity platform. The file manager is overdue but welcome, and the app switching is getting ever closer to webOS and BlackBerry OS 10-quality. The new dock in iOS 11 is another solid improvement. I’m impressed that they’ve added all of the layers of practicality without sacrificing the simple essence and elegance of iOS. This is no small accomplishment.

There are also some really stellar apps for the platform. Prompt is a fabulous SSH/terminal app, Soulver is a super-cool calculating app, Evernote on iOS is beautiful and fluid, and Coda is a fantastic web editing experience. Between Kindle, Kobo, ComiXology, and iBooks, the iPad Pro also makes an excellent, albeit expensive, eBook reader. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. No doubt there are also many fantastic writing and drawing apps that I haven’t discovered yet.

Mobile Microsoft Office is also well-executed. I have an Office365 subscription through work; using Office on the iPad is pretty good, though it still fails at complex tasks such as the City of Kingston’s Art Fund grant application form. This is a complicated Word document with locked form fields, formatting requirements, and all manor of quirks.

We have found many excellent educational apps for our six year old son. He also loves the games. As a general platform, iOS has already achieved much that macOS and Windows haven’t. I have no problems recommending iOS or the new iPad, but again, the 9.7” iPad Pro doesn’t rally give you that much that you don’t get with a device that costs half as much.

Wrapping Up

I know I’m not the intended market for the iPad. I know that it’s a device that gives lots of value to lots of people. I get it. Really, I do. However, the 9.7” iPad Pro is a difficult device to recommend at the end of 2017. If you can find one for a bargain, it’s worth picking up. I’m sure that Apple will support it for many years, and the hardware guarantees that it will be fast throughout. However, most users would be better off with a new iPad or even an iPad Air 2. The Air 2 in particular is so similar to the Pro. Unless you really, really want to use the Apple Pencil or TrueTone, you should buy an Air 2 or a new iPad. If you do need the Pencil, you’d be better off with the 10.5” or 12.9” iPad Pro.

I’d be very interested in trying out a 12.9” iPad Pro to see if the extra size makes it a better device for iPad computing, but that’s a luxury I don’t think I’ll have for a while. In the meantime, now that I’ve ditched the Smart Keyboard and found a case that has a place for the excellent Pencil, I’m quite enjoying the iPad Pro.

GoSaBe Blog - Nov 21, 2017 | Hardware, Tablets