iPad Pro & Apple Pencil Review

I like the iPad Pro. It's big, and fun, and powerful, and great. Apple has taken everything you know and love about the iPad, and turned it up to 11. It's also the iPad i've most anticipated the release of. Over the course of the last month, the iPad Pro has taught me a lot about tablet computing, convinced me that drawing on screens is awesome, and made me reconsider the tools I use everyday.

What I Tried:

I've been trying to justify keeping an iPad since they first came out. My first iPad found a place in my Mum's heart as a portable library of her overseas holidays. My iPad Mini found its way into my friends heart as a way for him to read notes while giving presentations. My iPad Air found it's way to the bottom of a backpack, where it sat presumed lost for 3 months, before being whisked away to a new owner by Australia Post. I like the idea of the iPad very much, but i've never been able to justify carrying one in addition to a Mac and an iPhone.

I picked up a 32 GB iPad Pro and Apple Pencil on the 12th of November, a day after it hit Australian shores. The Pro is definitely the best iPad i've ever used. The new split screen functionality of iOS 9 feels right at home on the larger display, and navigating the interface feels noticeably faster than earlier iPads. I also appreciate the new speaker setup. It's very loud, with a lot more low end than you'd expect from such a thin device. It also features the new Smart Connector along the left edge which allows third party keyboards to connect to and be powered by the iPad, instead of relying on a battery and bluetooth. I'm sure we'll see this featured on the next iPad Air as well, but maybe not on the iPad Mini.

A Computer to Travel With.

For most people, the iPad Pro is a better portable device than any of the MacBooks. It's lighter, it's faster and easier to use for most tasks. Also, if you go for AppleCare+ (a $129 option at time of purchase), it can be replaced for only $65 if you break it. I've been working from an office for the last few weeks, with a desktop computer supplied for me to use. When I came home, I didn't think once about getting out my laptop. The iPad Pro let me do absolutely everything I needed to do. Whether that be some light social media-ing, with TweetBot and Reeder running side by side, or playing some casual games like Alto's Adventure, Evel Knievel or Horizon Chase, reading recipes off its big, bright display, or watching a few episodes of Star Wars: Clone Wars on Netflix before bed. I can totally see this product being the only computer a lot of people will ever need. While I didn't have the chance to test this theory, I see no reason why the 128 GB Cellular iPad Pro wouldn't serve most people perfectly well whilst traveling.

A Tool for Creative Work.

The Pencil isn't perfect, but it is really good. I've owned a Wacom illustration tablet for the last year and only used it 4 times. It's a giant trackpad that you can draw on and see the results on the computer screen in front of you. The model I had was alright, well appointed with all kinds of fantastic electronic drawing wizardry, but it was just too different from actually drawing on pen and paper to be something I would do casually. Getting it out and plugging it into my Mac always just seemed like too much of an event. The Apple Pencil is the complete opposite of this. It can be used anywhere in iOS to simulate a finger touching the screen, but it transforms as soon as you open an app that has been updated to support it as a drawing tool. Everyone i've watched use it has been instantly delighted by it's simplicity and accuracy. My Dad wore the same smile on his face when he signed his signature with the Pencil as when first played with the iPhone.

For a bit of fun, I took the Pro & Pencil into my local electronics retailer to show some friendly neighbourhood Microsoft representatives. When comparing it to their Surface Pro 4's, they told me that they were unimpressed with the iPad, and that it should run OS X. "Then it'd be a real tablet", one said smugly. I offered them my Pencil to try, handing over the thin and surprisingly weighty piece of white plastic and circuitry while I spoke. I put the iPad Pro down on a flattened out Surface Pro 4 and encouraged them to put pencil to glass. They went quiet. After a few silent moments one said slightly apprehensively, "Yeah. Ok. This is quite a bit better". "You still can't run full apps on it", muttered the other.

I've drawn more in the last month than I ever have before. Why? Because I can. I'm a bit embarassed to say this, but the Apple Pencil actually made me reconsider what I should major in for my degree. Did I really want to be the guy who has to sit behind a big, expensive desktop computer every day in a tiny office, or did I want to be the guy sitting in the park, enjoying a latté, sketching witty little illustrations. The Pencil is so good it makes me long for that kind of lifestyle. Before the Pro+Pencil, drawing was a chore. Now, it's a hobby.

I found myself spending much more time sketching out design ideas, and thinking things through, simply because it's so easy to do with the Pro & Pencil. Paper by 53 became my go to app for ideation and brainstorming, allowing me to quickly sketch out storyboards, sketch out characters with reference photos, and then easily share whole documents as PDF's in a matter of seconds. After that, I would jump into Procreate and create layered .PSD files, complete with an option to export an instant video replay of how I drew the image. Here's a quick sketch I made for an assignment in just a couple of minutes. For a university student who has to constantly submit proof of their work, this is a game changer. Not enough can be said for how quick and easy this is, it's honestly incredible, and thanks to a few key apps the experience extends to using the Mac as well. Duet Display allowed me to almost double the screen real estate on my 15" Retina Pro when I was working away from my external monitor. Astropad let me use the Pro as a substitute illustration tablet, registering input from the Pencil and translating it into Photoshop on my Mac. I used it to complete a project where I drew in lightsabers over statues of historical figures along Adelaide's North Terrace. I did have a few times where the experience was broken by occasional low frame rates, but I am sure these are minor issues that will be addressed by the developers once they have more hands on time with the hardware.

How I Ended up Using the Pro.

I got a lot of enjoyment using the Pro when out and about and found it a great companion to working on my Mac at home. It seems to be best used when sitting down, like Steve Jobs demonstrated with the original iPad (which actually weighs the same as the Pro) back in 2009. My part time job involves a lot of standing around in shops, chatting to customers, and completing reports. Normally, I carry a Muji A5 notepad, an 0.4mm Artline 200 marker, and a bunch of printed out PDF reports to complete, but I tried carrying the Pro for a few shifts instead. The larger display of the Pro makes it great to fill out A4 reports at 1:1 scale, but it's 700g weight made it hard to hold for too long. I ended up cradling the Pro in my left arm, and writing on it with my right hand. It didn't take long for my normally ok handwriting to become completely illegible. However, I really liked being able to email off my reports straight away, instead of having to wait until i'm home, scan them, and then send them. In this situation i'd really like to have a iPad Mini or larger iPhone that supports the Pencil.

The Current State of Accessories.

I tried out the Pro with a few different keyboards and covers. The Smart Keyboard Cover is really nice to type on, but is a bit awkward when folded behind the iPad. If you're planning on using the iPad Pro predominately at a desk, it's an ok option. The lack of iOS specific function keys is frustrating, and would be nice to see added in a future revision. Also, it's disappointing to see that Apple has been hesitant to splurge on color options for accessories for the Pro. I got a grey smart cover with my Pro when I picked it up from Apple, but would of loved a brighter option.

I also tried it with the Magic Keyboard, and while I prefered using it to the Smart Keyboard Case when I was at home, felt a bit silly taking it out at my local coffee shop. It just felt like too much of an event to pull out every time. If you can live with that though, you'll be saving a fair bit of money over the Smart Keyboard Case, and will have the added benefit of being able to pair with any other device over Bluetooth. It also has function keys that work with iOS, charges over lightning, is surprisingly light, and tucks away easily in a backpack.

The last thing I tried out with the iPad Pro is the Nimbus Steel Series controller. From a hardware point of view it's really well put together, but is let down by lacklustre support from games on iOS. I found that there just weren't enough great games on iOS that benefit from having a dedicated controller, although I really enjoyed playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and a few GameBoy Advance games through GBA4iOS.

I'm Still Really Excited

If I was working as a designer somewhere where a computer was supplied, I could potentially go iOS only for the rest of my day. There are still a lot of nerdy things that I like doing on a Mac, like producing music in Logic Pro X, doing design work in Sketch, making websites with Squarespace, and managing a large library of RAW photos, but I can see all of these things finding their ways onto iOS in the very near future.

The Pro makes me really confident that Apple's iPad line is going to get much more capable, faster than their MacBooks are going to get much more efficient. The 12" MacBook for example is light and portable, but has less than half the battery life of the iPad. I'm really excited for what software is coming for the platform in the next few years. I can't wait until more tasks have great experiences on iPads. If I had to replace all of my computers tomorrow, I would probably get the best 27" Retina iMac I could afford, a 128 GB cellular iPad Pro, and get the first 6-8" device that supports the Apple Pencil.

In conclusion, the iPad Pro is a worthwhile upgrade for anybody who relies on their iPad to be productive, and anybody who either likes drawing, or creates digital art should play with an Apple Pencil. The combination of the two gives us glimpse of the future of digital peripherals, tools that takes cues from their analogue counterparts, but carry the legacy boldly into tomorrow.

Jack Alexander