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Review: Hands On With the 9.7″ iPad Pro

May 2, 2016

This post originally appeared over at The Unified Republic of Stars, the collaborative storytelling world created by partner, Colin Andrew Ferm. Check out the site give the podcast a listen!

Because I’m significantly more mobile than I used to be (read: I have an office now and travel more to client sites), I thought I’d get myself an iPad Pro on the theory that, when I don’t have my MacBook Pro with me, I can still get work done.

Obviously, I’ve known about the iPad for years. So, why the iPad Pro and why the 9.7″ variety? So let’s break it down.

Why not then? Why Now?

My ex-girlfriend had an iPad. One of my best friends had an original iPad. I’ve had experience with them since almost day one but my problem, and the problem Apple and others are now facing is, what exactly is the consumer use case for such a device? Want it to read the news while on the couch? Want it for email/shopping? Want it for… what?

My problem, and the problem Apple and others are now facing is, what exactly is the consumer use case for such a device? Want it to read the news while on the couch? Want it for email/shopping? Want it for… what?

The problem with these very few scenarios was that I couldn’t see one where I didn’t already have a device that would suffice. Want to read the news? My iPhone with my RSS reader app was generally fine. Want to go more in-depth, I could open my laptop. Shopping? Like most people, I do most of it on Amazon and their app worked perfectly fine on the iPhone. I could see the product being purchased to my satisfaction and they made the barrier to buying next to zero. Problem solved.

What about watching movies/TV while traveling?

Not really much of an issue for me. I either went home to see people and then… you know… saw them… or I was traveling or a reason (skiing, business, whatever) in which case, it wasn’t like I had a lot of downtime to watch movies. And, because the flights I’ve been on have all be domestic lately, it’s not like watching a movie on my iPhone has exactly been a hardship. Is it ideal, given current technology? Maybe not.. but back when the Motorola RAZR was the top selling phone, I figured out how to transcode episodes of Battlestar into a format so I could watch them on its screen. (Cutting edge at the time!)

So, if I was okay with that, then an iPad was pretty far from necessary.

But then Apple released the iPad Pro. The 12.whatever model (iPad Pro “Daddy”). And, for the first time I was interested. In landscape orientation, it was essentially two full 9.7″ iPads next to one another. Plus, iOS 9 finally allowed for true multitasking. I could have two apps running side-by-side. Admittedly, it couldn’t be the same app running side-by-side with itself but the idea of having Word and Excel open at the same time, or Word and Safari made the iPad suddenly seem significantly more interesting. Especially because, when working on the URS, I have about a dozen browser tabs open as well as my Excel reference sheet and possibly various short stories open in Word as well as notes in Notepad. So any kind of multitasking on an iOS device was sincerely welcome. To me, it took from a consumption device to a possible creation device, where not only could ideas be jotted down for later but possibly completed on their own.

But the Daddy device was a little large… and a little expensive for what I wanted to test my theory that the iPad had finally evolved to what I thought it had. I wanted a laptop replacement that was both significantly lighter than my current setup and also cheaper than a low end developer’s laptop.

Then Apple announced the 9.7″ (“Baby”) version and I decided I had to go and take a look.

Why the “Baby” Pro?

I went to the Apple Store with my friend who was an original iPad owner because I wanted to test the Baby versus the Daddy and see which really spoke to me. I knew I wanted an iPad Pro versus the not that different iPad Air 2. (Seriously, Apple, come up with some better, less confusing names…) And this was because of the keyboard smart cover. Yes, it has a “bump”. It’s not the slickest thing Apple has ever designed. But it’s better than most of their 3rd party options I’ve seen and not completely different from the original smart cover. So I put them both through typing tests. And, let me say, the Baby was a bomb at the store.

If you’re used to typing on a MacBook Pro, like I am, then the “Baby” keyboard is crazy tiny. With my left hand, it was like learning to type all over again since I tended to hit letters one to the right of the one I meant to almost every single time. Now… I’m not the greatest touch typer… I’m fast and generally accurate when I know the keyboard but I tend to type with no more than three fingers on each hand. (Hey, I was never formally taught.) Yet, I can still usually get 130-140 WPM with about 96% accuracy. Again, on a keyboard I know. Forget that on the Baby keyboard. I was lucky to hit 60 WPM and even then it was with less than 50% accuracy. Pretty shit.

On the Daddy keyboard, it was practically like typing on my Mac. Yes, the keys felt different but I had it down in about thirty seconds of typing.

Still… I liked the weight, the size, and the relative power of the Baby. So… I pulled the trigger, despite the fact that I couldn’t type on the keyboard and that the primary purpose of it was to see if, in certain circumstances I could use it to replace my MacBook Pro.

Initial Impressions

When I got the iPad, it was with the protective back cover only (in white, rather than the space gray I ordered but… whatever… it has kind of a Storm Trooper look to it I’ve grown to like…). The smart cover was back ordered for two weeks. So, phase one of the experiment began. Could I find a middle ground for the device when I had an iPhone on one end and a MacBook Pro on the other?

And the answer is: absolutely, yes.

My iPhone is still my number one, go to mobile device… when I’m out and about. When I’m home, it’s almost always on the charger and untouched. Like… always…

The iPad has become my number one device at home… perhaps maybe only second to my AppleTV because that sucker is streaming, like, all the time. But, even while the AppleTV is streaming, I’m reading something on my iPad or messaging someone with iMessage. And because it’s all connected up with my laptop and my phone, I can even call and text non-Apple device-using people with it. I just need a WiFi signal. For those latter cases, it chains through my phone. For anyone on an Apple device, it’s all through the internet. It’s pretty amazing, actually.

And the multi-tasking is really nice.

If I’m reading something but also texting plans with a friend, I can have iMessage open in part of the screen. This prevents the biggest annoyance I’ve always had with texts/iMessages on the iPhone, the constant app switching. Now… No more app switching, it’s right there and I can just touch to respond. Boom. Done.

But it’s filled an interesting niche in my house. When it came to reading the news or answering email when at home, it’s my go to device. I only ever pulled out my laptop if I needed to access the AWS console or to SSH into a server. But that’s also because I haven’t been writing much because I’ve been working a lot.

Still, it was a perfect consumption device. And because, unlike my exgirlfriend’s iPad, this one was entirely connected to my accounts, I could see the full experience rather than just reading a site or two on the larger Safari app.

Now With the Keyboard

About two weekends later, the smart cover keyboard finally arrived. And, on it, I have mixed opinions.

The first of the origami positions the smart cover demands you learn...

The first of the origami positions the smart cover demands you learn…

One nice thing about the iPad without the cover is that it is light and easy to carry around. Not that the cover adds that much weight but the added weight of the keyboard, versus just the cover, keeps the cover from permentantly snapping to the iPad’s back, meaning it’ll fall if you don’t hold it there. Meaning, when I don’t need it around the house (like to stand it up while cooking in the kitchen), I completely disconnect it and walk around with just it in the back cover. Also, when it is attached, there are times when folding it into a different position, the keyboard itself will unfold, making me have to then re-stack the whole thing. It’s not as convenient as I’d hoped.

But… one interesting thing was, as I kept typing on it, it became easier and easier to type on. But, now my bastard typing style involves about two fingers from each hand rather than three.

Also, they keyboard is strange. You can feel the tap of each key but, at the same time, it’s shallow and, the more I type, the more I feel pressure in my fingers and knuckles. It’s a very strange feeling…

Damn... This thing is like the Kama Sutra

Damn… This thing is like the Kama Sutra

Also, maybe it’s because of the length of my fingers and the short distance to the screen but I’ve found that, when typing, I’ve accidentally hit the screen more than a few times, either hitting the autocorrect suggestions or another random hitpoint that I didn’t mean to and screwing everything up. As I type this, thank god for WordPress’ auto save.

Also, as I’ve typed this review, my fingers feel strangely tired in a way in which they don’t when typing on my Mac. To compare and contrast, I can easily write over 10k words on my Mac without feeling a thing where as this review is still under 4k works as I write this and my fingers feel like I do after lifting weights for 20 minutes. The difference is that I type for a living whereas weightlifting is entirely optional.

However, I find that if I’m not actively using the iPad and I get a message or email, I tend to leave the thing with the keyboard unfolded and type out a response on it rather than use my phone on the charger in my bedroom.

So… What About That Creation?

I’ve had the keyboard for almost a week. In that time, I’ve written a short story and have typed this post. I’ve also installed a git client, a source code editor, and an SSH client. All of which are much easier to use with the smart cover keyboard than the onscreen keyboard and all of which are pretty amazing when used in conjunction. Plus, iOS 9, with its sharing between apps, has really begun to allow an actual useable workflow. But… that said… I haven’t yet used it to actually develop any production ready code. Could I? In theory…

The workflow, in my case, is generally more complicated than others. If you’re a frontend developer, you probably could get away with just using Coda, which really does look sweet. But, in my case, I develop complex backend code, stuff that needs a server to run. In its least complicated iteration, it would be PHP evaluation. So I’ve begun looking into backend git automation to build on every push so I can make small code changes and see their results since I can’t run a localhost like I do on my Mac. But that means extra work to now support this set up. And if you’re able to do it, and don’t mind doing it rather than just carrying your actual laptop and power source along, it can work. If not…

As far as writing goes, it’s been okay at best. It’s not that writing has been a problem, the keyboard is perfectly functional after you get used to it. It’s the sharing workflow between iOS and the Mac that are the problem. But I’ll be the first to admit that this might have everything to do with my uncomfortableness with the “Cloud”. And that’s mostly because of the way laws are structured right now.

It’s not that writing has been a problem, the keyboard is perfectly functional after you get used to it. It’s the sharing workflow between iOS and the Mac that are the problem.

Allow me to explain: Under current law, anything on a hard drive in your home can only be accessed via warrant. Meaning a law enforcement agent has to have some form of probable cause and (supposedly) convince a judge it’s worth violating your privacy to get a search warrant to get it.

Anything stored on the Cloud is considered in the hands of a 3rd party, in which case the “3rd Party Doctrine” kicks in and only a subpoena is required and your information can be handed over without you ever being told.

Now, the difference with a subpoena and a warrant is that a subpoena only requires a superior at the law enforcement agency or a DA to sign off on one and their end goal is not a citizen’s privacy. Whereas a warrant at least requires the participation of a supposedly neutral third party.

Do I do anything illegal? No. But would I want to uphold my rights to the maximum? You’re damned right. So I don’t trust the Cloud, at least until the law changes a little bit. And that can be making my workflow harder in trying to do what I’m trying to do.

For instance, I mostly write in MS Word 2008 (because I bought it with my first Mac back then… sue me…) on my MacBook Pro. The closest thing to it is Pages by Apple or Documents by Google. Google, my nature, has everything stored in the Cloud. Apple, on the other hand, has its own problems.

AirDropping from my Mac to my iPad is pretty simple and painless. In fact, it works well for every document type I’ve tried but RTF documents. But Pages has its own quirks. And, these we’ll get into in a second.

But, transferring files back to the Mac is its own problem. Technically, you’re transferring a different file back. So if you’ve done any work on the original file in the meantime, you have to manually merge the changes. Otherwise, one file is off limits until the other is finished. Not optimal.

In theory, it could be fine. And I plan to test this out when I go to Fire Island this summer and leave my Mac behind but take my iPad Pro. Depending on the number of files I take with me, it could be a relatively simple process of just copying and pasting the new into the original and being done with it. Or it could be dozens of files, in which case the process begins to become arduous…

And while typing into WordPress has been more than possible, I’ve been having Safari freezing problems with my own version of WikiMedia. I don’t know if that’s because of some of the AJAX things I’ve extended it with or because of the iPad itself but there won’t be any wiki updates that I don’t just copy and paste in.

So as far as creation versus consumption goes, the jury, as they say, is still out. But the potential is there. It just doesn’t seem as great as I thought because…

Some Pros Are More Pro Than Others

I should have seen this coming and, I guess, this is my fault. But I thought the Babby iPad Pro would basically be the Daddy iPad Pro in miniature. But it is not.

There are definite improvements, both over the latest non-Pro iPad and the Daddy Pro, including screen colors, camera, etc, but the Babby Pro is to the Daddy what the 13″ MacBook Pro to the 15″. It’s pro, but barely.

To start with, everyone knows that the Baby has 2GB of RAM versus the 4GB in the Daddy. But I knew that going in.

What bothers me is the split screen stuff. And, again, I guess all of it is my fault because I could have easily read the developer documentation ahead of time. Except that even it doesn’t differentiate between the Baby and the Daddy in any meaningful way. It took me putting together test apps to realize that, when it comes to screens, it views the Baby exactly the same as it views the iPad Air 2.

And that’s a bit disappointing…

I know that the screen is physically smaller and I accepted that. I mean, obviously. But I also, I don’t know expected some kind of font or app scaling to make it just as possible to have two side-by-side apps as on the bigger one. Instead, it’s exactly like an iPad Air 2 with iOS 9. One app can be full landscape or portrait. In “split view” (which is really confusing to app developers for other reasons) the Daddy can display the secondary app in “compact” or “regular” modes. So too can the iPad Air 2 and the Baby.

Now, the Daddy displays “compact” like an iPhone 6S Plus would in portrait. Whereas the Babby displays it like an iPhone 5 in portrait. Similar but one has a lot more screen real estate. But this, really, isn’t a problem. Okay, one is bigger than the other, why not share it around a bit when it’s bigger?

This is a “Pro,” shouldn’t I be able to work on two documents at once?

Where the problem lies is in the “regular” modes. On the Daddy, the two display like two iPads side-by-side in portrait if the Daddy is held in landscape, because it’s meant to be that way. With the Baby, the landscape mode is essentially two iPhone 6S Plus’ next to one another.

Again, I suppose this wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that a normally formatted document, say a manuscript in 12pt double spaced font, is next to unreadable in this orientation. Not without a lot of finger dragging to see the end of the line before. This is a “Pro,” shouldn’t I be able to work on two documents at once?

And the answer is that, yeah, you can in theory but more because of iOS 9 than because it’s a “Pro”.

The iPad Air 2 can do what you can do, albiet with a less awesome screen, no built in keyboard attachment, and a less awesome camera (if you even care about that on a tablet). Because iOS 9 supports a lot of iPads.

Now do they run as smoothly? I don’t know. I haven’t owned one before and the Baby has all the same internals as the Daddy minus 2GB of RAM. But I haven’t noticed the RAM issue. All I’ve noticed is the side-by-side app issue and that is really bumming me out.

Again, while working on URS, I have at minimum a dozen tabs open and an Excel spreadsheet. Safari on the iPad is more than sufficent to handle my tab habbit. And the gestures actually make it faster than using my Mac. But not being able to see more than a peak at the spreadsheet while also having my document zoomed in to a ridiculous degree just to be able to read it much less type is pretty shit. This is not the “pro” I thought I was buying into.

I had believed, rightly or wrongly, that apps would adjust font size and zoom levels based on the amount of space they occupied. At the very least, they would adjust margins. I mean, if I have a once inch margin on the left and right for a manuscript, surely, Apple’s Pages would get rid of it for display purposes when compressed down in split view. No? No. So now there’s one inch of un-useable space on either side of the zoomed in text you’re trying to type while barely being able to see any of your reference spreadsheet.

Pages vs. Word

This section is really just for people looking to do what I’ve done and use the iPad as a laptop stand-in for work. If Pages is your primary word processor and/or you never or rarely have to deal with Word, chances are, none of this will be a problem.

However, if you’re like me and have written the vast majority of your work in Word, you’ll find Pages… interesting… And when I refer to Pages, I’m referring to the iOS Pages and not the Mac version which I have still never used. I should also note that I’ve never used Pages for any docs more complicated than a general manuscript format. So… don’t take this as a general Pages review.

But if you’re going to try and use Pages as a bridge between iOS and MacOS (which they’re rumored to start calling it anyway) then you’re already better off using it than Google Docs.

First of all, Google Docs is Cloud based, which may not be a problem for personal documents (see above) but it could be a problem if any documents you work on that are business related (again, see above).

But, more importantly, for all the reasons I’m going to list Pages’ problems, the one that it doesn’t have is lack of split view support. None of Google’s “office” apps currently support that feature and it’s a pain when you get mail you need to read or texts that have to be answered while working on something. You’re back to the old pre-iOS 9 app switching which really takes you away from what you’re working on.

Pages’ faults lie in two areas, one which isn’t its fault and the other which is decidedly so.

Not it’s fault:

Pages interprets even basic Word formatting in a very strange way. This is not its fault because Word saves in a proprietary format and, hey, it’s doing its best. So don’t expect for margins or headers to be exactly the same. Also, don’t expect them to export out the same as they were imported. Pages does the best it can interpreting the (I’m sure) tons of proprietary changes Microsoft has made to the format over the years.

Also, it won’t just natively edit Word files. Yes, some office suites do this but that’s because they’re trying to show up Microsoft at its own game. “Look! We can edit Word and be better and open source!” (I’m looking at you, Open Office.)

But Pages isn’t Open Office. It’s not trying to go head-to-head with Microsoft. It’s its own word processor. So be it.

Things totally its fault:

Apple invented AirDrop. AirDropping back to the source should offer some kind of version management or merging on the other side. I get that this would be complicated on the iOS side and maybe it isn’t needed there. But if the document was sent from MacOS (man, I already like that better than OS X), maybe it should recognize the doc and ask “Overwrite Original or Save As New”. How hard would that be?

Hey… you didn’t have to offer the feature but you knew it would make your ecosystem more attractive… So make it better!

But this is the big one… Font scaling and margin adjustments based on window size. Yes, I get that a word processor is, to some degree, supposed to me WYSIWYG. But, at the same time, if you’re editing a document on the modern equivilant of a 640px wide screen, the app should adjust context, especially if you’re advertising that the whole point of split view is that you can now do side-by-side multitasking.

The whole document should not just scale down. Hide the margins, scale up the font size. Leave the actual WYSIWYG elements to when the app has full control of the screen, not when it’s just sharing it. And this same rule goes for all text editors out there not just Pages. But Pages is the worst offender because it continues to try and be a full featured word processor even when it’s in a compact view.

Pardon me for asking, but who the fuck tries to properly format text on an iPhone 5 screen? And, if you know anyone who does, they should be fired. I’m sorry, but they should, because there is no way that the formatting that looks good on that screen also looks good on a normal computer much less printed out. It just won’t.

So Pages needs to decide when it’s just a rich text editor (ie. keeping track of tabs, bolding, italicizing, etc) and when it’s actually being asked to format. Because, otherwise, at least on a Baby Pro, and by extension an iPad Air 2, it’s just going to be shit as it’s not good at either unless in full screen.

IPad Pro 9.7

TLDR; Just Give Me The Verdict

The verdict so far is that for those people who have never had an iPad, the Baby pro is one hell of a tablet. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem of devices, it fits perfectly within the between MacBook and iPhone niche. Even if you don’t know what that nice is yet. During the weekends, I have a pretty strict “no work” policy to try and keep my life sane and I was okay at not opening my laptop over weekends and trying to use my phone instead when work demanded an answer.

With the iPad Pro, I’ve found that I almost never open my laptop at home anymore and it’s basically replaced my phone for all things but podcasts, which I listen to constantly and for which it’s easier to keep my headphones connected to my phone in my back pocket than to carry around the iPad or download the same episodes onto.

All emails, texts, whatever, are answered from my iPad. Even photos I take from my phone are AirDropped onto it, edited if at all, and sent from my iPad. And I actually prefer it because the iPad feels like a power iPhone but, more importantly, a device that doesn’t feel like work.

And this is the most important element. I don’t know if I can do a full day’s work on my iPad, I’m curious to see if I can. But, just tonight, I had to restart a server. Rather than opening my MacBook Pro and doing it, I launched a shell using Prompt 2 and my smart keyboard, and rebooted the server. Then I went back to the thing I was reading, leaving Safari open in split view so I could occassionally reload to ensure the server came back up. It did and I closed it and promptly forgot about work again.

Also, with the keyboard, I’d suggest the iPad Pro 9.7″ for anyone, like my Aunt or Dad, who primarly uses their computer for sending email, online shopping, or web browsing. It’s like a proper computer but without the hassles of a proper computer. And most of my complaints will never be theirs because they’re not trying to make it do something it was never intended to in the first place.

Final verdict: If I was going to make this thing a work machine, I probably would go with the 12″ model at this point, strictly for the split view abilities and sizes on the larger model. As an around the house reader, not having to open the laptop device, it’s more than adequite. Great, even, at that task. But it might get better as Apple continues to develop the split view model for apps.


This review doesn’t include any mention of the Apple Pencil for two major reasons, the first of which is thast I don’t own one and, the second reason, is that I’m not really much of an artist outside of writing. It’s possible an illustrator might get something out of it that I haven’t already mentioned but, since that’s not the reason I bought one, I didn’t bother to include it.

This review really is aimed at people thinking about leaving their laptops at home when they go on holiday but might still need to do some technology related work.

That said, as I’ve admitted, I haven’t done any serious development work on it yet, so I will update when or if I actuall do.

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