This past weekend, I took the plunge and purchased myself an iPad Pro, including an Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard Folio. Amazon had the iPad Pro on sale for 16% off of list price, which is an uncommonly large discount that I couldn’t pass up. I also had saved up quite a bit of Amazon rewards credit, so my out of pocket cost was quite low. I’ve had my eye on an iPad Pro for quite some time, and now that I have one, its time to share my impressions.
Which iPad Pro?
I chose to purchase the smaller 11" iPad Pro in Space Gray with 256GB of storage. Why? Well, the 12.9" iPad Pro was very tempting, but my primary use case for this device is to be a highly portable alternative to my MacBook Pro. What do I plan to use it for? Ideally:
- Task Management
- Note-taking, as an alternative to my trusty paper notebooks
- SSH’ing into my various Linux environments
- Local development, preferably using Python
- Writing / Blogging
- Publishing to my website
- Streaming from my Plex server
- Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc.
- My Social Reader
Given my constraints and desire to have something more portable than my MacBook Pro, I opted for the smaller size iPad Pro and Apple’s very slim keyboard case, with the Apple Pencil to help me replace my paper notebooks. I chose the 256 GB storage option because the base model only offers 64 GB, which is just not enough for my needs.
The Good: Hardware
So, what’s the good news? Well, there’s a lot to like. First off, the hardware itself is simply stunning. Its light, thin, fast, and beautiful. The screen is bright and crisp, and the bezel-less design is reminiscent of Dieter Rams' greatest hits. The last hardware design that I loved this much was the iPhone 5s.
The accessories are similarly well designed. The Smart Keyboard Folio attaches to the iPad Pro with ease thanks to an array of powerful magnets, and the Smart Connector means that I never have to worry about charging or pairing the keyboard. It just works. The Apple Pencil is similarly impressive, with an ingenious magnetic attachment to the side of the iPad Pro, and wireless charging that is effortless.
The Good: Software
iOS has come a long way in the past few years, adding rudimentary file management in the Files app, early multi-tasking capabilities, and iPad-specific features that enhance the overall experience. That said, there’s a long, long way to go from an OS-level to truly make the iPad Pro a professional tool. I’ll touch on that more later.
Now, there are some truly amazing apps that I have been enjoying to help me with my target use cases. They’re not all perfect, but I am encouraged by the vibrant and growing ecosystem of truly professional apps for iPad. These give me a great deal of hope for the future of the Mac as these apps begin to show up via Marzipan. Below is a list of apps I am using or experimenting with so far:
- Email – Apple Mail. I am a heavy email user, and try out email clients often. For now, I am sticking with the built-in option, which is adequate.
- Documents – Pages, Numbers, Keynote, and Drafts for personal projects. For work, we use GSuite, so I have installed Google’s Drive, Slides, Sheets, and Docs apps.
- Task-Management – I use Things on my Mac and iPhone, and now I am using it on my iPad Pro.
- Note-taking – This is an area where I am spending a lot of time experimenting. I have very much enjoyed note-taking in Drafts with my Smart Keyboard Folio attached, but am also trying out note-taking apps that are more Apple Pencil driven, including Notability and Nebo.
- SSH – Panic’s Prompt and the emerging iSH, which adds an emulated Linux environment to iOS.
- Local Development – The aforementioned iSH has been a revelation, enabling me to do local development in a very similar way to how I would on macOS, with vim, Python 3.7, git, virtualenv, and other common terminal-based tools. I’m also experimenting with Pythonista and have my eye on a few other editors to play with (Textastic, Buffer, etc.).
- Writing / Blogging
- Books – Apple’s Books app works great for ePub content.
- News – Apple’s News app is decent, but mostly I use Safari with my favorite news sites, or more likely I use my feed reader.
- Comics – Chunky Reader is pretty solid, though I wish this entire category was more like Plex, with rich metadata indexing and organization on the server, with clients for reading.
- Web – Safari.
- Feeds – I have installed Together as a Progressive Web App on my home screen and it works well.
While none of the above apps are perfect, I have been quite impressed with them as a whole.
The Bad: Hardware
While the iPad Pro and its accessories are truly impressive hardware, they’re not free of issues. Because the bezels are so small on the iPad Pro, it can be a little uncomfortable to hold in portrait layout while reading. In the lap, the whole Smart Keyboard Folio and iPad Pro setup is a bit top-heavy, making it slightly unstable. Other than these minor nits, overall I think the hardware is top-notch.
The Bad: Software
While the app ecosystem is amazing, and iOS has made great strides, there are still some fundamental missing pieces that prevent me from viewing iOS as a true alternative to macOS:
- Keyboard – While the Smart Keyboard Folio is generally great to type on, in spite of its small size and low key travel, it is greatly hampered by software limitations in iOS. There is no ability to re-map keys in iOS, so I am stuck with a system-wide Caps Lock key, and no ESC key. Some apps, such as iSH, allow you to map Caps Lock to ESC, but this should really be handled system-wide. In addition, the Smart Keyboard Folio has a “globe” button in the bottom left corner which is infuriating. Pressing it pops up the Emoji keyboard on screen, and its right next to the control key, which I use heavily.
- Fonts – iOS comes with a small set of fonts, and there is no standard, built-in way to install additional fonts. I have been able to use an app called AnyFont to install fonts, including my preferred programming font, Dank Mono, but because the system itself doesn’t have support for font management, most apps don’t surface font customization. Kudos to Drafts, though, for allowing users to pick from any font available to the system, including ones installed through AnyFont.
- File Management – Apple added the Files app to iOS, and its a good start, but has so far to go to truly make it a pro-level file management tool. In addition, there isn’t any ability to plug in external storage to my iPad Pro, in spite of the fact that it has a USB-C port.
- Multi-Tasking – iOS has a very rudimentary multi-tasking system, which allows you to place multiple apps onto the screen at the same time, in floating panels, and in split views. It works, but is fiddly to use, with delicate gestures required to bring up the dock, drag apps over each other, and position them. In addition, there is no way to have multiple “windows” of an app used in different multi-tasking sessions. I think Apple is definitely innovating here, looking for new ways to approach multi-tasking than traditional window management. In many ways, iOS multi-tasking reminds me of tiling window managers, just… not as good. I’m hoping for good news on this front at WWDC.
- Web Browsing – Safari is an awesome browser. But, on the iPad, too often websites give you the mobile version of their site, rather than serving up the “full size” website. In addition, there isn’t any sort of download manager, or support for extensions other than content blockers.
- iSH – I have heaped praise on iSH above, and it really is pretty incredible. Its also an open source project, and is rapidly improving… but its not there yet. Things I’d love to see added to iSH that would greatly improve my experience: custom font selection, better performance, compatibility with additional software, tabbed sessions, and a choice of a different base operating system than Alpine Linux.
Overall, I am thrilled with my iPad Pro, and really excited to see where Apple is headed with iOS for “pro” users. There is so much to like, and massive potential for improvement. While I don’t see the iPad Pro displacing my laptop anytime soon, I think it will become an important part of my workflow.