Published/updated: March 2016
By Dale Vile
The rumour mill says that that Apple will soon launch a smaller (9.7 inch) version of the iPad Pro, complete with support for the Apple Pencil. This could be interesting option if you anticipate being in the market for tablet technology to support your mobile workforce.
With this is in mind, I thought it was a good time share my experience of the existing iPad Pro from around three months of hard-core business use, particularly as I think many commentators have overlooked some key points. This isn’t a criticism of other reviews as it’s hard to reach a robust conclusion from a lab test or a day or two putting the product through its paces. You only really get to know a device if you live with it for an extended period of time. Indeed, I am currently using the iPad Pro in ways I didn’t anticipate at the outset.
Working patterns and use cases
To put what I’m about to say in context, I am an industry analyst and my job involves quite a bit of travel, lots of meetings in which I need to take notes, and frequent periods when I’m snatching an hour or two here and there while on the road to do the odd piece of work. I use this ‘in between’ time to manage email, author articles, work on reports, and review and edit documents produced by other members the team. Put simply, while web browsing, reading and watching video is important, a lot of what I do while out and about involves ‘producing’ as well as ‘consuming’ content.
Coming back to the iPad, I was a very early adopter from the beginning. Over the past few years, I have used most generations of the device as a ‘laptop companion’. Despite the rhetoric about tablets being primarily for content consumption, I have found that an iPad fitted with a decent Logitech keyboard/case could be used comfortably for reasonably short authoring jobs - emails, articles, and so on. This would often save firing up the laptop to do something quick and simple.
The one thing I gave up trying to do, however, was serious document reviewing and editing. Even now Microsoft Word on iOS supports full commenting and ‘track changes’, there simply isn’t enough screen real estate on a 9.7 inch device to move comfortably around large documents and add/read notes in the margin – at least not with my eyesight. It’s possible to do it in an emergency, but not ideal.
Apple versus Microsoft
Based on this experience, the iPad Pro looked to me to be an interesting possibility when I was given a budget by the ‘powers that be’ for a personal tech refresh. But why not just go with the Microsoft Surface option? We are pretty bought into Windows and Office as a company from a desktop productivity perspective, have quite a bit of Surface kit kicking around, and I had the budget to buy a sexy new Surface Pro 4 if I wanted one.
My first response is simply that I think iOS provides a much smoother and more comfortable tablet experience when you are in consumption mode. I know not everyone agrees, but I personally find Windows 10-based tablets too ‘fussy’ and inconsistent from a user interface perspective. Whether this is down to over engineering or the compromises that stem from designing a hybrid operating system, I wasn’t keen on going down the Surface Pro 4 route because I didn’t want to sacrifice the solid simplicity of the iOS tablet experience.
Beyond this consideration, a number of other factors conspired to drive me towards the iPad Pro, based on a combination of personal needs and preferences, talking to existing users, and trying devices hands-on:
Battery life. The iPad Pro has a genuine all-day capability, similar to previous iPads. This is not true of the Surface Pro 4, which is significantly inferior in this respect, even with the latest round of firmware upgrades.
4G/LTE support. I spend a lot of time working on trains with no Wi-Fi, and as a guest in other people’s offices where getting on the network is a pain (often even impossible). The iPad Pro supports cellular connectivity, while the Surface Pro 4 doesn’t. This was a huge plus in its favour as I hate messing about with dongles, MiFi boxes and the WiFi connection lottery.
App availability. Some commentators say the Microsoft shortfall in app availability doesn’t matter for business users. I disagree, unless you plan to use your device primarily in ‘desktop mode’ – in which case why not just buy a decent Windows notebook? In general, the client apps for enterprise class applications and cloud services are more likely to be there on iOS, and even if they exist on Windows, developers often haven’t put as much effort into producing them. I would also argue that the quality of apps used for leisure and entertainment is an important consideration nowadays for business travellers. I don’t know anyone who would want to carry a second tablet for purely personal use.
Stability. The stability of both Windows and OS X tends to fluctuate wildly as we spiral through the never-ending upgrade cycles, and it doesn’t take much working out that users of the latest generation of Microsoft Surface devices have suffered particularly badly. Over the years, the iPad is the only business computing device that I haven’t regularly cursed. The iPad Pro had a couple of minor teething problems when I first got it, but just as expected, it has since proven to be pretty rock solid in comparison to any PC or Mac I have ever owned.
Form Factor. I do tend to use devices on my lap quite a bit, whether it’s sitting on the sofa, squashed in a narrow seat on a crowded train, at a conference with no flat surface to rest on, or sitting in the car pulled over in a layby. In such situations, I have generally not got on with the Microsoft ‘kickstand’ arrangement. Neither of the two most popular keyboard options for the iPad Pro (more of those in a minute) suffer from the same challenges.
Again I am aware that other people will either dismiss these factors as irrelevant, or will take a different view of them, but these are the kind of things that really make a difference depending on your working patterns.
A genuine laptop replacement?
A frequent question that crops up in relation to the iPad Pro is whether it really is a serious replacement for a laptop (as the Surface Pro 4 undoubtedly is). I totally concur with the points made by other commentators here about the dearth of ports and connectivity options on the iOS device. For this reason alone, I would certainly say that most business users would probably suffer if they didn’t at least maintain a desktop PC or Mac, or a larger form-factor laptop.
There are then some tasks I do as part of my job that are a lot more difficult without a mouse and/or the full-on capability of Windows desktop applications. Building and running Excel models for data analysis, and simply putting together a PowerPoint presentation, are a couple of obvious examples. Having said that, the latest version of PowerPoint for iOS is surprisingly usable on an iPad Pro equipped with an ‘Apple Pencil’ – maybe not for heavy ‘design from scratch’ jobs, but perfectly OK if you are throwing together a series of slides from a pre-existing library and applying some tweaks.
For me, though, 90% of the work I do on the road is, as I said, messaging, authoring and document reviewing, and for things like this the iPad Pro is actually very comfortable to use, even for prolonged periods. However, it’s important to note a couple of specifics here.
Keyboard practicalities, pros and cons
Firstly, there’s a big difference between the two keyboard options most commonly considered for the iPad Pro. Comparing the Apple Smart Keyboard and the Logitech ‘logi’ keyboard (I ended up buying both to try), while the former is lighter and slimmer, the latter is much more usable for intensive periods of typing. The trouble is that the Logitech option, while far superior from a typing perspective, adds significantly to both the weight and bulk of the iPad Pro. The whole configuration, in fact, ends up physically bigger (though still a little lighter) than a MacBook Air.
This begs the question of why you would use the iPad Pro/Logitech keyboard combination over a full-blown Ultrabook or lightweight MacBook, and the answer is in the touch and pen-based experience.
What, no paper?
The biggest surprise for me from extended use of the iPad Pro is that it has allowed me to totally ditch the paper notebook. I have never been one for typing notes on a keyboard in real-time during meetings, so being able to scribble on a tablet is genuinely transformative. The combination of a greater screen size, the Apple Pencil, and Microsoft OneNote is extremely effective (see here for more details).
Could you achieve the same with the Surface Pro 4? Perhaps, but it’s in use cases like this that the iOS robustness and simplicity really comes into its own. Coming back to the added bulk of the Logitech keyboard, losing the hard-backed A4 notepad I have historically lugged around with me more than makes up for this. And once you get used to your mind-maps and scribbles being both secure and accessible from any device you use, there is no returning to paper.
One last thing I will mention is my recent discovery of a third-party on-screen keyboard replacement app that provides very usable and accurate handwriting recognition. In my first few weeks with the device, this was the one thing that frustrated me. Unlike Windows, which provides effective real-time handwriting to text conversion natively, there is no such feature in iOS, and most of the add-ons I tried left a lot to be desired. This made it hard to leave the physical keyboard behind, even if I knew I wasn’t going to be doing a lot a typing.
The answer was in the form of an app called MyScript Stylus, which works extremely well for composing short emails and messages, entering searches into the browser, and so on. Where appropriate, it allows you to turn up to meetings carrying nothing more than your tablet clothed in a slick leather binder so you look like a proper business person rather than a geek.
The bottom line
Pulling all this together, the bottom line is that the iPad Pro has been a good choice for me for the reasons outlined, and the anticipated smaller form-factor equivalent is likely to deliver many of the same benefits (though beware my comments on reviewing in Word). As an industry analyst, however, I learned a long time ago that device choices are very personal, and what works for one individual may not for another.
You ultimately have to make up your own mind, and also consider issues such as manageability and support for larger deployments. In the meantime, I hope my experiences have at least brought some balance to the Windows vs iOS discussion from a utility and usability viewpoint.
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