The iPad Pro Experiment: In which we meet the iPad Pro

Shortly after buying an iPad Pro last November, I abandoned my Macs for an iOS-only test drive. If you're thinking about buying an iPad Pro and want to know how to truly get the most out of it, I've collected all my iPad Pro Experiment articles from last year and more recent experiments. Read on!

As I slowly ease back into computer-related work after a recent health scare (I'm fine!), I thought it might be a fun experiment to try using Apple's iPad Pro as my main device. No iMac, no MacBook Air. Just my iPad Pro, Logitech keyboard, other iOS devices, and anything else that will connect to my iPad.

I put my Macs through a lot, normally, and I haven't attempted an experiment like this since iOS 4.2—when the iPad first came out. I'm curious to see if I can actually manage on an iPad with my day-to-day, especially since I'm not in a great position to do much else right now.

It's also going to be a great way to review the iPad in real time. Rene wrote iMore's full, deep-dive iPad Pro review, but in the meantime—this is what I'm thinking of it so far. Onward!

Prelude: Things I know are going to be a problem

Off the bat, there are a couple features my iPad doesn't have that I'm going to miss pretty quickly.

One is support for Napkin, our image annotator—it's the app that lets us do those awesome zoom call-outs on our screenshots. I can probably still do a fair amount with apps like Skitch, but it won't quite be the same.

Speaking of screenshots, I won't be able to take them—or take videos—of the new Apple TV. Doing so requires Xcode or QuickTime, neither of which I have access to on my iPad Pro. I can work around this by taking photos and video of my Apple TV's screen, but it won't look nearly as professional. (I'll probably cheat by persuading Rene to take them for me.)

The last big one: Podcast recording. While there are a couple of okay microphones designed for the Lightning connector, none have really blown me away. As such, I don't own any. If I plan to record an iMore podcast, I'm going to be doing it with an EarPods mic. Blech.

If Apple supported devices like the Blue Icicle through its USB-based camera connector, this would be a lot easier—I could hook up my microphone system, no problem. (Or, hey, if someone wanted to try building a Smart Connector dock that offered access to powered microphones...)

Even with that, however, there's little (if any) support in iOS for choosing audio input, or recording your side. It's a shame, because I actually think the iPad could be a great portable tool for recording podcasts and audio—if it was allowed to be.

Day one: The white monolith

Today, I ventured out of my house for the first time in almost a week to pick up my iPad Pro from the Apple Store. Exciting on several fronts, including some pure joy at no longer being at my house.

Waiting, waiting, waiting: So I did some Pencil tests

The store was (unsurprisingly) packed to the gills, so while I waited for a specialist to help me, I grabbed some time with a Pro demo unit that had a Pencil attached. I never got to try the Pencil at Apple's event back in September, and mine has a miserly potential ship time of December 15; both of these facts had me itching to give it a proper whirl.

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The above video shows a very quick in-store sketching test using Paper. (I also sketched in Notes and Procreate, not shown.)

In just ten minutes of Pencil usage, I am happy to say that it checks all of my happy artist boxes: It feels great in my hand; latency is next to nothing in supported apps; and shading is just stupidly cool.

Like others have said in their reviews, it's a bit longer than I initially anticipated, but it works to the Pencil's advantage—it gives it a nice balance and weight while drawing that feels just as good if not better than the best third-party stylus on the market.

My initial sketching experience was just "good"... until I remembered to actually rest my palm on the iPad. I've spent five years drawing with styluses, and even the ones with built-in palm rejection aren't too great. That's five years of training not to ever touch my hand on the screen. Once I finally trusted the Pencil and drew the way I might draw on paper, the experience was wildly more comfortable.

The Pencil made beautiful, low-latency lines in just about every program I tried it in, and its pressure-sensitivity is fantastic—well, mostly. In Procreate and Notes, the Pencil worked exactly as I hoped it would: heavier pressure made heavier lines, lighter pressure gave me wisp-thin pencil scratches, and tilting worked fantastically for shading. (A nice little bit about the pencil tool in Notes: As you shade, you'll actually see virtual "bits" of charcoal break off and scatter on the virtual paper. It's such a neat little skeuomorphic touch, and one that adds a lot of character to the drawing experience.)

Paper, on the other hand, seems to still be using pressure for line opacity, and speed for line width. I understand why the Paper team chose to implement Pencil support in this way—it mirrors the company's support for its own Pencil tool—but I hate, hate, hate drawing like this. Much as I enjoy Paper's tools, I imagine I'll probably prefer drawing in Procreate or Notes with the Pencil.

Writing was a little trickier, at least at first: As a lefty, I'm used to over-slanting my pen so as not to get ink or pencil dust on my hands. On paper, that works out great; on the iPad, the Pencil reads this as an attempt at shading. For the first few minutes of writing, I ended up accidentally shade-writing letters.

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Once I figured out the tilt issue, I was able to write normally, but it definitely takes some getting used to. I also wonder if there's a preference in Settings that changes the Pencil's "handedness" from right to left, or vice versa; most of the third-party Bluetooth styluses have that option, and if it does exist for the Pencil, it might explain some of my writing troubles.

Final Pencil verdict: I'm hoping a shipment of them come in to our local Apple Store on Friday, because I'm not sure I can wait until mid-December to get my hands on one. (Warning: It's good enough that it may turn your thoughts to criminal ones. I definitely fantasized, while waiting for my iPad Pro, of "borrowing" the demo Pencil for 24 hours. But, y'know, not a criminal, so I left it sitting in its beautiful white cradle for the next customer to try. Poor Pencil.)

Hello, iPad Pro

After not nearly enough time with the Pencil, I was pulled away to take delivery of my own iPad Pro. I purchased the 128GB Cellular model in Silver—in honesty, I would have preferred Space Gray, but the nearest gray model available for pickup would have meant another hour drive in the car for me and my driving companion. Don't care about colors that much.

At the last minute (and after reading Viticci's wonderful review) I also decided to pick up a Logitech Create keyboard case. (I am thanking my stars for making that decision, because it makes working on the iPad a thousand percent more feasible. I hate typing on software keyboards.) I got it in rose gold and red, because if you're going to get a white iPad, might as well jazz it up.

Once I arrived home, unboxing the iPad was a surreal experience—the tablet is huge. Huge! Even handling it in the store, I wasn't truly able to appreciate its size until it was stacked next to my iPad Air 2. That giant 12.9-inch screen is one of crazy beauty, but it definitely takes some getting used to.

It doesn't even really feel like an iPad, to be honest. It may run the same software as an iPad and have the same exterior controls, but I can't imagine using this like I used my Air 2. (Which is to say, I think I've been severely underutilizing that poor iPad.) I understand why they called it Pro: When you have this machine in your hand, it practically demands doing real work. Especially when you snap it into the Logitech case, which makes it look like a strange, short laptop.

In part, this is why I was so darn annoyed that the iPad Pro setup process was done in portrait mode. In landscape, the Pro feels like a computer. In portrait, I feel like I'm holding a jumbo-sized iOS device—and an uncomfortable one, at that. The setup screens haven't really been optimized for the Pro's size, so buttons are at far ends from one another, and the lack of landscape support means lack of Smart Connector, so you'll be typing in all your information with the (not great) portrait software keyboard. Thumbs down all around.

Thankfully, you only really have to set up your iPad once (if you're lucky), and once you've done so, you can use your tablet in any orientation you choose.

Once I got the initial setup process over with, it was a simple enough task to authorize my iPad to use iCloud Keychain via my iPhone 6s Plus; I was able to set up my two-factor accounts using the iPhone, too, all in under an hour.

Apps, apps, everywhere

After I finished setup, I went to the App Store and downloaded the apps I might want to use on the Pro. I've mostly been living in Notes, Slack, iMessage, Safari, and Tweetbot for now, but I also pulled The Room 3 (for creepy entertainment), Skitch (in case I need to annotate things), GarageBand, iMovie, 1Password, Pixelmator, entertainment apps, Dropbox, and various drawing apps.

I did cheat a little bit with my Mac in the evening, opening my Air to demonstrate one of those iPad Pro apps for a friend of mine. Astropad lets you use your iPad's screen as a low-latency second screen specifically for drawing usage—essentially, turning your iPad Pro into a Wacom-style tablet. And Astropad has (beta) support for the Pencil, along with a number of other third-party styluses.

More on other apps in subsequent days, once I take some time to play with them.

Sound explosion

One of the first things I noticed after setting up my iPad was its speakers: Apple wasn't just wasting advertising time on idle boasts. On listening alone, the tablet's four speakers are definitely better than my MacBook Air's, if not my iMac's. They may not beat a dedicated speaker system, but they're more than good enough for listening to music while you work, and they downright shine when you load up Hulu or Netflix.

I have a nice TV, a brand-new Apple TV, and decent speakers, but it was the iPad that I watched a movie on last night. And it was awesome.

Turning the iPad into a pseudo-computer

I wouldn't have embarked on this iPad Pro-as-full-time-computer experiment without a good hardware keyboard, and the Logitech Create sold me on the prospect almost immediately. This is a fantastic keyboard: It took me less time to acclimate to than Apple's new Magic Keyboard, and feels great in your lap or on a desk. You can even pick the keyboard-and-iPad combo up by the bottom of the case like you might a laptop, though I'd advise holding on to the iPad while you do.

The iPad Pro's new Smart Connector is something special. Snapping the keyboard to the connector creates an instant pairing; detaching it immediately disables power. I snapped and unsnapped the Create to the iPad three dozen times or so, and every connection brought the keyboard online almost instantaneously. It feels much quicker and smoother than Bluetooth, and there's no worrying about charging your keyboard or accidentally letting it run down the battery.

And as a result, the Create offers what has heretofore been a luxury in portable keyboards: backlighting. As someone who lived with a backlit-less MacBook Air for years, backlighting has become one of my top features on a good keyboard, and the Create does it very nicely.

You also have an entire row of function keys available on the Create. Like a laptop, you've got keys to control brightness of both the iPad screen and backlit keys, along with volume and music shortcuts. The keyboard also has a few iPad-specific keys, however: The escape button has been replaced with a shortcut to the Home screen; there's a button that sends you to the Spotlight screen for searching; a Lock button to instantly send your iPad to sleep; and my own personal favorite, a keyboard-switcher. If you use third-party keyboards or the emoji keyboard often, that physical keyboard-switcher button is a lifesaver—I used it at least ten times in my first day with the iPad Pro alone.

I've got a lot of praise for the Logitech this early on, but also a few critiques. Its back casing for the iPad Pro doesn't fit perfectly on my Cellular model, and while the iPad's in no danger of slipping loose, there's an odd gap at the top of the casing that makes the overall fit look sloppy. It also adds quite a bit of weight to iPad, and it's a little difficult to snap out of the case if you'd prefer to use it sans keyboard. (You can fold the iPad over the keyboard, but it means carrying an extra 1.6 pounds around—that doubles the weight of the 1.59-pound iPad Pro.)

So far, that 3 pounds hasn't bothered me, but I also haven't carried it around anywhere besides my house—it's a good half-pound heavier than my 11-inch MacBook Air. (The 13-inch Air is around 3 pounds, for reference; the 12-inch MacBook is 2 pounds.)

Day one bottom line

One day in, I've got a lot of hope for the iPad Pro as a replacement laptop computer. I was able to set it up quickly, and get going with some of my basic tools; authorizing my two-factor accounts was easy with my iPhone by my side; and I really like the feel of the Logitech hardware keyboard. I expect to run up into some limitations as I get further into this experiment, but for now, I'm really enjoying working with the iPad Pro. (And I wrote this article on the Pro, using Notes!)

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.