My Time With an iPad Pro - And Why I Returned It

Note: The very day I post this article, Apple has scheduled a special event where a 9.7“ version of the iPad Pro is anticipated to be announced. All references to the iPad Pro in this article refer to the original 12.9” version.

A couple of weeks ago I ordered an iPad Pro. After living and working with the iPad for almost two weeks, I returned it. Truth be told, I never really wanted an iPad Pro. But so many of my friends bought the device and sang its praises I managed to convince myself that my initial impressions about the iPad Pro must have meant there was something wrong with me. Clearly, I wasn’t getting it.

After spending time with the iPad Pro, there’s no doubt that it is a remarkable piece of engineering, and it is unquestionably the right device for some. Perhaps as a laptop replacement, perhaps as a better iPad, perhaps just as a supplemental device or even a second iPad. But for me, it’s none of those things. I’m glad I tried it, and I learned several things along the way. Here’s my tale of two weeks with an iPad Pro.

A tale of two iPads. The 12.9" iPad Pro (left) and the 7.9" iPad mini (right).

A tale of two iPads. The 12.9" iPad Pro (left) and the 7.9" iPad mini (right).

My History With The iPad

Before I can explain why the iPad failed as a device for me, perhaps I should discuss some history about how I’ve used iPads over the years. I’ve been an iPad owner since day one. In fact, there’s a funny story about me chasing the UPS guy down the street sopping wet to retrieve my iPad on launch day. I’ve used an iPad every day since then.

While I’ve admired my friends who use their iPads for work and productivity, my iPad has always been more of a consumption device. Admittedly, that’s something I’ve had mixed feelings about. I’ve always felt I should be doing more with my iPad. After all, I have a podcast that’s all about being productive with your Mac and iOS devices and my co-host David Sparks literally wrote the book on using your iPad at Work. While I certainly can and do use my iPad to get work done and for productivity related activities, it has never been my preferred device for those tasks.

When it’s time to give a presentation, write a legal brief, respond to an inbox full of emails or record a podcast I almost always reach for my Mac. Unquestionably the larger screen of the iPad Pro coupled with the multitasking features introduced in iOS 9 make these types of tasks easier on the iPad Pro than they ever were before. But I still find it to be a compromised experience compared to using all the power of OS X with a full-size keyboard and mouse.

Still, the iPad is my go-to device for many tasks. In fact, when I come home from work in the evening, most nights I don’t touch my laptop. Instead I lounge in the living room or bedroom and use the iPad. The iPad is my preferred device for using Twitter, reading and providing short responses to email, looking up information on the web, browsing RSS feeds and related tasks. Most days, my iPad stays at home. It can generally be found on the coffee table or night stand. It’s the first thing I pick up in the morning and the last thing I put down at night.

I used a 9.7“ (standard size) iPad for years, until the iPad mini 2 was released with a 7.9” retina display in late 2013. While I was initially skeptical about moving to a smaller size screen, I was intrigued by the smaller iPad and willing to give the mini a try based on my previous positive experiences downsizing to smaller screen computers. Immediately I fell in love with the smaller size iPad. The iPad mini was more comfortable, lighter, easier to hold with one hand, and was just small enough that I could slip it in my purse and take it with me for the day without giving it a second thought.

In late 2015 I briefly tried an iPad Air 2 . While I loved my iPad mini, I found myself longing for a slightly bigger screen when using my iPad for writing or working with PDFs as well as the recently introduced split-screen support for working with multiple apps. While the iPad Air 2 was fine, after several weeks I found myself continually reaching for the old mini. I was just more comfortable with the mini. I got rid of the iPad Air 2 and upgraded to the mini 4 in late 2015.

My 13" MacBook Air (Mid-2015) with the 12.9" iPad Pro.

My 13" MacBook Air (Mid-2015) with the 12.9" iPad Pro.

Why I Ordered An iPad Pro

If I was so in love with my iPad mini, one might ask why I even bothered to try the iPad Pro. Initially when the iPad Pro was released I had no interest at all, in fact the idea of an even larger iPad seemed off-putting. The short answer is I was convinced that I was missing something.

Over the last few months several of my friends have transitioned to iPad Pros and raved about them. David Sparks loves his iPad Pro, and continues to find a place for it in his workflow despite already having an iPad Air, MacBook and iMac. Fellow attorney Jeff Richardson at iPhone JD likewise sings the iPad Pro’s praises for his legal work. Even Stephen Hackett, a die hard Mac guy, says the iPad Pro has changed his game. Perhaps in what I found most interesting about the iPad Pro, Myke Hurley, who was extremely skeptical about the device, now prefers working on the iPad Pro for many tasks and wrote a rave review about the Apple Pencil. I have a lot in common with each of these people, and greatly respect their opinions. If they all loved the iPad Pro, then shouldn’t I love it too?

All of these thoughts have been running around my head and I started to think about ways I could use an iPad Pro. Really it came down to a couple of use cases:

  1.  I wanted a device that I could take into client meetings for note-taking. Currently, I take notes on a legal pad and the legal assistant types them up for the file and we prepare documents based on the notes. (This is how all the attorneys in my firm have worked for years.) If I could take notes directly on the iPad we could be more efficient and more accurate. (I type so much faster than I can write - and sometimes even I have difficulty reading my own handwriting after a meeting!) Using an iPad in a client setting is preferred over a computer because it creates less of a physical barrier between me and the client and is generally less intrusive.
  2. I regularly work with PDFs. However, I’m completing a masters program this semester and have several textbooks that are distributed as PDFs. Reading, highlighting and annotating these PDFs on the iPad mini is not an ideal experience. With the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil I could see a full page at a time and use the Pencil for annotations and highlighting.
  3. In the next few months I will graduate from my masters program and will no longer have the need to carry a laptop around daily. For the first time since the late 90s, due in large part to the draw of the 5k iMacs, I find myself considering switching back to a desktop as my primary computer. I will occasionally need a portable computing device. I wanted to see if the iPad Pro was full-featured enough to be a laptop replacement for those occasions when I needed a portable device away from home.

I’ve been thinking about the iPad Pro for some time, but what finally pushed me over the edge to ordering it was when retailer Staples ran a sale and discounted the device $150. Discounting such a new Apple product so dramatically is practically unheard of (and perhaps somewhat telling) and I decided if I was ever going to try the iPad Pro, now was the time. Almost on a whim I ordered a 128GB Space Gray model with Wi-Fi along with an Apple Pencil and an inexpensive case. Staples had a 14 day return policy, similar to Apple. If it didn’t work out, I planned to return the iPad within the return window and hopefully only be out a few bucks for return shipping and the case.

The iPad Pro placed on top of the 13" MacBook Air's screen. The viewable area on the iPad Pro is almost identical to the 13" MacBook Air.

The iPad Pro placed on top of the 13" MacBook Air's screen. The viewable area on the iPad Pro is almost identical to the 13" MacBook Air.

Where the iPad Pro Excelled

The iPad Pro was a superior device in many ways. The screen is large and crisp and I found I could prop it on a table or a bar a few feet away and comfortably watch streaming video, especially considering the improved speakers.

The larger screen on the iPad Pro was a dream when working in split screen. While the iPad mini 4 supports split screen, it’s really too small to use effectively. With the iPad Pro, running PDFpen in one screen and Word in another was no problem. In fact, this made the iPad Pro a fine device for use at school since most of the time when I’m in class this is exactly the setup I use. I have a PDF with documents or text on one side of my screen and a word processor or outliner on the other. When coupled with an external bluetooth keyboard I was pleasantly surprised that the iPad Pro could function very well as a laptop replacement for my everyday use in class, so long as your documents are stored in a cloud service that is well supported in iOS.

Text editing in general worked very well with the iPad Pro - so long as I paired the iPad Pro with an external bluetooth keyboard. The large retina screen coupled with great apps and a distraction free environment made the iPad Pro a great device for writing.

The PDF experience on the iPad Pro was generally good - but a lot of it depended on how the App supported the Apple Pencil and how the controls were setup. Having a larger screen meant you could see a full 8.5 x 11 page at once. One of the big drawbacks of my iPad mini is I typically have to view PDFs in horizontal mode and zoomed in which means I typically only see half a page or less at a time. That means a lot of zooming and scrolling.

The iPad Pro is unquestionably fast, the fastest iPad Apple has ever made by far. However, for my everyday use the extra power really didn’t come into play. I wasn’t pushing the iPad Pro anywhere near capacity.

Why the iPad Didn’t Work

Probably the biggest problem with the iPad Pro was it was just too darn big. I found the iPad wasn’t comfortable to use in places where I typically like to use an iPad. The iPad Pro is a device that’s really meant to be used at a table or another flat service. I didn’t want to use the iPad while lounging on the couch or in bed, places where I would regularly use the iPad mini. I found that using the iPad pro was much more intentional where I would use my mini in a much more casual way.

The iPad Pro was almost as large as my MacBook Air. In fact, for the two weeks that I used it, I carried it around in the same Tom Bihn Bag that typically carries my MacBook Air. It wasn’t something that could be thrown in a purse and taken on a whim. Because of its size, anywhere I took my iPad Pro, it would have been just as easy to take my MacBook Air. If I was going to go the trouble, I personally would have preferred to have my Mac.

I bought this purse specifically because it would fit both my 7.9" iPad mini and a standard size 9.7" iPad tucked inside horizontally. (The 9.7" iPad is a big tight, but fits.) The iPad Pro is far to big.

I bought this purse specifically because it would fit both my 7.9" iPad mini and a standard size 9.7" iPad tucked inside horizontally. (The 9.7" iPad is a big tight, but fits.) The iPad Pro is far to big.

The size of the iPad Pro as also a problem in using it in client meetings. I didn’t care for the feel of the keyboard cover, and I found typing directly on the glass to be a clunky experience. I’m sure if I had given the iPad Pro more than a 14-day trial I would have gotten better at typing on the glass. But for the short time I was together with the iPad Pro, when I tried to use it in client meetings directly typing on the glass, it was too poor an experience.

So why not pair the iPad Pro with an external keyboard? I certainly could. But at that point, using the iPad Pro with its 13“ screen propped up on the table would create just as large a physical barrier between me and my client as a 13” laptop. This was exactly the situation I was trying to avoid by using the iPad in the first place.

What about using the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil to take notes? Using the Apple Pencil and the iPad Pro was the best experience I’ve ever had with a stylus and the iPad. But does it fulfill my dream of being able to write on an iPad ad effortlessly as I do today on a legal pad - not quite. Despite all the technological advances in the Apple Pencil, it is still a plastic device writing on a glass screen. I personally found using the Apple Pencil more fatiguing compared to pen and paper and the handwriting was generally less clear on the iPad than on paper. I think this was due to having less friction and having to apply more pressure to control the pencil than compared with pen and paper.

A couple of caveats. I have never been known for my penmanship. I have longstanding problems with my right hand that makes handwriting a challenge. After more than a couple of paragraphs taking handwritten notes is fatiguing and uncomfortable for me in any form. The Apple Pencil and the iPad Pro amplified this discomfort. I an not a good test case for note-taking on the iPad pro because I am always going to be more comfortable typing than handwriting.

A handwritten note on a legal pad (top) and the same note using the iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil with Notability (bottom). Click image for larger view.

Finally, I kept running into frustrations and limitations with the iOS software and certain Apps that had not yet been optimized for iOS 9 or the iPad Pro. While using split screen was a joy, I was frustrated to find that only certain apps supported split screen view and the application switcher that requires vertically scrolling between supported apps is clunky. Moving information between apps must be done via a manual copy and paste, not a more intuitive drag and drop. While I enjoyed the iPad Pro on-screen keyboard with it’s additional row of number keys, every time I came across an App that had not been optimized for the iPad Pro and was thrown back into a blown up keyboard I wanted to scream.

The iPad Pro is Apple’s first attempt at making the iPad something more, and while iOS 9’s enhancements are nice, with the iPad Pro it becomes painfully obvious they simply do not go far enough. I get that these things take time and as the OS matures we’ll see better support for multi-tasking and using multiple apps simultaneously. I expect we’ll see some of these changes this Fall in iOS X (or whatever it may be called). Of course, these things take time. It may be that the hardware of the iPad Pro too advanced for the iOS 9 software that runs on it.

What I Learned

Despite the fact that I returned the iPad Pro, I learned a few things along the way. First, I’m intrigued by this new iPad. So much so that I am going to take a serious look at this rumored 9.7“ iPad Pro that may launch as early as next week. While I experimented with the iPad Air 2 last year and ultimately returned to the iPad mini, my time with the iPad Pro has taught me that things like Apple Pencil support and split-screen are nice. While I love my mini’s small form factor, 9.7” may be a compromise that’s worth making to gain the additional functionality.

I also learned that while the iPad Pro may not be the right device for me, I sold three of them to friends and family in the short two weeks that I had it. After spending some time playing with my iPad Pro, both my mom, dad and a family friend say they plan to upgrade to the larger iPad Pro the next time they upgrade their iPad. The primary reason being the larger screen is better for surfing the web and everyday tasks. While the introduction of the iPad Pro may not be enough to prompt people who are currently content with their iPads to upgrade, I suspect that we may see people upgrading to an iPad Pro when it comes time to replace their computer or existing tablet.

Enjoy this article? Consider subscribing via RSS