As the iPhone X was for iPhone and the Series 4 was for Apple Watch, the 2018 iPad Pro is a significant step forward for the iPad. Sporting a completely new and striking design with slimmer bezels than ever before, it is powered by a processor capable of outperforming those in several current MacBook models; gains Face ID biometric authentication that works in any screen orientation; and switches from Apple's proprietary Lightning port to USB-C.
Additionally, by removing the Home button and slimming down the bezels, Apple has been able to give the new 11-inch iPad Pro essentially the same overall footprint as the 10.5-inch model it replaces, whilst the 12.9-inch version puts the same-sized display into a much smaller form factor than the prior 12.9-inch model.
In short, the 2018 iPad Pro is the best iPad ever made ... and since its launch I have been curious whether it would be a good fit for my use case and workflows.
For it to fit, the iPad Pro would need to offer me something new or better to what my iPhone XS Max and 2014 MacBook Pro already deliver. I wanted to believe that there was scope for this, but any musings on this nearly always returned to it being a lot to spend on something which might only offer a small return.
However, it was an itch that kept urging to be scratched, and this week that urge finally became irresistible, and I found myself hurrying home from my local Apple Store clutching a 12.9-inch iPad Pro and a Smart Keyboard Folio.
I headed home with what I believed to be realistic expectations for the iPad Pro: I would love the new design, find the performance far greater than I needed, and encounter enough hardware and software limitations to prevent it from being a complete replacement for the MacBook Pro.
I would also like to believe that I knew and was prepared to embrace that transferring established workflows to the iPad Pro would in many cases require me to find new ways of doing things. I anticipated a learning curve with iOS and VoiceOver on iPad, maybe some different apps to find and familiarise myself with, and that all of this might take some time and initially bring some frustrations.
Whilst I anticipated that some tasks and workflows would not transfer well to iPad, my hope was that enough would actually prove to be more efficient for the iPad Pro to justify a place alongside my iPhone and MacBook Pro.
What I was not expecting was to be disappointed with the experience of VoiceOver on iPad; or that VoiceOver might be a factor in the number of my routine tasks and workflows that would be transferred to it from my iPhone and Mac. But, after two days of fairly heavy use - two days spent testing and playing around with some routine tasks and workflows - the frustration of what I felt to be a subpar VoiceOver experience compared to that on iPhone and Mac proved to be more than I was prepared to tolerate. Consequently, the iPad Pro was disappointedly returned to the Apple Store for a refund.
I appreciate that many will argue that I should have given the iPad Pro more time. But, sometimes you have to go with your gut, and my gut was warning me that the iPad had all the signs of becoming little more than an extremely expensive desk ornament.
Looking back on my 48 hours with the iPad Pro, the die was possibly cast within seconds of powering it on for the first time. Before even completing the initial welcome and setup screens, I had encountered a badly labelled button and landed on a screen where VoiceOver didn't make it obvious how to navigate back to where I needed to be.
As much as I wanted to give the iPad Pro a fair chance, this early ‘hiccup’ was enough to send my thoughts off to the $1200 that I had just spent on it, and I think it's safe to assume that the price paid was an ‘elephant in the room’ every time I encountered further problems or frustrations over the next two days.
In fact, If I was honest with myself, I would probably have to admit that the main reason for returning the iPad Pro was that I never felt comfortable with its price, and that I am using what might in the scheme of things be minor and manageable VoiceOver issues to justify my decision.
Despite this admission, I believe that I would still have the iPad Pro if it weren't for the problems and frustrations I experienced with VoiceOver.
Before continuing, I should mention that another expectation for the iPad Pro was that I would nearly always use it with the Smart Keyboard Folio. This was actually why I opted for the 12.9-inch model, as the Smart Keyboard for the 11-inch version has several keys that are smaller than those on the 12.9-inch model's keyboard, and I thought that all of the keys being full-sized would be more forgiving towards my large fingers and typing capabilities.
I also anticipated that much of what I would use the iPad Pro for could be done faster and more efficiently with a keyboard. In fact, using the iPad with the Smart Keyboard Folio was something that I was looking forward to, and something that I believed would significantly help with transferring tasks and workflows from my Mac.
I was to be reminded of this expectation every time that I raised my hand from the keyboard to locate and touch something on the iPad's screen. Often, this was done simply because it was quicker than using the keyboard to get to the area of the page where I wanted to be. Many people might reasonably argue that this demonstrates the power and flexibility of having both the keyboard and touchscreen available. For me, it simply felt disjointed. However, perhaps this just highlights the effect of my keyboard-centric use of computers over the past 40 years that's left me with a lot of habits and memory muscle to get in the way of doing things differently.
Given time, I would probably have adjusted and adapted, perhaps even come to like, combining keyboard and touchscreen. However, this would probably only have been the case when this hybrid approach was the best way of doing something. If I'm forced to reach for the screen because it's the only option, it's likely to garner a less positive response from me, and too frequently during my time with the iPad Pro there were situations where it appeared impossible to locate and access all page elements with keyboard alone. On these occasions, I would need to touch the screen before VoiceOver focus would move to where I wanted it.
A case in point was the Drafts app - the app that I was probably most looking forward to using on iPad, and that I thought would not only help to bridge the gap for tasks and workflows transferring from the Mac, but actually make many of these more efficient and a better user experience on the iPad Pro.
Imagine my disappointment, therefore, upon finding that navigating the area of the app that's home to most of its ‘magic’ could not be done consistently or reliably with the keyboard. As was also the case with some other apps, my experience was that VoiceOver focus would get stuck looping through one small area of what was on screen, and the only way to get it out of that loop was by touching the screen. The experience grated, and did nothing to make me sympathetic towards the prospect of giving the iPad Pro more time.
I will report this behaviour to the developer of the Drafts app, and hopefully they will resolve the problem in a future update. I could also reach out to the developers of other apps where I encountered similar accessibility-related quirks or issues on the iPad which aren't present when using these apps on iPhone. Again, fixes and enhancements would hopefully come. But, I bought the iPad Pro for what it would offer me now, not what it might offer at some unspecified point in the future.
My suspicion, however, is that in many cases the problems I encountered with being able to reliably move VoiceOver focus with the keyboard alone is a problem with VoiceOver itself, and not the apps themselves. I would love to hear the thoughts and experiences of iPad users on this possibility. Do you encounter similar problems? Or are you shaking your heads at how little time I gave the iPad and how this has left me with an unfair and false opinion?
Unfortunately, I encountered other VoiceOver-specific niggles - such as VoiceOver announcing that a pop-up alert had just appeared on the screen, but not being able to locate and access it with the keyboard. This was only occasional, but it happened enough times to suggest an underlying issue and to become frustrating.
One of the main takeaways I have from my time with the iPad Pro - and one which demonstrates naivety on my part - is that attaching a keyboard to an iOS device does not make VoiceOver work and feel the same as it does on macOS. VoiceOver is very much a different beast on each platform, something I was reminded of every time muscle memory had me attempt to use keyboard shortcuts which aren't supported by VoiceOver on iOS.
Consequently, my current view of VoiceOver on iPad would have me reach for my iPhone if I want to do something quickly, efficiently, and with the best user experience, or reach for my MacBook Pro if I need to be productive. This has the iPad Pro squeezed out from both sides, and leaves it with little to do apart from looking pretty on my desk.
Although my time with the iPad Pro left me mostly disappointed, there are a few things that I will miss.
When sitting on the Lock Screen of my Mac; prompted to enter my user password; or needing to unlock 1Password, I will miss how Face ID on the iPad made authentication something that I didn't need to think about. It just happened in the background, leaving me to get on with whatever I wanted to do.
In particular, two taps on any of the Smart Keyboard Folio's keys to have Face ID authenticate me and unlock the iPad was slick and a very satisfying user experience. I also found Face ID on the iPad Pro to be a little more responsive and less ‘fussy’ about face position than it is on my iPhone.
Whilst on the topic of Face ID, the settings for Face ID on the iPad Pro appear to be the same as those on the iPhone, including the option to disable the requirement to be looking at the iPad. As with the iPhone, this “require attention” option is automatically disabled if you enable VoiceOver during initial set up. Although some have expressed concerns - myself included - over the potential security and privacy risks from disabling this requirement on the iPhone, it seems far less likely that somebody could take your iPad and hold it up to your face without your knowledge.
One final note on Face ID is that if you try to unlock your iPad Pro whilst your hand is covering the Face ID sensors, a warning message is shown stating “Camera covered”. In my limited testing, VoiceOver will read this message if you go searching for it, but it would be a far better user experience if this warning message were to be spoken automatically. That being said, maybe it already does under certain contexts, and I simply didn't find myself in one of them.
Now, back to some other things that I will miss ...
I will be reminded of the iPad Pro when I feel the weight of my MacBook Pro; when my knees feel the heat that the MacBook at times generates; and on the many, many occasions when VoiceOver on Mac will say “busy”.
There's a slight question mark hanging over whether I would have used the iPad Pro to watch movies and TV shows, and whether this would have offered a better experience to watching these on a television, where my residual vision contributes little. Certainly the iPad's four-speaker system that includes a woofer and tweeter in each speaker would have added to the experience and is one area where it clearly outshines both my iPhone and MacBook Pro.
Rather surprisingly, I will possibly miss the Smart Keyboard Folio. Not because it's a great keyboard in the scheme of things, but because every time I feel a key on my MacBook Pro ‘wobble’ when pressed I will be reminded of the firm and quite pleasing responsiveness of the keys on the Smart Keyboard Folio. I've read that this feel is “not too dissimilar to the butterfly keyboard on the Mac”, so perhaps I'm set to develop another "itch", one that will end up with me replacing my MacBook Pro with the new MacBook Air.
There are lots of impressive sounding benchmarks and technical terminology which hint that I should also miss the performance of the 2018 iPad Pro.
It's powered by a new A12X Bionic chip that offers 8 cores divided in 4 performance cores and 4 power efficiency cores (up from the 6 cores of the A12 chip in the iPhone XS).
Apple said on stage when announcing the 2018 iPad Pro that the A12X Bionic chip will deliver a 35% improvement in single core speeds over the A10X chip in the previous generation iPad Pro, and a 90% improvement in multi-core scores. According to Apple, this makes it faster than 92% of all portable PC computers sold in the past 12 months.
The chip also includes a new GPU with 7 cores, the M12 Motion co-processor and a Neural Engine with 8 cores for up to 5 trillion operations per second.
As I said, that all sounds very impressive. Do I understand all of it? Heck, no. Can I say that I noticed what the iPad Pro had ‘under the hood’ in my use of it? Again, heck no.
All that I can say, is that the hardware and performance of the 2018 iPad Pro should be more than capable of coping with whatever Apple has planned for iOS 13, 14 and probably beyond.
For those who like raw data when it comes to performance, you may be interested in the following MacRumors article: “New iPad Pro Has Comparable Performance to 2018 15" MacBook Pro in Benchmarks”
One final thing that I will miss about the iPad Pro, is its design. Perhaps mostly because its flat and angular sides remind me so much of my favourite iPhone design - the iPhone 5. Also, when holding it, I had to admit that the design, engineering, and build quality of the 2018 iPad Pro gave it the feel of a serious piece of kit, and goes some way towards understanding why it's the price it is.
It could be reasonably argued that I did not give the iPad Pro enough time; that, despite my claims above, I approached working on it with the wrong mindset and unfair expectations. It was never going to work like my MacBook Pro, and I should have been more open-minded and willing to try things in a different way; I should not have tried to force the iPad to work the same way as my MacBook.
In fact, whilst walking home after returning the iPad Pro, I was already thinking of things that I should have explored and tested more fully: for example, Siri Shortcuts, which could be a potential game changer for getting work done on iPad.
On this basis, I am willing to accept that if I had given the iPad Pro more time, I would have learned and become familiar with the keyboard shortcuts, gestures, and how VoiceOver works on iPad; I would have learned and adapted to how my preferred apps behave with VoiceOver on iPad... or found apps which provide a better VoiceOver experience; and that my workflows and the overall user experience would have improved.
But - and it's a very big but - the simple and harsh reality is that I found the experience of using VoiceOver on the iPad Pro in conjunction with the Smart Keyboard Folio to be disappointing. Each time I put down the iPad and reached for either my iPhone or Mac, the frustrations would disappear. Tasks which were a struggle on the iPad, or offered a poor user experience, instantly became simple and more satisfying. I truly do not believe that time would have changed this enough for the cost of the iPad Pro to feel like money well spent.
And, once again, we return to the “elephant in the room”. Perhaps I could have lived with it if I only had the iPhone to partner with the iPad Pro; if I had a use for something that could do much of what my MacBook does but is lighter and more portable; or if money wasn't a factor. As none of these apply, the constant presence of that "elephant" has made me forget my itch.
Now to wait and see what will cause the next itch.
Does anybody want to tell me about their new MacBook Air?
Some Actual Reviews of the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard Folio
It should be clear that I didn't spend enough time with the 2018 iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard Folio to offer a comprehensive and informed review. So, below are a few links to more in-depth articles that you may find interesting:
John Gruber on Daring Fireball: The 2018 iPad Pros
Macworld: 2018 iPad Pro review: A fantastic tablet, if not a fantastic laptop
9to5Mac: 2018 iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, and Smart Keyboard Folio — a big leap from the first Pro
Craig Mod: Getting the iPad to Pro
Laptop Magazine: New iPad Pro 2018 12.9-inch - Full Review and Benchmarks
CNET: iPad Pro (2018) review: Big beautiful tablet? Yes. Flexible computer? TBD
AppleInsider: Review: Apple's Smart Keyboard Folio is the best option for the iPad Pro, but has too many compromises