Long-term review: 12.9-inch iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, and Smart Keyboard

picture of the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard on a desk

I’ve had the same 12.9-inch iPad Pro since November of 2015. I bought it because I was curious about how iOS would feel when it has more space to play with. I had owned four iPads before this one, from the iPad 2 through to the iPad Air 2, and despite my best efforts, I was still finding it difficult to fit the iPad neatly into my personal and work life.

I’ve always felt like I could make good use out of it, but there always came a time when I’d start to enjoy it more, and so I’d want to use it more. Then I’d inevitably hit a major bump in the road — like photo syncing or the lack of keyboard shortcuts — and the fascination would die and eventually start anew. The tablet was my glass and aluminum phoenix, doomed to rise from the ashes of disappointment.

I also bought the iPad Pro because I wanted to see how a first-party stylus might change the experience of the device. I’d reviewed and purchased a number of third party styluses, but they were always clunky and inaccurate. Nothing has come close to the accuracy of Apple’s Pencil.

But this experience hasn’t come cheap. When I purchased the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, Smart Keyboard, and Pencil, the whole kit cost me almost $1800 CAD. That’s more than I had ever paid for an iPad before, and it was almost exactly the same amount that I had paid for my 13-inch MacBook Pro in 2013.

So due to a mix of Apple’s marketing efforts and the gargantuan amount of money I’d spent, I placed some very big expectations at the feet of Apple’s largest tablet and its advertised accessories. This article is a reflection on the iPad Pro experience over the past two and some years — and whether it feels like it has been worth the expense.

On owning a really, really big tablet

“Holy crap, what is that?” is usually the reaction to people seeing my iPad Pro, even in mid 2018. The iPad is the default tablet in people’s minds, but it’s still a 9.7-inch device as far as most are concerned. The people aren’t wrong though: it’s a big honking tablet.

It has taken me a really long time to accept the tradeoff in size versus portability. Previous iPads were light enough for me to take them along by default, but the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is no longer in “forgettably light” territory. I carry a camera with me most places I go, and the iPad + camera combo is heavy enough that I’ll often just opt to leave the iPad at home. My 6S Plus is just enough computer for me to use while out and about.

But this change in my daily carry bugged me for a while. I was set on carrying the tablet with me everywhere. I thought it was one of the primary reasons I’d bought a tablet: to have a hybrid device with me everywhere I went. But my tune has changed over the past six months.

I still use the iPad Pro as a lighter version of my laptop, but the reason I’ve kept it and enjoyed using it are because of distinctly iPad qualities. These are things that I could use the iPhone or MacBook Pro for, but where the iPad simply feels better.

We don’t own a TV in our house, so the iPad Pro has become our default entertainment device. It sits on top of the microwave and plays YouTube while I do the dishes, and it stands on the dinner table to stream Netflix while we eat. Because the screen is so close, it still feels like an immersive enough experience for me and my partner. The iPad is less intrusive than a laptop for media playback because its keyboard can stay tucked away, behind the screen. Laptops can’t do that, and laptops are harder to clean sauce off of.

A really big iPad also means surprisingly full sound. It’s loud enough to blast music without distortion at 80% volume, and the quality has reached the threshold where I no longer use my Bluetooth speakers around the house. I never thought that great sound would be something I’d enjoy from my tablet, and I’m amazed by how well the speakers have held up over two and a half years.

Finally, a big iPad also means much more comfortable reading and surfing in bed. It definitely trumps my iPhone for comfort. I used to think I wanted an iPad to be lighter so that I could hold it in one hand for an hour or two, but upon reflection, I don’t hold paper or books like that. So instead of holding the iPad up for reading, I just prop it on myself. The giant screen means that I can still comfortably read the middle and top of the iPad, so it’s still quite comfortable. If I’m on the couch, it sits on my lap with the Smart Keyboard in viewing mode. When I’m in bed I keep the iPad in portrait mode on my chest. I can read like this for hours without feeling like I’m craning my neck down to see the screen.

There is a significant tradeoff in portability with this 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but the difference in size really has unlocked new use cases for me. The ways I prefer to use my iPad Pro aren’t highlighted in Apple ads, but they’re new opportunities that feel uniquely afforded to me by the large screen on this tablet.

Working on the iPad like a laptop

I wanted to get away from the tired argument of, “does it replace your laptop?” but it’s worth broaching in a quick section. Working for a few hours on a 12.9-inch screen is easier on my neck and shoulders than any previous iPad has been. There’s more room to see content, and I don’t have to peer as far down to read the screen, because the whole thing is higher.

I don’t do it every week, but I have worked entire days from the iPad Pro and haven’t felt any worse for wear. I’ve even enjoyed the process thanks to apps like Lightroom CC,Ulysses, and Things 3 which are turning out to be 95% as capable as their desktop counterparts. Things 3.6 especially, hot damn.

If I’m really honest with myself, there are now very few activities that are solely the dominion of the MacBook in 2018. The iPad is a fantastic web browser, a great photo editor, a laser-focused writing machine, a killer media player, and a great device for drawing.

But I’m not ready for the iPad Pro to become my full-time computer. There just aren’t enough keyboard shortcuts for me to feel really efficient, and keyboard support still has some weird bugs in certain apps. When I switch to Google Hangouts, for example, I’ll sometimes have to tap on the on-screen suggestions before I’m able to type anything at all. Then there are apps like Photos and Netflix where there are no keyboard shortcuts at all. These inconsistencies really add up over the course of a day. I may not feel physical fatigue from using the iPad, there’s definitely a build-up of mental frustration which makes certain workflows (like multitasking) tiring.

I’m still faster at most things on the Mac. I didn’t grow up with the Mac, but I grew up thinking of computers as customizable machines that I could tailor to my needs. On the Mac, Alfred can help me find files instantly without ever lifting my fingers from the keyboard. I can batch rename files and check the date they were last modified. I can view JPEG files in a folder as names in a list, or as thumbnail that show the picture contents.

I know that I could change more of my thinking and my methods to suit iOS better, but I’ve had enough of doing that. The iPad has grown up a lot in the past two years, but it was frustratingly stagnant for a much longer period. I was ready to work and play on the iPad five years ago when the first iPad Air was released, but it just wasn’t ready then. I’m no longer willing to twist my work practices into a pretzel to suit iOS, and I’m happy to use the Mac while I wait for iOS to grow up a bit more and catch up. Even if it doesn’t and we stay at this level for a while, the iPad Pro of today is capable of doing enough that I can be happy with it for most tasks, and ecstatic with it for a select few.

The Pencil: Holy crap, I draw stuff now

One of those select tasks is drawing. The ability to draw accurately on the screen is one of the greatest unique strengths of this iPad Pro, and it’s not something I did with any regularity before 2015. I was never consistent about bringing a notebook around, and the organizational nerd in me hated the idea of drawing badly and wasting a real paper page. But the Pencil has emboldened me and I’ve gotten a lot better at visualizing concepts using apps like Procreate and, well, Concepts. I’ve ended up using this newfound skill at my day job in marketing, and I can say definitively that I would never have explored this avenue without the iPad.

Drawing is a skill in and of itself, but before the Apple Pencil, iPad users also had to learn the nuances of whatever third party stylus they were using. The Pencil from FiftyThree, for example, has a rubber tip that’s a little bit too squishy, so it requires a fairly light touch or you end up losing a lot of accuracy. The great thing about the Apple Pencil is that you don’t feel like you need to learn how to use it as a tool. It helped me skip straight to learning how to draw.

This has been possible for years with Wacom tablets, but I would never have bought one for those things for myself. The Pencil as a $99 add-on to the iPad Pro, however, was an easy sell. Palm rejection really is very good in all of the apps that implement Apple’s API, and the accidental taps that plagued third-party styli are just a non-issue with the Pencil. I almost forget they were ever a problem before — the tech is just that good.

I’m really happy with the Pencil overall, even if I don’t use it all the time. The two things I’d pick to improve upon in an upgrade would be physical storage and some sort of eraser functionality. The former can be solved with accessories, so I’ve made my own quick Pencil sleeve that’s literally velcro-taped to the back of my iPad for easy access.

The lack of eraser functionality isn’t up to me to fix, though, and it‘s ridiculous that Apple didn’t include an eraser in their first-generation Pencil. The FiftyThree Pencil doesn’t have a great drawing tip, but it does have a great feature where you can flip the pen over and just erase what you’d written (it’s featured beautifully 0:45s into this video). That eraser feels so Apple-y in its skeuomorphism — it works just like that thing you grew up using — and I don’t know why we don’t have it on Apple’s Pencil.

And now for a rant about the Smart Keyboard

Now we get to the keyboard that Apple had the gall to call “smart”. It feels like all their good design mojo on the iPad Pro and the Pencil and then they just ran out of steam with the Smart Keyboard.

It does make a great iPad stand, and I’m sure there were a number of technical hurdles that Apple overcame to create this magnetic design that somehow works through the fabric weave of the keyboard. But as a customer, I’m not wowed by this technology: I’m floored by the price and the faulty design.

I’ve had nearly two and a half years to get over the sticker shock of the $229 CAD Apple Smart Keyboard, and, well, I’m still not over it. It’s more expensive than Logitech gaming keyboards, and over twice the price for something as magical as the Pencil.

My first copy of the keyboard had arrow keys that worked only half the time, and after a year of use, the iPad started playing the charging chime as I’d attach the keyboard (even though the Smart Keyboard doesn’t have any battery). Apple was good about replacing it with a second copy, but this second copy (which I’m typing on now) still doesn’t sit flat on a table. It also has a bad habit of disconnecting intermittently when I set it down on the table, or when I try to type with the iPad on my lap.

I’ve also learned that the Smart Keyboard displays the serial number on the very bottom of the keyboard, which is made of microfiber. This surface sits against hard surfaces every single time you use the keyboard, so it can very easily be worn out and become illegible. I found this out when I tried to issue a warranty claim on my first Smart Keyboard. I contacted Apple Support and they asked me to attach the Smart Keyboard to the iPad Pro and check the Settings > About menu, but the keyboard isn’t actually smart enough to communicate anything about itself to the iPad Pro. It just attaches by way of overly-marketed magnets and irritates the crap out of you, slowly, over the course of your ownership.

I want to love the Smart Keyboard because it’s thin and functions as a stand for the iPad as well. I could like the Smart Keyboard if it just functioned as advertised without all of the weird disconnections. Instead, I tolerate the Smart Keyboard because it feels like the only game in town for the iPad Pro.

Logitech makes keyboards that are either far too heavy (Logitech Create), or prone to accidentally playing music while in clamshell mode (Logitech Slim Combo). Razer makes a mechanical keyboard that’s crazy heavy, but has a stand that seems to break after a year of use (look up tweets from Federico Viticci). Brydge keyboards seem promising, but I’ve read too many horror stories of the batteries just dying after a year, or keys not working out of the box. I haven’t had the chance to try these keyboards for myself long term, but given that they’re all in the $200+ CAD range, they’re too expensive to be experiments.

So for the next iPad refresh, I’d really love to see a new Smart Keyboard design. It’d be great if it could hold the screen at a few different angles, but it’d be good enough if it just worked like it said on the box.

The most future-resistant iOS device thus far

The Smart Keyboard does not seem like it was designed to work or last very long. Luckily, I do not feel the same way about the hardware of the iPad Pro itself. Two and a half years after purchase and this 12.9-inch iPad Pro still feels fast. That sounds silly to desktop users, but not to iOS users.

The 6S Plus that I also bought in 2015 has aged reasonably well for an iPhone, but fast isn’t an adjective that can be applied to it any more. When I load up Bear to create a new note, I sometimes have to wait eight seconds before the screen can receive input.

I have a feeling that a lot of this boils down to the amount of RAM. There are 4 GB in the iPad Pro vs. 2 GB in the iPhone 6S Plus, and I feel that difference as I use the device on a daily basis.

Switching apps on the iPad feels nearly instantaneous, and loading new apps load takes just a few seconds. I previously upgraded my iOS devices every two years, but this iPad Pro and iPhone 6S Plus will be the first that I’ll keep for at least three. I’m very happy that the hardware still makes the software feel fast, and I’m happy to say that Apple over-delivered on this front.

Another, please!

Every few months I wonder about whether I want to upgrade, or if this iPad just feels good enough for another year.

The way I see it, I have three options.

I can replace this model with the 2018 12.9-inch model, which will hopefully be a bit smaller. I can continue to enjoy the same luxuriously large screen for working and playing The Good Wife at the dinner table, but a bezel-less design would make it a lot easier to fit into my bag. It would also presumably be a little bit lighter, which would be great.

Or I could buy a 10.5-inch model next and keep this 12.9-inch model around the house as a media machine. That way I could enjoy a more mobile iPad when I leave the house, without having to change any of the comforts I’ve grown accustomed to over the past two years.

Or, if the new iPads don’t feel compelling — which is unlikely given I’d jump from first to third gen — I’ll just keep using this one until it’s too slow or the buttons turn to mush. This is definitely the best and most useful iPad I’ve ever owned, and I now know there are tasks and situations that are best served by an iPad instead of an iPhone or MacBook.

Whichever option I choose, the iPad Pro is here to stay. It’s earned it.