The 11-inch iPad Pro: the right hardware for today’s software

Last year I wrote about my experience with the first generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro. At the end of that post I wondered if I would change iPad sizes the next time round.

Spoiler: I did.

I can’t say that I have zero regrets about changing iPad sizes. There are moments when I see the 12.9-inch screen in videos and I love the idea of all that space for browsing and trying video editing via Lumafusion. It looks like the future and something I could embrace. But that feeling of regret is short-lived.

I quickly remember:

  • how few iOS apps can properly make use of the extra space
  • how tiring it became to reach up to the top of a 12.9-inch screen because keyboard shortcuts aren’t common enough.
  • and how heavy the Smart Keyboard was compared to the iPad, and how unwieldy that always felt.

Meanwhile, my current 11-inch iPad Pro can fit into any of my bags alongside my laptop. It’s small enough to be an and instead of an or while still offering enough screen to get work done.

I think the 12.9-inch form factor is too far ahead of where the OS and apps are right now. When more ergonomic options for working on an iPad arrive — e.g., widespread keyboard shortcut support, trackpad support, etc. — then I’d be willing to give the 12.9-inch size another try.

But the 11-inch is the perfect size for iOS 12 as it is now.

It’s small enough that it fits into the top section of my 20L Everyday Backpack, so I can quickly access it by opening the top cavity. It’s also small enough that I feel like I can use it on my 45-minute commute to work without feeling ridiculous or calling a lot of extra attention to my giant, expensive tablet.

I do read in bed with this 11-inch, but the 12.9-inch was better for me because I could rest it on my chest. This one is just small enough that I tend to read my ebooks in scrolling mode (instead of paginated) with the text always near the top.

Other reviewers have lamented the lack of full-sized iPad apps in Split View, but I don’t really mind it. Split View is clumsy at handling keyboard input, and it’s downright silly that the only way to indicate which app I want to type into is to tap into a text field. It makes using keyboard shortcuts while in Safari Split View a real chore.

I had over two years to take advantage of using two iPad apps side by side, and it never felt pleasant or natural to do so.

In contrast, Slide Over — where you pull an iPad app onto the screen from the right side — is a more enjoyable way for me to multitask in most situations. You need to tap right into a text field to I keep my main app full screen and just keep a reference or note app in Slide Over.

The only two things I really miss about the 12.9-inch form factor are the louder speakers and the way it could act as a portable TV for our dining table. The 12.9-inch is a superior media device if two people are sharing the view. If it’s just me, the 11-inch does a killer job.

Apple Pencil 2.0

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One of the things I was most excited about was the new Pencil carry method, where the Pencil snaps into place on the right side of the iPad and charges. I’ve had a few months to carry the Pencil this way and I’ve discovered a few downsides that I hadn’t anticipated.

The first is that there’s only one spot to store the Pencil, and if you’re holding the iPad vertically, you end up having to switch your grip to get around it. The alternative is to take the Pencil off, but since it doesn’t attach to the Smart Keyboard Folio, it feels like my 2015 iPad Pro all over again.

Before 2018, the iPad Pros were designed to receive Pencil input, but Pencil storage was a complete afterthought. There was nowhere to put the bloody thing. Storing the Pencil on the long side of the 2018 iPad Pro works, but it would have been even better if the short side of the iPad was magnetized too (even if charging was still only available in one spot).

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I never really minded how stupid the previous generation Pencil looked while charging because I never had to charge for very long. My Pencil would run out of battery, yes, but it also returned up to a usable level within 30 seconds. That said, the inductive charging of this generation is an improvement in every way. My Pencil is never out of battery and it’s always paired and ready to go. Funnily enough, the only thing stopping me from using the iPad like more of a traditional notebook is that I haven’t found an app that feels right for that purpose yet. The hardware is all there though.

FaceID

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The other headline feature in this generation of iPad was FaceID, and it does not disappoint. Unlocking the iPad by just tapping twice on the SK Folio’s spacebar feels magical, and given my finger’s proclivity for sweat, I’m really happy to move away from TouchID.

However, I simply cannot remember to keep my finger off of the camera when I’m holding the iPad in landscape. I’ve had nearly four months with this iPad Pro and I’m still covering the FaceID camera as I attempt to unlock. At this point it feels like more of a design oversight rather than something that users just need to get used to. Still, I’ll take the blocked camera prompt over TouchID.

We’ll see about USB-C

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USB-C has been useful because my Mac already uses these cables and adapters, and now the iPad can too. But it’s a fake feature because the software support is still lacking. The inability to read thumb drives is a stupid, stubborn omission by Apple.

This lackluster support bit me at a print shop. I was preparing to print a photo album when I realized I had forgotten to save one picture to my USB drive. I had that picture on the iPad (which was with me), but I wasn’t able to place the file on the USB drive, so I had to use the slower Wi-Fi upload option instead.

My expectations were different when the iPad used a Lightning port because Lightning-compatible drives aren’t commonplace. USB 3.0 drives are, and I should be able to plug one into the iPad (with the help of a dongle) and access it through the Files app. The way that Apple obfuscates the file system is just getting in the way.

But I bought this 2018 iPad Pro for what it can do for me today, not what it might do for me tomorrow. So while the lack of full USB-C support is silly, but it’s a silliness I expected.

LCD instead of OLED

My iPad Pro uses and LCD instead of an OLED like my iPhone XS. I’ve fallen in love with the truly black blacks of my XS for night time reading, but for some reason, it isn’t a really big deal that it’s missing on the iPad. I’ve still read for hours in iBooks on this iPad Pro with the brightness set to minimum and the theme set to dark. For some reason, it’s good enough. I also think that if I had to choose between ProMotion and OLED, ProMotion would probably win out. It’s just something I see and feel in more lighting conditions than the OLED difference.

Smart Keyboard Folio

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Apple probably wants me to forget that they ramped up the price of keyboard with their first-gen Smart Keyboard. The Smart Keyboard Folio is a worse offender on price, but it offers a more secure connection…and it actually works.

I personally went through two Smart Keyboard replacements in my three years with my 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but this SK Folio is working as advertised. It’s also my only real choice for an iPad Pro keyboard because of weight considerations. The offerings from third party brands basically double the iPad’s weight.

I spent some time in store comparing the 12.9 and 11-inch SK Folio Keyboards, and I definitely prefer the 11-inch. I don’t love the shallow fabric-covered keys, but the smaller layout makes it more usable for me. The only thing I don’t love is the viewing angle in typing mode. I wish it held the tablet a few degrees lower, but I’m trying to get used to it.

My decision about whether to bring the SK Folio with me on any given day is based on whether the MacBook Pro is with me. My Peak Design backpack has a tight enough laptop section that it’s basically impossible to retrieve my iPad with the SK Folio if there’s a laptop in that section, too. Otherwise, I tend to treat the SK Folio as part of the device, and only detach it to read in bed.

The one thing I’d really want for this SK Folio is a full-width skin. I‘d like something to cover up the bland design and keep the scratches off. I’d be happy to pay brands like dbrand or Gelaskins, but for some reason, they’re just not interested in making a skin like that so far.

The Goldilocks size

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iPads are tantalizing devices because the hold the promise to be so many things, and this generation of iPad is the most enticing by far. Both the 12.9 and my 11-inch are gorgeous slates with smaller bezels, fancy cameras that turn your face into a password, and they were actually designed with accessories in mind.

The irony is that you’ll only know they’re right for you if you’ve owned one already. It’s best if you get to know the limitations of iOS as it is right now, make peace with them, and enjoy what the iPad excels at today. This process is expensive in terms of both time and money.

This iPad fulfills my needs for a small, take-everywhere computer to surf, write, chat, and edit photos using Lightroom. The 11-inch screen works well as a one-person Netflix machine, while the speakers are good enough to blast music or podcasts while I cook in the kitchen. I’m also faster with the Pencil and Procreate than I am with a Wacom tablet and Photoshop for graphical work.

It’s for all of these things that I bought the 11-inch iPad Pro, but it took a lot of trial and error to come to these use cases. If you’re considering the iPad Pro, all I can share are the experiences I’ve had with it, and what I use it for. Your next best bet is to buy one from an Apple Store, use the crap out of it during the return period, and make your call then.