It seems kind of appropriate to kick off our Tech section with the latest addition to the Bullfinch tech stable – the iPad Pro 11 inch (2020). I say appropriate because of all the tech gadgets, the handheld device has been a mainstay of my early adoption affliction and the iPad absolutely represents the apogee of what can be achieved in the touch screen tablet form factor. For the sake of establishing “street cred”, it’s worth noting that my travails with this form factor did not start with the ipad (or on a cold May morning in 2010 when I lined up out front of the Apple Store in Bondi Junction, Australia to be among the first to get hold of the new gadget in Australia). Not even close, actually. I’ve always been fascinated by the potential offered by a screen that can accept touch inputs, read handwriting etc. As far back as the Newton (yes, I owned a Newton; and yes, it was garbage); then various Palm Pilot models and on to the very crude early edition smartphones from HTC and the like powered by Windows Mobile (also garbage). Struggling with those early efforts, I still never doubted nor failed to comprehend the potential offered by this form factor.
So I was absolutely not among those who, prior to the launch of the iPad (First Generation), were critical of Apple’s decision to release a tablet computer. From what I could see, reading the early reviews coming out of the USA (the Australian release was about 6 weeks after the American release), it looked to me like Apple had nailed it. I knew from painful prior use what did not work and what failed to provide a great user experience. It looked to me like Apple had solved a lot of those issues and I was super curious to find out if it was really true. I’m not one to line up for stuff, but something about the iPad and what it represented drew me in. It could also have been the free t-shirt. Who knows. What I do know is that I was amongst the first (in Australia at least) to experience the iPad. Happily it did not take long to work out that it was true – Apple had succeeded in creating an awesome user experience. And I still have the t-shirt.
I’ve owned a lot of iPad’s since that 1st Gen. No doubt that as a product it has improved over time. But what strikes me most, looking at the latest 2020 iPad Pro offering, is how little the iPad has changed since that Gen 1 back in 2010, at least in terms of fundamentals. I think that goes to show one thing – just how good the initial iPad was as a product in it’s own right. I still have mine and whilst others have come and gone with failed batteries, screens, touch interfaces etc, my Gen 1 still works fine. Sure it’s battery doesn’t hold quite the charge it used to, but that’s to be expected. I don’t use it much anyway – partly because its no longer supported and partly because I hope someday it will become a collector’s item. I live in hope…
Speaking of iPads going by the way side, the subject of this review was not a scheduled purchase (although certainly not an unwelcome one!). It came about because my iPad Pro (2nd gen) from circa 2017 started to develop some terminal glitches. Actually the thing has never worked properly. First it was the keyboard connection which required a replacement keyboard; but even subsequent keyboards never operated satisfactorily. Then the screen went kaput. The replacement screen worked well for a time and then… not. It’s not been a happy road for this particular iPad. Nevertheless, I have definitely loved some things about it. The speed for one thing and the Apple Pencil. Although it took a minute to get used to, I also love the 12.9″ screen. For content consumption, you just can’t beat it.
But when it came time to think about finding a replacement, the litany of defects did cause me to seriously consider a switch away from the iPad. I had dabbled in tablets from other manufacturers, but mostly Samsung. Certainly in terms of a competitor on equal footing to the iPad Pro, only the recent high end offerings from Samsung come close (IMHO). Nevertheless, even after spending some time with the good but not great Samsung Tab S6, I remain firmly of the view that Android tablets, whilst not as sucky as they once were, are just not a viable alternative to the iPad. I don’t mean that in terms of build quality or tech specs. Where they fall down is in the ecosystem of apps, accessories and third party support. Apple has the decided edge in these aspects. The margin isn’t even close. I simply think that if you’re looking to buy a tablet in 2020, you are doing yourself a large disservice by considering anything but an iPad. I wish that was not the case. I am certainly no fan boi, but after the carefullest of consideration, I don’t see how you can come to any other conclusion.
The real question then is not which tablet to buy, but which iPad? So then, in my case, with which of the current crop of iPad models do I replace my ailing iPad Pro (2nd gen)? Lots of reviews made a very good case in support of the Air as a sufficient alternative for non-power users who do not need lots of processing grunt for video editing, advanced camera sensors and can get by without USB-C. The general consensus seemed to be the Air is more than OK for general use and content consumption.
I’m also not looking to use an iPad as a laptop substitute. I just don’t think iPadOS is there yet. Although I have to admit it is getting mighty close with iPadOS 14. There is also no weight or size advantage (at least as far as the 12.9″ Pro is concerned). My current laptop of choice, the Dell XPS 13, still has a fairly significant weight advantage over a 2020 iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard.
So, just get an Air then. Well, maybe if at the time I was making these critical deliberations the new Air 2020 had been available I may well have. But ultimately I decided to stick with the Pro (and I’m fairly sure my decision would have been the same regardless of the existence of the Air 2020). In part, because I want the capability to do power user things like photo & video editing; and I want USB-C; but mostly because (#nojudgements) I am a tech snob who has a great deal of difficulty accepting the model that is not the bestest and fastest (and at the time, the price difference was not so great that the extra capabilities of the Pro seemed like poor value).
With that decision made, next came the trickiest part of the exercise – the 11″ or the 12.9″? I really did like the extra screen real estate offered by my 2nd Gen Pro. And with the reduction in bezel size on the 2020 12.9″ Pro, Apple have done a great job in making what is, let’s face it, a giant tablet, into something much more manageable. I said earlier that I was not looking for a notebook replacement or substitute. But I was keen to get something that I could quickly pick up and throw in a bag for those times when I am out for a few hours or half the day. Something that can provide me with full(ish) functionality and access to all the apps and platforms I need to use to keep the good ship Bullfinch afloat.
In the end, despite the lure of that extra screen size goodness, I opted for the 11″. One simple factor motivated the decision – weight. With the combined weight of the 12.9″ Pro, Magic Keyboard and Pencil well exceeding that of my every day notebook, I just couldn’t see why in attempting to go for something small, light and super convenient, I would go for something heavier than my workhorse laptop.
Another, more technical factor, also helped make the decision a little easier. Screen resolution. Despite the dimensional differences between the two iPad Pro versions, the actual screen resolution (ie. the number of pixels packed into the LED panel) is identical. The upshot is that you can actually fit just as much on the screen of the 11″ as you can on the 12.9″. Sure, things are a bit smaller on the 11″; but in my comparison tests, not appreciably so. So, for the sake of the additional convenience, I figured small and light wins.
I’ve been using the 11″ Pro for a couple of months now; long enough to have formed some views well beyond first impressions. The first thing you notice about the new crop of iPad Pro’s is the significant reduction in bezel width and, of course, the absence of the home button. FaceID and swiping up were the two aspects that took the most getting used to. Even then, the learning curve was not steep; and after mastering the swipe up functionality, I don’t miss the Home button at all.
The next thing you notice is how thin and light this thing is. The “thinness” isn’t readily apparent because of the move to a more slab sided design. I have found that this new design to be more comfortable to hold than previous iPad iterations. It feels a bit more substantial, but also seems to dig into your hand less. This might be just me, but I also think it gives a greater sense of rigidity for what is an incredibly thin and light device.
In terms of performance, screen quality etc, I honestly have not noticed any significant gains over my 2017 iPad Pro. It’s definitely a bit quicker, a tad slicker and the screen, with its improved refresh rate and scooch butterier. It’s an iterative improvement, but by no means generational.
There are, however, two areas where Apple have made some serious improvements. The first is the keyboard. I found the original smart keyboard and its method of attachment to be nothing short of woeful. I really hope that I simply had a lemon. My smart keyboard was hopelessly unreliable at making a connection with the iPad. I had to invariably lift and drop the iPad onto the keyboard’s connection pins in a variety of machinations, angles and force levels; hoping that at some point I would get a successful connection. Even then, the connection would drop out or the typing experience would be horrible. I swapped out the keyboard twice in the early days of ownership; and in the end just gave in. The reason I waited a while before writing a review was to make good and sure that Apple had improved the keyboard on the new Pro. After some time with the iPad and putting the new Magic Keyboard through its paces, I can report that I have not experienced a single issue. The new Magic Keyboard, for me at least, has been rock solid and nothing short of a delight to use. Of course it’s pricey (it is Apple after all), but I do think that it’s worth the investment. Without it, or with a third party keyboard, you are really compromising the user experience.
The second area is the Apple Pencil 2. I liked the original Apple Pencil; right up until it came time to re-charge it. I like to think of the designers and engineers at Apple, given their host of achievements and innovations, as a cadre of geniuses. Real grade A eggheads. But the design of the charging method for the original Apple Pencil gave me real pause. Having it stick out of the side of the iPad like that was just dumb. I know there was an alternative. But I could never find the charging dongle when I needed it, so I always found myself having to stick the pencil ever so precariously in the iPad to recharge it. Everytime thinking – what kind of erstwhile genius came up with this?
Then there was what to do with it while you weren’t using it. Thankfully I landed upon a solution from CoverBuddy – a very nice translucent hardshell that came with a kind of tube attached to the rear of the shell that doubled as a place to store the Pencil and a handy little riser that put the iPad at at just the perfect angle for writing.
Both of those niggles are eliminated with the Apple Pencil 2. It now charges inductively while connected to the iPad via its magnetic top mount. I can’t say that the magnetic mount is the best solution for storing the Pencil 2 because it’s not. I find that, although the magnets are fairly strong, it’s relatively easy to dislodge the Pencil 2. I find this to be particularly so when the iPad is in a bag or briefcase. But compared to the old method (which is to say nothing), the magnetic attachment is a welcome addition.
In use, I’ve found the Pencil 2 to be every bit as good as it’s predecessor. Again an iterative improvement if anything in the writing experience. I do love the addition of the double tap function and making one side level as a roll stop feature.
The real game changer for me in terms of hand writing experience was the addition of a Paperlike screen protector. I’ll do a seperate review on it because I think it’s that good (with one slight subjective exception). Writing on the iPad, no matter what model, never felt right to me. I do a lot of long hand writing to test fountain pens for the pen section here at Mr Bullfinch (if you’re into pens – check it out!) – so I am very accustomed to the feel of nib on paper. Writing on an iPad with the Apple Pencil simply felt like dragging a piece of plastic across a pane of glass. There was just no feedback or the impression that I was “writing”.
The Paperlike screen film changed all that. For the first time using a stylus I have experienced a very high fidelity writing experience. It is remarkable. There is, however, a price to pay for this enhanced writing experience (at least in my view). I have found that the texture of the Paperlike film has caused a minor loss of clarity and vibrancy in the screen. YouTube and Netflix videos may appear to you as though a very, very thin film of Vaseline has been applied to the screen. You might like that, or it might not affect your viewing experience at all. But it bugs me.