I wrote and published this review on my 2018 11” iPad Pro. I mention recording an audio version but the app I wanted to use is confused by the new device or their in-app purchase system is down so I can’t upgrade to edit the recording.
I was captivated by the iPad when I first saw one in the wild. I've owned the original, the iPad 2 – for which I waited in a queue at SXSW in 2011 – and then a succession of Minis, which were my favourite Apple devices ever, although the various insurers I had to deal with over the years would beg to differ (I have not been kind to my iPads).
Last year I got the then laterst version of the 10.5” Pro, along with the Pencil and the Smart Keyboard. I'd played around with Bluetooth keyboards and the like over the years, but it never really felt like it was meant to be until the Smart Keyboard cover came along. The fact that I could type quickly on the fabric keyboard meant it felt much more like a computer than a simple consumption device.
When the 2018 version was announced, only what, 10 days ago, I did the usual dance: "Ooh that looks nice" > "No, I definitely can't acfford it." > "But maybe..." > "Oh God, why isn't it here yet!?" Now it's here, and I've only had it in my posession for a few hours, but man, I love this thing.
Before the gushing starts
All the podcasts are talking about the design of the new iPad. And they're right to. It feels wonderful in the hand; robust but lightweight. Marco Arment had mentioned on ATP that, when folded back on itself, the new keyboard cover — the Smart Keyboard Folio — exposes the keys. And yeah, that’s weird, but I’ve never really liked holding the iPad in its cover if I’m just reading, preferring instead to pop it out of its little jumper and let it sit naked. Hmm, maybe not a good image.
Also it was either he or someone else on that, or a similar podcast that mentioned the Pencil is probably going to fall off of its magnetic charging strip when it’s in a bag. Yep, that totally happens. It’s somewhere in my bag after carrying it home on the bus, but it’s useful to know that I can pop it back ontop of the iPad and it’ll be charged quickly.
Another bummer — then I’ll get to the good stuff — is that the cable you get to charge the thing is USBC-to-USBC, so unless you already own a USBA-to-USBC cable, you can only charge this thing using the wall adapter they give you. (As it happens, I had mine plugged into my 2017 MacBook Pro, but I’d rather have a bit more freedom and have been given a USBA-to-USBC cable in the box.)
And yes, this thing costs a lot of money. I’ll get onto why I hope this is at least a little bit justifiable in a moment, but for now let’s just accept that Apple’s in the business of ramping up prices because fewer people are buying their stuff and they have shareholders to keep happy, who are more important to them than customers. I accept the fact that Apple as a company no longer has a soul because when they put their effort behind something, they do an amazing job. (All this to say that I’m by no means an Apple fan boy. I’m not a fan of Apple, but I am a fan of their products.)
The computer you have with you
So let’s talk fun stuff. I’m currently sitting on my sofa, resting the iPad on the arm as I type. I’m at a bit of a weird angle, but it’s the best way for me to see what I’m typing, as my lap is too far away from my wonky eyes. Doing this is fun in the same way the Switch is, and the PS4 isn’t. If I decide I want to spend an evening on a blog post or playing a few levels of a game, I’ve barely finished the thought before I have the device in my hand and I’m ready to start. Try that on the PS4 and you’ll be waiting for the inevitable software update, then the game update, then you’ve got o sit through the copyright statement and the interminable studio idents and so on and so on. Even with a laptop — certainly mine — if I wanted to do anything other than a little writing, I’ve got to haul my USB hard drive — and of course the dongle — over to where I want to work, since there’s not enough in-built storage to do my actual work.
In the same way that the best camera is the one you have with you, the iPad is the best computer that you can have, because there’s so much you can do at an arm’s reach. And while you can’t properly develop software on the iPad, it can do some very useful things. Here’s an example:
While I was helping my nephews catch crabs on a Cornish beach this summer, I got a text from a colleague about a web service I run that had gone down because of a thing. I’d deliberately not packed my MacBook, so I trudged back to the campsite, grabbed my iPad, and after a quick dance between the App Store and Backblaze to get some certificate files, I was able to SSH into the machine that had the problem, and sort it out. All over 3G in a campsite in Cornwall, with my family a two-minute walk away on the beach. Not bad for a thing that isn’t a computer.
But that was the 2017 iPad. The 2018 one feels somehow even faster and more “buttery smooth” as Phil Schiller likes to say, than the previous generation. The setup was a breeze and furthermore, this device has the most frictionless Face ID experience I’ve yet encountered.
if you saw the iPad Pro event video and were sceptical about Face ID on the iPad, I have to tell you that it works far, far better than it does on the iPhone X or XS. It asked me to do the scan vertically — showing a very helpful animation so I knew which way was up — and it works in landscape almost every time.
The only times it doesn’t really work is when I’m a little too close, which is a common occurrence for me. But I honestly don’t have to go far back. With my iPhone, I essentially have to hold the phone at half an arm’s length, looking like someone who hasn’t got his bifocals on. With the iPad, I just scooch back an inch, or incline my head just a tad, and I’m in. It’s the seamless authentication experience we were promised last year, but finally here now. I love it.
There are still some kinks to be worked out in third-party apps. Airmail, for example, failed to get their update out in time for the new iPad Pro 11” screen size (they kept the form-factor the same but increased the screen in a way that messes with Airmail’s expected device sizes). There are one or two other apps that don’t work yet, but this will all be ironed out, and I rarely use apps from companies that don’t update them.
I’ll need to get used to the Smart Keyboard Folio. It’s really excellent and it makes the whole unit look super-slick when it’s closed. When open, in the laptop position, it feels pretty secure. There’s a grove behind the main one that tilts the iPad a little more vertically, which works pretty well in my current situation (I think they said it’s best for desktop viewing?)
Like I said, wrapping the Folio round and reading the screen while your fingers graze the keys is weird. And obviously the keys don’t do anything in that orientation, but still, it feels odd. And while taking the iPad out of the Folio is a little bit more of an effort than just ripping it off like you could do with the simple magnetised Smart Keyboard from the 2017 model, it’s not exactly a hardship, and I love — really love — how easy this thing is to open and close; it’s exactly like a laptop.
I’m still a bit ginger with it, which makes these soon-to-be-repetitive actions feel a bit cumbersome, but that’ll fade over time as I become a little more cavalier... although hopefully not too much (I’m pleased to say my previous two iPads have remained completely unsullied by scratch or dent).
I know some will be disappointed by the lack of a headphone jack. I can’t speak to that as I very rarely plug headphones into my iPad, but for those that do, I can sympathise. Although I find it hard to accept that there are podcasters doing meaningful editing work on an iPad, even with Ferrite, which looks like a nice app. (Interesting note, I’m recording the audio version of this post in Ferrite, so we’ll see how that all turns out.)
Hopes and dreams
I love the iPad Pro line so much, I bought a Moleskine bag that was sized just perfectly to fit it. It’s been useful in a few situations, but it often goes days without being used and so I’ll open it up and find there’s no battery left. I’m hoping to fit iPad charging into my routine, because this is the best computer you can carry when you don’t want to carry a computer.
And so we get onto my hopes for 2019, and iOS 13. I love the idea that Apple is making its new iPad more powerful for reasons other than having to justify a price hike and to make game demos look good (no-one’s playing the kind of games that they demo in iPad keynotes, because on-screen control sticks suck). I’m hopeful that they’re effectively making headroom for big changes in the software.
I’m currently doing a lot of work in Docker, which is basically a way of running tiny, isolated virtual machines — where each machine just runs one program, but in a teeny tiny operating system — that you can connect togather to do cool stuff. Because it’s a common architecture — if it runs in Docker on your office PC, it’ll run on your home Mac or your Raspberry Pi — I’d love to see Apple figure out a way to make this kind of virtualisation possible. The machine is more than powerful enough to run multiple Docker containers, and the standardised nature of Docker means it would open up a world of possibilities, even for those not fully conversant with it. I also feel — but am probably wrong about this — that the particular way networking and storage works within Docker, that it would be easier to keep things sandboxed in the way Apple likes to do.
If Apple can find a way to make Docker run on an iPad, there’s really very little you can’t do. Like I said, you don’t even have to be that proficient in Docker, because you can install anything — from a new WordPress website to the entirety of Android — just like installing an app.
There’s a lot more to it than that, of course. I recently found out that only Linux can run “true” Docker, as everything else has to run a virtual machine that runs Linux which in turn runs Docker, but man, if there’s even a chance... Oh, a boy can dream.
I want this, partially to justify the very high price I’ve just paid for this kit — although in writing this blog post I’ve probably justified it to my accountant — but also because it could genuinely mean I’d have a world-class development machine pretty much at my hip, all the time.
And this little slab of brilliance can do it, too. It’s got the horse power. Now we just need Apple to let us unleash it for more than touching up photos and playing AR games that no-one plays.
As you can tell, I’m pretty excited by this thing. And not in the same way that I was last year. I admired the 2017 iPad Pro and thought it was pretty cool. But there’s something in this — in-between the industrial design and the way they rounded off some of the metaphorical edges that they left sharp in last year’s release — that makes me as hyped for the iPad as I was when I played with my first one back in 2010.
Will you take this iPad...
I’m often in the habit of anthropomorphising technology, but I’ve almost never done it with phones. They’ve always felt utilitarian, as cool and as much-used as they are. But I feel close to my iPad... maybe connected is a better word. It’s not a life-changing device, but it adds a note of delight and, maybe even whimsy. I’m already looking forward to popping it out of its folio tomorrow and reading the news over a cup of coffee.
If you’re on the fence about getting one, I’d honestly suggest hanging on until June 2019, as we’ll hopefully know a lot more about what this thing can do. But if you were contemplating it and are excited by fun and interesting technology, then this really is worth a look. I’ve had it for less than a day and I already want to marry it. Her. No, it. Let’s not make this weird.