Monthly Archives: April 2016

The search for a companion device: Apple iPad Air 9.7″

You may have been following my series of blog posts, in search of an excellent companion device, which last finished up with my returning my Microsoft Surface Pro 4. Since January, I’ve been back to using my 2012 MacBook Pro 15″ as my only device, and it’s still going strong.

I believe that Apple will release an extraordinary replacement to the MacBook Pro this year – a laptop which will shake up the industry once again. It will have been 4 years in the making.

That said, a lot of the time, I’m left finding that I don’t need that much of a machine. When Apple released the 13″ iPad Air, I took a close look, and it’s quite an amazing device… But I don’t get it. Just last week, I saw the passenger next to me on a flight using one, and it has a spectacular screen. He didn’t have the keyboard, but was happily tapping around – watching a movie, whilst doing some email and reading the Wall Street Journal in full size. Some while later into the flight, he extracted a MacBook Air from his bag.

I asked what he thought to owning both the iPad Pro and the MacBook Air, what with them having similar form factors, and he responded that one was a personal device and one was business, and he then conceded that they were basically the same weight and size and do the same thing. I think I’ll pass on that.

So when Apple released the 9.7″ iPad Air, I sat up. Now it’s true that the smaller sister of the 13″ iPad doesn’t have the same power – it’s got a slower CPU and Graphics… But it makes up for that with a spectacular true-tone screen which is easier on the eyes and antireflective. The keyboard is a little cramped – reminiscent of the Netbooks from the mid-2000s, rather than a full sized laptop.

Finding the 9.7″ keyboard was difficult due to stock availability, but some careful browsing of Apple’s website found one that was a short drive away, so I ordered online for in-store pickup. Apple make spending your money a very frictionless process, using your existing Apple ID and credit card.

The Price

As someone who regularly has to clean space out of a base MacBook Pro, I’m wary of buying the base Apple device, so I upgraded to the 128GB version, and to the Cellular variant. This sets you back a pretty $879, before you start adding accessories.

Add the Smart Keyboard ($149), Pencil ($99) and AppleCare+ ($99), and not to mention sales tax ($85) and you’re up to a mind boggling $1310. You can buy a base iPad Air for $399 now, or for $1300 you have the choice of a full-fat Surface Pro 4, or a Lenovo Yoga. Or a MacBook. We’re talking about serious money.

The Keyboard

In use, this thing is pretty nice. After a little while, the odd offset on the keyboard becomes second nature and the ZX-Spectrum style keys are surprisingly nimble. I’d say I’m around 80% of the speed of a great keyboard like the MacBook Pro. That’s an amazing achievement.

What’s more, the keyboard has context-sensitive shortcuts – just hold down the Apple cmd button, and it will tell you what it can do right now. You can tab between apps, create new emails, and many other things. Then there’s the fact that you can move up and down emails with the cursor keys: this is a device which allows you to move very quickly. I remember that, from the days of pairing an Apple Keyboard with an iPad. But by the time you’re carrying around an Apple Keyboard, you may as well take a laptop!

Note: the Apple Store employees are not well trained on the iPad Pro yet: I asked them a bunch of questions and they had no idea about how to pair the pencil, or use keyboard shortcuts, or how to activate the cellular option. I’m sure that will get fixed with time, but in the meantime, invest a few minutes learning about the iPad Pro online. There are productivity tips that will help a LOT.

The Mouse (or lack thereof)

I liked the trackpad on the Surface Pro 4, but it was not the best trackpad. Apple has chosen to forgo mediocrity, and in my view that has worked pretty well. The keyboard is so close to the screen that you can easily reach up to use it as a trackpad when you need it.

That said, I think they have some work to do on the shortcuts – cmd-D, for example, doesn’t return you to the home screen. You have to hit the home button, which is a serious First World Problem.

Likewise, I miss the wonderful Windows Hello, and pressing the home button with your thumb feels so… 2015.

The Apple Pencil

I’m in two minds with the Apple Pencil. It lacks the feel-good feeling of the Surface Pen, and doesn’t have a clip, so I’m constantly in fear of losing it. What’s more, it doesn’t attach anywhere to the iPad, so it’s just sort of floating around. In the Apple Store, they have little trays so they don’t get lost, and security guards to hunt you down if you try to lift one!

The charging is super-neat on it, just plug it into the iPad Lightning connector for 30 seconds.

The App ecosystem hasn’t yet caught up with the Apple Pencil, and I didn’t yet find a killer app for me. I’m not much of an artist, and if I was, the 13″ iPad Pro is a much better system, so this is around taking notes, sharing a screen Etc. On the Surface, there were some decent apps like OneNote, which had good support for the (free) Surface Pen. This is a lot to swallow for an additional $99,

In Use

I’m really impressed so far. The iOS Split Screen function means that I’m doing some research on Safari whilst writing this blog post; the lack of this capability was a key issue for earlier iPads.

What’s more, we use Dropbox and Office 365 as our productivity apps, and these integrate beautifully, so I can review proposals on the go. Dropbox really needs the ability to synchronize entire folders on the Pro, rather than individual files, but that will come in time.

It has the usual 10 hour battery life, which is awesome. Given that it has the same CPU performance as a Surface Pro 4 (which lasted 3… sometimes 4 hours), that’s fantastic.

Is it a laptop replacement?

Definitely not, and that’s not why I bought it. If you’re a business user and wanting to replace your laptop with a tablet, this is not the right device for you.

As I see it now, the iPad Pro will have a pretty specific set of use cases in my life:

First, it’s great for day trips and flights, where a smaller device is worth the trade-off for weight and convenience, plus it’s small enough to be used as a personal device during take-off and landing.

Second, it’s good enough to take as the primary device on vacation, and I’ll be really pleased not to be lugging my MacBook across the world and back.

Third, it’s a perfect machine for the weekend. I try to have a rule not to get my laptop out from Friday night until Monday morning, and this means I can type the occasional blog and do some browsing online.

Final Words

It’s early days, and I loved the Surface Pro 4 in the first few days too. I’m also really struggling with the price. There’s no way the iPad Pro has the functionality of a laptop, but it has the price tag of a laptop.

Apple has a 14-day return policy (be careful, this includes the day of purchase), so I don’t have long to decide if I love or hate it. I’m pondering making it my primary device for those two weeks, just to see what it’s capable of.