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Apple’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro Aims for the Sweet Spot
By Julio Ojeda-Zapata
When I heard about the new 10.5-inch iPad Pro in June (see “iPad Pro Gets More Professional,” 5 June 2017), I (and many others) christened it Goldilocks because of how it fit into Apple’s evolving iPad Pro strategy over the past two years.
In late 2015, Apple initially released a 12.9-inch iPad Pro that impressed many users with its lovely, generously sized display and roomy add-on physical keyboard (see “iPad Pro Shows the Promise of iOS Productivity,” 23 December 2015) but struck others as unwieldy given its mammoth dimensions.
Then, in early 2016, Apple trotted out a 9.7-inch version of the iPad Pro with improved portability, but a display and add-on keyboard that some found uncomfortably cramped for long productivity sessions (see “Apple Shrinks iPhone and iPad for Latest Releases,” 21 March 2016).
Apple has now discontinued the 9.7-inch iPad Pro and is positioning its 10.5-inch successor as a compromise — not too large, not too small, arguably juuuuuust right, as the flaxen-haired fairy-tale protagonist might gush.
The new iPad is only a tad heavier than its precursor, since the added screen real estate is achieved mostly via bezel shrinking. The keyboard is less cramped, as well.
There is much more going on here than size tweaking, of course. The new iPad boasts a bevy of significant improvements that include upgraded screen tech, a faster processor, better cameras, speedier charging and data transfer, and an updated Touch ID sensor.
All these improvements also appear in the updated version of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, giving the small and large iPad Pro models feature parity, at long last. Before, the 9.7- and 12.9-inch variations were each superior in some ways and inferior in others, causing headaches for those weighing which to purchase (see “Comparing iPad Pro Technologies and Intangibles,” 28 July 2016).
In this article, I’ll focus on the 10.5-inch iPad Pro because it’s new in both form and function. I’ve been using it for weeks – much of that time on vacation as my primary computing device – and it’s my favorite Apple tablet to date. It’s a powerful and versatile mobile computer that lets me get a lot done – writing, photo editing, collaborating with colleagues, even light video editing – on the go.
Such a mobile workstation is not for everyone, of course, and many will prefer a notebook computer. The iPad Pro is bound to give many prospective purchasers pause because of its steep cost and what buyers get for the money compared to similarly priced notebooks.
This calculus gets more complicated with the upcoming iOS 11, which promises new features that make the iPad Pro more of a productivity dynamo (see “iOS 11 Gets Smarter in Small Ways,” 5 June 2017). Add-on physical keyboards further enhance work scenarios, with greater comfort than more-cramped input accessories for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, but adding one increases the total cost.
Models and Pricing -- The 10.5-inch iPad Pro starts at $649 for 64 GB of storage, goes up to $749 for 256 GB, and tops out at $949 GB for 512 GB. Adding cellular capability bumps prices to $799, $899 and $1229, respectively.
Color-wise, the 10.5-inch iPad Pro is available in silver, space gray, gold, and rose gold. The rose gold shade is not available to buyers of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which is odd.
Size Comparisons -- The size difference between the 9.7-inch iPad Pro and its 12.9-inch sibling is dramatic. Comparing the 10.5-inch model to its 9.7-inch predecessor is far less startling. In fact, you might have to put the two tablets side atop of each other to appreciate the differences.
In height, width, and depth, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is 9.45 x 6.7 x 0.24 inches (24 x 17 x 0.6 cm). By comparison, the 10.5-inch model is 9.8 x 6.8 x 0.24 inches (24.9 x 17.3 x 0.6 cm). Pretty close. So is the weight: 0.96 pounds vs. 1.03 pounds (437 g vs. 469 g). That’s for the Wi-Fi–only model; the version that adds cellular capabilities is 8 grams heavier.
Screen dimensions are more significantly different. Apple crams a much larger display into roughly the same physical space via clever bezel shrinkage. There is less bezel on the top and bottom, and the difference left and right is even more pronounced.
With the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, this translates into a 2224 by 1668 pixel screen versus 2048 by 1536 on the 9.7-inch model. Both are at 264 ppi with a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio. That’s 20 percent more pixels, a welcome upgrade that makes using the machine less claustrophobic. You can really see and feel the difference.
Screen Technology -- The 10.5-inch iPad Pro’s screen also packs in a bunch of tech upgrades that make the previous iPad seem somewhat dated.
Most notably, the new display boasts greater responsiveness courtesy of hardware technology Apple is calling ProMotion. It lets the iPad’s display refresh more readily, scroll more fluidly, and have stuff move about on it more smoothly.
ProMotion supports screen refresh rates up to 120 Hz, compared to 60 Hz on the 9.7-inch model. The new iPad can dynamically adjust refresh rate upward or downward, too, depending on how it’s being used: higher for doodling with the Apple Pencil, say, and lower for reading ebooks or watching video. To preserve battery life, the iPad cranks up the refresh rate to 120 Hz only when necessary.
Video on a ProMotion-capable iPad looks a bit better since the screen refresh rate adjusts to match the footage’s frame rate.
YouTube has lots of demo-style videos showing the older and newer iPads side by side under tightly controlled testing conditions – with 120 Hz on the new iPad version translating into butter-smooth swiping, scrolling and other screen actions, compared to jerkier performance with the old model at 60 Hz. This isn’t as easy to appreciate with casual observation, but you eventually feel it. Although the differences are subtle, it’s a bit painful for me to use the 9.7-inch iPad now that I have grown used to ProMotion.
ProMotion is particularly welcome when you’re wielding the Apple Pencil since you experience far less latency when drawing or writing. Apple claims Pencil latency “has been reduced to an imperceptible level.” I wouldn’t go quite that far – it’s still nowhere near the equivalent of pencil on paper – but it’s less noticeable.
The 10.5-inch iPad Pro’s display has other alluring attributes:
Better Performance -- Apple repeatedly claims that the iPad Pro is a legitimate laptop replacement, with performance to match. Its new 64-bit A10X Fusion processor with six cores, Apple says, outperforms most notebooks. Apple claims that the A10X Fusion is over 30 percent speedier than the A9X and graphics performance is 40 percent faster.
This oft-repeated boast presents the usual problem. There are too few pro-grade, full-featured iPad apps – compared to what is out there for regular laptops – making it difficult to devise tests that would compare an iPad against a MacBook Pro, for instance.
But, yeah, the new iPad feels fast. I have yet to throw anything at it, including relatively big 4K video-editing projects, that it hasn’t been able to handle with aplomb.
Faster Charging and Data Transfer -- The large and small iPad Pro models used to have a glaring, galling difference: the 12.9-inch model provided zippy USB 3.0 data transfer via its Lightning port, while the 9.7-inch model slogged by with only the slower USB 2.0.
This reliance on USB 2.0 was irritating for, among others, photographers who needed to move high-resolution photos from cameras or flash-storage cards to the small iPad Pro as rapidly as possible. TidBITS’s own Jeff Carlson detailed this problem on his personal site early last year.
With the addition of USB 3.0 to the 10.5-inch model, both iPad Pros have feature parity in data transfer speed.
This change brings with an extra capability: faster charging, provided the 10.5-inch iPad Pro is connected to a USB-C power brick such as Apple’s own 87-watt USB-C Power Adapter. Throw in Apple’s 1 m or 2 m USB-C to Lightning Cable, and you’re all set to charge at blazing speeds.
It’s a shame, then, that the Apple still doesn’t include USB-C charging gear in the box (see “iPad Pro Charges Faster with MacBook Adapter and New Cable,” 27 April 2016).
Updated Cameras -- The old 9.7-inch iPad Pro had an advantage over its 12.9-inch sibling in one regard: better photography hardware.
Apple has now upgraded the cameras on both the smaller and larger iPad Pros, providing full parity. Both incorporate the equivalent of an iPhone 7 rear-facing camera (but not the dual-lens, optical-zoom setup like on the iPhone 7 Plus) with a 12-megapixel sensor capable of 4K or 2160p video shooting at 30 frames per second, slow-mo capture at up to 240 frames per second, optical image stabilization for smoother video, panoramas of up to 63 megapixels, and more. The front-facing camera is 7 megapixels.
Unfortunately, you’ll still look like a dork shooting photos or video with an iPad. I’ll stick with my iPhone 7 when I can.
A New iOS -- Users of any recent-model iPad look to take a quantum leap with the release of iOS 11, which is jam-packed with features to make the tablets more flexible and useful. This looks to be especially true of iPad Pro users because the iOS 11 enhancements are focused on productivity. Such improvements include:
All of these features and others were functioning well on my 10.5- and 9.7-inch iPad Pro tablets, via the public beta of iOS 11, as I wrote this.
The one question I will pose for this article: Is the 10.5-inch iPad Pro any better at running iOS 11 than other iPad models?
Sort of. Split View (not new, but tweaked for iOS 11) is most relevant here, and the split-screen appearance can be very different depending on which iPad Pro you use. On the 12.9-inch model, you can accommodate the equivalent of full-size iPad mini screens side by side, which is great for productivity. On the 9.7-inch model, you only get narrow side-by-side screens with scrunched content, which is a bit of a pain.
What about the 10.5-inch model? Sorry, no full-size windows here, only scrunched ones, though they are a bit bigger, thanks to the iPad screen’s larger dimensions, and provide a bit more info, courtesy of the slightly greater pixel density. It’s an improvement, but a marginal one at best, as you can see in the photo below. In other words, those using a 9.7-inch iPad Pro shouldn’t think of iOS 11’s changes as a reason to upgrade.
Accessories -- The iPad Pro can’t reach its full productivity potential without add-on accessories for getting work done more quickly and effortlessly. Such accessories include the Apple Pencil for tapping into the iPad touch screen’s full capabilities, along with a physical keyboard for faster and far more comfortable typing than the on-screen keyboard allows.
It is with keyboards that the 10.5-inch iPad Pro has particular importance compared to its older, slightly smaller sibling. Touch typing does not feel as cramped because keys are spaced out a bit more. Apple’s Smart Keyboard is the obvious example of this: The version for the 9.7-inch iPad always felt a bit too scrunched, and this is less the case with the Smart Keyboard for the 10.5-inch iPad. Yet, as previously noted, the 10.5-inch tablet has about the same portability as its predecessor and is less of a burden to carry around than the 12.9-inch model. It’s a total win, as my not-sore fingers and shoulders will attest.
As I wrote this review, I had available only one third-party keyboard-case alternative to the Smart Keyboard, but it’s a nice one: Logitech’s Slim Combo Keyboard Case. The Swiss accessory manufacturer has traditionally been fast out of the gate with iPad Pro accessories, presumably with help from Apple, and this release is no exception.
The Slim Combo, like the Smart Keyboard, attaches to the iPad Pro via its Smart Connector, which means keyboard never needs to be charged on its own and is always ready to go without bothersome Bluetooth pairing.
The Slim Combo has two pieces, a case for the tablet, and a Smart Connector-attached keyboard that’s a protective cover when it’s not in use, much like Apple’s Smart Keyboard. The Slim Combo keyboard is very comfortable, and it’s backlit. To keep the iPad upright in a landscape orientation for typing sessions, the case features a flip-out kickstand that bears a close resemblance to those on Microsoft’s Surface Pro mobile computers (see “Microsoft Surface: A Tale of Two Computers,” 11 March 2014).
The Slim Combo stand also holds the iPad upright in a portrait position – without the keyboard attached – for videoconferencing and other scenarios.
The Slim Combo case includes a loop on one side for stashing an Apple Pencil when it’s not in use. The Pencil seems a bit too exposed to me, with the danger that its charging-prong cover will fall off and get lost, or its tip will get damaged as the bundle is continually shoved in backpacks or bags – though neither happened to me during my relatively brief testing period.
The Slim Combo is not exactly “slim,” adding more bulk than the Smart Keyboard, and has a plasticky feel. Overall, though, it’s a winner, protecting the iPad fully, front to back, which Apple’s Smart Keyboard doesn’t do.
A related note: Apple no longer offers a companion Silicone Case for a total-protection package, as it did for older iPad models. It has even discontinued the Silicone Case for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. The absence of such a case bothers me because it, along with the Smart Keyboard, made my 9.7-inch iPad Pro review unit a ruggedly portable package I could toss in my bicycle bag without any concern. Doing that with only the Smart Keyboard attached is out of the question.
Apple does have a new full-protection approach, of a sort, in its new $129 Leather Sleeve. The sleeve, which comes in a range of colors and with a soft microfiber lining, is spacious enough for the Smart Keyboard along with the iPad. It also has a snug compartment at the top for storing an Apple Pencil, which is far better protected (with the tip tucked out of sight and the charging-prong cover recessed so it is almost impossible to dislodge) than it is on the Slim Combo from Logitech.
The iPad with the Leather Sleeve is a slimmer bundle than Logitech’s keyboard case, but it’s more of a hassle to pull the tablet out of the protector to deploy it with the Smart Keyboard (a First World Problem, I know). Be forewarned that the iPad can easily slip out of the sleeve if it’s in there by itself, without a case or keyboard cover attached. It’s a pretty tight fit with the Smart Keyboard, on the other hand, though the sleeve seemed to stretch somewhat as I used it over several weeks, making the iPad easier to insert and remove.
iPad Pro vs. MacBook -- An iPad Pro is a substantial investment, much more so than buying Apple’s recently refreshed entry-level 9.7-inch iPad with its starting price of only $329, compared to the base 10.5-inch iPad Pro’s $649 (see “Apple Replaces iPad Air 2 with New 9.7-inch iPad,” 21 March 2017).
Add accessories like the Smart Keyboard, the Apple Pencil, and the Leather Sleeve, and you’ll exceed $1000. And that doesn’t even count AppleCare+. The total sum is similar to the cost of a MacBook Air, though a bit less than an entry-level MacBook.
It probably goes without saying that most people would not buy both an iPad Pro and a MacBook of any variety for productivity work. There’s just too much overlap in capabilities, and at a too-steep cost. If so, I’d wager that most would go for the MacBook in favor of the iPad Pro (possibly adding a cheaper iPad for entertainment).
A potentially better argument for an iPad Pro can be made for people like me who work on desktop Macs and need a satellite device while on the go. An iPad Pro arguably fits the bill better, rather than a somewhat redundant MacBook, but it’s still a costly proposition.
With the iPad Pro, Apple seems to have set its sights on a slightly different, somewhat distant scenario: a world in which iPads better match up with the Mac’s capabilities, causing many to choose an iPad over a Mac notebook with little or no hesitation. Developments this year clearly point in this direction. The upcoming iOS 11 vastly improves the iPad’s power and flexibility for work scenarios. We haven’t reached that rough point of capability parity with the Mac yet, but it’s arguably in sight.
The 10.5-inch iPad Pro is another piece of that puzzle. Its new dimensions, a departure from the long-standard 9.7-inch size from the original iPad, create a subtle yet substantial upgrade for those wanting a good balance of portability and screen real estate — as well as a conceivable alternative to a Mac for at least some people.
For most people, would I recommend an iPad Pro over a Mac notebook? No. But ask me that question again in five years, and I might give you a different answer.
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