With the iPad Pro, Apple is unabashedly making the case that the iPad is a platform that can be used for serious work. While the iPad isn't going to work for every person's specific needs, its successes in the enterprise and among grassroots iPad-only professionals suggests that the iPad is already being used to do a whole lot of serious work. The new iPad Pro models and this fall's release of iOS 11 (now in public beta) are great news for anyone who wants to use an iPad to get work done.
SEE: The Complete iOS 11 Developer Course (TechRepublic Academy)
In June, Apple updated both of its iPad Pro models. The larger one, with a 12.9-inch screen, has always been great at text input because of its expanded dimensions: Apple's Smart Keyboard accessory offers full-sized keys, and even the on-screen keyboard is big enough to be considered full-sized. But the smaller iPad Pro model, which gained a 10.5-inch screen (up from 9.7 inches) and a few millimeters of extra width in landscape mode, is a much better device for typing than its predecessor, with the Smart Keyboard gaining full-size QWERTY keys and its software keyboard stretching to take advantage of the wider screen. With iOS 11, the typing story gets even better: Apple's new software keyboard features a second set of symbols that can be triggers with a flicking gesture while typing; once you get used to it, text entry on the iPad speeds up a lot because toggling to the secondary keyboard for numbers and symbols becomes a rarity.
The new iPad Pros also feature ProMotion, Apple's marketing term for an upgraded display featuring a maximum 120Hz refresh rate. While that upgrade, combined with an impressive amount of graphics power, means that every animation on the iPad is shockingly smooth, it's artists who will probably benefit most from ProMotion. Combined with the Apple Pencil, a 240Hz digitizer, and predictive software that anticipates where you're drawing based on trajectory and velocity, drawing latency is reduced to 10 milliseconds. It's not quite exactly like drawing with a pen on paper, but it's getting awfully close.
The speed of the new iPad Pros, which are powered by the Apple-designed A10X processor, is comparable to PC laptops—and it shows best in ambitious design apps like Affinity Photo (Figure A), which is beating Photoshop at its own game on iOS. Affinity Photo is a professional-level image editor with support for layers, alpha channels, and dozens of other features—and the fact that the app doesn't break a sweat is an endorsement of how much power is available for iPad apps that wish to take advantage of it. (It's unfortunate that Adobe has chosen a fractured approach to Photoshop on iOS; in hindsight, committing to a full touch-friendly version of Photoshop would've been a better call. Maybe someday.)
SEE: Apple's first employee: The remarkable odyssey of Bill Fernandez (TechRepublic)
Then there's iOS 11, which introduces a raft of new features that will make it much easier to be productive on an iPad. Most notably, the iPad's approach to multitasking and workspace management—introduced in iOS 9—has been completely overhauled. The old approach was better than nothing, but it was startlingly primitive: One app could be designated as a secondary app, in either Slide Over view (which allowed the app to be dragged in temporarily from the side of the screen) or Split View (which placed two apps on screen at once). When you switched apps, the same side app remained in view until you dismissed or replaced it.
In iOS 11, different apps can be paired together and remain together persistently, so you can set up your workspace with Microsoft Word and Safari sharing space, and then Command-Tab to a second workspace with Slack and Twitter cohabiting. All apps, whether they're paired or running in full-screen mode, are visible from a new multitasking switcher (Figure B) that appears when you swipe up from the bottom of the screen. You can even add a third app via Slide Over, meaning the iPad is now capable of running three apps at once (four, if you throw in video from the Picture in Picture feature).
And with all these apps running next to each other, the new drag-and-drop features of iOS (Figure C) bring the kind of easy data transfer we've come to expect from a desktop-class operating system. You can even drag data out of one iOS app, bring up the multitasking interface, and drop the data into any other visible app. It's been a long time coming, but iOS 11's drag-and-drop feature is carefully thought out and feels exactly right.
The iOS Dock has been converted from a special part of the home screen to something more like the macOS Dock. It's a series of app icons that you can use to switch apps with just a gesture, sure, but it's also how you manage multitasking: Drag an app out into the iPad screen, and that app opens in Split View or Slide Over. It takes a little getting used to, but it's a much faster and more accessible approach to multitasking than in iOS 9.
With iOS 11, most of Apple's hang-ups about our real need to use files on our computing devices have gone out the window at last. The new Files app is designed to let users manage their files—on their iPad, on iCloud Drive, or on any cloud-storage service that releases an app that ties in with the new system. (I would be shocked if Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, and Google Drive weren't all there within a few weeks of iOS 11's release this fall.) Files becomes a one-stop shop for every file you might have stored, a file manager from which you can drag-and-drop into any compatible app. No, as an iPad user you don't have to manage files, but if your work requires it (and so many professional tasks do), you no longer have to actively fight against iOS to do it. (Apps can also be updated to inherit the Files interface, so any app can have quick access to all the cloud-storage providers from one place.)
Still, it's a bit baffling that with all this focus on files and productivity, Apple seems to not believe that sometimes files live on external storage devices. Files works with items in the cloud, but not (natively, at least) with local SMB shares, USB flash drives, external hard drives, or SD-card media. If a coworker gives you a few PowerPoint slides on a thumb drive for addition to the presentation, and all you have is an iPad, you're out of luck—even if you've brought along your Lightning-to-USB adapter. You'll need to get someone to upload that file to a cloud service or send it in an email. That's a bit silly, isn't it? Yes, one day our sneakers will be uploaded with the rest of us into the cloud, but for now, support for external storage devices will make the iPad Pro less likely to fail just when we need it.
SEE: BYOD (bring-your-own-device) policy (Tech Pro Research)
It's time to stop asking if the iPad Pro can be used for serious work, or if it can replace your laptop. The answer to the first question is a clear yes, and the answer to the second question depends entirely on how you use your laptop. Not everyone will be satisfied with the iPad as their sole mobile computing device, though I've started traveling exclusively with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro and am loving it. How many business users only need to use a web browser, email, Microsoft Office, and OneDrive? The iPad is already a viable platform for them—Office on the iPad is excellent, if you've never tried it—and iOS 11 makes it that much better.
The new iPad Pro hardware is inarguably as powerful as a laptop, so in the end it's iOS (both the system software and the accompanying apps) that will determine if it's the right platform for you. With iOS 11's improved file management and multitasking features, the choice between a laptop and an iPad is more about personal preference than about the capabilities of Apple's tablet platform. If you want it to work for you, it's more than up to the challenge.
- iPad Pro 10.5-inch: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
- iPad Pro (10.5-inch, 2017) review: Apple's tablet wants to be your everything (CNET)
- Cheap 2017 iPad vs. 9.7-inch iPad Pro: How to decide (ZDNet)
- Apple iOS 11 public beta: Follow these steps to install it on iPad and iPhone (TechRepublic)
- How to downgrade from the iOS 11 beta back to iOS 10 (TechRepublic)
- iOS 11 hands-on: Improved multitasking, drag-and-drop support on the iPad Pro (ZDNet)
- How iOS 11 makes the iPad (mostly) better (CNET)
- Mobile Device Computing Policy (Tech Pro Research)
Jason Snell was the lead editor of Macworld for over a decade and he now runs SixColors.com and The Incomparable podcast.