iPad Pro 9.7 as a Laptop ‘Replacement’: My 6-Month Journey

My Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon finally gave up the ghost in July 2016. It gave me 4 years of dedication to my whimsical and demanding use, mainly to do Powerpoint slides and animations as well as constant foraging of images using Google

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Lenovo X1 Carbon

. While I guess I never really did test the Core i7 processor to its maximum capability, the X1 did take a lot of physical punishment, not least in my bedroom where many of the slides were completed while using the X1’s flat-positioned hinge to good effect when placed on my upturned lap. By then I had already dabbled with the iPad Pro 9.7, using it mainly to check emails on the go – but the demise of the X1 finally made me test my original purchase intent of the iPad – as a Laptop Replacement

I did have my doubts – an iPad was acceptable as an editing tool, maybe even a commentary tool, but I didn’t quite see it as a design/creation tool for my slides – and this was based on my owning a first generation iPad, and after that a Lenovo Android tablet. Therefore the X1 in that regard was replaced by the long un-updated new MacBook Air, a reliable workhorse that I had used more than 6 years ago. What I needed was something that I could bring around to meetings and still make me productive, with the ability to access documents online – especially in light of frequent travelling between my office and

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MacBook Air 13″, the Road Warrior

the HQ, where most of the meetings took place. With 12 months short of hitting 50, my back was not getting any better, and therefore any strain avoided while commuting would be most welcome. I had even tried the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, which did address the working-in-bed-on-lap ritual, but I felt the screen was too small for a Windows 8 machine (and even when upgraded to Windows 10). The iOS Operating System, unlike the Surface Pro, was designed to be in tablet form and had gone through many iterations of refinement. So an iPad it had to be. The question was, which one? Perhaps it is best to see through the lens of my criteria for a Laptop Replacement.

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iPad Pro 9.7″ with Apple Pencil and Apple Smart Keyboard

Criteria #1: Portability, Annotations and Communications

Portability was still the paramount criteria for me – and although the 12.9″ iPad Pro as very seductive, especially as I was an occasional sketcher, its bigger size meant I would have to lug around a backpack to actually carry it around (although it is so light). Ergonomically a 12.9″ screen would not be so easy in the hands when going into a full elevator unless it had an excellent grip. An iPad mini was also out of the question for me, as its screen would not be so navigable as a working table-top machine: I spend many hours in meetings where my contribution was not essential all the time. The standard size iPad sits unobtrusively on the table, not garnering unwanted attention, and therefore is ideal for me. Therefore the choice is then narrowed down to the iPad Air 2 or the iPad Pro 9.7.
As mentioned, my work often involved creating and editing/commenting Powerpoint files; while the creating and editing part I do on the MacBook Air, I have been increasingly using flattened PPT files as PDF for commenting which had become much more practical when used with the Apple Pencil. I use PDF Expert app that does the job fairly well, and iPad’s blog_imageability to zoom in and zoom out by pinching makes it so much more efficient. If you want to do this, I advise converting the PPT to PDF using Microsoft Powerpoint on the MacBook – when I converted an emailed file using PDF Convertor app (also by Readdle, the same team who brought to you PDF Expert) on the iPad, the result was less than stellar – too many native PPT boxes and text either got skewed or disappeared altogether.
The Outlook App on iOS is a tremendous improvement over the Mail app, especially when paired with an Office365 account. I can not only reply my emails at a rather satisfying rate but also organise them into folders in the Outlook App itself, which is a huge timesaver when hunting down that elusive email. However, to effectively be an email machine, the iPad Pro 9.7 has to be paired with a proper keyboard, which leads to the next criteria.

Criteria #2: Solid Performing Keyboard

There is no shortage of keyboard choices that were available for the iPad Air 2, especially with that form factor having been available on the market and is in its multiple iteration. My main issue with keyboards for the iPad is that it needed a power source, often in the form of a built-in rechargeable battery, necessarily increasing its bulk. This pet peeve of mine was elegantly resolved with the iPad Pro 9.7’s Smart Connector, located at the mid-left side of the iPad (at the portrait position), allowing an attached keyboard to connect as well as be powered directly by the iPad. No pairing required, just connect and go!
The natural option of a keyboard would be to go for the Apple Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro 9.7″. Compared to its 12.9″ brethren, it looked a little cramped but was not uncomfortable. For those used to the MacBook Air chicklet-style keyboard, the Smart Keyboard would not be alien, as it is flat and only slightly raised. After using it in many meetings, though, the clapping sound produced during typing became increasingly annoying; your fingers literally had to ‘slap’ the keys to have enough travel to result in sequential letters on the screen. Although this was not ideal, it was the only keyboard available at the time. Also, while the Smart Keyboard looked really appealing in its charcoal grey suede-like finish, it offered protection only to the screen when closed, similar to an Apple Smart Cover. I complemented the back with an Apple Silicon Case in matching charcoal grey, adding to my already-ballooning expenditure! I must say I did like the way the Smart Keyboard folded, giving it considerable screen protection, and when unfolded it cleverly provides triangular support for the iPad with a magnetic groove to hold it in place just behind the keyboard.
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Logitech CREATE for iPad Pro 9.7.”

By the time the Logitech CREATE for iPad Pro 9.7 Inch keyboard was available, my Apple Smart Keyboard was already worn from constant use; this was even more apparent from the slight stain on the outer cover of the keyboard as I had frequently placed it onto slightly wet table surfaces (often due to mug or glass spillage). It only took a quick examination of the new product before I reached for the wallet. Firstly, the outer layer of synthetic weave had the right amount of friction to ease carrying it, as well as being dirt and moisture repellent. Its design blend of synthetic weave, jet-black rounded plastic corners and wavy sculptural back-edgings combined harmoniously, as well as its curved inner side-edges, results in a perfect balance of business and art. When folded to keyboard mode, it reveals a sleeve to hold the Apple Pencil and which, rather surprisingly, does not add much bulk to the case when closed shut.
The core criteria for a keyboard is the typing experience, and in this, the Logitech excels. The 1.4mm travel felt much more satisfying the key-slapping experience of its Apple counterpart; the fact that it is backlit by drawing power through the smart connector further shows its advantage. The addition of another set of functional keys at the top row cements its superiority, bringing the iPad Pro 9.7″ much closer to its goal as a laptop replacement. One slight difference with the Apple Smart Keyboard is that the Logitech only anchors itself to the Smart Connector when in typing position, whereas the former is continuously connected. This did not prove to be a problem when needing to use the keyboard, as even the Apple one had to be disconnected and reconnected at times to ensure its proper working.

Criteria #3: The Element of Fun

Although it might seem contradictory that “fun” is the third criteria when choosing an iPad as a laptop replacement, it makes absolute sense when the one considers that this is, in fact, a tablet, and should at least behave like one when not in work mode (and sometimes even in work mode). This article, however, focuses on choosing which iPad and why, and therefore highlights the advantage of the iPad Pro 9.7″ over other models.

 

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Apple Pencil shown with spare tip and female to female lightning adapter (comes in the package)

The first significant difference is the Apple Pencil. This is the first time that Apple had embarked on a major accessory to their core product – not unlike the keyboard and mouse to the computer. Previous iPads worked with third-party pen manufacturers to provide the paraphernalia for them. The iPad Pro screen was a total redesign to work with the Apple Pencil, with virtually imperceptible lag as it scans the signal 240 times a second, double of that when the finger or the pens are used. Pressure and Tilt produce desired responses for the applications that have been optimised for the Pencil. Palm rejection worked most of the time, hindering accidental strokes and swipes. I was reasonably happy with the battery life (never ran out on a drawing session so far fully or mostly charged), but the recharging time was utterly delightful, very close to the promised 15 seconds for 30 minutes charged- yes, it is fast! There were occasions that the charging took a little longer when over 50%, but it was not really a hindrance. Having Notes work with the pencil allowed switching between drawing and typing for capturing discussion points and diagrams, although taking pictures in between seem to have a limit, refusing additional pictures after 2-3 were shot (this was not exhaustively tested, but happened inmate than one occasion. In summary, though, the Pencil is a delight to use. The free Paper app extends to freehand diagramming in addition to the standard pen and brush strokes; more advanced users would probably prefer having the control of layers, and I am exploring the various apps right now. One other app worth purchasing is Amaziograph – a symmetry-drawing tool that is oh so satisfying and soothing. Who needs adult colouring books after using that!
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My Sketch with Pencil on iPad Pro 9.7 using Paper app

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My psychedelic pattern drawn with Amaziograph and Apple Pencil

The other highly differentiated element of the iPad Pro 9.7 is the inclusion of 4 speakers within its 6.1mm thickness, giving it a somewhat impressive soundstage. I had even used it as a ‘beatbox’ while travelling in a car without connecting to the sound system. I often watch/listen to YouTube videos while doing the dishes, and found that it was no longer necessary to connect to my trusty JBL Clip speakers anymore – the built-ins were sufficient most of the time. I did have to place the iPad speakers strategically next to hard surfaces if I wanted some amplification, sometimes necessary when the TV was going on in the living room and the highway traffic which my kitchen window faces were hosting many speedsters.
I will be testing the 12MP camera soon, another big bump up from iPad Air 2’s 8MP camera, and has the capability of taking 4K videos (the A9X chip also helps here). To really take advantage of the 9.7 in using it as a video camera, one should get a video stabiliser – I have ordered the Melamount MM-IPAD PRO 9.7 Kit from Amazon (looks like a wicked deal for beginners) and will let you know my experience in another post. Keep posted for results of this budding documentary filmmaker! I am also taking courses at Lynda.com to learn some of the techniques required – I will get there someday!

So it’s the iPad Pro 9.7 then! But here’s some Proposed Improvements

The choice is obvious – if you are willing to shell out about USD200 more over an above the iPad Air 2. The price depends on the amount of internal memory built-in, and if it includes a cellular sim card adaptor or just has Wi-Fi. I opted for the 128Gb version with Wi-Fi, as I use 2 phones, the second which has an almost unlimited broadband which I then use as a hotspot. I did not want to get an additional cellular account just for the iPad.
The biggest complaint about the iPad Pro 9.7 (or 12.9 for that matter) would undoubtedly  be related to the Apple Pencil. Firstly, it has easy-to-lose cap, a tiny object when unsheathed. Secondly, there was no place to store the Apple Pencil ( a similar problem for the Surface Pro’s pen too). These two significant annoyances gave rise to a plethora of third-party solutions, many of which are available on Amazon and many other websites that trade in Apple paraphernalia. I opted for the Fintie Cap Holder, Nib Cover and Lightning Adapter holder, a 3-1 solution for those pesky highly-losable objects, with a nib cover to boot! The second issue was fortunately addressed by the Logitech CREATE cover which cleverly inserts a slot for the Apple Pencil while not significantly increasing the bulk of the cover – ingenuity in design!
Sadly the Apple Smart Keyboard does not address the storage of the Apple Pencil. Since the keyboard only covers the front of the iPad, I had to get a separate back cover in matching grey. Switcheasy’s Coverbuddy for iPad Pro 9.7 was a good solution, but it did protrude from the back jacket – this sometimes did help as it gave a tilt when sketching. In my mind, this is the best companion to the Apple Smart Keyboard. The other downside of the keyboard, as highlighted earlier, is the slapping-style typing required to get any work done. I do hope Apple redesigns future keyboards. I was even considering getting the Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard, but fortunately, Logitech answered my prayers.

Conclusion

So is the iPad Pro 9.7 a Laptop Replacement? Well, after spending more than six months with it, I consider it an excellent Laptop Companion. I still do the heavy lifting on my MacBook Air (with Parallels and Windows 10 installed), but it is the iPad Pro 9.7 that accompanies me just about everywhere, usually tucked in the outer back pocket of my Hedgren Connect Belief Vertical Crossover Bag. It is my mobile office when away from the office. And that, in the end, was what I was looking for.
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My trusty Hedgren Connect Sling

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