Mark me down as a happy Apple iPad user. It’s my go-to computer away from home, unless I need to bring my laptop for on-site editing. I’ve even written some of my magazine stories, like NAB reports, on it. First the original iPad and now a new Air 2. While I don’t consider myself a post-PC computer user, I could imagine that if I didn’t need to run tools like Resolve, FCPX, and Premiere Pro, an iPad Pro could function as my only computer.
For this review, Apple loaned me the 12.9″ 128GB WiFi+Cellular iPad Pro, complete with all the bells-and-whistles, including the Apple Pencil, Lightning-to-SD Card Camera Reader, Case, Smart Cover, and Smart Keyboard. The Pro’s A9X processor is beefy for a tablet. Other reviewers have noted its performance rivals Apple’s smallest MacBook with the Intel Core M CPU. Since the iPad Air 2 processor is only one step down, you won’t see that much difference between it and the iPad Pro on most iOS applications. However, the A9X delivers twice the CPU and graphics performance of the Air 2’s A8X, so there is a difference in driving the larger 12.9” Pro screen, as well as with multitasking and animation-heavy applications.
Many specs are the same between these two models, with the exception that the iPad Pro includes a total of four speakers and adds a Smart Connector to be used with the Smart Keyboard. In addition, the Pro’s touch screen has been re-engineered to scan at 240 times/second (twice as fast as scanning for your finger) in support of the Apple Pencil. On March 21st Apple launched a second iPad Pro model using the same 9.7” form factor as the iPad Air 2. Other than screen size, the two Pro models sport nearly identical specs, including A9X processor, four speakers, and Smart Connector. Now there’s also a Smart Keyboard specifically designed for each model. Since I tested the larger version, the rest of this review is in the context of using the 12.9” model.
The big hallmark in iOS9 is multitasking, which lets you leave two applications open and on-screen, side-by-side at one time. You can go between them and slide the divider bar to change app size or move them completely on or off of the screen. This feature is superb on the iPad Pro, aided by the bigger screen real estate. It’s not quite as functional on the other iPads. However, many applications and web pages don’t feel quite optimized for the larger screen of the iPad Pro. It often feels like pages are slightly blown up or that there’s a lot of wasted space.
The iPad Pro starts to stand out once you accessorize it. You can get an Apple case, Smart Cover and/or Smart keyboard. The covers magnetically attach to the iPad, so be careful. If you hold or lift the heavier iPad Pro by the cover, it can detach, resulting in the Pro potentially dropping to the floor. Both the Smart Cover and the Smart Keyboard can fold into a stand to prop up the iPad Pro on a desk. When you fold the Smart Keyboard back into a cover, it’s a very slim lid that fits over the screen. The feel of the keyboard is OK, but I prefer the action of the small, standalone Apple Bluetooth keyboard, which I use with my own iPad. Other reviewers have also expressed a preference for the Logitech keyboard available for the Pro. These new keyboards are enabled by the Smart Connector with its two-way power and data transfer, so no battery is required for the keyboard.
The new Apple Pencil is getting the most press. Unlike other pointing devices, the Pencil requires charging and can only be paired with the iPad Pro. The Pencil is clearly a blast to use with Pixelmator or FiftyThree’s Paper. It’s nicely weighted and feels as close to drawing with a real pen or pencil as you can get with an electronic stylus. It responds with pressure-sensitivity and you can even shade with the side of the tip. For drawing in apps like this, or Photoshop Express, Autodesk Graphic, Art Studio, etc., the Pencil is clearly superior to low-cost third-party styli or your finger. FiftyThree also offers its own drawing styli that are optimized for use with the Paper application.
As a pointing device, the Apple Pencil isn’t quite as good, since it was designed for fine detail. According to Apple, their design criteria was pixel-level precision. The Pencil does require charging, which you can do by plugging it into the iPad’s lightning port, or directly charging it by using the regular lightning cable and charger via a small adapter ring. When the Pencil gets low on juice a warning pops up on the iPad Pro’s screen. Plug it into the lightning port for a quick boost. Apple claims that fifteen seconds will give you thirty minutes of use and my experience bore this out.
The final accessory to mention is the Lightning-to-SD Card Camera Reader. The lightning port supports USB 3.0 speeds on the iPad Pro to make transfers fast. Plug the reader into the lightning port and pop your SD card into the reader. The Photos application will open to the contents of the card and you can import a selection of clips. Unfortunately, there is no generic way to transfer files into the iPad using SD cards. I’ve been able to cheat it a little by putting some renamed H.264 files into the DCIM folder structure from a Canon 5D camera. This made everything look like valid camera media. Then I could move files into Photos, which is Apple’s management tool for both camera stills and videos on the iPad. However, it doesn’t work for all files, such as graphics or audio tracks that you might use for a voice-over.
Using the iPad Pro as a professional video tool
Is the iPad Pro better for the video professional when compared with other tablets and iPads? Obviously the bigger screen is nice if you are editing in iMovie, but can one go beyond that?
I worked with a number of applications, such as FiLMiC Pro. This application adds real camera controls to the built-in camera. These include ISO, white balance, focus, frame rates, and stabilization controls. It was used in the production of the Sundance hit, Tangerine, and is a must-have tool if you intend to do serious captures with any iOS device. The footage looks good and H.264 compression (starting at 32Mbps) artifacts are not very visible. Unfortunately, there’s not shutter angle control to induce motion blur, which would smooth out the footage.
To make real production viable, you would need camera rigging and accessories. The weight of the 12.9″ iPad Pro makes it tough to shoot steady hand-held footage. Outside in bright daylight, the screen is too dim even at its brightest setting. Having some sort of display hood is a must. In fact, the same criticism is true if you are using it to draw outside. Nevertheless, if you mounted an iPad or iPad Pro in some sort of fixed manner, it would be very useful for recording interviews and similar, controllable productions. iOgrapher produces some of these items, but the larger iPad Pro model isn’t supported yet.
For editors, the built in option is iMovie. It is possible to edit external material, if you brought it in via the card reader, DropBox, iCloud Drive, or by syncing with your regular computer. (Apple’s suggested transfer path is via AirDrop.) Once you’ve edited your piece, you can move the project file from iOS iMovie to iMovie on your computer using iCloud Drive and then import that project into Final Cut Pro X. In my tests, the media was embedded into the project and none of the original timecode or file names were maintained. Frame rates were also changed from 29.97fps to 30.0fps. Clearly if you intend to use this path, it’s best for video originated on the iPad itself.
If you want a professional nonlinear editing tool for the iPad, nothing even comes close to TouchEdit, an app developed by feature film editor Dan Lebental (Ant-Man, Iron Man, Cowboys & Aliens) and his team. This app includes many of the tools an editor would expect, such as trimming, titles and audio mixing, plus it tracks all of the important clip metadata. There is a viable workflow to get clips into – and an edit list and/or movie out of – the iPad. Lebental started with a skeuomorphic interface design that borrows from the look of a flatbed editor. The newest version of the software includes the option for a flattened interface skin, plus a portrait and landscape layout, each of which enables somewhat different capabilities. TouchEdit is attractive as an offline editing tool that definitely benefits from the larger size and improved performance of the iPad Pro.
I used the 12.9” iPad Pro for three months. It’s a wonderful tool, but also a mixed bag. The more ample screen real estate makes it easier to use than the 9.7” iPad models. However, the smaller device is tweaked so that many pages are displayed a bit differently. Thus the size advantage of the larger Pro model is less pronounced. Like all iPads, the Pro uses the same iOS operating system. This holds back the potential of the Pro, which begs for some sort of hybrid “iOS Pro” operating system that would make the iPad Pro work more like a laptop. Naturally, Apple’s position is that iPads are “touch-first” devices and iOS a “touch-first” operating system. The weakest spot is the lack of true file i/o and a visible file structure. You have to go through Dropbox, iCloud, Photos, AirDrop, e-mail, or be connected to iTunes on your home machine.
The cost of the iPad Pro would seem to force a decision between buying the 12” MacBook and the 12.9″ iPad Pro. Both are of similar size, weight, and performance. In John Gruber’s Daring Fireball review he opined that in the case of the iPad Pro, “professional” should really be thought of in the context of “deluxe”. According to him, the iPad Pro relates to the regular iPad line in the same way a MacBook Pro relates to the other MacBooks. In other words, if an iPad serves your needs and you can afford the top-end version, then the Pro is for you. Its target market is thus self-defining. The iPad Pro is a terrific step up in all the things that make tablets the computing choice for many. Depending on your needs, it’s a great portable computer. For the few that are moving into the post-PC world, it could even be their only computer.
©2016 Oliver Peters