iPad Pro 12.9” First Thoughts

Yesterday I got myself a new computer, and it runs iOS. I am writing this on the 12.9” iPad Pro 3rd Gen with a Smart Keyboard Folio. I’ll have much more to say about this device, my reasons for buying it, and my expectations and disappointments in the coming weeks, but for now I just wanted to start with some first impressions.

As John Siracusa likes to say, nothing is so perfect that it can’t be criticized, so keep that in mind while I start with my gripes. Theres a lot that I like about this computer, obvious and otherwise, that I’ll get to later, but complaining is more fun.

Many of my issues are regarding the size of this device. I’ve used the 12.9” iPad sparingly before yesterday. I have tested apps for work on it, and when I went to WWDC in 2016 I brought work’s iPad Pro with me, ostensibly to take notes on (although I just loaded it up with movies and left it in the hotel), but for my primary iPad it always seemed far too big, particularly the bezels. Now that the bezels are dramatically reduced, I figured it was time to give the larger screen size a shot and upgrade form a 10.5”.

My initial complaint came up before I even finished setting up the device. I had the soft keyboard open for password entry, and while I knew about and expected the extra row of number keys, and the extra space on the sides for the tab, caps lock, and right shift keys, I didn’t expect that I’d be losing access to lots of characters. On the smaller iPads, each letter key has an associated ‘alt’ key, that you can get to by dragging down on the key (which is a really slick animation). This still exists on some keys, like punctuation, brackets, and the number keys, and in many ways is more like a traditional physical keyboard layout, where the letter keys are only really used for letter entry, but I had grown so accustomed to the layout of the alt keys that it was surprising, and not being able to drag down on a letter key at all made the keyboard feel broken. Chalk this up to one of the many things I’ll try to get used to, and we’ll see how it goes.

Along with this, the 12.9 iPad software keyboard doesn’t support undocking and split keyboard. These keyboard features were incredible when they first came to the iPad, and I didn’t realize just how much I used them. Being able to hold the iPad with two hands at a more comfortable position, from anywhere in the middle of the device, and still be able to reach all the keys was great, and if I really needed to bang out some text I’d switch to the split keyboard, so my thumbs barely needed to move and got to use the iPhone sized keyboard I have gotten so accustomed to in the last decade. So when I took my iPad out of the keyboard and tried typing on it, only to realize that the features that allowed me to comfortably hold it in my hands didn’t transfer to the 12.9. I had lots of difficulty hitting the keys in the middle of the keyboard with my thumbs in portrait, and it was impossible to type in landscape, and while I could lay the device down in my lap and use all my digits to type that’s not how I like to use iPads. The official statements seem to be that the device is so big it’s not expected to be used in your hands, which seems so strange for me, because a bigger screen is exactly why you would want a split keyboard. This one will be harder to get used to, because it fundamentally changes how I use my iPad.

So yeah, the 12.9” iPad Pro is certainly smaller and lighter than it’s predecessor, but it still doesn’t seem that this is a device meant for handheld use at all, which is a tough pill to swallow. I’ll give it another week or two to try to adjust, but as of right now I’m really feeling like I might be switching to a 11”.

The things I do like about the larger screen? It’s great to be able to run apps side by side in regular width, it’s cool having the third pane in Mail and Notes. Webpages look great in portrait mode, and more and more it feels like the original promise of the iPad where you could directly interact with the web.

As for the accessories? Pencil is great, I’ve tried my hand at a few sketches and I’ll certainly be trying more, but I’m not an artist and don’t expect to become one. I will be running a Dungeons and Dragons session soon, and will probably use this to draw out some maps, so I’m looking forward to that experience.

The keyboard is really nice as well. I really enjoyed the 10.5” Smart Keyboard, so having more or less the same thing but with a full size tilde and tab key is great. The angles are cool, I used it in ‘lap mode’ while on the train this morning and am using it in ‘desk mode’ now at work. I’m very happy with both of them, and am incredibly pleased with how solid the device felt in my lap on the train. One thing I will miss however is the ability to prop the iPad upright without having the keyboard extended. I frequently used this for FaceTime session or to have my iPad as a reference display while I worked at my desk. In general I love the iPad more than a macOS laptop precisely because it doesn’t have a keyboard taking up space when I don’t need it. This keyboard no longer allows for that, at least not while also allowing the iPad to be displayed upright. I could spent another $99 on a Smart Folio case, and swap back and forth depending on if I need a keyboard or not, but there is no way I’m gonna be doing that.

So I guess here we are. In general I really do like this device, and I’m excited about exploring the ways it can change my workflow (more on that later), but I didn’t expect that the larger size would so dramatically change the way I think about and use my iPad. I suppose we’ll see how long it takes me to adjust, or if I give up and switch to the 11”. I really hope I can made the switch though, because this screen is really freaking cool.