iPad Cons

Reluctantly coming to the conclusion that the computer I’ve always wanted isn’t the computer I’ve always wanted

It’s a reliable source of tragicomedy to see people working themselves into an indignant rage over gadget reviews. When I was looking for reviews of the iPad Pro this Wednesday (to do my due diligence), Google had helpfully highlighted some fun guy on Twitter calling the tech journalists’ coverage of the device “shameful.” The reviews themselves had hundreds of comments from people outraged that even the notion of a larger, more expensive iPad was an assault to everything we hold dear as Americans.

The complaints about the rampant “Apple bias” are especially ludicrous in regards to the iPad Pro, since the consensus has been overwhelmingly cautious: out of all the reviews I read, there’s only one that could be considered an unqualified recommendation. Even John Gruber wasn’t interested in getting one. (But he did still believe that it’s the dawning of a new age in personal computing; it’s still Daring Fireball, after all). Every single one of the others offered some variation on “It’s nice, I don’t have any interest in it, but I’m sure it’s perfect for some people.”

Yes, I thought, I am exactly those some people.

Designed By Apple In Cupertino Specifically For Me

I’ve spent the better part of this year trying to justify getting a smaller and lighter laptop computer. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade wanting a good tablet computer for drawing. And I’ve tried — and been happy with — most of the variations on tablets and laptops that Apple’s been cranking out since the PowerBook G4. (One thing people don’t mention when they complain about how expensive Apple products are is that they also retain their resale value exceptionally well. I’ve managed to find a buyer for every Apple computer or tablet I’ve wanted to sell).

I’ve tried just about every stylus I could find for the iPad. I tried a Galaxy Note. I tried a Microsoft Surface. I got dangerously excited about that Microsoft Courier prototype video. Years ago, I tried a huge tablet PC from HP. None of them have been right, for one reason or another.

But when they announced the iPad Pro this Fall, it sounded like Apple had finally made exactly what I wanted: a thin and relatively light iPad with a high-resolution display, better support for keyboards, faster processor, and a pressure-sensitive stylus designed specifically for the device. Essentially, a “retina” MacBook Air with a removable screen that could turn into a drawing tablet. The only way it could be more exactly what I want would be if it came with a lifetime supply of Coke.

Still, I decided to show some constraint and caution for once, which meant having the calm and patience to get one a few hours into opening day instead of ordering one online the night before.

I read all the reviews, watched all the videos, paid closest attention to what artists were saying about using it. The artists at Pixar who tried it seemed to be super-happy with it. All the reviews were positive about the weight and the display and the sound and the keyboards.

I went to the Apple Store and tried one out, on its own and with the Logitech keyboard case. It makes a hell of a first impression. The screen is fantastic. The sound is surprisingly good. It is huge, but it doesn’t feel heavy or all that unwieldy when compared to the other iPads; it’s more like the difference between carrying around a clipboard vs carrying a notepad. (And it doesn’t have the problem I had with the Surface, where its aspect ratio made using it as a tablet felt awkward).

And inside the case, it gets a real, full-size keyboard that feels to me just like a MacBook Air’s. It really does do everything shown in the demo videos. I imagined it becoming the perfectly versatile personal computer: laptop for writing, sketchpad for drawing, huge display for reading comics or websites, watching video, or playing games. (I’m not going to lie: the thought of playing touchscreen XCOM on a screen this big is what finally sold me).

But Not For Me

But I don’t plan to keep it.

It’s not a case of bait-and-switch, or anything: it’s exactly what it advertises, which is a big-ass iPad. The question is whether you really need a big-ass iPad.

The iPad Pro isn’t a “hybrid” computer, and Apple’s made sure to market it as 100% an iPad first. But it’s obvious that they’re responding to the prevalence of hybrids in Windows and Android, even if not to the Surface and Galaxy Note specifically. And I think Apple’s approach is the right one: differentiating it as a tablet with optional (but strongly encouraged) accessories that add laptop-like functionality, instead of as some kind of all-in-one device that can seamlessly function as both.

But a few days of using the iPad Pro has convinced me that the hybrid approach isn’t the obviously perfect solution that common sense would tell you it is. It’s not really the best of both words, but the worst of each:

  • Big keyboards: The Apple-designed keyboard is almost as bad for typing as the new MacBook’s is, which is almost as bad as typing on a Timex Sinclair. Maybe some people are fine with it, and to be fair, even the on-screen keyboard on the iPad Pro is huge and full-featured and easy to use. But for me, the Logitech keyboard case is the only option. And it’s pretty great (I’m using it to type this, as a cruel final gesture before I return it) but it turns the iPad Pro from being surprisingly light and thin into something that’s almost as big and almost as heavy as a MacBook Air.
  • Big-ass tablet: Removed from the case, the iPad Pro quickly becomes just a more unwieldy iPad. The “surprisingly” part of “surprisingly light and thin” means that it’s genuinely remarkable considering its processor speed and its fantastic screen, but it still feels clumsy to do all the stuff that felt natural on the regular iPad. It really wants to be set down on a table or desktop.
  • It’s not cheap: I wouldn’t even consider it overpriced, considering how well it’s made and how much technology went into it. But it does cost about as much as a MacBook Air. That implies that it’s a laptop replacement, instead of the “supplemental computer” role of other iPads.
  • Touching laptop computer screens is weird: Nobody’s yet perfected the UI that seamlessly combines keyboards and touch input. Even just scrolling through an article makes me wish I had a laptop with a touchpad, where it’s so much more convenient. When it feels like the touchpad is conspicuously absent while you’re using a device that’s essentially a gigantic touchpad, that means that something has broken down in the user experience.
  • Aggressive Auto-correct: Because iOS was designed for touch input on much smaller screens, it was designed for clumsy typing with fat fingers. Which means it aggressively autocorrects. Which means I’ve had to re-enter every single HTML tag in this post. And it still refuses to let me type “big-ass” on the first try.
  • It’s missing much of OS X’s gesture support: Despite all the clever subtle and not-so-subtle things they’ve done to make iOS seamless, it’s still got all the rough edges as a result of never being designed for a screen this large. In fact, having your hands anchored to a keyboard goes directly against the “philosophy” of iOS, which was designed to have an unobtrusive UI that gets out of the way while you directly interact with your content. Ironically, it’s all the gesture recognition and full-screen stuff that made its way from iOS to OS X that I find mysef missing the most — I wish I could just quickly swipe between full-screen apps, or get an instant overview of everything I have open.
  • No file system: This has been a long-running complaint about iOS, but I’ve frankly never had much problem with it. But now that the iPad is being positioned as a product that will help you do bigger and more sophisticated projects, it becomes more of a problem. I just have a hard time visualizing a project without being able to see the files.
  • The old “walled-garden” complaints: Apple’s restrictions aren’t nearly as draconian as they’re often made out to be, but they still exist. Occasionally I need to look at a site that still insists on using Flash. And the bigger screen size and keyboard support of the iPad Pro suggest that programming would be a lot of fun on this device, but Apple’s restrictions on distributing executable code make the idea of an IDE completely impractical.
  • Third-party support: App developers and web developers haven’t fully embraced variable-sized screens on iOS yet. (As an iOS programmer, I can definitely understand why that is, and I sympathize). So apps don’t resize themselves appropriately, or don’t support split screen. Some apps (like Instagram, for instance) still don’t have iPad versions at all. Some web sites insist I use the “mobile” version of the site, even though I’m reading it on a screen that’s as large as my laptop’s.

If You Don’t See a Stylus, They Blew It

For me, the ultimate deciding factor is simply that the Apple “Pencil” isn’t available at launch. They’re currently back-ordered for at least four weeks, and that’s past the company’s 14-day return window. Maybe they really have been convinced that the stylus is a niche product, and they weren’t able to meet the demand. Whatever the case, it seems impossible for me to really get a feel for how valuable this device is with such a significant piece missing.

The one unanimous conclusion — from both artists and laypeople — is that the Pencil is excellent. And I don’t doubt it at all. Part of what gets the tech-blog-commenters so angrily flummoxed about “Apple bias” is that Apple tends to get the details right. Their stuff just feels better, even if it’s difficult or impossible to describe exactly how or why, and even if it’s the kind of detail that doesn’t make for practical, non-“magical” marketing or points on a spec sheet.

Even though I haven’t been able to use it, I have been impressed with how Apple’s pitched the stylus. They emphasize both creativity and precision. There’s something aspirational about that: you can use this device to create great things. Microsoft has probably done more over the years to popularize “pen computing” than any company other than Wacom, but they’ve always emphasized the practical: showing it being used to write notes or sign documents. It’s as if they still need to convince people that it’s okay for “normal” people to want a stylus.

Part of the reason I like Apple’s marketing of the Pencil is that it reminds me of the good old days before the iPhone. Back when Apple was pitching computers to a niche market of “creative types.” It was all spreadsheets vs. painting and music programs, as clearly differentiated as the rich jocks vs the sloppy underdogs in an 80s movie.

I only saw a brief snippet of Microsoft’s presentation about the Surface and Surface Book. In it, the Microsoft rep was talking about the Surface’s pen as if he’d discovered the market-differentiating mic-drop finishing-move against Apple’s failed effort: unlike “the other guys,” Microsoft’s pen has an eraser. I’ve been using a Wacom stylus with an eraser for some time, and its always too big and clumsy to be useful, and it always ends up with me using the wrong end for a few minutes and wondering why it’s not drawing anything.

Meanwhile, Apple’s ads talk about how they’ve painstakingly redesigned the iPad screen to have per-pixel accuracy with double the sampling rate and no lag, combining their gift for plausible-sounding techno-marketing jargon with GIFs that show the pen drawing precise lines on an infinite grid. That difference seems symbolic of something, although I’m not exactly sure what.

The Impersonal Computer

I’ve been pretty critical of Microsoft in a post that’s ostensibly about how I don’t like an Apple product. To be fair, the Surface Book looks good enough to be the best option for a laptop/tablet hybrid, and it’s clear some ingenious work went into the design of it — in particular, putting the “guts” of the machine into the keyoard.

I’m just convinced now that a laptop/tablet hybrid isn’t actually what I want. And I think the reason I keep going back to marketing and symbolism and presentation and the “good old days” of Apple is that computers have developed to the point where the best computer experience has very little to do with what’s practical.

I get an emotional attachment to computers, in the same way that Arnie Cunningham loved Christine. There have been several that I liked using, but a few that I’ve straight-up loved. My first Mac was a Mac Plus that had no hard drive and was constantly having to swap floppy disks and had screen burn-in from being used as a display model and would frequently shut down in the middle of doing something important. But it had HyperCard and Dark Castle and MacPaint and the floppy drive made it look like it was perpetually smirking and it as an extravagant graduation gift from my parents, so I loved it. I liked the design of OS X and the PowerBook so much that I even enjoyed using the Finder. I tried setting up my Mac mini as a home theater PC mostly as an attempt to save money on cable, but really I just enjoyed seeing it there under the TV. Even a year into using my first MacBook Air, I’d frequently clean it, ostensibly to maintain its resale value but really because I just liked to marvel at how thin and well-designed it was.

I used to think that was pretty common (albeit to healthier and less obsessive degres). But I get the impression that most people see computers, even underneath all their stickers and cases to “personalize” them, as ultimately utilitarian. A while ago I had a coworker ask why I bring my laptop to work every day when the company provided me with an identical-if-not-better one. The question seemed absolutely alien to me: that laptop is for work; this laptop has all my stuff.

Another friend occasionally chastises me for parading my conspicuous consumption all over the internet. I can see his point, especially since the Apple logo has gone from a symbol of “I am a creative free-thinker” to “I have enough money to buy expensive things, as I will now demonstrate in this coffee shop.” But I’ve really never understood the idea of Apple as status symbol; I’ve never thought of it as “look at this fancy thing I bought!” but “look at this amazing thing people designed!”

The iPad was the perfect manifestation of that, and the iPad mini was even more. Like a lot of people, I just got one mainly out of devotion to a brand: “If Apple made it, it’s probably pretty good.” I had no idea what I’d use it for, but I was confident enough that a use would present itself.

What’s interesting is that a use did present itself. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that it created an entirely new category of device, because it became something I never would’ve predicted before I used it. And it’s not a matter of technology: what’s remarkable about it isn’t that it was a portable touch screen, since I’ve known I wanted one of those ever since I first went to Epcot Center. I think what’s ultimately so remarkable about the iPad is that it was completely and unapologetically as supplemental computer.

Since its release, people (including me) have been eager to justify the iPad by showing how productive it could be. Releasing a version called the “Pro” would seem like the ultimate manifestation of that. But I’m only now realizing that what appealed to me most about the iPad had nothing to do with productivity. I don’t need it to replace my laptop, since I’m fortunate enough to be able to have a laptop. And the iPhone has wedged itself so firmly into the culture that it’s become all but essential; at this point it just feels too useful to be a “personal” device. (Plus Apple’s business model depends on replacing it every couple of years, so it’s difficult to get too attached to one).

Apple’s been pitching the watch as “their most personal device ever,” but I wouldn’t be devastated if I somehow lost or broke the watch. My iPad mini, on the other hand, is the thing that has all my stuff. Not even the “important” stuff, which is scattered around and backed up in various places. The frivolous, inconsequential stuff that makes it as personal as a well-worn notebook.

Once I had the iPad Pro set up with all my stuff, I was demoing it to a few people who wanted to see it. And obviously with coworkers but even, surprisingly, when showing it to my boyfriend, there was a brief moment of hesitation where I wondered if I was showing something too personal. I don’t mind anybody using my laptop or desktop, or sharing my phone with someoen who needs it, but I’ve got a weird, very personal attachment to the iPad. (And not just because I treat my Tumblr app like the forbidden room in a gothic novel which no one must ever enter).

It’s entirely possible that I’m in the minority, and whatever attachment most people have to “their stuff” is to the stuff itself in some nebulous cloud, and not the device that’s currently showing it to them. It’s even more likely that there’s simply no money to be made in selling people devices that they become so attached to that they never want to give them up. It may be that Convergence is The Future of Personal Computing, and one day we’ll all have the one device that does everything.

After using the iPad Pro, I’m no longer convinced that a big iPad that also functions as a laptop is what I want. I really want a “normal”-sized iPad that’s just really good at being an iPad. Which means adding support for the Apple Pencil to the iPad Air.

So I’m back to hoping Apple’s already got one of those in the pipeline, and waiting until it’s announced at some point next year, and then ordering one the second they’re available and then trying to justify it as a rational and well-considered purchase. Next time for sure it’s going to be exactly the computer I want.