by Brandon Butler
iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard: Six Months Later… 10/1/2020

I’ve been using the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard as my daily computing device for the past six months, and over the last month I’ve been jotting down notes on when I find myself really enjoying the device, and really frustrated by the device. And now, I’m going to snap my fingers and transform all of my notes and half-thoughts into a full essay. And, snap! Well, that didn’t work, so I guess I’ll start typing everything out.

Oh, that’s right, here’s the link to my original iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard Review, if you need a refresher.

The Magic Keyboard loves to get dirty. Fingerprints are all over the matte black case, grease marks from my palms get on the palm rests, and the area just under where the iPad “floats” seems to acquire some impossibly high amount of dust or dead skins cells or something despite it being literally under an awning. The iPad Pro also gets a lot of marks on the screen, from fingerprints and Apple Pencil lines to smudges and weird specs of dust or hair. Both devices are designed to be touched, so cleaning is just part of ownership, but I will point out that I’ve never needed to clean my Mac’s aluminum case nearly as often as this Magic Keyboard. There’s a lot of cleaning involved with both the Magic Keyboard and the iPad Pro to keep them looking nice — and these are devices you want to keep looking nice.

Speaking of looking nice, the screen really is incredible. It’s a great device for reading books or comics on, but the 4:3 “square” aspect becomes very noticeable when watching movies or TV shows made this century. Yes, the iPad Pro 12.9” is the exact size of a standard piece of paper — so what? Why did Apple think a standard sheet of paper was the ideal dimension for consuming books, comics, music, games, and movies? Ironically, movies are probably the only type of media that gives a hoot what your screen aspect ratio is, and Apple picked the wrong aspect ratio. I’d gladly trade up for a widescreen iPad Pro — but based on the Magic Keyboard’s sizing and the new iPad Air, I wouldn’t hold my breath that there’s a widescreen iPad Pro in the future. That’s a shame, and a baffling choice by Apple.

Apple Pencil is one of my favorite Apple products, honestly, but the use cases for the $130 stylus are small — mostly drawing, but I guess writing, too. I still prefer typing over trying to hand write my notes — my handwriting is bad enough that even the iPad’s machine learning can’t figure out what I’m writing half the time, making the search and indexing worthless. I fully admit this is a me problem, and your milage will vary widely with the handwriting. Because of this, I haven’t found many uses outside of Procreate for the Pencil, but when I’m drawing with it in Procreate I’m really having a blast.

The iPad Pro is probably one of the most powerful computers I’ve ever owned. It’s fast and responsive as I’m browsing the web or texting or running two whole apps at the same time. I’ll admit it, I’m baffled as to why the iPad Pro has the power and capability that it does but lacks any sort of Pro app, like Xcode, Final Cut, or Logic. And notice Apple’s keynote earlier this month for the new iPad Air: It has a brand new A14 SoC and all Apple can think to do with it is take notes. I’m super disappointed with iPadOS 14, which added essentially nothing to the iPad in terms of multitasking or functionality. I find the iPad works best as a focus device. It’s easy to turn off distractions, turn on some background music, and just write or draw or read with my full attention. …All while the A12X processor sits idling at 98%. That’s a hard sell: Do one thing at a time on your $1200 computer.

But trying to do anything that requires three programs, like my recent WordPress migration of Pizza Emoji, is just easier on a Mac. I needed to edit and upload PHP and CSS files, view the changes in the browser, reference documentation and notes, and make changes to the server via a command line. Trying to do all of this on an iPad just wasn’t practical. The lack of a filesystem was the biggest hurdle, and terminal apps disconnect if left in the background for more than a few seconds. But switching between apps on the iPad can be the most frustrating aspect of using the device. The bottom swipe isn’t always a sure thing and Command+Tab app switcher won’t trigger sometimes, and I have no idea why. I’ve used Command+Tab on a Mac since before it was built into Mac OS as a third party extension. Alt+Tab was part of Windows 3.1 and I’ve always loved it as a shortcut key. Why it sometimes just won’t trigger on the iPad is not just an annoyance; it interrupts my workflow. Anytime I think, “I need to jump back to Safari” and I swipe or Command+Tab and it doesn’t take me to Safari is incredibly disruptive. There’s also a hard limit of the ten most recently used apps in the Command+Tab switcher, and it’s easy to have apps just fall off the end of the switcher if I’m doing a lot of things.

I think my biggest dislike of the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard is, ironically, the thing that convinced me to buy one: the trackpad. The trackpad is way too small, which is a concession Apple made by allowing the iPad to “float” above the keyboard. This smaller size requires more finger lifting to drag the pointer around the screen, which can get tiring after eight hours at the keyboard. The trackpad also requires a good deal of force to click, much more so than my MacBook trackpad — in fact, my MacBook has the haptic touch trackpad, which simply registers force and responds with a simulated click. The Magic Keyboard, however, has an actual trackpad that must be pressed down to click. Like the trackpad’s size, the click resistance was a design choice by Apple.

And this is what makes my dislike of the entire iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard so frustrating: Apple chose these designs, from the design of the trackpad to the multitasking gestures to the limited file system of iPadOS to the 4:3 aspect ratio of the screen. Coming from macOS, everything on the iPad feels too restrained, too tightly controlled, and too simplified. When I want to do something the tiniest bit complex, I’m spending time either trying to create a shortcut (only to discover there’s no way to trigger a shortcut to paste, for example) or returning to my Mac. Ownership of an iPad Pro, as a $1200 device with a $350 keyboard, shouldn’t include an asterisk that says “May require a second computer to actually complete work.”

So confession time: This entire post was written and edited on the MacBook. When I started the Pizza Emoji migration, I gave it a try on the iPad, but I soon realized I was fighting the limitations Apple has imposed on the machine and I just gave up. As my physical desk space is limited, the MacBook managed to push the iPad onto the floor, and it’s been down there for a few days now. I spent six months trying to get the iPad Pro to work with me, not against me. And I think I’m done fighting with it.

Apple’s had an iPad Pro available for sale for half a decade, and in development for at least a good two to three years prior, if not longer. They’ve had just as many opportunities to update the software into something that power users can take advantage of with customizations, Pro apps, real multitasking, and a file manager. But after six months and a major OS update, it’s clear to me that Apple has purposely designed iPadOS to work first and best on the $329 iPad with a Home button; it’s designed for the masses. Apple either doesn’t see a world where pros are using the iPad Pro to do real work, or they don’t want to commit the resources to giving the pros the professional environment and tools we need.

I’m not sure how I see the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard working for me in the future. Maybe they can be travel devices, or maybe they’re just expensive media consumption devices. I think it’s folly to wait for Apple to realize the iPad Pro as the professional touch screen device we all want. The Shortcuts app and a few widgets are not enough to convince me that iPadOS is designed for pro users. I’ll keep the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard around for reading comics and the occasional travel companion, but in my view iPadOS is designed for a $329 iPad, and that’s what I should have bought.

Oh right, there’s also a LiDAR sensor I’ve never used.