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Will Apple's new iPad Pro be the ultimate tablet?

10 minute read

AppleBig red spot on big screen iPad

As expected, Apple launched a new iPad Pro and a rethought, app-centric Apple TV at its September 9 event. There is some interesting devil in the detail though. K.Stewart reports.

After the sprawling unveil of Apple Music at WWDC in June, yesterday’s Apple event was a far tighter show running like a metronome through a stack of new announcements inevitably cumulating with iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. Tik-tok through the usual Apple linking jargon of ‘I think you’re going to love this…’

Almost everything had already been leaked, but seeing everything come together in a single presentation was a fascinating overview of what iOS is evolving toward. There will be no October iPad event. This was it, the whole thing in two hours flat.

iPad Pro

The iPad Pro is basically the answer to the question of what Apple could do if tasked with delivering the ultimate tablet with little or no care for price.

The screen is the best Apple has ever done. A huge 12.9-inch 4:3 display with a 2732 x 2048 resolution - 5.6 million pixels is more than you’ll find even in a 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina.

The screen is 78% bigger than an iPad Air 2, Phil Schiller explaining its width is the same as the height of the iPad Air 2, so side-by-side multi-tasking is virtually the same as having two iPads side-by-side.

The chipset is an all-new A9X CPU and GPU delivering double the performance of the iPad Air 2 and superior to 80% of laptops shipped in the last 12 months in computing power, 90% of them in raw graphics power. Then again, considering the number of pixels, the chipset really does need to be high performance and exactly how well it performs under stress will be interesting to test. As usual with iPads, RAM wasn’t revealed, but we expect (hope) it to be around 4GB. Battery life is 10 hours and for the first time, screen refresh will vary depending on activity to help conserve power. There’s also four speakers with sound balance dynamically adjusted according to how you hold it.

Amusingly, Microsoft was first on stage with an Office demo showing improved mark-up tools and, more impressively, split screen sharing of content between Excel and PowerPoint. However, while Office is nice to have, an excellent but still cutdown mobile version of the fully fledged Office suite available in ‘full fat’ version on Microsoft’s own Surface line-up isn’t a winning comparison for Apple.

Where iPad Pro needs to succeed is in the creative industries and specialised enterprise apps such as those being co-developed with IBM.

Enter Adobe with Photoshop Fix supporting retouching 50-megapixel images. The on-stage demo began with a quick finger outline of a web layout, swiftly turned into something very professional looking with a model’s smile swiftly adjusted to be more cheerful. 

AutoCAD 360 was next up with advanced 3D modelling to challenge desktop PC performance.

Apple’s own iMovie wasn’t shown in action but can apparently handle three simultaneous 4K videos - although quite how much of it on the base 32GB model is an interesting question.

IPad Pro pricing starts at $799 for 32GB/WiFi model with the top of the range 128GB with WiFi and LTE cellular costing $1079. This is MacBook pricing, but that’s not including some key accessories.

A stylus called the Apple Pencil costs $99 with sensors to measure both pressure and tilt, while the iPad Pro’s Multi-Touch display has been refined to enhance accuracy and responsiveness. David Hockney has done some amazing sketches with the standard iPad. This new device is something else entirely. The Pencil can be recharged via a Lightning connector that will slot into the iPad Pro itself. The soft nib of the pencil is designed to wear down and a number of replacements are included with the Pencil.

There’s also a new Smart Keyboard  that also serves as a foldable iPad cover and will retail for $169. Like Microsoft’s Surface line-up, there’s a magnetic Smart Connector that allows for power and data to be exchanged between the devices. The keyboard is also super thin with the same Smart Dome Switch design from the new MacBook, but sealed to be water resistant. It’s a premium price for something optimised for convenience and lightweight above all else. Early reports suggest a relatively good feel with more travel than expected, but it’s not going to be anyone’s first choice of keyboard. A more substantial looking keyboard will be available, but not from Apple - Logitech’s Create keyboard will launch alongside the Pro. Smart Connector is open to third-parties, so there could be many more options this time next year.

In my own experience, the original iPad 2 smart cover made a huge impact into the usability of that device, making it simpler to hold and use. A ’naked’ iPad Pro may be super light for its size - the weight is comparable to the smaller, but hefty original iPad - but looks a little unwieldy without cover.

At its inception, the iPad was Apple’s answer to the burgeoning netbook market of cheap laptops. A radical rethinking of what people needed from a home computer. Why bother with a keyboard if you’re mainly browsing the web, watching YouTube? With Amazon apparently about to launch an ad-subsidised $50 6-inch tablet, Apple is looking to the enterprise and creative professionals to bring growth back to its iPad line-up.

Available from November, it’s going to be a hot pre-order but it’s far too early to tell whether it’ll achieve the sales needed to drive the app market in the direction needed to sustain its long-term future.

iPhone 6S and 6S Plus

The reality of Apple is iPhone accounts for some 70% of Apple’s revenue. The most cutting edge technology, the smartest innovations inevitably gravitate to that device. OneRepublic cameo aside, the show closed with the new iPhone ad which Tim Cook loved. And he’s right, it’s a sharp, clever and heart felt pitch that distilled almost everything the company executives had been explaining at some considerable length previously. This year’s marketing line is; ‘the only thing that’s changed is everything.’

In summary, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus will get the expected camera upgrade (12 megapixels - 50% more than before, but with additional technical refinements to ameliorate the effects of shrinking pixel size on picture quality), a 5 megapixel FaceTime camera (with the iPhone’s screen itself serving as a sophisticated flash for selfies).

As you’d expect, there were plenty of stunning new photos shown on-stage, but there’s also a new icon in the camera app which is on by default: Live Photos.

Basically, when you take a photo in this mode, the camera will record about a second and half of frames before and after the prime shot. Apple’s Phil Schiller insisted this wasn’t (conventional) video, but is taken with the camera in stills mode so all the frames are full resolution. Naturally, there’s smart compression to lessen storage demands, but the on-stage demo of scrolling through a photo library, touching a picture and seeing it briefly come to life was pretty stunning.

The entire iOS/Mac OS range will support playback of Live Photos, while Facebook was mentioned as a predictable, supporting partner, but it’s difficult to say what proportion of iPhones will keep Live Photo default option on in six month’s time. (At least Apple had the good grace to sharply reduce pricing on its iCloud back-up service.)

This year’s CPU/GPU upgrade is substantial (ably demonstrated by a stunning 3D Warhammer mech game) and the M9 coprocessor is now integrated, which means you can choose to have Siri always listening, ready to be launched, Google Now-style by simply saying Hey Siri.

In terms of innovation, Force Touch which originated on Apple Watch has been upgraded and enhanced for iPhone as 3D Touch. Apple’s software VP Craig Federighi gave a persuasive live demo talking about how a light press served to ‘peek’ at content, while a longer press ‘popped’ it up into view. This is accompanied by short, distinctive force feedback powered by a sophisticated new Haptic Engine for iPhone.

Scrolling through emails, a light touch lets you peek at an email, while releasing the touch lets you go back to the list. In another example, a light press on application icon would bring up short cuts for the most common actions in that app. In addition to being added to Apple’s own key apps, partners such as Instagram had demos on stage to illustrate how well it worked for them. 

On Apple Watch, Force Touch is useful where it exists for a given app (and you remember it exists). The iPhone demo is a much more powerful UI advance that will obviously take time to be fully adapted by third party apps, but was immediately persuasive (to me at least).

The look of iPhones is unchanged, although they’re very slightly bigger, slightly heavier to accommodate 3D Touch technology and have been internally strengthened with Series 7000 aluminium for the casing.

The colours are the same as before, but there’s an additional rose gold model. Pricing is the same as last year, while those older models are retained in the line-up with discounted price. 

The new iPhones will be available for pre-order from September 12th and ship on the 25th. IOS 9 will ship on September 16th.

In the US, Apple is launching an iPhone Upgrade finance plan with monthly payments that allows you to upgrade on a yearly basis. 

iPad mini 4

Last year’s iPad updates gave us the spectacularly powerful A8X iPad Air 2, but short-changed the iPad mini with unchanged hardware apart from the addition of TouchID.

This year, iPad Air 2 is left as is, while iPad mini 4 gets an A8 (not A8X chip) with pricing starting at £319 for 16GB/WiFI only. This dispels the rumours of the mini’s demise from the iPad line-up, but the lack of an upgrade of the Air 2 is disappointing for those who don’t want a Pro size screen - that said, the Air 2 is frankly ridiculously powerful for anything currently on the App Store.

One way to look at Air 2 is as a mini iPad Pro and if the Pro delivers more powerful creative and enterprise apps, Air 2 will be a prime beneficiary.

Apple TV

Tim Cook called it the foundation of the future of TV.

Just to be clear: it’s not the future of TV per se, but it is a foundation.

Specifically, Apple TV 2015 is a glossy, intelligent app-centric UI for your existing TV driven by an upgraded, slightly bigger (10mm taller), significantly more expensive black box. (UK pricing is unavailable a time of writing, but $149/32GB and $199/64GB, with the existing model still in the line-up at £59.)

The constituent parts of the UI are a new interface, a multi-touch IR/Bluetooth 4.0 remote with gesture control and Siri. (IR means it will control TV and home amplifier.) Siri was undoubtedly the star of the on stage demo, intelligently parsing a variety of loosely phrased questions - such as find ‘funny movies’ and ‘which episode of Modern Family did Ed Norton appear in.’ 

Crucially, Siri’s search function is intended to be universal, retrieving results from participating partner services not just iTunes. US launch partners are HBO, Hulu, Netflix and SHOWTIME who are overhauling their own app UIs to suit Apple TV. HBO’s looking particularly cool.

For what is, Apple TV’s UI looks attractive, fun and useful. It not only makes accessing content fun and easy, it also have overlaid windows for that pull-up, pull-down as needed to reveal cast information, etc. A US baseball app offered a wealth of stats overlays, plus split screen view to watch two matches simultaneously. The app-based, mobile-centric TV experience can now surpass conventional TV.

Of course, Microsoft’s Xbox One launched with its own voice-driven TV service that looked great on stage, but fizzled in the home with a highly US-centric approach and indifferent voice control. We’ll have to see if Apple TV’s real-world performance matches its promise.

As to what Apple TV isn’t right now, but might be in the future…

In the pre-event hype, some commentators predicted Apple was finally getting serious about living room gaming. Sony (mobile) even jumped on the bandwagon with a Siri-event parody welcoming Apple to the gaming party.

That all looks a little embarrassing now.

If we return to iPhone 6S with its A9 chip and powerhouse GPU driving a spectacular Warhammer 3D game with all manner of particle effects and AI enemies that was impressive. Not PS4/Xbox One impressive, but truly astonishing for a mobile game. 

Apple TV has an A8 CPU with 2GB of RAM, an onboard App limit of 200MB and was demo’d with a sports/music hybrid game from Harmonix that looked like a futuristic Wii Sports wannabe. Motion control for batting a ball back and to isn’t going to bring in the Destiny crowd. Neither was a mildly updated version of iOS mega-hit Crossy Road, although it had to be said the new co-operative/competitive multiplayer mode looked good fun.

The App Store for Apple TV and the ability to create universal games for TV, iPhone, iPad etc. has some potential for casual games that could mirror what Nintendo Wii (and Wii U hasn’t) previously succeeded in for mass market gaming.

If your family is all iOS’d, the ability to use any iPhone or iPod Touch as an additional controller also has appeal, but to say the least if there’s a killer gaming app Apple neglected to put it on stage.

What else isn’t Apple TV?


iPhone 6S can shoot and edit in 4K. 

Apple TV offers HDMI 1.4 with 1080p60 output. 

And… Most significantly of all, no TV equivalent of Apple Music’s massive streaming library.

The heavy focus on app-centric (existing) streaming services suggested Apple wasn’t entirely confident there ever would be. That’s a shame. The high subscription fees of cable / satellite services, the balkanised nature of content across net services, is as customer unfriendly as can be imagined. Apple is possibly the only company powerful enough to change this.

If Apple TV sales soar, that could help strengthen negotiations to bring about this streaming service.

‘If’ is a very big word in this context.

Apple Watch

The Watch is perhaps Apple’s only iOS device to truly escape the shadow of the iPhone line-up. After all, the 3D Touch innovation was originally developed as Force Touch to serve the Watch’s tiny screen. Released in April, there were no new models, other than some more aluminium colours (gold and rose gold), more straps and a partnership with Hermès that mixed cool new Hermès watch straps with a custom face.

There are already 10,000 apps on the App Store, but as they primarily run off the paired iPhone their utility has been limited so far. With many apps, the loading times are such it’s faster to simply get out your iPhone. Other apps, including Things, OmniPlan and a particularly excellent Microsoft Outlook app are already well worth installing.

On September 16, WatchOS 2 will be released and enable native third-party apps for the first time, plus new faces, third-party complications and more.

We got a brief demo of some example apps, including Facebook Messenger and GoPro viewfinder (a smart idea that looked well executed). 

The most fully featured was a medical app called AirStrip that was described as a ‘game changer’ for healthcare. In one example, we saw a doctor using Time Travel to advance through his appointments, with alerts relaying streamed cardiogram information. In another example, Apple Watch in combination with a more conventional sensor allowed a mother at home to conduct a test measuring her heartbeat, contractions and the baby heartbeat.

Sidelining the Mac?

Tim Cook was very direct in introducing iPad Pro; “This is the clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing, a simple multi-touch piece of glass that instantly transforms into anything you want it to be.”

However, that’s maybe what he had to say, what he wanted to believe in introducing a major gamble for the struggling iPad line-up. The strength of rising Mac OS sales, the decline in iPad sales, may indicate the market thinks differently - at least prior to iPad Pro.

This year’s solid new El Capitan OS X upgrade will be available from September 30th, but anyone in the public beta can download the final release software today. There was no new Mac hardware on stage, but the 2015 MacBook is going to make a very tough all-in-one conventional alternative to the Pro iPad and solid rumours indicate a 4K 21.5-inch iMac is now in production ahead of a November release date. 

Today’s Apple doesn’t feel like it needs to sacrifice anything to keep pushing ahead on multiple fronts, even if the nature of the company today means the coolest tech has to appear on iPhone first. iPad Pro with 3D Touch, a 4K A9X Apple TV aren’t here yet, but the roadmap looks clear*.

*Good sales performance permitting.

Tags: Technology