iPad Pro Tablet With Smart Keyboard Works Well as Laptop Replacement

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Unfortunately, at that point I was unable to get my hands on the iPad Smart Keyboard or the Apple Pencil. But because the larger screen of the iPad Pro makes the on-screen keyboard easier to use, this wasn't as big a disadvantage as it might seem.

Eventually the folks at Apple media relations offered to help, and arranged a loan of the currently impossible-to-buy input devices, so I was able to use the iPad as Apple intended, as a laptop replacement. Let me say right up front that I did not expect to be impressed with these items because in my view, flatter-than-a-pancake keyboards are rarely usable. But in this case I was wrong.

The Smart Keyboard is in fact more usable than I expected it to be. The Pencil also worked well as the folks at Apple demonstrated in the iPad announcement earlier this year. But I have some questions as to the Pencil's usefulness for some applications.
The Smart Keyboard has two aspects that I find particularly attractive. First it's a miracle of engineering consisting of three layers, one of which is a conductive layer that passes power to the keyboard and data back to the iPad. Over that is a fabric cover that is a one-piece answer to keyboard design. That fabric cover is water resistant and stain resistant, and it manages to provide exceptional tactile feedback for typing.

The Smart Keyboard has a microfiber backing that covers the screen when the keyboard is being used as a cover. The microfiber also helps keep the screen clean. The whole thing is 3.2 millimeters thick and when it's being used as a cover it's only slightly thicker than the Smart Cover. The keyboard attaches magnetically to three small contacts on the long edge of the iPad Pro. Those contacts provide the power and data connection to the keyboard.

I used the iPad Pro and the Smart Keyboard combination for the sort of tasks you'd normally perform on your laptop. That means I answered email, wrote a couple of articles and did some other random tasks that required typing, such as adding valuable thoughts to Facebook. I expected there to be a significant learning curve after having done all of my writing either on a full sized keyboard at my desk, or using the well-designed keyboard on my Lenovo ThinkPad T-430.

As it turns out, there wasn't much of a learning curve at all, beyond some variances in the placement of keys such as the Control key, and the addition of a Command key. In one area, the matte finish of the keyboard adds better usability than what's on the ThinkPad.

When you touch type on the Apple Smart Keyboard, your fingers are less likely to slip off the key face than they are on keyboards with slick finishes.
This may sound like a minor issue, but when you type a lot and you type fast, it adds up to a huge benefit. I didn't do a typing benchmark (mainly because I couldn’t think of a good one), but my typing speed on the iPad Pro was at least as fast as on the ThinkPad.

The only thing that would make me reluctant to take the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard on the road might be the fact that Apple doesn't provide a way to attach USB memory sticks or SD memory cards to the device. While there are plenty of those accessories available from third-parties, they still mean one more dongle each to lose when you need them the most.

The Apple Pencil, on the other hand, doesn't fit in well in a mobile environment. While it works well for making sketches and drawings, and it handles things such as varying touch pressure very well, taking it out of the office seems fraught with challenges.

The biggest problem is that the Apple Pencil has no means of attaching to the iPad or to your person. There's no clip for your pocket, for example, and unlike Microsoft's Surface stylus, it doesn't attach magnetically to the side of the tablet.
The Apple Pencil attaches to the iPad by connecting it to the lightening connector on the short side of the device, but rather than fitting closely alongside, it sticks out from the connector about seven inches. This looks like an invitation to damage either the Pencil, the iPad or both. Fortunately there's also a connector included with the Pencil that allows you to connect it directly to the iPad's wall charger.

But in actual use, as nice as the Pencil is for drawing, it's not well suited for working while going mobile. You can't attach it to the iPad; you can't keep it in your shirt pocket; and if you place it in your trouser pocket it can bore a hole and fall through. The only real solution is to carry a bag or briefcase.

So the answer is that the iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard is a very nice solution for working on the go. If I were working in a mobile environment and I didn't expect situations where I would need a USB stick or a memory card, then the iPad Pro would work very well as a laptop replacement. Plus, it's lighter than even the thinnest Ultrabook.

The Apple Pencil, on the other hand, seems to be well suited for creative uses as long as you're staying in one place. In addition to sketching nicely, it also works as a pointing device.

Because of the very high resolution of the iPad screen, the Pencil can work well even for doing some very fine work. But don't plan on taking it with you if you move around a lot. The Smart Keyboard costs $169 and is worth it. The Apple Pencil is $99.

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