iPad Pro 12.9-inch 2018 with PencilThree days in to using the latest Apple 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my main computer I canned plans to buy a 2018 MacBook Air.

The new iPad Pro is all the mobile computer I need for journalism on the move.

It’s light. It’s always on and ready to go. It goes all day and then some on a single charge.

Add a SIM card and it’s always connected.

At a pinch it can take photos and video. There’s something uncool about holding up a magazine-sized glass-metal slate to take shots. Yet it works a treat.

The iPad Pro also does a good job recording audio. You can do that without looking like a dork.

Writing, editing

There are great iOS writing tools that work so much better on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro than on smaller iPads or iPhones.

While I prefer a Markdown editor for my writing, most of my clients prefer to get Word documents. Converting Markdown to Word is easy enough. But on the iPad Pro it’s easy to work in Word and not stuff around with converting files.

For some reason I’m yet to fathom, Word works far better on iOS than on MacOS anyway. On the iPad Pro it’s a far better experience than on any MacBook. At least for my work.

Worth buying

If you think I’m enthusiastic about the new iPad, you’d be right. It’s rare for any new hardware to capture my imagination as much as the last two 12.9-inch iPad Pro models.

They are amazing. Despite the high cost, we’ll come back to that point, they a good investment. I get a fast productivity pay off. So might you.

For my first two days with the iPad I was out-of-town working from a hotel room and cafès. That gave me an opportunity to road-testing the iPad with the kind real tasks that make up my bread and butter. I had a newsletter and a feature to write.

Before going further, I should point out an older 12.9-inch iPad Pro has been my main mobile computer for a year. There have been times when I needed a Mac, few times, but enough to mention.

I’m familiar with the basics of living an iOS only existence. Much of the rest of this post is about my first impressions moving from one 12.9-inch iPad Pro to another.

iPad Pro 2018 showing orientations

Size matters

Size is the most visible change. As the 12.9-inch name makes clear, the screen is exactly the same size as before.

The edges around the screen; bezels in geek-speak, are smaller. This means the iPad is smaller. When looked at in the portrait orientation, the 2018 model is only about 5mm less across its width. It’s height is around 20mm shorter.

In practice this is a bigger deal than you might expect. At the airport on the way home I had to unpack the iPad to go through security. Taking a dozen or so millimetres off the case means I could slip it in an out of my bag with less fuss than my older iPad.

Space is at such a premium when flying that this helps. The smaller 12.9-inch iPad Pro size works better on Air New Zealand tray tables.

It is a few grams lighter too. If, like me, you watch streaming sports coverage on an iPad, it means you can hold the device for longer in a single hand.

I spent part of Thursday and Friday moving from place to place, often cafès, carrying the iPad. It felt more comfortable.

iPad pro 2018 thin

Powerful

Apple uses a faster A12X processor in the newer iPad Pro. You may see this referred to elsewhere as a system on a chip. It is getting on for twice as fast as the processor in last year’s iPad Pro.

You wouldn’t buy an iPad Pro based on something as esoteric as processor speedtests. I’m not going to waste your time discussing benchmarks, they are meaningless for most of us.

Even so, you might choose the new iPad based on what that faster A12X chip means for your productivity.

Raw speed doesn’t make any difference to my writing. I don’t type a Markdown or Word document any faster with a better chip.

The speed comes into its own if you do photo or video editing. Next year, Adobe plans an iPad version of Photoshop. That will push the A12X harder than anything I’m using at the moment.

For now, one bonus of the faster processor is that it runs the Face ID software at a clip. It works in no time.

This means you don’t need a home button, hence the smaller bezels. It also means security is less of a productivity burden. At times I still instinctively reach for the home button, but I suspect that won’t last.

Smart Folio Keyboard

The Smart Keyboard Folio is better than the Smart Keyboard Cover used with the earlier iPad Pro. It still lacks backlighting, which I find essential on a night-time plane flight even though I’m a touch typist.

Speaking of which, I can touch type all the alphabet characters without a problem. Yet I struggle to find the apostrophe key without peeking. In touch typist circles, that feels like cheating.

Likewise, I need to look at the arrow keys use them. The keyboard is exactly the same width as on my old, 2012 MacBook Pro, but shallower.

Keys have a pleasing amount of travel and a comforting click. The typing experience is good. This is more important when you consider Apple’s new MacBook keyboard comes in for criticism. I prefer using the Folio.

Kickstand tease

I’m not excited that Apple now offers two screen angle positions. Microsoft Surface users will jeer that Apple hasn’t gone down the kick-stand route. Long-term happy iPad users will wonder what the fuss is about.

The back part of the Keyboard Folio covers the entire back of the iPad. It would be a little harder to remove in a hurry than the earlier KeyBoard Cover. That’s not a bad thing, my old Keyboard Cover often detached when I didn’t want it to.

Also I slipped and bashed my older 12.9-inch iPad Pro. If that had happened with the newer Folio, it would have protected my tablet.

New Apple Pencil

Apple’s new Pencil is marvellous. I like the way it looks and feels in my hand more than the earlier one which was too shiny and slippery for my taste.

The new Pencil has a far less awkward charging mechanism. You sit it on the top of the screen when the iPad has its keyboard attached in the landscape orientation. While it is there, the Pencil will also pair with the iPad. It feels almost like magic.

When the Pencil is in this place, a strong magnet holds it to the side of the iPad. I walked about 5km around Wellington in windy, wet conditions. The Pencil stayed stuck in place.

Sounds good

Apple has done something remarkable to the speakers. When I first heard them cranked up during a demonstration the clarity surprised me. It’s amazing given the small amount of space the engineers have to play with.

Later when I listened alone, the wide stereo separation was more obvious. There’s enough sound here for two or three people to watch a movie or sports game on the device in comfort.

12.9-inch iPad Pro Issues

I’ve run up against a couple of frustrations. Using WordPress is hard work on the iPad Pro. The WordPress iOS app is incomplete and inconsistent. I usually prefer to use the web to edit and manage my site, but this is difficult on a touch screen device.

WordPress has a poor designed for touch screen users. There’s a simple fix for this, find an alternative to WordPress.

Not having a Touch ID home button presents a minor, very minor challenge at first. I use a couple of apps which don’t always switch off when they are in the background.

With the old home button, clicking it twice gets a screen showing all the active apps. Swipe the misbehaving ones up and they would stop. If I didn’t they chewed through processor cycles or battery life.

Now there’s no button, the double swipe-up gesture is a little harder to use. It could be a case of getting use to it.

iPad Pro 2018 with smart keyboard folio and pencil

Value for money

Make no mistake, the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro is not cheap. The basic model is NZ$1750. That version only comes with 64GB of storage, which is less than most people will need.

Few users will need to go all the way to the MZ$3049 model with a terabyte of storage. To me even the 512GB for NZ$2350 seems excessive. The sweetest spot is the NZ$2000 model with 256GB.

Adding cellular capability adds NZ$250 to the price. This seems a hefty premium given that you can tether an iPad to a phone in a jiffy. After all, no-one goes out without their phone these days.

Is this a lot to pay? That depends on what you want it for.

If it makes you more productive and lets you work where you otherwise might not. If it makes better use of your travelling time then its a bargain. You’ll recover the price premium in no time.

When you compare the price and performance of an iPad Pro against any laptop, they don’t look like a bad deal. The same goes for comparisons with the Microsoft Surface. For a while I could have gone Surface or iPad Pro. My recent experience puts me in the iPad Pro camp, but, remember, my needs are not your needs.

If you think you can’t justify the price, there’s always the non-Pro iPad. It does most things its big sister can do at a fraction of the price.

Prices start at NZ$540 for a 32GB model. I recommend you either find a little more and get the NZ$700 version with 128GB or accept you’ll move plenty of data on and off your tablet.

Apple’s iPhone XS Max represents the state of the phone-maker’s art. It is big, beautiful and screams luxury from the moment you open the box.

The screen is large by phone standards. Any larger and you’d be looking at a small tablet. It is stunning. You get vibrant colours, dark blacks and strong contrast. I’ve never known any phone to be as readable outdoors on a sunny day.

If you want to watch movies, look at photos or read documents this is the best phone for the job. Nothing else comes close.

Mind you, nothing else comes close on price either, except the loopy NZ$2400 Oppo Lamborghini-branded Android.

Apple iPhone XS Max

Expensive

There is a review model iPhone XS Max in my pocket with 512 GB of storage. It costs the thick end of three grand: NZ$2800.

That’s more storage than most people need. My current phone has 256 GB. In two years I’ve never come close to filling it and see no prospect of doing so.

You can save money by buying less storage.

Apple has a 256 GB version for NZ$2400 and a 64 GB version for NZ$2100. The last of these could be less storage then you’ll need. Although that depends on how you use a phone and how much you send off to the cloud.

Can you justify spending that much money on a phone? That’s something only you can answer. I’ll save my thoughts on this for another post.

If, and it’s a huge if, Oppo’s Lamborghini phone is worth $2400, then the 256 GB Apple iPhone XS Max at the same price is a snip.

iPhone XS Max is all about the big screen

Apple wants to let you know all about the camera in the phone. It’s good and we’ll get to that in a moment. But before we move on, let’s make one thing clear: the iPhone XS Max is all about that big screen.

The iPhone XS Max screen covers the same area as the display on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, another leviathan phone. The difference is in the height-to-width ratio.

Both phones have the same screen-to-body ratio at around 85 percent. You can’t sensibly do less than this without resorting to a gimmick like a pop-up camera. The Apple phone is smaller than the Note 9. It’s a millimetre thinner and 4.5 mm shorter.

I no longer have a Note 9 for direct comparison. Yet I’d say that would be the only other phone screen that comes close to the XS Max in terms of overall display quality.

Apple iPhone XS Screen

Too big?

Reviewers and users elsewhere have criticised the iPhone XS Max for being too big to handle. Of course this depends on the size of your hands. It’s a perfect fit for me. I’d recommend getting your own mitts on one before buying.

In fact I’d go further. Don’t choose an 2018 iPhone model on the basis of reviews like this or advertising. Go into a shop and put one in your hands. If the XS Max is too big, there’s always the smaller size iPhone XS. And while you’re at it, check out the less expensive XR. That could be the best model for you but you won’t know which fits until you handle all three.

Bionic

Apple’s latest processor, the six-core A12 Bionic powers the iPhone XS Max. According to the company it is 15 percent faster than last years A11 Bionic chip and 50 more efficient. There’s also an AI chip that is nine times faster than the one in the iPhone X.

Most of the time you don’t notice this power. The phone doesn’t seem faster than the last two or three iPhones in day-to-day use. Everything already happened in an instant. I don’t recall that waiting around from processing has been an iPhone drawback in recent years.

To complicate matters, Apple’s newest phone operating system, iOS 12, is also snappier and more responsive than iOS 11. Either way, this is one fast phone.

For the most part the applications that use this extra grunt are yet to appear. I’ve seen augmented reality apps that may need all the processing power you can throw at them. There is, however, one area where the processing capability is already put to good use: photography.

Apple iPhone XS camera

Camera

Every phone maker will tell you their cameras are the best in the business. Apple is the same, but in this case it is more than mere marketing bravado.

Apple upgraded the rear dual camera on the iPhone XS Max. It, or they, have the same basic specification as on last year’s iPhone X. That is: two 12-megapixel cameras. One has a wide-angle lens, the other had what amounts to 2x optical zoom. In both cases Apple upgraded the the image sensors and the hard-wired algorithms.

The effect is that you now get better low light pictures. Samsung and Huawei both have a slight edge in this department. But Apple seems to now do a better job of handling detail.

HDR mode is now the default. It has also been improved to the point where high contrast images look far better. In my experience iPhone XS Max pictures taken in bright outdoors beat those on rival phones.

If you like the bokeh effect, you can now add it after taking the shot. It’s a nice option.

Stablisation

Just as important, the image stabilisation works better than before. You can take hand-held video tracking shots which look like they are made with a dolly.

Portraits are now noticeably better too, particularly the shallow depth of field effect around hair and other extremities. The bokeh is also now adjustable after the fact, which is fun.

Much of the improvement in photographs is down to the extra processing power. In effect a supercomputer starts tweaking images the moment you press to click.

Phone photography is partly a matter of taste. There may be equals, but nothing offers a better camera experience than the iPhone XS Max.

That processing power gets a workout elsewhere. Apple uses Face ID as its security system. It works well and it works fast. Since setting it up, Face ID hasn’t failed to recognise me even when wearing glasses or sunglasses.

Battery life is good, but not outstanding. There’s more than enough juice for me to leave home at 5 AM, fly out-of-town, work all day and get the last flight home. I don’t feel the need to curtail my use, but then nor do I spend all day watching or making videos.

In normal life I can almost, but not quite, two days from a single charge. The red warning icon kicks in after around 36 hours. That’s eight hours more than I get from the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 .

iPhone XS Max: Verdict

Few people buy a new phone every year. Even fewer are going to do that when the asking price is in the two to three grand range. It’s questionable whether those moving from an iPhone X to the XS Max would get much from an upgrade other than the bigger screen.

It makes more sense to compare the XS Max with the iPhone 7 Plus, which has been my main phone for the last two years. While I don’t feel a pressing need for an upgrade, there’s a lot more phone in the XS Max.

The extra screen size, nicer screen and Face ID are all noticeable. On paper the better camera doesn’t sound much, in practice it is a huge leap. Faster processing doesn’t make much day-to-day difference. The extra battery life does. But then much of the difference between the two phones’ performance here could down to two years of wear.

If you get value from iOS then the iPhone XS Max could well be the way to go. You’d get the most advanced phone on the market and an object of beauty. You might get more value from buying the straight XS model or an XS Max with less storage. With prices starting at NZ$1400, half the price of the fully packed XS Max, the iPhone XR seems like a bargain.

Galaxy Note 9 sets new bar for Android phone price

This year a lot of people will pay NZ$2000 or more for a phone.

Apple set the tone at the end of last year with an NZ$2100 iPhone X. Now Samsung has joined the party with an NZ$2000 Galaxy Note 9.

You can pay less. A basic iPhone X with 64GB of storage costs NZ$1800. The more expensive model has 256GB.

Samsung has an NZ$1700 Galaxy Note 9 with 128GB of storage. The NZ$2000 model comes with 512GB.

Whether you need that much storage when cloud storage is plentiful and mobile data is cheaper is beside the point.

Inflationary

These are two examples of how New Zealand’s Consumer Price Index or CPI is the nearest thing to an official measure of inflation. In the most recent year, it was 1.5 percent.

That means consumers paid 1.5 percent more for a typical basket of goods and services in the year to June 2018 than a year earlier.

Expensive

At NZ$1700, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is $100 more than last year’s Note 8. That’s 6.25 percent higher: more than four times the CPI increase.

Apple’s iPhone X doesn’t have a year earlier model to compare.

Instead, we’ll look at the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8. When it launched the iPhone 7 was NZ$1200. A year later the iPhone 8 went on sale at $1250.

That’s a four percent increase. Apple’s markup is smaller than Samsung’s, but still well ahead of the CPI.

Everyone is at it

It’s not only Samsung and Apple. The prices of Huawei phone models climbed over the years.

Even Oppo, where the phone’s low price is the most important feature, has increased prices.

If anything, Huawei and Oppo’s price increases have been steeper than Samsung and Apple’s because they come off a lower base price.

But don’t phones get better

You might argue that the newer phones are better so phone makers can expect to sell them for more money. There’s something in this, see below.

Phone prices were stable during for years while annual upgrades meant huge leaps in functionality. Today’s upgrades are incremental while prices leap.

Apple shows the way

Apple has always lead the way on phone prices. It’s no accident it is the world’s biggest company and enjoys large profit margins. That trillion dollar valuation didn’t come by chance.

When it launched the iPhone X last year, Apple showed it could push phone prices above the NZ$2000 mark without denting sales. That opened the door for its rivals to charge more. They won’t admit it in public, but the iPhone acts as their benchmark.

Apple sells fewer phones than Samsung or Huawei.

The iPhone makes up around 20 percent of the handset market worldwide. It accounts for around 80 percent of profits from phone sales. Almost all the remaining profit from phone sales goes to Samsung.

Profits

It’s not clear how profitable the other main phone brands are. It’s not even clear if they are profitable. The companies don’t break out figures in the way that Apple and Samsung do. Yet it’s clear they are not making big margins.

Until a couple of years ago the Android phone market taken as a whole ran at a loss.

Things have changed. In part that’s because phone makers have pushed up handset prices ahead of inflation. It helps that some of the big names have either gone to the wall or wound down their operations.

Price rises have two sides

Inside the phone business, people talk about the average selling price or ASP.

According to IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker:

…”climbing ASPs continue to dampen the growth of the overall market”

…”Consumers remain willing to pay more for premium offerings in numerous markets and they now expect their device to outlast and outperform previous generations of that device which cost considerably less a few years ago.

IDC says worldwide phone ASPs are up 10 percent in the last year.

Sharper prices lower down the market

Phone makers love to tell investors they have managed to increase the average selling price of their phones.

In some cases, they have done this by bumping up prices on their flagship models while fighting tooth and nail further down the market.

You can still get bargains. Spend NZ$500 to NZ$600 and you can end up with something great. It won’t have the latest camera or tonnes of storage, but not everyone needs those features.

High prices could be here to stay

New flagship phones are expensive to make, but the cost of building a phone is a fraction of the selling price.

Putting more lenses and more camera sensors may cost a phone maker a dozen or so dollars. OLED displays, curved glass add to costs. Perhaps the biggest extra cost is the memory chips needed to boost a phone’s storage, there is a trend towards higher storage in phones.

Higher phone prices are unlikely to go away soon. The glory days of fast-rise phone sales are over.

People are now holding on to phones for longer, squeezing more value from the money they have already spent. So it becomes important for each sold phone to contribute a little more profit.

spark-vodafone-boost-mobile-data-in-tandemPeople get exciting about phone features. Productivity is more important yet often overlooked.

My work involves looking at a lot of new phones. Most are premium Android phones. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one that I couldn’t recommend. Within limits they are all good.

The last was the Huawei P20 Pro. It could be the best Android phone on sale at the moment. I haven’t seen anything better in 2018.

When I spend my money on phones — I don’t have to because there are lots of loan models for specialist journalists — I buy iPhones. 1

For me, productivity is everything

There are two reasons for this. First, I use iPads and Macs.

Apple devices play well together. There’s something almost magic about cutting text on the phone and pasting it into a desktop Mac document. Likewise, everything syncs between devices. I started writing this post on an iPhone and finished it on a Mac.

I have spent a lot of money on iOS and MacOS software and services. Some of those tools are not available on Android. When they are, they can be as good. But more often, there is either no equivalent. Or the equivalent is second-rate or involves compromise 2.

My productivity plummets when I switch to an Android phone during a review. Apple won’t work for everyone, but it works for me.

Walled garden

Some people reading this will question my choice on the grounds that Apple is a walled garden. By that standard so is Android and so is Windows. Apple may be a walled garden, but it is a productive one for me.

Linux may be the pure ideological choice, but so is North Korea — and that’s how it feels sometimes.

Second, with Apple there’s never any question about security updates.

Apple is quick to patch and repair iOS, updating is often immediate. I can wake up and be ready to go from the day after a security issue appears. Some Android phones never get updates. Many get them, but slow. Even the better known brands can be slack.

Again, that won’t bother everyone, but it bothers me.

Apple isn’t perfect

This doesn’t mean I’m biased in favour of Apple3

Apple is not perfect. There are flaws. Most of the tech media is happy to pounce when one appears. This, by the way, is a good thing in general although it can get silly.

Either way, Apple’s flaws are generally things I can live with. The productivity gain is too precious to trade away.

One notable exception at the moment is the controversial new keyboard on MacBook and MacBook Pro models. I see it as a backward step.4

No doubt you can be just as productive with Android if you have the right mindset. It takes a different form of mental discipline. Whatever that is, it isn’t me.


  1. If I was going to buy an Android phone I’d pick one without a software overlay. Google Pixel and Nokia phones are good candidates. That’s because I have yet to find an Android overlay that isn’t frustrating. ↩︎
  2. Like handing over private data ↩︎
  3. Until Windows 8 I was happy with Microsoft’s walled garden. Switching back to Apple was an eye opener. My productivity soared. I accept this wouldn’t be the case for everyone and, yes, Apple kit can be more expensive. ↩︎
  4. I’m working on a personal answer to this. It may not suit you, but stay tuned anyway. ↩︎

Apple 2018 iPadApple’s sixth generation 2018 iPad is a bargain. In New Zealand it costs NZ$540. For many people it is all the computer they will ever need.

Sure, there will be people who consider it dull next to the swept-up iPad Pro. It doesn’t have as many features. Yet it does one important thing that, until now, only the Pro model iPad could handle. The 2018 iPad works with Apple Pencil.

That’s great if you want to use an iPad to create art or jot quick notes without adding a keyboard or dealing with the device’s glass keyboard. This, coupled with the price should open up the iPad to new audience.

It’s a solid, reliable alternative to buying a low-cost computer. Some geeks will hate me writing that.

Half the price of an iPad Pro

While the 2018 iPad doesn’t have all the features you’d find in an iPad Pro, it’s close to half the price of the cheapest Pro. The basic model $540 2018 iPad Pro comes with 32GB of storage. In contrast, the cheapest iPad Pro model costs NZ$1100 and has 64GB of storage.

There’s a NZ$700 version of the 2018 iPad with 128GB. If you can find the extra $160 it’s worth it. If you have a large library of music, videos or photographs you’ll soon bump up against the limits of 32GB. With a 128GB you won’t need to continually swap out files to a back-up device or the cloud.

What you get with both models is the classic 9.7-inch iPad Retina display. There are not as many pixels as you’ll find on the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, but the resolution is much the same. It has 2048 by 1536 pixels compared with the Pro’s 2224 by 1668. The 2018 iPad weighs exactly the same amount as the 10.5-inch iPad Pro; around 480 grams.

At 7.5mm, the 2018 iPad is a sliver thicker than the Pro which is just 6.1mm. That’s enough to notice, but not much of a compromise. It’s about 10mm shorter and 5mm less wide. This means you can’t swap covers or keyboards between the two devices. Not that many people will be doing that.

Adding a keyboard

And anyway, the 2018 iPad doesn’t have the Smart Connectors found on iPad Pro models. These make it easier to use a keyboard without resorting to Bluetooth. If you want to run a keyboard with the 2018 iPad there are dozens of options, many are excellent.

The speakers are not as loud or as clear as you’ll find on an iPad Pro.

Another difference between the Pro and the 2018 iPad is that you only get a first generation Touch ID button. It’s a little slower than the newer version and more prone to stumble when you use a fingerprint to sign-in. This is noticeable in practice if you’re stepping down from a newer iPad Pro or have an iPhone 7 or 8.

There’s a software difference too. The 2018 iPad only allows two apps to appear on screen at any time. While the Pro models allow three, this is something I never use on my tablet. I doubt many others will miss it.

The 2018 iPad uses Apple’s A10 Fusion chip, it’s similar, but not as powerful as the A10x Fusion chip in the Pro model. In theory it doesn’t run as fast, you could probably prove this by running benchmarks. In practice, you won’t notice. I didn’t find any lag on the 2018 model, it doesn’t feel slower. In fact, when it comes to speed, it feels almost exactly the same as my first generation 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Where the 2018 iPad fits

Apple launched the 2018 iPad with an emphasis on education. It’s a great choice for students. Apple critics will tell you the iOS operating system is a walled garden and restrictive. Although there is some truth in this, in practice iOS is as open to the rest of the computing world as all the alternatives. Chromebook, Android and Windows are all as flawed in their own ways – possibly more flawed given their business models.

I’ve spent much of the last year using a 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my main mobile computer. It doesn’t do everything I need, but for most purposes it is more than enough computer. It has travelled overseas and out-of-town with me several times. For the most part the limitations of the 2018 iPad would be the same. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t need a lot of fancy features it could be all the computer you need. It’s a great device for creativity, just don’t expect to edit movies on it’s 9.7-inch screen.

The key to the 2018 iPad is that you get a lot of computer for not much money. You can buy cheaper Chromebooks, Android tablets and, at a pinch, Windows PCs. Unless you’re looking for an app that doesn’t appear in Apple’s store, this beats all those devices for most people who have light computing needs.