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Tony Schwartz, at the Harvard Business Review, says dividing attention between tasks is dangerous.

He says digital devices with always-on connections train us to split attention between tasks without ever focusing on one.

Schwartz says this hurts productivity increasing the time to finish a task by 25 percent.

In The magic of doing one thing at a time he recommends setting aside time for what he calls absorbed focus.

Or concentration. It is an old-fashioned idea. Remove all distractions and work on a single job.

Almost all my work involves writing, so this means finding a laser-like focus. That’s easy to say, but hard to do.

Recently, I found myself in town between appointments. The company where I had my first call offered me the use of a quiet business lounge. Here I could use my iPad and wireless keyboard to catch-up with an important writing job.

The iPad is ideal for this because, although it can task switch, it focuses on a single application. In this case my app was iA Writer. I hunkered down, read through my notes and began writing.

Ninety minutes later I looked up. The time has passed almost without my noticing it. I had written the best part of a major magazine feature. I did it without speaking to another human, without answering a phone, checking mail or messages. I achieved a Zen-like flow.

The self-imposed limitations made me more productive.

Jack Vinson has another take on The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time at the Knowledge Jolt blog. There he  shares his tips on how to set aside blocks of time for intense focus.

iPad Pro Writing

Apple says the iPad Pro is more powerful than most laptops. It is more portable. That should make it ideal for journalists and others who need to write while on the move.

How does the writing experience compare with PCs and is the software up to the job?

The sensible way to answer those questions is to give the device an extensive road test. Earlier this year I took the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and a Smart Keyboard on an overseas work trip[1].

iPad Pro on the road

On paper the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is everything a traveling journalist wants or needs. It is about the size and weight of a thick magazine. I had the cellular version which is 725 g. Apple’s Smart Keyboard adds little bulk or weight. Together they weight a fraction over a kilo.

Apple’s A9 processor packs a punch. This means software runs smooth, there’s never any waiting. No hiccups. Word processing and writing are never processor-intensive. Yet on cheaper underpowered tablets there can be an annoying, productivity-killing lag. I’ve used Android tablets where the lag means hardware and software can’t keep up with my typing.

Battery

The iPad Pro’s battery lasts all day. It has more than enough juice to get from, say, a ten-hour flight from Auckland to Singapore.

It lasts about ten hours use before the low-power alarm kicks in. Perhaps more. Writing isn’t as demanding as say, watching video. It isn’t something you do for hours at a stretch. The iPad sleeps when you pause. It does a wonderful job of managing the power on your behalf.

Being cautious, I packed the USB-to-lightning connector in my carry-on bag. This was useful later in the journey. When charging the iPad Pro drains a lot of power. Airline seat USB power sockets often don’t deliver much current. I found it was enough keep the device running, not enough to recharge the battery.

Despite the bigger screen, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro fits well on an airline tray table. Best of all, you don’t usually have to get it out of your traveling bag when going through airport security. On my journey I only had to unpack it once.

The screen is a joy

Apple gave the 12.9-inch iPad Pro a glorious big, bright and clear screen. It’s great for viewing video or looking at photographs. It comes into its own when writing. The display has 2732 x 2048 pixels, that makes for 264 pixels per inch.

Which means text is crisp and sharp even when small or if, for some reason, there’s a spindly typeface. If you’re so inclined you can use smaller text and fit more words on a screen. The screen is brighter and clearer than on most MacBooks. It’s also higher resolution.

This makes it easier on the eyes. I need to use reading glasses when typing on a laptop, but not on the iPad Pro. While that’s personal, it underlines the difference between the iPad Pro and alternatives.

Better displays pay off for writers more than you might imagine. Over the years I’ve learnt that it’s much harder to proofread on a display than on paper.

I noticed I do a better job finding errors in text on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro than on my MacBook Air. This is a huge productivity plus.

It’s not just a matter of screen resolution. The iPhone 6S Plus has a Retina display, yet it is the worst of the three for proof-reading.

Minor keyboard shortcomings

In practice the iPad Pro performs well. There are minor shortcomings, most are down to the keyboard. If the MacBook Air writing experience is ten out of ten, the iPad Pro would score a nine. This is still far better than most alternatives.

Apple’s Smart Keyboard is the same size as a normal computer keyboard and works in much the same way. At NZ$320 it’s expensive, but for serious writing work it’s essential.

The Smart Keyboard attaches to the iPad using something Apple calls a Smart Connector. This means, unlike Bluetooth keyboards you get a definite reliable connection. The keyboard draws power from the iPad, it doesn’t need it’s own power supply. There’s nothing extra to charge. And there are no extra cables to worry about. On a plus note, it is easy to detach when you finish writing.

Flowing words

While touch typIng is easy enough on the Smart Keyboard, the words don’t flow as well as on my MacBook Air. The keys are shallow. They’re easier to miss-hit, but that doesn’t happen so often that it becomes a problem. Most of the time, when the words are flowing there’s no need to reach up and touch the screen to scroll or do other things.

I ran in to a problem when for some reason, the keyboard would type a capital at the start of a word. I’m not sure if it happens with every app, but it does happen with more than one. The caps appear almost at random, I couldn’t find any pattern to it.

At times, maybe while editing, there’s a lot of moving the hand from the keyboard to the touch screen. This can stress the wrist more than using the touchpad on laptop. Chances are, like me, you’ll adapt and find ways to stay comfortable.

Touch typing

Touch typists usually don’t need to find keys in the dark. If you do, you’ll miss the MacBook Air’s keyboard backlighting.

You can’t adjust the screen angle which using the Smart Keyboard.  Laptops and the Microsoft Surface have an edge there. This can be a problem with some airline tray tables.

Keyboard aside, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro beats laptops for writing productivity. Unless you are using the split-screen feature, each app appears full-screen.

The other advantage of the iPad Pro is that it is less distracting. You can set up a laptop to keep interruptions and other distractions out of the way. Apple baked this into the iPad Pro by design. The advantages of the iPad Pro offset the disadvantage of the less than perfect keyboard. Of course, if you don’t like the Apple Smart Keyboard there are third-party alternatives.

Writing on glass

If you wish, you can ditch the attached keyboard and use the onscreen keyboard to type. This works well with the 12.9-inch model. Here the virtual keyboard is the same size as an everyday physical keyboard.

Lying the 12.9-inch iPad Pro flat and typing on the screen is easy enough. Because it is glass you get no feedback in your fingers. This makes touch typing tricky. Not impossible, but harder work than on a real keyboard. In practice typing is slower, but not much slower.

I tried this while on a flight. At first I laid the iPad Pro flat on the tray table in the landscape position to type on glass. Soon I found myself picking it up in the portrait position and using my thumbs to type. The bigger iPad is a little heavy to hold in your hands for extended periods. Typing with thumbs on while the screen is in the portrait position is comfortable for a short time. It might get tedious after an hour or so. Thumb typing works a lot better on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

The 9.7-inch version

It shares most of its technology with the larger version. Yet Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro[3] is a distinct writing experience. It is more portable again, which can be an advantage some of the time. On the other hand, the smaller size means the screen isn’t as good for longer writing projects.

You lose some, not all, of the proof-reading advantages you get from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro fine for writing emails and short pieces of text. Anything long gets tiresome. Having said that, I typed 1000-word stories holding in my hands and using my thumbs. It’s less productive than using a separate keyboard. But the added mobility and freedom can sometimes be a bigger benefit.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro can take photos without drawing too much attention. This is useful at, say, a press conference. Trying to take a picture with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro at a press event looks weird.

At the time of writing I haven’t been able to get an Apple Smart Keyboard for the smaller iPad Pro[4]. Instead I’ve been using the 9.7-inch iPad Pro with a Logitech Ultra-thin Keyboard Cover. This is a great keyboard for a smaller iPad, but the keys are cramped compared with the 12.9-inch model.

You can use the smaller iPad with a full-size keyboard, but you lose the portability benefits. One is to use the 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s screen keyboard or a keyboard cover while on the move. Then, plug the device into a bigger keyboard at home or in the office.

Writing on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro: Verdict

Many aspects of writing are software dependent. I haven’t mentioned them because I plan to write a separate post looking at the best iPad Pro writing apps.

Putting that to one side, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro writing experience is solid. The tablet has clear benefits over writing on a laptop like, say, the MacBook Air. The screen is better and there is less distraction.

The keyboard is worse than you’ll find on a decent laptop. This comes close to cancelling out the productivity benefits. Close, but not all the way to cancelling them. If you’re a busy keyboarder, you may feel otherwise. It is a matter of taste.

I rank the writing experience on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro at a nose ahead of working on my MacBook Air. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro comes in as runner-up, a short distance behind the MacBook Air.

Since returning from my trip I’ve taken to using the iPad Pro as my main writing tool. This speaks volumes. I find it faster and more efficient than the laptop. There are a few tasks that need, or that work better on my MacBook Air. Yet for my writing the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a better, more productive option.


  1. The Apple Pencil came for the ride, it didn’t get used for anything serious. I found handwriting recognition software. I’m keen to road test it, but I’m nervous about testing it on an important job without some form of back-up.  ↩
  2. One is coming. Look out for the review.  ↩

iPad Pro 10
iPad Pro

Apple’s latest iPad Pro packs the internals of the 12.7-inch model in the same space as the 9.7-inch iPad Air.

Prices start at NZ$1050. The 9.7-inch iPad Air is more expensive than many laptops, but then Apple says it’s more powerful.

After a week of using it as my main, but not only, computer, it’s clear some people will find it more useful than a laptop.

iPad Pro in an iPad Air skin

At first sight there’s not much difference between the 9.7-inch iPad Pro and the iPad Air 2.

They are the same size. Both are 6mm thick. They weigh the same: about 445g for the cellular model.

The most obvious external difference is the bump on the back for the camera lens. On paper that sounds like an awful, backward step. In practice you never notice it.

While both iPads have the same 2048‑by‑1536 pixel resolution, the iPad Pro displays a wider colour range. Its screen is also brighter than the iPad Air 2.

Screen difference

Put the two side-by-side and you can see the displays are not the same. Unless both models show the same photograph, it is hard to describe what separates them.

If you do show the same image, you’ll notice it looks better on the iPad Pro with the wider color range. The display is brighter and more vibrant.

A wider colour range also means better colour accuracy. This is important if you use your iPad for work photography or video. In the past iPads weren’t powerful enough for serious editing work. Both iPad Pro models handle these tasks with ease.

The second new screen feature of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is more subtle.

Colour temperature [1]

True Tone detects the colour temperature of your surroundings using two four-channel light sensors. The iPad’s software then adjusts the display colour temperature to match.

This is noticeable if you fire up the iPad at night when the room lights are low. In the past bright blue-tinged iPad screen lights could spoil your relaxed night-time mood. There’s some evidence it can stop you from sleeping.

True Tone is clever and nice, but it is not going to excite anyone and won’t set the world on fire. On its own, True Tone is not a good enough reason to upgrade from an earlier iPad.

Like the 12.7-inch iPad Pro, the 9.7-inch model has beefed-up audio with louder, clearer speakers. It doesn’t match the sound quality of the bigger Pro, there’s not enough speaker room for that, but the sound is crisp. Music sounds better than you’d expect and FaceTime calls can be as clear as a bell.

Camera

Apple has woken up to the idea that people use the iPad to take photographs. In the past iPad cameras were a long way behind iPhone cameras in terms of specification and performance.

That’s changed. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro has the same camera as the iPhone 6. On the back is a 12 megapixel with flash. You can use it to shoot 4K video, although you’d need steady hands to hold an iPad still.

The front camera is also the same as on the iPhone 6S. It has five megapixels. The higher quality is immediately obvious if you use, say, Facetime for video conferencing.

iPad Pro Performance

Technical-minded reviewers often wax lyrical about the processors, graphics chips and Ram inside phones and tablets. Most of the time discussions about these components are meaningless, either the device runs fast and smoothly or it doesn’t. What matters is can the device do all the work a user is likely to throw at it.

If anything the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is overpowered. It uses the same A9X processor with M9 motion coprocessor that you’ll find on the larger iPad Prod. Apple says it’s almost twice as fast as the iPad Air 2 and more powerful than most laptops.

In practice, you’ll notice the processor is more than fast enough for everyday tablet applications. If you come from an earlier iPad you’ll notice everything happens faster. Media plays more smoothly.

More tablet than laptop

Although it is an iOS device, the 12.7-inch iPad Pro has a laptop feel. Since I’ve had it, the keyboard has stayed attached for most of the time. I use it as I would use my 13-inch MacBook Air. It travelled to Europe with me as my main computer on a reporting trip.

In comparison, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro has more of a tablet. While I have used it with my Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, it mainly gets used without a keyboard.

The Logitech Ultrathin keyboard works well with the iPad Pro. I used it to type part of this review. Apple Smart Keyboard wasn’t available in New Zealand at the time this review was written.

Portable

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s small size gives it an extra level of portability when compare to the larger iPad Pro. You can work with either iPad on an airplane tray-table, but the smaller one is even less of a problem in tight space like economy class seats.

Apple’s Pencil works with the smaller iPad Pro. The Pencil is a great input tool for artists and others who draw. You can use it to annotate images or even write notes, but the files are stored as images.

If you could combine the Pencil with system-wide handwriting-recognition software — something the Microsoft Surface Pro manages — you’d have a powerful tool for taking notes while standing. As a journalist who sometimes finds himself in media scrums, I would find this useful. It would be even more useful if it could read Teeline shorthand.

Microsoft Office bonus

Microsoft did a fine job with the iOS version of Office. The software run on iPhones, but it shines more with the increased room on an iPad display. If anything I find Microsoft Word performs smoother, better and is easier to use on a 12.7-inch iPad Pro than on my MacBook Air.

I used Word on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro to write a couple of features. The Logitech Ultrathin keyboard is cramped compared with a full-size keyboard, but the experience was far better than writing on an iPhone or even on the iPad’s screen keyboard.

You need a full Office 365 subscription to use the full version of the software on a laptop or 12.7-inch iPad Pro. However, Microsoft gives a free Office licence to anyone using the software on a device with a screen smaller than 10 inches. So, a bonus of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is that, in effect, it comes with free Microsoft Office.

Office works great on iPads. Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint all come in well-maintained iOS versions with frequent updates. It’s not the full software you’ll find on laptops or desktops, but everything most people need is there. If you don’t like Office, Apple’s iWorks software is included as standard on all iPad models.

Is the 9.7-inch iPad Pro worth buying?

If you only use an iPad to browse material, view photos, read PDFs and so on, then you may not need to upgrade to the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. It isn’t worth the expense to move from, say, the iPad Air 2 to a 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

On the other hand, if you already do, or intend to do most or all of your work on your iPad, an iPad Pro is a logical choice. While it won’t do everything a laptop can do, the things that are missing may or may not be important to you.

By the time you’ve added a keyboard, the 9.7-inch model still costs less than a MacBook Air or an equivalent Windows 10 Ultrabook. The 12.7-inch model is a more direct laptop replacement, the giant screen is worth the extra $350.

If you have an older iPad that’s getting a little tired, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro would be a good next step. You’ll notice the extra power and improved screen.

.


  1. There’s a lot of confusion about the term colour temperature. It is sometimes used as a way of talking about white balance. And it can mean something quite subjective. When Apple uses the term it relates to making the screen bluer or more orange depending on the colour of the light shining on and around the iPad. This makes for a less jarring screen viewing experience.  ↩

Smart Keyboard Cover iPad Pro

Apple’s pitch says you can dump your existing PCs and get an 9.7-inch iPad Pro instead.

…It is the ultimate upgrade for existing iPad users and replacement for PC users.

— Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing

This is true: up to a point.

There are still things that work best with a traditional computer.

To understand the iPad Pro’s limitations, try downloading a zipped firmware upgrade for your non-Apple router. Now unpack it and install the software from an iPad.

Most people never have to, or never bother to do such geeky things. Which means for a lot of users, the iPad Pro is enough computer. For many it is more than enough.

Then there are games. While there are exceptions, games are still better on traditional computers than on iPads. PC or Mac game software is far better than iOS game software.

For gamers, the iPad Pro is not enough computer.

Schiller made his sale pitch last week during the launch of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. His claim makes more sense when discussing the super-sized 13-inch iPad Pro.

A better iPad Pro camera

Being newer means the 9.7-inch iPad Pro has some neat features. The camera is better than on the 13-inch model,  although the newer iPad Pro now has an annoying bump housing the lense.

Taking photos with a tablet is a mixed experience at the best of times. It still looks weird when people do it. It looks even weirder when someone takes photos in public with a 13-inch iPad Pro.

Even if you get past that weirdness, tablet hardware is unwieldy when attempting to compose shots. Keeping the camera still is a challenge.

Colour-shifting

Apple’s new colour-shifting screen is nice, but hardly a must-have feature. It adjusts the tone of the screen image to ambient lighting.

When something that minor is near the top of the list, it is a struggle to justify buying a new device.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a downgrade from the older 12.9-inch model when it comes to processor speed and Ram. It has a downgraded lightning port which can’t manage the data transfer speeds of the bigger iPad. To cap it all, Apple hasn’t included fast charging.

Sure, a smaller display means it may not always need as much grunt.

Larger iPad Pro display wins every time

While the smaller iPad Pro screen handles split-view, a larger display makes it practical.

Perhaps the biggest compromise is with the keyboard. Apple’s 12.9-inch iPad Pro keyboard has shortcomings, but it isn’t cramped. Experience says 10-inch keyboards are rarely comfortable for typing.

All-in-all it’s hard to choose the 9.7-inch iPad Pro as a primary computer over the 13-inch model.

Price may be a factor, the smaller iPad Pro is NZ$350 cheaper. Being realistic, neither model will appeal to cash-strapped computer buyers.

Why choose the smaller 9.7-inch iPad Pro?

The only reason to choose the smaller model as your only or main computer is weight and size. There may be cases where a few mm and 280g matter.

While the 9.7-inch iPad Pro isn’t a great only computer, it looks like a great secondary device. Say if you work at a desk all day and need something for occasional use at home. Or maybe if you need something light when travelling.

Few New Zealanders commute long-distance on public transport. Elsewhere in the world the 9.7-inch iPad Pro would be ideal for catching up on work during a long train-ride home.

Perhaps the most important aspect of last week’s announcement is Apple’s continued iPad commitment. It says Apple is in no hurry to abandon the iPad.

Tablets versus PCs

When tablets first appeared there was a clear split between them and laptops or desktops. Apple saw and sold tablets as information consumption devices. Creating information was best left to more traditional computer formats.

Within months it was clear you could use tablets for work. For writing, for collecting information, for crunching numbers, simple design work and so on.

Their simplicity, popularity and portability over-ruled conservative objections. It didn’t take long for great, stripped down apps to appear.

By the time Microsoft introduced the Surface and iOS Office apps, it looked as if tablets would be the future of business computing.

The arrival of hybrids from PC makers such as HP, Lenovo and Toshiba cemented this.

Consumers still tablet focus

Yet even now, most tablets are more geared towards consumer needs than business needs. When hardware companies launch new models they tell us how much fun their new devices are. They emphasise cool over productivity.

This consumer bias extends to software. The blockbusters are there: Microsoft Office and some Adobe apps. These apps drive businesses. But there are thousands of specialist productivity apps that remain Windows or OS X only. Hell, lots of them still have Windows 95 or XP style user interfaces.

These apps are the mainstays of many companies. Small to medium development companies earn a reasonable living focusing on servicing a niche. They maintain code, they keep the wheels of industry turning.

Where are the niche business iOS apps?

Few of these mid-range business apps have made it to tablets. They are only creeping into the cloud.

Even if developers manage to retool business apps for tablets or the cloud, they face two hurdles.

First, getting through the app stores is a challenge. iTunes and Google Play are a challenge for blockbuster apps. They are a nightmare for small, niche developers. App discovery is hard.

Try finding specialist software in a market with over a million products on show.

Get past that hurdle and software developers hit the economic problem. In the past they have been able to charge customers enough to pay for development, support and maintenance leaving a healthy margin. App stores act to drive prices down. It’s brutal.

What’s more, app stores make it hard for maintenance contracts. They don’t allow software companies to charge for major upgrades.

Make it worthwhile for app developers

The upshot of this is specialist software companies choose to stay with the business models that work. You’ll find a lot of this software will work or made to work with Windows 10 on a Microsoft Surface. In the Apple world, developers carry on with OS X product lines.

Many will go to the wall. There’s going to be a shakeout. We’ll see less choice.

Some apps may make it to the cloud. Xero’s model for accounting software works. It’s a one-size fits all product for a mass market. That approach might not be easy for a, say, manufacturing inventory software specialist.

The iPad Pro, big or small, may be all the computer an individual user needs. It will be a long time before it satisfies the needs of business users at all levels.

If Apple is serious about moving everyone from PCs to iPads, it needs to work now on a new app store model. Let’s call it iTunes Pro, a store that caters for professional and business software.

Apple iPhone SE

New Zealand consumers often pay more than their overseas counterparts for hardware.

In recent years Apple has done a better job than most rivals when it comes to reducing the gap between New Zealand and US prices. How do the Apple iPhone SE and 9.7-inch iPad Pro measure up?

Apple iPhone SE price compared NZ US
Apple iPhone SE NZ and US prices compared — click to enlarge

There are two iPhone SE models. The 16GB phone sells in New Zealand for NZ$750. The same phone sells in the US for US$400. At today’s exchange rate of 1.48 and taking GST into account, New Zealanders pay a 10 premium over US prices.

The premium for a 64GB iPhone SE is 12 percent.

New Zealand prices for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro are close to US prices. At the time of writing the premiums paid in New Zealand are between three and four percent.

Given the New Zealand dollar fluctuates, this is close to parity.