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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 13-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 13-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.

Apple iPhone SETwitter was underwhelmed by Apple’s iPhone SE launch event. There wasn’t the usual hoopla from Apple’s cheer leaders. Nor were there as many gushing, excited editorials as we’ve become used to. Yet it is a great little phone.

In part this is because the four-inch iPhone SE is not aimed at Apple fanatics. Nor would it appeal to Geekzone readers. It’s a more modest phone. It will mainly sell to a less engaged set of users and those who find 4.7-inch displays too big.

The iPhone SE launch didn’t feature anything spectacular or ground-breaking. It fleshes out the less glamorous lower reaches of Apple’s phone product line. This is an area where Apple has been weak, although the iPhone 5S it replaced sold 30 million phones last year.

iPhone SE niche

That isn’t to say there won’t be a ready market for an iPhone smaller than the 6S and 6S Plus. If it wasn’t for my eyes, this would be the phone for me.

The iPhone SE packs all the important iPhone 6S specs into a device with a four-inch screen. You get the same main processor and graphics processor. There’s a similar quality camera. It’s useful, a good working tool. Yet it all fits in a smaller pocket.

It also has a smaller price tag.

At NZ$750 the 16GB version seems like decent value for an iPhone until you realise the spare storage can only copy with a few seconds of high-definition video.

The NZ$950 64GB version makes more sense. While the same money may buy a higher specification phone elsewhere, the likely customers are not the sort who compare processors and GPUs.

There are compromises. You don’t get 3D Touch, although I doubt many who have yet to use this would miss it. The front facing camera has a low specification.

None of this will matter to those who want a smaller or cheaper iPhone. It’s still an iPhone. It still looks good. It still offers great integration with other Apple hardware. For Apple users it is a far more productive choice than any other brand of phone.

9.7-inch iPad Pro

Twitter was equally unexcited about the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

There’s more to it than just being a smaller version of the 13 inch iPad Pro. It has a new screen technology with “True Tone” which takes ambient lighting into account to adapt the display brightness and colour.

There’s an improved iPad camera, but it comes with the same camera bump found on the iPhone 6S models. This will be a deal breaker for some users and detracts from the iPad’s ability to lie flat for use with the Apple pencil.

At NZ$1050 for a 32GB wi-fi only model, Apple is pushing the price envelope with its newest iPad. The top of the range model with 256 GB and a cellular sim slot is a whopping NZ$1820.

Brydge has a keyboard for anyone who bought an iPad Air or Air 2 but meant to buy a MacBook Air. The BrydgeAir keyboard is a sturdy aluminium frame that clips to the iPad Air. When closed it forms a tough laptop-like shell. When open you can use the hinge at any angle, like a laptop. Folding it flat puts your iPad to sleep.

At around NZ$230, it isn’t cheap. Decent iPad keyboards start at less than half the price.

Tablet or faux laptop?

Yet BrydgeAir isn’t like any other third-party iPad keyboard I’ve seen. While popular iPad keyboards like Logitech’s excellent Ultrathin Keyboard Cover are all about adding the convenience of keyboard typing to the iPad, BrydgeAir is more about turning the iPad into an iOS touch-screen laptop.

If that’s what you want to do.

Brydge’s design and choice of materials reinforces this idea. The case is aluminium, you can choose colours to match your iPad Air. The keyboard is exactly the same dimensions as the iPad Air. When closed, an iPad with the BridgeAir looks a lot like an Apple laptop.

It uses hinges engineered to fit an iPad Air 2. The same unit works with the older iPad Air thanks to rubber shims that you can add to the hinges.

Heavy

The downside of this approach is the BrydgeAir adds more weight than, say, the Logitech Ultrathin keyboard. The keyboard is heavier than the iPad Air 2 and getting on for twice the weight of the Logitech keyboard. That extra weight may be a Brydge too far for some people.

On a positive note, the BrydgeAir keyboard is a lot like a MacBook keyboard. It’s solid and doesn’t flex like some cheaper laptop keyboards. It can take my touch typist hammering, there’s a little more travel than in most attachable keyboards. It has back-lighting, that’s important for us journalists who find ourselves typing in darkened rooms.

I found typing cramped compared with my laptop – that’s unavoidable given the keyboard size matches the 10-inch iPad Air 2.

It’s fine to use, but I’d prefer a little more room. I find I can work with it for a while. It’s good enough for temporary typing on the move. It may even do if I am out-of-town on a reporting assignment.

In the long-term I wouldn’t want to drop my laptop for this arrangement and that’s before discussing the merits of iOS versus OS X.

Beyond keyboard

There’s more than just a keyboard. Bridge has added Bluetooth stereo speakers. You can crank them up higher than the normal iPad Air speaker. While the BrydgeAir speakers are useful for FaceTime conversations, music sounds cheap and tinny.

One other thing to watch for is that the BridgeAir takes a toll on your iPad batteries. I can go all day and then some on my iPad without the BrydgeAir, with it attached I’d lose about a third of that battery life.

I’ve always thought there’s something curious about iPad keyboards. When the iPad first appeared it was a break with personal computing’s recent past. Apple stripped down the laptop to the bare essentials needed for browsing and reading. That meant getting rid of the keyboard. We seem to have spent the last five years putting them back.

This trend reached its apex when Apple added its own keyboard cover to the iPad Pro. I prefer the BrydgeAir to Apple’s keyboard and would love to see what Brydge can do for the iPad Pro. Adding a keyboard of this quality could elevate the Pro.

BrydgeAir – verdict

Brydge has chosen to target a tight niche with a well-engineered, high-quality alternative. The BrydgeAir is an expensive, heavy, well-made  keyboard for a device that was designed as only an occasional typing tool. It changes the nature of that tool. In a sense it’s a good fix for a problem you don’t need to have.

If you are a heavy-duty typist a lot you would be better off with a MacBook, MacBook Air or just about any other laptop. A device made for typing is always better than an iPad and a keyboard.

If you love the iPad, need to type a bit and like the idea of an iOS laptop, this is the answer. If you bust your budget buying an iPad and wished you got a laptop instead, you’ll love this. It’s also a good alternative for people who find plastic type covers too flimsy.

ipad pro apple pencilApple’s iPad Pro is the perfect tool for my work as a freelance journalist. It’s light, powerful, has a battery that lasts all day and a good keyboard.

To my surprise I’ve found my writing is more productive on the Pro than on a Mac. That has a lot to do with the physical hardware. It is also down to iOS 9 which forces distraction-free mode on users.

Nothing pops up to distract me while working. I’m rarely tempted to switch screens unless it is necessary. Trust me, this enforced focus writing is just what I need.

I get paid by the word and can write more words per day on the iPad Pro. It’s that simple.

iPad Pro great for writing

Today’s iOS writing tools are excellent. There is plenty of choice. At one point I had seven different apps installed I can use to manipulate words and sentences.

At first sight Apple’s iPad Pro keyboard doesn’t look promising. In practice I can touch type on it all day. I’ve no idea if my iPad Pro typing speed matches my MacBook typing speed. What I do know is the iPad Pro writing set-up is productive.

My only niggle is that sometimes I must lift my hands from the keyboard and touch the screen or the Touch ID button. This doesn’t interfere with productivity, but it doesn’t feel like a natural action. Not yet[1].

The iPad Pro has earned its place in my technology armoury. The machine I’m writing this post on is a review model from Apple. When the review period is up I’m going to buy my own iPad Pro and a keyboard and an Apple pencil.

What does it replace?

There is one problem. I’ve not decided what it will displace.

Although I can do all my work on the iPad Pro, it can’t do all the other things I need to do. While iCloud works well (so does OneDrive) the iPad Pro is not ideal for making local file copies. Physical back-up may be an anachronistic security blanket in your eyes, I’ve come to depend on it. I learned the hard way about backing up and don’t plan to stop.

Last month I had to install new firmware on my home wireless router. That meant downloading a zip file, decompressing it then installing it on the router. There’s no way I know of to do this using the iPad Pro[2].

I’ve invested a small fortune in OS X and Windows apps. In truth, there are few desktop business apps that I find essential. I use Acorn to manipulate graphics files but there are good iPad apps for this task.

The iPad Pro handles most web design work. Downloading and editing HTML, CSS or PHP files is tricky compared with the Mac. I can’t see how I can run local development versions of websites on the iPad. Maybe there are tools, I haven’t found them yet.

Missing in action

Where the iPad Pro misses most is with leisure software. That’s strange given its consumer origins. Here I’m talking about specialist apps. I use sophisticated music composition software on my Mac, it doesn’t run on iOS. Having said that, I have found some great alternative iOS music software.

Games are another matter. I’m not much of a gamer, but on wet weekends and home alone evenings I might want to unwind. Although there are iOS versions of some of the games I play, they are not a patch on the OS X versions.

The iPad Pro is the best thing for watching streaming video content. Premier League Pass is wonderful on the Retina screen. Movies are wonderful and the display is big enough for two to snuggle up and watch together.

Can’t drop the Mac yet

Despite this, I’m still going to need a Mac of some description for some time. The question is which model?

Until I used the iPad Pro, Apple’s 2015 MacBook was at the top of my shopping list. It’s small and light and has a great screen. That sounds just like the iPad Pro, except I now know I work better with a Pro.

My MacBook Air is two years old. The battery doesn’t last quite as long as it did when it was new, the power cable wore away and needed kludging. I was planning to look for a replacement about now.

Thanks to the iPad Pro I can relegate the MacBook to a secondary role and extend its life. Maybe when it gets more tired I can replace it with a Retina iMac. Or maybe another MacBook Air.


  1. I’ve noticed with the iPad Pro and all the touch screen PCs or Hybrids I’ve used that excessive touch screen use gives me a little upper arm pain. I’ll let you know if this becomes a problem.  ↩
  2. If you do, please tell me.  ↩