Apple iPad Pro 2015
Apple iPad Pro

CEO Satya Nadella has turned Microsoft around. It is relevant again. Things didn’t look that way when he took over the company. His switch of focus to the cloud was timely and has been a huge success. Much of what he says and does is sensible.

Much, but not everything.

In November, Nadella made a playful, off-the-cuff remark about an Apple iPad not being a proper computer. The comment should not be taken too seriously. But as Sahil Mohan Gupta notes at Tech Radar, Nadella’s words speaks volume about where Microsoft is heading and how it views computing.

Real computers

No doubt Nadella thinks all computers made by Microsoft are real computers. Even if some of those computers share a lot with the iPad Pro. Microsoft’s Surface models have many good points. They also have well documented flaws and angry customers. Making too much of a comparison with iPads could backfire on Microsoft.

Nadella’s comments got me thinking about the iPad, especially the large 12.9-inch iPad Pro. I use one now as my main mobile computer.

As far as I’m concerned it is a proper computer. It seems the best computer for a technology writer on the move, although others may not agree with me. Apart from anything else I find writing long documents on the iPad Pro is at least as easy as working on a Mac. There’s something about iOS 11 that helps me focus more on the job in front of me.

iPad Pro ready for serious work

A year ago the iPad Pro was not ready for serious use. The software didn’t handle files outside of application silos. Moving text from, say, a word processor to a text processor or a web-based app was simple enough. But opening a document in a different app was often tricky.

Dealing with attachments that arrived through mail was just as hard. There were basic things the iPad could not do. My router needed a firmware update. The new software arrived as a zip file, needs unpacking and uploading. The old version of iOS couldn’t handle that. The new iOS 11 makes it all possible.

While there are still times I need to reach for the MacBook, those ‘need’ times are fewer and fewer. It’s already a real computer.

There is a Windows computer that is mainly used for games, for running digital audio workshop software and for testing Windows apps. Increasingly Windows looks old-fashioned and iOS looks like the future.

This isn’t everyone’s view, many people reading this will scoff at the idea.

Yet despite Nadella’s comments, Microsoft takes the iPad seriously enough to make sure its key productivity apps and OneDrive all work on the iOS hardware and stay bang-up-to-date. I’d argue that Word is better on the iPad Pro than on a Mac and possibly even better than on Windows. What could be more serious than that?

Duet DisplayDuet Display started life as an iOS app to turn an iPad into a second screen for a Mac or Windows PC.

It has since moved on. The latest version adds a Touch Bar interface. There’s also an optional upgrade that turns an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil into an advanced drawing tablet.

I’ve been using Duet Display for a couple of years. It was great in its day. There are still times when it comes in handy.

Yet, changes to both Apple operating systems means it’s no longer as useful as it was. At least not for my purposes.

Turning an iPad into a second screen is a breeze.

You connect your iPad to a computer using the charging cable. This may seem odd in an era when everything is wireless. It turns out having wire between a computer’s USB port and an iPad’s Lightning connector gives Duet a huge advantage. The connection is fast, responsive and reliable. The two devices act as one.

Duet Display needs two apps

There are apps to install at both ends. The iPad app shows up as a normal icon, like any other iOS app. There is also an icon for the MacOS app. When the software is in use, you see a second, small icon on the Mac menu bar.

Duet Display takes no time to set up. It’s as easy as connecting the cable. Once connected, the iPad works exactly like you’d expect an external screen to work.

There are settings to fiddle with. My iPad is set up to work a 60 frames per second. There is a slower, more energy-efficient 30 frames per second option.

You can choose between four different resolutions. The highest Retina resolution on the iPad uses more power, you can wind it down. If I connect from my 1440 by 900 pixel MacBook Air there’s an option to mirror the screen.

Touch Bar

The other option is to add a Touch Bar to the bottom of the iPad display. While this can be handy with some apps, I find I don’t tend to use it.

In practice it pays to tinker with the settings to get everything right. Some of this is a matter of taste. Some of it is depends on the apps you use.

If, say, I run my MacOS Mail app on a 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen at the highest resolution, text is too small to read. It is worth cranking the resolution up that far to work with a graphics app.

Duet Display seems useful for productivity apps. I might have an editor open on the Mac screen and have a research document open on the iPad. This used to be the best way to work.

Today it is often simpler to use the Mac and iPad as standalone devices. Thanks to iCloud it is as easy to have the editor run on the Mac and use, say, Preview, to look at the research document on the iPad. Sharing documents between devices is trivial if you have iCloud.

Duet looks helpful if, say, I’m editing CSS or HTML and want to see my changes on the page in a browser. Again, this works as well, maybe better with two standalone devices.

Integration

If I had written this post 18 months ago, Duet Display would have been the best way to go. These days the Mac and iPad integrate so well with each other it is less essential. I can hit control-C on the Mac to copy, then post the information on my iPad.

There are still times when using it as a second screen is a productivity boost. Say, you’re working with two word processor documents. Having two open windows in the same instance of the application can be useful if you move text between them. It’s a fraction smoother than Apple handing over between iOS and MacOs.

Duet Display brings the iPad’s touch screen to the non-touch Mac. There are times when this is useful. MacOS isn’t designed for touch, so you won’t use it that much.

It also uses the Apple Pencil. Again, there’s not much MacOs support, so it’s of limited use.

The Mac app is free. I paid NZ$20 for iOS app. There is a NZ$32 in-app purchase to unlock the Pro version. That’s a lot of money by iOS app standards. Whether it is worth paying depends on your needs.

Pro version

Duet Display Pro version has more Apple Pencil support and better colour matching between devices. It means you can use your iPad as a drawing tablet with apps like Adobe Photoshop. That’s no use for me, I’m terrible at drawing, but if you have an artistic bent, it would be powerful.

You can use Duet Display with an iPhone, although it’s hard to see what benefit there is in having a tiny second screen.

At times Duet Display is useful and powerful. Those times are fewer than in the past. When they come around, it is an ideal and impressive way of solving a problem. It’s the kind of software you should know about and file away in your memory until you need it.

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Samsung Galaxy Tab S3Whatever you think about iOS and Android phones, Apple’s tablets have always been streets ahead. Samsung wants to change that. Its Galaxy Tab S3 is anything but just-another-Android-tablet.

There’s nothing second-rate about this baby.

Samsung first showed the Galaxy Tab S3 in February. It went on sale in New Zealand last month. I’ve had my hands on a review model for the past two or three weeks. It is the only serious direct competitor to the iPad I’ve seen.

When the Galaxy Tab S3 first arrived, Apple was still selling last year’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro. That model was the tablet gold standard. Samsung’s tablet compares well with the 2016 iPad Pro.

Matches the 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro

Feature-for-feature the Galaxy Tab S3 matches Apple’s hardware. With tablets the whole is greater than the sum of parts. Samsung’s glorious hardware is let down by the software, but when it comes to the stuff you can drop on your toes, the Galaxy Tab S3 was in reach of its rival.

Soon after I started this review, Apple released the next generation iPad Pro. The hardware has leapt ahead of Samsung. Apple also announced an iOS upgrade which, when it arrives, promises to widen the gap between the two.

Software is most important difference between the two tablets. Samsung’s tablet uses Google’s Android 7.0. It’s a smooth, slicker version of the operating system that works well on phones. It’s not so good on a tablet.

If you prefer Android or if use Android every day on your phone you might like the sound of Android 7.0 on a tablet. It could be fine, but Android doesn’t scale to fit larger screens as well as iOS.

Good apps missing in action

There is a bigger problem with Android. It lacks first-rate tablet apps. Many of the tablet apps you’ll find in the Google Play store are identical to their phone versions. Load them on to the Galaxy Tab S3 and their phone layouts expand to fill the larger display.

This can look horrible. At times you get huge, chunky text or pixellated images. But that’s not the worst part of this. Android app user interfaces often don’t scale well. They can be hard to use.

It’s as if Android app developers deliberately don’t cater for tablet customers. They rarely make use of any extra features a tablet might have.

Many apps don’t even make a decent transition from portrait to landscape screens. Although this can be poor in the operating system as well.

As a user you get the uncomfortable feeling you’re neglected, even unwelcome.

Good for consuming content

Because of this software neglect, Android tablets end up used as video players or browsers. You might also get to work with email and messaging. They are good at all these tasks, but don’t do much more.

And that restrains the potential of an Android tablet. The hardware might be good enough to replace a laptop for many people, but the software need to make this work in practice is not up to scratch.

Yet the iPad isn’t restricted this way. Many iOS apps are either rewritten or designed from the outset to scale. There is just an occasional hint of a problem running some obscure apps on the large 12.7-inch iPad.

In practice this means you can use an iPad to do a lot more. It works as a plausible laptop replacement. I’ve taken my iPad Pro instead of my MacBook Air on a number of recent trips and expect to do so in future.

A business-class Android tablet

In hardware terms Samsung has upped the ante for Android tablets. That’s not hard, many are lacklustre. Even so, the Galaxy Tab S3 is the best Android tablet I’ve ever seen.

It’s the first Android tablet that could be a productive business tool given better software support. And it’s the first worthy of consideration alongside the iPad or Surface Pro.

While it is cheaper than a Microsoft Surface Pro, it is still expensive at NZ$1100. That buys a model with 32GB storage and Wi-Fi. It includes a stylus. The sim-card version costs $100 more.

This compares with NZ$1100 for this year’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro with 64GB of storage. Apple charges an extra $160 for its Pencil. Even though you get the Samsung stylus for no extra charge, Apple has the edge on price.

It’s impossible to write about the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 without referring to last year’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The two have so much in common. They have a similar look and the same high quality finish.

The two have else much in common. Both are slim and light. You’d be hard pressed to say which is smaller, thinner or lighter. In practice it doesn’t matter, both are near perfect in those departments.

Vibrant screen

Both have great 9.7-inch screens showing 2048 by 1536 pixels. Samsung’s Amoled screen shows more vibrant colour and better blacks than the iPad. The 120Hz refresh rate on the 2017 iPad Pro means you get smoother moving images. There are fingerprint scanners on both tablets. Both have magnetic connectors down the side to take detachable keyboards.

Samsung didn’t supply a keyboard with the review model, so I can’t comment on how well it works. I can tell you the Galaxy Tab S3 works fine with my array of Bluetooth keyboards.

Apple and Samsung use different tablet processors. The Samsung feels a little slower than the 2016 iPad Pro. But the lag is so slight you’d be hard-pressed to notice much difference. In practice both tablets are fast, I’ve never experienced any slowness.

As mentioned, Samsung’s tablet does a fine job as a media and internet consumption device. What about productivity? In practice it works fine with productivity apps like Microsoft Word and Excel. These come installed as standard on the Tab S3, a nice touch Samsung. Of course, the tablet works well with cloud-based apps like Xero or Google Docs.

Hook it up to a keyboard and you can word process or number crunch to your heart’s delight. My only gripe is that text is often smaller and harder to read on the Samsung tablet than on the Apple when using default settings.

Galaxy Tab S3 verdict

The price isn’t right. You could spend the same $1100 and get the more up-to-date, better equipped 2017 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Prices for Windows 10 2-in-1 computers start at the same price as the $1200 cellular ready S3. Surface Pro prices start at about $1300, a little than the cost of a Galaxy Tab S3. All these devices will do more.

Even so, if you can’t buy Apple or have some objection to Apple, the Tab S3 is a fine alternative to the iPad Pro. It is the first great tablet that didn’t come from Apple or Microsoft.

You can slide a wafer-thin device between Apple and Microsoft’s New Zealand slate market share.

IDC New Zealand reports Apple shipped less than 1000 more detachable or slate devices than Microsoft in 2016.

The total market for the year was 80,000 units. Apple had a 32 percent market share, which is around 25,600 units. Microsoft was at 31 percent, a shade under 25,000 units.

Detachable is a curious market to measure. IDC defines it:

“A slate tablet is a portable, battery-powered computing device with a screen size 7-inches to 16-inches.

In addition to the attributes of a slate tablet, a detachable tablet is designed to function as a stand-alone slate tablet as well as a clamshell device through the addition of a detachable keyboard designed specifically for the device.”

IDC New Zealand mobile device market analyst Chayse Gorton says this includes Apple’s 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch iPad Pros. Yet both sell without detachable keyboards and not every buyer uses them with one1.

The category includes Microsoft Surface Pro, Surface Book, HP Envy and others.

Slate-tablet distinction blurry

It is distinct from traditional laptops. The distinction between slates and tablets like non-Pro iPads is blurry.

Either way, Apple topped the market in 2016. Microsoft is second. It had been number one for the years 2013, 2014 and 2015. Microsoft’s shipments climbed three percent from 2015 to 2016.

It was a bonza year for detachable sales. Shipments2 increased from 55,000 in 2015 to 80,000 — a year-on-year increase of 45 percent.

The runners-up are, in order: HP on nine percent; Samsung on seven percent and Acer also with seven percent. Other brands were less than 15 percent.

Microsoft competition

Gorton says Microsoft faces competition from a range of models running Windows. Its share of the Windows detachable market fell from 58 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2016.

“Competing windows detachables often have similar specifications to Microsoft detachables, but are frequently sold at a lower price. Given New Zealand is a price conscious nation, a lower price, even by small a margin can be enough to entice a consumer to purchase from a competing vendor”, he says.

Gorton says Microsoft sharpened its premium market position introducing high-end models and halting low-end models. It introduced the Surface Book early in the year and dropped the Surface 3 from its line-up.

IDC expects detachable shipments to grow between 25 and 30 percent in 2017. From the market will start to flatten off.


  1. You could argue the iPad Pro and Windows devices are not direct head-to-head rivals. It’s possible there are buyers who would weigh up an iPad Pro against these Windows devices. Yet for the most part the two groups inhabit parallel universes. ↩︎
  2. Shipments is a normal term for this kind of survey. Most of the time it means how many devices vendors sent from warehouses to retailers. It gets tricky with detachables because Apple and Microsoft sell direct. ↩︎