Review: iPad Pro 12.9 (2017) with iOS 11

Apple's mobile OS includes some sweet creative enhancements for the iPad Pro.

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Our Verdict

iOS adds some genuinely useful features to the iPad Pro 12.9, especially around Apple Pencil. And the dock is superbly implemented.

For

  • Wonderful creative tool
  • New dock works really well
  • Files app is welcome
  • Ace Apple Pencil enhancements

Against

  • If you think it's huge, maybe you need the 10.5-inch instead
  • Can't replace full functionality of desktop apps

The iPad Pro 12.9 (2017) is Apple's top-end iPad, sitting above the iPad Pro 10.5 that made its debut earlier this year. The iPad Pro 9.7 is no longer available. 

Here we're looking at it alongside iOS 11 – the latest version of Apple’s now-legendary mobile operating system. There are some significant improvements in this update that are specifically designed to make the iPad Pro more, well, Mac-like. We tested it out on our iPad Pro 12.9 to see what all the fuss is about.

The 12.9-inch version of the iPad received several upgrades earlier this year to put it on an even footing with the new iPad Pro 10.5 – notably HDR video support, TrueTone display and a new Apple A10X processor. 

While iOS 11 is a good update for the iPhone, it’s a particularly super update if you use an iPad on a regular basis. Multitasking was present before on the iPad, but now it has been powered up to provide even more desktop-like functionality. 

iOS 11 availability

iOS 11 is a free update for the iPad Pro and will be released on 19 September. Expect servers to be busy that day, so you might have to wait to download it to your iPad Pro.  

Note that we’ve been using the public beta version of iOS 11, so the final version may be ever so slightly different than the images you see here. (And to use Apple Pencil you’ll need an iPad Pro 9.7, 10.5 or 12.9-inch.)

iPad Pro 12.9 design and screen

The first time you see the iPad Pro 12.9 it looks daft – a big, silly joke; something ludicrously, pointlessly oversized – but it's amazing how quickly that impression passes. In part that's because it's lighter than you expect it to be for its size. 

It's not light enough that you would want to hold it for the length of time it would take to make even a simple portrait sketch, but it's perfectly reasonable to hold it one-handed for minutes at a time.

It's also slim, such that when you're using it flat on a table surface, you can just about kid yourself that it's almost not there. That big screen is, in any case, just terrific: bright, saturated, and with liberal viewing angles. 

iPad Pro 12.9 video and audio

The scale of the screen makes it great not just for painting on, but also – for example – to give you more room for digital audio workstations, for editing movies, for creating diagrams and for sketching out wireframes for print or digital layouts in Adobe Comp, which you can then export to InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop.

As we've already touched upon, it's a TrueTone display with support for HDR video. Viewing video on this device is a delight, while the quad speakers are surprisingly beefy. Sure, you don’t want to rely on them to fill a room, but everyone who hears them does the same 'Oh, they sound that good?' face.

(There's some smarts here: there is a speaker at each corner, and for any audio all four always produce bass, since we can't tell what direction bass comes from. The mid-range and treble is then also played out of whichever two speakers are on the top, depending on orientation, for a proper stereo soundstage.)

iPad Pro 12.9 performance and battery life

With Apple's A10 X processor, this is a seriously powerful tablet. The big display means that iOS 11's support for multitasking – the ability to run two apps side by side, and/or also have video play in a floating picture-in-picture window – makes such great sense here and works instantly. It's entirely possible, for example, to draw on one side of the screen while referring to source material on the other, or keep an eye on your email as you type a document. 

The iPad Pro will easily last a day of use. Apple cites 10 hours of battery life and that's about right in our experience. However, the Smart Keyboard accessory draws power from the device, so take it off if you're low on battery. 

If you're tapping away with the Apple Pencil all day, this may decrease further and you will need to charge it during the day as well. 

iPad Pro 12.9 accessories 

The optional £169 Smart Keyboard cover is genuinely good, enabling the iPad Pro to shine in more of the situations where you might hitherto have used a laptop. The fact it doesn't quite work as your Mac or Windows laptop does is a little confusing though – your finger keeps twitching towards the non-existent trackpad.

However, cheaper versions are available from other manufactures and, of course, the iPad Pro works with any Bluetooth keyboard.

Apple Pencil

Then there's the superb Apple Pencil. We've touched on its improvements in iOS 11 below.  This stylus – yes, Apple made a stylus – is nothing more nor less than the best digital drawing tool ever made, and with the iPad Pro's generous 12.9-inch canvas, for some illustrators and artists it is, more than ever before, possible not just to sketch out ideas on an iPad, but take them all the way through to completion.

It's a bit nuts to say you want the iPad Pro because of another bit of kit that itself costs eighty quid, but the experience of using them together is so good. The pressure- and tilt-sensitivity, the near-perfect palm rejection and the impressively low latency all combine to make it the most real and analogue drawing and writing experience you'll have today unless you're actually using pen and paper.

There are some truly magnificent apps on iOS that work great with Apple Pencil: Apple’s favourite – Affinity Photo, the glorious Procreate, the characterful Paper, the expressive Adobe Photoshop Sketch and the hugely useful Adobe Comp, for example – as well as productivity apps such as Evernote and LiquidText.

Many apps will be updated to support iOS 11's drag and drop functionality, including Adobe’s mobile apps, Procreate and Morpholio Trace

How has iOS 11 improved the iPad Pro?

Despite its success, iOS has remained an operating system for phones and tablets – not for serious professional work. Can it really turn the iPad Pro into a tool so creatives can move on from their laptops? 

The first of the enhancements that work especially well with the iPad is the dock. Yes, you’ve seen one of these before right? 

Well, yes, but  the new dock works quite like the one on the Mac. It sits at the foot of the screen like the old dock but instead has support for dragging and dropping app windows and more around the screen. 

There’s also a recently used files pop-up when you do a long tap on an app that supports it – similar to recent files on a Mac or PC.

The dock and is split into two parts; the left is where you have apps you put there yourself (drag them from your home screen) while the right-hand side features apps chosen by Siri. Most likely, these will be the three latest you have used, but it may well bring your chosen music app up when you connect your AirPods. It’s clever like that.

As we mentioned, dragging and dropping works with the dock – drag and drop isn’t anything new of course, but you can now drag things around in iOS 11 using Split View, such as an image from your camera roll into an email and so on.

Say you were in Photos and wanted to drag something into an email, then just swipe up the dock, and drop Mail on the side of the screen. It opens in Slide Over view, but you can just tap the line at the top of the window to go into Split View. 

You can even drag things onto the dock as well you don’t expect, like a link from Safari or an image. The implementation of this is really rather great.

You can still run a couple of apps at once using the Split View (two apps running side-by-side) and Slide Over (two apps running with one in a floating window). You can now add a third app on an iPad Pro.

Note that Slide Over and the advanced multitasking works with iPad Pro, iPad (5th generation), iPad Air and later, or iPad mini 2 and later.

iOS 11 and the Apple Pencil

Apple Pencil is a fantastic tool for the iPad Pro series and wonderful for artists, but you haven't been able to use it everywhere you've wanted to in all iPad Pro apps. iOS 11 powers up the Apple Pencil's capabilities significantly. 

Now though, you can create Instant Notes simply by drawing on the lock screen (these are then saved in Notes). Drawing on notes near existing text cleverly now moves the text out of the way. Instant Markup enables you to draw on PDFs and photos.

All of your Instant Notes on the lock screen are saved in Notes where there's also a Document Scanner, which scans, crops edges, removes tilt and glare and lets you fill in forms or sign away with an Apple Pencil. You can then save and share the document. 

There are plenty of Apple Pencil-supporting apps that have enhancements planned for iOS 11. Don't forget to check out our guide to 9 iPad Pro apps that make the most of Apple Pencil

How files are handled in iOS 11 on the iPad Pro

Apple has also remedied a long-standing issue with iOS – there’s no way to access files on the device unless they’re things like images in your Camera Roll or PDFs in iBooks. OK, so Apple has fudged this for the last few years with iCloud Drive, but the fact is we’re all pretty used to storing stuff on our own devices.

Now though, there’s a Files app. You can browse through files stored on your iPad as well as the files synchronised on other devices. It’s all pretty intuitive and frankly pretty basic – it’s just that we haven’t had it before.  There are also more options within Settings for you to optimise the storage on your device, including the offloading of unused apps. This will be pretty useful for less tech savvy people who just want to free up a bit of space to do some work.

You can also use Files to browse iCloud Drive and cloud services such as Dropbox and, best of all for you, Adobe Creative Cloud. You can tag your files and folders as well – just like on macOS.

What else is in iOS 11? 

Naturally there are also a bunch of other enhancements, such as improvements to Control Center, Siri (it sounds more human and can translate short phrases), Live Photos, the App Store, Apple Music and more besides. One thing that might also be useful is that you can now pay contacts using Apple Pay, while there's also a driving mode. More useful for the iPhone, granted. 

There are also new iPad keyboard shortcuts which mean you no longer have to flip back and forward between keyboard layers. A new 'flick' gesture means you can access the hidden characters underneath. It all saves time. 

Control Center is accessed by continuing to swipe up from the dock. On the face of it, it is quite a mish mash. But it's now customisable so you can add and remove features at will.  

You can now also screen record in iOS 11, so you can send someone a 'how to' video of what you're doing. The screenshot feature has also been improved in iOS. When you take a screenshot using the Home and Power buttons, a preview now hovers in the bottom left for a short time. Tapping on it enables you to edit it right away. 

Safari has some nice touches, too, including suggestions based on what you were just reading. The Apple browser can also link to your iOS Calendar app, adding entries for flights and hotel stays instantly – useful for planning work trips.

Final verdict

There is an obvious caveat to this: the iPad Pro, of course, doesn't run Mac or Windows apps, so you're not going to be able to use the big, full, familiar apps from Adobe, Affinity or Corel. And for many – who either don't want the hassle of learning new tools or literally can't do the things they do in the way they want to do them without a traditional desktop – that's reason enough to dismiss the iPad Pro right from the get-go.

The iOS 11 dock and multitasking really makes everything sing though, even if the elegance and simplicity of the iPad experience – one screen, one app, one task is now a thing of the past. 

The iPad Pro is – more than for any other group – for creatives. That big canvas, the sheer processing grunt and, above it all, that wonderful, you've-never-used-anything-like-it-before Pencil are all peculiarly suited to the kind of work we do. It lends itself particularly well to digital painting and illustration, of course, and Procreate is capable of some wonderful things, but it's not only good for that.

The fact that you can't run, say, InDesign on it will of course mean that it can't fulfil the role of a primary computer for everyone in the creative industries. But set against this is the fact it does things that a Mac or PC can't. 

Can it be your only computer? No. But as a go-anywhere portable companion to a computer with full desktop apps, it's unbeatable. 

The Verdict

10

out of 10

Review: iPad Pro 12.9 (2017) with iOS 11

iOS adds some genuinely useful features to the iPad Pro 12.9, especially around Apple Pencil. And the dock is superbly implemented.