iPad Pro 10.5″: Wonderfully Unnecessary

I had lost interest in tablets for a while. I hate owning redundant possessions, and as large-screen phones became my norm, owning a tablet as well felt decadent. No one needs a tablet.

Eventually I remembered that “need” isn’t the point. As I discussed in my iPad Air review many years ago, the tablet is the device you choose to use when you are no longer compelled by necessity to use a phone or a PC. It’s for the things you want to do as opposed to the things you have to do. Your phone and PC can do things you want as well, but the tablet would ideally be specifically suited to activities of non-compulsion. I’m talking about things like reading (books, articles, comics, etc.), browsing, watching videos, playing certain kinds of games, as well as, for many, drawing, designing, making music, and for me in particular, creative writing.

Not writing for work. I’ve become something of a stickler for intentionally separating my work machine from my leisure machine, even though I work from a home office using my own laptop. Most of the time, the laptop is for work-work, and the tablet is for the writing and creative work that I do by my own whim.

To sum up, here is my Theory of Devices:

  • Generally speaking, though with countless exceptions, phones and PCs (laptops or desktops) are “lean-in” devices of necessity. One squints and scrunched one’s attention (and fingers) on the small screen of the phone in order to accomplish the tasks demanded by the moment. One hunches over the keyboard and display of a laptop, studying the contents of the screen and dutifully typing away to, again, satisfy the demands of the moment. They require a kind of tunnel vision.
  • Tablets (and e-readers like Kindles) are “lean-back” devices of choice. Generally hand-held, but large enough to encourage the user to kick back and absorb content rather than actively scrutinize it. If one wishes to more deeply engage and create or “work,” that’s fine. There is a psychological separation between the work machines and the diversion machine.

This is why I sought a return to the tablet. I didn’t want to play at the office.

Late last year I got the iPad Pro 9.7”. It was more than I absolutely needed, as an iPad Air 2 would have more than sufficed for almost all my tablet needs, but I was too intrigued by the possibilities presented by the Apple Pencil to settle. Having used a couple of Galaxy Notes, I knew very well the vast difference between just using any old stylus on a touchscreen, and having a stylus specifically built for your particular machine, a machine with software and hardware tuned to interact with that stylus. (This is part of why a strongly considered a Surface Pro 4, but decided it was both too expensive and too close to being a work machine.) So iPad Pro it would have to be.

I loved it. I loved it more as the months went by. I kept finding myself impressed by its speed, fluidity, responsiveness, and the sheer loveliness of its display. I made lots of fun pictures with 53’s Paper app, and even made delightful musical arrangements with iOS GarageBand (which has become really quite an astounding application in recent years). I did a little writing on it as well, but not nearly as much as I’d like, partly I think because I failed to find a keyboard solution I was truly comfortable with. More on that later.

But I always wanted a slightly bigger screen than iPads offered. Having seen Surface Pros, the Pixel C, and the pre–2015 Samsung Tab S’s, I knew that a larger canvas would really open the device up for me. The 12.9” iPad Pro was always utterly intriguing, but I knew that it would be too unwieldy to be the lean-back device I needed it to be.

Then Apple announced the new 10.5” iPad Pro, and I was ready to pounce. Not because of any flaws in the 9.7” Pro, but because a slightly-larger super-iPad was What I’d Always Wanted. I would later describe it as the first-worldiest of purchases. But shit, life is short, and this is all I spend money on. And now a very nice Swappa user in New York City now has my 9.7” Pro, and I have his money. Or, I did. I gave that money to Apple. Again.

I’ve had the iPad Pro 10.5” for about a week. I haven’t pushed it to its limits (nor do I know how I would go about that), but I’ve used it for all of the things I would normally use a tablet for, and as you’ll see, I don’t need much else to go on.

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So how is it?

It’s a really good iPad. You already know what an iPad is and does, so, yes, the 10.5” iPad Pro is the best at all those things, with a little bit more room on the screen on which to enjoy those things. It’s the same weight as iPads have been since the iPad Air in 2013, about a pound, and it’s super thin.

The expanded screen size is very nice, and there are times I pick the thing up and turn it on and I’m taken aback by that little increase in visual immersion. But in regular use, it’s not world-changing. It’s a little bit nicer, and it makes the software keyboard easier to use accurately.

If anything, it reminds me of the Google Pixel C, which was my “pro” tablet of choice before the iPad, but I gave up on after it suffered from technical failures (such as a screen that quickly went on the fritz) and abysmally poor customer support for said failures. But one of the great things about the Pixel C was its screen size at 10.2″, so having an iPad with about the same screen size is a way for me to get back some of what I really loved about Google’s tablet.

The iPad Pro, regardless of the change in screen real estate, has kept the same pixel density at 264 ppi. I’m frankly disappointed that Apple hasn’t bumped this up even a little bit since the introduction of the iPad 3 in 2012. I’ve been using quad-HD phones, and the Pixel C had a gorgeous 308 ppi display. Hell, even the iPad mini line has 326 ppi.

It really doesn’t matter, though. I almost never notice the lower pixel density of the iPad Pro, and Apple’s done so much to make this screen crisp and beautiful in so many other ways that no one else even attempts, let alone achieves. TrueTone, though unnecessary, is a nice adaptive-color technology that is better to have than not. The display itself is just about painted onto the glass, so there’s no sense of gawking at your content as though it’s beneath a window pane. I would certainly like the ppi to be higher, and I know I’d notice it and appreciate it, but I have no complaints about the iPad Pro’s display.

I can talk about performance, but honestly, the real test of that will come with iOS 11 this fall, when the operating system transforms from giant-phone-OS to something that genuinely seems ready to be used as a full-power computing device. Other than that, everything is as fast as you’d imagine it to be. But of course the same was true for the 9.7” Pro, so I doubt anyone would perceive any difference between the two.

The bigger change is this boost from a 60hz refresh rate to 120hz. This does indeed make scrolling and animations more fluid. At times it looks so good it’s otherworldly, but you also just get used to it and it’s no big deal. Again, better to have than not, for sure. Some are describing this change as almost akin to the difference between Retina and non-Retina, and I don’t agree…yet. I do really appreciate it, but I suspect that once again its utility will become more apparent with iOS 11.

The refresh rate boost is also supposed to improve the display’s interaction with the Apple Pencil, reducing latency to almost imperceptible levels. I can feel the difference in apps like Apple’s Notes and 53’s Paper, but not in other drawing apps. This might be because they haven’t taken advantage of the new hardware yet and likely will, but right now there’s no difference I can sense in many Pencil-related apps. This is another area where there were no problems with the performance on the 9.7” Pro, and the Pencil on the 10.5” does it a little better.

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I’m trying to decide whether Apple’s own Smart Keyboard is good and useful enough to justify holding onto. I purchased it alongside the iPad, assuming it would be almost necessary to get the full “Pro” experience. But, like the iPad, it was not cheap.

It is much nicer to type on than its predecessor for the 9.7″ Pro, with keys more widely spaced, but also like 9.7’s it also makes for a clumsy iPad cover. It’s heavy for a cover, and its weight is (necessarily) uneven. While it’s wonderfully easy to take on and off, it’s too expensive to casually toss aside like you might do with a plain cover (which are also grossly overpriced). It is somewhat deceptive in that it doesn’t look like an expensive piece of electronics, but it is, and one does not want to have it snap in half because you didn’t know it was sticking out of the couch cushions before you sat or laying on the floor as you smash it with your feet.

As before, it pairs with the iPad immediately upon magnetic contact, so there’s no fiddling. One little annoyance I’ve discovered is that if before you attached the Smart Keyboard you had been using a third-party software keyboard, the Smart Keyboard gets a little confused. I like to use Gboard as my software keyboard, but if it’s the most recent one I’ve enabled when I attach the Smart Keyboard, at least one key (the apostrophe) doesn’t work. Maybe others fail too, but that’s the one I noticed. Cycling back to enabling the default keyboard solves the problem.

Oh, and once again, it doesn’t have a place to stow the Apple Pencil. Argle blargle.

For a couple of years now I’ve had the Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard, and it is very good for what it is, and tablets and phones alike sit nicely in it’s little device slot. I don’t think it’s quite as nice to type on as the Smart Keyboard, and, obviously, it doesn’t have the advantage of being physically attached to the iPad. You have to go get it to use it. The Apple Smart Keyboard is always there, either on the iPad itself or within arm’s reach.

I don’t really trust any of the other keyboard cases I’ve seen because in each of them the keys have at least the potential to rub up against, and thereby scratch, the screen. That’s not gonna fly. With the Smart Keyboard, the keys fold away and make no contact with the display, ever.

I believe I may be convincing myself to keep it. As much as I’d like to recoup that cash. I should experiment with the Microsoft keyboard again, just to be sure, so as I write this, I’m just not certain about the Smart Keyboard.

And quite frankly, I often prefer typing on the software keyboard. I wouldn’t even consider an external keyboard if the software keyboard didn’t take over so much of the screen. But I’m using it now to type this, and I suppose this is another benefit of the 10.5” screen: a more comfortable on-screen keyboard and more remaining space for the content.

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Some smaller things worth noting:

  • I am overly sensitive to devices that get too warm. It was perhaps my greatest source of dissatisfaction about iPads 3 and 4, and was a rollercoaster struggle with the Nexus 6, among other devices. I have yet to feel this tablet get meaningfully warm. The 9.7” Pro never bothered me either, though I could notice changes in temperature. So far, I can only attribute any warmth to the 10.5” Pro to the heat from my own hands.
  • The speakers are excellent for a super-thin wafer of a computer. Better than any other device I’ve used that isn’t itself a dedicated speaker or sound system.
  • I used to much prefer using any tablet in portrait mode, seeing it as the “correct” orientation, particularly for lean-back uses, but something about the increase in screen size makes landscape nice for more passive use as well, in that you can easily split the screen between two apps and still feel like you’re looking at two iPad mini-size devices.
  • The camera is apparently amazing, but I’ve used it almost not at all. I have no idea if this will change, but I am definitely not one of those “omg never use a tablet to take pictures” people. Seriously, use whatever gadget you have the way you want to. Your tablet has a camera and a giant-ass viewfinder. Go ahead and take pictures. (Just don’t be obnoxious about blocking people’s view with it.) It’s supposed to be an iPhone 7-quality camera, which sounds great. Hard for me to see when I’d take advantage of this, but hey, it’s there.
  • There is a problem with Google Photos that hasn’t been addressed yet, where the application grinds to a halt when trying to edit any photo. This did not happen with the 9.7” Pro, and a couple folks online have had the same experience. I have no idea why this would be, but I hope a software update comes quickly.

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Clearly, the 10.5” iPad Pro is a fantastic tablet. Almost certainly it’s the best tablet available, and by several orders of magnitude. It’s more tablet, and really, more computer, than almost any one in the market could possibly need. And that’s good, because if there’s one thing even Apple was surprised to learn, it’s that people buy iPads and they hold on to them and use them for many years. This iPad will fare very well over those year, I predict.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t need this at all. The 9.7” iPad Pro was far and away the best tablet in the world, and upon the release of the 10.5” it became an extremely close second. Almost negligibly close.

Having used the 10.5 for a few days, but before iOS 11’s arrival, I can confidently say that if you have a 9.7” Pro, you’re good right now. You’ll probably be good for a long time. If you’re in the market for a powerful and/or stylus-optimized tablet, but don’t want to spend $700, do go and find a 9.7” Pro. You’ll love it.

I loved it. And I also love this one. The 10.5” iPad Pro is everything I loved about the 9.7”, plus a little more. I’m really glad I got it, I’m enjoying the hell out of it, but I also know I could most certainly have gone without it.

Also, if you want a tablet for just the lean-back stuff, and you want it to last many years, ignore this whole review and get one of those new vanilla iPads for a little over $300. You’ll love it.

Don’t get a Pixel C, because Google’s support it the absolute worst. (Example: In order to help me with a problem with the hinge on my Pixel C’s external hardware keyboard, they insisted I reboot my tablet and put it in safe mode. For a hinge. On a physically separate object. Sorry, no.)

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No one needs a tablet at all. I certainly don’t. But as a lover of technology, as a big consumer of news and writing, as an artist and musician, and indeed as an autistic introvert, there’s something wonderful about these things. I’m so fortunate to be able to scrape together the means to own an object that facilitates so many of the things that bring me joy and meaning in life, and is also comfortable and appealing, such that I am drawn to it and encouraged to play, explore, create, and find a little peace.

I don’t need this tablet. I’m damn glad that I have it anyway.

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Hey, if you like my work, maybe you’ll think about supporting it through Patreon. That’d be cool of you.

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The Mutual Enhancement Society: Superintelligence in Machines…*and* Humans?

Photo credit: JD Hancock / Foter / CC BY
Reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, and having read James Barrat’s Our Final Invention, as well as consuming a lot of other writings on the dangers of rapidly advancing artificial intelligence, I was beginning to feel fairly confident that unless civilization collapsed relatively soon, more or less upending most technological progress, humanity was indeed doomed to become the slaves to, or fuel of, our software overlords. It is a rather simple equation, after all, isn’t it? Once the machines undergo a superintelligence explosion, there’s really nothing stopping them from taking over the world, and quite possibly, everything else.

You can imagine, then, how evocative this piece in Nautilus by Stephen Hsu was, an article that explains that actually, it’s going to be okay. Not because the machines won’t become super-advanced – they certainly will – but because humans (or some humans) will advance right along with them. For what the Bostroms and the Barrats of the world are (may?) not be taking into account is the rapid advance of human genetic modification, which will allow for augmentations to human intelligence that we, with our normal brains, can’t even imagine. Writes Hsu, “The answer to the question ‘Will AI or genetic modification have the greater impact in the year 2050?’ is yes.”

First off, Hsu posits that humans of “normal” intelligence (meaning unmodified at the genetic level, not dudes off the street) may not even be capable of creating an artificial intelligence sufficiently advanced to undergo the kind of explosion of power that thinkers like Bostrom foresee. “While one can imagine a researcher ‘getting lucky’ by stumbling on an architecture or design whose performance surpasses her own capability to understand it,” he writes, “it is hard to imagine systematic improvements without deeper comprehension.”

It’s not until we really start tinkering with our own software that we’ll have the ability to construct something so astonishingly complex as a true artificial superintelligence. And it’s important to note that there is no expectation on Hsu’s part that this augmentation of the human mind will be something enjoyed by the species as a whole. Just as only a tiny handful of humans had the intellectual gifts sufficient to invent computing and discover quantum mechanics (Turings and Einsteins and whatnot), so will it be for he future few who are able to have their brains genetically enhanced, such that they reach IQs in the 1000s, and truly have the ability to devise, construct, and nurture an artificial intelligence.

It is a comforting thought. Well, more comforting than our extinction by a disinterested AI. But not entirely comforting, because it means that a tiny handful of people will have such phenomenal intelligence, something unpossessed by the vast majority of the species, they will likely be as hard to trust or control as a superintelligent computer bent on our eradication. Just how interested will these folks care about democracy or the greater good when they have an IQ of 1500 and can grasp concepts and scenarios unfathomable to the unenhanced?

But let’s say this advancement is largely benign. Hsu doesn’t end with “don’t worry, the humans got this,” but rather goes into a line of thought I hadn’t (but perhaps should have) expected: merging.

Rather than the standard science-fiction scenario of relatively unchanged, familiar humans interacting with ever-improving computer minds, we will experience a future with a diversity of both human and machine intelligences. For the first time, sentient beings of many different types will interact collaboratively to create ever greater advances, both through standard forms of communication and through new technologies allowing brain interfaces. We may even see human minds uploaded into cyberspace, with further hybridization to follow in the purely virtual realm. These uploaded minds could combine with artificial algorithms and structures to produce an unknowable but humanlike consciousness. …

New gods will arise, as mysterious and familiar as the old.

We’re now in transhumanist, Kurzweil territory. He’s not using the word “Singularity,” but he’s just shy of it, talking about human and computer “minds” melding with each other in cyberspace. And of course he even references “gods.”

This strikes me, a person of limited, unmodifed intelligence, as naïve. I’ve criticized transhumanists like Zoltan Istvan for this pollyanna view of our relationship with artificial intelligences. Where those who think like Istvan assume the superintelligent machines will “teach us” how to improve our lot, Hsu posits that we will grow in concert with the machines, and benefit each other through mutual advancement. But what makes him so certain this advancement will remain in parallel? At some point, the AIs will pass a threshold, after which they will be able to take care of and enhance themselves, and then it won’t matter if our IQs are 1000 or 5000, as the machines blast past those numbers exponentially in a matter of, what, days? Hours?

And then, what will they care about the well being of their human pals? I don’t see why we should assume they’ll take us along with them.

But, what do I know? Very, very little.