The Fulfillment of an Educational Dream | An iPad Pro Review

A true paper/pencil replacement.

In a way, the original iPad started me on the road to a career in educational technology. I was in graduate school studying neuroscience when the original iPad came out. I could feel the potential the iPad had as a tool to optimize a workflow. Like many graduate students, I was struggling to manage all the research papers and study materal I was reading and was really excited about the iPad’s potential as a paper replacement.

My (very generous) PI bought me one and I’ll never forget my first impression. “Wow what a amazing device!!!” You could hold and touch the web, even a dozen binders papers in one hand! I knew I was holding a device that could change the educational/research landscape. In many ways the iPad has made a profound impact on many educational practices but in more ways the iPad has been severly limited by hardware constraints. It was too heavy, too thick, too slow, and had no way of replicating tried and true workflows like marking up papers or books.

Over the years, the iPad got better with the first three constraints: the iPad got lighter, thinner, and VERY fast. The iPad excelled at being a touch device. Steve Jobs famously said that if you need a stylus you were doing it wrong. And indeed, the styluses that worked with the iPad both passively or via bluetooth always produced a compromised product. The pen strokes were always too thick and palm rejection was never great. I must have tried a dozen styluses: from simple capacitive foam pens to the well reviewed Jot, Bamboo, and Paper bluetooth styluses. Never did I think it replicated the ease of using a pen and paper. I’ve had an iPad since the original one I could 5 years ago and I have used to for various purposes: reading, watching videos, playing games, surfing the web, taking Evernotes. It is particularly useful when travelling but in general the iPad stays in my bag for days without me reaching for it.

Enter the iPad Pro

As a technology consultant with the University of Richmond, we get to try out new technology and assess where the technology could fit within the university community. I’ve been using the iPad Pro for almost a month and feel confident in saying this device is a true paper replacement and fulfills what I had hoped the original iPad would be. This is due almost entirely to the $100 “pencil” that Apple has created specifically to work with the iPad Pro.

The Apple Pencil succeeds at what none of the third party styluses accomplished: near zero latency with a pen stroke and perfect palm rejection.

When you write with the Pencil the time the stroke takes to appear on the screen (the latency) is very fast. Though while very fast, there is a bit of lag but it doesn’t interfer with the process of writing. Never did I have to wait, even for a second, for the line to catch up with my Pencil tip. I can’t stress how much better the latency is compared to previous bluetooth styluses.

Palm rejection is important for a tablet to achieve because having inadvertent marks significantly increases frustration and reduces productivity. As I noted above, the Pencil paired with the iPad Pro has perfect palm rejection. Over the last month, I have never experienced a time where my palm caused the screen to add a mark I didn’t wish to be there.

The combination of near zero latency and perfect palm rejection results in a device that can actually function like a notebook and pencil. Pick it up, start writing, no annoying compromises…

Compromises

So maybe there are a few compromises. There is a certain satisfying tactile interaction between the tip of a pencil or pen with a paper surface. I didn’t realize how satisfying this was until I started using the Apple Pencil. While the Pencil feels like the “real deal” in many ways (weighted and sized well), the interaction of the plastic tip and the glass screen feels foreign. The tap tap tap of the plastic on glass when writing quickly sounds weird too. I wonder what the first humans to use a pencil and paper thought about their first experiences. I’m not convinced these odd sensations are “bad” but the unfamiliarity does subtract from the overall paper and pen replacement experience for me.

As I noted above, I love the design of the Pencil: it is weighted and sized well (it is slightly larger than most writing devices but I like it). However, there are a couple of issues I have with the hardware itself. First, unlike many styluses, there is no built-in way to erase. The back of the Pencil does not function as an eraser and there are no function buttons that can trigger the tip to become an eraser. In a way, the Pencil acts more like a pen in this regard.

Charging the device is a hiliarious endevour. In the most un-applely way, the Pencil charges by uncapping a male lighting port on the back of the Pencil and plugging into the female lighting port on the iPad Pro. It looks as ridiculous as it sounds. There are no battery indication on the Pencil itself (you get a battery % in your widget bar on your iPad though). That said, you can get a 30 minute life from just 15 seconds of charging and I haven’t had any issues of wanting to use the Pencil only to find it dead.

The size of the iPad Pro, while impressively thin and light, is still too heavy to use with one hand for prolonged times. In order to use this in the classroom, I’ve ordered a hand strap that will allow me to hold the iPad without have to rely on my fingers too much. This isn’t an issue when using the iPad on a desk but there were times when I was in the classroom, sitting in the chair or laying in bed where I just had to put down the device because my hand was getting tired. The strap really helped and I highly recommend it but fully anticipate Apple reduce weight with upcoming revisions.

The Display

So far I’ve focused on the Pencil in this iPad Pro review. And for good reason, I definitely think that the Pencil fulfills the iPad’s potential as a paper/pen replacement but the iPad Pro display is also an important part of the equation. Ask any print shop professional, size matters. The size of the iPad Pro is closer to the size of a regular 8 x 11.5 notebook page. This means when viewing a research article, the entire page can be viewed without having to zoom in/out constantly. This sounds like trivial but when you are grading/marking up dozens of assignments or journal articles, reducing the time required to read and mark up helps the experience greatly.

So while the size of the display greatly adds to the paper/pencil replacement theory I’ve been developing, it also adds an additional challenge to developers. Now in order to develop a universal app (one that works on both iPhone and iPad), they have to optimize their app to take advantage of the size of the iPad Pro. In some cases, this is trivial (see Microsoft Word) but in others the resulting apps look terrible (see Twitter). I’m sure this will be less of an issue as time goes on and many of my favorite apps have already optimized their apps (Explain Everything, Papers 3, Microsoft Word, Box, Lightroom , Pixelmator have all optimized their apps).

Conclusion

The combination of the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil creates, for the first time, a true paper and pencil replacement. While there are small compromises in the functionality of the pencil and weight of the iPad Pro, the accumlated effect of the fast latency of the Pencil, palm rejection, and size of the device makes the iPad Pro function as a paper and pencil extremely well. The resulting device can easily fit into and enhance many workflows found within the academic world.

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