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Portable Performance: Is the iPad Pro Viable as a Professional Video Tool?

6/27/2016 2:30 PM Eastern

Mark me down as a happy Apple iPad user. It’s my go-to computer away from home, unless I need to bring my laptop for on-site video editing. I’ve even written some magazine stories, like my NAB Show reports, on it. My first was the original iPad, which I recently upgraded to an iPad Air 2. While I don’t consider myself a post-PC computer user, I imagine that if I didn’t need to run tools like Blackmagic Resolve, Apple Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere Pro, an iPad Pro could function as my only computer.

For this review, Apple loaned me a 12.9-inch 128 GB Wi-Fi + Cellular iPad Pro at the start of the year. It came with all the bells and whistles, including Apple Pencil ($99), a Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader, case, Smart Cover and Smart Keyboard. The Pro’s A9X processor is beefy for a tablet. Other reviewers have noted that its performance rivals Apple’s smallest MacBook with the Intel Core M CPU. Since the iPad Air 2 processor (A8X)  is only one step down, you won’t see that much difference between it and the iPad Pro on most iOS applications. However, the A9X delivers twice the CPU and graphics performance of the Air 2’s A8X, so there is a difference in driving the larger 12.9-inch Pro screen, as well as with multitasking and animation-heavy applications.

Many specs are the same between these two models, with the exception that the iPad Pro includes four speakers and adds a Smart Connector, to be used with the optional Smart Keyboard. In addition, the Pro’s touchscreen has been re-engineered to scan at 240 times per second (twice as fast as scanning for your finger) to support use of the Apple Pencil.

On March 21 Apple launched a second iPad Pro model, which uses the same 9.7-inch form factor as the iPad Air 2. Other than screen size, the two Pro models sport nearly identical specs, including A9X processor, four speakers and Smart Connector. There’s a Smart Keyboard specifically designed for each model. (The Smart Keyboard for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is $149 and the Smart Keyboard for the 12.9-inch model is $169.) Since I tested the larger version, the rest of this review is in the context of using the 12.9-inch iPad Pro model.

The hallmark of iOS 9 is multitasking, which lets you run two applications simultaneously, side by side on the screen. You can go between them, slide the divider bar to change the width of each app’s window or move them completely off the screen. This feature is superb on the larger iPad Pro, owing to the extra screen real estate. It’s not quite as functional on the other iPads. However, many applications and web pages don’t seem to be fully optimized for the larger screen of the iPad Pro. It often feels like pages are slightly blown up or that there’s a lot of wasted space.

Accessories

The iPad Pro starts to stand out once you accessorize it. You can get an iPad Pro Silicone Case, iPad Pro Smart Cover and/or Smart Keyboard. The covers magnetically attach to the iPad, so be careful. If you hold or lift the heavier iPad Pro by the cover, it can detach, resulting in the Pro potentially dropping to the floor. Both the Smart Cover and the Smart Keyboard can fold into a stand to prop up the iPad Pro on a desk. When you fold the Smart Keyboard back into a cover, it’s a very slim lid that fits over the screen. The feel of the keyboard is OK, but I prefer the action of the small standalone Apple Bluetooth keyboard, which I use with my own iPad. Other reviewers have expressed a preference for the Logitech keyboard available for the Pro. These new keyboards connect to the iPad Pro via the Smart Connector, which offers two-way power and data transfer, meaning that the keyboard does not require a battery.

The new Apple Pencil is getting the most press. Unlike other pointing devices, Pencil requires charging and can be paired only with the iPad Pro. Pencil is a blast to use with Pixelmator or FiftyThree’s Paper. It’s nicely weighted and feels as close to drawing with a real pen or pencil as you can get with an electronic stylus. It is pressure-sensitive and you can even shade with the side of the tip. For drawing, in apps like Photoshop Express, Autodesk Graphic and Lucky Clan ArtStudio, the Pencil is clearly superior to low-cost third-party styli or your finger. FiftyThree also offers its own drawing styli that are optimized for use with the Paper app.

As a pointing device, the Apple Pencil isn’t quite as good, since it was designed for fine detail. According to Apple, their design criteria included pixel-level precision. The Pencil does require charging, which you can do by plugging it into the iPad’s Lightning port, or directly charging it by using the regular Lightning cable and charger via a small adapter ring. When the Pencil gets low on juice, a warning pops up on the iPad Pro’s screen. Plug it into the Lightning port for a quick boost. Apple claims that 15 seconds of charging will give you 30 minutes of use and my experience bore out this claim.

The final accessory to mention is the Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader. The Lightning port supports USB 3.0 speeds on the iPad Pro, making transfers fast. Plug the reader into the Lightning port and pop your SD card into the reader. The Photos application will open to the contents of the card and you can import a selection of clips. Unfortunately, there is no generic way to transfer files from an SD card onto the iPad. I’ve been able to cheat it a little by putting some renamed H.264 files into the DCIM folder structure from a Canon EOS 5D camera. This made everything look like valid camera media. Then I could move files into Photos, which is Apple’s management tool for both camera stills and videos on the iPad. However, it doesn’t work for all files, such as graphics or audio tracks that you might use for a voiceover.

Using the iPad Pro as a Professional Video Tool

Is the iPad Pro better for the video professional than other tablets and iPads? Obviously the bigger screen is nice if you are editing in iMovie, but is there more to it than that?

I worked with a number of applications for this review. FiLMiC Pro ($9.99), for example, adds real camera controls to the iPad’s built-in camera, including ISO, white balance, focus, frame rates and stabilization controls. It was used in the production of the hit Sundance film Tangerine (shot on an iPhone 5s) and is a must-have tool if you intend to do serious captures with any iOS device. The footage looks good and H.264 compression (starting at 32 Mb/s) artifacts are not very visible. Unfortunately, the app doesn’t offer shutter angle control to induce motion blur, which would smooth out the footage.

To make real production viable, you would need camera rigging and accessories. The weight of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro makes it tough to shoot steady handheld footage with it. Outside in bright daylight, the screen is too dim even at its brightest setting. Having some sort of display hood is a must. (The same criticism applies if you are trying to draw on the iPad Pro outside.) Nevertheless, if you mounted an iPad or iPad Pro in some sort of fixed manner, it could be very useful for recording interviews and on similar controllable productions. iOgrapher produces some of these rigging items but does not yet support the iPad Pro

For video editors, the built-in option is iMovie. It is possible to edit external material if you bring it in via the card reader, Dropbox, iCloud Drive, or by syncing with your regular computer. (Apple’s suggested transfer path is via AirDrop over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.)

Once you’ve edited your piece, you can move the project file from iOS iMovie to iMovie on your computer using iCloud Drive and then import that project into Final Cut Pro X. In my tests, the media was embedded into the project and none of the original timecode or file names were maintained. Frame rates were also changed from 29.97 fps to 30.0 fps. If you intend to use this path, it’s best for video originated on the iPad itself.

If you want a professional nonlinear editing tool for the iPad, nothing even comes close to TouchEdit, an app developed by feature film editor Dan Lebental, ACE (Ant-Man, Iron Man, Cowboys & Aliens), and his team. TouchEdit includes many of the tools an editor would expect, such as trimming, titles and audio mixing, plus it tracks all of the important clip metadata. There is a viable workflow to get clips onto—and an edit list and/or movie out of—the iPad.

Lebental started with a skeuomorphic interface design that borrows from the look of a flatbed editor. The newest version of the software includes the option for a flattened interface skin, plus a portrait and landscape layout, each of which enables somewhat different capabilities. TouchEdit is attractive as an offline editing tool that definitely benefits from the larger size and improved performance of the iPad Pro.

Final Thoughts

I used the 12.9-inch iPad Pro for three months. It’s a wonderful tool, but also a mixed bag. The more ample screen real estate makes the 12.9-inch easier to use than the 9.7-inch iPad models, but the smaller device is tweaked so that many pages are displayed a bit differently, making the size advantage of the larger Pro model less pronounced. The Pro uses the same iOS 9 operating system as all the other iPads and iPhones, which holds the Pro back. iPad Pro is begging for some sort of hybrid “iOS Pro” operating system that would make the iPad Pro work more like a laptop. Naturally, Apple’s position is that iPads are “touch-first” devices and iOS a “touch-first” operating system. The weakest spot is the lack of true file I/O and a visible file structure. You have to go through Dropbox, iCloud, Photos, AirDrop, e-mail, or be connected to iTunes on your home machine.

The cost of the larger iPad Pro would seem to force a decision between buying the 12” MacBook or the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. The two have similar size, weight and performance. In John Gruber’s Daring Fireball review, he opined that in the case of the iPad Pro, “professional” should really be thought of in the context of “deluxe.” According to him, the iPad Pro relates to the regular iPad line in the same way a MacBook Pro relates to the other MacBooks. In other words, if an iPad serves your needs and you can afford the top-end version, then the Pro is for you. Its target market is thus self-defining. The iPad Pro is a terrific step up in all the things that make tablets the computing choice for many. Depending on your needs, it’s a great portable computer. For the few who are moving into the post-PC world, it could even be their only computer. 

Quick Take

Product: Apple iPad Pro

Score:

Pros: Fastest processing of any Apple mobile device, rivaling entry-level computers. More precise touch resolution. Specialty peripherals optimized for the iPad Pro models.

Cons: Not all applications seem optimized for the larger screen. Better file I/O and file structure is needed for more advanced applications.

Bottom Line: While the standard iPad is a device suitable primarily for media consumption, improvements found in iPad Pro, especially the 12.9-inch version, make it appropriate for media production as well. The larger screen is ideal for tablet-based drawing and lightweight video editing.

MSRP: 9.7-inch model from $599, 12.9-inch model from $799

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