With its iPad Pro, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has created a large version of its tablet with an optional, not-very-good keyboard. It's an intriguing device that fills no real market need and serves no real audience.
As an experiment, iPad Pro pushes boundaries. As a practical product, it leaves a lot to be desired, and it's hard to make a case for it against Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Surface Pro line, or its new Surface Book laptop/tablet hybrid. It's not that the big, high-end iPad isn't an impressive tablet, it's just that it's not a laptop replacement, and in some ways, its size makes it impractical as a tablet.
That makes iPad Pro a laptop/tablet hybrid that, in a lot of normal situations, replaces neither device. It's also in no way a desktop replacement, even though CEO Tim Cook suggested to Re/Code that it could be.
"Yes, the iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people. They will start using it and conclude they no longer need to use anything else, other than their phones," Cook said.
That would be true for someone who never flies on a plane, uses his laptop on his lap, or has a desktop monitor bigger than 12.9 inches.
It's a really nice tablet
While it's hard to see exactly who would use the iPad Pro over a Surface Pro, a Surface Book, or even Apple's own MacBooks, it's still a pretty impressive tablet. The retina screen offers stunning detail, and the extra three-plus inches of screen compared to an iPad is especially useful in laptop mode.
The problem is that even though it's light for its size (1.57 pounds) and thinner than other iPads (6.99 millimeters, pretty similar to an iPhone 6), and reaching those numbers likely required many feats of engineering, iPad Pro is still awkward when used as a tablet. Imagine spending an hour reading a book on it, or watching a movie with no place to put it down?
If you use a tablet solely on a desk or a table, then this is the best one ever created. But, if like most people, you use a tablet in bed, on the train, and in other mobile situations, the iPad Pro is just too much device.
The keyboard is a fail
One of the biggest successes of Microsoft's Surface line is its innovative keyboard that also serves as a cover for the device. While it's not quite as good as a top-tier laptop, the Surface Type Cover offers a full keyboard with a decent trackpad, and all the keys you would expect to find. That makes Surface, especially the Pro 3 and 4, decent laptop replacements. This is helped by the kickstand in the back of the Pro Surface devices that allows it to be propped up in a variety of angles.
It's still a bit hard to use on your lap, but it's vastly better than Apple's Smart Keyboard, which is a folding cover that's missing the row of function keys that top the MacBook keyboard and does not have a trackpad. It's also a floppy design that makes it useful only a hard surface like a desk or table.
The key action itself is OK, in line with Microsoft's, or at least close, but if you have to work on a desk anyway, why pay $169 for that when a top-of-the-line Bluetooth-enabled Apple Magic keyboard costs just $99, and the Magic Mouse 2 goes for $79? Yes, that's $10 more, but you get a mouse and much better keyboard.
Realistically, less than $50 could buy you a decent Bluetooth keyboard and mouse combo that would be an improvement over the Smart Keyboard. Of course, you would still need a kickstand of some sort, because unlike Surface, iPad Pro does not have one built in.
A stylus is a little silly
In addition to the Smart Keyboard, Apple is also selling a stylus, the Apple Pencil, for $99. It's not available yet (it ships in early December), and I have not tested it, but I'd argue that at best, a stylus is for a niche audience.
Apple Pencil, like the similar peripheral Microsoft offers, is almost certainly impressive for what it is, but both companies appear to have over-estimated just how often our fingers aren't more than enough when using a touchscreen. Some artists and designers may appreciate Apple Pencil, as might some college kids who want to take notes by hand, but aside from those groups, a stylus is just not something a mass audience is any more interested in now than it was when Apple offered one with the Newton in 1993.
Innovation without an audience
Apple has done some pretty impressive things with the iPad Pro and built a tablet with fairly stunning specs. That would be more impressive if its lower-end tablets weren't already fairly great, and if iPad Pro filled any sort of need.
It's too big to be a useful tablet, too small to be a desktop replacement, and as a laptop, well, it isn't one. iPad Pro is fun to play with, and perhaps it can find a niche audience with artists or creative types, but it's just not a practical replacement for a tablet, a laptop, or a desktop.
Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. He has owned two Apple Newtons in his life. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.