A few minutes before our Delta flight touches down in Austin, Texas, the flight attendant walks through the plane’s aisle one last time. Tray tables and seats in their upright and locked position, please. Bags underneath the seat in front of you. She pauses for a moment at my row, and waves until I look up. She brings her two hands together as if closing sesame, while mouthing the word laptop. But then I hit the home button on my iPad Pro, and swiveled it around. “It’s just an iPad!” I say back. She waves me off—never mind. I go back to typing.
When I reviewed the iPad Pro, I did a lot of things with Apple’s huge new tablet. But I didn’t take it on a plane for the first time until the day after it went on sale. Since then, I’ve pulled The Full Cook: I’ve been traveling with an iPhone and an iPad Pro, and nothing else. It’s been on six planes and one cruise ship. Here’s what I’ve found: If you travel a lot, you should buy an iPad Pro, or one of the many devices like it from Microsoft, Dell, Google, and others. These two-in-one laptop-tablet hybrid devices are the best travel companion since plane-friendly liquor bottles.
An iPad By Any Other Name…?
First, a word of caution: No one who works at the airport has any idea what you’re using. You’ll get stopped at one security check and rudely reminded that “you’re supposed to take your laptop out of your bag, sir.” Then two others won’t say a word. Then one will say, “No, it’s fine, iPads can stay in your bag,” only to take it out and say, “This isn’t an iPad—it has a keyboard.”
The best trick of the iPad Pro and devices like it is that they’re somehow both big and small. Big enough that you can watch movies without squinting, type on a full-size keyboard, and do two things at once; small enough that it fits into a seatback pocket or onto a tray table. When you use your laptop on the plane, you’re dealing with the risk of the jerk in front of you reclining their seat and crunch it in half. With the iPad Pro, the worst thing they could do is knock it out of the keyboard attachment. It is, to be fair, too big to hold for more than a half-hour or so—reaching for the FIFA controls got tiresome after a while. The extra bulk is definitely worth the occasional thumb cramps.
The biggest reason is an obvious one: power. Normally, you’d either spend half your layover hunting for a spare outlet, or deciding between using your laptop now (and killing the battery) and waiting to use it on the plane (and praying the Wi-Fi works). But the iPad Pro lasted through a 90-minute flight, a three-hour layover, and another four-hour flight, and the battery meter never even hit red. On the off chance that you do need some juice, the Pro comes with the longest Lightning cable I’ve ever seen.
For almost half of a cross-country flight, I watched the portly man in the middle seat next to me try to play the games included in Delta’s seatback entertainment system. He was taken with a golf game, but couldn’t figure out how to get it to work. It wasn’t his fault; he’d tap the screen at just the right spot for maximum driving power, but the terrible touchscreen would register it a split second too late and his avatar would drive the ball into the water (again) and then cover his face in shame. Meanwhile I played Angry Birds Go for a bit, then switched over to NBA 2K16. I hooked up the SteelSeries Nimbus controller to the Pro, and played like I was sitting in front of my Xbox One. OK, maybe my Sega Dreamcast, graphics-wise. At least something happened every time I hit the button.
The right way to use the iPad Pro is on a desk, or table, or some other sturdy horizontal surface. It’s easier to draw with the Pencil that way, and the Smart Keyboard props up much more comfortably there than on your lap. It’s bad in a hotel bed, too, which is a shame because working in bed while wearing a cushy robe and eating room service is one of the great luxuries of business travel. The Pro is really meant for the hotel bar or a coffee shop. Imperfect as it is in this use case, however, it still works in your hands or cradled in your arm like an easel. That’s a lot more than I can say for a laptop.
There are lots of little things about the iPad Pro that make it an all-in-one travel companion. Its four speakers are powerful enough that you don’t need to bring a separate Bluetooth speaker. If you get the LTE-capable model (you should), you can connect to networks all over the world just by opening up the Settings menu. If you get more than the base 32GB of storage (you should), you can download enough movies, games, and reading material that you’ll have plenty to do even where there’s no coverage. iOS is in general better-suited to offline use than any laptop operating system—you can use Pocket and Instapaper to save some things to read, or download movies from Amazon Video or YouTube.
Most great things about the iPad Pro are also great things about every other iPad. They’re also great things about the Microsoft Surface, the Dell XPS 12, Google’s new Pixel C, or any of the myriad other look-ma-no-laptops! devices out there. The iPad Pro is an exceptional case, thanks to the Pencil, the battery life, and the unparalleled app store, but all offer the same basic things. This is how we live now: constantly on the move, constantly connected. You don’t have time to turn off your electronics, not even during takeoff and landing. When you’re on the road you have less need for USB ports and printing capabilities (though I do miss having an SD slot on the iPad). You need something that goes anywhere, that works in all the weird places you do.
I spent a cross-country flight watching movies, drawing pictures, playing console-quality games, writing this story … and watching more movies. So goodbye, boring in-flight magazines with your tips about things to do in Albuquerque. Hello, iPad Pro.