The Case for a Larger ‘iPad Pro’ with Integrated Keyboard

Apple's iPad Air paves the way for a slightly wider tablet.

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Apple, TIME Tech Illustration

Gadget geeks are pretty good at pattern recognition. Immediately after Apple announced the ultra-light iPad Air last week, the tech world began speculating on the possibility of an “iPad Pro.”

Apple already offers the MacBook Air for mainstream laptop users and the MacBook Pro for those who want more power, so the birth of the iPad Air hints at a pro-level counterpart, aimed at people who use tablets as work machines. Given Apple’s messaging around iPad productivity during last week’s event, we can guess that Apple has at least thought about the idea.

So let’s indulge in a bit of speculation.

One thing that pundits are already talking about is the idea of a keyboard that also serves as a tablet stand and screen cover. Many third-party vendors offer this already, but a tightly integrated keyboard from Apple would be even better. Consider how the existing iPad Smart Cover connects through magnets built into the tablet, and it’s easy to imagine how a keyboard cover would shine. (And yes, I know Microsoft has its own implementation with Surface; let’s not turn this into a flame war.)

Apple is rumored to have prototyped its own keyboard cover, and some tech watchers thought we’d see it at last week’s event. But John Moltz makes a good point on why it didn’t happen:

The problem with iPad keyboard covers is that even the full-size iPad isn’t wide enough to accommodate a full-sized keyboard. Microsoft gave the Surface a different aspect ratio, so it’s more than an inch wider than the iPad in landscape. That gave them the room to make a full-sized keyboard. Apple doesn’t have that luxury and they’re not the kind of company that’s going to make a crappy half-solution.

Although Moltz doesn’t guess at what a proper solution would look like, a wider iPad makes sense. Just as Apple stretched the iPhone 5′s screen from 3.5 inches to 4 inches, a pro-level iPad could get a wider aspect ratio, while keeping pixel density the same at 264 pixels per inch.

How wide might this iPad go? Let’s assume that Apple would at least add a sixth row of icons to its home screen, following the same pattern as the iPhone 5. Keeping the distance between icons the same in portrait mode, the minimum size increase would be 322 pixels, for a total resolution of 2370-by-1536.

To maintain the Retina display, the screen size would measure 10.7 inches diagonally–exactly one inch longer than the iPad Air–and 8.98 inches lengthwise. With bezel size remaining at 7/8 of an inch on either side of the screen, the entire tablet would measure 10.73 inches lengthwise. That’s just enough for a full-sized keyboard.

There is one problem with my theory: The aspect ratio is atypical, floating halfway between 3:2 and 16:10. Alternatively, It might make sense for Apple to stretch the screen out even further. An iPad with 16:10 aspect ratio, for instance, would have a 2458-by-1536 resolution display, measuring just under 11 inches.

But Apple isn’t afraid of odd aspect ratios (the iPhone 5s is 71:40, just a little off from 16:9), and widening the screen too much would make it feel awkward in portrait mode. Also, keeping the screen as small as possible makes touch interaction easier, because you don’t have to move your hands as much. I know there’s speculation about a 13-inch iPad, but I question how comfortable that would be to hold in your hands or use in your lap. This hypothetical device still has to function like a normal tablet, after all.

Keyboard aside, those extra pixels could be useful for all kinds of apps. Consider GarageBand. In the current version, you can expand the instrument panel in track view to show the volume slider and mute controls, but this takes away from how much of the timeline you can see. A wider iPad could show more of the timeline even when the instrument panel is fully expanded. For movie editors, a wider iPad would reduce some of the letterboxing you get now, even if it’s still not a perfect fit for 16:9 video.

The app transition would be similar to what it was for the iPhone 5, with a black border on either side of the screen until the app is properly optimized. Having to expand app content in just one direction for each orientation would minimize the amount of work developers must do. Meanwhile, Apple could use the extra screen space for a slide-out app dock, allowing users to quickly toggle between programs.

If this kind of iPad Pro existed, we can assume it would include more processing power and RAM, and a Touch ID fingerprint sensor to make it more practical for business users. But mainly, I’m interested in what a pro-level iPad might look like, and how it would fit in with the rest of Apple’s lineup. A modest size increase to just under 11 inches would retain much of the comfort level and portability of the current iPad, while allowing for a full-sized keyboard and new software features. And while I have no idea whether this is something Apple will build, it’s something I’d be interested in.