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New iPad Pro review: A minor upgrade with intriguing implications

Apple’s latest tablets are just a little better. But their emphasis on content creation, AR, and laptop-like utility says plenty about Apple’s future.

New iPad Pro review: A minor upgrade with intriguing implications

Some new Apple products have a whiff of “finally” about them. The new MacBook Air, with modern accoutrements such as a Retina display along with an excellent keyboard and a respectable 256GB of storage, for $999? Finally!

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The new iPad Pro, however, is the furthest thing possible from a “finally” product. After all, the previous iPad Pro, which shipped in November 2018, is hardly an antique. In fact, it’s so capable that its operating system, iPadOS, is still playing catch-up with the hardware’s potential.

Still, just a little more than 16 months after that machine’s arrival, Apple is back with another new iPad Pro. It’s an incremental upgrade to its meaty predecessor, which trimmed down the tablet’s bezels, souped up its processor, incorporated Face ID and USB-C, and added ultra-clever magnetic inductive charging for a new version of the Pencil stylus. This time around, Apple gave the iPad Pro another performance boost and substantially upgraded its camera system. In a first for an Apple product, it also built in a lidar scanner for augmented reality distance-measuring.

Judged on its existing and new merits, this tablet is a highly evolved delight. But if you already have the 2018 iPad Pro, you would need to be awfully serious about tablet photography and/or AR to find it a compelling upgrade, at prices that start at $799 for the 11″ model and $999 for its 12.9″ big brother.

Coming in May: The Magic Keyboard case (right) that turns the iPad Pro into a newfangled sort of laptop. [Photo: courtesy of Apple]
Hold on, though. In May, Apple plans to release an accessory that may have more impact on the way people use an iPad than the new version of the tablet itself will—and it’s compatible with both the 2020 and 2018 models. The Magic Keyboard case will give the iPad Pro a laptop-caliber backlit keyboard and trackpad, along with the ability to swivel the tablet to the angle of your choice and charge it without commandeering its USB-C port. For those willing to pay the price ($299 for the 11″ version, $349 for 12.9″), it looks like a productivity game changer. (Lower-end iPads will get cheaper, less extravagantly innovative keyboard/trackpad cases from Logitech.)

For the past week, I’ve been living with a new 12.9″ iPad Pro provided by Apple. I used it with the $129 Pencil and $199 Smart Keyboard Folio (an existing keyboard case available in a slightly updated version) to perform tasks such as writing this article. I also tried iPadOS’s new cursor support by using Apple’s Magic Trackpad. As someone who’s spent—this is a conservative guesstimate—2,500 hours working on a 2018 iPad Pro, the new one largely felt like the old one. Mostly, I felt like I was priming myself for the era that will begin once the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard bring the most laptop-like iPad experience yet.

Built for pros

In the early days of the iPad, before Apple started taking the device’s cameras seriously, it was pretty much conventional wisdom that shooting photos and video with a tablet was not only a bad idea but kind of embarrassing. Today, iPad photography may remain a niche activity. In a wholly unscientific Twitter poll, I asked iPad users how much they used the rear camera: Only 3% reported doing so “frequently.” Thirteen percent said they used it “sometimes” and a whopping 80% said “never or almost never.”

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The iPad Pro’s big square bump holds the new ultra-wide camera and lidar scanner. [Photo: courtesy of Apple]
Using an iPad Pro as a camera in the way we use smartphones as our constant photographic companions still isn’t fun; at a pound and up, they’re too unwieldy. And did I mention you can’t stick one in your pocket?

But even Apple isn’t positioning the tablet as a snapshot taker. Instead, it sees a market for the iPad Pro among filmmakers, YouTubers, and other creatives for whom the tablet can be an all-in-one studio in a way that even a powerful MacBook Pro is not. With that in mind, it added an ultra-wide camera (complementing the existing wide-angle one) and 4K video shooting, matching features available with the iPhone 11. It also upgraded the tablet’s five microphones to “studio quality” units designed to pick up sound better in tricky situations, which will benefit even not-so-pro experiences such as FaceTime calls and Zoom conferences.

Along with these audio/visual upgrades, the new iPad Pro sports Apple’s new eight-core A12Z Bionic processor. It’s not a dramatic advance on the old model’s A12X. When I ran the GeekBench 5 benchmark on the previous and new tablets, the CPU scores were a wash: around 1,100 in both cases. In the compute (GPU) tests, the new iPad Pro got a score of about 10,000, 16% faster than the earlier model’s score of 8600.

As a camera, the iPad Pro is more studio equipment than handheld snapshot taker. [Photo: courtesy of Apple]
Benchmarks, however, don’t tell the whole story. Apple says that improvements to the new iPad Pro’s thermal engineering help the tablet deal better with computationally-intensive tasks of the sort that content creators perform. My experiments here were encouraging. An 82MB photo that took five seconds to open in Photoshop on the previous iPad Pro opened in 3.5 seconds on the new model—snappier enough to make a difference. Exporting a 2.6GB video from iMovie took five minutes 24 seconds on the old iPad Pro and four minutes five seconds on the new one.

The new iPad Pro’s hardware feels like it has sprinted ahead of most available software.

A more striking factoid: Exporting the same video from iMovie on Apple’s new MacBook Pro took a hair over 14 minutes, more than three times as long as on the new iPad Pro. That might not be due solely to processor performance, since the Mac and iPad versions of iMovie aren’t identical. But ever since the first iPad Pro debuted in 2015, Apple has been saying that the tablet is faster than most laptops—and it’s nice to see that the company isn’t done optimizing it for industrial-strength tasks.

It’ll be nicer still when more pro-level iPad creativity apps arrive to harness all the tablet’s computational horsepower. That’s happening, but slowly; like the 2018 iPad Pro, the new one feels like its hardware has sprinted ahead of most available software.

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All in on AR

Apple calls the new iPad Pro “the world’s best device for augmented reality.” That claim surprised me until I looked back and saw that it said the same thing about the previous iPad Pro. It’s just that last time around, there was so much new stuff that the AR aspect wasn’t paramount.

Is the relatively hefty iPad Pro indeed the ideal gadget for consuming AR? Definitely not if you’re gallivanting around capturing Pokémon (a pastime that is best to postpone at the moment in any event). But many AR scenarios are closer to home, such as measuring stuff, positioning virtual furniture in real-world spaces, and playing games that don’t involve much roaming. In these cases, the tablet’s large screen makes for a more immersive experience than peering at the hybrid real/digital world through a phone screen.

An upcoming version of the Ikea Place app scans rooms and detects their current furnishings. [Photo: courtesy of Apple]
The new iPad Pro’s new lidar scanner—which sits with the cameras on the back in an iPhone 11-like bump—can quickly detect objects (and people) up to five meters away and determine how they’re positioned in relation to each other. That’s a boon for AR applications, which need to have an understanding of your real-world environment so they can lay digital imagery on top of it. The implications that go far beyond the new iPad Pro: Our own Mark Sullivan has reported that Apple plans to add similar technology to the next iPhone. When and if Apple releases AR glasses, lidar could also be a major part of the recipe. (The tech might also help with photographic effects—like background-blurring bokeh—but is used only for AR in the new iPad Pro, which limits portrait-mode photos to its front-facing camera.)

As of now, with existing apps written using Apple’s ARKit framework, lidar’s impact is noticeable but not transformative. With the old iPad Pro (or an iPhone), orienting AR apps involves an inelegant process of waving the tablet around while it displays messages coaching you to continue your jostling until it’s identified flat surfaces. Thanks to lidar, the new iPad Pro dispenses with this rigmarole and is ready to go almost instantly. This speedup certainly enhances apps such as Apple’s Measure (a virtual tape measure) and iScape (a landscaping app that lets you plant digital foliage in your yard).

With lidar, AR apps such as the iScape landscaping tool are ready to go almost instantly.

But the real reason to be excited about lidar is its potential to unleash new features in apps that are written specifically to take advantage of it. Apple has been teasing several such products as part of its iPad Pro rollout. A new version of Ikea Place, for example, will scan your room, identify the furnishings you’ve already got, and suggest new items to complement them. And a game called Hot Lava will plop down virtual patches of lava for you to jump over, positioning them with more sophistication than existing AR apps, which tend to mostly detect the most obvious surfaces such as tabletops and floors.

What AR needs most of all are killer apps that teeming masses of people want to use. The app industry is still struggling to come up with them, which is why the four-year-old Pokémon Go remains the category’s go-to example. Lidar may provide some of the necessary inspiration. Ultimately, I’m more excited about the technology in phone form than on a tablet: The 1.4-lb. 12.9″ iPad quickly got tiresome when I held it up for extended AR sessions. (The 1-lb. 11″ model would be less of a handful.)

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Here comes the cursor

Full disclosure: After using various iPads as primary computing devices for more than eight years, I’ve never craved mouse or trackpad input. When I reviewed the original iPad Pro in 2015, I even helpfully pointed out that “THE LACK OF A MOUSE IS THE WHOLE POINT!!!” (yes, in bold caps with three exclamation points). I remain grateful that Apple devoted its intellectual capital to building a touch-first platform rather than trying to split the difference with the PC, as Microsoft’s Surface has always done, to uneven effect.

But . . .

Having spent a little time with the iPad Pro and Apple’s Magic Trackpad, I’m sold on the new cursor support. It’s available for all iPads in the latest iPadOS update, but leaves me even more impatient for the iPad Pro’s trackpad-equipped Magic Keyboard to show up in May.

Rather than grafting the Mac’s venerable pointy cursor onto the iPad interface, Apple rethought what mouse-style input should be like in a mostly touch environment. The cursor is a circle—evoking a fingertip—that morphs with balletic grace as you slide it over elements such as buttons. It’s one of the most polished pieces of software functionality that Apple or anyone else has introduced lately, and the first major payoff of Apple’s decision last year to rebrand the iPad’s version of iOS as iPadOS.

Using the Magic Trackpad—a jumbo-size external Bluetooth model—I selected jumbo blocks of text, used two fingers to scroll through documents, and right-clicked to reach heretofore inaccessible menus in web apps. Everything just worked. (Well, 99% of everything—the Todoist app didn’t always register clicks on its checkboxes; an update is in development.) Developers that want to shape-shift the cursor in ways tailored to their apps will be able to do so through software updates. That customization seems like it will be particularly important for productivity apps; Apple itself plans to release new versions of its Pages, Numbers, and Keynote soon.

Historically, Apple has often been at its best when it’s ignored pleas for new features until it’s felt like it has something that’s fully baked. One classic example: cut and paste, which didn’t come to the iPhone until two years after the smartphone’s 2007 release. In the case of mouse-cursor support, Apple is delivering something that people began asking for close to a decade ago, when the iPad was new. But we’re getting the kind of carefully considered support the platform deserves. And it’s here for every iPad that can run iPadOS 13, not just the new iPad Pro.

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Can I say it?

Finally!

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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