A few years ago in an interview, I asked Tim Cook whether he could ever see a day when iPads and MacBooks would get a lot closer.
He said that while there were features they would share, it would be too much of a compromise to “converge” them.
“We feel strongly that customers are not really looking for a converged Mac and iPad,” he told me.
“Because what that would wind up doing, or what we’re worried would happen, is that neither experience would be as good as the customer wants.
"We want to make the best tablet in the world and the best Mac in the world. And putting those two together would not achieve either. You’d begin to compromise in different ways.”
But Apple has just taken a very big step in bringing them closer.
One new feature in the iPad Pro is its Lidar scanner. Records depth really accurately.— Adrian Weckler (@adrianweckler) March 24, 2020
It makes apps like Measure better.
So now I can guarantee my 2m distance. pic.twitter.com/Rn3YUw6LMZ
Specifically, it has introduced a cursor for the iPad, via a trackpad keyboard, external trackpad or even an external mouse.
For the first time, you can now largely operate your iPad without touching the screen.
And that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last few days with a brand new iPad Pro 12.9-inch model. I’ve been using Apple’s impressive Magic Trackpad to do it, as the custom keyboard isn’t yet ready to ship.
Given I’ve only had it a few days, this is something of a first-impressions review.
But here’s the top line: the new iPad Pro makes the strongest case yet for those who want its speed and flexibility (and those apps) but who can’t drag themselves away from their laptop workflows.
I should also say, by way of context, that I’m a fairly committed iPad Pro user. I lean on mine every day for work (writing, editing, online research, photo-editing) and playing (movies, video editing, the occasional game). So I’ve a decent handle on what works well and what lags.
Before I give more detailed impressions about the big cursor-trackpad update, let me comment on some of the hardware upgrades to this particular iPad Pro. These are mainly in the cameras, with only marginal differences in the engine and almost none at all to the high-end display, battery and casing.
There are now two cameras on the rear of the iPad Pro, a regular 12-megapixel f1.8 lens and a new ultra-wide angle 10-megapixel lens. Normally, I’m lukewarm about taking photos with my iPad. However, there’s one additional bit to the new camera array on the machine that makes a difference: the Lidar scanner.
This is what the new cursor / trackpad support on the iPad Pro looks like.— Adrian Weckler (@adrianweckler) March 24, 2020
Remember: this is coming to all iPads when the iOS 13.4 update lands.
And you can use a compatible third party mouse or trackpad. pic.twitter.com/k95xjvvSbR
This basically gives the iPad much more accurate depth-sensing abilities. It’s seen as a big boost to augmented reality apps (such as games or some enterprise software), but will be immediately apparent in more pinpoint-accurate readings within the likes of Apple’s Measure app. I don’t expect everyone to take advantage of this, but it does give this iPad Pro a boost if you want a machine that will do well in AR.
As for power and speed, it appears to be very similar to the 2018 iPad Pro (which I still have and which is still blisteringly fast).
Apple doesn’t give out too many numbers in terms of its iPads’ technical specifications. We know that this one runs Apple’s multi-core A12Z processor. While Geekbench isn’t always the best guide, when I ran an online diagnostic, the new iPad Pro was only slightly higher than my existing iPad Pro 11. However, it was way above the previous iPad Pro 10.5.
The same diagnostic claims that the machine has 5.5GB of Ram, which sounds modest given that some smartphones now have 12GB of Ram. However, Apple has always pointed out that being in charge of more of its own engine design (and silicon) than any rival means that it may not need the same headline numbers to achieve faster performance.
It’s a similar story for battery life. The iPad Pro’s longevity is, so far, around 10 hours. That’s roughly what I got from the last model.
For me, the display is always a high point with higher-end iPads. This one has that wonderful 120hz smooth fluency and can reach 600 nits of brightness. The colours are just gorgeous, too.
I watched a few episodes of Star Trek Picard on it and it renders absolutely beautifully. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better display on a computer.
As for the keyboard folio case, it’s the same as the last one except for a wider cut-out for the additional cameras.
Alas, the special trackpad case that makes this iPad Pro so interesting isn’t yet available, even to test for reviewers.
But the regular folio keyboard case is fairly comfortable to type on and very robust. It’s also very easy to handle because of the matt exterior finish; it’s unlikely to slip off a table like a phone might if there’s a slight incline.
The only question I have is over the folio’s long term protection qualities. I’m aware of at least two iPad Pros whose screens have cracked from being in bags where the pressure (from other items in the bags) appear to have cracked the display. But otherwise, it’s superb.
Now, let me comment a bit more on that trackpad support and cursor operation.
What surprises me is how relatively simple and intuitive this is. I couldn’t have imagined how a cursor would work within an iPad. But it does. Apple has done a pretty outstanding job, here.
The ‘cursor’ is not an arrow but a small shaded circle (I’ve posted a few short videos on my Twitter account). But when it moves over something it can affect, it changes appropriately. For example, when it hovers over text, it becomes a flat, vertical text selection icon. Or it morphs into a shaded ‘x’ when you bring it over a ‘close’ box of a window.
This isn’t universal: it doesn’t work as expansively across all apps or services yet. For example, within some of Google’s apps, the cursor does change shape and doesn’t allow for things like scrubbing forward during a video. It’s likely that universal application won’t happen for a while, as app developers (in particular) tweak their code to adjust for the new tech.
But it does work really well within Apple’s own apps, including Safari.
I’m using Apple’s Magic Trackpad (because that trackpad keyboard won’t ship for another month or so), a Bluetooth accessory that works with other Macs and MacBooks.
When used with the iPad, my muscle memory misfires a bit and thinks I’m using a MacBook; I instinctively reach for a phantom trackpad at the bottom of the iPad keyboard.
As I said before, the thing about this is that it’s not strictly an iPad Pro feature. Apple says that any iPad with next update of iOS (13.4) can do the same thing.
Apple is only making a trackpad keyboard that fits this new model and the previous 11-inch and 12.9 iPad Pros.
It’s likely that third party manufacturers will step in with their own trackpad-specific keyboard cases.
There is one existential question to arise out of this. If you want a cursor for your iPad, shouldn’t you really be using a MacBook?
I’ve been thinking about this ever since I starting whizzing the little round ball around theiPad Pro screen. Because I’ve only been using it a few days, I haven’t made up my mind about this yet.
My initial instinct is that there is still an awful lot to distinguish the two machines. The benefits of an iPad Pro, to me, are still there: speed, convenience and the ability to work and play within apps (still a much superior user experience for many of the everyday services I use than using them in a browser).
A MacBook Air, by comparison, still has a slightly better keyboard and can run more enterprise applications in a way your company’s IT support manager is comfortable with.
So as Tim Cook told me five years ago, a MacBook Air (or any laptop) is still quite different from an iPad Pro.
But the difference is certainly narrowing.
The 11-inch iPad Pro starts at €909 for the wifi model and €1,079 for the wifi-plus-cellular model. The 12.9-inch model, which I’ve been testing, starts at €1,129 for the wifi model and €1,299 for the wifi-plus-cellular model. It starts at 128GB and is available up to 1TB.