Review: Apple's excellent new iPad is a real Pro and ever closer to a laptop replacement
Apple has a new portable computer that it believes will strongly appeal to professionals and creative types. But do people yet see the iPad Pro as a replacement for a MacBook Pro or a Windows equivalent?
Its extra power, bigger screen and redesigned Pencil combine to make a strong pitch along these lines.
But does the machine succeed?
Having used the new 11-inch model for more than a week, I can see a role for the iPad Pro in a professional's workflow.
To be clear, I need to make a quick disclaimer: I'm a regular iPad Pro user. I use it for work (a lot) and for non-work (movies, the web and photo-editing). So I'm naturally interested in some of the upgraded features on this new model.
All that said, it's a really decent upgrade. Paired with the new Smart Keyboard Folio case, it's sturdier and faster than the existing iPad Pro with a slightly larger screen (despite being the same physical size). It has also somewhat opened up its connection possibilities, thanks to the replacement of the Lightning port with a USB-C port. (In time, this could be a critical pivot in boosting it as a productivity tool.)
But it's also upped its game with graphics and processor speed, meaning that it is becoming a capable games and entertainment machine.
And storage is now on par with almost any laptop: my test model has a whopping one terabyte (1,000GB), making up somewhat for the lack of USB storage file transfers that you normally have with other laptops.
Finally, with its new 'liquid retina' display (the same design as the new iPhone Xr), videos and photos are rendered pretty spectacularly on it.
So if you don't have time to read any further into this review and are looking for a quick verdict, here it is: this machine is excellent. It's a worthy upgrade to the iPad Pro 10.5 and brings Apple's pro tablet ever closer to a genuine laptop replacement for more people. So far, the physical redesign (machine and keyboard Folio case) and the extra power are the stand-out features of the new model.
(i) Goodbye Touch ID, hello Face ID
As anyone following the specs will have seen, Apple has replaced the Touch ID fingerprint button with its Face ID system from the iPhone X range. But unlike the iPhone, Face ID works no matter which way you hold the tablet. In several days' usage, it has proven to be almost flawless. (It's basically the same camera system used in the iPhone X Face ID array.) I can't say that it's quicker than the Touch ID system, but it's certainly not slower.
(ii) An extra half-inch of screen space
The real payoff to removing the Touch ID button, though, is that you get extra screen real estate for free. This iPad Pro display is about 10pc bigger than the last 10.5-inch one, purely because the bezels have been thinned out and the Touch ID home button dropped. (The physical device is actually a little shorter than the old model but a little wider.)
Where this benefit really comes into its own is with multi-tasking. The split-screen windows you pull up are now that little bit bigger, making emails and word documents slightly fuller-looking.
In this context, there is arguably an even bigger advantage if you go for the new 12.9-inch model (which I haven't tested). Instead of increasing the size of the display on that model, Apple shrank the overall tablet footprint. So with the same display diameter, the overall iPad is now 17pc smaller than the previous one. That virtually guarantees that it will slip into any almost bag or briefcase you're using. For this reason, I'd expect the new 12.9-inch model to feature much more prominently on people's wish lists than it might have previously.
(iii) A lot more power under the hood
I also need to mention the significant speed upgrade. It's an unusual thing to notice in an iPad because most older iPads do a decent job of opening apps and flicking between things fairly quickly.
But there's a completely perceptible bump here. Maybe no more than a tenth of a second. But when you're multitasking in a pressurised work setting - as I often am at a press conference, for example - you can see it. There's less and less lag time, at all, between you swiping something and it instantly happening.
This, Apple says, is down to the new A12x processor it has put under the hood. I won't go into the finer details of the technical specs of that chip here. However, when Apple claims that the new iPad Pro is faster than 92pc of portable PCs (though it didn't say 'laptops') out there, it sounds about right. (There's a massive graphics boost, too, leading to a significant step up in gaming ability.) This, presumably, is one reason why Adobe is starting to really focus on the iPad Pro for fully functional Photoshop and Lightroom apps, something it hasn't felt comfortable doing up until now.
(iv) A more practical keyboard case
If we're talking pragmatically about its highlights, I should mention the redesigned Smart Keyboard Folio case. It's a proper step up from the 10.5-inch iPad Pro's Smart Keyboard, which has served me reasonably well this year.
It's stiffer, has two angles for the iPad (as opposed to one on the last Smart Keyboard) and is now a proper case, covering the rear of the machine as well as the display. This last feature will probably extend the life of this iPad considerably. I carry the iPad Pro around a bit and also plonk it on tables and into bags. The result is that my 10.5-inch machine has a small dent and a few sticker residue trails on the back.
It's definitely firmer and sturdier when using it on a lap, but still not quite as solid as a hard-cased laptop.
It connects to the iPad via the latter's newly-placed three-dot connection interface at the vertical lower end of the iPad's rear side, as opposed to the side of the bezel on the previous iPad Pros. Apple has been clever with the way it uses magnets here, making it very easy to connect first time.
Overall, it's just a lot smarter looking and more practical to bring around. It definitely looks more like a laptop or a productivity tool. The only mild sting is that because it covers more of the iPad, the Smart Keyboard Folio is a little more expensive (it costs €199) than the older Smart Keyboard.
(v) The return of a familiar aesthetic
I can't move away from the iPad Pro's redesign without mentioning its reshaped side bezels. Remember the iPhone SE? And the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S? Remember the flat sides they had? For many people, that particular design aesthetic was the high point of Apple's industrial design for phones.
Whether the company agrees with this or not, it has brought the look back. I like it a lot. Once again, the effect - particularly with the Smart Keyboard Folio - is to make this look more 'professional'.
(vi) USB-C replacing Lightning
This is another major change in the iPad Pro's overall build and potentially one that could significantly benefit productivity power users. By switching the charging connector to USB-C, Apple now lets the iPad Pro connect to monitors at up to 5K resolution and directly into cameras. But it also means that it can be used as a battery itself for an iPhone.
Note that this isn't the equivalent of a USB-C connection on a MacBook - it can't be used for as many purposes. So you can't just stick something in and transfer whatever's on it onto the iPad. It seems to still depend on whether there's an app on the iPad that will open it up. Nevertheless, this is a very hopeful move for those who want their iPad Pro to get closer to the flexibility of their laptop.
(vii) A much better Pencil
I've never been much of a Pencil user and for everyday use at work, I can't see that changing. Having said that, I've been playing with the redesigned Pencil and it's definitely more compelling than the last one. The biggest improvement (by far) is that it's magnetic and attaches to the side of the iPad, whence it immediately begins to charge. This is a big upgrade on the last Pencil charging system which meant awkwardly sticking the device into the Lightning port and leaving it hanging out. But it also has more sensors in it. The most practical benefit to these is that you can now tap the side of the Pencil to change its function (to an eraser, for example).
I'm going to be especially interested in trying the Pencil in more depth with Adobe's updated Photoshop and Lightroom apps.
(viii) Battery life is roughly the same
The way I use it, it varies a lot. Sometimes I'll get seven to eight hours out of it. Other times it's closer to four or five. Photo and video editing takes up more battery power than merely writing. Switching a lot between apps does too. Video streaming from the web also shortens the battery life compared to watching a downloaded video.
(ix) The camera and speakers
Apple has loaded the iPad Pro with what seems like the same camera as the iPhone Xs. So you can do the same high-quality portrait shots, for example. While I'm grateful for it, I'm not sure I quite need it. That said, those who FaceTime a lot will probably appreciate it.
I can't tell whether there's any improvement in the audio quality. Apple actually reduced the physical space available to its speakers, which normally has the consequence of lower-quality audio. I've played the movie back on each device at the same volume level and while the older 10.5-inch model seems more directional (at me), the overall quality seems similar.
(x) Gaming and AR
It's not clear to me that too many people will buy an iPad Pro with gaming in mind, but it has significantly improved its ability to deliver nonetheless. Its graphics capability has improved exponentially. Apple claims that in some respects, you get the same experience as on an Xbox One S.
That graphics and processing bump also comes into play with augmented reality apps, something which could be useful to some professionals. I've been playing with the landscaping app, iScape. It basically allows you to draw a garden, place fauna there and walk around, using your iPad as a window into that garden. It's pretty impressive.
A combination of the two - gaming and AR - can be seen with Lego's app. I'll admit that this is not my ideal for kids playing (why not let them physically build things themselves?). However, it shows off the capability of the iPad Pro and its engine really nicely.
(xi) Better get Apple Care
Unless you're covered, it's very expensive to fix an iPad. A quick look at Apple's repair schedule shows that it charges €540 to fix an 11-inch iPad Pro and €700 to fix a 12.9-inch iPad Pro. So the €139 it costs for Apple Care to protect the device may be worth it if you're the clumsy type.
(xii) Laptop replacement or not?
This isn't a downside to this iPad model, but more broadly speaking a downside to choosing a pro tablet as your main laptop. It still doesn't quite multi-task as well as a laptop, nor is it as accommodating for every task you might want to complete. For instance, if you're the type that likes having lots of programs (or windows) open, the iPad Pro is still second best as a computer. Yes, you can have lots of tabs open in a web browser, just like on a PC. But otherwise, your multitasking is limited to a split screen and swiping between apps. Personally, this is good enough for what I need to use it for. But for some, it may not be.
I've only been using and testing the iPad Pro for a week. But it's clear that Apple is making strides in making this into a more broadly appealing laptop replacement. It's certainly priced as such, with the 11-inch model starting at €909 (for 64GB) and going up to €1,739 (for 1,000GB). The 12.9-inch model starts at €1,129 (64GB) and goes up to €1,959 (1,000GB). And remember that the Smart Keyboard Folio costs extra (€199 for 11-inch model, €219 for 12.9-inch model), as does the Pencil (€135).