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By Jason Snell

iPad Pro 2018 review: A computer, not a PC

You have to judge a product on what it is.

In starting the pricing of the 2018 iPad Pro models at $799 and $999, in comparing the power of the A12X chip inside to PC laptops, in replacing the Lightning port of previous iOS devices with the USB-C port found on Mac and PC devices, Apple is sending a clear message: The iPad Pro is not meant to be a toy or a curiosity or an alternate device. It is just as serious a device as a computer, Apple suggests, and if that’s true we should judge it accordingly.

But just because the iPad Pro needs to be taken as seriously as a computer doesn’t mean it should be judged as a PC. The iPad is not a computer, not as the term’s been defined for the past 40 years. It’s something new and different, and it excels in some ways that PCs don’t while also struggling to do some things that PCs do well.

No, the iPad Pro can’t do everything a PC can do—nor should we expect it to, because it’s not a PC. If you choose to use an iPad Pro rather than a MacBook or a Windows laptop, you are presumably doing so because some aspect of the iPad Pro makes it more appealing than those products. In other words, there’s something else it does better than those devices, making it worth the trade-off.

Better is to judge the iPad on what it is—and where its potential lies. While it’s misguided to consider the iPad’s path incomplete until it turns itself into a PC, it’s fair to ask if the spectacular hardware Apple’s developed here is being let down by its software.

The iPad Pro isn’t a PC, and shouldn’t be judged as such. It’s something new, and different. But being new and different doesn’t mean it gets a free pass. It’s still got to measure up.

You have to judge a product on what it is.

Mobile device of choice

For the last three years, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has been my primary mobile device. While I still have a 2014-era MacBook Air, it’s rare that I will crack it open, and I can’t remember the last time I took it on a trip. When I’m at my desk, I’m using an iMac Pro. But the rest of the time, whether I’m on the couch, in bed, in the backyard, at a local cafe, or traveling for business or pleasure, I’m traveling with the iPad Pro, not the MacBook.

At home, the existence of the iPad rapidly reduced the amount of time I spent using my laptop in the house. It felt much more natural to read comics, check Twitter, peep in on emails, and the like from an iPad. My love of the iPad meant that it was a must-carry device for any trips I took, which meant that all of a sudden I was taking a laptop and an iPad everywhere I went.

With the iPad Pro and improvements to iOS and various iOS apps, I reached a point where I could do most or all of my required work on the road without bringing a Mac along. (I’ll get into some of the limitations below, because they still remain—and are frustrating reminders of how young this product still is.) I wasn’t going to leave the iPad behind, but I no longer needed to bring the Mac. My bag got lighter.

So when I review the new iPad Pro, it’s as someone who has chosen this platform as a tool to get work done around the house and on the road, in addition to all the other things the iPad excels at, like letting me read the news in the morning in bed while sipping my tea.

Rounded edges are slimming

At .23 inches (5.9mm) thick, these are the thinnest iPads ever made—if only by a fraction of a millimeter. At this point, Apple seems confident enough in the thinness of the device to abandon the rounded-edge design it introduced with the iPad 2. Those edges gave the iPad an added perception of thinness that it doesn’t really need anymore.

Instead, these iPads have flat sides, like the original iPad, the iPhone 4/5/SE, and many modern laptops. It looks a lot like a laptop that lost its keyboard, which isn’t far off, really. Everyone’s hands are different, but the flat sides of these iPads make it easier for me to hold, because there’s more surface area for my fingers to press against.

The most dramatic design flourish of these devices is, like the iPhone X before it, the abandonment of the classic iOS home button—and the large bezel at the bottom that came along with it—for a new all-screen design that features a narrow bezel of the same width around the entire outside of the screen. It’s a great look, and while the bezel is slightly narrower than the smaller bezels of the old iPad Pro, it’s still not a problem to hold the device in any orientation and avoid triggering accidental touches on the screen.

Taking a cue from the iPhone XR, the iPad Pro’s screen is LCD rather than OLED, but still manages to offer curved edges at its corners, echoing both the curves at the edge of the physical device and the curves at the edges of all the rounded rectangles used as app icons. The new screens (and the addition of a home indicator at the bottom of the screen, telling you where to swipe to go to the home screen or enter multitasking) mean that app developers will need to update their apps to take advantage of the extra space.

Apps that aren’t updated will appear letterboxed or pillarboxed on the 11-inch iPad Pro, because that display has an entirely new aspect ratio. The 12.9-inch model fares a little better, with very slight black bars in order to accommodate the curved edges and the home indicator. As I was writing this section, my writing app updated to support the new aspect ratios, and I went from a letterboxed view to one in which the interface extends all the way out to the rounded corners. It’s a minor thing you might not even notice on the 12.9, but it’s more frustrating on the 11-inch model. And if you run two apps at once in Split View mode, your apps will both be letterboxed until both apps you’re using are updated to support the new screen sizes. (Users of Google’s iOS apps, which are notorious for lagging behind new Apple product releases, take note.)

It’s a really good-looking screen, basically in line with the screen in the previous-generation models—just a little bit bigger, in the case of the 11-inch model. As someone who has been using a first-generation iPad Pro regularly, I had forgotten just how impressive an update the last-generation’s ProMotion display (which increases the device’s maximum frame rate to 120 frames per second—scrolling is impossibly smooth) with TrueTone (the display’s white point adjusts with ambient light) really is. Unless you’re upgrading from the second-generation iPad Pro models, you will be seriously impressed by this display.

There is one downside to the display, however. Apple has built a remarkably bright screen that also manages to fight off glare with a special coating, and on top of that coating is an oleophobic coating to make it easier to wipe off fingerprints, and of course these coatings have to be durable enough not only to survive your fingers but also being scribbled on with an Apple Pencil. It’s a remarkable achievement, but the fact remains that the thing is a fingerprint magnet. Fingerprints get on it easily and are extremely visible, and since the new Smart Keyboard Folio presses the keyboard against the screen when it’s closed, rather than having a microfiber lining that might theoretically wipe off some of that finger grease, I think things are going to be even worse.

The iPhone X factor

Removing the home button means, as it did last year on the iPhone X, that biometric authentication on these devices is now handled by Face ID, which is enabled by the TrueDepth camera and sensor system embedded in the top bezel. Apple says this is more or less the same hardware as found in the iPhone X family of devices, but its facial-recognition engine had to be retrained because of the different angles, distances, and orientations found on the iPad.

Despite this being the first Face ID device to support multiple orientations, I’ve found it to be remarkably reliable. Every now and then, it lets me know that I’ve got a hand over the camera—with a helpful arrow pointing right at the offending digits—and the moment I react, it quickly authenticates me.

Face ID on the iPad is delightful. When I’m working with a keyboard, I don’t have to reach up and press my finger on a home button to unlock the device, or apps like 1Password—I just look up and the device unlocks automatically. And even when I’m just reading in bed, it’s so much easier to log in to a website by tapping password autofill and have Face ID rapidly authenticate me and enter in that data.

(And yes, since the TrueDepth system is on these iPads, you can use them to take portrait selfies and you can send Animoji and Memoji images to your friends. All those new features, enabled in the iPhone X because of the TrueDepth system, are also present on the iPad Pro.)

No home button also means that some familiar gestures—involving clicking that button—need to move elsehwere. Apple started the process of adapting iPad users to new gestures with iOS 11 and finished the job in iOS 12; to go home, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen. A swipe-and-hold from the bottom will kick off the multitasking app switcher. New with the introduction of that home indicator at the bottom of the screen is the ability to switch between apps by swiping left or right anywhere on the very bottom of the screen. (It’s the same command as a four-finger swipe on the screen, which I’ve been using for ages. More precision required, but fewer fingers! You can choose the one that works best for you.)

Accessibility shortcuts that were triggered by a triple-tap on the home button can now be triggered by triple-tapping the sleep/wake button. (I use the Smart Invert Colors shortcut all the time to make very bright apps and websites readable in the dark.) There’s also an Accessibility button you can add to Control Center for more features.

Converging iPad sizes

The 11-inch iPad Pro resting atop the 12.9-inch model.

There was a time when all iPads had 9.7-inch screens, the “classic” iPad configuration for years. The iPad mini provided a single, small variation. But the advent of the original 12.9-inch iPad Pro in late 2015 blew the doors off. In early 2016, Apple added a second iPad Pro model, this one in the traditional 9.7-inch size class. Since then, the larger and smaller models have crept progressively closer to one another. First, the 9.7-inch model was replaced by a 10.5-inch one, providing some helpful separation between the iPad Pro and the regular iPad.

ipad-stack
A stack of iPad Pro models. From top to bottom: 9.7-inch, 10.5-inch, 11-inch, 12.9-inch (2018), 12.9-inch (2015).

With these new third-generation models, the iPad Pros come even closer. The 11-inch model has the same body size as the old 10.5-inch model, but with a larger screen, thanks to reduced bezels. With the 12.9-inch model, Apple has chosen a different approach—using the bezel reduction to reduce the volume of the device by 25 percent.

Both decisions feel like the right call—the 10.5-inch model seemed to be in the sweet spot in terms of what a majority of people feel is the right size for an iPad, and more screen is always better. The 12.9-inch model, on the other hand, had a wonderful screen but was an awkward, heavy load. (And I’m saying that as the guy who used one for three years.)

The result is that the large and small iPad Pro models are closer in size than they’ve ever been. There’s still a substantial difference between them, though—when I pick up the 11-inch model after using for the 12.9-inch model for a while, it just seems tiny. While I suspect the 11-inch model will still be the go-to variant, with this round of updates it feels like the 12.9-inch iPad is shifting closer to the mainstream. It’s now a lot less awkward to hold, and it’s got a bunch of benefits, including the larger screen, the ability to run full-sized apps in Split View, a full-sized keyboard, and a better typing angle on the Smart Keyboard Folio.

Or to put it another way, as I prepared for the new iPad Pros I began to seriously consider switching to the smaller model, just to get something less ungainly than the old 12.9. But having spent time with both models this past week, there’s no chance of that—the design of the new 12.9-inch model mitigates the worst liabilities of the old model, even if it doesn’t resolve them completely.

My god, it’s full of magnets

It’s hard to consider the iPad Pro a purely touch-based device, given that Apple has invested an awful lot of effort to create a keyboard and stylus just for it. (I’m a writer with absolutely atrocious handwriting, so I’m more interested in the keyboards, but even I think the new Apple Pencil is pretty cool.)

But before I talk keyboards, I need to talk about magnets. The iPad Pro has more than a hundred, many of them in an array on the back of its case. Apple has moved away from its old approach of anchoring covers and cases via magnets on the side of the device.

Adding magnets helps with proper alignment and improves the strength of the attachment. I’ve found it easy to attach the Smart Folio and Smart Keyboard Folio—lining up the camera bump is the way to do it—and while it’s easy to detach the accessories, I have rarely done so accidentally. That’s a good combination. Unfortunately, if you’re someone who prefers a very light screen cover without any back protection (as I was), you’ll have to adapt to this new approach. The Smart Folio is still awfully light; I think it’s a good successor to the old Smart Cover.

Apple’s folio cases succeed in terms of functionality, but they utterly fail aesthetically. They’re all made of the same utterly textureless synthetic material, turning your iPad into a blank gray void when it’s closed. (If you’re not using the keyboard, you can choose to make it a white void or, on the smaller model, a pink void.) What’s worse, the blankness shows off fingerprints or other dirt that one might get on the case.

I’ve never been one to clutter my devices with stickers, but I can’t imagine using these products for any length of time without doing something to personalize the featureless expanse. (Why not an Apple logo back there, at least?) The lack of color and material options—I spent the last year-plus with a midnight blue leather Smart Cover—is really disappointing.

You’re just my type

The 12.9-inch keyboard has more room for full-sized modifier keys, while the 11-inch keyboard has to squeeze them to fit.

The Smart Keyboard Folio is, at the key level, seemingly identical to the previous Smart Keyboards: it’s a set of raised fabric keys that feel surprisingly good to type on—I know a bunch of people who say they prefer the feel of the Smart Keyboard keys to Apple’s butterfly laptop keyboard. (I’m not sure I agree, but it’s close, and that’s kind of amazing.)

It’s also the same layout as the old Smart Keyboard, and that means that one of the big failings of the old model hasn’t been addressed: there’s no function row. No, I don’t find myself needing to press F11 on my iPad very often, but Apple has remapped those keys to support media-playback controls and brightness and volume adjustments—and those are awfully useful features. (I use them all the time on third-party keyboards when they’re connected to my iPad.) This wouldn’t be as big an issue if Apple would allow users to assign global keyboard shortcuts to those functions, but it hasn’t done that either.

The functional design of the Smart Keyboard Folio is an upgrade from the old models in almost every way. The old model had a multi-fold approach that I always found awkward to set up and take down, and it meant that the front cover had a thick half and a thin half, with a weird stair-step down the middle when closed. The folding approach also meant that a lot of the iPad’s weight was placed on a narrow back flap that moved independently from the flat keyboard portion of the cover, making the iPad much more wobbly when placed on a lap.

That’s all changed, now. The Smart Keyboard Folio is easier to open and close, and the part you put on your lap is a single, rigid plane, spreading the weight of the iPad evenly across the entire area, making it much easier to use as a true laptop. You can also choose from two different viewing angles while typing by setting the iPad in one of two magnetic grooves: one leans back for laptop use, and the other is more upright and probably not as useful for typing as for watching video. (There’s no real way to use the Smart Keyboard Folio as a stand just for watching video with no keyboard visible, unlike the old model. If you are like my podcast pal Myke Hurley and frequently used the Smart Keyboard in that configuration, this will be frustrating.)

There’s also another weird quirk of this design: when you fold the cover back, your fingers rest on the back of the iPad… right on the keyboard’s keys. You can’t type on the keyboard unless it’s in one of the two magnetically-attached grooves, but it’s definitely a weird, squishy feeling.

The “laptop-style” viewing angle in the 12.9-inch model is very good, but on the 11-inch model the geometry is a lot less appealing, with the screen sitting a bit too upright for my tastes. The 12.9-inch model also has room for a full-sized keyboard (versus slightly squished keys in the 11-inch model) and benefits greatly from the reduced height and width of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, because the cover adds much less bulk than the old model does.

Or to put it another way, I never carried my old 12.9-inch iPad Pro around with the Smart Keyboard attached, but I’ve been carrying this one around for quite a while now and it doesn’t bother me at all. And if I really don’t want the bulk, I just strip the case off entirely and use the iPad without.

One other note about the Smart Keyboard Folio: it’s not cheap. The 12.9-inch model costs $200, and the 11-inch goes for $180. If you don’t need the ultimate flexibility and convenience of an ultra-thin keyboard that doubles as an iPad case, there will undoubtedly be cheaper Bluetooth-based alternatives. The company that makes my current favorite iPad keyboard, Brydge, has already announced that it’s building new models that are compatible with these new iPads.

Number two pencil

When the iPad Pro made its debut, so did the Apple Pencil. Now it’s time for a second generation Pencil, and Apple has addressed all the major issues with the original.

This Pencil has a flat side that doesn’t roll off the table and attaches magnetically to a spot on the wide side of the iPad Pro. This means you can attach the Pencil to the iPad Pro and keep it there rather than having to look for it whenever you want to use it. The magnet’s not a light attraction, either—if you shake the iPad Pro, it won’t budge, though if you stick it in a bag the pencil will probably pop off. Still, this is far more likely to be a pencil that stays with you and your iPad Pro than the last one.

And the Apple Pencil’s magnetic home isn’t just a resting place—it’s an inductive charger that keeps the Pencil juiced up and also pairs it with your iPad Pro. Lay the Pencil on the spot for the first time, and a little “tap to pair” bubble appears on the iPad screen.

The pencil design is made better by avoiding the rattly plastic cap that concealed the awkward male Lightning port used to charge and pair, and it’s got a matte feel that’s preferable to the slick texture of the original.

Apple has also addressed the desire many users had for gesture or button support on the pencil—but in its own Apple sort of way. The pencil’s surface toward the tip is actually touch sensitive, like a trackpad surface wrapped into a cylinder. Right now, that surface only recognizes a single gesture: double tapping. (It’s possible that Apple could one day add support for other gestures, perhaps other multiple taps or perhaps swipes or slides, but it’s also possible that those gestures would cause erroneous inputs and so Apple’s chosen to keep it simple.)

By default, Apple’s got a system-level setting for what the gesture on the Pencil represents: It can either toggle between two controls, toggle between the current control and an eraser, or bring up a color picker. Individual app developers can choose to honor those settings or, if they want, they can build custom support within their apps to specific functions. I tested a beta version of Ferrite Recording Studio that let me map the double-tap gesture to one of several functions, including playing and pausing audio, which was pretty cool.

USB-C arrives, sort of

Another sign of the iPad Pro assuming more of the mantle of a traditional computer is its addition of USB-C, marking the first time that any iOS device has come with a built-in USB port. USB-C is more capable than Lightning in several ways—most notably, it can supply more power than Lightning could, so the iPad Pro can directly power all sorts of USB devices that previously would have needed an extra power boost from an external source, and it can directly charge other devices, such as iPhones.

But for true device compatibility, iOS needs to directly support USB devices—and Apple hasn’t updated iOS to support any new device types beyond those already supported via a Lightning to USB adapter. The hardware is willing, but the software is weak.

iOS will import photos and videos from cameras and memory cards. You can hook up a keyboard or an Ethernet adapter or a microphone or audio mixer. But plug in a hard drive or USB keychain and you won’t be able to view the files in the Files app.

Yes, it’s cool that the iPad Pro can drive a 4K or 5K external monitor—even though you can’t use it for input, so it’s just for mirroring or as a second screen for video previews, slide presentations and the like. And keep in mind, that monitor has to support video over USB-C—Thunderbolt 3 monitors won’t work.

On a PC, we have an expectation of what happens when we plug in a USB device—but iOS has holes. I’m left hoping that the existence of USB on iPad will be the development that finally prompts Apple to prioritize better USB device support in future versions of iOS.

There’s more to be done here.

Power, if you can use it

The Apple-designed A12X processor in the iPad Pro is a monster. The new MacBook Air comes with a dual-core processor; the iPad Pro’s A12X has eight cores—four high-performance cores and four efficiency cores—providing a balance of energy conservation (when needed) and raw power (when required). In GeekBench 4 speed tests, the iPad Pro beats the new Air in single-core performance and blows it away in multi-core operations. Apple has built a tablet with more power than most laptops.

As someone who spends a lot of time editing audio projects, I was excited to test the new iPad Pro with Ferrite Recording Studio, and am happy to report that it also runs quite a bit faster on these new iPads than on the previous generation. I also managed to find a few performance hiccups; in this era of multi-core processors in every single device category, a surprising number of everyday software functions are not remotely optimized to run across multiple processor cores. This is true on my iMac Pro and and my iPad Pro alike.

We should all applaud Apple’s prowess in building ARM processors, but in the end, it’s not the power but how you wield it. There are definitely iPad apps out there now that will stress out the A12X—I’m thinking of Affinity Photo and Pixelmator, for two—but there need to be more. Photoshop, on the horizon for 2019, will be a great test of the power of this hardware.

Saying that the processor in the new iPad Pro can handle anything thrown at it is praise, sure, but it’s also a little bit of an indictment. As users, we need more things to throw at it.

What’s real work?

This is the point in a lot of iPad Pro reviews where the big question is popped: Can you do real work on an iPad? This is question is as dumb as it is big—of course you can. I do real work on an iPad every day, and so do a whole lot of other people.

It’s the wrong question. It’s appealing to ask something so broad and simple, but the real questions are much more complex. If you were to ask me, without any context or details, if you should buy an iPad Pro and switch to it from your current laptop, there’s absolutely no way that I could answer in the affirmative. There are still several places where the iPad can’t replicate existing PC workflows, and if you rely on one of those—or if they’re standard in your office or your industry—you probably can’t use the iPad.

There are also plenty of cases where you absolutely could use the iPad, including some where the iPad is clearly the best choice for the job. But again, everyone’s mileage will vary. The iPad, like the PC, is a tool—and no tool is right for every job.

It’s also worth trying to keep in mind the difference between the end goal and the steps one takes to get there. It’s one thing if the iPad is a tool that won’t let you do the job you need to do. It’s quite another if it can accomplish the job—but not in the way to which you’re accustomed. Can the iPad Pro edit audio, video, and graphics at a professional level? It absolutely can. Can it mirror your existing Logic/Audition/Pro Tools, Final Cut/Premiere/Avid, and Photoshop workflows? No, it can’t. Some adaptation may be necessary, and that may not always be practical.

Can the iPad Pro do real work? You’d be surprised at just how much it can do. But that doesn’t mean it will do exactly the work you want it to do. A hammer makes a lousy screwdriver, and a screwdriver makes a lousy hammer.

Living up to the hardware

You have to judge a product on what it is. The iPad Pro is a spectacularly impressive piece of hardware, but its software—as capable and even delightful as it can be in some cases—can’t entirely uphold its end of the deal.

iOS on the iPad has advanced an awful lot in the last few years, but it feels like the platform still suffers from years of indifference between the launch of the iPad in 2010 and the release of iOS 9 in 2015. Even now, with these iPads on the way, iOS 12 contained almost no new notable iPad features. Imagine how Apple could have silenced an entire line of criticism of the iPad Pro if it had just added USB-drive support to the Files app. It didn’t.

The story on the app front is similarly spotty. Real Photoshop is coming to the iPad in 2019, and that’s incredibly encouraging. At least Adobe is investing in the future of the iPad Pro—something we’ve yet to see from Apple’s own pro software team, which still hasn’t offered versions of Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro for the iPad. How great would it have been if Apple could’ve shown off the iPad Pro’s external 4K monitor support by using it to preview video being edited in Final Cut Pro?

The iPad Pro is fantastic hardware that will delight everyone who uses it. If you already use the iPad Pro to get work done, you’ll find it a great upgrade. If you’ve considered moving to the iPad Pro, it’s worth investigating if you can do your job from it—it’s more flexible than you might think. That said, anyone who uses the iPad Pro extensively will tell you that there are still too many places where you hit the wall and either need to find a workaround or just give up and go to a PC. Apple needs to eliminate as many of those barriers as possible. This iPad Pro deserves better.

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