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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

iPad Pro 2020 review: Small steps

The 2018 iPad Pro was a great leap forward, with a stylish new design, support for a new Apple Pencil, a USB-C port, and a powerful processor that was more than a match for PC laptops. In fact, you could make the argument that the 2018 iPad Pro was so far ahead of the game that it doesn’t really need much of an update, even a year and a half later.

That’s essentially the argument Apple is making with this early 2020 refresh to the iPad Pro. With a few small exceptions, these new iPad Pros aren’t substantially improved from their previous generation. Even so, they’re still faster than the mid-range MacBook Air Apple also released this week.

I got to spend several days using the new iPad Pro and a Smart Keyboard Folio—alas, no Magic Keyboard—and I can definitively report that unless you’re using an augmented-reality app or taking an ultra-wide photo, it’s pretty much exactly like its predecessor.

Augmented AR

This iPad looks great in AR, not just because of LiDAR but because it’s the only way to get the Magic Keyboard into your house before May.

So let’s start with the big hardware upgrade: The camera bump on the iPad Pro has expanded to a square resembling the housings found on the iPhone 11 family. In this case, the iPad Pro has gained a second camera and a new LiDAR sensor.

The camera is a 10 megapixel ultra-wide, allowing you to perform some of the same tricks you’d get from an iPhone 11. But there are some puzzling omissions. There’s no portrait mode, despite the presence of two cameras and a depth sensor. You also don’t get the option to integrate images that are just outside the frame of the wide camera but within the field of view of the ultrawide, presumably because that feature requires the A13 processor found in the iPhone, and doesn’t work on the A12Z processor found in the iPad Pro. There’s also no Night Mode. Basically, the iPad Pro is a state-of-the-art Apple camera—from 2018.

On the other hand, the iPad Pro’s LiDAR Scanner is pure 2020. This scanner projects infrared light onto objects as far as 15 feet away, and calculates how long it takes to bounce back. That’s all happening at the speed of light, of course, so we’re talking about nanoseconds—but it allows the sensor to build a depth map of the space around it.

The result is that Apple’s built-in augmented-reality engine immediately detects surfaces such as floors, tabletops, and walls. I was forced to wave my other Apple devices around a scene for a little while before they understood the geometry of the room I was in, but the iPad Pro knew immediately. I could quickly place an AR model on the floor, and when I slid it to a table, it immediately (and accurately) moved it there.

This precision should also aid in features Apple introduced with iOS 13, most notably people occlusion, since understanding the depth of a person’s location allows the AR engine to properly guess what should go in front of or behind that person.

For existing AR apps, the new LiDAR sensor will just build a better depth map—and those apps will work better. But developers can also make additional adjustments to take advantage of the increased spatial awareness caused by the LiDAR Scanner’s depth maps.

All our yesterdays

I’d like to gin up some disappointment to toss Apple’s way for not upgrading the iPad Pro to an A13-class processor, but it’s hard to do so. The A12X found in the 2018 iPad Pros is not really showing its age, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that Apple has more or less kept it around for this revision. Perhaps there’s an awesome new iPad chip in the offing, but it’s not the A12Z, which has the same processor cores as the A12X (four high-speed cores and four power-efficient ones), but has eight GPU cores instead of seven.

When I ran Geekbench 5 on the two iPads, the results were entirely what you’d expect: Identical scores on single- and multi-core tests, and a slightly elevated graphics score on the new iPad. It’s truly nothing to get too excited about.

If there’s any other performance to be gained on these iPads, it’s from a somewhat improved thermal system in the tablet’s internal design. A more efficient thermal design doesn’t change the fundamental speed of the processor, but the better a chip can be cooled, the longer it can run at higher speeds. This means that for extended activities that tax the processor, like a video encode, the new iPad Pro might be a bit faster than the older model.

Ghost features

Apple doesn’t talk about iPad memory, but if you recall, only the highest-end model of 2018 iPad had 6GB of RAM. This meant that it could go longer without quitting apps during multitasking, and if you pushed it hard, you could tell the difference. Reports say that the 2020 models all have 6GB of RAM, and while Apple’s keeping mum, that’s a nice upgrade if true.

There are also reports that it’s got a U1 chip, the same chip that Apple introduced in the iPhone 11 and enabled Ultra Wideband technology that might be used in future Apple products but doesn’t do much more than enhance the AirDrop interface slightly. Again, Apple won’t talk about it, and I can report that there’s no enhanced AirDrop interface on the new iPad Pro. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a U1 chip lurking inside, ready to be activated if Apple ever ships that much-rumored tracking tag product.

Apple does say that the new iPad Pro has a new microphone system. Like the previous model, it has five different microphones—but these use a new architecture that’s borrowed from the same source as the 16-inch MacBook Pro. I have to be honest—I recorded some audio on both iPads and couldn’t really notice any difference.

It’s important to accessorize

When I was a kid, the action figures were cool but their accessories were even cooler. Those Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock action figures were more exciting when they were exploring the universe in a Barbie Winnebago. (Hey, you work with what you have.) In any event, the new iPad Pro is a small update, but there’s a lot of fun action happening on the accessory front.

Perhaps most notable about all of Apple’s new accessories for the 2020 iPad Pro is that they’re also compatible with the 2018 iPad Pro. (Users of older models will notice that the camera cut-out is a bit larger than the actual camera bump on those models.) Apple could’ve mandated an update to the 2020 iPad Pro model just to get at the new accessories, but it chose not to, and I appreciate that.

Of course, the big attraction is the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard, which features an adjustable hinge, USB-C charging port, floating design, backlit scissor-switch keys, and a trackpad. The trackpad announcement comes with a major iPadOS update enabling cursor support. But Apple says the accessory itself won’t be available until May, and so all I can do is stare at pictures and wonder how it feels to type on, how stable it is in a lap, and how much it actually weighs. (Apple is not saying—and yes, I asked.)

Both the Magic Keyboard and the Smart Keyboard Folio are dark gray, the uninspiring choice of iPad Pro accessories everywhere, but I’m excited to report that Apple has added an embossed Apple logo on their backs—and the logo is oriented like you’d see it on a MacBook, in landscape. I love it.

The regular Smart Folio has the logo, too, but on that one it’s in portrait orientation, so you can’t win ‘em all. But I’m still excited that Apple has expanded the color options of the Smart Folio, beyond the monochrome and a pale pink, to include two “seasonal” colors—Surf Blue and Cactus. Those gray cases are so boring. I ordered a Surf Blue Smart Folio case and look forward to giving my iPad Pro some personality—when it’s not in a keyboard case, anyway.

Familiar buying advice

For years now, reviews of the new iPhone have to go out of their way to point out that most people won’t be upgrading from the previous model of phone—but from a model two or three generations back. That’s just how the upgrade cycle rolls.

This is that kind of iPad Pro update. If you’ve been thinking about getting an iPad Pro, or if you’ve been using one of the first- or second-generation iPad Pro models, this product was made for you. But if you’re using a 2018 iPad Pro, you can give this iPad a pass. The difference between your 2018 model and today’s 2020 version are relatively minor, so unless you care about AR or having an ultrawide camera, you can hang tight for the next generation of iPad Pro.

The good news is, even if you don’t upgrade, you’ll still get to take advantage of all of those new accessories for the new iPad Pro. And really, that Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro is going to be what we remember the most about this new iPad Pro. Unfortunately, that story won’t be complete until that accessory arrives on the scene in a few months. With any luck, our patience will be rewarded.

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