When people think of Apple, the first thing that comes to mind is either the iPhone or a computer. Which is fair — the iPhone is Apple’s biggest moneymaker and most ubiquitous product, and the Cupertin0-based company began, of course, as a computer brand.
But something ironic happened in recent years: Apple’s smartphones and computers (both desktops and laptops) lost its status as the undisputed best and most pioneering products in its respective categories. The iPhone XS may still be the most solid all-around phone (I think so), but if I were to rank every phone by important categories — display brilliance; software zippiness; camera prowess; battery life; value — the new iPhone wouldn’t finish first in any of them. Same goes for the new MacBooks, which only recently caught up to premium Window machines in terms of processing power.
Instead, Apple’s two best and most innovative products in recent years have, in my opinion, been the Apple Watch and the iPad Pro. They are the two Apple products that are still heads and shoulders above the competition. And more importantly, they are the two products that are truly forward-thinking and changing the way we do things in our daily lives.
And just like the Apple Watch Series 4, the just-released 2018 edition of the iPad Pro only extends its lead over rivals.
A whole new design
The new iPad Pros — there’s a 12.9-inch version, which this review covers, and an 11-incher — mark the first true design overhaul of the iPad since the tablet made its debut eight years ago. The home button is gone. So, too, is the fingerprint scanner, replaced with Apple’s “Face ID” facial scanning system. Unlike the new iPhones, there is no notch, because the new iPad isn’t quite as bezel-less as the iPhones, hence the area needed to house the Face ID sensors can just reside in a normal bezel instead of a distinct cut-out. But as you can see from the main photo above, the bezels are drastically smaller than previous iPads, which to be honest had begun to look outdated as early as 2015. The older 12.9-inch iPad Pro look positively chunky next to the new sleek design.
The slimmer bezels allows the 2018 model of the 12.9-inch iPad to be drastically smaller than older 12.9-inch model Pros. The display is still an LCD panel, but the refresh rate can get up to 120Hz when needed, so the screen feels particularly smooth. When I hold this new iPad with my hands and play a full-screen video, there is an extra immersiveness to it, as if I’m holding a window and looking out into the world.
The 2018 iPad Pro is more square and blocky than pervious iPads. There are visible antenna lines across the back that Apple didn’t even bother to hide. I dig the look; it reminds me of the iconic iPhone 4, which quite a few techies still consider Apple’s most stunning design.
More powerful than a locomotive
The iPad Pro runs Apple’s A12X Bionic chipset, which is an upgraded version of the 7-nm SoC powering the recently released iPhone XS. Apple claims the A12X Bionic is “more powerful than 92% of PC laptops currently on the market right now.” This sounds like one of those absurd marketing claims tech brands make all the time, but several reputable reviewers have pushed these new iPads through their paces and confirm that these tablets are indeed more powerful than just about any other tablet on the market, but most laptops, including Apple’s MacBooks. The new iPad Pro scored an absurd 17,995 in benchmark app Geekbench’s multi-core test, and processed and exported a five 4K/30fps video via LumaFusion in less than six minutes, these scores and times are better than just about any other portable device available.
We have seen so much tech and gadgets lately that we tend to take these things for granted, but it is truly remarkable that Apple is able to cram this much power into a device this thin and still achieve this devoid of heat. I still remember my computer making a loud fan noise when I edit pixelated low-resolution videos. I can scrub through the timeline of 4K videos on this thing, and it zips along without breaking a sweat.
All this power would be wasted if you’re just using the tablet as a larger smartphone. In my opinion, the iPad Pro’s potential is only fully realized when you pair it with a keyboard to turn it into something resembling a computer. As I wrote last year, the iPad Pro has become a capable productivity machine ever since Apple introduced split-screen apps on iOS 11 in 2017.
Since the new iPads have new form factors, Apple designed a new first-party keyboard for it, and it, too, is an improvement over the first gen. It covers the back of the iPad now, offering a bit more protection, and offers two propping angles for the iPad compared to the first-gen keyboard’s single angle option. The typing experience is the same as before, the keys have just enough travel to offer a comfortable typing experience. Heck, I like this keyboard better than the MacBook’s much-criticized butterfly keyboards.
Creative types will also want to get the Apple Pencil 2, the best and most responsive mainstream stylus on the market. The combination of the 2,000-plus pressure points and 120Hz screen refresh rate make writing and sketching on the screen virtually lag-free to the human eye. This new pencil also can charge wirelessly by just being attached to the top of the iPad Pro, compared to the clunky charging option as before.
Apple has always appealed to the creatives, and the Pencil is one of the best mainstream tools to encourage creativity. I used to enjoy drawing as child, but had moved on from the hobby for over 20 years. The Apple Pencil re-ignited my passion for sketching simply by being so easy to use: a couple of years ago, I drew a comic for my girlfriend entirely on (an older) iPad Pro. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, but because it was all done digitally I was able to un-do mistakes without hassle. I don’t think I would have had the patience to finish the task if I had tried on a real paper and pencil. I think the Pencil 2 will continue to make me want to sketch.
Unfortunately, the Pencils are locked to their respective generation of iPads. You can’t use the older Pencil on the new iPads, and you can’t use the Pencil 2 on the older iPads. I’m not sure why that is — the two Pencils have the same level of pressure sensitivity and functionality — I suspect this might be another profit-driven move by the company that won’t include a fast charger or a headphone-jack adaptor (aka dongle) in the packaging of its $1,200 iPhones.
Ports: great news and bad news
Speaking of that 3.5mm audio port, the iPad Pro has got rid of it, too (and no, there is no adaptor dongle included in the packaging). But the good news is that the new Pro uses USB-C instead of Apple’s own Lightning port for charging and connectivity. This is great because USB-C is simply a better port than Lightning: it can deliver more power, transfer data faster, and is compatible with a bunch of other accessories. The same cable that charges my smartphones can now charge my iPad.
The entire tech industry decided years ago USB-C should be the port of the future. Apple has just been stubborn about using it because the Lightning port is its own technology. But Apple finally using USB-C on all its large computing devices is a sign that Apple is finally willing to concede. We may just be a year or two away from USB-C iPhones, too. That means sometime in the near future, we should be able to use one cable to charge every gadget in our lives.
The USB-C port on the new iPad Pro is restricted in some ways, however, which I’ll touch on in the last section.
Made for content consumption
The iPad Pro has four speakers and they pump out arguably the best sound in any mobile device. There are lots of little smart touches, such as the iPad knowing which direction the iPad is held and pumping out mids and highs from the top speakers at all times. Apple doesn’t disclose battery size, but from my testing, watching a full two-hour movie with both screen brightness and sound output at around 75% only drained about 25% battery life, and using the machine as a normal laptop (for typing and web surfing) only drained about 10% of the battery per hour.
With excellent speakers, battery life, and display, the iPad Pro is an excellent media consumption device — except for the no headphone jack thing.
The future of computing … with compromises from today
Apple has been marketing the iPad Pro as a computer/laptop replacement since the line made its debut in 2015. I initially poked fun at the claim because iOS was too limiting an operating system to let the iPad Pro be much more than a super-sized iPhone. But then iOS 11, released in 2017, finally brought split-screen capability to the iPad, and since then, the iPad Pro has been a serviceable work machine for me whenever I needed portability above all else.
This new iPad, obviously, improves on that by simply being lighter and way more powerful. I’ve been lugging it with me everywhere and have typed several articles and edited/processed several 4K videos on it with no issues.
I can still get work done a bit faster on a normal laptop, but the iPad Pro is increasingly catching up, and it should be my on-the-go work machine of choice for the foreseeable future because it represents the future of computing, and I am a gadget geek who wants to jump on new trends from day one. Whether it’s slicing video clips or dragging files from window to window, there is something inherently personal and intuitive about doing it with your finger (or the Apple Pencil with its finer point).
Of course, each person has its own specific needs. The iPad Pro works for me because my work consists entirely of typing words, browsing websites, and editing video clips and photos. For others, the iPad Pro may still be too limiting, and it’s not just because of the two apps at a time max limit, but because of Apple and iOS’s stubborn quirks.
We’ll start with the biggest one: Apple has crippled the USB-C port, seemingly on purpose. The iPad Pro’s USB-C port mostly does not recognize external storage. Whether it’s external hard drives or USB-C thumb drives, plug it in and nothing happens. The only exception is photos stored on memory cards. Apple will recognize those (if you buy a USB-C to card reader dongle) and allow you to import, but you must go through Apple to do so. You cannot import photos from your DSLR camera directly to photo editing apps like Adobe Lightroom CC, you must import them to iOS’s own camera roll first.
Then there’s the iPad’s file system, which is only fully useable if you are devoted to Apple’s ecosystem and use iCloud. If you’re not on iCloud, your can’t really save photos to it, you can’t do much of anything. Apple also makes its own mail app the default mail app and there is no way around that. I can download Google’s Gmail app, but I can’t save any of the files from the app. If I have an attachment in Gmail, I must go into the app and load it, which requires internet connection. I can’t ever save a Gmail file for offline viewing on an iPad Pro (or iPhone, for that matter).
The lack of a local file directory likely makes the iPad Pro a no-go as a work machine for actual office desk jockeys, so ultimately, the iPad Pro is too restricted to be a full computer for a chunk of the population.
These iPads are expensive, too. The smaller 10-inch model starts at $799 and the 12.9-inches starts at $999. These prices are just for the base 64GB configuration, which is likely not enough for most people in 2018. That means you’ll likely need to opt for the 256GB versions which cost another couple of hundred dollars more. On top of that, everything else that make the iPad Pro hum cost extra — the keyboard case, the Pencil, whatever dongles you need to connect headphones or memory cards. These new 2018 iPad Pros are a pricey investment, but I don’t think it’ll matter. Apple products have not catered to the value-conscious for years. Apple products are for creatives, a group that usually don’t mind paying more.
Apple has, from day one, forced its vision on users. Often, its ideas of how things should be — removing the CD drive in laptops; going back to a touchscreen when the entire industry had settled on hardware keyboards — are correct and pushed the industry forward. Sometimes, their ideas are misguided and annoying, such as the removal of the headphone jack so early, or iOS’s lack of customization compared to Android.
The iPad Pro is Apple’s idea of personal computing in the future — we know this because it runs an iPad Pro ad campaign that actively makes fun of traditional laptops (ironically, products Apple is still trying to sell). Apple believes that in the future we don’t need a file system because everything we do is on the cloud; that we use our fingers to move digital/virtual objects instead of mouse arrows; that no one really needs more than two or three apps on screen at once because they’ll be so optimized.
I have a feeling Apple’s vision is spot on.
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