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Apple debuted the first iPad in 2010, and I’ve tested nearly every sequel released since then: the iteratively evolved second-, third-, and fourth-generation models, smaller iPad minis, thinner iPad Airs, and bigger iPad Pros. Thanks to the $329 entry-level iPad and its current brethren, today’s iPad lineup is the best and most diverse in history — a major evolution over less than a decade.
But eight years into its tablet experiment, Apple continues to struggle with the same question from users: Can an iPad actually replace a laptop?
When Apple introduced its latest iPad Pros last month, it was finally ready to make that claim, albeit in a nuanced way. The new iPads were pitched as more powerful than 92 percent of current laptops, and the most capable members of an already 400-million-iPad dynasty. An all-new model with an 11-inch screen has the same general dimensions as prior 9.7-inch and 10.5-inch iPads, while the “third-generation iPad Pro” with a 12.9-inch screen now has the footprint of a standard sheet of paper. Screen and battery aside, they both share the same internal components, notably including a processor with a Pro laptop-matching CPU and a console-matching GPU.
Judged strictly by their hardware, the new iPad Pros are legitimately awesome. They look professional, feel fantastic in the hand, are thin enough to fit anywhere, and have the best iPad accessories Apple has ever made. But as has been the case year after year before, these Pro tablets won’t actually be able to replace Pro laptops for most professional users.
As much as I’d love to use an iPad Pro instead of a MacBook for work, the 11-inch model remains as much a pure tablet as the first iPad, and the 12.9-inch model still isn’t ready to fully supplant a laptop, even when either is equipped with Apple’s latest detachable keyboard. They’re both ultimately limited by software — both iOS and third-party apps — though I fully expect that millions of people will want to try their hardest to make one of these new iPad Pros work for them, anyway. Here’s why.
1. Body and screen
While some have suggested that Apple adopted an all-new iPad Pro design this year, the latest models are actually highly refined versions of the very first iPad. They share the same flat sides, minimalist front design, and spartan back, though the new models continue to trim away as much external fat as possible while evolving internally.
Placed next to each other, the 11-inch Pro is just a little narrower and taller than the original iPad (above), while also being slightly wider and shorter than the prior 10.5-inch Pro (below), but both 2018 models are thinner than their predecessors. Apart from a larger camera lens and bulge, the new models are only 5.9mm thick, a relatively small dip from the prior iPad Pros’ 6.1mm (11-inch) and 6.9mm (12.9-inch) bodies, but a gigantic reduction from the first iPad’s tapered 13mm back.
Removing edge tapering makes the aluminum-bodied iPad Pros feel like solid bricks — more serious tools, like the classic iPhone 4 minus its dense stainless steel, yet with soft rather than sharp screen edges. Weighing just over 1 pound, the 11-inch model feels as light as its recent predecessors, while the 12.9-inch model doesn’t feel that much heavier — at around 1.4 pounds, it’s actually 0.1 to 0.2 pounds lighter than the original iPad, and the weight is more comfortably distributed across a larger surface area.
As you might guess, the key difference between the new models is screen size, and that turns out to be a critical differentiator between the 11- and 12.9-inch models. Some reviewers have casually suggested that prior 9.7-inch and 10.5-inch iPad users could easily move up to this year’s 12.9-inch model, but I generally disagree: Depending on the way you use your iPad, that switch could be a huge mistake. If you frequently use the virtual keyboard, you’ll find it impossible to thumb-type with both hands while cradling the device in landscape orientation, and struggle even in portrait mode. The larger model is the smallest 12.9-inch iPad Apple has made, but it’s still a big tablet.
For that reason, I’d suggest you stick with the 11-inch model if you expect to use your iPad Pro frequently as a pure tablet — in other words, without Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio accessory. If you intend to keep your iPad attached to a physical keyboard, either model is worth considering, but the larger version offers extra screen size for multitasking and a little more battery life.
The P3 wide color “Liquid Retina” screens on both new models are beautiful — highly similar to last year’s displays, including the same TrueTone white balancing and 120Hz ProMotion smooth scrolling. This year, Apple has attractively rounded each screen’s edges to match its enclosure’s corner radiuses, just like the latest iPhone X/XS/XR and Apple Watch Series 4 models, here thankfully without any “notch” in the displays.
While the screens are not “edge to edge” as advertised, Apple has substantially reduced bezels to a universal thickness of around 0.3 inches all the way around the screen. That’s still a significant bezel, but enough to preclude the inclusion of a Home button, which gets replaced by a quick swipe-up gesture to exit apps. Additionally, a TrueDepth camera for Face ID replaces the prior Touch ID fingerprint scanner — a point discussed further below.
My single favorite feature of the 11-inch iPad Pro is its slightly wider display. Most iPads use a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but the 11-inch Pro has a 1.43:1 screen with a 2,388 by 1,668 resolution — enough to give you a little extra room for a multitasking app, or fill more of the screen with a widescreen movie rather than black bars. These changes make the 11-inch model a particularly fantastic (if expensive) video player. For better or worse, the 12.9-inch iPad sticks with the same 2,732 by 2,048 resolution and 1.33:1 aspect ratio as its two predecessors, now slightly cramped with a “swipe up” reminder bar at the bottom of the screen.
Since 2010, one of my least favorite features of every iPad has been the extent to which fingerprints quickly become visible on their displays, and this year’s model is no better in that regard than last year’s. The problem is compounded this time, as users of some early screen protectors have discovered that the latest iPads exhibit touch sensitivity issues when they’re covered with certain materials. There’s also a tiny microphone hole in the screen near the TrueDepth camera, so if you’re thinking of “protecting” the screen, be careful.
The only other iPad body tweaks worth noting all relate to accessories. Apple has nixed the 3.5mm headphone port, swapped the Lightning port for USB-C, moved its three-dot Smart Connector from the left edge to the back above the USB-C port, and added a new magnetic charging connector for the Apple Pencil to the right edge, below the volume buttons. Each of these changes is important enough to address separately below.
2. Performance: A12X Bionic, cameras, speakers, and battery
Year after year, the iPad chip performance story is pretty much the same: “better than the last iPad, better than the latest iPhone.” This year’s iPad Pros feature Apple’s new A12X Bionic chip, and though we’ve already gone into considerable detail on what that means, here’s the quick summary.
Regardless of whether you buy the least or most expensive new iPad Pro model, you’ll get the same performance: a Geekbenched single-core score of around 5,000, with a multi-core score just under 18,000. That’s CPU performance right in the middle of Apple’s 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros equipped with Intel Core i7 processors. Those numbers are up 26 percent and 87 percent over the 10.5-inch iPad Pro’s single- and multi-core scores, respectively.
In practice, the new iPad Pros don’t feel hugely faster for most apps than their most recent predecessors, but they’re undeniably responsive when doing anything — loading, running, switching, and exiting apps. The A12X Bionic also speeds Face ID processing to the best level yet, unlocking the iPad Pros faster than even the latest iPhones regardless of your proximity and orientation to the screen. It’s so quick to recognize even a face half-buried in a pillow that I’ve found myself wondering whether Apple has sacrificed scan accuracy for speed.
On the graphics front, the new iPad Pros’ Geekbench 4 Compute benchmark is around 42,200, a nearly 40 percent jump from the prior 10.5-inch model’s roughly 30,300, and 2.7 times better than the original 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Apple claims that these iPads are able to go toe-to-toe with Microsoft’s Xbox One S console in graphics power. Unfortunately, there isn’t much software to back up that claim, and almost every game you can think of is currently running with black bars awaiting an iPad Pro screen compatibility update.
The new iPad Pros’ camera performance is generally comparable to the iPhone XR’s. In addition to adopting Smart HDR from the new iPhones, Apple has noticeably increased the size of the new iPads’ rear lenses, switching from a smaller 6-element design to a larger 5-element design that produces wider and better contrast photos. Even though the iPad Pros remain at a quick f/1.8 lens speed with 12-megapixel output, they capture wider rear images than before, and with more detail in dark and light areas — just like the new iPhones.
The new iPad Pro’s front FaceTime camera preserves the same f/2.2 speed and 7-megapixel resolution as the prior model, but thanks to the Smart HDR feature again delivers considerably better contrast. Selfies no longer look as washed out as they did, and due to a recent fix for the image-smoothing “Beautygate” bug, there’s no apparent detail lost, either.
Like the cameras, speaker performance has been improved at least a little over the last iPad Pros. While the volume level hasn’t changed much, Apple is now using treble-bass speaker pairs within each of the iPad’s four speaker housings, a change that enables the new models to produce more detailed sound than before.
To my ears, the new Pros are cleaner and less bass-heavy than the 10.5-inch model, a better balance that’s consistent regardless of the iPad’s orientation, but some users may prefer the prior bass-heavy skew. Stereo separation is apparent in each orientation, but the separation is more pronounced in widescreen than in landscape mode.
Apple always promises “10-hour” battery life for its iPads, regardless of size, but real-world run times appear to be improved relative to the prior models. Although the 11-inch iPad’s battery is a hint smaller than the 10.5-inch model’s, I found myself getting better than 10-hour run times during normal use, even when the iPad Pro was being used to charge the Apple Pencil. I was able to use the Pro continuously for around six hours of plane travel time, including Wi-Fi browsing, without falling below 50 percent battery life. Users are reporting up to 14 hours of run time from the 12.9-inch model, though obviously numbers will vary based on the apps and brightness you choose.
One bummer with the new iPads is Apple’s continued choice to supply lower-than-optimal spec wall chargers with its devices. Both new iPads come with a short (one-meter) USB-C to USB-C cable, plus a redesigned 18-Watt charger that looks like two small iPhone chargers put together. But if you use a more powerful Apple laptop charger, you can recharge the new iPads more quickly, saving perhaps an hour of time. As its iPad Pros are now overlapping laptop prices, there’s no excuse at this point for Apple to nickel and dime users on chargers.
3. Software limitations
Just like its industrial design, which is so incredibly polished in all regards that you can’t help but notice the fingerprints all over its body, the iPad Pro’s greatest strength and weakness is iOS. Apple has refined the hell out of the operating system that was originally designed for the iPhone, but it’s just not up to the task of replacing a laptop with user-configurable windows.
A confused stagnation has persisted in the iPad version of iOS for quite some time — there’s still an old icon grid that displays fewer apps than most iPhones, virtual keyboards that seem to get worse rather than better when they do change, and an approach to multitasking that continues to feel heavily compromised. To the extent that iPads today feel more like Macs than they did eight years ago, that’s largely because Apple keeps making the Mac more iPad-like, rather than the other way around.
The iPad’s approach to multitasking remains basic, and not much better on the Pro models than on non-Pro models. You can divide the screen into 66/34 or 50/50 panes, add a picture-in-picture video window, and create a pop-out app sidebar, but that’s pretty much it. While the shared-screen feature works seamlessly, app support still remains inconsistent, and the virtual keyboard has a way of obscuring nearly half of the display.
The 11-inch iPad Pro gets a new virtual keyboard with tab, caps lock, and shift keys that prior 9.7-inch and 10.5-inch users will find too easy to accidentally hit, while the 12.9-inch model keeps its super-wide keyboard. Having used Apple’s 7.9-, 9.7-, 10.5-, and 12.9-inch device keyboards, I think it’s the right time for Apple to offer users a choice between the Apple-designed keyboard layout they want — including a mini-keyboard — as the current software typing experience isn’t always great for the way people are using their iPads.
While you can do away with the virtual keyboard by connecting a physical one, using an iPad for productivity isn’t the same or better than using a MacBook. Nearly a decade after the iPad’s launch, the promise of “desktop-quality” photo and video editing apps remains unfulfilled — though Apple and Adobe are now both saying “check back later” — and individual productivity apps are virtually always more fully featured on the Mac than on an iPad.
We are not yet at the point where an iPad can serve as a central hub for other iOS devices, as the primary tool for maintaining a large photo library, or as a way to simultaneously participate in a group text chat with coworkers while working on documents in other windows. It’s painful to realize that the latest iPad Pros now officially have enough screen space and horsepower to run Mac apps, but are stuck for the foreseeable future with iOS apps — more specifically, iOS’s own limitations. Until the OS grows up, it’s going to be hard for many professionals to switch full-time to the iPad Pro.
Don’t get me wrong: There are tons of things iPads do exceptionally well. They continue to be great for single-purpose apps, including video playback, video chats, and reading anything from books and magazines to web pages. However, these apps generally run every bit as well on the $329 iPad as on a $799 or more expensive iPad Pro.
In another company’s hands, the iPad’s biggest software disappointments — games and social media apps — could have been its biggest draws. There are hundreds of thousands of iPad games out there, but Apple has struggled to convince developers to bring AAA-quality titles to the App Store, so apart from Fortnite and the occasional Lego title, you can’t take advantage of the iPad Pro’s horsepower. Similarly, key social media apps such as Instagram and Twitter continue to make poor use of any iPad’s display, and Apple’s largest screens arguably suffer the most from their lack of proper tablet support. A12X Bionic chip aside, you’re better off using most of these apps on an iPhone.
4. Accessories and USB-C
If there’s any reason other than price that past iPad users might complain about the new iPad Pro, it’s this: In one fell swoop, Apple all but killed the iPad Pro’s ability to connect wired accessories previously supported by iPads. The 3.5mm headphone port is gone, the Lightning port is gone, prior Smart Connector accessories don’t work, and there’s nowhere for the past Apple Pencil to plug in. If you really invested in decking out a prior iPad Pro, you now have a lot of legacy products that you’ll have to abandon or buy dongles to use with the latest iPad Pro models. And for the time being, you might even need to use different accessories with your iPhone and iPad.
For the first time in many years, I’m more than OK with this change, because Apple has finally switched (largely) to universal standards. The Lightning port has been replaced by USB-C, so if you’ve bought a USB-C SD card adapter for your MacBook, it now works on the iPad Pro, too. Ditto on your MacBook’s USB-C wall charger and cable, if you have them. Bluetooth accessories also work, so your AirPods and Bluetooth keyboard will still play nicely with the new iPads. Since the iPad Pro supports Bluetooth 5.0, you’ll get the best performance from old and new wireless accessories alike.
Apple used this switchover as an opportunity to re-engineer the Apple Pencil, which was already an outstanding writing and drawing tool. The second-generation version now attaches magnetically to the iPad’s side for charging, firmly enough that you generally won’t dislodge it without applying significant force. While it’s not backward-compatible with earlier iPads, and battery life has taken a fair hit, the new Pencil’s charging convenience and support for tool-switching tap gestures is game-changing. If it wasn’t $129, up $30 from the prior model, I’d recommend it to everyone.
Apple also released a new keyboard called the Smart Keyboard Folio for the iPad Pros, and it comes in two sizes: 11-inch ($179) and 12.9-inch ($199). Each version features a roughly full-sized physical typing surface with key travel comparable to a laptop, and the smaller model requires only tiny compromises in the sizes of larger left- and right-side keys such as Tab, Return, and Shift. You can choose from two viewing angles while typing, both well-supported and collectively capable of working on a lap or desk, though the 12.9-inch iPad Pro can be a bit more challenging to use on a lap.
In my testing, the keys were surprisingly good: Key depth, spacing, and responsiveness were all comparable to a standalone keyboard, and none of Apple’s typing design compromises are noticeable under normal typing conditions. There’s no question that the physical keyboard improves the overall iPad usage experience by clearing the very large virtual keyboard from the screen. As with prior Apple “smart keyboard” accessories, it’s powered by the iPad’s relocated Smart Connector and doesn’t have its own battery.
My single biggest problem with the Smart Keyboard Folio was that the keys left scratch-like marks on the screen every time the case closed. They thankfully wipe off because the keys aren’t as hard as Apple’s screen lamination, but their presence was a constant annoyance. Additionally, it’s worth noting that Apple doesn’t match PC rivals by including a touchpad with its detachable keyboard. Unlike Surface tablets, which can run some Windows apps, this omission effectively precludes the iPad from running macOS apps.
That said, both the Smart Keyboard Folio and its keyboard-free version, the Smart Folio ($79/11-inch, $99/12.9-inch), both feel cheap for their prices in ways that should utterly embarrass Apple. They are little more than wraparound pieces of vinyl and fabric that attach magnetically to the iPad Pro’s back, folding to provide support for the reclining tablet. When closed, they provide no coverage for the iPad’s top, bottom, or right side — the latter omission only justified by the need to support the Apple Pencil. At this point, Apple’s iPad case accessories are brazen ripoffs; customers shouldn’t be charged as much as an iPod touch for a plastic keyboard.
I have only a few comments to share on the USB-C front. The accessories I’ve been using for a few years with my USB-C MacBook Pro generally all work with the iPad Pro, including chargers and card readers, a change I love; I was even able to use Apple’s new USB-C Magnetic Charger to refuel my Apple Watch directly from the iPad on a trip. (If the iPhone makes the same Lightning to USB-C change, users will finally be able to stop carrying multiple types of similar accessories around, and that will be great.)
Apple also offers a video adapter to display iPad content on an external display, a headphone port adapter, and other USB-C options of its own. Unlike its cases, these dongles are well-engineered, built to last, and only a little overpriced compared with less expensive rivals. Wired USB storage devices are not (yet) directly supported by iOS, but apparently can be accessed with third-party apps just like wireless drives were before.
As of now, Apple makes it very easy to just jump right into its own accessory micro-ecosystem and have a generally great experience. Beyond the Apple Pencil, Smart Keyboard Folio, and USB-C accessories I already owned, my existing AirPods paired instantly with the new iPad Pro, and I was ready to do anything and everything the tablet was capable of. The only overriding problem across all of Apple’s accessories is the price tag, which is now steeper than ever before.
5. Pricing and conclusions
Apple’s pricing scheme for the new iPad Pros is fairly straightforward, but in no way aggressive. Rather than killing the 10.5-inch iPad Pro and replacing it at the same $649 price with the 11-inch model, Apple is keeping the old model around without any discount and charging more for both of the new iPads. This decision is almost as annoying as what Apple has done the aging iPad mini 4, which for some reason continues to linger at its $399 price point while newer and more capable full-sized iPads sell for less.
The entry price for the 11-inch iPad Pro is $799, with the 12.9-inch model starting at $999, each with a basic 64GB of storage. Each climbs $150 to jump to 256GB, another $200 more to jump to 512GB, and then an extra $400 more to hit 1TB, the last model also including 2GB of undisclosed extra RAM (up from 4GB) to support the extra storage. That gets you to $1,549 for the 11-inch 1TB model or $1,749 for the 12.9-inch 1TB model, both with 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Adding 4G Gigabit LTE cellular support comparable to the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max costs an extra $150 above any of those prices.
As has been pointed out numerous times elsewhere, that means this year’s most expensive iPad Pro is $1,899 — enough to buy a quad-core Intel laptop from anyone, even Apple. Even though I might consider spending nearly as much on a laptop, I would generally call that a very bad investment for an iPad, one that will look foolish within a year or two thanks to processor improvements and falling storage prices.
From my perspective, the smarter move with the iPad Pro is to spend less — you still get the same performance no matter which model you select. So go for a 64GB model if you can squeeze your favorite apps and movies into that space, and avoid the cellular versions if your phone supports tethering. I personally think the 256GB Wi-Fi model is the family’s sweet spot, and with only two color choices this year (silver and space gray), the darker version was an easy pick for my needs. If you really need more space or cellular functionality, that’s fine — just be prepared to pay too much for them, or wait for either a retailer or phone carrier sale.
Putting aside this year’s higher pricing, which is only made worse by Apple’s continued nickel and diming with accessories, the iPad Pro is a fantastic tablet — certainly the best evolution yet of the original iPad concept, and one that I have thoroughly enjoyed using for everything I previously did with my iPads.
The problem, of course, is that I and millions of other people want to do more with the iPad. Despite all of Apple’s improvements and marketing efforts, it’s still just a tablet, not a laptop replacement, even if it’s now roughly the same price as a MacBook once you add the keyboard. Until and unless Apple upgrades the iPad’s OS to match a Mac — something I’m not yet convinced will happen in this version’s lifetime — most people will continue to view it just like the original iPad: as something halfway between a phone and a Mac, not capable of replacing either.
If that doesn’t happen, it will continue to be at a strong disadvantage for most professional users compared to Microsoft’s Surface lineup, despite its considerable appeal to other constituencies. I’m not saying that I’d personally buy a Surface over an iPad, but if I needed only one device to switch-hit as both a tablet and a laptop, it would be easier to choose one of Microsoft’s devices than Apple’s — and that’s entirely Apple’s cross to bear at this stage.
What that means to you: The entry-level $329 iPad delivers such a similar experience to the $799 model that most people will be just fine with an iPad that costs less than half the price. Every iPad runs the same version of iOS, and has the same software limitations, but the iPad Pros just make the same basic experience feel bigger and better. Weigh your personal needs thoughtfully before jumping up to an iPad Pro, but if you do so, you’ll be rewarded by the best design, features, and performance Apple has ever brought to a tablet — albeit at its steepest prices.
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