iPad Pro review: New tablet is the most beautiful Apple has ever made
It's not the iPad for everyone – but it's the perfect one for the people it is made for
The new iPad Pro is a significant upgrade, adding an all-screen front, Face ID, smaller dimensions and weight, a new Pencil and Smart Keyboard, different connectivity and, oh yes, no headphone jack. All in a strikingly different design.
I’ve been living with the new model in its larger, 12.9in-display version since jsut after it was announced last Tuesday. Almost everything here relates to the smaller edition too, apart from the size, of course.
The new look
This is fantastic. Not only does it remove the Home button at the bottom of the screen, it squeaks the screen out to the edges, just like on the iPhone XS. Except that there’s no notch on this display. The larger proportions of a tablet compared to a phone mean that there’s room for the TrueDepth sensor and camera needed for the facial recognition system, Face ID, in the slightly wider bezel that runs evenly round the edge. Compared to the iPhone XS this bezel is noticeably wider but proportionally, it still looks narrow.
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Actually, a better comparison is to the iPhone XR as, like that phone, this tablet has an LCD, not an OLED, screen. It tricks your eyes into thinking this display has a perfectly curved edge, instead of the rectangular screens found on previous iPads. It’s a subtle alteration but it makes a big difference.
Also striking in the new design is the tablet’s edge which is no longer softly curved. Now, there’s a vertical cliff-edge sharpness between front and back. I worried that this would be uncomfortable to hold, either with one or two hands, but that turns out not to be the case.
I also thought I might not like it, simply because the curve has always seemed so welcoming and well-crafted, but actually, it’s attractive and eye-catching. The flat edge also makes it possible for the Pencil to attach to the side, as we’ll see later.
On the back of the iPad Pro is a whole new antenna band design. Running around the top and bottom edges of the tablet is a narrow line which lets the Bluetooth, wi-fi and 4G signals in and out. If you choose an iPad Pro that’s wi-fi only, the line runs only around the top edge.
The most recent iPad Pro already had a very elegant look to the antenna band, but this is also appealing, a bit reminiscent of how it slid round the top on the iPhone 6s.
The new tablets, by the way, are both just 5.9mm thick, which makes them the thinnest iPads yet.
No, there isn’t one. Although Apple made quite a big announcement when it took the headphone socket off the iPhone three years ago, this change went without comment at the recent launch.
Apple likes wireless connections for its devices, not least because it makes some of the best Bluetooth headphones around, the AirPods. What about the headphones in the box, you ask? In fact, headphones haven’t been supplied with iPads for several years. Apple makes a USB-C to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter to connect regular headphones to the new iPad Pro, for £9. This joins the Lightning to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter for connecting headphones to the iPhone, available at the same price.
So, there’s no longer a fingerprint sensor on the iPad Pro. Other phones have facial recognition, but only on recent iPhones, and now this iPad, is it deemed to be accurate and secure enough to authorise payments as well as unlock the screen.
As with the iPhone XS, for instance, the unlock is not the same as taking you straight to the home screen, as happens on some other devices.
Instead, it does something to notifications. If you have notifications on screen when the iPad Pro is locked, they will appear as generic indications of what app is generating them, such as Messages, for instance. When the tablet recognises you, the content of the message is revealed. Very handy if you don't want a work colleague to casually see you have yet another message about a family member, say.
Face ID has been upgraded from the iPhone, because of the way the iPad Pro works. If you have it set up in landscape orientation, you don’t need to swivel your head 90 degrees to be authenticated. You set Face ID up holding the iPad Pro in portrait orientation, but then it’ll work any way round.
There is a difference to using it on the iPhone, not least that the iPhone is often closer to your face. If the tablet is on the table and you’re standing up then you may see a message next to the padlock icon onscreen explaining that your face is too far away. Lean in, and the padlock icon springs open. Instantly.
Face ID retains the same intimate and satisfying feeling you get when using it on the iPhone.
The iPad’s interface now comes to match that of the iPhones with Face ID, that is, you swipe up from the base of the display to go to the home screen, for instance. If you have an older iPhone there will be a learning curve here, but I found I quickly adapted to, and quickly preferred, the new interface.
The big change to the display is the curving of the corners, as mentioned above. Apple is describing the new display as Liquid Retina, as on the iPhone XR, because of the precision-milled glass, pixel masking and anti-aliasing found on that iPhone, too.
In terms of pixel density, this is the same 264 pixels per inch screen resolution that iPad users are familiar with.
As this is an iPad Pro, it has ProMotion, which means the refresh rate can be adjusted as needed, up to 120Hz when you need the smoothest and most responsive effects, and dropping it down as far as 24Hz to save battery when you’re looking at static images, for instance.
The display looks terrific, not just because of Apple specialities such as True Tone which measures the colour temperature of the ambient light and adjusts the iPad’s output to give truer colours.
Note that the screen aspect ratio is different between the two sizes of iPad Pro. The 12.9in remains at 4:3, which is what the 2018 iPad, iPad mini and 10.5in iPad Pro are. The new 11in iPad Pro has stretched the display within the old tablet’s dimensions and as a result the screen shape is different. It’s roughly equivalent to 4.3:3, so it’s longer in comparison to its width. It does make the 11in model look that bit longer and thinner.
USB-C and charger
One of the big changes with this iPad is the move from a Lightning connector to USB-C, the same connector it uses on all the latest Mac laptops. It’s part of the way Apple is positioning this tablet as one you can use as a full-blown computer alternative. Not only are there split screen and multi-app features which challenge a regular PC or Mac, but there’s the Files app which works to make file management as capable as it is on a computer.
USB-C means you can output what’s onscreen to a compatible monitor, for instance, which represents a big change from what went before.
I don’t think this means Apple will be dumping the Lightning connector for a while yet, though. It’s still there on the entry-level iPad because that’s all that’s needed for that machine. Ditto the iPhones. So those scores of cables you have lying around the house won’t be obsolete just yet.
This has also, by the way, meant that I have repeatedly tried to charge the new tablet with the same Lightning cable I’ve previously used. I’m sure I’ll get used to this.
And it’s good that USB-C, like Lightning, doesn’t have a wrong-way-up: it fits either way.
One other benefit: you can charge your iPhone from this iPad Pro. Previously, the only thing you could charge from other iPad Pro tablets was the first-generation Pencil.
Now, if you have a USB-C to Lightning cable, you can connect the two and charge the phone when it’s running low.
I have tried this with other gadgets, too. Using a USB-C to USB-C cable, the iPad Pro happily charged the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. But when I connected the OnePlus 6T and Nokia 7.1, the iPad Pro began charging from the phones! I don’t know why this should be and mine is not a very scientific test but it’s interesting, no?
The charger in the box, incidentally, is a newly designed plug, complete with fold-out pins for the UK version which is more powerful than the one supplied with previous iPad models. This one is 18W, where previous tablets have had a 12W charger. It’s a charger with a USB-C output, of course.
You’d expect an iPad Pro to have the best performance of any Apple tablet, right? Well, this one has the latest processor, called the A12X Bionic, which the company says is the most powerful chip it’s ever made. In use, it’s extremely fast in every way. It is so powerful, it’s able to make the most of advanced apps, such as the upcoming (and much-anticipated) Adobe Photoshop CC. The graphics chip (GPU) is as powerful as the Xbox One S games console, Apple says, in a device that’s 94 per cent smaller and doesn’t need a power cable. The company also claims that its graphics performance is 1,000 times that of the original iPad.
Expect to see apps, especially games, which leverage this power in due course.
Battery life is pretty much unchanged from earlier iPads, that is around 10 hours life comes as standard.
An iPad has never been ergonomically suited to working as a great camera - a large, flat glass panel is no match for a proper camera that is shaped to fit your hands comfortably. But at least this has a decent sensor with 12-megapixel resolution and wide-open aperture (f/1.8) to help in low light.
This is not the same camera as on the iPhone XR which offers portrait effects with sharply focused subjects and delightfully blurred backgrounds. It is capable of Live Photos, panoramas, 4K video and more, but for portrait effects, you have to rely on the front-facing camera which, because of the TrueDepth camera which powers Face ID, can manage portrait modes, including lighting effects which are adjustable after you’ve taken your shot.
Where the iPad Pro excels, of course, is the scale of the screen which becomes a sumptuous and detailed viewfinder on which to frame your shots. In this way, it beats phones or regular standalone cameras.
Incidentally, the new iPad Pro camera lacks optical image stabilisation, found on the previous 10.5in tablet - about the only downgrade I could find in the whole tablet.
The new Apple Pencil is one of the best upgrades for the iPad Pro. The first Pencil arrived with the first iPad Pro and always seemed to me to be the quintessential Apple accessory: beautifully designed, easy to use and with every bit of technology hidden quietly inside. Unless you popped the cap off, you had no visible clue that it was a smart stylus at all.
But there were inelegances: to charge and pair, you had to put the Lightning connector into the base of the iPad, making the tablet briefly look like a weird, oblong lollipop. And there was no way to carry it safely with your iPad so it was easy to leave it behind or forget where you’d stowed it.
That’s all solved with this new version. It’s all one device, there’s no removable cap. It looks better, thanks to the matte, as opposed to gloss, finish. And the Pencil has one flat side (the rest is circular). Bring it close to the right edge of the iPad Pro and it almost leaps out of your hand to snap into place on the tablet. You can place it there pointing either up or down and it holds in place easily and securely: shake the tablet as much as you like, it won’t come off.
But the Pencil has another trick up its classy sleeve: when it attaches, it automatically pairs with the iPad Pro and even starts charging. The panel on the tablet’s edge where it jumps into place contains a wireless charging pad - the smallest Apple has ever made, if not the world’s smallest.
Although the battery inside is smaller than on the first-generation Pencil, the experience is that it lasts longer because it so easily and effortlessly charges whenever you’re not using it.
Note that the new Pencil only works with this generation of iPad Pro, not previous ones and the first-generation Pencil is not compatible with the new tablets.
You can use it for almost every interaction with the iPad Pro, though it won’t stand in for your finger when you want to swipe up from the base of the display to open the home screen, for instance, or to swipe down from the top right corner to bring up the Control Centre, where you can adjust lots of settings including the one I adjust most often, rotation lock.
It also has one more level of sophistication: double-tap the body of the Pencil to change tools, from pencil to eraser, for instance. You don’t have to tap the flat part of the Pencil, it works all the way round.
Smart Keyboard Folio
The Smart Keyboard that arrived with the first iPad Pro was a revelation: comfortable to type on with decent travel in the keys and good spacing, especially on the larger sized iPads. And the Smart Connector on the edge of the tablet was a great innovation: the problem with Bluetooth keyboards is they have a sleep mode which kicks in after a while, so your first keystrokes are missed while the keyboard wakes up. The Smart Connector solved this problem.
Now, that connector has been moved from the side to the back of the tablet, meaning that accessories must have a repositioned sensor, too.
The new keyboard, called the Smart Keyboard Folio, wraps round the back as well as the front of the iPad Pro, protecting the rear as well as the screen, which is good. It means the connector is in contact with the keyboard at all times, but Apple has cleverly configured it so it only activates the keyboard when it’s actually in the right position for typing. Actually, there are two screen positions and the keyboard is active in both of them.
A word about the wrap-around back on the keyboard: most other keyboards and cases are held in place by sides that grip the edges of the tablet. Not this one. It relies entirely on magnets - lots of them - to secure it. As you put the keyboard in place, each magnet finds its home and it sits perfectly precisely, instantly in place. The magnets are strong (it can take a bit of effort to adjust or remove it) so you feel sure it’ll stay in place.
The new 12.9in iPad Pro is significantly smaller than the last model, to the extent that many who opted for the greater portability of a smaller-screen iPad in the past may feel that the 12.9in model is now the one to choose. I’m one of those people: the huge screen is just too inviting and the weight and size of the device no longer offputting.
Even so, I think most people will be drawn to the 11in iPad Pro. After all, it’s the same size as the previous 10.5in screen, which was big enough, and it now squeezes in a bigger screen but for the same overall tablet size and weight. It’s actually fractionally lighter than the 10.5in alternative.
The 12.9in model weighs 631g while the 11in is just 468g and for many that extra weight will make the 11in model overwhelmingly appealing. Plus, the smaller one is cheaper.
The new iPad Pro is a huge upgrade from previous models, and is easily Apple’s most accomplished and attractive tablet yet. Its speed and versatility are remarkable, arguably more than many will need, but for creatives especially, it’s going to become the tablet of choice.
For many of us, a regular iPad will do, especially now the latest regular model is compatible with the first-generation Pencil. But for those who want a bigger display, a spectacularly good keyboard, and a superbly improved Pencil, the iPad Pro is hard to resist.
That’s before we even get as far as recognising how speedy it is, comparable to most of the fastest laptops, Apple says. And it certainly seems that way.
It’s not cheap, of course, with prices starting at £769 for the 11in model and £969 for the 12.9in size. That’s a long way from the £319 entry price for the regular iPad, which has been something of a bargain for a while now.
The 10.5in model is still available for £619.
This new iPad Pro, though, is the most powerful, not to mention most beautiful, tablet you can find anywhere.