Here we are. Apple, the same company that once swore off styluses, and dismissed hybrid PCs as experiments gone wrong, is now selling a laptop/tablet mashup of its own. One that accepts pen input, at that. The new 12.9-inch iPad Pro went on sale last week, and though it is, in a sense, just an oversized iPad, it’s also the closest thing we’ve seen yet to a hybrid device from Apple. With the screen real estate of a laptop, and the speed of a laptop, and various keyboard accessories allowing you to type on it like a laptop, the Pro seems like it might indeed be able to replace your notebook. In fact, Tim Cook himself has suggested as much in interviews. But with a starting price of $799, it isn’t for everybody. And even then, it won’t replace your laptop so much as complement it.
- Robust performance
- Bright, pixel-dense screen
- Lighter than you’d expect
- Smooth, precise pen input
- Surprisingly good audio
- Long battery life
- Expensive, especially with the accessories sold separately
- Still heavy compared to other tablets
- No mouse support; none of the keyboards have touchpads
- Screen angle isn’t adjustable on any of the keyboards
- iOS 9 doesn’t multitask as well as desktop operating systems
- Nowhere to store the Pencil
The iPad Pro isn’t for everyone: It performs well, but iOS 9 isn’t as adept at multitasking as a laptop operating system, and the lack of any mouse input can get tiresome. That said, its fast performance and smooth pen input could be useful for creative pros who need a way to stay productive while on the go. The Pro won’t replace your computer, but for a certain kind of user, it could be a handy supplement.
Apple Smart Keyboard
- Thin and light
- Water- and spill-resistant
- Uncomfortable to type on
- Not backlit
- No shortcut keys
- As on other iPad Pro keyboards, the screen isn’t adjustable and there’s no touchpad
Apple’s iPad Pro keyboard is thin, light and water-resistant, and doesn’t need to be charged. It’s also uncomfortable to type on and is missing some amenities you’ll find on competing keyboards, like backlighting and settings shortcut keys. It will suffice in a pinch but for the money, you can do better.
Logitech Create iPad Pro Keyboard Case
- So far, the most comfortable iPad Pro keyboard
- Useful shortcut keys
- Less expensive than Apple’s own keyboard
- Relatively bulky
- Difficult to put on and take off
- As on other iPad Pro keyboards, the screen isn’t adjustable and there’s no touchpad
The Create is the first third-party keyboard for the iPad Pro. Though it suffers from some of the same drawbacks as Apple’s offering, it’s still the clear winner, with handy shortcut keys, backlighting and a more comfortable typing experience. If you’re looking to buy an iPad Pro keyboard, this is the one you want
It’s a big iPad. There you have it, folks, that’s my review. Dana out!
I kid, of course, but I also don’t know where else to begin. Because the Apple Pencil and any keyboard you choose to use will be sold separately, all you’ll find inside the box will be a Lightning cable, a power brick and this oversized tablet. The build quality and design are the same as any other recent iPad, with a unibody aluminum enclosure available in the usual colors: Silver, Gold and Space Gray. Assuming you were holding the device in landscape mode, you’ll find the headphone jack and power button on the left, the volume rocker and LTE SIM slot (if there is one) on the top. So far, so familiar.
It’s on the bottom that things start to get interesting. There you’ll find Apple’s three-pronged Smart Connector, which you’ll use to connect the iPad to whatever keyboard you end up choosing. (Apple has licensed the design to third-party accessory makers, starting with Logitech.) Unlike some other 2-in-1s I’ve seen, the connector here is virtually flush with the tablet’s edge, so it’s unlikely to snag on anything else you have in your bag. It makes a satisfying click when you drop it into your keyboard and because the magnetic connection is so strong, you won’t have to work hard to line up the male and female connectors. The connection is so strong, in fact, that the iPad Pro passes the requisite (and ridiculous) “dangle the tablet by its keyboard cover and see if it falls” test. In case you were wondering.
Finishing up our tour, the tablet has a Touch ID fingerprint reader on the lower bezel — the same sensor used on last year’s iPad Air 2 and the new mini 4. That’s a blessing, because without it, having to enter a PIN every time the screen timed out would be a real pain. In addition, there are two cameras: a basic 1.2-megapixel shooter on the front for video chatting, and an 8-megapixel one on the back. That rear camera is equipped with some decent specs, including an f/2.4 lens and the ability to shoot both 1080p and slow-motion video (the latter at up to 120 frames per second). Though I doubt anyone wants to be that guy using a nearly 13-inch tablet to take photos at a football game, I’m willing to believe that the mobile professionals Apple is targeting — real estate agents, medical types — might get some use out of the built-in shooter here. In a way, though, that’s moot: I don’t think Apple could have gotten away with selling a $799 tablet that had no cameras.
To get the most out of the iPad Pro, you’ll want to also pick up the Apple Pencil, an optional keyboard or maybe both. Still, you might sometimes want to use the iPad Pro as, you know, just a very big tablet, and in those situations, the device is at once surprisingly light and yet heavier than you’re used to. At 1.57 pounds (1.59 on the LTE model), it’s on par with Microsoft’s 13.5-inch Surface Book in tablet-only mode, though to be fair, the Surface manages to stuff inside a heavier-duty notebook-grade processor. Either way, I think we can agree that a pound and a half is pretty darn light for a 13-inch tablet. That said, 1.5 pounds is just heavy enough that I wouldn’t want to hold the Pro aloft for long, even if it’s 6.9mm-thick (0.27-inch) casing otherwise makes it easy to handle. Fortunately, I mostly kept my test unit either docked in a keyboard or resting on my legs — no arm strength necessary.
Display and sound
In addition to being the biggest tablet iPad to date, the Pro also has the distinction of having the second-sharpest screen of any computer Apple has ever made. The 12.9-inch, 2,732 x 2,048 screen has 5.6 million pixels, which translates to a pixel density of 264 ppi. The only Apple product with a sharper screen is the 5K iMac. Speaking of the iMac, Apple borrowed the same Oxide TFT (thin-film transistor) technology it introduced on its flagship all-in-one last year, which keeps the brightness even throughout the panel. In addition, a variable refresh rate means the iPad Pro knows when the content on your screen is static, allowing it to cut refreshes in half and therefore conserve battery life.
Well, that all sounds fancy, doesn’t it? Yeah, it’s pretty nice. I confess, my eyes aren’t discerning enough to notice a significant improvement in quality over the iPad Air 2, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Apple has already shown, across all of its devices, that it knows how to produce a top-notch display.
What I can say is that I’ve come to appreciate the extra screen real estate. It comes in handy for everything from email to Twitter to web surfing to watching videos. Even in Slack — something you don’t think of as a creative app, per se — I appreciated not having to scroll as much through messages. And because the screen is about as wide as two Air 2s, you can run two apps side by side in Split View mode and still have plenty of room for each. As it is, my daily driver is a 13-inch laptop, but after spending a few days with the iPad Pro, I feel that much more reluctant to work on a 9.7-inch screen. The thing is, I’m not sure that extra screen real estate is worth $799 to me, at least for the basics, especially if a smaller device would be easier to carry around.
If the screen quality feels like a subtle upgrade, the audio represents a noticeable improvement over previous iPads. Examine the Pro closely and you’ll see four speaker grilles on the device — one at each corner. Indeed, this is the first time Apple has included this many speakers on one of its tablets. According to the company, the speaker housings have been CNC-machined directly into the enclosure, with 61 percent more chamber space compared to previous iPads. The end result, Apple says, is a wider frequency and up to three times more output than Apple’s other tablets. Lastly, the speakers recognize when you’re holding the tablet in portrait or landscape, and will adjust the soundscape accordingly. Also, because each speaker grille is near a corner, you’re unlikely to obscure them with your fingers.
After reading that spec sheet, then, I knew to expect some robust sound. And yet, when I first booted up the Pro, I was taken aback by how loud the audio was. It’s fairly boomy too. In fact, all four speakers produce bass notes, though depending on how you’re holding it, only the two at the top will play mids and highs. All told, I enjoyed listening to music on it more than I have other tablets, or even some laptops. Too bad Spotify won’t work on the iPad Pro, and that you have to pay for Apple Music — I would have streamed much more music otherwise.
As I began working on this review, I was using Apple’s own Smart Keyboard to put my thoughts on paper (so to speak). I was struggling without a trackpad, making a lot of typos and struggling to find room for my hands on the packed keyboard deck. Boy, was I grouchy.
Fortunately, after a day of use, I started to get the hang of it. It’s not a replacement for a proper laptop keyboard, or even the best keyboard you can get for the iPad Pro, but it’s at least not as bad as I initially concluded. Before I get ahead of myself, though, let me clarify how Apple’s keyboard is, and isn’t, like other tablet docks we’ve seen. At first glance, it looks like the Surface’s keyboard: a thin (4mm-thick) cover that attaches to the bottom of the tablet via a magnetic connection. Unlike the Surface, though, it’s covered in an unbroken sheet of water- and stain-resistant laser-cut fabric. There are no holes in it, not even where the buttons are. Instead, the fabric wraps around each keycap so that it’s acting not just as a covering, but it’s actually part of the key mechanism itself.
It’s actually quite different from, say, the new MacBook’s keyboard, except that the stainless steel key domes happen to be the same. Lastly, aside from being spill-resistant, the benefit to this design is that it’s designed to be durable: Apple put a conductive material under the fabric that’s meant to be folded thousands of times over.
It’s an ingenious idea in theory, but in practice, it doesn’t make for a great typing experience. For starters, Apple’s Smart Keyboard only allows you to place the tablet in one position, meaning you can’t adjust the angle of the screen. Additionally, though the buttons’ short travel makes them relatively quiet, there’s a tradeoff: The keys don’t bounce back the way you’d expect. The result is that sometimes when you think you’re striking a button, your key press doesn’t actually register. In particular, I often had to hit the spacebar twice, after seeing I had strung two words together when they were supposed to be separate.
What’s more, since iOS doesn’t support mouse input, neither Apple’s keyboard nor any of the other available options has a touchpad. Now it’s true, iOS wasn’t designed to be used with a pointer and indeed, I don’t think I’d enjoy dragging a cursor across the screen to click on homescreen shortcuts when I can just use my finger. But for apps like Pages, which I used to draft this review, I would have loved a trackpad for highlighting text; it would have been more precise than using my finger, and more efficient than using the arrow keys. As Apple tells it, the shortcuts bar at the bottom of the screen in iOS 9 will help save people time, but in my experience, it wasn’t a substitute for a touchpad.
On the plus side, though I still make typos, I’ve started to build up a rhythm so that I can type faster with not quite as many mistakes. And though I wish I had a choice of different screen angles, the Smart Keyboard is at least comfortable to balance in my lap; the underside of the cover feels soft against my bare legs, and the case is sturdy enough that the setup isn’t too top-heavy.
All told, it seems that Apple’s priority was to create a keyboard case that was thin and easy to set up — no Bluetooth pairing required. That’s important, to be sure, but perhaps next time the company will make strides in the actual typing experience. And I believe it will. It took Microsoft several tries to build a Surface keyboard that could replace a notebook’s; perhaps in a few years Apple will have accomplished the same.
Logitech Create keyboard
Ah, this is better. The Logitech Create ($150) is the first third-party keyboard for the iPad Pro, and while it suffers from some of the same faults as Apple’s keyboard — no trackpad, a non-adjustable screen — it’s far and away more comfortable to type on. The buttons are as cushy and springy as what you’d find on a proper notebook, with a sturdy underlying panel and backlighting, to boot. There was no learning curve here: As soon as I snapped the iPad into the hard case, I was immediately able to begin typing at a fast clip, with few typos. What’s more, the keyboard rests comfortably in the lap, and feels even more stable than Apple’s version.
Logitech Create keyboard for the iPad Pro
Just as important, the Create has a Function row up top with buttons for all the most important controls — brightness, volume, play/pause, rewind, fast forward, keyboard backlighting and screen lock. There’s also a hotkey that takes you back to the homescreen without you having to press the physical home button. It partially makes up for the lack of a mouse — not totally, anyway, but somewhat.
If I have one complaint, it’s that Logitech’s plastic keyboard (available in several colors) is bulkier than Apple’s, and that propping up the tablet requires you to snap the iPad into a hard case, which I still haven’t gotten the hang of. Oh, and removing the tablet from the case isn’t much easier.
Aside from its size, what makes the iPad Pro distinctive is its optional pen — excuse me, Pencil. While many people won’t need this $99 accessory, it’s worth it for someone in a creative field, or even folks who still prefer hand-written note-taking. Like many tablet pens, including the one that comes with the Surface Pro and Surface Book, the Apple Pencil is pressure-sensitive, which is to say, the markings will look different depending on how hard you bear down. Apple also included sensors that allow the Pencil to detect when you’re tilting it. This enables the user to tilt the implement on its side and shade as you would with a real pencil.
Suffice to say, it works very well. The implement itself has a nice weight and thickness that makes it feel analogous to a real pencil. And, as trite as this sounds, it really does do a good job of mimicking the feel of pen to paper. The screen has just enough friction that it feels like you’re drawing on something resembling paper, as opposed to a slippery piece of glass. At the same time, though I throw around words like “friction,” that doesn’t mean there’s any latency — far from it. Ink appears on the page as you pull the pencil across, and the feedback is not just instant, but precise: I can’t remember ever attempting to make a marking and coming up empty.
As you can imagine, I spent a lot of time dicking around in drawing apps like Adobe Photoshop Sketch, Canva, Autodesk Sketchbook and Zen Brush 2, but art therapy isn’t the only thing the Apple Pencil is good for. The Pencil also works well in various note-taking programs, including Evernote, Paper and Apple’s newly redesigned Notes app. Microsoft also updated its iPad Office suite with Pencil support, while Apple’s native Mail app lets you use the pencil to mark up attachments.
Apple says the Pencil will last 12 hours on a charge. In the event it dies on you, you can flip off the Pencil’s cap to reveal a male Lightning port, which you then plug into your tablet. If you can spare just 15 seconds, you’ll get another 30 minutes of use, though you’ll need about two hours to reach a full 12-hour charge. Just keep in mind that while the pencil is easy to charge, it’s also easy to lose; you can’t store it anywhere on the tablet, as you can with Microsoft’s Surface Pen. Ditto for the cap: It fell off once in my testing and I’ve since been vigilant about making sure I reattach it firmly after charging.
Performance and software
|IPAD PRO||IPAD AIR 2||IPAD MINI 4|
|3DMark IS Unlimited||32,544||21,659||16,291|
|GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Off/onscreen (fps)||79.3/33.6||13.0/8.8||N/A|
|SunSpider 1.0 (ms)||191||393||349|
|Google Octane 2.0||19,872||10,659||N/A|
|Mozilla Kraken (ms)||1,499||2,332||N/A|
|Apple JetStream 1.1||141||83||N/A|
|SunSpider and Kraken: Lower scores are better.|
The iPad Pro is fast. Whether it’s as fast as a laptop is a question I probably won’t settle with this review but either way: It’s fast. In particular, Apple claims the Pro offers nearly double (1.8x) the performance of the iPad Air 2 and twice the graphics performance. As Apple’s third-generation 64-bit processor, the Pro’s A9X chip brings a new memory architecture boasting increased read/write speeds. It also makes use of the same Metal graphics framework that already powers the iPhone and the latest version of OS X. Lastly, like the A9 chip inside the new iPhones, the A9X makes use of the M9 coprocessor, which continuously pulls in data from various sensors including the accelerometer, gyroscope and compass. This is important because the M9 does this more efficiently than the main chip would, according to Apple, which has implications for battery savings.
With all that technical context out of the way, I generally enjoyed snappy performance in both basic and heavier-duty apps. I downloaded AutoCAD 360 — a program I don’t actually know how to use — mostly so that I could spin models around with my finger and quickly zoom in and out. I eventually grew bored of trying to make the system stutter. Games also ran smoothly, not that they were prone to stuttering on the Air 2 either. All this graphics power is borne out as well in synthetic tests, with significant gains in 3DMark and GFXBench. (You’ll see similar leaps in web benchmarks too.)
In basic use, it was mostly smooth sailing. Apps loaded quickly and the system was also quick to respond when I either double-pressed the home button to switch apps or used iOS 9’s “Slide Over” feature to swipe in from the right side of the screen to peek into another program without leaving the one I was in. There were, however, a couple small exceptions. There was a point during my testing where I was writing this review in Pages and flipping back to Twitter in Slide Over and Google Drive in a separate window. Every time I returned to Pages, I noticed some tiling on the screen before my words appeared. There was another time too when I tried to open Pages and it crashed. Come to think of it, all of my issues have been related to Pages, so maybe the app simply needs a stability update. Also, for what it’s worth, my colleague Chris Velazco is also testing the iPad Pro and hasn’t encountered a single hiccup or crash after a week of use.
Other than that, the iPad Pro did a good job keeping up with my workflow, which includes Gmail, Chrome, Slack, Twitter, Facebook, Mint, OneDrive and the New York Times crossword in the evening. And let me tell you something: I actually see more performance hiccups on Apple’s new iMac, which comes standard with a Core i5 processor and piddly 5,400RPM hard drive. I routinely wait for apps to load, I wait to regain control of the desktop after startup, and I wait even when I want to switch from tab or window to another. The iPad Pro’s OS and lack of mouse support might make it an impractical choice as a laptop replacement, but speed was one problem I didn’t have.
That said, though the iPad Pro is fast, and really shines with certain intensive apps, the tablet will only ever feel as fast as its operating system and indeed, iOS 9 is no match for OS X or Windows 10 when it comes to multitasking. To be fair, iOS has come a long way. Starting with the release of iOS 9 on the iPad Air 2, users could run two apps side by side, as well as view video as a picture-in-picture. There’s also a “Slide Over” gesture that allows you to quickly peek at another app without leaving the one you’re in. Once you get the hang of it, it’s more efficient than double-pressing the home button to cycle through open apps. Finally, there’s a handy back button inside apps that returns you to whatever app you were using last. All of these things are welcome improvements, but after a week of use, I still found myself missing some certain things about OS X and Windows 10, including pinned browser tabs and the ability to dock programs at the bottom of the desktop.
|Apple iPad Pro||10:47|
|iPad mini 4||13:04|
|iPad Air 2||11:15|
|Microsoft Surface 3||9:11|
|Dell XPS 13 (2015)||7:36|
|Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro||7:36|
|Surface Pro 4||7:15|
Apple rates the iPad Pro’s 38.5Wh battery for up to 10 hours of use (make that nine if you’re on LTE). As with other Apple products, that turned out to be a conservative estimate: The Pro actually lasted through 10 hours and 47 minutes of video playback in our tests, with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 50 percent. And mind you, that was with auto-brightness off, which I’d normally keep on to help conserve battery life. With that setting enabled, I’m sure you could eke out even more runtime.
As for connectivity, the cellular-enabled model supports 20 LTE bands, with promised speeds of up to 150 Mbps. The 802.11ac WiFi radio, meanwhile, is rated for theoretical download rates of up to 866 Mbps. It’s a useful stat, but one I ultimately decided not to test: With support for all the major US carriers, plus many more around the world, your mileage is almost certainly going to vary.
The iPad Pro starts at $799 with WiFi only. For the money, you get more storage in the base-level model than you would on a regular iPad: 32 gigs instead of 16. From there, Apple sells a 128GB version for $949 as well as a souped-up model that for $1,079 offers both 128GB and an LTE radio.
That’s not counting all the accessories. Apple’s own Smart Keyboard costs $169, while the Apple Pencil sells for $99. Additionally, the company sells a keyboard-less Smart Cover for $59, as well as a $79 silicone case that covers the tablet’s back side only (it’s the same design as the silicone case for the new iPad mini 4). As for LTE, though the iPad Pro supports AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile out of the box using a so-called Apple SIM, Verizon customers will need to instead opt for a VZW SIM when configuring the device online.
All of this means that the iPad Pro could cost as much as $1,347 with the Pencil and first-party keyboard, and that’s not counting the $99 AppleCare+ plan that extends the warranty and phone-support period to two years. For the money, you could get a nice laptop.
Since Apple seems to be suggesting the iPad can replace a laptop, it’s tempting to call the company’s bluff and compare the product to traditional notebooks. I don’t think that’s a smart use of our time, though. Because despite what Apple claims, the iPad Pro does not have good enough input options to replace a laptop, and its operating system isn’t as adept at multitasking as OS X or Windows 10. Besides, I suspect that anyone who’s considering the iPad Pro wants a tablet first anyway — preferably one that can be used with a pressure-sensitive pen.
That leaves us not with clamshell notebooks, but laptop/tablet hybrids, including the one that defines the category: the Surface Pro 4. Microsoft’s tablet starts at a higher price of $899, but that includes 128GB of storage and a pressure-sensitive pen, which basically cancels out the price differential with the iPad Pro. Because Microsoft has been at this for several years now, its keyboard is more comfortable than Apple’s, and it’s cheaper too, at $130 (though by now Microsoft should really be building it into the base price). At its most tricked-out, the SP4 comes with a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD, so I’m not concerned about its ability to compete with the iPad Pro on performance. And because it runs full Windows, I don’t worry about the selection of professional apps either. I can’t promise, though, that they’ll all be as finger- and pen-friendly as software designed for the iPad. Battery life is shorter too: We got a little over seven hours of video playback, compared to nearly 11 on the iPad Pro.
Then there’s the endless stream of Surface knockoffs, including the HP Spectre X2 ($800 with the keyboard), the Dell XPS 12 ($999, keyboard included) and the the Lenovo Miix 700 ($699, not shipping yet). In short, you have plenty of options.
The iPad Pro is not for someone like me. As a professional writer and editor, I found it frustrating to replace my trusty laptop with a cramped tablet keyboard (and no mouse!). Though iOS is better at multitasking than it used to be, I still missed desktop features like pinned tabs and a taskbar. And in my capacity as a couch potato, I’m not sure the extra screen real estate makes a big enough difference with basic apps that I could justify that $799 starting price.
But that just means the iPad Pro isn’t for me. Though it might not have the mass appeal of an iPhone or smaller iPad, I do believe there are people who will find use for this. Specifically, professionals and in particular, those who might otherwise have some difficulty getting work done when they’re on the go and away from their primary computers. I’m thinking medical professionals, designers, engineers — jobs where having a precise writing implement matters more than having a comfortable keyboard, or even a trackpad. And, of course, there will be some early adopters — the sort of people who read Engadget — who simply want a big, powerful iPad, and are willing to pay a premium for it. For those people, the iPad Pro won’t replace a laptop, but it comes closer than you might expect.