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iPad Pro 2018 review: The best tablet ever is still stuck in computer limbo


Every time I have reviewed Apple’s iPad Pro, the end conclusion has been nearly identical: The iPad Pro is the best tablet money can buy, but despite Apple’s commercials and marketing spin, until there are significant changes to its software, it’s not a full-on computer replacement.

With each iPad Pro release, Apple has made headway toward converting its top of the line tablet into a well-rounded computer, and this year’s crop of iPad Pros is no different.

The amount of technology tucked into the 2018 iPad Pro is fascinating yet disappointing at the same time.

Truth be told, the iPad Pro is a tablet that, in some cases, can pull off being a computer with ease. But, at the end of the day, the iPad Pro is still just a tablet. Not that that’s a bad thing. Let me explain.

Design

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Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

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The new iPad Pro is hands down the best-designed iPad the company has released. The flat sides, reminiscent of the iPhone 5, are only 5.9 mm thick.

Apple sent me the 12.9-inch model, but it also announced an 11-inch model. The 12.9-inch model has a footprint of 11.04 x 8.46 x 0.23-inches and weighs 1.39 pounds, whereas the 11-inch model is 9.74 x 7.02 x 0.23-inches and weighs 1.03 pounds.

Also: Apple iPad (2018) review: The best gets even better

I’ve been asked a few times about how the larger iPad Pro feels when carrying or holding it. Balanced is the only word that comes to mind. It’s easy to hold and manage without feeling like it’s overbearing. It’s far more comfortable to hold than the previous-generation iPad Pro.

Both devices use the same LCD display technology Apple used in the iPhone XR. Both devices have a Liquid Retina display with 264 pixels per inch.

As with the most recent iPhone’s, Apple has removed the home button from the iPad Pro. Instead, a small black bezel surrounds the display. Tucked behind the bezel on top of the device is Apple’s True Depth camera system with facial recognition.

Due to the nature of using the iPad Pro in multiple orientations, as opposed to the iPhone primarily unlocked in a portrait orientation, the iPad Pro’s Face ID system works in portrait or landscape.

The True Depth hardware itself is identical to what’s used in the iPhone. Apple had to retrain its Neural Engine to work with the various positions that the True Depth camera can be used in. Apple’s Neural Engine is used for machine learning tasks and is found in the most recent crop of iPhones.

A sleep/wake button is found on top of the iPad Pro, with volume up and down buttons nearby on the right side of the housing. That same side is also where the new Apple Pencil magnetically connects to the iPad Pro for charging and initial pairing. The right side is also where the SIM card slot is on the LTE model.

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Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The bottom of the iPad Pro has a new type of charging port. Instead of using its own proprietary Lightning port, Apple has made the switch to USB-C. Included in the box with the iPad Pro is an 18W USB-C wall adapter and a USB-C to USB-C cable.

There are four speakers on the iPad Pro, two on the top and two more on the bottom. Apple has redesigned the speakers to fit into the thinner housing but has figured out a way not to sacrifice quality. In fact, I don’t remember the previous generation iPad Pros’ speakers sounding this good.

On the back of the iPad Pro is a 12-megapixel camera, protruding out from the iPad’s housing. It’s the only blemish on the new iPad Pro’s design. However, the camera bump is required because the camera module itself is behind the display of the iPad Pro, instead of the bezel.

Also on the backside of the new Pro is the Smart Connector, used to connect the iPad Pro to accessories such as Apple’s $199 Smart Keyboard Folio. The three dots provide power and data throughput for the keyboard. The Smart Keyboard Folio is redesigned for the new iPad Pro’s and now has two different viewing angles.

USB-C

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Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

By using USB-C, Apple has opened the door for more accessories and peripherals to connect to and interact with the iPad Pro without the need for some sort of connector or dongle. Then again, you’re likely going to need some sort of USB-C to USB adapter to connect some things.

Keep in mind, however, that the iPad Pro is using USB-C with USB 3.1 generation 2 speeds. But it doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3. So, for example, you can connect the iPad Pro to the 21.5-inch LG UltraFine 4K display with a USB-C cable, but you cannot connect it via USB-C to the 27-inch version of the same monitor, because it requires Thunderbolt support. Instead, you’ll need an adapter and an HDMI cable or a USB-C to Thunderbolt 3 adapter.

Shortly after setting up the iPad Pro, I spent an afternoon connecting various types of devices to the iPad Pro, either directly or via an adapter and posting the result on Twitter.

Also: Here’s the iPad Pro that professionals really want

I was able to use a Blue Yeti microphone, import photos from a GoPro camera via a direct USB-C connection, power and use a mechanical keyboard, connect an external display, and import photos from my Fuji mirrorless camera.

I wasn’t able to use a mouse (expected, but had to try), import files from a USB drive or an external hard drive, or use an Xbox controller to play Minecraft.

I also tested the output of the iPad Pro when using it to charge another device, like your iPhone. After connecting multiple devices, I never saw the iPad Pro go over 5V/1.5A of output. Meaning it’s not the fastest charging method, but it’s surely enough to charge an iPhone when you need the added battery life.

The new iPad Pro now supports external monitors at up to 5K resolution. Currently, when the iPad Pro is connected to a monitor, there are two scenarios for how it’s used: Either everything you do on the iPad Pro is mirrored to the display, or apps can use the monitor to display relevant information.

Apple’s iMovie app was recently updated with iPad Pro and monitor support. Users can either mirror the editing screen on the monitor, or with the tap of a button, they can use the display to show the finalized project.

I can see this functionality being useful in educational settings, but in its current state, I don’t see myself ever sitting down and connecting the iPad Pro to a monitor. There’s just no true benefit. You’re still forced to look at and touch the iPad Pro’s display for any input. Support for a mouse or trackpad would be needed to eliminate the need for looking at the iPad’s screen, and that’s just not possible right now.

Overall, the transition away from Lightning to USB-C is a good thing. USB-C accessories are relatively common, whereas using the Lighting port required dedicated devices or adapters and dongles; neither of which were consumer friendly.

The new Apple Pencil

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Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Apple revamped the Apple Pencil for the new iPad Pro. The new $129 Pencil looks slightly different than the first generation model, thanks to its matte white finish and a flat edge that breaks up the otherwise round housing.

That flat side is the portion of the Pencil that magnetically attaches to the side of the iPad Pro. When attached, a brief animation plays, displaying the current battery percentage of the Pencil.

The magnetic connection serves two purposes: Not only does it give you a place to keep your Pencil within easy reach, but it also wirelessly charges the Pencil. Apple won’t say what wireless charging standard — if any — the company is using, but we do know that you can’t place the Pencil on a Qi wireless charging pad and charge it. Your only option is to use the iPad Pro.

Also: Hands-on with Apple’s new iPad Pro and MacBook Air

Zero arguments can be made about the charging method used for the first-generation Apple Pencil being better. Not only did it look ridiculous to stick the end of the Pencil into the Lightning port of the iPad Pro, but it felt dangerous. Wireless charging the Apple Pencil while simultaneously giving you a place to store it makes sense.

In addition to wireless charging, the Apple Pencil is now touch sensitive. Roughly the bottom fifth of the Pencil reacts to a double-tap on the Pencil. Using this gesture, apps can do things like switch between tools or provide more options on the screen.

Apple’s Notes app supports this feature out of the box, with the default behavior of switching between the currently selected tool and the eraser. So, if you make a mistake while jotting down a note or sketching, a quick double-tap on the Pencil switches to the eraser, with another double-tap going back to the drawing tool you had selected.

Also: How to use Apple Pencil: 21 features, tips, and tricks

Image editing app Procreate was recently updated with Apple Pencil 2 support and has a wide range of features and options that can be triggered with the gesture based on the tool you’re currently using.

The upgrades to the Apple Pencil are something users will find worthwhile, especially when upgrading to the new iPad Pro.

Performance

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Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The iPad Pro uses Apple’s latest 7nm A12X bionic processor and supports up to 1TB of storage. Although storage options start at 64GB, with 256GB and 512GB variants also available.

Apple promises a battery life of up to 10 hours, or 9 hours when using a cellular data connection over Wi-Fi. I’ve consistently hit the 10-hour mark when using the iPad Pro — both as my main device throughout a day, and when using it as a supplemental device. It’s not much of a surprise, battery life with the iPad has never really been an issue.

Performance wise, Apple and journalists alike have touted benchmarks faster than several Macs and PC laptops. That performance is evident when using the iPad Pro. Apps open quickly, videos are exported with ease, and there’s an overall smoothness to the iPad Pro that exudes speed.

Also: New iPad Pro rivals 2018 MacBook Pro’s performance, say benchmarks

I bounced between apps, used multiple apps in slide over and split screen mode, and typed until I was out of things to say, and felt right at home doing so on the iPad Pro.

For me, the iPad Pro is the perfect device to write on, since it forces me to focus on the task at hand. The new keyboard is comfortable to use, on a desk or on my lap.

I used the Apple Pencil to jot notes during a conference call, and occasionally sketch some stick figures to test out the double-tap gesture. Thankfully, it puts the eraser a double-tap away. Trust me, you don’t want to see my drawings.

I still remain impressed by the lack of latency between the Pencil moving across the screen and when the digital ink shows up. It appears in real time, and exactly where I wanted it to.

The display is sharp, bright, and colors look accurate to my eyes.

Face ID — used for tasks such as unlocking the iPad Pro, approving App Store or Apple Pay purchases, unlocking password managers or banking apps — is just as fast as it is on the iPhone XS Max.

After a couple of days of testing, I all but forgot that the new iPad Pro has Face ID. I walk up to my desk, double-tap the spacebar, and the lock screen disappears, leaving me to continue where I left off. The entire process takes a split second and requires no real thought on my part.

Using the iPad Pro for the past week reminds me of how much I enjoy the overall experience iOS provides when used in a way that it mimics a computer. But it’s, of course, still not quite a computer.

Computer limbo

Mobile Safari.

Right now, that’s my biggest gripe about the iPad’s software. Apple still uses mobile Safari on the iPad Pro, meaning most websites you visit are showing you the mobile version of the site. Mobile websites are fine on a phone, but not on a 12.9-inch tablet. Or an 11-inch tablet, for that matter. Indeed, mobile sites mean that buttons are bigger and easier to touch — important factors on a touchscreen device — but they’re often misaligned and, at times, look downright ugly.

But it’s not layout issues or too much white space that I take issue with — it’s the fact that the iPad Pro is faster than most Macs and nearly all laptop PCs, and yet, it’s somehow not capable enough to run a desktop-class web browser?

Giving users a desktop browser would expand the overall capabilities of the iPad Pro, opening up tools for professionals who rely on websites — full websites — to work.

Also: Does the new iPad Pro signal the end for the Lightning port on the iPhone?

For example, I can’t use ZDNet’s content management system (CMS) in mobile Safari. In turn, I can’t publish stories. So, I can’t work from an iPad.

Perhaps Apple has hoped that websites and developers would build an app that mimics the website, with the added bonus of being optimized with deep integration in iOS. I get that line of thinking, but realistically, that’s a lot to ask from businesses.

If Adobe can bring the full Photoshop engine to iOS and the new iPad Pro, surely Apple can bring the full Safari experience the iPad.

The heart of Google’s Chrome OS is a desktop browser with zero compromises. Once you close the tabs, you’re left with Android apps (and now Linux apps). There’s a tablet-like feel to Chrome OS, especially when using Android apps, but then you launch Chrome, and the device is instantly on par with any other desktop platform.

Google is working hard at backfilling the void of what a browser can’t do by adding Android and Linux apps. It’s time for Apple to do the same, but with Safari.

I’ve focused a lot on just the browser, but there are many different areas that need improvements or complete overhauls before Apple’s computer replacement vision for the iPad Pro can be fully realized.

For instance, add a true download manager that doesn’t leave users guessing what the next step is, and revamp the home screen so that it doesn’t waste space with the outdated app icon grid. Or what about support for multiple users? What about Apple’s own professional-grade video editing tools? Where are the features and apps that justify the “Pro” in the iPad Pro’s name?

Hopefully, iOS 13 will address most of the software issues the iPad Pro currently faces — but the full public release is just under a year away, when it’s likely we will have newer, even more powerful iPad Pros.

Conclusion

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Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The new iPad Pro is the best tablet I have ever used. But the same can be said about each year’s release. Apple has worked for years on the technology in the new iPad Pro, from Face ID to the Liquid Retina display to the wireless charging required for the new Apple Pencil — it’s all impressive tech.

The starting price of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is currently at $999 or $799 for the 11-inch model with 64GB of storage. And that’s without the Apple Pencil or a keyboard. The overall cost of the iPad Pro has never been higher.

Also: Peak iPad Pro: The end of major advances?

At $1,327 for a 12.9-inch iPad Pro with the Smart keyboard Folio and Apple Pencil, it’s far from an impulse purchase. That’s what the $329 iPad is for.

I think the justification for the iPad Pro’s price all comes down to properly set expectations. Walking the line of proclaiming the iPad is a computer, but not really a computer, is confusing for consumers.

The iPad Pro is as powerful as a computer and can even complete common computing tasks with ease. But it’s still a tablet with software issues and a largely mobile experience.

Previous and related coverage:

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iPad Pro: If you think the iPhone X was expensive, think again

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The new iPad Pro has a surprise new feature

Sometimes wishes do indeed become true.

Help! My iPad Pro randomly restarts TechRepublic

Your iPad Pro randomly restarts, and you can’t figure out what is wrong. So what do you do? You ask for help from your fellow members within the TechRepublic forums.

iPad Pro, 2018 review: Blazing speed, but iOS is limited CNET

Big beautiful tablet? Yes. Flexible computer? TBD



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