LIKE A COLLEGE graduate ready to head off into the workforce and start a career, Apple has graduated the iPad from tablet school. As he prepared to lift the curtain on the new 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro last week, CEO Tim Cook explained that Apple sees the iPad as a personal computer now. Apple says that new designation makes iPad the top-selling line of PCs in the world.
It’s a fair comparison. After using a new iPad Pro 12.9 for a few days, I can say that it’s most definitely a refreshing, positive step forward for the iPad. It could also be called a “computer.” Is it the right computer for you? That’s another story.
As Thin As Can Be
The first thing you’ll notice about the new iPad Pro is what it’s missing. Like the iPhone XR and its peers, the Pro has no home button. Instead, its screen stretches from edge to edge… to edge to edge. All four sides are rimmed with thin and equally-sized black bezels, making it easier to forget where the top of the device really is. Sometimes iOS will actually point out where the power button is on the edge because, rightfully, it thinks I may have forgotten.
The back of the 5.9mm aluminum shell feels incredibly sturdy, and sheds the tapered edges that have defined the iPad for most of its existence. The back is now flat like the bottom of a box, right up to the side. The design looks like a refined version of the iPhone 5. The shape also feels like what the original 2011 iPad was trying to accomplish—this time with no bump in the back, except for the camera.
The Liquid Retina LCD displays are huge, stretching 11 or nearly 13 inches, depending on which model you choose. They’re gorgeous and packed with pixels. Like the iPhone XR, the corners of the display are rounded thanks to precision-milled glass and a host of other tech treats. Color is vibrant and precise enough for Photoshopping and minute color tweaking if needed. (Apple tests the color accuracy of its displays in 160 different points.) The Pro also adapts the warmth of its display to the lighting in your room.
The new iPad Pro also comes with Face ID, which uses a collection of cameras, sensors, and algorithms to identify your face in a way that it claims is more secure than fingerprint authentication or passwords. It works well, and doesn’t require that cut-out notch on the screen like the iPhone. It’s not quirk-free, though. We usually hold our iPhones in a portrait (vertical) orientation because that’s just how they fit in our hand. With an iPad like this, you almost always use two hands, and that means there isn’t really a “right” or “wrong” way to hold it. From time to time, my hands would sometimes accidentally block the Face ID camera when I held it in landscape (widescreen) orientation. And if I’m lounging around, my face may also be out of view. As I’ve gotten used to keeping my head in front of the tablet screen, and my hands away from its front-facing camera, Face ID evolved from a hindrance to a helpful, secure aid. I’ve never bothered to add a passcode or use Touch ID on older iPads. Now it’s easy enough that I just might.
The 7-megapixel front camera is also pretty proficient at selfies, Animoji, and video chatting—-provided your hand isn’t blocking it. The 12-megapixel shooter is also up to iPhone standards, though I’ve found it a little too cumbersome (and embarrassing!) to use a 13-inch tablet as a camera while I’ve roamed around San Francisco this weekend. Apple did show me some impressive demonstrations of its augmented reality capabilities, made possible by that camera. I examined the inside of a plant to learn all about how it lives in an app called Plantale, and had fun bringing a Lego Ninjago playset to life as an iOS game. I grew up as one of those kids who hated damaging his beautiful Lego creations. I may have had more fun if I could have blown them up digitally.
Yet As Powerful As a PC
The inside of the iPad is just as impressive as the outside. The Pro has an A12X Bionic chip, which is kind of a turbocharged version of the processor that’s packed into every iPhone XS and XR. It has eight cores: four for super demanding work, like playing Fortnite, and four more for easier tasks, like perusing your email. This year, it can mix and match those cores more efficiently, giving it almost 2x better multi-core performance than before. The graphics chip also pumps out around 2x more power, all without compromising the 10-hour battery life every iPad has gotten.
Apple claims the new iPad Pro is faster than 92 percent of all laptops sold in the past year, including some with an Intel Core i7 CPU, and compared its game graphics prowess to an Xbox One S. No apps or games I’ve used have been able to make the Pro break a sweat at all and benchmark numbers have been impressive.
Photographers and video editors might like the new storage options. The Pro comes with 64GB of memory by default, but you can bump that number as high as 1TB. And since this tablet has a USB-C charging port, you can more easily connect it to a camera, external monitor, and other accessories. Yes, that is singular. There is only one port. Start shopping for dongles if you need more. Apple now sells a ton of them. And pick up some good wireless headphones while you’re at it. Though Apple’s redesigned quad speakers sound amazing for a tablet (or laptop), the headphone jack is gone.
Pencil or Keyboard?
Apple redesigned its two key accessories for the new iPad Pro. The new Apple Pencil ($129) and Smart Keyboard Folio ($179) each got noticeable upgrades this year. The one you choose may indicate how much you’ll like your new iPad Pro.
No laptop can emulate the drawing capabilities of the Apple Pencil, or feel as natural to hold and use with touch.
The Apple Pencil is my favorite. It now has a matte plastic design and comes flat on one side so it can magnetically snap onto the edge of either size iPad Pro—automatically pairing via Bluetooth and charging. It’s hard to stress how much of a game changer this simple magnetic charging is, but it eliminates a lot of needless steps. The Pencil is always charged, paired, and ready to go. (Just be careful; it can still snap off in your bag.)
I’m a god-awful artist, but I found myself doodling on the iPad Pro. Three years after its debut, the refined Pencil is still the most responsive, accurate digital writing tool I’ve ever used. It’s fun to try out different virtual drawing tools, like colored pencils, and as a leftie, I love that iPad never thinks I’m trying to draw with my palm.
The 12.9-inch Pro is still a huge tablet, but feels more manageable this year thanks to the thinner bezels. In fact, it’s now about the size of a magazine (or sheet of paper, as Apple likes to point out), which is a comfortable, familiar size for reading and writing.
The Smart Keyboard Folio is also improved. It magnetically snaps onto the back of the tablet with an equally pleasant click and also just works. It now has two angles you can choose from and the keys are naturally spaced and have enough travel (depth) and click to them that it didn’t take me any time to adjust from my MacBook Pro. My only complaints? It would be nice to have even more angles, and the larger iPad can feel a bit unstable if you use it on your lap. Since the camera sits on the left side, it’s tough to frame yourself properly for a video chat.
The Best Tablet
By every measure I can think of, these are the best, most powerful, most capable iPads I’ve ever used. They put other tablets to shame.
But Apple has begged the question: Can an 11-inch ($799) or 13-inch ($999) iPad Pro replace your need for a MacBook or Windows PC at work? It’s possible, but you’ll need the right kind of occupation, and a lot of patience and determination.
No laptop can emulate the drawing capabilities of the Apple Pencil, or feel as natural to hold and use with touch. It’s not even close. The iPad Pro has a clear lead over PCs there.
As a more traditional work PC, it sometimes struggles. In a pinch, the iPad Pro and its Smart Keyboard are usable. For example, I wrote this review on the Pro in Google Docs while also opening webpages on the right side of my screen, but it took me longer than normal to do research and collect links—and a good long while to figure out how to do other tasks. I wanted to use the normal web version of Docs, but I had to use the app. My office also uses a collaboration tool called Airtable that wouldn’t work in an iPad browser. It also tossed me to the app, which lacked key features. Attaching specific files was kind of a nightmare in the Gmail app, too. Some apps, like Spotify, don’t allow Split View multitasking (side-by-side viewing) at all yet. You have to use them full screen. Spreadsheets are also tougher (slower) to manipulate in the apps I’ve used.
I found solutions to all of these problems, and I’m sure I can keep finding creative solutions to make the iPad Pro work as a PC, but the hassles will keep coming. The iPad’s web browsers are still treated more like their less-capable smartphone counterparts, and the apps that are supposed to work in their place also sometimes lack desktop features. Part of this is the fault of developers, but Apple bears responsibility, as well.
It doesn’t feel like the world is ready to treat my iPad as an equal to a PC yet—even if that iPad is a lot more powerful and user friendly. Now that Apple has declared the iPad is a PC, it should take more of the guardrails off of iOS and strongly encourage developers to treat it like they do the Mac. It’s time for iOS to grow up and get a job.
The iPad Pro is one of the most powerful computers you can own. It could be the best PC, too. Or better than a Mac. For now, it still has to settle for being the best tablet money can buy.