Apple’s new iPad Pro (starting at $799) isn’t a major improvement over the 2018 model, but there’s been a big change in the iPad experience since then: mouse and trackpad support. That vaults the tablet into working a lot more like a computer than it previously did. Of course, the iPad line does a lot of things that a Mac or PC doesn’t: Apple’s Pencil stylus and its approach to augmented reality applications are leaps and bounds beyond the competition, at least if you aren’t into getting a bulky add-on drawing tablet for your computer. And the 2020 iPad Pro is gorgeous, superbly built, and powerful. But I can’t shake the idea that if you can afford to spend this much on an Apple device, you’re better off with a Mac.
Pricing and Design
As I reviewed the new 12.9-inch iPad, I kept running into the roadblock of its towering price. The absolute base model 12.9-inch unit, with Wi-Fi and 128GB of storage, costs $999. That’s the same as a MacBook Air. You can upgrade storage in three steps, as far as 1TB for another $400; 4G LTE connectivity adds $150; and then it’s $179 to $199 for the standard keyboard case; $299 to $349 for a keyboard with a trackpad; and $129 for the Pencil. So let’s say you want a go-anywhere LTE tablet with a keyboard and Pencil. In the 12.9-inch size, that will run you $1,557—about the price of a new 13-inch MacBook Pro with 256GB of storage.
If you want a new iPad Pro, I highly recommend the 11-inch model, which starts at $200 less than 12.9-inch model and is easier to handle. I’ll touch on that more over the course of this review.
The main physical difference between the 2020 and 2018 models is the larger camera bump
The new 12.9-inch iPad Pro looks, feels, and works like the 2018 unit, at 11.04 by 8.46 by 0.23 inches (HWD) and 1.41 pounds. It’s clad in metal, with a slate gray or silver back, and quad speakers at the top and bottom that make for excellent stereo separation.
The 12.9-inch size is a bit awkward to use in your hands; it works much better ergonomically in its keyboard case. Apple didn’t send me the 11-inch model, but at 1.04 pounds, I know it’s going to be a lot easier to hold and use as a tablet.
USB-C is the only port
There’s no headphone jack, nor is there a Lightning port—the only port here is a single USB-C, although Apple’s official keyboards pair with a magnetic connector that leaves the USB-C connection free. The iPad works with the second-generation Apple Pencil stylus, which attaches and charges by snapping magnetically onto the side of the tablet.
The screen is a beautiful 2,732-by-2,048, 120Hz panel with 600 nits maximum brightness and a special anti-reflectivity coating. It seems to be the same as on the older tablet.
A rear view of the new iPad.
Apple’s A12Z processor still relies on the year-old A12 architecture, the same that’s in the iPhone XS, the current iPad Air, and the 2018 iPad Pro, but amps it up with yet more GPU power to deal with rendering augmented reality scenes. There’s also more RAM: This is the first iPad with 6GB.
The benchmarks tell the tale: On Geekbench 5 and the 3DMark Ice Storm benchmark, the new iPad scores just like the 2018 one. But on the Geekbench 5 Compute benchmark, which digs deep into the latest Metal GPU APIs, we got 9,829 to the older model’s 9,310. Both devices performed about 20 percent better than the iPad Air.
See How We Test Tablets
Apple probably feels it doesn’t need to move forward here in a big way because, well, I can’t find applications that strain the iPad’s processor. Other than AR, the processor-killing app is going to be quickly handling multiple 4K video streams for editing. I’m not a video editor, so I don’t see the strain.
For battery life, I got 7 hours, 48 minutes of video streaming at full brightness over Wi-Fi, which is good for an iPad. Apple generally assumes you’ll use the device at half brightness, which can almost double the battery life—think of it as 11 to 12 hours at that level. I’m disappointed in the 18W charger that comes with the iPad, though: It took 2 hours and 40 minutes to reach a full charge. The good news is that the iPad Pro has USB-C power delivery, and will work with faster chargers such as the MacBook’s.
The 2020 Pro has gotten a bump up in its networking. Unlike the other iPad models and the 2018 Pro, it features Wi-Fi 6, which should improve range and quality in crowded Wi-Fi situations—as long as you’re working with a Wi-Fi 6 router. Unfortunately, because I’m sheltering in place right now, I’m unable to test with a Wi-Fi 6 router.
There’s also, if you choose to include it, “gigabit-class” LTE on all of the bands used in the US, with a software-based eSIM so you can just dial up momentary plans on demand from a menu. No other tablet maker offers that kind of flexibility. While it looks like there’s been a slight upgrade in LTE capabilities, it wasn’t one I could notice or measure.
Pointing at a Breakthrough
We have more details on everything the iPad does in our iPadOS 13.4 review, but it’s safe to say that the mouse and trackpad support is a game changer for people trying to use the tablet in an office-work context. When you’re busily typing on an attached keyboard, raising your hand to the screen is a pain, and it’s even more of a pain to use the various oddball gestures that do things like split the screen for multitasking.
With dual windows and a trackpad, the iPad Pro is almost a Mac
Paired with an Apple Magic Trackpad, on the other hand, the iPad works with a new level of fluidity. For web browsing, email, and office documents, you can now flick and zoom around much more easily than before.
I do a lot of typing. I hated typing on an iPad, because raising my hand to the screen to move the cursor (when I wanted to) was a bummer. I like typing on an iPad now—probably more than on my actual laptop, because the onscreen interface elements are beautiful and clear.
Window handling is still a bit peculiar. You can split the screen between two apps, and pull a third over in a tall, narrow accessory window. You can easily switch applications with Alt-Tab on the keyboard. This remains an OS for focused work in a primary application, though. iPadOS still falls down on file management, its big historic bogeyman.
Over the years, iPad apps have grown very cozy with cloud-based storage services. You can hook most professional apps now up to iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive, and also use the iPad’s Files app to upload and download files from those servers.
But in local storage, files are still strictly sandboxed by application. I ran into trouble when I downloaded a ZIP file in Safari that I then needed to uncompress and read in another app. I could uncompress it, but then I had to upload the decompressed files to OneDrive and download them from OneDrive into the other app. It’s much more awkward than using the Finder or Windows Explorer.
So while iPadOS is steadily improving, its lack of a good solution for multi-application file usage still puts it behind Mac and Windows PCs (although well ahead of Chromebooks) in the power to get things done.
The big new feature is the iPad Pro’s LiDAR camera, which uses a grid of lasers to measure distance for augmented reality applications. It’s a step above the single infrared beam time-of-flight sensors that we’re seeing on most flagship phones nowadays, and several steps above single-camera AR. You see the advantage clearly when AR applications are trying to detect surfaces; rather than having to scan around to create a room map, you can just launch the app, tap, and place objects. It “just works” in that great Apple way.
Just what we need—giant AR coronaviruses
AR on the iPad now suffers not from a lack of hardware capabilities, but from lack of a killer app. I remember a few years ago when AR was mostly about Wayfair-like furniture placement apps, 3D dioramas for education, and a few games. That’s still the case. The best hope is in broad AR development platforms like Augment and Jig, which let businesses or educators put together their own AR models for instructional or business purposes.
The 12.9-inch iPad’s form factor doesn’t make AR feel like the next big thing. Playing AR Angry Birds in my living room was super cool, but holding the large tablet in front of me for an extended period of time wasn’t pleasant. It’s too big to comfortably hold in one hand while swiping with another.
Angry Birds is fun, as long as the 12.9-inch tablet stays in its case
The best theory I’ve heard about LiDAR is that it’s a stalking horse for Apple’s long-rumored augmented reality glasses. Glasses, not tablets, are the presumed killer AR device, and Apple has supposedly been working on some for years.
Three Good Cameras
The iPad Pro has a 12-megapixel main rear camera, a new 10-megapixel 0.5x wide-angle rear camera, and a 7-megapixel front-facing camera. While the main camera takes fine photos—as good as an iPhone 8—the ergonomics are obviously poor for taking photos with a 12.9-inch tablet, and the main camera’s primary use is probably to feed those augmented reality apps.
Can you tell the difference between the 2020 (left) and 2018 (right) iPad Pro shots?
The front-facing camera is the same as before: 7 megapixels and f/2.2, with added depth information from the IR face recognition camera. HDR, Portrait mode, and 4K video recording are all available. It’s terrific for video calling, FaceTime, and Zoom.
2018 vs. 2020: Front-facing camera quality is also pretty similar
I compared the current iPad Pro with the 2018 model, which has the same main and front-facing cameras, but without the wide-angle camera or the LiDAR sensor. The photos are pretty much the same. It’s really hard to tell the difference, and differences seem like luck. The new 10MP camera does give you the option of a wider angle, but you can’t use it in any of the augmented reality apps I tried.
This is the best tablet camera you’re going to get
iPad Pro vs. MacBook Pro
The iPad has always been where Apple tries out new paradigms of working. For years, it was trying to convince people that they didn’t need a mouse or multiple windows to do all the computing in their lives. Now, it’s going full tilt on AR, a hardware capability that is waiting for apps. For the new iPad Pro to justify its price, it needs to do what other devices at its price point do, and more.
The new 12.9-inch iPad Pro will probably end up costing you more than the base $1,299 MacBook Pro, and that’s its problem. The iPad Pro has advantages: No Mac can use the Pencil for drawing or taking notes, and no Mac has the augmented reality capabilities to project objects into your room. But Apple’s sandboxed file system still means that, even with the new trackpad support, the kinds of multi-application workloads that high-end professionals need to do are more awkward on an iPad than on a Mac. If you’re willing to spend upwards of $1,500 and really want to sink into the Apple experience, you should do so with a MacBook Pro.
It’s almost too big to hold up at all
There are also a wealth of less expensive options from Apple that do at least most of the things the iPad Pro does. Folks looking for an affordable, no-nonsense laptop replacement should go for the $499 iPad Air, which works with the same add-on keyboard as the iPad Pro and has just as fast a processor.
Of course, there’s also the 11-inch iPad Pro model, starting at $799, which is much more manageable all around. If you’re buying a new iPad Pro, it’s the one to get.
Apple iPad Pro (2020) Specs
|Operating System||Apple iPadOS|
|Dimensions||11.04 by 8.46 by .23 inches|
|Screen Size||12.9 inches|
|Screen Resolution||2,732-by-2,048 pixels|
|Processor Speed||2.48 GHz|
|Storage Capacity||128 GB|
|Battery Life||7 hours 48 minutes|