Apple’s new flagship, with its excellent Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil, is an eye-poppingly good tablet and a capable laptop.
T his year, for the first time since 2010, Apple didn’t update its flagship iPad. Except it did. Suddenly, the iPad Air 2 isn’t Apple’s classiest tablet any more. It’s been overtaken by a more advanced, bigger brother.
The iPad Pro has just gone on sale, and I’ve been putting it through its paces for more than a week to see if it lives up to the hype – and price tag.
One glance tells you this is an iPad, thanks to its glass front, aluminium rear, chamfered-edges and all-over immaculate build quality. It has an identical design to the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 4. The front is all display, surrounded by narrow bezels on the longer sides and wider ones at top and bottom. A camera lens peeps out from the centre at the top and the home button with Touch ID capabilities nestles at the bottom.
Almost every other detail is the same as on the smaller-screened Apple tablets. Power button on the top edge: check. Volume buttons on the right edge: check. Whacking great Apple logo on the middle of the back: check. On the Wi-Fi and cellular model, plastic stripe on the back and SIM card slot on the right edge: check and check. Single loudspeaker on bottom edge: hold on.
The iPad Pro, uniquely in Apple’s iPad range, has four speakers: two on the top and two on the bottom edge. As you’d imagine, this design change really upgrades the tablet’s audio capabilities.
There’s another difference: on the left edge, three small circles sit innocuously in the middle. These form the Smart Connector, which attaches to the Smart Keyboard or third-party accessories such as the Logitech Create keyboard case.
For all the similarities, the Pro has one major difference to previous iPads: its size. The 12.9in display may not sound much bigger than the previous iPad’s 9.7in screen, but it looks huge in comparison.
It’s much heavier than the iPad Air 2, but still lighter than the first iPad, weighing 713g for the Wi-Fi-only edition, and 723g for the Wi-Fi and 4G model. It’s heavier than many rival tablets, but still feels light for its size.
The 12.9in, 2,732 x 2,048 display has the same pixel density (264ppi) as the iPad Air 2. It’s a Retina display so it’s pin-sharp and, as with most Apple displays, bright and colourful.
As always, this is an IPS LCD screen, not AMOLED, so colours aren’t overblown or oversaturated, and it has the same anti-reflective coating as the iPad Air 2, making it readable even in bright light.
What really stands out is the size of the screen. It’s as wide as the iPad Air 2 is tall, meaning there’s a lot more space on offer. When you’re working on a video-editing app, this gives you a good-sized video window, along with the editing timeline below. If you choose the multitasking Split Screen view, where you can have two simultaneously active windows side by side, both windows are substantial and usable.
If you’re using the iPad Pro to consume rather than produce content, it’s a joy. Video playback is smooth and really shines on this display. Plus, the four speakers add a beefy sound that’s better than any previous iPad’s. The tablet reaches high volumes and the stereo effect is clearly discernible.
Intriguingly, when you turn the tablet from landscape to portrait, the iPad switches the orientation of the speakers so the left channel continues to come from the two speakers on your left.
The Smart Keyboard is one of two essential peripherals for the iPad Pro. Just as the Type Cover hugely improves Microsoft Surface tablets, the dedicated keyboard turns the iPad Pro into a successful laptop substitute. Tim Cook recently said that, although he still loves his Mac, when he travels he takes the iPad Pro as his computer.
In some ways this keyboard is better than Microsoft’s Surface keyboard because the keys (which, at first glance, look like they may not be up to much) are superb to use: firm but responsive and comfortable, even when used for long periods.
The base is solid enough for you to have it on your lap, too, but the big problem is that it can only prop up the iPad Pro at one angle. You may find this fits with your way of working, but there will almost certainly be a situation in which the tablet doesn’t quite work perfectly.
Another issue is that, for now, only the US keyboard layout is available. Other layouts will soon follow and Logitech’s cover is already available. It’s a little cheaper than the Apple model at $229 and even has backlit keys, but isn’t as classily made. Still, it also covers the back of the iPad Pro, meaning it’s better at protecting your hardware.
The Pencil is Apple’s answer to the stylus. It’s slim, perfectly weighted and a quintessential Apple beauty: sleek, elegant and highly effective.
If you’ve ever used a stylus with an iPad, forget everything you know: the Pencil is nothing like that experience. While using a stylus is a bit laggy and imprecise, the Pencil is fast, responsive and clean. Latency is, according to Apple, under 20ms – which means you don’t notice it at all in the real world.
Unlike most capacitive styluses, it has a slender nib, which is firm rather than squashy to the touch. That’s because the tip of the Pencil, like some styluses from Wacom and N-trig, includes sensors that recognise pressure. Apple hasn’t revealed how many pressure levels the Pencil can spot, but it certainly has a satisfyingly realistic feel to it. More than any other stylus I’ve used, it feels like using a real pencil on paper, with just the right amount of slide and friction. Tilt the Pencil on its side and you can even add shading as you draw.
Several things about the Pencil show off Apple’s attention to detail. The cap, which covers the Lightning plug used to charge it, has a small metal ring and snaps to the top in a really satisfying way.
Apple has also thought through the practicalities. The top slides off to reveal an extended Lightning connector. This is used to pair the two and charge the Pencil – and it doesn’t need long to deliver a useful amount of charge. In fact, Apple says that 15 seconds of charging will give 30 minutes of use.
I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that, but it certainly seemed to have plenty of pep after the briefest of charges. And when it does run out of juice, it’s reassuring to be able to revitalise it in less time than it takes to make a cup of tea.
One negative point here is that there’s no sleeve or cavity in the iPad Pro or the Smart Keyboard to store the Pencil, so be careful you don’t lose it. Moreover, at $269, it’s far from cheap, but if you want to make the most of the Pro, it’s definitely a purchase worth considering.
Plenty of apps have already been optimised for the iPad Pro’s bigger screen and delicate Pencil. Apple’s own Notes app is a joy to sketch on, especially with the virtual ruler, which offers spectacular precision.
However,the Pencil isn’t perfect. One of the characteristics of the way a real pencil works is its interaction with the material, and, in particular, the way the pencil drags when pushed or pulled across the surface. There’s currently no real way that Apple can change this, as the screen has to be flat and smooth, but it remains the best approximation of a pencil on paper that anyone has yet come up with.
Performance and battery life
Apple has included its most powerful processor yet in the iPad Pro. The A9 chip found in the latest iPhones has been beefed up with an X, and the iPad Pro also has extra RAM.
Whatever the specs, this is a tablet that feels consistently nippy and responsive. Even when editing video at 4K resolution, the iPad Pro didn’t slow down. Tasks from video playback to side-by-side email and web surfing were swift and easy to accomplish.
Apple has said that it’s faster than many portable PCs, including a few MacBooks, and the benchmarks seem to confirm this. For example, a high Geekbench 3.1 single-core result of 3,192 and a multi-core result of 5,413 are both significant improvements over the iPad Air 2.
I also ran the GFXBench Manhattan tests, which delivered results of 33fps for the onscreen test and 79fps for the offscreen test, run at 1080p. Again, these are seriously impressive results: faster than any Android or iOS tablet we’ve ever tested, and faster even than a mid-2014 MacBook Pro 13 equipped with Intel’s integrated Iris Graphics 6100.
That said, one of Apple’s guiding principles has always been to avoid statistics and instead focus on delivering a flawless user experience.
The other important indicator of performance is battery life, and that’s an area in which Apple’s iPads have always been consistently good. There’s a large, rich screen to service here and one heckuva big battery to power it – a 38.5Wh battery, to be precise. And in our video-rundown tests, the iPad Pro performed admirably, lasting a solid 9hrs 8mins (in flight mode, with the screen set to a brightness of 170cd/m2) before expiring.
The iPad Pro is a stunning machine. It looks fantastic and, once you get over just how big it is, the size becomes a benefit, with its immersive screen and giant playground of real estate for apps to exploit.
Add Apple’s Smart Keyboard or a rival setup and you have a great laptop alternative, with a decent battery life and an unparalleled choice of many big-screen, touch-enabled apps. The Pencil adds a whole new dimension of usability and is an enjoyable peripheral to use.
It’s expensive, though: add it all up and you’re spending more than $2134 for the full set of tablet, Pencil and Smart Keyboard, and you can pay even more top boost storage from the stock 32GB to 128GB. But, despite this, the iPad Pro is not bad value at all. For your money, you’re getting a fast, capable laptop running on iOS, and an eye-poppingly good tablet with ear-tingling audio to boot.
The iPad Pro marks another major inflection point: it ends the whole “iPads are only for consumption” debate. The only people who can’t use the iPad Pro as a creation tool are those who need really high-end performance: professional graphic designers and video editors – the kind of people for whom 16GB of RAM is table stakes.
Most people don’t fall into that category, and the iPad Pro is more than sufficient as a creation tool. For some users – anyone who sketches or loves using a stylus – it’s a better creative tool than your average PC or laptop. There are other smaller, lighter and much cheaper iPads. But, if the large size appeals, the new Apple flagship is hard not to like.