Pros: A big, beautiful screen that improves many tablet experiences, including watching videos and looking at photos. Extremely fast. Very good, intelligent speakers for an unparalleled audio experience on iPad. Smart Connector opens up new accessory possibilities and adds to device’s versatility. Compatibility with Apple Pencil adds new dimension to device. Excellent battery life. Gets the most of multitasking when compared to all other iPads. Ships with long Lightning cable and 12W adapter. Could conceivably replace a laptop for some users.
Cons: Expensive. Can be unwieldy and uncomfortable to use at times. Accessories add to price, making it no less expensive than a laptop. Portability suffers due to larger size. Some apps look “off” on huge screen. Though the device is not ideal for photography, an updated FaceTime camera would have been nice. Lack of early availability for major first-party accessories disappointing. Onscreen keyboard not comfortable enough to use in more than short bursts. No 3D Touch Display.
For years, we’d heard rumors of a mega-sized Apple tablet, and decided almost right away that we would refer to the product as the “iPad Pro.” It was an educated guess, but it seemed to match Apple’s naming conventions, and to be quite honest, it simply made more sense than anything else. Eventually, the name became a bit less of a mystery, and now, the big iPad is finally here. Apple’s iPad Pro ($799-$1,079) is the last — barring any surprises — new device the company will release in 2015, which has turned out to be one of Apple’s busiest years in some time. iPad Pro is by far the biggest iPad ever: in size, it’s closer to a MacBook than the iPad mini. And physical size isn’t the only area in which iPad Pro competes with a laptop — Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that he only travels with the iPad Pro and an iPhone, and recently asked in an interview, “Why would you buy a PC anymore?”
Though iPad Pro is being positioned as a laptop alternative, it’s still very much an iPad first. And as such, like other iPads, it comes in multiple models. iPad Pro starts at $799 for the base 32GB model, and goes up to $949 for a 128GB model. There’s also a 128GB Wi-Fi + Cellular model, which clocks in at $1,079. It’s the only cellular-enabled model. At that price, the cellular model is almost $800 more than the cheapest iPad Apple is still actively selling — the $269 16GB iPad mini 2. But it’s clear that the Pro is built for much more than someone who “just wants an iPad.”
In these eight pages, we’ll explore Apple’s biggest iPad yet, examining its design, its features, how nicely it plays with iOS 9, accessories, and current apps, and much, much more. Can it really replace your laptop? Would you want it to? And if not, is there still any appeal to this bold, new behemoth?
Physical Design and Internals
Well, it’s really big. The most obvious thing about the iPad Pro is also the most important. It has a 12.9” Retina display with a 2732×2048 resolution. The re-engineered multi-touch display is 78 percent larger than that of iPad Air 2, and displays 5.6 million pixels. The iPad itself is 12” x 8.68” x 0.27” and weighs 1.57 pounds (the cellular edition weighs 1.59 pounds). The size is a large part of iPad Pro’s appeal, of course. But it’s also a big hurdle. iPad Pro is just too big to hold comfortably in one hand, unless you’re a gigantic human. You can hold it with two hands, or rest iPad Pro on your chest or stomach. Propping it up is also an issue — it’s large, and it’ll slide. iPad Pro is crying out for a kickstand, and we’re sure some case companies will be ready to fill that void. You shouldn’t have to buy a keyboard to stand up your iPad. Below, a comparison of the iPad Pro to the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 4.
Most of iPad Pro is familiar: there’s a sleep/wake button on top, along with the 3.5mm headphone jack. Nearby are the volume controls and dual microphones on the right side of the device, and there’s a Lightning connector at the bottom. As is commonplace now, the Home Button contains Apple’s Touch ID sensor. And of course, even though iPad Pro’s size certainly doesn’t lend itself to photography, the device contains a FaceTime front camera and iSight rear camera.
There are, however, two major changes. First of all, you’ll find four speakers now — the customary two at the bottom of the device are joined by two speakers at the top. And the biggest change of all is located on left side of the device: three dots found there mark Apple’s new Smart Connector, allowing accessories to connect in a new way, transferring power and data. Smart Connector is already being used for keyboards, and it’ll be interesting to see what other accessories might benefit from this connection.
iPad Pro comes with the new A9X processor, a new, more powerful chip with the M9 motion coprocessor. It packs in 4GB of RAM — as verified by an iFixit teardown — and a 38.8 Wh (listed as 38.5 Wh by Apple), 10307 mAh battery. An accelerometer, barometer, and ambient light sensor are included, as well. Dual-channel 802.11a/b/g/n/ac MIMO Wi-Fi comes in both models, and the cellular model supports up to 20 LTE bands. iPad Pro has Bluetooth 4.2 support.
iPad Pro comes with two pack-ins: a 12W USB power adapter, and a long Lightning-to-USB cable. While most iPads ship with a standard 1m Lightning cable, iPad Pro contains a 2m Lightning cable, which is a nice added touch for someone buying the biggest, most expensive iPad. That same iFixit teardown pointed out the iPad Pro’s Lightning connector is a faster USB 3.0-compatible connector, but as of yet, no adapter exists that would take advantage of the increased speed.
The Big Display
iPad Pro skeptics may soon find themselves reconsidering after handling the device and experiencing its display. A huge, bright display capable of 264 ppi (the same as iPad Air) draws you in. It’s like having a laptop, but without the keyboard to put distance between you and the screen. It’s great for looking at photos, watching video, or browsing the web — everything tablets are best at, but even moreso now.
Video is specifically a great reason to take a look at the iPad Pro. The display is large enough — and the sound loud enough — to allow multiple people to view video at the same time in comfort. Even a regular full-sized iPad often feels like more of a personal video watching experience, to say nothing of an iPhone. But with a video playing at a short distance on iPad Pro, a group can now watch reasonably. Sure, it won’t be the same as watching TV, but it’s a nice benefit to the big screen. Again, kickstand cases will aid in video watching.
Reading an e-book is something else. If you prefer one page at a time onscreen, the smaller iPads — either Air or mini — are better. iPad Pro is fine if you don’t mind holding the device in landscape mode and reading with two pages onscreen, but reading one page vertically isn’t as comfortable as it is on a smaller device.
The display has been redesigned not just to look better — with improved contrast and brightness uniformity — but to work with one specific accessory: Apple Pencil. As Apple notes, the display’s subsystem works with your finger and Pencil, which means no 3D Touch Display, as seen in iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. It’s unclear when Apple plans on bringing 3D Touch to iPad. This is a give-and-take at this point. If you’d like, you can think of iPad Pro trading off the ability to use 3D Touch for the ability to use the sold-separately Pencil.
We’re not sure what most users will prefer, but if you have to think of it as a trade-off, it makes sense for the larger device to work as a more professional drawing tablet. 3D Touch lends itself well enough to an iPhone, and it would have been nice to see in the iPad mini 4 — that would have given users more incentive to look at Apple’s smallest tablet. Whether or not you prefer the ability to use Pencil or 3D Touch on this larger device is up to the user, but we understand the design.
iOS 9 and Apps
iPad Pro ships with iOS 9.1 and as such, the device takes advantage of all the new multitasking features in the OS. It’s really the best reason for the features, as on a large screen like the iPad Pro’s, iOS 9’s multitasking shines. This isn’t a surprise — bigger screen means more space for apps side by side, picture-in-picture, etc. But we can verify that the experience is as enjoyable in the real world as it is in theory. Split view offers two “screens” larger than an iPad mini screen — and as tall as an iPad Air 2 — side-by-side. Slide Over doesn’t feel restrictive in the least. Picture-in-picture allows users to watch a video and still have plenty of space to get other things done.
Multitasking takes on a different form when using an attached Smart Connector keyboard. You can cycle through open apps using the command key, acting as an app switcher. It’s a Mac shortcut on the iPad, and while there are still plenty of major differences between iOS and OSX, this feature, along with other keyboard shortcuts, may do enough to convince some casual users to take a closer look at the iPad Pro instead of a MacBook or another laptop.
If you don’t have an attached keyboard, you’ll have to use the iPad Pro’s onscreen keyboard, which is a fuller, more complete keyboard than you’ll find on other iOS devices. It includes a full number row, tab, caps lock, shift keys, and more. But it’s worth noting that not all apps use this new keyboard right now, as many just use a larger version of the standard iOS keyboard.
For someone with bigger hands, holding the iPad Pro aloft while typing in portrait mode may be serviceable for a short period of time, but those with smaller hands won’t find it worth the effort. You can also set the iPad down and type on the larger landscape keyboard. Of course, it won’t feel like a real keyboard, but the keys are large enough to make for a decent hunt-and-peck typing experience. Also worth noting: Split Keyboard option on iPad Pro is only accessible if you’re using the Zoomed display view. Though we appreciate its extra keys, using the iPad Pro’s onscreen keyboard can be a bit daunting if you’re not typing in short bursts.
It’s a mixed bag when it comes to current iOS apps on the big iPad Pro screen. Most of Apple’s own apps look familiar, which is no surprise. In some cases, it’s nice to see more of an app onscreen, as with the App Store. Third-party apps are a different story. Two of the most popular apps, Twitter and Facebook, are a bit off. Both exist as a single-column feed which doesn’t stretch to the edges of the screen — on Twitter, nearly half the screen is unused white space. The feed could be resized, but it might be nice to see the iPad Pro app look more like the web versions of Twitter and Facebook, with multiple columns. That’s a possibility, especially with iOS 9’s App Thinning. Netflix looks fine, as do Google Maps, and Zillow. Instagram, not so much. Again, we wouldn’t let this dissuade anyone from getting an iPad Pro, but there may be a few headaches in app use, especially early on.
We’ve also heard some discussion about the space between apps on iPad Pro. Despite its size, each screen only fits 20 app icons (or groups) — fewer than the larger iPhones. Some may be bothered more by this than others. We kind of like the big icons, but we certainly understand why you’d want more icons each screen, too.
Audio and Cameras
iPad Pro is being positioned as a great audio/video device. We’ve covered the video — it’s very good — but how’s the audio? Apple’s added two more speakers to the device, for four in total. As Apple stresses, these are intelligent speakers. All four speakers produce bass frequencies, but the top speakers are also specifically dedicated to high frequencies, as well. The most clever part of all is that the device knows when you’re in portrait or landscape mode, and adjusts accordingly. It also knows which side of the iPad is on top in landscape mode. We flipped the iPad Pro all around, and it never had any issues adjusting.
The sound is very good, easily the best we’ve heard from any iOS device speakers. It gets plenty loud, too — more than loud enough for close personal listening. Also: they’re stereo speakers, and the separation is indeed evident. All of this adds up to the best audio experience you can have from an iPad. It’s not necessarily enough to make a frequent music listener skip on buying a Bluetooth speaker to pair with the device, but it more than holds up when watching TV shows, movies, or listening to music for a shorter amount of time.
Cameras are an afterthought on this device. The iSight camera here looks to be the same one found in the iPad Air 2 — 8MP with all of the same capabilities. It takes decent enough shots, but honestly, who’s going to use the massive iPad Pro for taking pictures? Other than maybe a quick shot around the house, it’s not going to happen. (We hope.) On that level, it’s fine. We do think, though, that the FaceTime camera could have gotten an upgrade — FaceTime benefits from a larger screen, so an improved FaceTime camera would have been nice. A 5MP FaceTime HD camera, like those found in the newest iPhones, would have fit the bill.
Performance: Speed + Battery
iPad Pro is very fast. Its speed is another distinguishing feature when compared to other iPads — the A9X chip puts iPad Pro in MacBook range, as it blows away its own iOS competition. (Note the Geekbench benchmarks below.) Everything loads quickly within apps, and it’s easy to get in and out of everything with ease. It’s quicker than the iPad Air 2 when compared side-by-side, but the Air is already a fast device. The speed difference is probably most noticeable during startup, as the Pro gets up and going in a snap.
As impressive as iPad Pro’s speed is the device’s battery life. Apple claims that iPad Pro can run for up to 10 hours when surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music. We found the tablet more than exceeded these marks, which end up seeming too conservative. In our Wi-Fi web browsing test, on a screen with 50 percent brightness, iPad Pro ran for 12 hours and 41 minutes, comfortably besting the top iPad time we’ve seen until now, 11 hours and 34 minutes from the first-generation iPad Air.
Our video testing results were even more of an eye-opener. While the iPad Air topped out at a very strong 13 hours and 57 minutes, iPad Pro ran for a superb 15 hours and 30 minutes when running at 50 percent brightness and volume. We passed on conducting our gaming test, but the two tests we did run proved to us that this is the longest-lasting iPad battery yet. Some have written that Apple sacrificed battery to make room for its speaker enclosures — that may be true, but considering iPad Pro’s very good stereo sound, and its already impressive battery life, we think Apple made the right decision on that matter.
(A quick note: We’ve always done cellular testing in the past, but there haven’t really been any surprises with iPad data issues in recent years, and speeds vary by location. And of course, the cellular model has no extra features. So we’re only dealing with the Wi-Fi version in this review. Based on what we’ve seen in our Wi-Fi battery tests, in comparison to our cellular test on the first-gen iPad Air, we’d estimate iPad Pro will run from 11 to 12 1/2 hours straight on LTE. This is just an estimate; we’d like to hear if cellular model owners experience any issues.)
Using the iPad Pro’s included 12W charger and Lightning cable, the device went from a depleted battery to a full charge in 5 hours and 10 minutes. That’s not fast, but it’s about the same as the fourth-generation iPad, and much better than the slow charging third-gen iPad. iPad Pro can charge at lower speeds, too — it’s compatible with a 1A charger.
Accessories, Bluetooth + Airplay
Apple has been pushing two specific accessories right alongside the iPad Pro — Apple Pencil ($99) and Smart Keyboard ($169). Pencil is an advanced stylus that’s been specifically designed to take advantage of the iPad Pro’s display. Smart Keyboard is Apple’s own keyboard accessory which connects to iPad Pro through the device’s Smart Connector. While these accessories are clearly meant to be seen as adding to iPad Pro’s appeal, the fact of the matter is, they’re separate accessories, and need to be reviewed separately. This becomes more problematic when you see the limited stock for both accessories that launched “with” iPad Pro. Currently, both accessories aren’t listed as shipping for four to five more weeks, but we’ll hope to see them in Apple stores sooner. It’s disappointing, to say the least. Also, it’s worth noting that adding both of these accessories to an iPad Pro takes the total package firmly into MacBook price range.
We did, however, get a chance to try Logitech’s Create keyboard for iPad Pro with the device. While a separate review will be forthcoming for that accessory as well, we did get a feel of what it’s like to use a Smart Connector keyboard with iPad Pro. We found it worked well — the Smart Connector provided no issues, and we appreciated the keyboard shortcuts. If you really want iPad Pro to be a laptop replacement, a keyboard is obviously a must.
Though you may not use it much with this device, AirPlay mirroring works about as well as it does with any other device — you’ll see a slight lag at times, but for the most part, it’s pretty smooth. Bluetooth streaming on the BT 4.2 iPad Pro worked without a hitch, as you’d pretty much expect by this point.
So, does iPad Pro do enough to replace a laptop (even a MacBook)? Some might be quick to say no, but we think it depends on the user. There are many out there who wouldn’t wish to leave behind the extended power capabilities of OS X or Windows, and certain heavy laptop users may dismiss the notion out of hand. Speaking for myself, as someone who’s writing and editing on a computer all day, I can’t see leaving my MacBook Air for an iPad Pro full-time. But for more casual users — those who mainly pull out a laptop for an hour at night to browse the web, check Facebook, watch videos, look at photos — iPad Pro actually makes sense. It pairs the familiarity and ease of iOS with versatility created by its accessories. It also makes sense for those who own both a desktop Mac and a MacBook, as iPad Pro could conceivably take the place of the latter.
If you do plan on getting the iPad Pro as a laptop replacement, though, you’ll have to at least get a keyboard, so factor that into the price. It also makes more sense to buy one of the 128GB models if you’re looking at iPad Pro to be your “laptop.” Additionally, while we haven’t gotten our hands on the Apple Pencil just yet, it’s fair to say Pencil will be the most intriguing Pro accessory to a good number of users, and it may be enough to lure a different group of buyers to the device.
Not all users want the iPad Pro to be a laptop replacement, though. Some just want it to be an iPad, and it succeeds. Its base model is $300 more expensive than iPad Air 2’s paltry 16GB base model, but some users may find enough reason to splurge, considering the larger screen, improved video and audio, and top-rate multitasking. It’s expensive, and there are some UI quirks right now, but overall, it’s a strong initial effort in expanding the iPad line into new territory. iPad Pro won’t be the answer for all users, but it does a lot of things better than any other iPad, and it earns our strong general recommendation.
Company and Price
Model: iPad Pro