Apple iPad Pro review 2018: the fastest iPad is still an iPad

The thing about bullet trains is that they’re always on rails

Apple introduced the new iPad Pro with a spectacular series of statistics that made laptops seem like old news. More iPads are sold than any other company’s entire laptop lineup! The new iPad Pro with an eight-core A12X processor is faster than 92 percent of portable PCs sold today! The graphics performance is 1000 times faster than the first-generation iPad and now rivals an Xbox One S! It has a USB-C port that can drive 5K displays!

All of this data was used to support equally spectacular claims about what an iPad really is. It is a “magical piece of glass that can be anything you need it to be,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said, adding that all that power is “going to push what you can do on iPad, or on any computer, even further.” The overwhelming message was the iPad is more powerful, more capable, and more the future than any laptop — Apple’s own new MacBook Air included.

But computers are about more than just sales and processor specs: they’re about software. And the one thing Apple didn’t really change on the iPad Pro is iOS 12, which has all of the same capabilities and limitations iPad users have come to expect. Apple wants you to think that the iPad Pro is the future of computing, but if you’ve already used iOS 12 on an iPad Pro, you know exactly how you feel about that idea.

Apple gave me a completely maxed-out 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 1TB of storage, LTE, and the optional $199 Smart Keyboard Folio and $129 Apple Pencil to review. That makes for $2,227 of iPad Pro — more than all but one standard MacBook Pro configuration. It is impossible to look at a device this powerful and expensive and not expect it to replace a laptop for day-to-day work.

It’s also impossible to look at the iPad Pro and not be struck by its design. This is the first truly new Apple mobile hardware design in a long while, and it has a deeper connection to the MacBook Pro than the iPhone or previous iPads. Instead of rounded corners and soft shapes, the iPad Pro is all hard corners and flat sides, with massive, asymmetrical antenna lines on the back and a huge camera bump. Most people I showed our space gray review unit to thought it looked cool, but I think it’s kind of brutal looking — almost like a reference design.

Those squared off edges and smaller bezels change the screen-to-body ratio in positive ways: the 11-inch model fits a larger screen in the same size body as the old 10.5-inch model, and the 12.9-inch model shrinks the body down to fit the screen, making it much less clumsy to use than the outgoing model.

Apple keeps saying the iPad Pro now has an “all screen design” that “goes from edge to edge,” but let’s just be honest: nothing about these bezels is edge-to-edge. It is, however, an extremely nice 264ppi LCD screen, and I continue to be a fan of Apple’s fancy technique to round off the corners of LCDs.

Apart from the corners, the new iPad Pro display is substantially the same as last year’s Pro, with Apple’s extremely smooth 120Hz ProMotion variable refresh rate system, True Tone automatic color calibration, and wide color support. This is one of the best, most accurate mobile displays you can look at.

Of course, expanding the display means there’s no home button or TouchID sensor. Instead, the iPad Pro has the same TrueDepth camera and Face ID system as the iPhone XS, with a 7-megapixel camera, infrared projector, and IR camera. The big change is that it now works in any orientation, so you can pick up and unlock the iPad any way you want.

There are some neat affordances to handle that flexibility: if you hold the iPad in landscape and cover the camera with your hand, it’ll tell you, with an arrow pointing to the camera on the lock screen so you can uncover it. If you have the camera at the bottom, the lock screen will instruct you to look down so FaceI D can properly see your face. And if you have the keyboard cover on, you can double-tap the spacebar to quickly unlock with Face ID, which is very fast — and very reminiscent of Windows Hello. If only Apple put this system on its laptops, too.

The lack of a home button also means that you now navigate the iPad Pro using the same gestures as the iPhone: you can tap on the screen to wake, swipe up to go home, and swipe up a bit more to open the app switcher, and swipe along the bottom to switch between apps. The iPad version of iOS also has a dock, so you can swipe up just a little in an app to bring it up, which is how you slide a second app onto the screen, or quickly pop an app over your workspace to get something done.

These new gestures are all intuitive to pick up, especially if you’ve been using a recent iPhone, but there’s a lot going on when you swipe up — it definitely took me a second to figure out how to get the dock to appear instead of going home or opening up the app switcher.

The significant camera bump on the back houses an f/1.8 lens and a 12-megapixel sensor. Apple says this is an all-new camera that matches the performance of the old iPad Pro in a much thinner package so it can fit behind the display. You do get the benefit of Apple’s Smart HDR processing, so you’ll see flatter images with more detail in the shadows than before, but the images are not quite as good as the iPhone XS wide-angle camera.

The back of the iPad is also where you’ll find the smart connector for keyboards. Apple’s new Smart Keyboard case has the same keys and feel as the old model, but the folding design is all new. On the plus side, it protects both sides now, and it’s much simpler and cleaner looking: that weird hump is gone, and there’s no more origami folding required. But it’s also less flexible: if you just want to open it up and use the iPad as a tablet, you have to flip the keyboard all the way around, where you’ll feel the keys on the back. And there are only two angles when it’s open, while both the Surface Pro and Google Pixel slate offer near-infinite adjustments. I’d bet third parties like Logitech offer much nicer keyboard covers in the future, just like they did with the older iPad Pro.

I gave the new Apple Pencil to Verge tech reporter Dami Lee, who is also a published cartoonist, and she thought the new magnetic charging system was a huge improvement over the clunky Lightning jack design of the previous pencil. But she was less impressed with the double-tap-to-switch-tools touch control on the side, which she found a little awkward. “It’s just not as natural as having a button on the side,” she said.

What you will not find anywhere is a headphone jack, which is a curious omission since so many iPads are used essentially as televisions, and so many pro media workflows demand low-latency audio monitoring. Apple put AirPods in the reviewer package, so the company isn’t being entirely shy about how it expects iPad Pro customers to solve this problem. (That’s now a total of $2,356 for this iPad, in case you’re keeping track.)

There are four sets of speakers — a tweeter and woofer in each corner — five microphones, and the new USB-C connector around the sides. Like everything about the new iPad Pro, that USB-C connector is both remarkably powerful and incredibly frustrating.

With one huge exception, most normal stuff you’d plug into a USB-C port works without fuss, and a bunch of other things work if you have an app that supports it. I tried a handful of USB-C hubs with an assortment of USB-A, HDMI, card readers, and Ethernet ports, and everything worked as intended. An extremely corporate Dell USB-C hub even let me plug an external display into the iPad over VGA, which was truly a vision of the future.

External displays work just like the old Lightning-to-HDMI adapter: the system will simply mirror the iPad Pro by default, but apps that support an extended screen can do different things. Keynote will use the external display as the presentation monitor and show you the next slide on the iPad, for example. Djay will show visualizers on the second screen. But most apps don’t do anything except mirror, so don’t get too excited about your crazy multiple-monitor iPad Pro rig just yet. All of this is exactly the same as the older iPad Pro, which supported external displays using a Lighting-to-HDMI dongle. The only real changes are that the new Pro can support up to 5K displays, and run a display simultaneously with other USB-C devices.

Keyboards worked. A USB microphone showed up in GarageBand. You can plug a phone or Nintendo Switch into it and get up to 7.5 watts of power to charge them. (That’s not really enough for a Switch, by the way.) Apple supports both analog and digital audio out, so virtually all USB-C headphones and audio dongles work, a huge improvement over the Android ecosystem.

Other stuff didn’t work, though: printers didn’t do anything. A Native Instruments Maschine mk3 audio controller sat in silence. A Beyerdynamic USB-C microphone only worked when we used an A-to-C cable plugged into a hub. USB-C is still kind of messy and weird, so you’ll just have to try things and see what works for you.

But one extremely important category of devices will definitely not work: iOS does not support external storage. You can plug as many flash drives or hard drives as you want into the iPad Pro’s USB-C port, and nothing will happen. Apple says third parties can write apps to talk to external storage, but out of the box, this $1,899 tablet simply won’t talk to a flash drive.

The one thing iOS can do with external storage devices is import photos: if you plug in a camera or a memory card from a camera, iOS 12 will automatically pop open the camera import screen and let you import photos into your camera roll.

That’s it. That is the sole way iOS 12 can address external storage. And to make matters worse, you are required to import to the system camera roll — you can’t import photos directly into an app like Lightroom CC. Apple has to be in the middle.

I use Lightroom CC all the time, and I would love to manage and edit all my photos on an iPad Pro, especially since editing with the Apple Pencil is so much fun on this display. But I have no desire to import hundreds of RAW files into my camera roll and iCloud photos account. When I brought this up, Apple very proudly pointed to a new Siri Shortcut from Adobe that imports photos from the camera roll into Lightroom and then automatically deletes them from the camera roll.

I couldn’t test that Lightroom Siri Shortcut, since it’s not yet available. But I can tell you that macro-based hacks around the limitations of an operating system are not usually included in bold visions of the future of computing, and that Siri Shortcut is a pure hack around the limitations Apple has imposed on the iPad Pro.

Oh, but it gets worse. I shoot photos in JPG+RAW, and the iOS PhotoKit API only allows apps to grab one or the other from the camera roll. So I could only import my RAW images into Lightroom, leaving the JPGs behind to clutter up my camera roll and iCloud storage. That’s untenable, so I just gave up and imported everything directly into Lightroom using my Mac, because my Mac doesn’t insist on abstracting the filesystem away into nonsense.

This little Lightroom vignette is basically the story of the iPad Pro: either you have to understand the limitations of iOS so well you can make use of these little hacks all over the place to get things done, or you just deal with it and accept that you have to go back to a real computer from time to time because it’s just easier. And in that case, you might as well just use a real computer.

These roadblocks are made all the more heartbreaking by the A12X processor, which appears to be absolutely lightning-fast. Nothing is ever slow, and it always feels like there’s more headroom to work with. We have an early build of Photoshop for iPad, which is coming next year, and it handled a file with tons of layers just fine. Games were super-smooth, although no iOS games really offer Xbox One-quality graphics. We were able to import several minutes of 4K footage into Adobe Premiere Rush, edit them, and export without breaking a sweat. We were not, however, able to export that footage in 4K, because Premiere Rush is yet another disappointingly limited iPad version of an app, and only exports in 1080p.

I would love to use all the power offered by the A12X, but the iPad app ecosystem is still full of cut-down apps, limited feature sets, and compromises. Yes, this new iPad Pro benchmarks faster than my daily-driver 2015 MacBook Pro, but Safari on the iPad simply isn’t a desktop-class browser, so desktop websites often kick me out to mobile apps that don’t have the features I need either. Microsoft Excel for iPad still doesn’t support macros. If you want to write an iPad app, you have to use… a Mac.

And, most irritatingly, Apple refuses to support Google’s VP9 video codec, so there is literally no way to watch YouTube in 4K on the iPad Pro. You just can’t do it.

I can see any number of ways for me to get rid of my laptop and use the iPad Pro as my main computer — using an iPad is extremely pleasant, and it’s nice to use a computer with a touchscreen. But over and over again, some annoying iOS limitation stopped me from making the switch. I don’t think I’m just stuck in some old way of thinking or that I need to spend more time inventing a new workflow out of Siri Shortcuts and glue. It’s just basic stuff, like plugging in a flash drive to grab a file or quickly changing the name of a document before emailing it off.

I don’t think people should adapt to their computers. Computers should adapt to people.

Apple seems to want it both ways with the iPad Pro: it loves to tout the iPad’s laptop-dwarfing sales figures and industry-leading performance, but when pushed on the iPad’s limitations, the company insists that the iPad is still an ongoing attempt to build the future of computing, not a laptop replacement.

But after eight years, this double-sided argument is no longer tenable. Unlike virtually every other computer, the iPad is a product of Apple’s singular vision: the company designs the display, the processor, the operating system, and the limits of the applications and accessories that plug into it. And after all this time, it’s clear that whatever roadblocks and frustrations exist in using the iPad Pro are there because Apple wants them there. There just aren’t that many excuses left.

Last year, when Dieter Bohn reviewed the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, he wrote that he hoped iOS 11 would make for a “significantly more powerful experience of using the iPad Pro as a computer, not just for ‘iPad things.’” Well, we’re on to iOS 12 and a new iPad Pro now, and I can say that we’re still stuck just doing iPad things.

If you’re the sort of person who might spend over $2,000 on a maxed-out iPad Pro, you probably know exactly why you need one, what you’ll use it for, and whether it’s worth it to you. You’ll undoubtedly find the switch to USB-C convenient, the new Pencil to be much nicer, and the A12X to be a significant performance boost over previous iPads. You will get what you’re paying for.

But if you’re thinking about spending $799 on the cheapest 64GB 11-inch iPad Pro to replace your laptop, you should really ask yourself what you need a computer to do. There isn’t a single other tablet on the market that can compete with the raw hardware of the iPad Pro, and there aren’t many laptops that can either. But Apple’s approach to iOS is holding that hardware back in serious and meaningful ways, and while USB-C makes life with this new iPad Pro slightly easier, it still has the same basic capabilities and limitations of last year’s iPad Pro.

Is the new iPad Pro a stunning engineering achievement? Without question. Has Apple once again produced mobile hardware that puts the rest of the industry to shame when it comes to performance, battery life, and design? Yep. Is the iPad Pro the best, most capable iPad ever made? It certainly is.

But you know what? It’s still an iPad.

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