So, is it a computer?

So, is it a computer?

Apples tagline for the new 2020 iPad Pro models is Your next computer is not a computer. Its a cheeky way of addressing the tension thats at the heart of most iPad Pro purchases: they cost as much or more than many laptops but may not be able to replace your laptop.
The 11-inch iPad Pro starts at $799 and the 12.9-inch model starts at $999, but in both cases, a more realistic cost is at least a couple hundred dollars more: you should factor in the price of a storage bump over the anemic 128GB of base storage and the price of a keyboard case. iPad Pro buyers will quickly spend as much or more than the cost of a good MacBook Air or even a MacBook Pro hence the tension.
Unfortunately, you cant spend the extra $299 or $349 for the new Magic Keyboard case that Apple announced alongside these new iPads they wont arrive until May. Brydge is selling a more traditional clamshell attachment for $199 or $229, but its not shipping until next week.
The internet has been arguing whether the iPad can replace your laptop for years now. And over those years, Apple has slowly filled in the software gaps, but not all of them. Ill just lay my cards out and say that, yes, the iPad Pro is a computer. Its just one that works differently than youre used to and sometimes stymies your efforts to achieve certain tasks.
If you were hoping these new iPads would resolve that tension, they do not. I think a more interesting question is what pro means in the iPad context. The real tension isnt between the iPad Pro and the MacBook Air, but between the iPad Pro and other iPads.
The 2020 iteration of the iPad Pro is essentially a minor spec bump over the 2018 models. There are really only three things that are new here: the processor, the camera array, and the microphones.
Oh, theres also the trackpad support youve heard so much about, but thats going to be available to any iPad that supports the latest version of iPadOS. Apples Magic Keyboard accessory also isnt available to test yet, either.
Thats one reason I think the real tension is with other iPads. Trackpad support might be the most important feature to come to the iPad this year I say that not even knowing what Apple has planned at its digital-only Worldwide Developers Conference. But since its coming to all iPads, its hardly a differentiator for this iPad Pro. Maybe the Magic Keyboard will change that calculus, but there will likely be plenty of trackpad options for less expensive iPads. Apple has already partnered with Logitech on a trackpad case for the various 10.5-inch iPad models out there, for example.
All the things you expect from an iPad are here
Anyway, the bright side of the iPad Pro changing so little from the previous generation is that there is a lot of stuff you dont have to worry about. The screen is still beautiful, tack-sharp, and color accurate. The hardware quality is still top-notch, but outside of a case I still feel that theres something a little antiseptic about it.
Battery life is all-day for me though now that Im using it full time for work, the eight to ten hours I can pull out of a charge really only does manage a single day for me instead of not worrying about it for several.
Theres still just the one USB-C port awkwardly placed on the side, but its functionality is less locked down than it was before iPadOS. And Im still going to point out the lack of a headphone jack because it is more of a pain here than on phones. I use regular headphones on my laptop all the time because of their reliability: no lag, no awkwardly messing with Bluetooth settings at the start of a Zoom call while your colleagues patiently wait.
Lets go through the new stuff, starting with the processor. Strangely enough, Apple isnt using the same generation chip as what youll find on an iPhone 11 Pro. Instead, this is the A12Z Bionic, a step up from the A12X Bionic found in 2018s iPad Pro.
The Z doesnt stand for anything (Apple says its just more than X,) but what it means is that the GPU has been beefed up this year to 8 cores. Apple says that should help with games that run at 120Hz, 4K rendering in video editing apps, and improved AR performance.
I am sure thats all true, but Im not so sure the majority of iPad Pro owners will ever notice a speed difference. This iPad feels very, very fast but so does my 2018 iPad Pro. Theres potentially an argument to be made about processor headroom and future-proofing here, but not an especially strong one.
For the sake of completeness, Ill note that on a Geekbench 5 Pro GPU compute test, the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro scored a 9981 while my 2018 11-inch scored a 9138 (the CPU tests were about the same). What does that difference of 800 mean to you? Probably nothing. To me, the key thing is that unless you know exactly what pain point this processor is addressing for you, you shouldnt upgrade just for it.
Its very fast. Dont sweat the details.
The biggest change is the new camera system. You cant miss it. The camera bump on the back of the iPad Pro is a big old square now, with two regular camera sensors and a new LIDAR sensor. Well come back to that LIDAR sensor in a minute.
Apple has put in a 12-megapixel main wide sensor with an f/1.8 aperture, which takes good photos but isnt able to match the low-light performance of the iPhone 11 Pro.
New this year is a 10-megapixel ultrawide sensor at f/2.4 with a 125-degree field of view. As with all ultrawide sensors, the point is more the fun it provides than the extra crispy image quality.
I am on team its okay to take photos and video with your iPad, but context matters. I think that it makes more sense as something you might use in a studio for specific uses rather than out in the field (or, and I cant emphasize strongly enough that you should never do this, at a concert).
The studio context also applies to the microphones, which Apple also dubs studio quality. Theyre quite good, but maybe not quite good enough to use for a professional podcast. The iPad Pro can shoot 4K video at 24, 30, or 60fps and combined with those microphones I think the intention is to give filmmakers an interesting set of options for all-in-one shooting and editing.
The cameras are all pretty good, but the camera placement for video conferencing is not
I say I think because while Im all for taking photos with a tablet in the right situations, for myself I would rather use a phone. If Apple sold a version of this iPad Pro with a mediocre camera on the back and no camera bump, Id buy that version in a heartbeat especially if it cost a little less.
The more important camera to me is the selfie camera because I use the iPad Pro as a work computer and its the camera pointing at my face for video calls. It can take 7-megapixel photos and shoot 1080p video.
Its miles better than the camera on any MacBook in terms of quality and miles worse than any MacBook in terms of placement.
I dont know why Apple maintains the weird legacy of putting the FaceID sensors and selfie camera on the top of the iPad Pro when its held in portrait. Maybe its the last vestige of Apples desire to keep the iPad Pro a tablet-first experience, but I and everybody I know primarily uses the iPad in landscape mode in a keyboard case. That means the camera is off to the side so your eyes are always looking away from it. Apple added some augmented reality effects to fix your gaze in FaceTime, but that doesnt help with work conference calls.
As long as Im on the rant, the other problem with using the iPad Pro for conference calls is that in iPadOS, Apple doesnt allow apps to use the camera unless theyre active in the foreground. Thats nice from a peace-of-mind perspective but absolutely terrible for video conferencing.
The truth is that people need to open other apps when theyre on a call, and merely pulling out a Slide Over window to check a message is enough to turn the iPads camera off during a Zoom call. The net result is your camera is constantly toggling off and on again. The iPad Pro is the perfect machine for making your coworkers think youre ignoring them.
If theres one standout hardware feature on the 2020 iPad Pro, its the LIDAR sensor. It uses lasers to near-instantly detect depth and create a spatial map of a room. And anytime a tech product utilizes lasers, the company that makes it cant help but hype it up because lasers still seem futuristic. So Apple says it operates at the photon level and at nanosecond speeds.
Yes, that is how light works.
Anyway, the reason for including LIDAR is for radically faster and more accurate augmented reality. And it really works but its only the foundation for great AR experiences, not a guarantee theyll come. It improves some current apps for free, but there arent any third-party apps that take full advantage of it yet. (Heres where I need to disclose that my wife works for Oculus, which makes virtual reality products.)
The main benefit AR apps will get right away is that LIDAR is able to nearly instantaneously map the surfaces in a room. Instead of having to wave your iPad around until the cameras can recognize objects, the LIDAR just measures them directly.
That spatial map is also more accurate so the Measure app, for example, can show a ruler when you get in close to a line youve measured.
The other immediate benefit you get is with something called occlusion. Thats when something gets in between your iPad and the virtual object youve set on the floor or table or whatever. If somebody walks in between you and the virtual chair and the chair doesnt get partially hidden, it breaks the illusion.
Older iPads and iPhones can pull off occlusion with people, but they cant do it with arbitrary objects. LIDAR means this iPad Pro can though its not quite able to draw a perfectly sharp line. Still, as you can see in the images above, its able to tell when somethings in front of the virtual object.
Developers should get those benefits for free, but doing anything more advanced will require specific coding. Apple is releasing those APIs to developers today, but it will take some time before apps take advantage of them.
If and when they do, theyll be able to use a more advanced spatial map to put their virtual roller coasters or coffee table coasters on. Apples new APIs also are supposed to be able to more accurately identify objects like chairs, windows, tables, and so on. Theyll also allow virtual objects to be placed anywhere on the map instead of only on flat surfaces.
In short, the LIDAR on the iPad Pro seems quite advanced but built for a software future that hasnt arrived yet. Beyond home decoration, some shopping, and some games, its also unclear whether theres a real demand for all this technology yet. The most widespread use of AR right now is face filters, and LIDAR doesnt do much for that yet.
I reviewed iPadOS last October, and most of what I said then stands today. Apples willingness to add a lot of complexity to the OS for power users has… added a lot of complexity. Its simply not easy to naturally and intuitively learn how to do everything just by using it. Heres how I put it then:
It is easier than nearly any other computer in history to start using. But when you start trying to get the same sorts of capabilities out of the iPad that youd expect from a high-end laptop, that curve hockeysticks.
The addition of trackpad support doesnt really change that dynamic much, though it does make it much easier to work with text. Its clear to me now why Apple changed the way the cursor and text selection works in iPadOS: it was designed with a mouse or trackpad in mind.
There arent any keyboard cases with trackpads available at launch
I have a lot more to say about trackpad support on the iPad, but heres the short version: I think Apple came as close to nailing it as possible. Scrolling feels natural and the way the mouse cursor changes shape to match buttons is weird at first but I think I like it. There is some intuitive strangeness in pushing the cursor up against the edge of the screen to bring up the dock, notification center, and Slide Over apps, though.
Ill have more to say about the trackpad in a later article. For the purposes of this review (and absent the forthcoming Magic Keyboard), the thing to know is that every iPad that can be updated to the latest version of iPadOS is getting this feature, so its not really a differentiator for the iPad Pro.
iPadOS is also slightly less buggy now than it was at launch but there are still maddening issues from time to time. This week its been text-focus with the Smart Keyboard. Sometimes I have to fully force quit the app and restart it in order to type into it.
As I used the iPad Pro this week, I kept coming back to that LIDAR sensor. Not to use but as a concept. Its a powerful and interesting sensor and Apples total control over software and hardware means that it just works to improve existing apps. But as powerful as it is, Im not super sure a lot of users will be able to take advantage of it its an extra thing they may not even use.
And thats the story of the iPad Pro in a nutshell, isnt it? The iPad Pro line has always featured incredibly powerful and beautiful hardware alongside software that has struggled to take advantage of it.
I started this review by talking about the tension between iPads. The core of that tension is that for most people, the iPad Pro is overkill. Unless youre quite sure what you are going to do with these cameras, that LIDAR, or the faster processor, chances are youd be equally served by the much-less expensive iPad Air or even the base iPad. Neither of those iPads is as nice from a hardware perspective. But if you dont need the extra power, saving hundreds of dollars is also nice.
Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it contracts that no one actually reads. Its impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But were going to start counting exactly how many times you have to hit agree to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people dont read and definitely cant negotiate.
Much like the iPhone, to use an iPad Pro, you have to agree to:

  • The Apple terms of service agreement, which you can have sent to you by email
  • Apples warranty agreement, which you can have sent to you by email

These agreements are not negotiable, and you cannot use the phone at all if you dont agree to them.
The iPad Pro also prompts you to set up Apple Cash and Apple Pay at setup, which further means you have to agree to:

  • The Apple Cash agreement, which specifies that services are actually provided by Green Dot Bank and Apple Payments, Inc, and further consists of the following agreements:
  • The Apple Cash terms and conditions
  • The electronic communications agreement
  • The Green Dot bank privacy policy
  • Direct payments terms and conditions
  • Direct payments privacy notice
  • Apple Payments, Inc, license

If you add a credit card to Apple Pay, you have to agree to:

  • The terms from your credit card provider, which do not have an option to be emailed

Final tally: two mandatory agreements, six optional agreements for Apple Cash, one optional agreement for Apple Pay
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