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OK Computer: The iPad Pro 2020 review

The new iPad Pro is a great tablet and an OK computer.

Sure, Apple’s marketing tagline for the new iPad Pro says, “Your next computer is not a computer.” But this year’s update comes with full mouse and trackpad support, and that moves this device into completely new territory. It was always computer, of course, but there’s no room for ambiguity now.

We’re going to talk about trackpad support at length, but we’ll also make some judgments on performance. More importantly, we’ll examine the new 3D sensor Apple introduced. It’s the one component that truly distinguishes this from previously released iPads.

The sensor’s promise doesn’t matter much to users today, and that makes for a big caveat when recommending this as a consumer product. But to adapt a phrase strongly associated with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, the 2020 iPad Pro tries to see where the puck is going—in this case, both figuratively and literally.

Table of Contents

Specifications

The 2020 iPad Pro has largely the same specs as its predecessor. It comes in the same 11- and 12.9-inch variants, which still have displays of 2,388×1,668 pixels and 2,732×2,048 pixels, respectively, at 120Hz. As far as we could tell, nothing changed in the displays—and it didn’t need too, since they were already excellent.

Specs at a glance: 2020 Apple iPad Pro
Screen 2,388×1,668 11-inch or 2,732×2,048 (264 PPI) touchscreen
OS iOS 13.4
CPU Apple A12Z CPU
RAM 6GB
GPU Apple A12Z GPU
Storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB
Networking Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5, GPS, LTE
Camera 12MP and 10MP rear cameras, lidar ToF sensor, 7MP front camera
Ports USB-C
Size 9.74”×7.02”×0.23” (280.6×214.9×5.9mm) for the 11-inch; 11.04”×8.46”×0.23” (280.6×214.9×5.9mm) for the 12.9
Weight 1.03 pounds (469g) Wi-Fi, 1.05 pounds (477g) with cellular
Battery life 28.65WHr for the 11-inch; 36.71 for the 12.9
Starting price $799, plus $179 for the Smart Keyboard Folio and/or $129 for the Apple Pencil
Price as reviewed $1,649
Other perks Charger, USB-C cable

There’s still a TrueDepth sensor array and a 7MP FaceTime camera on the front. The iPad Pro still uses USB-C as its only physical port, and the headphone jack is still gone.

There are some differences, though.

For audio, the tablet has four speakers, so it can provide stereo audio in any orientation (addressing a complaint we had about using the lower-end iPads for media consumption), and a set of improved microphones—five of them, to be precise. The iPad Pro’s internal sensors detect the orientation and reconfigure which speakers are being used accordingly.

While there was a disparity in RAM between configurations last time (4GB in some storage configurations and 6GB in another), all models have 6GB this time around. And though the base configuration of the 2018 iPad Pro came with only 64GB of storage, it’s 128GB this time. The rest of the storage options remain the same: 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB.

Apple has also included the U1 ultra-wideband chip that was introduced in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. Right now, it’s just used for AirDrop, but the chip might find use in augmented reality applications at a later date.

In another change related to wireless connectivity, these iPads support the brand-new Wi-Fi 6 standard, which promises more reliable and faster connections, especially in apartments or offices crowded by other networks. Bluetooth 5.0, gigabit LTE, and eSIM all return, too.

A12Z

These new iPad Pros have a new system-on-a-chip, a close relative to the A12X that is called the A12Z. In addition to an 8-core CPU with four performance cores and four efficiency cores, the A12Z now has an 8-core GPU as well. Apple says that the chip offers 2.6 times faster performance than the A10X in earlier iPad Pros and that it’s a bit faster than the A12X from the 2018 models.

The Neural Engine, Apple’s proprietary machine learning and AI processor, also has eight cores, and Cupertino says it is capable of 5 million operations per second.

We wrote extensively about the A12X when it was first introduced, and pretty much everything we wrote then holds true about the A12Z, too: it’s a remarkable piece of engineering, and it delivers performance that no competitor currently matches in anything like this device’s form factor.

While Apple hasn’t shared many specifics, the company claims that it has improved the thermal design in the iPad Pro to allow for more sustained performance in heavy-duty workflows. And speaking of sustained use, the promised battery life clocks in at 10 hours—the same as prior iPad Pro models.

The rear camera array

The biggest change, though, is in the rear camera and sensor array. One of our critiques in 2018 was that the camera system (with one 12-megapixel lens) just wasn’t good enough to take pro-quality photos to edit on the device.

That’s still true, but Apple has added a second lens: a 10-megapixel ultra-wide angle lens similar in function to that introduced in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro late last year. It allows you to take photos at 0.5x zoom, which is great for group shots in crowded bars or for close-up shots of objects. It’s not clear why the iPad needs this, but it’s there.

More interesting, though, is the introduction of a lidar scanner in the rear camera array. This is the time-of-flight sensor that has been rumored for iPads and iPhones for a while, and it’s meant primarily to improve augmented reality experiences.

The scanner measures how long it takes light to travel from objects up to five meters away, giving apps much more detailed depth information than was possible with prior units. We’ll talk quite a bit more about this sensor and what it means for Apple’s AR ambitions (and current ARKit apps) later in the review.

The iPad Pro starts at $799 for the lowest-spec 11-inch model, though as noted above, this comes with twice the storage of the entry-level configuration in the previous generation. Max out the 12.9-inch version with 1 TB of storage and LTE connectivity and the price range tops out at $1,649.

That price is highly competitive with any number of laptops meant for similar use cases, and this device will beat many of them in performance. But software support is everything for machines like this.

Design

Almost nothing has changed about the look and feel of this tablet compared to 2018’s models. That said, there was a lot to cover when this design was first introduced, so head over to the 2018 review if you want to wax philosophical about orientations, materials, grips, and so on.

The very short version is that the iPad Pro’s key design principle is that it has no “correct” orientation. Whether you’re in portrait or landscape, and whether you’ve flipped it one way or another, it’s supposed to work optimally.

I noted the speaker setup above as one way Apple accomplished this. Another tweak was that with the elimination of the home button that was present in previous iPads, and the fact that the small bezels are the same dimensions on all sides. Also, Face ID works in both portrait and landscape mode.

The orientation of the Apple logo on the back—and the positioning of the Face ID camera—betray this ideal slightly, especially since the current placement puts the camera on the side, making for some awkward conference call camera angles. Apple got pretty close to accomplishing its goal, though.

Like so many other Apple computing devices, the casing of the iPad Pro is made of aluminum. Its edges evoke the iPhone 5 or iPhone 4 more than they do the rounded, steel edges of the modern flagship iPhone. Since I think that the iPhone 4 and 5 were Apple’s most attractive iPhone designs, I’m cool with that.

To me, the 11-inch model is the optimal size. 12.9 inches is too unwieldy to efficiently use as a tablet around the house or office, and because of the aspect ratio of the screen, it’s too tall when connected to the Smart Keyboard peripheral to be usable on an airplane tray in coach.

I am not an artist, and art is what the 12.9-inch size is mostly about. Those doing heavy-duty work with the Apple Pencil will want that extra space, so it’s good that Apple provides both options. (And judging from the popularity of huge phone screen sizes, maybe you should take my feelings on screen size with a grain of salt—the consumer public has decreed that bigger screens are more desirable on mobile devices, though I long for the return of the iPhone SE or an all-screen iPhone 8.)

As for what’s different about the design, it’s mainly the camera bump on the back, which may remind folks of the square-shaped protrusion on the iPhone 11 Pro that houses three circular spots for the three lenses.

The 2020 iPad Pro's rear camera and sensor bump.
Enlarge / The 2020 iPad Pro’s rear camera and sensor bump.
Samuel Axon

The iPad Pro only has two lenses; that third spot holds the lidar sensor. Also, Apple precision milled the iPhone 11 Pro’s camera bump down from one piece of glass, which is seamless with the phone’s glass back—a subtle but attractive effect that’s missing here. The iPad Pro still looks just fine, though; I doubt anyone will care.

Because the camera bump is a much smaller part of the overall surface area than it is on the iPhone, it dominates the appearance of the device much less. For the most part, this looks like the previous iPad Pro—and the previous iPad Pro looked and felt great, so there’s no problem here.

Peripherals

This tablet is as much defined by its peripherals as by anything else, and the two key ones to consider right now are the Apple Pencil and the Smart Keyboard.

The Pencil is widely acclaimed by artists as an effective tool. It’s responsive, it offers features that provide a wide range of expression when addressed effectively by an app developer, and it attaches to the iPad Pro for easy charging. We talked about it in more detail in our prior iPad Pro reviews, but just know that for most (but not all) artists’ use cases, it rivals everything but the best desktop input solutions.

I’m not a fan of how its tap-to-wake functionality is tied to Apple’s own Notes app, and of course, creatives would like it even more if the professional creative app selection was as strong on the iPad as it is on the desktop—but more on that later.

The Smart Keyboard is, and always has been, fine. It makes a lovely case for the iPad, and the keyboard is functional, but it’s not as good as a laptop keyboard.

Apple has an answer to that criticism, though; you’ll just have to shell out an additional sticker-shock-inducing $299 to get it. The company has announced a new “Magic Keyboard” peripheral that will be available in May. We don’t have one for review yet, but the Magic Keyboard will offer the same keyboard mechanism found in the recent refreshes of the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air (that is, the non-butterfly design) along with a trackpad.

Even though that peripheral is not yet available, support for just about any other Bluetooth or USB trackpad or mouse is.

Trackpad, mouse, and pointer support

As noted above, trackpad and pointer support have arrived on the iPad Pro. But it’s important to say before we dig too deep into this that this feature is not unique to the 2020 iPad Pro, nor is the upcoming, Apple-designed Magic Keyboard peripheral with trackpad.

That peripheral will also work with the previous iteration of the 11- and 12.9-inch iPad Pro. And support for other trackpads, as well as for third-party peripherals similar to the Magic Keyboard, will hit “all iPad Pro models, iPad Air 2 and later, iPad 5th generation and later, and iPad mini 4 and later.”

So what will be the biggest new feature for many prospective buyers of this iPad is not actually exclusive to this iPad; there are cheaper and older models that support it, too. Nonetheless, it’s another big step in the transition of what the iPad is all about for Apple, so we’re going to explore it here in this review.

How it works

I tested trackpad support with Apple’s own Magic Trackpad 2. In this case, at least, it was easy to set up. I just connected the trackpad with a Lightning to USB-C cable and it immediately responded to input. (The iPad also supports Bluetooth trackpads, of course.)

With a couple of notable exceptions (more on those below), the trackpad pointer mostly behaves like it does on a MacBook. Instead of an arrow, though, it’s a round dot. When you hover over a UI element, that UI element glows and the pointer disappears. Apple has updated WebKit for iPadOS to support hover events on webpages.

Swiping to the bottom of the screen brings up the dock just like it would in macOS when the Mac dock is set to auto-hide. Swipe up to the top-right and click on the clump of indicators there (wireless and battery) to bring up control center. Swiping with two fingers while viewing the home screen will move between pages, and that’s how you scroll in the browser, too.

Swiping up partway with three fingers while inside an app brings up the multitasking interface (just like swiping up with a finger on the bottom indicator bar would), while swiping all the way up goes straight to the home screen. You can also move between app spaces with one finger along the indicator bar, or with four fingers at once anywhere on the screen.

Moving the cursor to the right side of the screen accesses Slide Over apps. You can move the pointer over the Slide Over view and swipe with three fingers to swap between Slide Over apps.

Not all of these gestures are intuitive, but it’s safe to say that you’ll get them quickly if you’ve used both a Mac trackpad and the latest version of iPadOS, since it merges some concepts from both. If you haven’t used one or both of those, though, it’s pretty opaque; you might need to look up help online.

I already miss the days when the iPad was positioned as an easy-to-use, accessible alternative to desktop computing. Now it’s pretty much just desktop computing, at least as far as the interface is concerned. But most tech-savvy types will pick it up right away.

Also, mouse support is available for the same devices that support trackpads now. Without the gestures, though, it won’t be as good of an experience. The Magic Mouse supports some gestures, but I didn’t find a third-party mouse all that nice to use for this reason, and it’s clear the new feature is really designed for trackpads.

A different paradigm

Trackpad behavior on an iPad is neat but odd if you’re accustomed to laptop and desktop behaviors. Apple says it didn’t seek to simply emulate the Mac and its existing interface paradigms but to introduce a new paradigm. So I tried to approach the changes with an open mind—and found that I appreciated several of Apple’s choices here.

One example: when you move the pointer within a few pixels of an icon or UI element, it snaps onto that element, highlighting it subtly to indicate that it’s selected. Slight trackpad movements jiggle the icon; you actually have to swipe with a bit of velocity to unsnap and go back to free pointer mode. At first I hated this, but when I got used to it, I realized it’s actually not a bad call. Your mileage may vary. (My only criticism of the snapping behavior now is that this happens with some UI elements but not others, and as a user I don’t really have a read on what the logic behind those choices is.)

I generally like using a trackpad on the iPad. For many tasks—especially editing text—it is preferable to touch. And having both easily accessible at all times means the user can choose what feels most efficient for each task, much like you can on some modern Windows machines—something I’ve lately appreciated about the Surface.

It’s an adjustment

As someone who learned and refined his computing skills and muscle memory in desktop computing paradigms, though, I naturally struggle to enjoy all the small differences in how the trackpad pointer behaves. You’ll notice that the pointer keeps some momentum after you’ve moved it but lifted your finger—similar to how Safari keeps scrolling for a bit until it loses momentum after you’ve swiped the trackpad to scroll on a Mac.

On the iPad, all pointer movement behaves that way. For any gamers out there: this sometimes reminds me of ice physics. Over time I got used to it, and the icon snapping helps, but I would still turn this behavior off if I could. I’m not clear on the benefit, other than perpetuating the notion that touch-based movements have momentum—but these aren’t touch-based movements!

Other quibbles stem from the fact that this is a platform in transition. I find it frustrating that even with a keyboard and trackpad connected, iPadOS displays the auto-complete and formatting bar at the bottom of the screen by default every time you click into a text field. It’s not necessary when you have this laptop-style input setup, so it’s wasted screen space. Worse yet, it causes problems in some web apps like WordPress.

Early adopters may have a weird experience at the start. That’s because a lot of careful consideration goes into app layouts based on the input method. Most apps assume that you’re using touch, and none appears to offer multiple layouts for different input types. Anyone who designs software UIs professionally will probably tell you that it’s a real challenge to design something that works equally well for two very different input methods.

I predict that some apps will design separate interfaces later, but they may not, because Apple itself isn’t doing so with its own apps (at least not yet), which makes me concerned it’s not offering really powerful tools to developers specifically for that purpose.

That was a lot of criticism. But I expect most people will get used to the unexpected differences. It’s much more natural than reaching up to the screen while typing, which is a reason given for not bringing touchscreen to the Mac.

Having both a trackpad and touch available to you at all times means you’re going to work more efficiently, full stop. Sometimes you’ll use one, sometimes you’ll use the other, depending on which would be most efficient for each task.

It’s a win all around, and while I’d like some more customization over the pointer behavior, I believe Apple’s opening volley here hits the target as well as could be expected. I’m looking forward to further optimization in upcoming software releases.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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