The iPad has been more successful than Apple could have hoped for.
Sure, the company was aware that its handsome slab of glass was going to be the perfect platform on which to bring folk closer to content – be that web browsing, watching videos or casual gaming. What it may not have foreseen, though, is the slew of third-party peripherals and apps that have been designed to extend its functionality beyond solely a “play thing” into a workhorse too.
Enter the iPad Pro, the daddy of all iPads thanks to an enormous 12.9-inch screen. More than two inches bigger than the iPad Air 2 – and five more than the iPad mini 4 – the iPad Pro provides around 80% more viewing area when compared to its 9.7-inch counterpart.
The iPad Pro is bigger than all iPads that have gone before it – although incredibly, this increase in size is delivered in a package that’s only 33g heavier than the first version released back in 2010.
Every other feature of note receives a boost too. The screen has a higher resolution, there’s a brand-new A9X processor and 4GB of RAM. Apple claims the iPad Pro is faster than 80% of portable PCs shipped last year, and while I’d take that declaration with a pinch of salt, it may not be too far off the mark. The reason being that the vast majority of laptops sold tend to be cheap and cheerful – particularly with the advent of the Chromebook.
The real question is, does it have what it takes to be the laptop replacement that closest rival, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, is aiming to deliver? Would you rather have a iPad Pro in your bag than a MacBook or Dell XPS 13?
For some, the answer is yes. The iPad Pro is a stylish, powerful tablet that, when combined with a keyboard and Apple Pencil, has the ability to stand toe-to-toe with traditional laptops – despite running a mobile operating system in iOS 9.
IPAD PRO – DESIGN
Holding the iPad Pro makes you feel like a little kid, especially if you normally use an iPad mini. There’s just so much of it.
In all other respects, the iPad Pro is identical to the smaller tablets in the range. You get the excellent Touch ID fingerprint scanner built into the home button, a power button and volume controls.
Aside from the Lightning port for charging and connecting to a computer, and a front and rear-facing camera, that’s about it. Like all of Apple’s tablets, the iPad Pro is a simple proposition regardless of its “professional” moniker.
Like all other tablets in its range, the iPad Pro is also super-model thin, just 6.9mm to be precise.
So even though it’s light and slim, its sheer size means you won’t be comfortable using the iPad Pro with only one hand. In fact, it’s a handful even when using two.
This is where the Smart Keyboard becomes handy. It connects via three small magnetic points on the left side of the device, which allow for both data and power to transfer. As a result, it doesn’t require a Bluetooth connection or charging.
IPAD PRO SMART KEYBOARD COVER
Thin keyboards for tablets have come on leaps and bounds, with the Microsoft Surface keyboard being among the best. The iPad Pro’s unit is almost as good – except that it doesn’t include a touchpad; you need to use the screen. A lot.
Covered in a tough fabric, which makes it robust and water-resistant, it also serves as a screen cover for the iPad Pro.
It comes with a full Qwerty keyboard, with low-profile keys that help retain the iPad Pro’s overall slenderness. There’s still adequate travel for you to know that you’ve hit a key, and they’re large enough and spread enough to make accurate typing a doddle.
Unlike the latest Microsoft Surface tablets, which feature adjustable kickstands, the iPad Pro has only one screen angle. It’s good for typing, but is a little too laid back for my liking when placed on a bedside table. I found myself having to use a small book to prop up the rear and bring the screen a little further forward for some late-night Netflix binging.
Where the iPad Pro trumps the Surface is with stability. It provides a solid foundation whether used on a table or, crucially, on your lap. In fact, I found that typing with the iPad Pro on my lap was more comfortable than using my laptop, primarily because my thighs didn’t get singed by the hot components, nor did the fans get blocked by my jeans.
Keyboard shortcuts work too, but only for apps that support them. All of Apple’s native apps – Pages, Notes, Numbers and Keynote – are good to go; Google Docs isn’t. Shortcuts do appear at the bottom of the screen close to your fingers, which helps, but this isn’t ideal. App developers will catch up, but at the moment shortcuts aren’t quite the benefit they could be.
It’s the same story with video apps. I found myself regularly whacking the spacebar to pause videos on YouTube only to realise that I wasn’t using a Windows 10 laptop. Touch the screen it is, then.
Apple’s keyboard isn’t the only version out there for the iPad Pro.
Logitech, too, has released the backlit CREATE keyboard that covers the iPad Pro entirely. Slightly cheaper and a lot chunkier than the Smart Keyboard, it makes the iPad Pro look and feel far more like a full-sized laptop, especially since the keys have more travel.
It also comes with handy shortcuts for switching apps, adjusting volume and brightness, and positions the iPad Pro a little straighter. It’s the keyboard I’d choose to pair with the Apple’s giant tablet.
The iPad Pro comes close to emulating the form and function of a laptop, but it isn’t quite a replacement. If, like me, you spend much of your day typing then you’ll miss a trackpad and screen pointer for editing.
IPAD PRO – APPLE PENCIL
The Apple Pencil acts like a trackpad to some extent. It isn’t like the digitiser styli found on Wacom graphics tablets or the Galaxy Note 5. It’s a far simpler proposition, but still has a bunch of sensors for some nifty features.
There’s far fewer pressure sensitivity levels when compared to the 1,000+ offered by Wacom. Still, if you like to sketch or write by hand then it’s a useful addition to the iPad Pro.
Although it isn’t as sensitive, the Apple Pencil is super-responsive. There’s no annoying lag that I’ve experienced with other devices.
It comes with a few tricks up its sleeves, too, thanks to the sensors in the Pencil. Hold it at an angle and it can be used to shade or colour in, just like a normal pencil. I used it successfully to quickly sketch out plans for new kitchen cupboards, so that a carpenter could provide a quote.
The Apple pencil will be a boon for those wanting additional precision for editing presentations or making tweaks to a CAD or Photoshop file.
There already quite a few apps out there that support the Pencil, but some don’t yet use all of its functionality. Paper 53 and SketchBook are ones that do.
Where I believe a keyboard is an essential part of the iPad Pro experience, this isn’t true of the Pencil. Yes, it’s neat, but it doesn’t provide the level of sophistication an artist will want, nor does iOS have the apps and shortcuts that a graphic designer craves.
Adobe has created a range of apps for the iPad Pro but these are much lighter than, say, Photoshop or InDesign. The keyboard shortcuts you’ll be so used to in those apps don’t transfer to the iPad Pro’s counterparts, either.
The Pencil combined with the iPad Pro is for people who want to touch up, tweak and dabble with design and photo editing, rather than professional graphic designers who make a living from it.
Finally, the lack of any sort of holder for the Apple Pencil is a real pain. Over the past week, I’ve misplaced it or found it lurking in a fold of my bag following much rummaging. Why Apple didn’t design the Smart Keyboard to accommodate it, I don’t know.
IPAD PRO – SCREEN
12.9-inch Retina display; 2,732 x 2,048 resolution 264ppi; oxide TFT layer; Variable refresh rate
The 12.9-inch Retina screen, alongside the 5.6 million pixels it packs, make this the biggest and most high-resolution iPad screen ever made.
Not only that; Apple has used what it’s learnt from building the great screen on 2015’s 5K iMac and applied it here. The iPad Pro uses a similar oxide thin-film transistor (TFT) to the 27-inch desktop, as a result delivering uniform brightness across the screen. There’s none of the patchiness you’re likely to see on tablets such as the Amazon Kindle HDX 8.9 here.
The oxide TFT has another benefit: for the first time, it has enabled Apple to add a variable refresh rate to an iPad. When you’re flicking through photos in your library, for example, or reading an article on the web, the refresh rate is halved from 60Hz to 30Hz. This leads to greater power efficiency and therefore a longer battery life for the iPad Pro.
Quite how much battery is saved with this feature I’m not certain, but every little helps – especially with a screen of this size on a portable device.
The advantage of all this tech is a screen that’s simply stunning, in terms of colour accuracy, uniformity and peak brightness. Move the slider all the way to the right and the iPad Pro is almost too intense. Much of the time, a level of 60% was about right, moving up to 80%-100% when it’s sunny outside. Note that the glossy screen is reflective, especially when used outdoors during the day.
While there’s a faint reddish tinge to whites, it’s less pronounced than seen on previous iPads. Both photos and videos look superb and are packed full of detail. There’s a naturalness to the iPad Pro’s screen that’s hard to find elsewhere.
Contrast levels are good, too, but they don’t reach the levels of Samsung’s AMOLED displays on devices such as the Galaxy Tab S 10.5. Still, dark scenes in movies have plenty of nuance and depth.
When Smaug attacks Laketown in The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, both the vibrant flames and night scenes look immense on the pixel-packed screen.
The iPad Pro may be geared towards work, but it’s great for entertainment too.
IPAD PRO – SPEAKERS
The roaring, grumbling voice of Benedict Cumberbatch as the great dragon Smaug is something I really want to experience on a great home-cinema setup.
It says something about the quality of the audio on the iPad Pro then that I happily sat through a number of blockbusters listening to the built-in speakers.
The iPad Pro includes four stereo speakers. Bass and higher frequencies adjust according to the position in which the device is held. All four speakers pump out bass, but only the top two – depending on how you hold it – produce mid and high. All this leads to a surprisingly balanced audio experience and stereo separation that I’m totally unaccustomed to on a tablet.
I’m not a fan of listening to music from most tablet speakers; the lack of bass and detail combined with shrillness grate on my ears within seconds. On the iPad Pro, however, I actually found myself enjoying a few tunes. In fact, these speakers are better than those I’ve encountered on many laptops over the years.
Sound is solid at top volume too. Apple claims the iPad Pro is three times louder than the iPad Air 2 – and I can believe it. It isn’t deafening, but you can happily watch a movie or listen to some tunes with a bunch of friends in the room.
IPAD PRO – PERFORMANCE AND PRODUCTIVITY
Apple has designed a third-generation 64-bit processor for the iPad Pro and it’s speedy.
Unlike the iPad Air 2, which uses a tri-core array, the A9X chip on the iPad Pro is dual-core – but don’t let that worry you. Apple claims the iPad Pro is twice as powerful as the iPad Air 2 when it comes to CPU and graphical performance, although our benchmark tests show it to be closer to a 40% improvement.
Running at 2.26GHz and supported by 4GB of RAM, the A9X provides blistering performance. In fact, with a Geekbench 3 multi-core score of 5,523, the iPad Pro is comparable to the entry-level MacBook and i5-toting Microsoft Surface Pro 3.
Gaming performance is solid, too, with a 3DMark: Ice Storm Unlimited score of 33,483. This can’t compete with the Intel Iris graphics in the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 4, but benchmarks are only part of the story. That’s because iOS games are designed with Apple’s hardware in mind, and are optimised for it.
Shadowrun Returns is a luscious RPG that struggles on my iPad mini 2, but runs like a dream on the iPad Pro. Water, explosions and lighting effects look great on the huge screen – this is a great tablet for gaming – especially when combined with a Bluetooth controller so you’re not having to hold the device all the time.
Aside from gaming, Apple touts the iPad Pro’s productivity chops as some of the best around – and it’s right to boast.
Editing 4K video is a resource-intensive task on any machine, but the Pro doesn’t skip a beat cutting, transitioning and layering video on the fly. Since the iPad Pro’s cameras don’t shoot in 4K, you’ll need to get your 4K content onto it before you can tinker. I used an iPhone 6S Plus with iCloud backup.
Image editing is similarly impressive, with changes appearing instantly in the new range of Adobe apps.
The iPad Pro is incredibly fast for a tablet and the high level of performance is all the more admirable considering how cool it stays under stress. At no point have I found it becoming even warm following an hour of gaming, let alone hot.
IPAD PRO – FEATURES AND CONNECTIVITY
I’ve already mentioned that the iPad Pro comes with Touch ID. This lets you securely lock and unlock the device using your fingerprints, and it’s brilliantly slick and fast.
There’s the usual range of wireless connectivity, with dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC. If you opt for the cellular model, you’ll also get 4G. Add to these the Lightning port for connecting to a computer and that’s your lot.
For a device aimed at the professional or semi-professional market, this level of connectivity may fall short. The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is hardly brimming with physical ports, but the addition of a full-sized USB 3.0 port makes it far more adaptable. Whether this is for checking the contents of a USB stick, or simply pulling a load of photos off an SD card using an adapter. The microSD card slot also allows for plenty of extra storage, and easy data transfer, on the cheap.
A Lightning to SD card reader for the iPad Pro is available from Apple, but you’ll need to pay a premium for it. The same goes for storage.
The iPad Pro comes in 32GB and 128GB versions. 32GB won’t be sufficient for those wanting to use the tablet as a video- or photo-editing tool; 128GB should be enough for most.
IPAD PRO – IOS 9 AND SOFTWARE
The iPad Pro runs iOS 9, Apple’s latest mobile operating system.
There have been a whole host of improvements to iOS with this iteration, but I won’t cover everything here. For greater detail on all that’s new, head over to our iOS 9 review.
I’m going to focus here on the elements of iOS 9 that have the biggest impact on the iPad Pro.
Split View multitasking is the most obvious.
The large screen of the iPad Pro lends itself to having multiple apps open at once. For example, you can put together a beautiful presentation using Keynote while at the same time pulling images from a Safari browser window, but without having to switch from one app to the other. Or, you can work on an essay while also keeping an eye on your Twitter feed.
It’s a great feature, and one that adds credibility to the iPad Pro as a work device. However, Apple could have gone further.
The screen is big enough to have three, or even four apps running side-by-side, but this isn’t possible. In addition, not all apps will work side by side. For example, Facebook doesn’t work with Split View, and neither do video-streaming apps such as Amazon Video. For these you can use Slide Over.
Slide Over lets you, well, slide compatible apps over the app you’re currently using. So if you want to send a quick email or Skype message, but don’t want to interrupt the latest episode of Gotham, you can. Well you can if you’re watching content from the iTunes Store, that is.
While Slide Over allows you to keep the app open, it greys over and video apps such as YouTube will pause what they’re playing. Still, it’s a useful feature that will allow you to deal with a quick task without it becoming a total distraction to whatever else you’re doing on the iPad Pro.
I’ve also encountered a few issues with some apps. While Spotify, Adobe Fix and the App Store opened fine, none showed any on-board content. A simple restart fixed the issue in the latter two, but Spotify still refuses to play ball. Spotify is aware of the issue, though, and is working on a fix.
I’m sure these problems will be short-lived as app developers release iPad Pro updates, but it’s currently an annoyance. Note that out of the 40-odd apps I’ve tested, only three had issues, and only Spotify didn’t work at all.
The only other disappointment of iOS 9 on the iPad Pro is the lack of any changes to make the most of the big screen. The number of app icons on the homescreens remains the same as any other iPad, and you can still pin only five apps to the quick-launch bar. It’s a wasted opportunity.
IPAD PRO – BATTERY LIFE
Three hours of Netflix streaming at a comfortable viewing level of 60% brightness reduces the battery by 30%, so you can achieve 10 full hours of video from it. However, the brighter the screen, the more of a toll it takes on the iPad Pro’s battery life. With brightness set to maximum and the speakers set to half, the iPad Pro’s battery lasts for only six hours.
3D gaming is one of the biggest power hogs, so it’s a good indication of how the iPad Pro’s battery behaves under stress. The iPad Pro uses 19% of it’s battery for every hour of intensive 3D gaming, which means you’ll be able to get a good hours of thrills at 60% brightness before it needs to be plugged in. As always, if you want the screen brighter then the battery life will suffer.
The release of iOS 9 and the iPhone 6S brought a battery-saving feature to the iPhone called Low Power Mode. This throttles some of the performance and features and could help extend battery life by up to three hours. Unfortunately, this isn’t available on iPads; in order to extend the iPad Pro’s battery life you’ll need to manually reduce the screen brightness and, if you really want to go whole hog, turn on Airplane mode to stop apps constantly sending and receiving data in the background.
The battery life of the iPad Pro is solid, but not outstanding. For average use, though, it should last a day.
IPAD PRO – CAMERAS
The iPad Pro comes with two cameras. There’s the obligatory FaceTime HD 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera for video calls, and a more impressive 8-megapixel iSight rear-facing unit. Both are of the same specification as the cameras on the iPad Air 2, and do a decent enough job.
The FaceTime camera shoots in 720p, which is good enough for video calling and manages to provide a decent image even in low-light conditions.
With many more megapixels to play with, the rear camera is much better and can record video at 1080p.
Taking photos with any iPad always seems a little idiotic. With the iPad Pro it’s downright buffoonish. Nonetheless, the iPad Pro is for both work or play, and with this in mind is takes very good pictures for a tablet, and is equivalent to the camera on the iPhone 5.
SHOULD I BUY THE IPAD PRO?
I’m torn. While it’s a stunning tablet with a superb screen, excellent speakers and solid battery life, it’s also expensive and doesn’t quite deliver a laptop-replacement experience on every level.
However, I’ve become hooked. I’ve written most of this review using the Smart Keyboard and love the combination of great portability and a big screen.
The Pencil certainly won’t be for everyone, but a keyboard makes the iPad Pro so much more than a tablet. I’ve dabbled with typing on an iPad Air 2, but the third-party keyboards available are just too compact to be comfortable for my hands. The larger iPad Pro fixes this.
If you decide that the iPad Pro is for you then I’d recommend opting for the 128GB model. It’s significantly more expensive, but it’s likely that you’ll need the extra storage at some point. Whether you go for the cellular option will boil down to your needs.
The other product to consider is the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. It’s similarly priced and more likely to be a better fit for those comfortable with Windows and looking to replace an ageing, chunky laptop with something more portable.
Also worth a look is the Google Pixel C. This pure-Android device is a little bit more basic but it’s really nicely built and is great for taking quick notes on the fly. It doesn’t come with a stylus and its selection of apps is somewhat more basic, but it’s also quite a lot cheaper.
Finally, if you’re just after a great tablet then I’d save some cash and opt for the 64GB iPad Air 2 instead. It’s an excellent tablet and one that makes far more sense for most people.
The iPad Pro is undoubtedly great, but it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of replacing your laptop. At £818/$968 for the basic version with a keyboard, it really should.