iPad Pro review: So much more than a laptop

Well, it finally happened. With the launch of the new iPad Pro, Apple has added cursor support to iPadOS and so the former ‘big iPhone’ has pretty much escaped the chrysalis to emerge as a fully blown computer. Not quite a laptop, but something far more versatile in form and capabilities.

As the biggest, most powerful iPad going, the iPad Pro is naturally the poster child for a transformation that’s been in the works for some time. As such, the latest incarnation of this tablet is an iterative update that checks off the last few boxes of ‘things you thought a tablet couldn’t do but turns out to be surprisingly good at’. While it won’t replace your MacBook Air anytime soon, the Pro ranks as the most creative device in Apple’s roster.

It’s not for everyone, but those who see the appeal will find plenty to love. We’ve been using one for the past week and here’s what we’ve made of it.

More than ‘the big one’

Alright, there’s a lot going on here, so let’s back up a bit for the uninitiated and figure out what the iPad Pro actually is. And not in a tedious ‘Is a laptop or is it a tablet’ sort of way.

Right now, Apple makes four tablets. There’s the iPad, which is pretty much the same as you remember. The iPad mini, which is still an ‘iPad but small’ and an excellent summer suitcase companion. The iPad Air, which is the ‘iPad but lighter’. And there’s the iPad Pro, which is pretty much home to all of Apple’s ideas for what a tablet should be beyond a pristine, portable screen for watching Netflix on. Although the anxiety rush of watching Uncut Gems at quarter past midnight with this thing to hand is not to be underestimated.

So the iPad Pro can also be used as a second screen for your MacBook Pro, this new model now has pretty much the same dual lens camera as the iPhone 11 and works immensely well with the Apple Pencil stylus for digital sketching. In essence, this tablet really is what you make of it and those who make with it tend to create some really kickass stuff.

Case in point, when this writer worked at gadget magazine Stuff our Art Editor charmed his way into acquiring the team’s iPad Pro. Mainly, but not exclusively, to draw cartoon skulls on. When the time came to give the Pro back, he couldn’t kick the habit and quickly bought one of his own and maintains the morbid fascination to this very day to a disturbingly accomplished degree. As you can see for yourself…

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Close enough to a laptop

So now we’ve established what the iPad Pro can do – and it is a lot – let’s try and establish what it isn’t and that is your day-to-day computer. Having used the iPad Pro for a working day, I don’t think it’s meant to take a MacBook’s spot in your rucksack either.

While all iPads now have support for a cursor (i.e. a mouse), the Pro is best suited to being used in ‘laptop formation’ with a keyboard and mouse. Mainly because it has the biggest screen with both 11-inch or 12.9-inch models available. But also because Apple has made this awesome Magic Keyboard case for the Pro that’s modelled on the same keyboard as the MacBook Pro 16-inch and has an honest to god trackpad as well. Unfortunately, the Magic Keyboard isn’t out until May so we made do with a Folio keyboard case and Magic Trackpad 2 for the purposes of this experiment.

The big takeaway? We actually got on… fine using the Pro as something approximating a laptop. From Slack to Zoom and Trello, there are apps for pretty much every work-related program we have. Most of them are made for touch controls as opposed to a cursor, mainly because it’s been less than a week since this addition was out in the wild, but you can work your way around most obstacles and we’d expect plenty of them to dissipate in time.

Basically, if you want to get your work done with a minimum of fuss then use a laptop. If you don’t have a laptop and aren’t quite sure you’d use one all that often, then the iPad Pro is a solid alternative and will only get better. Case in point, my work computer is an iMac Pro, which I use for an inordinate amount of Chrome tabs, Photoshopping and a bunch of other tedious tasks I won’t bore you with.

Do I need a laptop when I’m out of the office? Not usually. Could I get by with the iPad Pro on the occasions when I do? Absolutely. Especially given just how ridiculously portable the Pro is. At just 5.9 mm thin and 631 grams in weight – that’s half the MacBook Air’s 1.29 kg – you’ll always have space for this thing in your carry-on.

TL;DR If you want a laptop, get a laptop. If you don’t, consider the iPad Pro.

Camera measurements

Alright, let’s talk about the major new hardware-related addition to the Pro: its camera. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Spike Lee may have snapped President Obama that one time with his iPad but can I – a mere mortal – get away with such photographic pursuits?” Well, in sheer hardware terms you absolutely can.

The new iPad Pro borrows the iPhone 11’s dual lens camera setup and giving you the choice between a wide angle and ultra wide angle lens for your shots, so you can really take in your full surroundings. Is this thing going to replace your smartphone? Obviously not. But packing in an actually good camera into the Pro further bolsters its versatility, so you don’t have to reach for your pocket should you want to capture something quickly. 

Due to the whole ‘social isolation’ business that’s going round at the moment outdoor photography is something of a challenge, but this living room bookshelf shot gives a good idea of the punchy colours, solid focus and well-judged exposure you can expect from the iPad Pro. Even if a comparative lack of lack light means you can’t quite see the camera at its best. Plus, this photo’s profound tweeness balances out the skull from earlier.

Apple iPad Pro  review Much more than a laptop

Also featured on this iPad’s camera mount is a Lidar scanner, which can scan your surroundings to judge distances and measurements for potential use in augmented reality apps. Unfortunately, very few apps have taken advantage of this capability right now, so the most you can do is measure someone’s height or the length of some furniture in Apple’s Measure app. This correctly judged my height as six foot and my wife’s as five foot two inches. Reality is a cruel mistress, as are spinal issues in later life.

Speed to spare

OK. In fairness, I did tell you the iPad Pro could do a lot, so in the interests of some kind of brevity let’s cover its fundamentals before closing out. The other major internal change to the Pro is its new A12Z Bionic chip, which is fast. Really, ludicrously fast. Apple claims it’s faster than most laptops, but the important thing is it’ll handle all manner of tasks from medium-duty video editing to cacophonic GarageBand compositions and certainly the kind of 9-to-5-related office tasks we mentioned earlier.

Of course, speed is to be expected from the iPad Pro. As is a glorious 120hz display with True Tone tech that adjusts its colour temperature of the room you’re in. Even though it’s been about since the first iPad Pro in 2017, that super-high 120hz refresh rate is still a sight to behold. You know the judder you get on your phone when you quickly scroll down an Instagram page? There’s none of it with the Pro and this silky smooth nature really adds to the premium nature of this device. More so than the Lidar scanner, it’s the feature we’re most hoping to see make the jump to this year’s new iPhones.

And, if those devices take a few design cues from the iPad Pro it would be no bad thing either. For our money, this svelte slab of glass and 100 per cent recycled aluminium is Apple’s most lust-worthy example of industrial design, blending the crisp lines of the iPhone 5s with a dizzying spec sheet that even extends to a five-microphone array and a USB-C port for hooking up compatible gadgets, card readers and other peripherals.

Tellingly, none of the iPad Pro’s grand array of flourishes and fundamentals feel excessive. They’re almost there as a come-on to owners: ‘Go on, make something great.’

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iPad Pro (2020) verdict

Now that it works with a keyboard and mouse, it’s natural to stick the iPad Pro in a box marked ‘laptop’ and be done with it. Only that line of thought drastically undersells a lot of what makes this device quite so compelling. With the addition of a far superior dual lens camera compared to what came before – alongside its updated, speedier internals – the Pro is akin to a Pandora’s box of creative opportunities. Especially when used as a supplementary device to your MacBook, iMac or Windows PC.

The iPad Pro works best when you use it for all the things your main squeeze can’t do. Be that acting as a digital sketchbook, a TV when you’re away from home, a camera for a blink and you’ll miss it shot and, yes, a machine for typing out emails, documents and the like when you don’t have another one to hand. 

Or to put it another way, there are plenty of computers like your laptop. There’s only one iPad Pro.

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