The new iPad Pro might be too pro for you [Review]

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The new 2018 iPad Pro is a lust object you probably don’t need.
The new 2018 iPad Pro is a lust object you probably don’t need.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Every 2018 iPad Pro review I’ve read seems to be written by someone who doesn’t use the iPad like a pro. Most of the reviewers focus on using Apple’s new tablet they way most people do: reading the internet, doing some mail and watching lots of video.

Which is a shame, because there’s a lot to like in this iPad for “power” users, aka folks whose everyday carry is an iPad. People like me. The iPad has been my most-used device for years. I do everything on it. (Everything, ironically, except writing articles — but that’s because my ancient 27-inch iMac still works fine, and I like to use a trackpad for editing text.)

Rather than reviewing the iPad Pro from the point of view of a “normal,” I’m going to talk about this gorgeous new device like someone who uses an iPad for work every day.

2018 iPad Pro review: For pros only

The new iPad Pro shape

I switched to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro almost three years ago, and that iPad is still more than capable. But it’s huge. It feels unwieldy, kind of like the old 17-inch MacBook Pro (which looked like a MacBook but felt like a tea tray). The old iPad Pro is like one of those giant checks they give you when you win the lottery. It does the job, but it always feels too big.

The new iPad Pro is surprisingly compact. As other reviewers have noted, it’s even possible to confuse it with the new 11-inch model. When I first saw the new 12.9-inch Pro, I thought I’d gotten the wrong one. The much-smaller bezels, along with the blunt edges, make this feel way smaller than the old version.

In practice this means that you get all the advantages of the bigger screen, but in a package that doesn’t punish you for buying it. It’s portable again. You can enjoy two full-size apps on-screen together, instead of the “compact” (iPhone-size) views used by the 10.5- and new 11-inch iPads in Split View.

Holding the new iPad is a joy, too. In terms of industrial design, my favorite iPhone is still the iPhone 5. The new iPad Pro is that device’s spiritual successor. It’s a slab of sharp-sided aluminum and glass, which is a lot more comfy to hold than it looks. The buttons click solidly, and the whole thing feels classy — and a lot tougher than the old one. It’s like the mil-spec version of the iPad.

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen really is beautiful.
The screen really is beautiful.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

The iPad has always been all about the screen. Its evolution is toward a sheet of glass with no bezel, and a thin body to provide life support. I’m coming from the 1st-gen iPad Pro, so the new iPad Pro’s screen is a huge jump, like the difference between the iPhone 7 and the iPhone XS.

In fact, I’ve started reading more and more on my iPhone XS because the screen is so much better than the one in the older iPad. Not so anymore. If you had any reservations about a non-OLED screen, forget them. This screen is bright and crisp. It has True Tone, and it fills up more of the iPad than ever before. When you fire it up, those bright new iPad Pro wallpapers will really pop.

So, the screen is great. But how does it handle? Do the small bezels mean you’re forever touching the screen when you don’t mean to? No. The lighter weight and more-compact body mean you kind of let the iPad Pro sit on top of your palm edges (the part of the hand that Roger Moore would use for a “karate chop.”) You only use the thumbs for balance, not for gripping. The same is true when holding the tablet one-handed, albeit with a different grip. It’s also easier to type, as you don’t have to get past the bezels before your fingers reach the keyboard.

Face ID: Perfect for iPad

Even though Face ID came to iPhone X first, the facial-recognition tech was clearly made for the iPad. The old Touch ID worked fine on iPhones. That’s because when you pick up an iPhone, your thumb falls naturally to the Home button (or where the Home button used to be). After a while you don’t even notice it. Face ID on the iPhone seems less natural, especially if your iPhone is laying on a desk when you try to unlock it.

The 2018 iPad Pro is cleaner, slimmer, faster, etc.
Cleaner, slimmer, faster, etc.
Photo: Andrea Nepori

Touch ID on the iPad, on the other hand, is terrible. I have had mine switched off for the past two years, preferring to tap in my password every once in a while. One of the drawbacks of biometric ID on iOS is that it forces an immediate lock when the screen sleeps. With a passcode, you can tell it to give you a five-minute (or more) grace period, so you can let the screen sleep, but not lock.

On the iPad, that meant authentication all the time with a thumb, even when using the iPad with a keyboard. Now, if you use a keyboard, you can double-tap the space bar to wake the iPad and activate Face ID. You also don’t have to worry which way you hold the iPad. Or, at least, you don’t have to find the Home button when you want to unlock the device. If your thumb is covering the iPad Pro Face ID sensor, an arrow appears on-screen, pointing to your thumb and telling you to move it.

Also new to the iPad Pro is all-orientation Face ID. The sensor works, no matter which way up the iPad is. In practice, this means that it never matters how you hold the iPad. The only limit you may have now is how you prefer to access the volume and sleep/wake buttons.

One final point on unlocking. The iPad now has tap-to-wake, like the iPhone X/XS/Max. This may be one of my favorite new features. If you use an iPad cover just to get the fast unlock feature, you can ditch that. Now it’s even faster to wake the iPad, just by tapping the screen and swiping up.

iOS 12 is iPad Pro’s weak spot

Here’s the letdown. iOS 12 is the best version of iOS yet, but it’s still limited in annoying and profoundly handicapping ways. The biggest of these is the lack of support for external storage, even while there’s a new USB-C port on the iPad Pro for plugging stuff in. Maybe iOS should never let apps keep a direct connection open to a connected drive, but you should be able to read and write any files you like in the Files app.

With AirDrop and iCloud, many of the use-cases for USB storage have been obviated. With a big iCloud storage plan, you never really worry about what’s where. If the iPad gets too full, iOS retires the full-size copy of the file and keeps a placeholder, like thumbnails in the Photos app. But when you need to dump a whole lot of files at once — like exporting a PDF of a book to send to a publisher, or giving a big file to someone who doesn’t have AirDrop, or a million other scenarios — you want to be able to get those files on and off your device quickly and easily.

There are other annoyances. There’s no multiple clipboard support. You can’t copy, copy, copy and then paste, paste, paste. You can’t keep a piece of text on the clipboard and reuse it.

More iOS nonsense

Text selection is also still very poor as well. Oftentimes I can’t even force iOS to select a single sentence on a webpage. It keeps vacillating between selecting a single word and the entire page. And when writing with an external keyboard, you must keep reaching up to touch the screen. There’s no other way to control the text-insertion point. iOS definitely doesn’t need a mouse for general use, but for text, a trackpad would be lovely. And consider this: If you type on the on-screen keyboard, you can use two fingers to engage iOS trackpad mode.

And yet if you use an external keyboard, which you’ll do only if you’re serious about writing, you don’t get the same level of control. You actually endure a worse experience with the superior option.

USB-C on iPad Pro

The new iPad Pro USB-C port is bigger, but probably better in the end.
The new USB-C hole is bigger, but probably better in the end.
Photo: Andrea Nepori

I don’t like USB-C. It’s an inferior port design when compared to Lightning (and Apple could have added all of USB-3.1’s features to its proprietary connector). However, I have started to like USB-C, based on one thing. Hubs. For the entire life of the iPad so far, the only way to plug in regular USB accessories was to use Apple’s own Camera Connection Kit, a Lightning (and previously 30-pin dock connector)-to-USB adapter. Knockoffs were available, but you never knew if they would actually work.

iPad 2018 USB-C charger cable
iPad 2018 USB-C charger and cable.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Now, the iPad Pro can use almost any USB-C hub. A hub can add USB-A ports, an HDMI port, SD card readers, Ethernet, a headphone jack and — most importantly — a power input port to keep all this running and charge the iPad at the same time. And because USB-C can deliver more power, you won’t be faced with the iPad battery draining as you use it, even though it’s plugged into power.

I worried about the USB-C plug being wobbly, but in practice, it’s no more jiggly than the Lightning plug was. Having gotten over my previous hatred of USB-C, then, the only thing that annoys me now is that I’ll need to buy a new hub, new chargers and new cables.

The Smart Keyboard Folio

The Smart Keyboard Folio turns the iPad Pro into a laptop, but there are better options.
The Smart Keyboard Folio turns the iPad Pro into a laptop, but there are better options.
Photo: Andrea Nepori

Don’t buy Apple’s absurdly overpriced new keyboard cover. First, you probably don’t need a keyboard. The on-screen one, especially the big one on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, is more than good enough for most uses. If you do need a hardware keyboard, then the Smart Keyboard Folio is a pretty poor option. You’re better off buying a proper Bluetooth keyboard like the Logitech K811. Not only is it better to type on, it can be used separately from the iPad, so you can elevate the screen and avoid neck strain. It’s also more portable, and it offers a whole row of media keys (and even a Home button key).

If you decide that you really want to add a bulky case and pretend you’re carrying a laptop with you, the keys are decent enough on the Smart Keyboard Folio. And it’s a lot less bulky than the previous version. Also great is that you can use it on your lap, although ergonomically speaking, you should probably never do that.

I don’t really care for keyboard cases, but if you’re in the market, and don’t mind the cost, then this one will do. Or you can wait for Logitech to come up with something better.

iPad Pro cases

Cheapo iPad Pro 2018 cases are already available for same-day delivery on Amazon, and you should probably buy one. Apple’s Smart Folio and Smart Cover are fine, and the open-sided design is essential if you want to stick the Apple Pencil into its charging spot. But they’re ridiculously expensive.

I’m going to order a cheap $15 case off Amazon and wait until something better comes along. To be fair, the case situation for the previous giant-size iPad Pro wasn’t great, either. There just weren’t that many interesting cases available. Add to this the fact that a case made the already-heavy 12.9-inch iPad Pro into an anchor, and you can see why I settled on Apple’s Smart Cover. (I choked on the price.)

With the new 12.9-inch being so small, I expect Apple to sell more of the devices. Hopefully, this will mean more case options. I’m also very interested to see how cases will mate with the new iPads. Apple’s own cases stick to the back with magnets and leave the edges free. This could mean we get some really interesting, and minimal, case designs.

The new Apple Pencil

Like everything else, the new Apple Pencil is better.
Like everything else, the new Apple Pencil is better.
Photo: Andrea Nepori

Like the Smart Keyboard Cover, the new Apple Pencil is by no means essential. But if you want/need a stylus for your work/play, the new one is a lot better than the old one. Plus, the original Apple Pencil won’t work with the 2018 iPad Pro.

The 2018 Apple Pencil is shorter and it charges from the iPad Pro using induction. Magnets hold it in place. That means no more sticking it in the iPad’s Lightning port to charge it (or losing the Pencil’s cap).

In use, the new Apple Pencil feels exactly the same as the original. You don’t notice the new flat side, in the same way you don’t notice the flat sides of a regular pencil. The new matte finish feels classier, but doesn’t improve grip. If anything, the old glossy finish feels grippier.

Good riddance, Lightning charger and cap.
Good riddance, Lightning charger and cap.
Photo: Andrea Nepori

The best part is that the new Apple Pencil can stick to the side of the iPad Pro so it’s always ready to use. The bad part is that it gets in the way when it’s stuck to the side, as you’d imagine. You can no longer balance the iPad on your palm. Instead, you kind of grip around the Pencil, and it’s pretty awkward. I’m not buying an Apple Pencil this time around, but if I did, I wouldn’t leave it stuck to the iPad.

The new Apple Pencil, then, is a huge improvement over the old one, but no more essential than a Wacom stylus is essential to Mac. The articles adding the cost of the Pencil and the Smart Keyboard Cover to the price of the iPad just to inflate it are plain wrong. The iPad Pro works just great on its own.

The iPad Pro camera

The new iPad Pro camera dumps all over the one in the first-gen Apple tablet.
The new camera dumps all over the one in the first-gen iPad Pro.
Photo: Andrea Nepori

The 2018 iPad Pro also packs a new camera, but according to many reports it’s not the same as the camera in the iPhones XR and XS. That may explain why it can’t do Portrait Mode from the rear-facing camera. (Portrait Mode selfies are possible.) It does get Smart HDR, a 12-megapixel sensor and an ƒ1.8 maximum aperture, though, and Smart HDR alone is a killer feature.

In use, the camera takes much better photos than the old iPad Pro, and that beautiful screen makes taking those photos a joy. Well, kind of. The iPad Pro might have shrunk, but it’s still a lot bigger than an iPhone. It’s certainly a very capable camera, but in almost every case you’ll be better off using your iPhone’s camera. Unless you have a really old iPhone.

The camera also captures 4K video at up to 30fps, but again, the iPad still isn’t an ideal size for shooting video.

The new iPad Pro speakers

The new speakers are better than the old speakers, which were already pretty good. Apple says there is a new woofer/tweeter pair in each corner. They’re good for listening to music and watching movies. And of course they’re more than good enough for YouTube. Even for music production, the speakers are now a decent alternative to earbuds. However, they can’t compete with high-end headphones or hooking up studio monitors.

The speakers, then, are a solid upgrade rather than a game-changer. But that’s still fairly impressive, given how skinny the iPad is now, with very little space to shape the air. I can only imagine the psycho-acoustic tricks learned in making the HomePod are at work here.

2018 iPad Pro: Should you buy it?

The Flux Capacitor is what makes time travel possible.
The Flux Capacitor is what makes time travel possible.
Photo: Andrea Nepori

For pro use, the new iPad Pro is amazing, held back by iOS 12 rather than any hardware constraints. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s also more powerful than most MacBooks — and has a better screen than all of them. If the iPad Pro had a clamshell keyboard design, and ran macOS, it would certainly cost a lot more. For people who really use the iPad, the answer is obvious. You should buy one.

For everyone else, the choice is a lot harder. The new all-screen, no-Home-button design looks stunning. It feels great in the hand, and is surely going to last for the next four or five years as a capable machine. And Face ID on an iPad is a huge improvement over Touch ID. But if all you do is read books, watch videos, and send the odd email, then this is probably overkill. You’re paying a massive premium over the entry-level iPad, for little more than a gorgeous new shell. And it’s likely that if you wait a year or two, this design will come to the bottom-of-the-range iPad.

Think of it this way. You wouldn’t drop $5,000 on the iMac Pro unless you really needed the horsepower to do your work. The cheaper iMac is just fine.

And so it goes for the new iPad. It might be the best computer Apple ever made, but it’s way too much power for most iPad users.

If you can afford to spend a grand on a nice-looking new e-reader, cool. Otherwise you should probably wait for the next entry-level iPads, and for iOS 13, which will probably make a bigger difference than smaller bezels, an Apple Pencil you never use, and Face ID.