The 2018 iPad Pros

The iPad Pro is like a computer from an alternate universe. In the normal universe, Moore’s Law has stopped delivering significant year-over-year returns, and high-performance portables need fans to cool them. In the iPad universe, Moore’s Law still delivers year after year, and a super-fast, genuinely “pro” portable needs no fan.

When I reviewed the previous generation of iPad Pros in June 2017, I wrote:

Apple’s in-house chip team continues to amaze. No one buys an iPad because of CPU benchmarks, but the new iPad Pro’s CPU performance is mind-boggling. Forget about comparisons to the one-port MacBook — the iPad Pro blows that machine out of the water performance-wise. The astounding thing is that the new iPad Pro holds its own against the MacBook Pro in single-core performance.

The new iPad Pros, equipped with Apple’s A12X system-on-a-chip, are now competitive in both single- and multi-core performance with the very fastest MacBook Pro you can buy. Some results from GeekBench 4:

Single-core Multi-core Compute
2018 iPad Pro 5,007 18,051 42,574
2017 iPad Pro 3,894 9,242 27,349
iPhone XS 4,851 10,534 21,869
15″ MacBook Pro w/ 2.9 GHz Core i9 5,653 21,737 59,010

That 15-inch MacBook Pro costs $3,100 with the base amount of RAM and storage. The new iPad Pro starts at $800. That’s not an entirely fair comparison — for one thing, the base storage for that MacBook Pro is 512 GB and for the iPad it’s 64 GB. But even with 512 GB of storage, the new iPad Pro is just $1,150 for the 11-inch model and $1,350 for the 12.9-inch. And that’s the current top-of-the-line MacBook Pro. The new iPads are faster than most recent MacBook Pro models.

“No one buys an iPad because of CPU benchmarks”, I wrote last year. I don’t think that’s true any more. I think there are people who will and should buy the new iPad Pro because of its performance. At the hands-on area after last week’s event, Apple was showing Adobe Lightroom editing 50 megapixel RAW images from a Hasselblad camera. The photos were by Austin Mann, who was there, and helpfully demoed the software, showing what a real pro photographer would do in real life with real images. The experience was completely fluid and instantaneous.

The main appeal of an iPad has always been about the experience of using one. It still is. But put that aside for a moment and consider the new iPad Pro only as a portable computing device. Its performance, both from the CPU and GPU, is simply bananas. It’s nuts. Astounding performance per dollar, astounding performance per watt.

Apple bragged during the iPad Pro introduction that they are faster than 92 percent of notebook PCs sold in the last year. That’s not so funny when you consider that “PCs”, in this formulation, includes MacBooks. iPads were popular and useful when they were much slower than typical notebooks. Now they’re faster than all but the highest-end notebook PCs. They’re just staggeringly impressive, well-balanced computers.

Apple Pencil 2.0

The new Apple Pencil is one of the best “2.0” products I’ve ever seen. The original Apple Pencil is a terrific product, but the new one nears perfection for the concept. New and improved:

  • Matte finish. I never really thought to complain about the glossy texture of the original Pencil, but the moment I laid hands on the new one I realized matte is better for this product.

  • Magnetic charging and pairing. When rumors surfaced that the new iPad Pros were moving from Lightning to USB-C, there was a lot of speculation that Apple would need to make a new Pencil with USB-C. This is so much better. As a nice touch, when you first connect the Pencil to your iPad, iOS shows you a Pencil on screen and it’s the exact size of the actual Pencil. It’s adorable. With the original Pencil, Apple didn’t provide a good answer for where you were supposed to keep it when it wasn’t in your hand. The magnetic connection answers that. It’s strong enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to keep the Pencil connected magnetically when putting the iPad in a backpack.

  • No cap, no dongle. It took me almost two years, but last month I finally lost the cap to my original Pencil on a train. The new Pencil has no pieces to lose.

  • Flat side. The old Pencil was weighted to keep it from rolling, but a flat side works better. There’s a reason why most pens and pencil either have clips or at least one flat side.

  • Optional engraving. I wonder how much of this is a “Why not?” thing and how much is fueled by the real-world scenario of coworkers or family members losing track of whose Pencil is whose.

  • Double-tap. Seems like a such a small thing, but it really does make accessing the eraser easier.

The new Apple Pencil is so good I have no complaints and can only think of one suggestion for the future: it’d be nice if there were haptic feedback when you double-tap.

Size and Form Factor

Apple doesn’t always explain their thinking, but when they do, it usually makes perfect sense. Their explanation for the physical sizes of the two iPad Pros is a good example. They kept the physical size of the 11-inch device the same as that of the 10.5-inch iPad, and increased the display size. They did this so that a keyboard cover would still offer a full-sized keyboard. With the 12.9-inch model, they kept the display size the same and shrunk the physical device, making it noticeably smaller and lighter.

I’ve been using the 12.9-inch model for testing over the last five days. It’s a lot easier and more comfortable to hold. There have been times when I forgot I was using the “big” iPad. When my wife — an avid iPad user currently using a 10.5-inch iPad Pro — first saw it, she couldn’t believe it was the bigger one. She never really considered getting the previous 12.9-inch iPad, but after some time using this review unit, she’s convinced she wants this size. I think everyone should go try them in a store before ordering, but I suspect most people who use an iPad as their primary “bigger than a phone” portable computer will prefer the 12.9-inch model, the same way most people prefer 13-inch MacBooks over smaller ones like the 12-inch MacBook or late, great 11-inch MacBook Air.

Personally, I still prefer the smaller size. But I don’t use an iPad as my primary portable for work, and these new iPad Pros aren’t going to change that.

With split view, iPad supports running two apps side-by-side. When both apps are 50-50, there remains a difference between the 12.9-inch and 11-inch iPads. On the 12.9-inch iPad, two apps sharing the screen 50-50 are both shown as the “full-screen” version of the app. It’s like each of the two halves of the screen are treated as an iPad Mini display. On the 11-inch iPad, however, two apps sharing the screen 50-50 use a compact size class horizontally. Apple illustrates the difference here. It’s not something most people care about, but it’s another reason why iPad power users are likely to prefer the 12.9-inch model.

The flat sides of the iPad look cool and feel good. I think this is not just the best-looking iPad ever, but the best looking iOS device ever. Round corners and flat everywhere else. No notch. The sides are even nicer than those of the iPhone 5/SE — more pleasing to the touch. I’d like to see iPhones adopt this look.1

The display is terrific, and just like with iPhones, the edge-to-edge round-cornered look makes older models look dated. Tap-to-wake feels so natural on the iPad. I’m used to it from over a year with the iPhone X/XS, but I think it’s even more important on iPad. With iPhones, portrait has always been the natural orientation, so the home button was almost always at the bottom. iPads don’t have a true orientation — they can be used in landscape just as often as portrait. Having the home button on the side while in landscape was always a bit inelegant.

I didn’t need any adjustment period for the lack of a home button. I think part of that is a year spent using iPhone X and XS, and the other part is that iPads have used swipe-from-the-bottom gestures for switching apps and getting to the home screen ever since iOS 11 last year. iPad was prepared to lose its home button a year before it lost its home button.

Cameras and Face ID

In years past, new iPads often used the cameras from iPhones — usually a generation or two behind. The new iPad Pros have their own all-new rear-facing camera. It’s not exactly like any previous iOS device’s camera. I haven’t had time to test it thoroughly, so I’m not sure where it stands compared to recent iPhone cameras, but it seems like a step up from the previous iPad Pro camera.

The front-facing camera is based on the one from iPhone XS and XR. This allows for Portrait Mode (you cannot use Portrait Mode with the rear-facing camera).

Face ID works great. You must train it in portrait orientation, but once trained (and training is quick, just like with iPhone X-class phones) it just works in any orientation. The only hitch I’ve noticed is that it’s common to use iPads while laying down. Face ID can struggle then.

iPad is not really a multi-user device, because unlike MacOS, iOS still doesn’t have any concept of user accounts. But I know that many people use iPads as shared family devices. iOS 12 limits you to two faces with Face ID — your default face and an “alternate appearance”. This has worked just fine with me and my wife sharing this iPad. But if you’ve got more than two people who’d like to share one iPad, you can’t use Face ID with more than two of them. You can enter a passcode, of course, but I think Face ID on iPads needs to support more than two faces.

Miscellaneous

  • The speakers sound amazing. I’m not sure how much better they are than the previous iPad Pro speakers, but they’re loud and clear and provide a surprising amount of stereo. It’s a great little TV.

  • I firmly believe that the iOS Files app should show attached USB drives. I believed this before, when USB peripherals needed to be attached using a Lightning adapter, but now that iPad Pros have a USB-C port, it seems downright silly that USB drives don’t appear in the Files app. I think the iPad’s old policy of not even having a Files app at all made sense. I’m glad Apple added the Files app, but it made sense not to have one in the name of simplicity. But it doesn’t make sense to me to have a Files app but not show the contents of USB drives when you connect them. This just feels spiteful.

  • In addition to tapping the display with your finger to wake it, you can tap it with the Apple Pencil to jump right into Notes. There are settings to always open a new note or re-open your most recent note. It’s very clever, and I think some people will use this all the time.

  • The new Smart Keyboard Folio cover is a much better design than the old Smart Keyboard. As promised by Apple, it’s much sturdier and more stable. Apple is really serious about all these magnets. They work. The downside, though, is that it’s thicker on the device, because it covers the front and back. I think this trade-off is worth it. The old Smart Keyboard was simply too clever. It’s still the case, and always will be, that an iPad Pro in “laptop mode” is very top heavy compared to a real notebook computer. On a MacBook, the base is the heavy part and display is light; with an iPad Pro it’s the other way around. Keyboard-wise, the new one feels about the same to me as the old one. Maybe the new one has a bit more click to it, but that could be me feeling what I want to feel — me succumbing to the reviewer’s placebo effect.

The Bottom Line

These iPad Pros aren’t cheap. Throw in a $179 Smart Keyboard Folio and $129 Apple Pencil and even the $799 base model will run you over $1,100 all told. (The 12.9-inch Smart Keyboard Folio is $199.) But these aren’t “just tablets”. They’re tablets, yes, but there’s no just to them. Dollar for dollar, they’re a better value than any MacBook Apple has ever made. They match — and in some areas exceed — the CPU and GPU performance of MacBook Pros that cost $3000 or more. These are serious iPads for serious iPad users.


  1. There was some speculation (or maybe just wishful thinking) that this year’s new iPhones might support Apple Pencil. That made sense with the Lightning Pencil, but not so much with this new magnetic one. The iPhone would need one of these magnetic chargers. Rather than attach to the side of the iPhone, I think it would have to go on the back. But would you want a strong magnet on a phone? And how would it work through a case? The old Apple Pencil seemed like something that could work on iPhone. The new one not so much. ↩︎