By John Gruber
Tara AI — Build better software, faster
The new 2020 iPad Pros are, in most ways, minor spec bump updates to the 2018 iPad Pros. The camera system is better, there’s a new lidar sensor that greatly improves AR, and the built-in microphone system is noticeably improved. That’s about it.
That’s not a complaint. The 2018 iPad Pros were amazing devices, way ahead of their time in terms of performance. If it’s going to take two or more years between truly major updates to the iPad Pro, I want Apple to release a spec bump update mid-cycle. That’s what these iPad Pros are.
Let’s get this out of the way first. I’m using the phrase “spec bump” rather than “speed bump” to describe these new iPad Pros because they don’t really seem to be much faster than the 2018 models. Some numbers from Geekbench 5:
|2018 12.9″ iPad Pro||1,124||4,675||9,183|
|2018 11″ iPad Pro||1,118||4,543||9,059|
|2020 12.9″ iPad Pro||1,123||4,691||10,046|
|2020 Core i5 MacBook Air||1,127||2,854||4,950|
|2019 Core i9 16″ MacBook Pro||1,263||7,277||25,351|
|2019 iPhone 11 Pro||1,338||3,467||6,310|
The thing worth noting is that the new iPad Pros sport a system-on-a-chip that Apple is calling the A12Z. The 2018 models use the A12X. Both are 8-core designs, with 4 high-performance cores and 4 high-efficiency cores. The way that works, basically, is that when your iPad is not breaking a sweat computationally, it uses the 4 high-efficiency cores; when it is breaking a sweat, it switches to the high-performance cores. The 8-core MacBook Pro scores better on the multi-core benchmark because its 8 cores are all, effectively, high-performance cores.
Worth noting too are the numbers from the A13-powered iPhone 11. The A13 is faster in single-core performance than even the Core i9 16-inch MacBook Pro, but the A12X and Z hold their own, and still come out ahead in multi-core.
Real-world performance may differ more significantly, but from what I can tell, A12Z CPU performance is unchanged from the A12X and GPU performance is only slightly improved. But iPad Pro performance was already great. Look at those numbers — the iPad Pro outperforms the new mid-range MacBook Air. The 16-inch MacBook Pro I’ve compared it to here starts at $2,800 and it weighs 4.3 pounds (2.0 kg).
One more spec tweak: the 2018 iPad Pro models came with 4 GB of RAM, except for the ones with 1 TB of storage — those came with 6 GB of RAM. Apple never talks about RAM with iOS devices, but it’s easy to tell how much RAM is in a device using third-party utilities. With the 2020 lineup, all models seemingly come with 6 GB of RAM. In practical terms, this means the new iPad Pros should be able to keep more apps running at the same time without reloading them from scratch. In my personal day-to-day use, I don’t notice the difference.
As promised, lidar vastly improves the AR experience. No more warmup period where AR apps want you to pan the device around to allow the system to orient itself and get a sense of your environment — you just launch the app and it’s ready. I mostly tested this with Apple’s Measure app. Measuring the sizes of furniture and countertops is much faster, easier, and more accurate. I just measured a 3-foot shelf here in my office and the Measure app pegged it at precisely 36 inches, on the button.
The lidar sensor also greatly helps with identifying walls and ceilings. It’s just as easy to use Measure to tell how far away something — again, say, a piece of furniture — is from the wall as it is to measure how big the thing itself is. On all other iOS devices — which is to say, all non-lidar-equipped iOS devices — Measure is not good at this.
In short, if you’re an AR junkie, you should jump all over the new iPad Pro. If you’re not an AR junkie — which is to say the overwhelming majority of you — well, it’s not that big a deal. I don’t mean to be dismissive of AR and ARKit. I think an AR revolution is coming, and the whole “use your iPhone and iPad as ARKit devices” effort on Apple’s part — and it’s a massive effort — is laying the groundwork for an AR-first device to hit the ground running with developer support from day one. But are there really people for whom ARKit-powered apps are so important right now that they’ll upgrade to a new iPad just for lidar support? I suppose the answer is yes — for example, developers working on ARKit apps and games. But for most people the answer is clearly no.
The new wide/ultra-wide dual-lens camera system on the new iPad Pros looks, on paper, a lot like the wide/ultra-wide dual-lens system on the non-Pro iPhone 11. And the results for regular still photography and video seem very comparable. But there’s at least one significant difference: the iPad Pro does not support Portrait mode with the main camera; the iPhone 11 does. (The iPad Pro does support Portrait mode with the front-facing self-portrait camera.) One reason for this, I suspect, is that the iPhone 11 has the A13 chip, while the iPad Pros have the previous-generation A12Z. The iPad Pro wide/ultra-wide cameras may in fact be the exact same cameras as the iPhone 11 — I don’t know, and Apple doesn’t make statements like that — but the iPad Pro can’t use the same software path for Portrait mode that the iPhone 11 does because Portrait mode makes heavy use of machine learning and that means the Neural Engine — but the A13 Neural Engine is far more powerful than that of the A12Z. This could be the sort of thing that just didn’t make it for a mid-cycle iPadOS 13.4 software release; it wouldn’t surprise me if the new iPad Pros gain Portrait mode in iPadOS 14.0.
In the meantime, I think supporting Portrait mode on the new iPad Pro would have required engineering effort that Apple instead chose to expend on supporting the lidar sensor for AR.
In theory, a lidar sensor could be used to help with still photography and video. One can imagine how it could help with Portrait mode in particular — using lidar for the depth map to blur objects and scenery in the background based on how far away they are. Lidar could also help with identifying eyeglasses, hats, hair, etc. It’s not that simple though. The lidar sensor in the new iPad Pro has tremendous accuracy on the Z axis (depth), but not so much on the X and Y axes. It just doesn’t project that many dots. But the iPad Pro makes up for the lack of X/Y accuracy when you pan the iPad Pro around, by continuously scanning the dots in real time as you pan. When shooting still photos or video, however, you can’t assume that the user is going to pan. The iPad might even be locked down on a tripod. I do expect Apple to eventually use lidar, or something like lidar, as a focusing and depth-map aid for photography, but they’re not there yet. This lidar system is clearly designed for 3D mesh generation, not 2D depth mapping.
One other notable hardware change in the 2020 iPad Pro: Apple claims it now uses the same five-microphone “studio quality” array that they introduced with the 16-inch MacBook Pro in November. Indeed, it does sound better, and background noise is reduced. Here are recordings I made side-by-side with a 2018 iPad Pro and the new 2020 iPad Pro. I can easily hear the improvement — richer sound, higher quality, and less noise.
2018 iPad Pro:
2020 iPad Pro:
I’ve been testing a 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 1 TB of storage since Thursday (five days ago). Apple included the updated Smart Keyboard cover. There are two differences from the Smart Keyboard cover for the 2018 iPad Pros — (1) the camera cutout has been embiggened to accommodate the larger camera/lidar system; and (2) the back of the cover now has an debossed Apple logo, oriented for landscape, natch.
Apple did not include the product I really want to test, and which all of you really want to read about: the new Magic Keyboard cover. It’s no surprise that Apple has not yet made them available for review: they’re not shipping until “May”, and with the exception of the original AirPods, I can’t recall Apple providing reviewers with hardware more than a week or so in advance of shipping.
The truth is I just don’t like the Smart Keyboard cover. I don’t like typing on it, and I want a trackpad.
What I do when I write on my iPad is use a Bluetooth or USB keyboard. Apple’s Bluetooth Magic Keyboard is a great option — I particularly like it in Studio Neat’s Canopy cover/stand. I also enjoy writing on my iPad using a standalone external mechanical keyboard. One reason I prefer a standalone keyboard over the Smart Keyboard cover is simply that the keyboards feel better. But another is that if you’re setting it up on a desk or countertop, there’s no need to magnetically snap the iPad into a case, cover, or stand. You can just prop it up, which makes it utterly seamless to pick it up with one hand and walk away from the keyboard setup when you just want to go somewhere else with the iPad. It also allows you to do something with the iPad that no dedicated laptop can do: orient the screen vertically rather than horizontally, which makes a lot of sense for long-form writing. Here, for example, is my setup as I write this very review.1
That said, I am deeply intrigued by the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard. In the meantime, we wait.
If you already have a 2018 iPad Pro, the only reason to even consider upgrading is if you’re somehow professionally involved with AR, or if you make serious use of your iPad camera. These are not new iPad Pros so much as tweaked iPad Pros. And the best part of holding onto a 2018 iPad Pro is that the upcoming Magic Keyboards are fully compatible with those models. Keep your 2018 iPad Pro and wait for the keyboard.
If you don’t have a 2018 iPad Pro, I can recommend these new iPad Pros with no reservations. Everything I wrote about the 2018 iPad Pros still stands. Rumors abound that Apple might release a more significant iPad Pro update at the end of the year, perhaps only in the 12.9-inch size. If you want to wait, wait, but waiting for rumored future products is a good way to tie yourself in knots and wind up waiting forever. If you need a new iPad now, these are the best iPads Apple has ever made, and arguably the best portable computers Apple has ever made, period.