iPad Pro 12.9 review (2018): The future of computing?

Superb hardware with a bit of an identity crisis.

The iPad Pro line has been around for three years now, and Apple has been adamant that it embodies the company's vision for the "future of computing." That's as big a claim now as it was when Tim Cook first made it, but with the release of the new iPad Pro, it's finally starting to feel like Apple is making good on its word.

Consider this: The 2018 iPad Pro is sleeker, faster and more flexible than any other tablet Apple has ever made. At first glance, this new generation of iPads is the first we've seen that actually comes close to being able to replace a traditional laptop. It's just that good. But is it good enough? Or, rather, is it good enough in the right ways? That really depends on your priorities: artists and other creative professionals will be utterly thrilled, but the rest of us may be in for some disappointment.

At the risk of sounding a little too enthusiastic up front, I can sum up the Pro's design in a single word: Wow.

As much as I wish the review could end there, let me elaborate. With this year's Pros, Apple kissed its traditional curves goodbye and went with a sleeker, more angular design that's more reminiscent of the iPhone 5S than this year's iPhone XS. Personally, I think this redesign goes a long way in making this iPad look more premium than earlier models, but this flat aesthetic was apparently born out of necessity.

The curves found in older iPads were a physical shortcut of sorts, meant to make them feel a little thinner, and they were possible only because of the extra room inside those bodies. After all, a slightly curved body is easy to pull off when you don't have components pushed right up to the device's edges, and this iFixit teardown of the original 12.9-inch iPad Pro confirms that's the case. This time, though, Apple says everything inside the new iPad is fitted so densely, there was no space to make that traditional design work. The result: a slimmer, sleeker body that's packed to the gills with hardware.

To Apple's credit, this is the easiest 12.9-inch iPad to actually hold and use. It certainly doesn't hurt that its designers trimmed a full inch off the big Pro's height and shaved around two-tenths of a pound off the body. That might not sound like a huge difference, but because Apple concentrated the tablet's weight into a smaller footprint, this iPad feels much easier to manage. I've spent the past week using the Pro to work on this review, read on subways, watch election results while nursing a fever in bed and more -- in short, I've been trying to rely on it as much as possible, and it never felt as cumbersome or unwieldy as its predecessors. If nothing else, Apple has succeeded in building a big tablet that doesn't really feel like one.

And then there's the screen. The 12.9-inch "Liquid Retina" display has the same 2,732 x 2,048 resolution as earlier models did, and it's about as nice a screen as you'll find on a tablet right now. That said, I'm pretty sure at least a few of you are disappointed that Apple didn't embrace OLED panels here the way it did in its recent flagship iPhones. That was almost certainly a decision made to keep the iPad Pro's cost at least somewhat manageable, and honestly, the decision doesn't come with many downsides.

This LCD is capable of rendering bright, beautiful colors, to the point where I've found it gives the iPhone XS's OLED screen a run for its money. Even better, the display can (once again) refresh at a rate of up to 120Hz, so on-screen motion tends to look remarkably smooth. Apple calls this its ProMotion display technology, and it's just as impressive now as it was when I first tested it -- if you're not careful, it'll spoil nearly every other tablet screen for you. My gripes here are few: the screen's pixel density technically falls short of that on devices like the iPhone XS and XS Max, but that's less troublesome than the fact that the screen is a veritable fingerprint magnet.

It's also worth noting that, for now at least, most of the apps I've tested don't actually fill the entire screen. Many of them get pretty close by displaying thin black bars at the top and bottom of the display where the time, date and gesture bar live, and I'd imagine fixing this in an update wouldn't be too difficult. Others, however, are much worse. Spotify is a great example (or a terrible one, depending on how you look at it). In addition to those top and bottom bars, the Spotify app window is also flanked on the left and right by black bars. These sorts of apps effectively double the size of the bezels, making your sleek new iPad look a bit like an older model. Here's hoping these all get fixed, and soon.

Rounding out the iPad's new design is a pair of cameras. The 7-megapixel front-facing TrueDepth camera (plus the extra bits that power Face ID) was pulled straight out of the iPhone XS and wedged above the iPad's screen. Or is it squeezed next to the screen? It's kind of hard to say this year. Apple design chief Jony Ive said in an interview with The Independent that the new Pro "doesn't have an orientation." That is to say, now that Face ID is here and the home button is gone, you can pick up and use the iPad any which way you need to.

In practice, that's not entirely true, since you have to make sure not to obscure the front camera when grabbing the iPad, but Ive is mostly right. It doesn't hurt that this second-gen Face ID sensor is very fast at recognizing the person in front of it, even if it's looking at them from below or at a weird angle.

The iPad's 12-megapixel rear camera, meanwhile, is perfectly adequate. I fully expected Apple to use the same wide-angle camera we tested in this year's iPhone XS and XR, but nope! Because this iPad is so thin, Apple had to use a new, more compact sensor to fit behind the display. As a result, the photos here aren't quite as good as ones captured with any of Apple's newest phones, but honestly, when was the last time you took a photo with an iPad?

The camera's quality is solid enough that I wouldn't call it an afterthought, but Apple clearly had different priorities here. There's no portrait mode, for instance, an omission that's especially weird, since the iPhone XR proved Apple could pull off bokeh-filled portrait shots with a single rear camera. The one other caveat is that the rear camera juts out of the iPad's back, as opposed to sitting flush like it did on earlier models. You'd think this would lead to some wobbling or instability when the iPad is laid flat on a table, but I've never had a problem there.

There is one more major change we need to discuss. This year, Apple finally adopted a standard USB-C connector for an iOS device, and it has the potential to completely change what the iPad Pro is capable of. Emphasis on "potential."

Right off the bat, I've enjoyed some of the fundamental benefits the connector offers: Rather than use the included 18W charger, I can stick with my MacBook Pro's charger and power up the Pro in a fraction of the time. Since this year's Pros also support USB-PD, I've been able to use the tablet to charge dying iPhones. And with the right kind of adapter -- say, the dongle I use with my laptop every day -- I've been able to hook up a surprising number of add-ons and accessories.

I've somehow amassed a small collection of USB-C earbuds, and all four of them worked perfectly with the Pro. Ditto for the handful of USB-C-to-headphone-jack adapters I found in my desk, though they weren't very exciting either. With my trusty dongle, though, I could hook up my curved Samsung monitor via HDMI (which just mirrored the action on the iPad's screen), import photos directly from an SD card, record audio in GarageBand through a superior, external microphone and even plug in a mechanical keyboard festooned with LEDs while writing this review. With the appropriate accessory, you can even hardwire the Pro to your network via Ethernet, just in case the notion ever strikes your fancy.

To be clear, a lot of these feats were possible with the older Lightning connector too -- you just would've needed one of Apple's jack-of-all-trades camera adapters. But by embracing USB-C, Apple made it easier to use the iPad Pro for more than just standard tablet stuff, and the Pro feels more flexible as a result. In time, I suspect we'll see even more iPad apps playing nice with USB-C peripherals. As someone who doesn't hate the idea of ditching a laptop in favor of something like an iPad Pro, that's a terribly exciting prospect. For now, though, trying to get the most out of this USB-C port is going to involve a lot of trial and error.

This probably won't surprise anyone, but a bunch of things I connected to the Pro this week didn't work at all. The handful of USB game controllers I tested were a no-go, likely because they require drivers the iPad Pro doesn't support. Mice obviously wouldn't work, because iOS has no way to display on-screen cursors. But most damning is the Pro's fundamental incompatibility with external USB storage devices. Whenever I plugged in a thumb drive or a portable hard drive, iOS's Photos app would automatically launch and give me the option to import photos directly onto the iPad. That's, uh, not exactly what I was hoping for.

Remember: Apple is pitching this as a fully professional-grade machine. While I get that the company doesn't want you to externally expand your iPad's storage, would it have been so difficult to let you move files between devices the way you can with a more traditional computer? Hopefully, Apple will update iOS over time to make this kind of file management possible, but for now, color me frustrated.

All that said, I once wrote that this shift could signal a broader move to USB-C across all iOS devices, and now I'm not sure about that. Well, in the short term, at least. Apple wouldn't comment on its plans for future devices, but the sort of flexibility USB-C offers is impressive enough that I could easily see the company keeping it a "Pro" feature. Most people probably wouldn't be too concerned about the idea of plugging in a USB keyboard or an external display, and the existing ecosystem of Lightning accessories means there's a strong argument for keeping that connector around for iOS devices that millions of people use more regularly.

Testing USB-C device compatibility involved a lot of trial and error, but Apple's own accessories for the new iPad Pro were straightforward. Just look at the new Apple Pencil: It's as efficient as Apple designs come, and the company has made a handful of crucial changes here that make its stylus all but a must-have for people who care about art and note-taking.

In short, the Pencil now has a flat side and magnetically attaches to the iPad Pro to charge. This strikes me as brilliant for two reasons: It all but ensures that your Apple Pencil never runs out of battery (and obviates the need for a cap that you'd almost certainly lose), and it keeps the Pencil physically close at hand. I've never actually lost an Apple Pencil before, but I can't tell you the number of times I thought about using it before remembering it was tucked away deep in my backpack and saying "screw it." Having a magnetic dock for it means there's one less barrier between you and your creations.

The Pencil also now has a touch-sensitive region you can double-tap to switch between different tools inside apps, though the list of compatible apps is pretty limited at the time of writing (I was able to test the feature in only two: Notes and ProCreate.) More important, the Pencil is a pleasure to draw and draft with -- the latency between drawing on the screen and seeing the line appear is the same as on last year's Pros, but you'll notice a significant difference if you're coming from an older model. Really, my only beef here is that there's no way to save money and just buy an older Apple Pencil instead: Since there's no Lightning port for pairing, you'll have to shell out $130 for the new one. I've gone on record in the past saying that a vast majority of people simply don't need a $100 stylus, and after using the updated, $130 model for a week, I stand by that. That said, if art or writing really matters to you, the Pencil is probably a no-brainer.

My writerly tendencies meant the Smart Keyboard Folio was more immediately useful: There's a good amount of key travel, and the keys are covered by a single fabric membrane to keep liquid from getting in. I've never been the biggest fan of these keyboards (Dana also kind of hates them), but I wrote this entire review on it, and the process was reassuringly unremarkable. The keyboard itself isn't dramatically different from the earlier Smart Keyboards we've seen, but since Apple moved its Smart Connector pogo pins to the iPad's back, the keyboard case wraps around the iPad entirely. It certainly helps keep the tablet from getting scuffed inside my backpack, and I'm sure it also helped Apple justify selling this thing for a whopping $200 -- that's $30 more than the keyboard case for prior big iPad Pros.

Oh, and I know there's zero chance of Apple listening to me, but I have to try. Hey, guys, can you please figure out how to make a trackpad work on this thing? I work in text all day, and it would make my life so much easier. Thanks.

Ever since we got the iPad Pro in for testing, I've done my best to use it as my only computer. On paper, at least, I'm close to an ideal candidate for it: I spend most of my time writing, but I dabble in photo and video editing, and I spend a lot of my time away from work playing games and watching movies. Those are all scenarios the iPad Pro should excel at, and in most cases, it absolutely did. The more I used the Pro as my sole computer, though, the clearer it became that my line of work isn't completely compatible with it.

To be clear, though, none of those issues had anything to do with power. This year's iPad Pro is almost needlessly powerful, thanks to its new A12X Bionic chipset. As the name implies, it's related to the A12 Bionic we first saw in the iPhone XS and XR, but the differences are pretty wild. While the phone-size chip -- which was already very powerful -- paired a six-core CPU with a four-core GPU and that redesigned Neural Engine, the A12X amps things up with an eight-core CPU and a seven-core GPU.

More important, a new performance controller allows all eight of those CPU cores to light up when apps need even more horsepower, a feat that no other iPad has been capable of. And since strictly single-core performance here is up to 35 percent faster than what we saw out of the iPad Pro 10.5, we're easily looking at the most powerful iPad ever made.

The crazy part doesn't end there. A frenzied round of Geekbench testing confirmed that the tablet is, in fact, capable of matching and outperforming certain MacBook Pro configurations, including the 2016 Core i7 MacBook Pro I use for work. It didn't matter if I was playing Fortnite for hours or cutting together multiple lengthy 4K video clips in Adobe Premiere Rush; the iPad Pro never failed to keep up. You'd think this additional power would take its toll on battery life, but even that manages to pull ahead of Apple's own estimates. In our standard rundown test, the iPad Pro looped a video for just under 11.5 hours before needing to be recharged, and it routinely stuck around for about a day and a half of nearly nonstop use. (Remember, I was using this as my only computer.)

Obscene performance isn't the only new thing about the iPad Pro experience this year. The tablet runs iOS 12, but since there's no home button here, Apple adapted the gestures from the iPhone X series to work on this bigger screen instead. If you've used an iPhone X before, you know exactly what to expect: Swiping up inside an app takes you back to your home screen, while swiping up and holding shows you all your running apps. Control Center now lives in the top right corner, and it's accessible only with a swipe down, which makes me long for the days when controls just lived in the app switcher.

Beyond that, you have the usual iPad multitasking gestures introduced in iOS 11, so you can run apps side by side or fire up a floating window in case you need a little more room to breathe. These software flourishes help the Pro feel more capable, but we're already starting to see more ambitious takes on mobile multitasking. Just look at Samsung's new folding phone concept: Its large, internal screen can play host to up to three apps at a time. I can't help but think that approach would work even better on a huge display like the Pro's.

So, yeah, this whole thing takes a little getting used to, but the learning curve flattens out pretty quickly. Unfortunately, that learning curve can get steep again if you try to use the iPad Pro for everything, like I did.

Take this review, for instance: As mentioned, I wrote it on the iPad Pro, and with the keyboard case, that was easy enough. My photos, however, needed to be processed. For that, I used Lightroom CC for iPad, which let me make some rudimentary tweaks to levels and saturation. Everything was going well until I had to watermark them, at which point I realized I had no idea how to do that with the apps I had. I could've cobbled together a Siri Shortcut to make it work, but time was of the essence, so I just ferried the files over to my Mac to complete the job. That pretty nicely illustrates one of the big sticking points when you're trying to use the iPad as your workhorse: There are ways to get all your fiddly tasks done, but they often take extra time and lateral thinking to figure out. Put another way, you have to adapt to the iPad, not the other way around.

My issues continued when I was shooting our review video. To help keep things running smoothly, I wanted to save some documents from my work email on the iPad for my cameraman to check while he was shooting B-roll. The problem was, iOS still doesn't really let you download and store files directly on the iPad -- the closest you can get is saving those files to iCloud Drive. Again, this is supposed to be a machine for professionals. I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility for a professional to want to download a file. That's just the kind of low-level computing task we don't really think about often, but the fact that it's simply not doable on a machine this powerful seems a little silly.

Frankly, by the time I had to format this review, I knew better. It's far from perfect, but I've always been able to edit stories in our publishing system from my iPhone without too much trouble. Just to be safe, I took my first stab at fully publishing a story from the iPad Pro when Apple released its earnings last week, and it quickly became obvious that something wasn't right: It frequently took multiple taps in a text field to get the cursor to appear, and it got so frustrating that I had to finish my story and pull the trigger from my Mac. Granted, that's an Engadget problem more than an iOS problem, but I'm sure we're not the only ones who have to deal with very specific, very finicky web-based systems, and mobile Safari doesn't cut it.

I'll be the first to admit that this probably isn't the use case Apple had in mind when it built the iPad Pro. As with most of its other high-end computers, it seems geared toward creative professionals... albeit ones who don't feel much allegiance to traditional computing platforms. I thought I fit that bill, but it turned out that, in some crucial ways, the iPad Pro wasn't the kind of "Pro" I needed.

The new iPad Pro is, if nothing else, an impressive technical achievement. Remember: This is a surprisingly thin tablet, with precisely zero fans and enough horsepower to outperform some full-blown laptops. That's almost unheard of. And beyond that, its big, beautiful screen and long battery life make it an excellent companion when all your work is complete. It's a machine that's almost uniquely well suited for work and play -- that is, if your work is compatible with the iPad to start with.

And there's the rub for me: I have no doubt that some people could use the iPad Pro exclusively and be satisfied. It's more than powerful enough for 4K video editing, photo retouching and stupidly elaborate Photoshop work, not to mention who knows how many other high-performance tasks I'm forgetting at the moment. For others (including myself), the iPad Pro just doesn't feel "Pro" in the right ways. In particular, iOS feels strangely limiting here: The hardware has become so impressive that I can't help but expect more from Apple's software, too.

Ultimately, I tried to live the nothing-but-iPad life, and I failed. That's not to say that you will, but this kind of machine will shine brightest with the right people and the right circumstances. I haven't given up hope yet, though: There's no question this iPad Pro is a big step in the right direction, and who knows what the next software update will bring.

iPad Pro (2018) review

A new look

iPad Pro 2018

Embracing USB-C

Improved tools

Apple Pencil
Apple Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro

In use

iPad Pro (2018) review
iPad Pro (2018) review