The Apple iPad Pro 12.9 is a Glorious Creation Machine

Apple’s new iPad Pro and Pencil designs are excellent and the Smart Keyboard is better than ever

Today’s 12.9-inch iPad Pro is smaller and lighter than the original.

I’m in my happy place. A large-screen tablet rests comfortably on my lap. In my hand, is a Bluetooth pen, darting across the screen as I draw lines, adjust shading, work on bringing out the eyes. I’m not thinking about the implement or drawing surface, just the art. I stare at the photo of the old man I’m drawing, wondering if I can recreate that knowing look, one that says, I’ve seen much and have stories to tell.

If nothing else, this is evidence that Apple’s new iPad Pro 12.9 and Smart Pencil succeed as immersive, compelling, and, utterly effective artist engine, a studio’s-worth of tools and power packed into a subtle, 11.04-in. x 8.46 in. x 0.23-in., 1.39 lb. aluminum and glass chassis.

On the front is strong glass that Apple won’t identify. The back is aluminum.

After years of rounded edges and and an arguably softer feel, the 2018-edition iPad Pro feels like a departure. That is until you pull out the original, 2010 iPad. With a 1.5 lb, half-inch-thick-plus body, Apple’s first tablet feels like a beast next to any modern iPad, including the $329 9.7-inch iPad for education and the last-generation 10.5-in. iPad Pro. But there are striking parallels between the original Apple tablet and its latest and most powerful one.

The original iPad in front of Apple’s newest tablet creation.

Like the new iPad Pro 12.9-inch, which I tested (and the 11-inch, which I did not), the OG iPad has a flat edge wrapping around the tablet body. Even though the first iPad measured 0.53 inches thick, that measurement came from the middle of the back, which was substantially thicker than the edges. When you look at the edge of the new iPad Pro next the the iPad 1, it’s only slightly thinner.

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro (left) had a Liquid Retina Display. The iPhone XS Max has an OLED display.

There are other similarities that you wouldn’t even notice unless you held the old and new iPads next to each other (as I did), like the more rounded corners and the uniform bezels, though, ,obviously, the original iPad’s bezels are enormous compared to the roughly 1/3-inch one on the iPad Pro 12.9. All of these design echoes add some credence to Apple’s claim that this is the iPad they always wanted to make.

Real Progress

While some might consider this new iPad look and feel jarring — and I admit I did at first, too — I now quite like it. Not only is Apple’s largest and most powerful tablet 25% smaller, by volume, than the original 12.9 iPad Pro, which could be a little unwieldy, it’s just a huge step forward in the inevitable march to a nothing-but-screen slab that focuses you squarely on the digital task at his hand instead of the substance of the device.

My guess is that, over time, the core design elements of this iPad Pro, no home button, TrueDepth Camera, flat back broken only by a substantial camera bump, no 3.5 mm audio jack, and a single USB-C port, will all make their way to the rest of their iPad line.

The device is 5.9 mm thick and has just one port.

In this big transition to an edge-to-edge-screen device, the iPad Pro loses the iconic home button. For the millions of us using iPhone X devices, it’s not much of a shock. There’s now a familiar Home bar at the base of the screen that you can sweep your finger up through to access the home screen. Screen captures require that you simultaneously press the power on/sleep/Siri button and volume up buttons, which are still conveniently located close to each other on the upper left hand corner of the tablet. They’re the same buttons you’ll uses to shut the device down (you hold them both down until the “Slide to Power Off” message appears).

Apple didn’t equip the iPad Pro with its most-advanced screen, the 458 ppi OLED found on the iPhone Xs and XS Max. Instead the iPad Pro 12.9 and 11-inch both come with Apple’s new 2732 x 2048. Liquid Retina Display, which, owing to the screen size is only 264 ppi. Even so, it’s a sharp screen with impressive visuals, in part thanks to the 120hz refresh rate, which helps makes on-screen action and even scrolling through a Web page smooth and stutter-free. It’s also the first TrueDepth module display that doesn’t have a notch. This was a smart move on Apple’s part. They could’ve made the display a little larger and wrapped the screen around that sensor-packed piece of technology, but artists who rely on an unbroken and uniform canvas would’ve rioted.

The new home for the iPad Pro’s smart connectors.

Speaking of the module, it provides the central replacement technology for the dearly-departed Touch ID-enabled home button. Face ID works very much as it does on the iPhone, but with an important twist. It’s the first version of this technology that can recognize your face regardless of screen orientation. An onscreen message will, depending on orientation, tell you to look in the direction of the camera.

I registered my face my looking at the screen and slowly rotating my face twice as the system registered it. After that, the iPad Pro 12.9 recognized my face every time, unless my hand was covering the camera. In that case an onscreen message warned me that the camera was covered and an arrow pointing toward the TrueDepth module.

More than a tablet

The core idea behind Apple’s iPad Pro line is that it lives as sort of hybrid tablet device. If you want, you can use it as as a large touchscreen slab, poking at it with your fingers. iOS 12 on the iPad is a fantastic gesture interface with smart, intuitive ways of accessing your dock, the control panel, and sliding back and forth between running apps. But that’s only half the experience.

Early iPads, like my V1 device were primarily designed as casual gaming and content consumption tablets, excellent for watching videos, reading books and magazines, playing touch-screen games, and browsing the Web. Over the years, Apple has shifted iPad messaging to focus on productivity. Nowhere is that strategy better realized than with the iPad Pro. To understand just how far Apple’s taking the whole concept, we need to talk about about the components and what I discovered about their raw power.

The Smart Keyboard Folio, Apple Pencil, and iPad Pro 12.9 are all sold separately.

It’s not unusual for the iPad to get a somewhat souped-up version of Apple’s best-in-class mobile CPU, usually designated with a “X.” I have seen some performance gains on these chips in previous iPads and iPad Pros, but the iPad Pro 12.9 is rather extraordinary.

I ran Geekbench 4.0 benchmarks on the iPad Pro 12.9 and reran them on the iPhone XS Max and iPad Pro 10.5 running an A10X Fusion, a Samsung Galaxy Note 9 running a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 and a Microsoft Surface Pro running the Kaby Lake generation Intel Core i7 with integrated graphics.

There’s simply more graphics horsepower in the iPad Pro.

The compute scores were in line with what I expected. The A12X Bionic, the first 7 nanometer CPU in a tablet, runs circles around the SnapDragon 845 and its 8 cores matched the iPhone XS Max running the original A12 Bionic.

However, when I ran the Compute test, which looks in part at graphics performance, I saw a 2X improvement over the standard A12 Bionic. Apple claims that the GPU performance rivals that of a Xbox One S-class GPU. Unsurprisingly, the iPad Pro 12.9 Computer numbers also handily beat the Surface Pro’s integrated Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640.

In practice, this graphics horsepower puts the iPad Pro 12.9 in the no-compromises category. The demos of it running full-blown Photoshop CC (redesigned for a touch and Pencil interface), painting with what looks like real oil paint and watercolors (the colors run into each other just as they would on real paper) in Adobe’s Project Gemini, and rendering beads of sweat on NBA 2K19 are not faked. This system takes what is already a remarkably powerful mobile CPU and supercharges it for real-world, desktop-class creative and entertainment pursuits.

The Companions

You ever notice how Dr. Who, no matter his/her incarnation, just isn’t as effective without her companions? She’s smart, crafty and has that sonic screwdriver, but it’s the people who time-travel with her that close the knowledge gaps and make her adventures complete. For the iPad Pro 12.9, it’s the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard that travel with the tablet as one and enable fresh and, perhaps, more complete productivity pursuits.

The $999 iPad Pro 12.9 doesn’t ship with its companions. The new Apple Pencil costs $129 and the Smart Keyboard Folio costs $199. All-in, you’ll spend $1,327 for the 64 GB iPad Pro 12.9, Pencil and Keyboard. The space-gray 1 TB, Wi-Fi and Cellular model I tested starts at $1,899(!). I’ll let you do the rest of the math from there.

A set.

In Apple’s defense, Microsoft also sells its Surface Pro 6 tablet separately from the Surface Pencil and Type Cover.

Before we dive into the new Pencil, I want to talk about the new folio-style keyboard. Apple’s made a handful of improvements that do not fundamentally change the overall experience of using any iPad Pro with an attached keyboard.

Unlike the original Smart Keyboard, this new one is a more robust and sturdier folio, covering both the entire back and front of the tablet. The smart connectors shifted from the edge of the iPad Pro to the back and marry with three copper pins inside the folio cover. One half of the folio magnetically hugs the back of the iPad Pro, leaving a cutout for the rear camera and flash. A third of the folio back can bend away from the back of the iPad Pro, allowing you to shift the bottom edge of the tablet froward until it comes to rest in one of the folio’s magnetized channels that run parallel to the fabric-covered keyboard. These two channels give you two screen angle options. The one closest to the keyboard is my preference for writing (it’s how I’m using it now) and the other option props the screen in a more upright position that I think is best for watching video.

One of the angle options.

While I’m happy Apple made the keyboard cover more adjustable, I still prefer the endless adjustability of Microsoft’s Surface Pro’s kickstand.

As a keyboard, the Smart Keyboard Folio cover is good. The key travel and action is better than you would expect for such a thin keyboard. I found it quite satisfying to type on it for hours (this might not be the case on the considerably smaller iPad Pro 11-inch). I would like to see Apple add backlighting and, to be honest, I still miss a trackpad, but I got used to touching the screen to select text and move split-view app windows.

The Pencil Solved

I almost jumped out of my seat at the Brooklyn Academy of music when Apple unveiled the second-generation Apple Pencil. So many smart improvements. The new Pencil is shorter, lighter and, most importantly, can charge wirelessly through the iPad Pro 12.9.

The new Apple Pencil does have a flat side.

It occurred to me that making the iPad Pro’s edge flat might have been a more practical than aesthetic decision, as it provides the perfect resting place for the new Apple Pencil. On the top long edge of the iPad Pro is a one-inch-wide, pill shaped pad designed specifically for the Pencil. It’s where the stylus’ integrated magnets can sync up with those hidden inside the iPad Pro’s chassis. The Pencil flat edge clicks into place and two things happen: you can instantly pair the Apple Pencil with the tablet and start charging it. On screen, there’s a recognition that the system knows the Pencil is there and information on how much of a charge is left.

To put this in perspective. Without any way of attaching it to the iPad Pro, beyond a special tablet case, the original Apple Pencil had a habit of rolling away. Even worse, it was never charged when I needed it to be, and charging it required removing a very losable nub from the back end and plugging the Pencil either into the lighting port on the iPad or a special charging adapter.

Now I always know where my Apple Pencil is and it’s always charged. Even if I forget to put the Pencil back on the iPad, it will, after a period of inactivity, go into energy-saving low-power mode.

The old Apple Pencil (background) versus the new.

Not only is the Apple Pencil smaller, but it now has a pleasing matte finish. It just feels so much better in the hand.

Apple was smart enough to not mess with the good parts of the original Apple Pencil. The replaceable, rubber drawing tip that glides across the laminated display, high-resolution pressure and tilt recognition are all there, but Apple did add a twist: touch-sensitivity on the Pencil shaft.

There’s now a band of touch-sensitivity that runs around the lower third of the Pencil. A double tap on any part of it can switch tools in Notes between the pencil and the eraser. Apple claims this is easier than, say, turning the Pencil around to use the back end as an eraser (no, you can’t do that with the Apple Pencil). It’s a nice feature but, with App Developers playing catch-up, it has limited utility. At launch, though, drawing apps like Procreate will let artists use it to customize which tools they want to switch between with a tap.

The new Apple Pencil is an excellent drawing implement. Created this in Procreate.

Apple clearly took note of how Microsoft Surface Pen lets you open One Note on a locked Windows 10 PC with the press of the eraser button. On the iPad Pro 12.9, you tap the locked screen and a new blank note appears. You still have to unlock the iPad to view your saved notes.

I used the Apple Pencil for hours and absolutely loved it. It’s precise, responsive, comfortable to hold, and I never worried about charging it.

The Tablet as Camera

Apple equips the iPad Pro with the aforementioned TrueDepth model on the front. It comes with a 7MP camera that, thanks to all the depth information gathered by the sensors, can take high-quality Portrait Mode shots. As in the iPhone XS, your can preview how your Portrait will look in Natural Light, Studio Light, Contour Light, Stage Light, and Stage Light Mono, and you can edit the depth settings after you take the photo. It all works well enough (even with things other than people), but I don’t plan on taking a lot of Portrait Mode selfies of me or me and my friends with this camera. It’s too unwieldy to hold up in front of your face and if you try to use the tablet in landscape mode, the camera is too far over to the left or right and you end up giving the camera side-eye.

Both shot using the 7 MP front facing camera and Portrait Mode.

Since, I think the TrueDepth camera will get a lot more use as a Memoji and FaceTime camera, it’s double frustrating that when the iPad is docked in the Smart Keyboard folio, that it sits on the right hand edge and not atop the long edge near the Apple Pencil dock.

The 12 MP rear camera and flash.

On the back is a 12 MP camera that is neither wide-angle or capable of telephoto. It has a f1.8 aperture and is backed by the same Smart HDR technology as all of Apple’s other, current iPhone cameras. It does not, however, support Portrait Mode photography, which I still think is an odd omission.

The camera has face and body detection, autofocus, exposure control and takes excellent photos and crisp video, up to 4K 30 FPS (60 FPS if you’re willing to confine playback to MacOS).

Taken with the iPad Pro 12.9.

I think it’s more likely you’ll be using this camera, especially on the larger iPad Pro, with iOS 12.1’s impressive Augmented Reality capabilities. I used Plantale to grow and examine a giant, virtual sunflower plant in my dining room and iScape to plant realistic-looking shrubbery in my bedroom.

Not a real sunflower in my dining room.

In each case, the apps ask me to find a flat surface, which the system always identified quickly and then tap the screen to place my virtual object. The augmented reality not only casts a shadow on my floor or table, but reflects the local, real light. What you can do with augmented reality is limited only by the imagination of the developers.

Where the Power Takes You

There aren’t many limits to what you can do with an iPad Pro 12.9. I edited 4K videos in Adobe Premiere Rush CC, created and manipulated complex, 3D CAD drawings in Shapr3D and played basketball as Stephen Curry in NBA 2K19. I wrote on Microsoft Word on it, read and answered email, and opened dozens of Safari Tabs. I split the screen and then added a third-floating app to the mix. I drew and I binged.

It’s lapable, but the iPad Pro 12.9 could use more adjustability.

Apple paired the iPad 12.9’s big screen with a powerful, 4-speaker audio system that includes a woofer capable of vibrating the chassis. The tablet’s large enough that it can create some real aural spaces between the left and right stereo channels. This is a potential binge machine.

I could watch TV and movies on this screen all night long. Plus the sound is really quite good.

The iPad Pro 12.9 also has four microphones for voice, FaceTime Calls and listening for “Hey Siri.” I whispered Hey Siri (mainly so my iPhones and HomePod wouldn’t hear me) and the iPad Pro picked it up.

One of the benefits of using a mobile CPU on a thin, big-screen device like the iPad Pro, is almost all-day battery life. Apple rates the iPad Pro for 10 hours of battery life. I regularly got 9-hours-plus of mixed use. That’s with brightness set above the mid-level and sleep set to after 5 minutes.

Charge of Port

As I noted earlier, this is Apple’s first USB-C iPad, following in the single-port footsteps of the MacBook. Apple ships the iPad Pro 12.9 with a USB-C wall wart and a too-short 3 ft cable. You’ll need an adapter to connect to any existing lighting accessories.

Apple also did away with the 3.5 mm headphone jack, which, to be honest, surprised me. So many people watch videos on their iPads, I always thought the Apple tablet (in any form) would be the last to give up this port. Granted, this is the Pro and not the $329 model. You options are a 3.5 mm-to-USB-C adapter or, as I did, use a pair of $159 AirPods. They work like a charm with the iPad Pro and no more getting tangled up in cables.

Is It a Buy?

Do I recommend the Apple iPad Pro 12.9? First of all, where the original iPad Pro 12.9 was a gorgeous, but unwieldy slab, this tablet is smaller, thinner, lighter and not at all uncomfortable to carry around.

For creatives who demand virtually unlimited graphics horsepower, a big, immersive screen and, for now, the best tablet stylus on the market, yes. I do have misgivings about the price, but then this isn’t the tablet or iPad for everyone. Could I use to as a replacement for my Microsoft Surface Pro 5? Not yet. I need a backlit keyboard, more screen adjustments and a mouse. On the other hand, this is, even with the Smart Keyboard Folio wrapped around it, a roughly 2-lb. touch-screen convertible with all day battery life and never-say-no functionality. So, let’s just say I’ve considered it.