Every iPad Pro review I’ve written has included one overarching theme: through a combination of hardware and software updates, the tablet-laptop hybrid device is slowly becoming a more viable laptop replacement.
That direction continues with Apple’s new 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2020).
The new iPad Pro, at least in some sense, is Apple admitting that Microsoft’s Surface Pro, with its keyboard, stylus and most importantly, trackpad, is the right way to approach a 2-in-1. This is an out of character, but welcome move on Apple’s part given its past reluctance to discuss the possibility of bringing cursor support to its long-running tablet line.
While Apple’s new iPad Pro Magic Keyboard with a built-in trackpad — which is also compatible with the 2018 version of the tablet— isn’t yet available, surprisingly capable mouse and trackpad controls are finally an integral part of Apple’s tablet ten years into its existence thanks to iPad OS 13.4.
In the truest sense of the phrase, this is a case of ‘better late than never.’
Of course, there’s an inherent disconnect that stems from jumping between the iPad’s Smart Keyboard, the tablet’s touchscreen and a mouse or Apple’s Magic trackpad, that I’ll expand on in length later.
With all this in mind, the iPad Pro (2020) itself is nearly identical to its predecessor in several ways. It features a marginally more powerful A12Z Bionic Chip, minimized bezels and a single USB-C port. On the hardware side, the only significant upgrade this year is the dual camera array that’s capable of capturing images similar in quality to the iPhone 11 series, along with a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensor.
In a way, the fact that the new iPad Pro’s most compelling feature is also featured in nearly every device in Apple’s tablet lineup, makes this latest refresh a more difficult sell than its predecessor was at launch.
Note: This review is focused on the 11-inch iPad Pro (2020) as that’s the unit Apple sent to MobileSyrup. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2020) offers the same experience, but with a larger screen. I’ve spent the last few years using the 12.9-inch (2018) iPad Pro, and while I appreciate the additional display real-estate, the device is heavy and can at times feel unwieldy. I’d recommend only opting for the larger sized iPad Pro (2020) if you intend to use the tablet for work and really need the additional display space.
This review and the final score will be updated once Apple’s new Smart Keyboard is released.
Placing the new iPad Pro beside its 2018 predecessor reveals no perceivable differences between the tablets’ looks.
The new iPad Pro still comes in 11-inch and 12.9-inch display sizes. The edge-to-edge Liquid Retina display, with P3 wide colour and excellent 120Hz scrolling and responsiveness, also returns.
The tablet features the same squared-off design with rounded corners, adding further fuel to the rumours that Apple’s next flagship iPhones will adopt a similar aesthetic.
The only noticable difference this year looks-wise is the addition of a dual-rear camera bump. The aesthetic of the bulge is very similar to the iPhone 11’s camera array. There’s a substantial camera bump housing the pair of new lenses that also stick out, along with a flash and the new LiDAR sensor.
I like the look of the camera bump; it feels premium and is sleek. Some people may take issue with the fact that the iPad Pro can’t sit flat on a table anymore, but I didn’t find this to be a problem.
Apart from the addition of a new camera array, the new iPad Pro looks, weighs and feels nearly identical to its predecessor.
LiDAR holds exciting potential
Along with an improved camera array, the iPad also includes a new LiDAR scanner. This gives the tablet’s shooters an improved understanding of depth, allowing the iPad Pro to better measure large objects and feature upgraded object occlusion. The sensor does this by measuring distance based on how long it takes light to reach an object and reflect back. For context, the sensor is capable of reflecting light on an object up to 5 metres away.
Regarding object occlusion specifically, thanks to the LiDAR sensor, augmented reality experiences should be able to pass behind and in front of real-world objects more realistically. This, at least in theory, makes the strange clipping that often occurs with current augmented reality apps a thing of the past. Finally, the sensor also allows the tablet to more accurately and quickly measure the surfaces in a room, including the floor, walls, door and windows.
The real-world result is that all AR apps automatically perform more accurately and consistently. The difference isn’t immediately noticeable with most apps right now, but Apple’s Measure app does indeed feel more accurate, especially under low-light.
Apple’s AR push still lacks the killer app that will convince the masses to take the technology seriously. But adding a LiDAR sensor to the iPad Pro gives developers the tools to potentially create that app. Similar to the addition of mouse support (more on this later), the new LiDAR sensor lays the groundwork for developers to do something interesting.
What remains to be seen is if third-party app developers will end up taking advantage of the technology.
The rest of the hardware
What’s most disappointing about the iPad Pro (2020) is its A12Z Bionic chip is only slightly more powerful than the already impressive A12X processor. It’s strange Apple opted to upgrade 2018’s A12X chip rather than include a faster version of the iPhone 11’s A13 processor. In fact, the margin of improvement is so low that the 11-inch iPad Pro (2018) comes in at 1,117 on Geekbench in a single-core score, compared to 1,111 with its A12X-equipped predecessor.
However, the multicore results show a more significant improvement, with the new 11-inch iPad Pro coming in at 4,704 and 4,604 for the 2018 iPad Pro. Though a leap in power, there’s usually a more substantial jump when it comes to Apple’s iPhone and iPad releases. However, if you’re moving from the A10X Fusion chip in Apple’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro from back in 2017, the A12X offers 2.6 times faster performance.
Though the inclusion of better cameras relates more to the iPad Pro’s AR functionality, Apple’s high-end tablet is now finally capable of snapping great photographs somewhat comparable to what the iPhone 11 shoots. The iPad Pro (2020) features a 12-megapixel f/1.8 aperture wide camera capable of shooting 4K video at 60fps, coupled with a 10-megapixel f/2.4 ultra-wide shooter that captures a wider field of view, and can also shoot 4K. Other features borrowed from the iPhone include Smart HDR, Portrait Mode and a quad-LED True Tone flash. The iPad Pro, however, doesn’t feature the iPhone 11’s Night Mode.
All of these improvements are welcome given the iPad’s camera array has been lagging behind the iPhone for the last few years. However, I doubt many people are actually snapping photos with the tablet given its size makes it awkward to carry around and use as an on-the-go camera. Still, in the off chance you need to capture a special family moment and only have the iPad Pro around, it’s good to know the tablet is finally capable of good photography.
On the front, the 7-megapixel f/2.2 TrueDepth camera system returns and is just as excellent as the system featured in the new iPad Pro’s predecessor. Face ID works from more angles, including when the tablet is sitting on a desk. In fact, I wish the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro Max featured the same TrueDepth camera array as the iPad given how accurate and consistent it is.
The 2nd-generation Apple Pencil is also back with the new iPad Pro. The stylus still switches tools with a quick tap and can attach to the top of the tablet magnetically to charge and store. If you found Apple’s stylus useful in the past, that’s not going to change with the new iPad Pro. I, on the other hand, still don’t have much use for the Apple Pencil beyond spot removal with Adobe’s Lightroom CC.
The single USB-C port that was such a game-changer with the iPad Pro (2018) is back as well. Part of me wishes the tablet featured more than one USB-C port, especially given you can now use it with a mouse or trackpad, but this issue can easily be solved with a relatively low-cost USB-C dongle.
Other features include all-day battery life, four speakers, better quality microphones, Wi-Fi 6 support, Gigabit Class LTE, eSIM support, Bluetooth 5.0 and a magnetic Smart Connector. There’s also still not a 3.5mm headphone jack, just like the 2018 iPad Pro.
The trackpad question
iPad OS 13.4’s trackpad support is a long time coming as it brings comprehensive contextual cursor functionality to the iPad for the first time. The cursor appears on-screen as a circle and transforms contextually based on the tool you’re using. For example, the cursor adapts to app icons on the Home screen, Dock buttons and text, complete with the same text editing features anyone who has used macOS or Windows will be accustomed to.
There are also several familiar macOS trackpad gestures, including the three-finger swipe up to return to the Home screen, swipe up with a pause to switch between apps, right-clicking with two fingers and several more. Even if you don’t intend to use the cursor support very often, navigating with gestures feels great and will feel natural to anyone who uses macOS.
If you’re using a standard mouse and not Apple’s Magic Trackpad or Magic Mouse, you won’t be able to use gestures. I spent a few hours using Logitech’s M720 Triathlon Multi-Device Wireless Mouse and I’d compare the experience to feeling like I was working with one hand behind my back. Mouse support is great, but the addition of keyboard gestures ties the entire experience together.
It’s also important to point out that while iPadOS’ new cursor support is surprisingly fluid and responsive — especially considering few apps have been updated with direct support for the feature — it’s not perfect yet. For example, with Lightroom CC, I found I wasn’t consistently able to navigate through my photo library (it worked sometimes, but not always). I also wasn’t able to click on settings and add specific values when editing a photo in Lightroom. In Excel, you can’t shift and click on an entire cell.
Similar strange navigation instances can be found in nearly every iPadOS app. This will likely change as third-party developers adapt their user interfaces with mouse and trackpad support in mind. I also expect this shift to happen relatively quickly.
As it stands right now, there’s a bit of a disconnect when using the Magic Trackpad with the iPad Pro. For one, no one wants to carry around a trackpad when on-the-go. Also, not having your hands on the keyboard at all times can get bothersome if you’re using the iPad Pro for long periods of time.
This issue will likely be solved once the great-looking, but expensive $399 CAD Magic Keyboard launches in May. The new backlit keyboard features hard keycaps, a scissor key mechanism reportedly very similar to the Smart Keyboard included in the new MacBook Air (2020) and 16-inch MacBook Pro, and 1 mm of key travel. The Magic Keyboard’s hinge is also capable of adjusting between 90-and 130-degrees, solving the limited angle issue the current Smart Keyboard suffers from. Other features include USB-C pass-through for charging, giving the tablet the much-needed second USB-C port I mentioned earlier.
Most importantly, the Magic Keyboard features a built-in trackpad. This nixes the need to remove your hands from the keyboard entirely to reach for either a mouse or Apple’s Magic Trackpad to use the new cursor. Of course, questions still remain about the Magic Keyboard. For one, how solid is the new hinge? Also, given the keyboard raises the tablet, will it be comfortable to use it on your lap? Finally, is the trackpad featured in the keyboard any good? It’s worth keeping in mind that it’s likely third-party manufacturers (especially Logitech) often release more affordable, possibly just as good or even better keyboard options in the coming months.
On a side note, the new Smart Keyboard is identical to its predecessor. The colour is slightly darker, and there’s now a logo on the rear of the folio portion. The keys and overall folio design are the same, so if you weren’t fond of Apple’s previous iPad Pro Smart Keyboards, this one isn’t going to change your mind.