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2018 iPad Pro review: “What’s a computer?”

Early this year, Apple ran an ad that featured a young girl using an iPad as her primary computing device. An older woman asked the girl a question about her computer, and she responded, “What’s a computer?”

The ad was widely mocked. For starters, an iPad is a computer. But also, the hypothetical future when kids don’t even know what a desktop or laptop are seems very distant at best. Yes, tablets and smartphones have replaced laptops and desktops among large numbers of young people for personal uses like social media, Web browsing, and games. But despite some high school students who sometimes write their college papers on their smartphones, mobile devices are still not where the real work gets done. Real work is done on a laptop or desktop.

But now Apple has released an iPad Pro that it has very explicitly positioned as a, uh, computer for doing that real work. Really. Apple’s “Why iPad Pro” page says, “Here are a few reasons why your next computer just might be iPad Pro.”

After using 2018’s new 12.9-inch iPad Pro for a week, I almost find myself wondering just what a computer is, too. This device breaks a lot of rules and challenges some preconceptions about what a real productivity machine looks like—especially for creative work.

But the 2018 iPad Pro is both awe-inspiring and deeply disappointing. It offers performance unlike anything we’ve seen before in a mobile device. Its Pencil accessory is a truly powerful art tool. And a select few robust applications like Photoshop and AutoCAD are making their way to the platform, challenging preconceptions that a tablet should be a stripped-down, pitch hitting experience.

But it became obvious within a day of use that iOS, otherwise an excellent operating system for phones, is still not designed with that kind of real work in mind. Limitations with how the new USB-C port can be used ultimately undermine the pitch that this tablet is a real workhorse.

The new iPad Pro tries to redefine computing, but in many ways, it feels like a tech demo for that redefinition, not the final product. Despite an incredible leap forward in performance, the software seems to be lagging just a bit behind.

Table of Contents

Specifications

Specs at a glance: 2018 Apple iPad Pro
Screen 2,388 x 1,668 11-inch or 2,732 x 2,048 (264 PPI) touchscreen
OS iOS 12.1
CPU Apple A12X CPU
RAM 4GB or 6GB
GPU Apple A12X GPU
Storage 64GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB
Networking 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5, GPS, LTE
Camera 12MP rear camera, 7MP front camera
Ports USB-C
Size 9.74” x 7.02” x 0.23” (280.6 x 214.9 x 5.9mm) for the 11-inch; 11.04” x 8.46” x 0.23” (280.6 x 214.9 x 5.9mm) for the 12.9
Weight 1.03 pounds (469g) Wi-Fi, 1.05 pounds (477g) with cellular
Battery 29.37WHr for the 11-inch; 36.71 for the 12.9
Starting price $799, plus $179 for the Smart Keyboard Folio and $129 for the Apple Pencil
Price as reviewed $1,899
Other perks Charger, USB-C cable

We’ll dig in on the silicon (possibly the most exciting thing about this device) in a moment. First, let’s get some other specs out of the way.

Starting at $799 but ranging up to $1,899, new iPad Pro comes in two sizes: 11 inches, and 12.9 inches. The 11-inch unit measures at 9.74 x 7.02 x 0.23 inches (247.6 x 178.5 x 59mm), and the 12.9-inch one at 11.04 x 8.46 x 0.23 inches (280.6 x 214.9 x 5.9mm). Apart from size and screen resolution, technical specifications for both are identical. Both come in configurations with or without LTE support. The smaller one weighs 1.03 pounds (468g) and the larger one weighs 1.4 pounds (633g) for the LTE model or 1.39 pounds (631g) for the Wi-Fi only model.

You can configure them with 64GB, 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB of flash storage. Oddly, developers using the devices have discovered there are two different RAM configurations, and they’re not advertised. The 1TB configuration appears to come with 6GB of RAM, but the others come with 4GB—the same as last year’s iPad Pro, and this year’s iPhone XS or XS Max. Our 1TB review unit has 6GB of RAM. Apple likely bumped up the RAM on the 1TB configuration because users who need 1TB of flash storage need it to, for example, open massive Adobe Photoshop files. More RAM would help that run smoothly.  (A full-featured Photoshop is coming to the iPad Pro next year.)

Both units have a number of sensors used for various features: an accelerometer, a barometer, an ambient light sensor, and a three-axis gyro.

The 11-inch model has a 29.37-watt-hour battery, the 12.9-inch one has a 36.71 watt-hour battery. Apple promises the same battery life in these models as in last year’s: 10 hours of Web browsing over Wi-Fi or consuming music or video content.

The A12X

The star of the show is Apple’s custom system-on-a-chip, the A12X. It follows the A12 in 2018 iPhones and the A10X in 2017 iPad Pros, which were both already the best in their respective product categories.

The A12X is the first tablet SoC manufactured in a 7nm process. That means it offers better performance while using less power and taking up less space. It houses a central processing unit (CPU), a graphics processing unit (GPU), an image signal processor (ISP), a neural processing unit (NPU) Apple calls the Neural Engine, a storage controller, an integrated memory controller, and more.

The CPU has eight cores—four high-performance, and four high-efficiency. Unlike with prior iPad Pros, all the cores can be engaged simultaneously when needed. Apple says the A12X’s single-core CPU performance is up to 35 percent faster than the A10X in last year’s iPad Pro and that multi-core CPU performance is up to 90 percent faster. The company hasn’t been forthcoming with many technical details about the architecture, but a recent deep dive at Anandtech with its iPhone counterpart, the A12, suggested that increased cache sizes might be part of the equation.

Apple also claims nearly double the graphics performance of last year’s iPad Pro thanks to improvements to its GPU in the A12X. Thanks to the 7nm process, Apple managed to squeeze another core in to the GPU, bringing the total to seven.

We ran benchmarks to verify these claims and found them to be largely true, which puts the iPad Pro in spitting distance from some of the most powerful workstation laptops, including most recent MacBook Pro models.

The other development of note here is that the Neural Engine has come to the iPad for the first time. The first iteration of Apple’s machine learning silicon was introduced in the A11 SoC in the iPhone X, and a second generation arrived in the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR earlier this fall. Whereas the A11’s Neural Engine could handle 600 billion operations per second, the A12 and A12X can handle 5 trillion. The Neural Engine helps with Apple’s computational photography features, Siri, search, palm rejection when using the Apple Pencil, Face ID, augmented reality, and more.

The A12X is the most interesting thing about the iPad Pro, so we went into considerably more detail in a related article—that piece also includes our interview with representatives at Apple about the company’s in-house silicon strategy.

USB-C

There is only one port on the iPad Pro, but in a big shift from Apple’s previous iOS device strategy, it’s USB-C, not the proprietary Lightning connection. This is a very welcome change, and it brings many advantages. At first glance, it looks like we’re headed for the dongle-free (or at least dongle-lite) utopia we’ve long dreamed of. USB-C means external 5K display support, support for a wider range of headphones, USB-C charger support, and more accessory support in general—at least in theory. It even means you can charge devices like your iPhone, an Android phone, or even a Nintendo Switch from your iPad Pro.

USB-C is here, and it's a welcome change.
Enlarge / USB-C is here, and it’s a welcome change.

Samuel Axon

There’s no question that the iPad Pro’s port situation is now all-around better than it was with Lightning. But there are infuriating caveats and limitations.

First and foremost, iOS does not offer file system access for external drives over USB-C. Frankly, that’s ridiculous. Yes, apps can access files on external drives under certain conditions if they’ve been specifically built to do so, but that’s not enough. No device that calls itself “Pro” should ship without this basic capability. Apple has for a while offered a “Files” app for browsing file systems, but it doesn’t work for this.

It’s a similar situation with external displays. Yes, there is OS-wide support for mirroring the iPad Pro’s native resolution on external displays. But extending to a display instead of mirroring requires app developers to specifically implement support for that. I’ve no doubt that very popular and high-profile pro apps will do just that, but this should be built right into the operating system like it is on, say, a MacBook Pro.

Oh, and the (oddly short) USB-C cable that comes in the box? It’s USB 2.0, so you need to buy an additional cable to do a lot of this.

On paper, it looks really exciting that the iPad Pro now uses USB-C, and it is. Like I said, it’s better than the previous state of affairs. But it does not bring all the promise pro users projected when they first read rumors this was coming. I’m quite certain these are all limitations in iOS, not in the hardware. Apple could fix this, and maybe it will in next year’s major iOS release. But until then, USB-C feels half implemented—at least when it comes to pro and power users’ specific needs.

That’s very disappointing. The applications of USB-C here are sufficient for a consumer device like an iPhone, but the iPad Pro carries the pretense of being for professionals, who need these capabilities. If Apple had implemented this the way this product’s target users wanted, I would have spent half this review joyously sharing all the nifty, powerful new things you can now do with an iPad. Sadly, these limitations mean there’s not much more to say for now.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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