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Apple iPad Pro Review: Better than Average

Ultimately, the supersized iPad Pro$799.00 at Apple Store is a love letter to the creative types who have been Apple’s most faithful customers. The iPad Pro isn’t meant to sit on a desk with a keyboard attached; it’s made to be held with Apple’s spectacular new stylus, the Pencil (an optional $99 accessory), in your other hand. Its niche audience will surely adore it, but its very high price prevents us from endorsing it more heartily for everybody else. People who really need enterprise applications, in general, will be better served by the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, while everyday iOS fans should stick with the lower-cost iPad Air 2£349.00 at Amazon.

Physical Design and Form Factor
Yes, this is a very big tablet. What’s going on here? 9-by-12 inches is a standard drawing pad size, so the iPad Pro should feel just about right to people who are used to carrying around some Strathmore.

At 12.0 by 8.68 by 0.27 inches (HWD) and 1.59 pounds, the iPad Pro is obviously taller and wider than all of the 10-inch tablets out there, although it’s slimmer and lighter than the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (11.5 by 7.93 by 0.33 inches, 1.73 pounds), which I see as its primary competition. I found the tablet easy to carry around, but difficult to use standing up. 

The 12.9-inch, 2,732-by-2,048 display, at 264 pixels per inch, looks great at arm’s length, and it’s stunningly bright and anti-reflective. It’s surrounded by a sizable bezel, with the 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera above it and the Home button/fingerprint scanner below it. The 8-megapixel main camera is on the upper left corner of the back. The tablet comes in matte silver, gold, or gray finishes.

Ray Soneira from DisplayMate Labs did an in-depth analysis of the iPad Pro’s display. He found it to be not quite as bright, but much less reflective and much higher contrast than the Surface Pro 4’s display. This was my experience in practice as well: The Surface Pro 4 showed some reflection at angles where the iPad Pro was perfectly clear.

I’m wondering if our battery test just doesn’t apply here. Our metric, which streams a YouTube video at maximum brightness until the screen runs down, tends to privilege devices with power-efficient screens, and the iPad Pro’s screen is just brutal on battery life. I got a mere 3 hours, 51 minutes of streaming. But you get about double that with the brightness turned down to half (which starts to approach the 10 hours that Apple quotes), and I think the Pro—because of its huge size—is more likely to be used plugged in than other tablets. So while the battery life isn’t a plus, I’m also not willing to call it a minus. The battery fully charges in about four and a half hours.

I found the Pro to have about the same Wi-Fi range as the Air 2, but even better download performance at far distances—60Mbps down instead of 30Mbps at the edge of Wi-Fi range. In any case, both tablets are terrific when it comes to wireless connectivity.

iPad Pro 1

While the iPad I tested is Wi-Fi only, I expect the cellular model to have excellent performance. It has the same banding as the multi-carrier iPhone 6s£529.99 at Laptops Direct, including every band used by U.S. carriers except for AT&T’s new Band 30. The embedded Apple SIM lets you choose between AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, or get prepaid data through GigSky at the rate of $50 for 1GB. (That’s bogus; T-Mobile is offering 5GB for $40, and often less when it’s on sale.) The device is unlocked, and will let you install any nano SIM you want. The downside is that you’ll pay a painful $1,079 for the only cellular model available, which has 128GB of storage.

Performance and Accessories
It’s now clear that Apple’s ARM processors have matched the performance of midrange Intel laptop processors, and all that remains is for the software to catch up. The iPad Pro benchmarks like a laptop: specifically, like an early-2015, 1.6GHz MacBook Air$1,115.00 at Abt Electronics.

The iPad Pro scores even better than the Macbook Air on graphics, in fact. Using the GFXBench T-Rex test, both the Pro and most Macs hit the vsync limit of 60fps onscreen. But offscreen, with the resolution normalized to 1080p, the Pro’s A9X chip hits 163fps, which I’ve never seen before on an ARM-based device. That’s double the frame rate on the iPhone 6s and the Macbook Air, and equal to the performance of a 2013-era desktop iMac. It’s also double the frame rate of the Surface Pro 4, which does 28.4 and 89.4fps onscreen and offscreen respectively.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 5$149.99 at Best Buy comes close to the iPad Pro on some multi-core benchmarks, but the Pro crushes it on single-core scores and graphics results. Qualcomm has recently started to side with Apple in saying that single-core performance should be taken more seriously than benchmarks that push four cores at once, because relatively few applications use more than two cores at a time.

The results are, obviously, snappy. I was able to open up and scroll around large Excel files without a problem, and multitask to my heart’s content. But I also feel like the Pro is reaching the limits of iOS. In my standard test exporting a one-minute file in iMovie, the Pro proved only 10 percent faster than last year’s iPad Air 2, even though the processor and GPU are much more powerful; that’s a limitation of the software.

iPad Pro 2

The iPad Pro runs iOS 9.1, which is our Editors’ Choice for mobile operating systems. It’s our top pick because it’s kept updated and because the APIs for third-party apps are frickin’ amazing, which means industry-leading third-party software experiences almost always come to iOS first and best (unless they’re Google services—more on this below).

Split-window multitasking is one iOS 9 feature that really comes into its own here. I found myself very frequently popping open an Evernote sidebar to copy text into my Microsoft Word documents. To multitask, you drag in from the right-hand side of the screen and pick a compatible app. Not all apps are compatible, but many are. The app automatically snaps to about a third of the screen, but you can drag the split-view window wider to split the screen more evenly.

Attach Apple’s $169 Smart Keyboard accessory and the iPad Pro certainly looks like a laptop, or at least like a Surface. Hold down the Command key in any app to see keyboard shortcuts. Start running Microsoft Word or Excel and you’ll be able to do very productive work, until you run into a workbook with macros that won’t render on iOS.

But with a keyboard attached, the iPad Pro struggles with iOS’s touch-first design. There’s no mouse or trackpad support, so you have to poke at the screen a lot. That’s not a good ergonomic setup. Some apps (like Slack) insist on popping up the software keyboard even when a hardware keyboard is attached.

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And you just can’t think of the iPad Pro as a general-purpose laptop replacement because so many applications assume desktop technologies. For instance, my daughter’s school has an online homework app, that, for some reason, doesn’t render in mobile Safari. Google Docs doesn’t work well on this tablet at all, something Apple says it’s working with Google on. The Web, especially the enterprise Web, is also still plumbed with landmines of Flash and Java, and iOS devices can’t touch that.

I know many people, like my father, already use iPads as laptop replacements, reveling in their always-on, quick-hit, virus-free nature. The iPad Pro is a step up in that regard. But it doesn’t break any real new ground—until you get out the Pencil.

iOS for Pro Applications
Here’s where things start to get interesting. The question isn’t really if you can do your work on the iPad Pro. The question is what you can do better with an iPad Pro than you can with a $1,000 laptop.

Add a smooth, white, $99 accessory to the iPad Pro, and amazing things start to happen for artists, designers, architects, and other members of Apple’s core creative classes. The Apple Pencil feels warm, comfortable, and delightfully well-balanced. It’s round, so you think it will roll around helplessly on the table, but it’s weighted, so it doesn’t. You charge it with a built-in Lightning connector under a cap on the back end (which is Apple’s one mistake—that back end should work as an eraser, but it doesn’t.) Apple says the Pencil has 12 hours of charge, and charges enough for 30 minutes of use within 15 seconds.

iPad Pro 3

Left to right: iPad Pro, iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 4

The Pencil is far superior to hold compared with Microsoft’s Surface Pen, which feels lumpy and awkward in contrast. Drawing on the screen has zero lag, and both pressure and angle sensitivity work perfectly. In addition, iOS’s bench of pressure-sensitive, high-end creative apps runs deep, with full Adobe and Corel suites available. Although high-end creative apps are available on the Surface Pro 4, their stylus compatibility isn’t obvious and sometimes involves driver updates, and the screen has a disturbing amount of give while drawing, creating a wave effect.

But here’s where the iOS dilemma comes up again. Corel’s Procreate and Adobe Draw are great apps, but there’s a reason Adobe Draw isn’t called Illustrator—it just isn’t Illustrator. If you’re a graphics professional, eventually you’re going to want some feature that’s in Illustrator and not Draw, and then you’re going to have to put the iPad Pro down and use your Mac (for it will always be a Mac) to pluck your unfinished work out of the Creative Cloud.

And yet, you can’t draw on your Wacom Cintiq in a meeting (unless you get the Cintiq Companion 2, which costs far more than the iPad Pro), so there’s Apple’s genius: The company just created a $1,000 accessory for creative professionals. Now they need both a Mac and an iPad Pro. Many tax deductions shall be taken this holiday season.

Camera and Multimedia
I tested the 128GB iPad Pro, which comes with 113.8GB of free storage. iPads have never had removable memory, so you should only go for the 32GB model if you intend to do your document and media storage in the cloud. The Microsoft Office app suite comes in a little over 2GB, and a lot of high-end games are around 1GB each nowadays.

If you use the main 8-megapixel camera like a phone camera, you are going to look insane. But there are still good reasons for a tablet this huge to have a rear camera: augmented reality, computer vision, scanning, and translation applications all come to mind.

So in that case, sharp macro performance trumps fast image capture, and that’s what I see here. Macro shots taken with th iPad Pro—the kinds of shooting you’d do to translate text in a book, for instance—are super-sharp and clear. But in general, focus lock can take about half a second, so you can’t just whip out the tablet and shoot instantly. The main cameras records 1080p video at 30 frames per second indoors and out, but not 4K video like the iPhone 6s.

The 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera is designed for video conferencing. In low light it’s very noisy, but what it’s doing is making sure it can maintain 30 frames per second at 720p. In good light it focuses on the foreground, which it should do for video chatting.

iPad Pro inline 2

Left to right: Surface Pro 4, iPad Pro

For multimedia playback and gaming, you have a very luxurious experience here—something I realized when I started showing YouTube videos to a group of nine-year-olds. As mentioned earlier, the iPad Pro’s screen is more viewable than a Surface Pro 4’s. It’s also richer than a laptop’s, so it’s a great panel for giving multimedia presentations to a small crowd.

With four speakers, two on each side of the device in landscape mode, you get powerful stereo sound here. Each speaker is 2-3dB louder, with significantly more bass, than the iPad Air 2’s, and also considerably louder than the Surface Pro 4’s.

Comparisons and Conclusions
We’ve seen iPads before. We’ve seen keyboard cases. We’ve even seen lots of styli. But as happens so often, Apple has remixed existing elements into something new, driven by design, ease-of-use, and compelling third-party apps.

The iPad Pro, with the Pencil, makes pro-level on-screen work easy in ways previous devices never did because the styli weren’t accurate enough (previous iPads), or the third-party ecosystem for proprietary stylus technology never developed (Samsung’s Note tablets and the Surface Pro). It also doubles as a light-duty, virus-free laptop, thanks in large part to the terrific Microsoft Office suite.

 

But there’s an old Streets song that goes “cult classic, not best seller,” and unless iOS software catches up with the laptop-class hardware here, that’s what the iPad Pro is destined to become. The more pro you get, the more line-of-business you get, and the more you start pushing against the functionality limits of even the most professional iOS apps.

That’s why, even though the iPad Pro is superior for people who want to actually draw on a tablet screen, the Surface Pro 4 is still our Editors’ Choice for a professional class slate tablet. The Surface Pro 4 offers the applications pro users expect, with no compromises. Most consumers, meanwhile, will be more than happy with the much more manageable iPad Air 2.

The name of that Streets song, by the way, is “Let’s Push Things Forward.” The iPad Pro does that, breaking the ARM/x86 boundary to create a mobile device with the kind of processor power previously reserved for laptops, and pushing the boundaries of Apple’s touch-centric interface to officially include keyboards and styli, after years of tolerating them winkingly. The iPad Pro pushes Apple’s tablets forward in ways we haven’t seen for a few years. Let’s see what software developers can do with it.


 

The post Apple iPad Pro Review: Better than Average appeared first on Technology Reviews Blog and Tech Tips | A2Z Support.

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