iPad Pro (2020) review: A worthy update for creatives, but still no laptop killer

After almost two years, Apple has finally refreshed the iPad Pro. But you can’t tell just by looking at it because its design remains nearly unchanged.

Beneath the surface, however, you’ll notice it does offer a few noteworthy upgrades: dual camera sensors, a LiDAR scanner for augmented reality apps, trackpad support, and faster performance thanks to a new A12Z Bionic chipset.

Like last year’s version, it comes in two sizes: an 11-inch display (starting at US$799 for 128GB) and a 12.9-inch display (starting at US$999 for 128GB). But if you want to use it as more than just a tablet, you’ll have to shell out for some additional and pricey accessories.

To use the 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my daily driver, I had to attach the Smart Keyboard Folio (US$199), Apple Pencil (US$99), and Magic Trackpad (US$149). All of which drove the overall cost up to a total of US$1,446, which isn’t cheap.

That’s only US$53 less than what a 13-inch MacBook Pro would cost you. And that model comes with 256GB — double the storage of the base iPad Pro.

It’s especially tough to get past that cost after having recently reviewed the new MacBook Air, which starts at US$999 and obviously already comes equipped with all necessities.

But the new iPad Pro, much like the ones before it, does offer duality of purpose.

While I used it during the week to write stories, send emails, and edit videos for work, on the weekends, I’d use it to stream TV shows, read an e-book, and even work on some crossword puzzles (very eventful, I know).

So, the experience isn’t all that different from using a laptop.

However, my daily activities didn’t really go beyond that. As in, I very rarely ever thought to take photos with the iPad Pro unless it was for testing.

And, even though the LiDAR scanner helps make augmented reality apps a lot easier and faster to use, I don’t use augmented reality on a daily basis. Or, really ever for that matter. But creatives and developers will obviously use this thing differently than I would.

Though the iPad Pro is fairly capable of replacing your laptop based on its fast performance and all-day battery life alone, I’ve come to one conclusion: Without the Magic Keyboard, it’s really just an expensive tablet.

A recognizable design

There’s really no difference in design other than the camera module, which adds a bit of a bump to the back of the iPad.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

Seeing as how Apple already gave the 2018 iPad Pro a complete face lift, it’s not shocking that the company decided to stick with the same design nearly two years later.

Like its predecessor, the iPad Pro sports the same aluminum build, available in Space Gray or Silver.

The iPad Pro has a quad-speaker setup, with two on its top edge and two on the bottom, which get very loud even when the volume is at a lower setting.

It also has a total of five microphones (the iPad Pro 2018 has four), which Apple describes as “studio-quality.” I only tested the microphones out once to record a podcast and the audio sounded a bit muffled. I’d rather attach a USB microphone to it when recording audio.

There’s also a USB-C port that sits on the bottom and a magnetic connector for the Apple Pencil on the right side.

It comes with quad speakers and a magnetic connector for the Apple Pencil.

It comes with quad speakers and a magnetic connector for the Apple Pencil.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

Without the folio case, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is manageable to hold with both of my comparatively small hands. But I would’ve definitely preferred the 11-inch version. Weighing in at just over a pound, it’s super lightweight. But the size felt a bit too unwieldy at times, especially when I was using it to read an e-book or take a photo.

The iPad Pro’s screen still retains that Liquid Retina display. But unlike the 2018 model, this one comes with True Tone — which means it measures the ambient light around you and then adjusts the brightness of the display.

It was especially useful when I was working in front of the kitchen window and the sunlight would hit the display. Rather than having to manually switch the brightness, the iPad Pro just did it for me automatically.

More cameras this time around

The iPad Pro comes with a TrueDepth camera at the top of the display for things like selfies and video calls. It’s the same camera system you’ll find on the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max. That means you can take advantage of features like Face ID, Portrait mode, Animoji, Memoji, and more.

That front camera’s clarity is way better than the grainy 720p camera on the new MacBook Air. And it takes some impressive selfies, too.

Such clarity! Look at those flyaways in my hair.

Such clarity! Look at those flyaways in my hair.

Image: Brenda stolyar / mashable

What I wish the camera quality on the MacBook Air was like.

What I wish the camera quality on the MacBook Air was like.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

I’m not quite sure how many of you will be using the iPad Pro for selfies, but it’s way better for things like FaceTime and video calls than the camera you’ll find on the MacBook Pro or Air.

On the back is a dual-camera setup and a LiDAR scanner.

On the back is a dual-camera setup and a LiDAR scanner.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

Now, let’s move on to the back of the iPad. This time around, Apple included a 12-megapixel sensor (f/1.8 aperture) coupled with a 125-degree 10-megapixel ultra-wide lens (f/2.4 aperture). The 2018 iPad Pro, for comparison, only shipped with a single 12-megapixel rear camera.

But the iPad Pro’s rear-camera module doesn’t offer Portrait mode. That feature is only accessible using the front-facing camera. So, you’ll have to add in the bokeh effects after the fact. But at least you can shoot in 4K video if you plan on using the iPad Pro to record footage.

As far as camera quality goes, photos look good, especially in broad daylight. This photo of my dog, taken with the rear camera on the iPad Pro, looks super clear.

My precious lil' Phoebe.

My precious lil’ Phoebe.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

In the photo below, colors pop with an apparent brightness to the overall image, especially the green in the trees and the pinkish clouds.

An ultra-wide shot.

An ultra-wide shot.

Image: Brenda stolyar / mashable

But you can see the corners of the ultra-wide photo are a bit blurry. On the top right and left corners, the branches and cherry blossoms look a bit fuzzy while the grass looks blurred out on the bottom.

Regardless of the iPad Pro’s admirable photo quality, I still prefer to snap shots with my iPhone 11 Pro instead. Not only because it has a triple camera, but also because I feel really awkward taking photos with a clunky tablet. It just doesn’t feel practical.

Then again, maybe I just need to get with the times, especially if Apple continues to improve the camera sensors.

A LiDAR scanner you’ll probably use once or twice

Packed into the rear module is also a LiDAR scanner for augmented reality apps. If you have absolutely no idea what that is, it’s really okay.

LiDAR stands for “light detection and ranging” and it uses a Time of Flight sensor (for depth) to measure reflected light.

But all you really need to know is that it makes all those AR apps faster and better. Thanks to the LiDAR scanner, you no longer have to calibrate the space around you by moving the camera back and forth.

While I barely use any AR apps, I will admit there were times when I’d want to see what a piece of furniture looked like in my room using the Ikea app. And then I would eventually end up force quitting the app because I was too lazy to calibrate the area.

This time, I used the Ikea app with zero calibration required.

This time, I used the Ikea app with zero calibration required.

Image: Brenda stolyar / mashable

This time around, all I had to do was point the iPad Pro at the table and, bam, a virtual version of a SYMFONISK Sonos speaker appeared on my kitchen table within seconds.

I also tried the Wayfair app and it worked just as quickly without having to calibrate either. You can see how fast it works in the video.

Are the scanner’s capabilities enough of a reason to purchase the iPad Pro? Absolutely not. But it certainly proves that Apple is making great strides with its AR technology.

Zippy performance and great battery life

The iPad Pro’s A12Z Bionic chipset paired with (for the first time) an 8-core GPU makes for excellent performance. In comparison, the 2018 version had an A12X Bionic chipset and a 7-core GPU.

That upgraded chipset and extra processing core are certainly enough to power you through heavy edits, especially for those 4K videos I mentioned before.

Throughout a typical work day, I’d have multiple apps running at the same time including Chrome, Spotify, Slack, Gmail, Twitter, Google Calendar, Google Drive, and a few others. At no point, did the iPad Pro feel laggy or struggle to keep up between switching apps or when I was in multitasking mode.

I was actually really impressed with battery life on this thing.

I was actually really impressed with battery life on this thing.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

As far as benchmarks go, I’d normally compare results to the 2018 iPad Pro. Unfortunately, those metrics were based on Geekbench 4, which is no longer available for download on the App Store.

So, typically, what I’d do in this case is run Geekbench 5 on both iPads. But with all of us in quarantine at the moment, I don’t have access to the older 2018 model.

That being said, I did run Geekbench 5 on the 2020 iPad Pro. My unit scored 1,114 for single-core performance and 4,671 for multi-core.

As for the 2018 version, GeekBench 5 did have scores for the 11-inch 2018 iPad Pro accessible through its app: 1,111 for single-core performance and 4,604 for multi-core.

These tests basically measure how well the iPad Pro handles tasks and applications by measuring it against a baseline. So that means the higher the score, the better it performs.

Judging by the numbers, the difference between both models is minor.

But I also ran a compute test, which showed a much larger difference between both devices. The iPad Pro 2020 scored 9,841 while the 2018 iPad Pro scored 9,146. Which essentially means the 8-core GPU certainly makes a difference for better graphical performance.

As for its battery life, Apple says the 36.71-watt-hour battery on the iPad Pro can last up to 10 hours. Each day I used it for work, I got about seven hours worth of performance, which is almost enough to get me through an entire work day. The iPad 2018 was about the same, with the battery lasting seven to eight hours when using pro-level apps.

You should probably get that Magic Keyboard, though

The Magic Keyboard doesn’t come out until May, so it’s fair to say I’m getting ahead of myself when I claim it’s essential to the iPad Pro if you’re trying to create that “full-fledged laptop” experience.

But given the fact that I’ve already used it with the MacBook Air, which already comes with the Magic Keyboard built in, I’m very confident in where I stand.

When I first set up the iPad Pro, I clipped it into the keyboard folio case and paired it with the Magic Trackpad. While it took a bit to adjust to the new setup — especially coming from daily laptop use — I didn’t mind it after a while.

While I love the trackpad support, I'm not a fan of the external trackpad.

While I love the trackpad support, I’m not a fan of the external trackpad.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

But, eventually, the layout felt very disorganized —with the trackpad off to the side, I would sometimes forget it was even there. Sometimes, without even realizing, I’d end up using my finger on the touchscreen display.

Sure, I could’ve paired it with a Bluetooth mouse, but I didn’t want to lose out on all the trackpad features built into iPadOS because that support is definitely a game changer.

You can also opt for Apple’s Magic Mouse, but I’ve never found it comfortable to use.

But trackpad capabilities also aren’t a reason to switch to this year’s iPad Pro, since the feature is available on any iPad that’s compatible with iPadOS 13.4.

For starters, the on-screen cursor is an experience alone. When moving it freely around the display, it’s the shape of a circle. But as soon as you hover over an app icon, it disappears into it. Meanwhile, when it recognizes you’re hovering over text, it turns into an I-beam which makes it easy to precisely highlight.

Why did it take this long for Apple to enable trackpad support???

Why did it take this long for Apple to enable trackpad support???

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

Then there are gestures, like pinching your fingers to access multitasking, swiping with three fingers to switch apps, or even just scrolling up and down, all of which feel natural and swift.

In comparison to clicking and scrolling through with a standard mouse, the trackpad made me feel like I was really optimizing all of the iPad Pro’s new features.

Again, I just would’ve liked for that trackpad to be located in the middle of the keyboard rather than awkwardly off to the side. (And that’s where the Magic Keyboard comes in).

Speaking of the keyboard, I’m very particular about the type of keyboard I use because it’s essential to my productivity. I need the switches to be springy and key caps to feel durable, especially if I’m using it all day.

Halfway through writing this review, I switched back to my MacBook Air because I couldn’t use the soft keys that come with the folio case anymore. I really missed that 1mm of key travel, too.

The Magic Keyboard is priced at a whopping US$349 for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and US$299 for the 11-inch. When you add that to the cost of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, it brings you to a total of US$1,348. So, it’s cheaper than attaching the folio keyboard and trackpad (which comes out to US$1,446), but not by much.

Again, it’s still almost as much as the $US1,500 13-inch MacBook Pro and even more expensive than the base model US$999 MacBook Air.

Ahhh, the Magic Keyboard on the MacBook Air.

Ahhh, the Magic Keyboard on the MacBook Air.

Image: zlata ivleva / mashable

The Magic Keyboard also offers a more compact setup, too, seeing as how you don’t have to carry a mouse or trackpad with you. Simply fold the case up the way you would a laptop and you’re good to go.

Powerful, but not a necessity

I'd rather use an actual laptop.

I’d rather use an actual laptop.

If you were to ask me to list the new iPad Pro’s best features, I’d say: the Retina display, trackpad support, and all-day battery life. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s because all of those things are already included on the 2018 version.

Sure, there’s a new chipset, but as you can see from running benchmarks, the difference in performance is minor.

The same goes for the LiDAR scanner. It works well, but it doesn’t revolutionize the iPad user experience. At least, not yet.

Of course, if you’re looking to use the iPad Pro for creative purposes, like video recording, photography, or creative editing, then features like the updated camera system, extra microphones, and 8-core GPU might be worth it.

But if you’re in the market to replace your computer, you should only splurge on this iPad if you’re willing to also pay for the Magic Keyboard.

Otherwise, it’s not worth the hassle of having to piece together accessories in an effort to recreate the full laptop experience. If that’s what you’re after, then you can just get a 13-inch MacBook Pro for US$1,299 or even the new MacBook Air for US$999.

Yes, the iPad Pro 2020 packs the most power out of any iPad released thus far. But I can’t say it’s compelling enough to ditch your current iPad or even laptop setup for its promise of flexibility.

That is, unless you happen to be a creative with money to burn.

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