Review: Apple iPad Pro

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Review: Apple iPad Pro
iPad Pro versus its smaller sibling, the iPad Air 2.

More than just a supersized iPad.

You have to use Apple’s supersized iPad Pro for a while to appreciate the device, warts and all, because it occupies a strange land between tablet and laptop.

The iPad Pro's most noticeable feature is its size: the 12.9-inch device looks gargantuan compared to the 9.7-inch iPad Air 2.

The increased size doesn’t mean the iPad Pro is a porker, though. It weighs 713 grams, compared to 437 grams for the iPad Air 2. It's also just 0.8mm thicker than its smaller cousin. MacBook 12-inch laptops, generally considered to be lightweight, tip the scales at 920 gram.

However, it’s undeniable that the iPad Pro has lost some portability and ease of use compared to smaller tablets simply by dint of its size.

It’s harder to hold with one hand, and you have to move the other hand much more to cover the larger screen area.

But the iPad Pro isn’t unwieldy, and you soon get used to the large size.

Don’t leave the Apple Store without a keyboard and Pencil

If you’re set on an iPad Pro, you'll need a keyboard and the Apple Pencil. Yes, you can use the iPad Pro without either accessory, but you’d miss out on the two key features the big tablet was designed for.

Our review iPad Pro came with Apple’s Smart Keyboard, which generally works very well. It looks like it’d be uncomfortable to work with, but Apple used similar keys to those in the MacBook, which are nice to type with.

The Smart Keyboard is shallow in depth so you can reach the screen with your fingers, and it latches the iPad Pro reasonably securely to itself with strong magnets.

But again, the size of the iPad Pro works against it to a degree: the Smart Keyboard has to be big to work as a cover for the iPad Pro, and folding it out for use isn’t a particularly elegant manoeuvre.

Likewise, the top-heavy nature of the assembly means it works best on tabletops and hard surfaces. On your lap, the combo feel a bit unstable and you can’t adjust the angle of the iPad Pro when mounted in the Smart Keyboard.

It would’ve been great to use the iPad Pro in portrait mode with the Smart Keyboard, like for perusing long text documents, but the size of the device and the connector at the bottom precludes this.

Apple did, however, get the Pencil just right. This pressure-sensitive, rechargeable stylus has created controversy as hardcore iOS fans consider it a heresy against Steve Jobs’ stated design principles, but who cares?

The Pencil combined with cool apps such as Paper and Microsoft OneNote add that extra dimension of usefulness to the iPad Pro and it’s fun to use. It's tiltable for different ink and brush widths, for instance - just like a real pencil.

You get 12 hours’ worth of drawing and writing out of the Pencil, and Apple upped the sampling rate of the iPad Pro display from 120 times a second to 240 when the input device is being used, for added responsiveness. It’s a great device, but would be much better if Apple had allowed it to be clipped onto the iPad Pro for storage.

Unfortunately, the Smart Keyboard and Pencil aren’t cheap: the Smart Keyboard goes for A$269 and the Pencil A$165. Worse, Apple’s quoting shipping times of four to five weeks as of writing.

Less hobbled by iOS than you’d think

Apple’s iOS mobile operating has copped some flak on the iPad Pro as it’s more locked down and not as fully-featured as the desktop OS X, meaning some tasks like accessing files and sharing data between apps can be awkward.

In practice, it’s less of a worry than it might seem at first. Using the Split View feature makes it easy to multitask, and the bigger screen really helps you see more information.

The main issue for fresh laptop converts is that every now and then, you’ll miss having a mouse or trackpad to move a cursor around on the screen. Poking the screen with your finger just isn’t precise enough for that, but the Apple Pencil works great for that purpose.

Another issue is that iPad apps have to be updated to work properly with a keyboard and the Pencil. Many were updated during the review period, but every now and then, a keyboard/Pencil-ignorant app would ruin the flow, unfortunately.

More than a giant iPad

This is the most powerful iPad to date. Inside there’s a new system on a chip (SoC) assembly designed by Apple, dubbed A9X, which features 12 graphics cores, much faster memory access speeds (and more memory), as well as quicker storage.

Apple’s custom-designed A9X processor runs at 2.18 gigaHertz, and features just two cores. It has 64 kilobyte instruction and data caches closest to the processor, and a second-level cache that measures 3MB; add to that 4GB of system memory, double that of ordinary iPads.

The iPad Pro also features a USB 3 chip, which, while there isn’t a port for it per se, can be accessed via the Lightning connector. Apple has released an SD memory card reader dongle for the iPad Pro, which photographers would want to add to their iPad Pro hardware arsenal.

Thanks to the size, Apple was able to add four speakers to the iPad Pro. They’re loud, and sound great with decent bass.

It also boasts a very good retina display with 2738 by 2040 pixel resolution and excellent brightness and contrast, meaning it's great for watching video and multimedia presentations in small groups.

Newer iPads never feel slow, but if you want a faster Apple tablet, go Pro. The iPad Pro has performance aplenty and can do heavy lifting like editing 4K video.

Geekbench 3 64-bit scores were predictably high on the iPad Pro: 3206 on the single core test, and 5432 on the multi core exercise. Last year’s A8X in the iPad Air 2 managed 1808 and 4529 in the single and multi-core tests respectively.

System memory speed is about twice as fast as the iPad Air 2, which is no sloth itself.

Testing 3D graphics performance with 3DMark’s Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark, the iPad Pro scored 31,079. This places it on par with a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with an Intel Core i3 processor, in 3DMark, and the iPad Pro is substantially faster than an iPad Air 2 (~22,000 score) and the iPad 6s (~27,900).

One performance-benefiting side effect of the iPad Pro’s larger size is that the case can cool down the processor and graphics circuitry better, so they don’t have to throttle down and reduce speed.

This was particularly noticeable after a few test runs with 3DMark: the iPad Air 2 started scoring lower as it heated up, whereas the iPad Pro kept its cool and ran as fast as before.

Despite the iPad Pro’s processing prowess, battery life is quoted by Apple as 10 hours. This is thanks to a large, 38.5 Watt-hour battery. In practice however, the iPad Pro usually lasts less than that, and the review sample had to be charged every second day.

When unpacking the iPad Pro, one thing that stood out was the long Lightning cable, the longest so far supplied on any iOS device. There’s a reason for that: you’ll likely be using the iPad Pro while charging a great deal more than other iOS devices.

Is this the professional’s iPad?

The answer to that is yes, but it depends on how the professional intends to use the iPad Pro.

This is the Super iPad in more ways than one - with the Pencil especially, new ways to use the tablet open up. That said, an old-fashioned clamshell laptop does have some usage advantages that the iPad Pro cannot match, especially when it comes to office productivity.

It would be remiss not to point out that Microsoft, with its Surface Pro and Surface Book devices, are solid competition to the iPad Pro, although it would mean dropping iOS in favour of Windows 10 with all the adjustment to a different platform that entails.

But the iPad Pro's huge screen real estate, increased computing power that doesn’t materially shorten battery life, lightweight nature and relatively affordable price point may lure those who are teetering between this device and a laptop - especially if you can make use of the Pencil for art or more lively corporate documents.

If that’s the case, our pick would be the 128GB wi-fi only model at $1499. The 4G connectivity adds another $200, and the 32GB variant at $1249 doesn't have quite enough storage.

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