A little more than a year after Apple released the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, it’s replacing it with a new model, the iPad Pro 10.5. In that year, guess how many companies came within a million miles of matching the speed, power, convenience, and app selection of the old iPad Pro. Can you guess?
The answer is zero.
And yet, despite the fact that the meaningful tablet market has dwindled down to some Windows 10 devices and the iPad – and despite the fact that the iPad itself has seen slowing sales – the company’s engineers are still moving full speed ahead and putting the most advanced technical hardware features it can come up with into this device. Apple is basically showing off at this point.
Except for one thing: this iPad wasn’t built for today. It was designed to work with a new version of iOS coming later this fall that will change how people interact with and use this device. So for now, the iPad Pro is a hot rod sitting at the starting line, gunning its engines, waiting for permission to hit the gas. And very few other companies are even in the race.
Apple has definitively made clear what the differences are between a regular iPad and an iPad Pro. Those differences include a murderer’s row of specs that don’t seem very necessary for what most people do with iPads. Here is what makes an iPad Pro, Pro: a bigger, better screen; a faster, more powerful processor; better cameras; support for the Apple Pencil; a keyboard connection port; and more speakers.
There’s one more difference, though, and it’s the biggest and most important one: the price. The iPad Pro starts at $649 for a 64GB model, and it can be priced all the way up to $1079.00 for 512GB of storage and LTE. Oh, and the Apple Pencil is $99 and Apple’s Smart Keyboard is $159, though there are cheaper third-party keyboards available.
Compare that with the regular iPad, which starts at $329 and is perfectly good at what most people do with iPads: read, watch some movies, check email, browse the web, play some games, and so on.
Add it all up and it’s not just laptop territory, it’s premium, top-of-the-line laptop territory. And If you’re looking at the larger, 12.9-inch iPad Pro (which is getting all the new features in this iPad Pro), add even more money to the pile.
I think that most people need to go through a careful calculus of value before deciding to buy an iPad that costs this much, and I think the end of that equation should either be “the iPad Pro can be my main computer” or “I have plenty of money to spend on a nice thing.” There are some important variables in that equation, but before that I want to explain why this iPad Pro is such a nice thing.
The iPad Pro 10.5 is a slightly larger version of the standard sized iPad you’ve seen from Apple for many years now, which means many older accessories won’t fit. That extra size comes from — surprise — the larger 10.5-inch screen, but Apple reduced the bezels around the edge of the screen a bit so the overall size difference isn’t really all that noticeable. It weighs about a pound and is less than a quarter of an inch thin. Even though it’s a “Pro,” it very much feels like any other iPad you’ve used.
I was all set to complain that increasing the size from 9.7 to 10.5 was not a big enough jump to justify requiring people to buy new keyboards and accessories. Then I started typing on the on-screen keyboard and on the new hardware Smart Keyboard. Even though I’m dubious about Apple’s claim that the software keyboard is “full size,” I find the slight size increase makes touch typing much easier. It’s still a little cramped, but it’s much easier to bounce between this and a real keyboard now.
The usual things you expect from Pro iPad screens are all here: high-resolution display, True Tone for matching the screen’s color to the ambient light in the room, a wide color gamut, a fully-laminated LCD so the pixels feel like they’re right on the glass, fingerprint resistance, and a coating to make it slightly less reflective in the sun.
If that was all Apple had done, I’d be sitting here telling you that this is an incredible display and also telling you not to worry that the slightly-higher 2224 x 1668 resolution means some older apps will have to upscale a tiny bit. I’d probably also mention that Apple has increased the max brightness to a very high 600 nits. But of course, that’s not all Apple has done.
The new feature that matters on this display is that it’s capable of a refresh rate of 120Hz, which is twice what most mobile devices are capable of. That sentence is as nerdy as it sounds, but stay with me for a second on this one. The refresh rate is how quickly the pixels on the screen get redrawn when you scroll or when something moves on a screen. 120Hz means that when you scroll, there’s less lag when the pixels move.
Reducing lag is important because the obvious goal for any tablet screen is to make the stuff that appears on screen sort of feel like actual physical things you’ve moving around. This refresh rate takes us a surprisingly large step in that direction. It also means that the latency when you draw with the Apple Pencil is also reduced to 20 milliseconds — so it too feels closer to physically drawing on paper.
There are other practical benefits. Because this is Apple, it’s given a name to this feature: ProMotion. And ProMotion does more than just ratchet up the refresh rate, it also ratchets it down. So if you’re watching a movie, the screen refresh rate will lower and optimize to the video’s frame rate. If you’re just looking at some static text on an ebook, the iPad will slow the refresh rate down even further to save battery life. Apple says that the tablet has a dedicated chip (sort of like the chip that’s used to process camera images) that looks at what’s going on on your screen and adjust the refresh rate accordingly.
If Apple had done nothing to the iPad screen in the past year, I don't think anybody would have complained. Will you actually notice all this stuff? Yes, but honestly only if you’re looking for it. More likely is that your experience will be like mine for the past week. Using the iPad Pro 10.5 just feels subtly, almost invisibly better. Is it really necessary? Probably not, but Apple decided it could make the screen incredible and so it did. The iPad Pro is very much a spare-no-expense device.
The rest of the superlatives about the iPad Pro’s hardware are almost not worth mentioning. Even though they’re improvements over the last iPad, it’s not as though any of these features were lacking in any serious way on its predecessor.
There’s a new processor, the A10X Fusion, which in some situations is able to outperform some Intel laptop chips. The rear camera is the same as what you’ll find on the iPhone 7, a 12-megapixel sensor with optical image stabilization. It takes very good photos. It still has four loud speakers. It has the latest generation TouchID sensor for unlocking the iPad quickly.
The most pertinent spec after the screen is the battery life, and I can report that it’s very good. I have been getting 8 and 9 hours of multipurpose use on the regular, very close to Apple’s claimed 10 hours of web surfing.
Those are all the hardware and price variables in the value equation, but the last thing to consider is the software running on the iPad. It turns out that it's the same-old story today, but will be a much more interesting story later this fall.
So for today, the iPad Pro runs the same iOS 10 we've been using since last September, and there’s not a whole lot new to say about it. It’s fast, easy to understand, and the ability to split screen apps is convenient, though not as powerful as a full windowing system. The real thing to know is that you’re going to be able to do a lot more later this year when the just-announced iOS 11 is released.
With iOS 11, the core UI of how iPad multitasking works is going to completely change. The dock of apps at the bottom will be available with a swipe up from anywhere. Instead of your recent apps getting listed in a horizontal card view, you’ll get a grid of them organized into “spaces” where split views you’ve set up will stay together (not unlike Mission Control on MacOS). There will be real Drag-and-Drop support — and in fact it may be more powerful than what you can do on a desktop.
And, finally, you (and all your apps) will have access to a real, traditional file system.
I am hopeful that the sum of all these operating system changes will add up to a significantly more powerful experience of using the iPad Pro as a computer, not just for “iPad things.” Make no mistake, the iPad and iPad Pro are already computers and perfectly capable of doing “computer things.” But because iOS got its start by trying to simplify away things like files systems and windows, it involves too many tricky workarounds compared to the way most of us understand how to use traditional computers.
I don’t think iOS 11 is going to turn the iPad into something like a Mac or a Windows PC, with all their customization options and apps that plug deep into the system. Yet I do think it will unlock opportunities for both users and developers that aren’t there today. I suspect that all the power inside the iPad Pro will mean that it will work better with those new features, but since it's not out yet, I can't say for sure.
If you're trying to switch to a tablet as your main computer and are surveying the competition, here's the only question that matters: can Windows 10 apps get better faster than Apple can build more utility into iOS? If I were Microsoft, I'd be very worried about the answer.
Now that we know that the 10.5-inch iPad Pro is an impressive device and that we further know that iOS 11 is going to radically change how you use it, let’s get back to that value equation I mentioned earlier. Basically, should you buy it? The iPad Pro 10.5 presents a conundrum: it is a stupendous device that I firmly believe most people shouldn’t buy just yet.
To me, if you’re going to spend $650 on a computer, it should almost surely be your main computer. And if you’re going to make the iPad Pro your main computer, you should probably get more than 64GB of storage and you should also probably get a keyboard to go with it (to say nothing of the Apple Pencil). It hits the $1,000 mark very quickly.
If you’re going to spend that much money on an iPad, you should know exactly what you’re going to do with it that takes advantage of all the Pro features. There are people who are already doing that, but I don’t think the majority of computer users can be comfortable using an iPad as their main device. For those who can, go out and buy the hell out of this thing (unless you already have the iPad Pro 9.7).
For the rest of us, my advice is to hold out and see whether iOS 11 changes the calculus.
Photography by James Bareham
Video by Christian Mazza, Becca Farsace