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iPad Pro 12.9 review: a great iPad, one I won’t buy

But maybe iOS 11 will change my mind

Photography by Tyler Pina

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There is something about the iPad that is… aspirational. Every time I pick one up or use one or review one, I think, Maybe this is the iPad I should buy. I have visions of carrying much less weight in my purse or backpack, of having LTE connectivity on my “computer” whenever I need it, of becoming the breezy, super-efficient iPad user that Apple shows in its commercials. I will be so damn creative with this thing, I think, especially with the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

And then reality sets in. This is not the iPad I will buy.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad product or an insufficient computing device. Apple has improved this version of the giant iPad in a few key areas, including its display and processing power, that make it more appealing than ever to iPad lovers. But I still think it’s built for certain tasks and serves specific needs. It also starts at $799 for 64GB of storage — that’s not including the cost of Apple’s stylus ($99) and accessory keyboard ($169). That’s an expensive iPad.  

The truth is that if you are a creative professional who is already itching to buy the updated version of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro that Apple announced a couple weeks ago, then you’re very likely going to get it regardless of what I have to say. If you’re on the fence about it and you don’t need a giant screen or don’t think you’ll use the stylus all that much, then you’re probably better off getting the smaller 10.5-inch iPad Pro, or even the lesser 9.7-inch iPad, which only costs $329.

Still, there are a few hardware updates to this new version of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro that are absolutely worth noting, especially since we won’t be able to fully assess the new and improved software until it’s released.

The most obvious update to the big iPad Pro is its display. The smaller version, the new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, also has this new display. Unlike the 10.5-inch tablet, which has shrunken bezels to give you more screen, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro display has been crafted in exactly the same dimensions as the 12.9-inch iPad Pro from 2015.

Its display brightness and refresh rate are improved, however. It now has a TrueTone display, which means it automatically adjusts to the lighting in the room. Apple also says it’s 50 percent brighter than the last iPad Pro, reaching 600 nits at peak brightness. This makes it a little bit easier to see in sunlight, although I still wouldn’t plan to use this for your beach reading.

The new display is one of the iPad Pro’s biggest improvements — and it’s not like the old one was lacking

The display’s refresh rate is even more noteworthy. Both new iPad Pro models have a variable refresh rate that changes from 24Hz to 48Hz to 120Hz, depending on the kind of content you’re looking at on the screen. This means if you’re watching an action-packed movie, or scrolling a webpage with lots and lots of photos, or shopping in an app that shows lots of visual products, the rate at which the pixels are refreshed on the screen will adjust accordingly, and the imagery should look more natural or smooth.

Apple, not surprisingly, has a marketing name for this dynamic refresh rate: ProMotion. This naming convention is also partly due to the fact that this isn’t just display technology; it’s powered by its own separate core in the iPad’s processor.

This also means the Pencil, Apple’s stylus that only works with iPad Pros, has a lower latency as well. If I’m being totally honest, I thought the Pencil worked just fine on the first iPad Pro, and I thought it worked just as well on this newer iPad Pro. In other words, I didn’t notice a huge difference in speed or thought that it felt that much more like a real pencil, whether I was writing in Notes, or using the Pencil to make edits in a photo app. For what it’s worth, Apple says the Pencil now has 20 milliseconds of latency — which happens to be one millisecond less than Microsoft’s Surface Pen.

The A10x Fusion chip in the iPad Pro is 30 percent faster than the previous iPad Pro processor

Internally, the new iPad Pros have been updated with Apple’s newest mobile processor, and this is really the element that makes this an “iPad Pro” and not just an “iPad.” The new A10x Fusion chip is said to be 30 percent faster than the A9X chip in the previous iPad, and early benchmark tests are showing that it could be even faster than that. The iPad Pro is, for the most part, completely capable of handling your everyday tasks as well as more processing-heavy ones. As I write this, I have nearly 20 apps open, along with seven tabs in the web browser, and still app switching feels fast and fluid.

At one point during my testing, the iPad Pro did freeze up, and I was unable to close any apps or switch to another one. And a new photo app, Affinity, also crashed once mid-project. This was a surprising given the touted processing power, but I only recall those two instances in the past week.

The 2017 12.9-inch iPad Pro also has an updated rear camera. It’s the same camera as the iPhone 7, and it’s a really good one for a tablet. That also means it has optical image stabilization. And once iOS 11 comes out, you’ll be able to take pictures of documents you need to sign, send them to Notes, and annotate them immediately on the iPad Pro (or, just mark up photos of your cat). But, fair warning, no amount of camera technology will counter how ridiculous you will look holding up a 12.9-inch glass-and-metal slab to take photos.

The battery claim per charge with the new iPad Pro is the same as the last one: 10 hours. In my experience, with “normal” usage, it easily achieved that. I used it for basic productivity purposes (email, Slack, Twitter, web browsing, and writing in Google Docs) at 50 percent brightness for several hours during the day, then watched a one-hour and forty-minute movie with the brightness popped up, then shopped a little bit before bed, and still had about 20 percent left the next morning. Speaking of movie watching: the four speakers in each corner of the device (the same design as the previous model, with the same sensors that adjust sound based on orientation) offered excellent sound for a tablet.

The iPad Pro is a stunning piece of hardware, but it still can’t do what my laptop does

But there’s movie watching and browsing and shopping, and then there are real work tasks. Ever since Apple released the first 12.9-inch iPad back in November 2015, people (including people at The Verge) have wondered if this was the laptop-killer: the thing that would make us all ditch our PCs and our desktop operating systems and our desktop apps in favor of something light, fast, and essentially mobile. This one is still not there yet, but that’s mostly because of its software.

The loaner unit I’ve been using this week is running iOS 10.3, which already feels a little stale and will soon be outdated. iOS 11 on the other hand, which should roll out as a public beta later this month and will become officially available in the fall, promises to be the iPad software revamp we’ve been waiting for.

I was able to use an iPad running iOS 11 at Apple’s recent developers conference, and the changes are great. There’s an app dock that you can pull up from the bottom of the home screen at any time; apps “float” on the screen in multitasking mode; you can activate a Mission Control-like feature that lets you see miniaturized versions of all of your open apps; and you can use drag and drop across a variety of file systems and applications.

There are still no resizable windows in iOS 11, and you still can’t really manipulate the home screen in the way that you would be able to on a desktop. But the changes mean you feel a little more in command of the things you want to do on your computer, rather than being totally stuck in the iOS world of full-sized windows and neat rows of app icons.

So, for right now, the 2017 version of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a stunning new piece of hardware running on a soon-to-be outdated version of the OS. Creative professionals, or serious iPad users with a lot of cash to spend, will appreciate the improvements, especially the display and processing power. For others, it’s a big wait-and-see. And yes, I meant to use the word “big” there.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that the new A10X chip was 30 percent faster than the A10 chip. It has been corrected to state that the A10X chip is said to be 30 percent faster than the A9X chip.