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Apple iPad Pro review 2020: small spec bump, big camera bump

An iterative year-over-year update

Photography by Brennan King

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Apple’s tagline for the new 2020 iPad Pro models is “Your next computer is not a computer.” It’s a cheeky way of addressing the tension that’s at the heart of most iPad Pro purchases: they cost as much or more than many laptops but may not be able to replace your laptop. 

The 11-inch iPad Pro starts at $799 and the 12.9-inch model starts at $999, but in both cases, a more realistic cost is at least a couple hundred dollars more: you should factor in the price of a storage bump over the anemic 128GB of base storage and the price of a keyboard case. iPad Pro buyers will quickly spend as much or more than the cost of a good MacBook Air or even a MacBook Pro — hence the tension.

Unfortunately, you can’t spend the extra $299 or $349 for the new Magic Keyboard case that Apple announced alongside these new iPads — they won’t arrive until May. Brydge is selling a more traditional clamshell attachment for $199 or $229, but it’s not shipping until next week.

The internet has been arguing whether the iPad can replace your laptop for years now. And over those years, Apple has slowly filled in the software gaps, but not all of them. I’ll just lay my cards out and say that, yes, the iPad Pro is a computer. It’s just one that works differently than you’re used to and sometimes stymies your efforts to achieve certain tasks. 

If you were hoping these new iPads would resolve that tension, they do not. I think a more interesting question is what “pro” means in the iPad context. The real tension isn’t between the iPad Pro and the MacBook Air, but between the iPad Pro and other iPads.

The 2020 iteration of the iPad Pro is essentially a minor spec bump over the 2018 models. There are really only three things that are new here: the processor, the camera array, and the microphones. 

Oh, there’s also the trackpad support you’ve heard so much about, but that’s going to be available to any iPad that supports the latest version of iPadOS. Apple’s Magic Keyboard accessory also isn’t available to test yet, either.

That’s one reason I think the real tension is with other iPads. Trackpad support might be the most important feature to come to the iPad this year — I say that not even knowing what Apple has planned at its digital-only Worldwide Developers Conference. But since it’s coming to all iPads, it’s hardly a differentiator for this iPad Pro. Maybe the Magic Keyboard will change that calculus, but there will likely be plenty of trackpad options for less expensive iPads. Apple has already partnered with Logitech on a trackpad case for the various 10.5-inch iPad models out there, for example.

All the things you expect from an iPad are here

Anyway, the bright side of the iPad Pro changing so little from the previous generation is that there is a lot of stuff you don’t have to worry about. The screen is still beautiful, tack-sharp, and color accurate. The hardware quality is still top-notch, but outside of a case I still feel that there’s something a little antiseptic about it.

Battery life is all-day for me — though now that I’m using it full time for work, the eight to ten hours I can pull out of a charge really only does manage a single day for me instead of not worrying about it for several. 

There’s still just the one USB-C port awkwardly placed on the side, but its functionality is less locked down than it was before iPadOS. And I’m still going to point out the lack of a headphone jack because it is more of a pain here than on phones. I use regular headphones on my laptop all the time because of their reliability: no lag, no awkwardly messing with Bluetooth settings at the start of a Zoom call while your colleagues patiently wait.

Let’s go through the new stuff, starting with the processor. Strangely enough, Apple isn’t using the same generation chip as what you’ll find on an iPhone 11 Pro. Instead, this is the A12Z Bionic, a step up from the A12X Bionic found in 2018’s iPad Pro. 

The “Z” doesn’t stand for anything (Apple says it’s just “more than X,”) but what it means is that the GPU has been beefed up this year to 8 cores. Apple says that should help with games that run at 120Hz, 4K rendering in video editing apps, and improved AR performance. 

I am sure that’s all true, but I’m not so sure the majority of iPad Pro owners will ever notice a speed difference. This iPad feels very, very fast but so does my 2018 iPad Pro. There’s potentially an argument to be made about processor headroom and future-proofing here, but not an especially strong one.

For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that on a Geekbench 5 Pro GPU compute test, the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro scored a 9981 while my 2018 11-inch scored a 9138 (the CPU tests were about the same). What does that difference of 800 mean to you? Probably nothing. To me, the key thing is that unless you know exactly what pain point this processor is addressing for you, you shouldn’t upgrade just for it.

It’s very fast. Don’t sweat the details.

The biggest change is the new camera system. You can’t miss it. The camera bump on the back of the iPad Pro is a big old square now, with two regular camera sensors and a new LIDAR sensor. We’ll come back to that LIDAR sensor in a minute.

Apple has put in a 12-megapixel main wide sensor with an f/1.8 aperture, which takes good photos but isn’t able to match the low-light performance of the iPhone 11 Pro.

New this year is a 10-megapixel ultrawide sensor at f/2.4 with a 125-degree field of view. As with all ultrawide sensors, the point is more the fun it provides than the extra crispy image quality. 

I am on team “it’s okay to take photos and video with your iPad,” but context matters. I think that it makes more sense as something you might use in a studio for specific uses rather than out in the field (or, and I can’t emphasize strongly enough that you should never do this, at a concert). 

The “studio” context also applies to the microphones, which Apple also dubs “studio” quality. They’re quite good, but maybe not quite good enough to use for a professional podcast. The iPad Pro can shoot 4K video at 24, 30, or 60fps and combined with those microphones I think the intention is to give filmmakers an interesting set of options for all-in-one shooting and editing.

The cameras are all pretty good, but the camera placement for video conferencing is not

I say I think because while I’m all for taking photos with a tablet in the right situations, for myself I would rather use a phone. If Apple sold a version of this iPad Pro with a mediocre camera on the back and no camera bump, I’d buy that version in a heartbeat — especially if it cost a little less.

The more important camera to me is the selfie camera because I use the iPad Pro as a work computer and it’s the camera pointing at my face for video calls. It can take 7-megapixel photos and shoot 1080p video. 

It’s miles better than the camera on any MacBook in terms of quality and miles worse than any MacBook in terms of placement.

I don’t know why Apple maintains the weird legacy of putting the FaceID sensors and selfie camera on the “top” of the iPad Pro when it’s held in portrait. Maybe it’s the last vestige of Apple’s desire to keep the iPad Pro a “tablet-first” experience, but I and everybody I know primarily uses the iPad in landscape mode in a keyboard case. That means the camera is off to the side so your eyes are always looking away from it. Apple added some augmented reality effects to fix your gaze in FaceTime, but that doesn’t help with work conference calls.

As long as I’m on the rant, the other problem with using the iPad Pro for conference calls is that in iPadOS, Apple doesn’t allow apps to use the camera unless they’re active in the foreground. That’s nice from a peace-of-mind perspective but absolutely terrible for video conferencing. 

The truth is that people need to open other apps when they’re on a call, and merely pulling out a Slide Over window to check a message is enough to turn the iPad’s camera off during a Zoom call. The net result is your camera is constantly toggling off and on again. The iPad Pro is the perfect machine for making your coworkers think you’re ignoring them.

If there’s one standout hardware feature on the 2020 iPad Pro, it’s the LIDAR sensor. It uses lasers to near-instantly detect depth and create a spatial map of a room. And anytime a tech product utilizes lasers, the company that makes it can’t help but hype it up because lasers still seem futuristic. So Apple says it “operates at the photon level and at nanosecond speeds.”

Yes, that is how light works.

Anyway, the reason for including LIDAR is for radically faster and more accurate augmented reality. And it really works — but it’s only the foundation for great AR experiences, not a guarantee they’ll come. It improves some current apps for free, but there aren’t any third-party apps that take full advantage of it yet. (Here’s where I need to disclose that my wife works for Oculus, which makes virtual reality products.)

The main benefit AR apps will get right away is that LIDAR is able to nearly instantaneously map the surfaces in a room. Instead of having to wave your iPad around until the cameras can recognize objects, the LIDAR just measures them directly. 

That spatial map is also more accurate — so the Measure app, for example, can show a ruler when you get in close to a line you’ve measured. 

The other immediate benefit you get is with something called “occlusion.” That’s when something gets in between your iPad and the virtual object you’ve set on the floor or table or whatever. If somebody walks in between you and the virtual chair and the chair doesn’t get partially hidden, it breaks the illusion.

iPad LiDAR test
The 2020 iPad Pro with LIDAR can occlude objects like this drummer boy figurine quite well behind people. It does fairly well with other other mammals, too.
Another iPad LiDAR test
Without LIDAR, the 2018 iPad sometimes struggled to get occlusion right when somebody walks into the AR scene.

Older iPads and iPhones can pull off occlusion with people, but they can’t do it with arbitrary objects. LIDAR means this iPad Pro can — though it’s not quite able to draw a perfectly sharp line. Still, as you can see in the images above, it’s able to tell when something’s in front of the virtual object.

Developers should get those benefits for “free,” but doing anything more advanced will require specific coding. Apple is releasing those APIs to developers today, but it will take some time before apps take advantage of them. 

If and when they do, they’ll be able to use a more advanced spatial map to put their virtual roller coasters or coffee table coasters on. Apple’s new APIs also are supposed to be able to more accurately identify objects like chairs, windows, tables, and so on. They’ll also allow virtual objects to be placed anywhere on the map instead of only on flat surfaces.

In short, the LIDAR on the iPad Pro seems quite advanced but built for a software future that hasn’t arrived yet. Beyond home decoration, some shopping, and some games, it’s also unclear whether there’s a real demand for all this technology yet. The most widespread use of AR right now is face filters, and LIDAR doesn’t do much for that yet.

I reviewed iPadOS last October, and most of what I said then stands today. Apple’s willingness to add a lot of complexity to the OS for power users has... added a lot of complexity. It’s simply not easy to naturally and intuitively learn how to do everything just by using it. Here’s how I put it then:

It is easier than nearly any other computer in history to start using. But when you start trying to get the same sorts of capabilities out of the iPad that you’d expect from a high-end laptop, that curve hockeysticks.

The addition of trackpad support doesn’t really change that dynamic much, though it does make it much easier to work with text. It’s clear to me now why Apple changed the way the cursor and text selection works in iPadOS: it was designed with a mouse or trackpad in mind. 

There aren’t any keyboard cases with trackpads available at launch

I have a lot more to say about trackpad support on the iPad, but here’s the short version: I think Apple came as close to nailing it as possible. Scrolling feels natural and the way the mouse cursor changes shape to match buttons is weird at first but I think I like it. There is some intuitive strangeness in pushing the cursor up against the edge of the screen to bring up the dock, notification center, and Slide Over apps, though.

I’ll have more to say about the trackpad in a later article. For the purposes of this review (and absent the forthcoming Magic Keyboard), the thing to know is that every iPad that can be updated to the latest version of iPadOS is getting this feature, so it’s not really a differentiator for the iPad Pro.

iPadOS is also slightly less buggy now than it was at launch — but there are still maddening issues from time to time. This week it’s been text-focus with the Smart Keyboard. Sometimes I have to fully force quit the app and restart it in order to type into it.

As I used the iPad Pro this week, I kept coming back to that LIDAR sensor. Not to use but as a concept. It’s a powerful and interesting sensor and Apple’s total control over software and hardware means that it “just works” to improve existing apps. But as powerful as it is, I’m not super sure a lot of users will be able to take advantage of it — it’s an extra thing they may not even use.

And that’s the story of the iPad Pro in a nutshell, isn’t it? The iPad Pro line has always featured incredibly powerful and beautiful hardware alongside software that has struggled to take advantage of it. 

I started this review by talking about the tension between iPads. The core of that tension is that for most people, the iPad Pro is overkill. Unless you’re quite sure what you are going to do with these cameras, that LIDAR, or the faster processor, chances are you’d be equally served by the much-less expensive iPad Air — or even the base iPad. Neither of those iPads is as nice from a hardware perspective. But if you don’t need the extra power, saving hundreds of dollars is also nice.

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The Verge on YouTube /

Exclusive first looks at new tech, reviews, and shows like Processor with Dieter Bohn.