This new batch of iPad Pros finally shows that the tablet approaching its full potential
It was during Steve Jobs’s iPhone 2007 launch address where he famously asked, Who wants a stylus? Eurgh! He was of course extolling the virtues of fingers as the ultimate controller for mobile devices, arguing that everything that needed doing on a iPhone and later, in 2010, an iPad could be done just as well if not better with your own digits rather than pens, mice and keyboards.
Perhaps memories of Jobs are why last weeks iPad Pro announcement was met with criticism by some. The dominant gripe seems to be that in adding mouse and trackpad compatibility Apple has either admitted that Jobss vision was flawed or just plain wrong. This may be a neat, as in simple, conclusion. But its not the case. The iPad was always headed in this direction.
The new iPad Pro isnt just about mouse, trackpad and keyboard compatibility (the latter of which, the Magic Keyboard, wont be available until May). Outside of the headline-grabbing changes, the Pro comes with Apples new A12Z Bionic chip. The updated GPU is apparently 2.6 times faster than the A10X Fusion, though Apple wont commit to a figure comparing the new chip with the 12X Bionic, apart from just saying it is faster. This lack of specifics may be explained by some finding that the new iPad Pro is a measly one per cent faster than the last version. Its hard to feel any marked difference in speed or capability here. This is in part down to the power of the last model, though, which still stands up well compared to traditional laptops in terms of grunt.
The iPads cameras have also been upgraded. You now get an additional ultra-wide camera lens, only this is a 10MP version as opposed to the new iPhones 12MP. The mics have been given a bump in spec, too, thanks to five studio-quality mics. Whatever Apple deems studio quality to be, of course, is anyones guess. Theres the welcome addition of Wi-Fi 6, which means data speeds up to 1.2Gbps and interestingly also means that the iPad gets this feature before the MacBooks.
Now, however, we get to the new iPad Pros important stuff: LiDAR and the transformation of iPadOS. The Pros new LiDAR scanner light-based tech usually associated with autonomous cars measures the distance to surrounding objects up to five metres away indoors or outdoors. What this means for iPad users in reality is that games and apps could use this scanner to create better experiences. For instance, developers can use the LiDAR to create a topological 3D mesh of a room and then automatically attribute certain functions to parts of that room (such as the floor, walls or curtains).
It also means that starting up augmented reality (AR) games and apps is quicker as the new system is better at working out its surroundings. I tried this with the ARise platform game. Information from both cameras, plus the motion sensors and LiDAR means it can begin the game faster. And it does. Use the old iPad Pro and a blue box appears on the floor as it attempts to establish a playing area. The new Pro immediately finds the play space with no on-screen blue-box working needed. This sounds like a clear win for the new tablet, but in reality the time difference in this ARise set-up is so minimal that its almost not worth mentioning.
The new LiDAR scanner also comes into play with the AR-powered Measure app. Supposedly more accurate my measurements were ever so slightly different between the old iPad Pro and the new one the LiDAR has seemingly changed the experience on this app, but Im not sure for the better. Measuring a sideboard a simple box shape the app wanted to lock onto parts that just werent there. This meant the figures produced were definitely not accurate and, besides, anyone using such an app for accurate measurements deserves all the woe and ill-fitting cabinetry coming to them.
And this is the problem with the current batch of disappointing AR games and apps, were still in JetPac territory and a long, long way from anything useful being available. But Apple doesnt care. This move to LiDAR only underlines its commitment to AR and its a smart move.
Apple has arguably lost out on digital assistants. It has certainly lost on home multi-room speakers (the poor HomePod is very much Apples unloved, embarrassing failure of a child). But its definitely a front-runner in AR. And this, in the long run, could well be the key race in which to be a contender. We know the company is making AR hardware such as glasses, and this is simply another step in securing dominance in this field.
If further proof were needed of Apple doubling down on AR, the new iPad Pro also has Apples U1 chip inside. This chip allows precise, indoor positional tracking and will power, at the very least, directional AirDrop file-sharing and has been described as GPS at the scale of your living room. When the software catches up and Apple finally unveils its AR-specific hardware, make no mistake, it wants to be sure that its phones and tablets are ready to go to all be part of the AR ecosystem it is so clearly building.
But lets get on to the iPad Pros biggest improvement which happens to also be the biggest improvement to iPads in general. Apple has spent the last few years figuring out how to make mice and trackpads work on its tablet OS, and its finally succeeded via the iPadOS 13.4 update.
Now you can use a compatible mouse or trackpad with an iPad, and the experience is transformative. In our review of the last iPadPro one of our major issues was the limitations of the OS. Theres a welcome theme developing here just like with the Apple Watch and the AirPod Pros, Apple has slowly been chipping away at problems with the iPads operating system and has finally solved the big one.
Using the new Pro with a trackpad in combination with the touchscreen is vastly more pleasurable compared to touchscreen alone. Id go as far as to say this is the best iPad experience Ive had by some margin. No more stabbing at the screen trying to get the right selection of options to appear now you just click. In fact, the familiar nature of the other gestures supported (three-finger swipe up for Home) make adjusting to the new abilities a matter of seconds rather than minutes.
The adaptive cursor pleasingly morphs into different shapes depending on what youre pointing at or highlights text fields or spreadsheet cells, making sure you know precisely where you are. The whole thing has been well thought out, which perhaps excuses Apple taking its sweet time adding this familiar yet important ability.
There are niggles, though. Fire up the dual-screen Sidecar app to work with a Mac and you cant use the iPad trackpad or mouse to go between the two displays as the Mac is the dominant partner here. That adaptive cursor does more morphing with Apples apps right now, too. For example, hover over the bin symbol in Notes and the entire icon is highlighted. The same does not happen in Gmail.
Of course, if you are going to opt for the most expensive iPad the new Pros come in 128GB, 256GB, 512GB and 1TB versions, with the 11-inch iPad Pro from at £769 and the 12.9-inch Pro from £969 – you will likely want to invest the extra £299 for the new Magic Keyboard coming in May. With a built-in trackpad there will be no need for a separate mouse. A USBC port will allow passthrough charging on the Pro as it attaches magnetically.
In a clear design win, despite coming typically late to the game of tablet covers with keyboards and trackpads, Apples version has a floating cantilever design, meaning you can adjust the viewing angle anywhere between zero and 130 degrees, much like you would the screen of your laptop. This might go some way to explaining that hefty £300 cost for the accessory.
The full-size keyboard even has backlit keys with individual hard keycaps and a scissor mechanism with 1mm travel, while a USB-C port in the hinge means you to charge the iPad Pro via that passthrough charging while leaving the tablets own USB-C slot free for other accessories.
Well let you know how this pricey Magic Keyboard alters the iPad Pro experience as soon as we can. If it improves the already much better iPad use thanks to that OS update then, aside from price and the still inadequate Files system, there will be little to fault Apples top tablet on.
But those who think that Apple has just capitulated, admitting defeat adding trackpad and mouse support to its tablets are missing the wider picture. In fact, this is a natural evolution of the product the path it was always going to take.
As we move more and more towards mobile computing, away from desktops and laptops, it would be understandable to think that this means leaving behind old functions in favour of new UIs and abilities. Not so.
As former Windows and Surface boss Steven Sinofsky so rightly points out, “the evolution of new forms almost always follows the surprising pattern of adding back all those things from the old form factor. This happened with laptops, which slowly added more and more desktop features such as floppy disks, hard drives, ports and docks, powerful CPUs until the portable laptop basically resembled the very form factor it was breaking away from in the first place.
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Sinofsky cites the evolution of PCs to become servers, too. “PCs were created to be smaller and less complex computers. They eliminated the complexity of mainframes at every level while making computing accessible and cheap, he outlines. Then PCs began to perform server tasks. At the time mainframe users dismissed these “server PCs, ones that were just like office computers, as toys.
And here we are again, with tablets reinventing laptops, but, though familiar, these new versions are crucially modifying how those old functions and UIs are employed in the next iteration, hopefully improving them as they go.
It may be coming up to a decade since the iPad launched, but the signs this was going to happen to the iPad were clear for all to see right from when the likes of Brydge produced its first all-metal keyboard cases with the sole purpose of trying to morph the tablet into a laptop.
The iPad is not trying to replace existing laptops, it is trying to be a new kind of laptop. The trouble is it has taken ten years to get here. If only Apple would pick up the pace a little.
Jeremy White is WIRED’s executive editor. He tweets from @jeremywired
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