Apple iPad Pro 12.9in (2018) full review
Can't innovate any more, my ass. After thoroughly redesigning its iPhone and Apple Watch lines, Apple did the same for its iPads in late 2018 - removing Home buttons and Lightning ports, shrinking bezels, curving corners and generally aligning them with current trends.
In this review we take an in-depth look at the third-gen iPad Pro 12.9in. We benchmark its (absurdly fast) A12X Bionic processor, run battery and camera tests, and evaluate its radical new design, updated specs list and whopping prices.
Price & Availability
This generation of iPad Pro hit the shops in November 2018. It is still on sale, and remains the most recent version of the Pro line, although Apple has since released new versions of its cheaper iPad models. We expect the next iPad Pro to arrive some time between spring and early summer in 2020.
Here's the full price list. Note that as well as offering the most storage, the 1TB models come with an extra 2GB of RAM, although this isn't officially disclosed in Apple's tech specs - but we cover all this later on.
- iPad Pro 12.9in (64GB, Wi-Fi): £969/$999
- iPad Pro 12.9in (256GB, Wi-Fi): £1,119/$1,149
- iPad Pro 12.9in (512GB, Wi-Fi): £1,319/$1,349
- iPad Pro 12.9in (1TB, Wi-Fi): £1,719/$1,749
- iPad Pro 12.9in (64GB, cellular): £1,119/$$1,149
- iPad Pro 12.9in (256GB, cellular): £1,269/$1,299
- iPad Pro 12.9in (512GB, cellular): £1,469/$1,499
- iPad Pro 12.9in (1TB, cellular): £1,869/$1,899
Buying the accessories
The second-gen Apple Pencil is a terrific stylus (we discuss its capabilities later in this article) and, since only the 2018 Pro models are compatible with it, constitutes a powerful argument for upgrading your tablet. But it doesn't come with the tablet, and costs £119/$129. Buy from Apple but be sure you get the version that works with your iPad.
Redesigning the iPad
Apple radically redesigned the 2018 Pros, instantly making the old 10.5in Pro look old-fashioned. The Home button was removed, the bezels shrunk and the display given curved corners to match the chassis, all of which mean the front of this iPad is utterly dominated by screen.
It looks great, but you'll want to protect it from damage. See our round-up of the best iPad Pro (2018) cases (which has options for both the 12.9in and 11in models).
The bezels, while smaller, haven't quite vanished the way they did on the X-series iPhones. But (whether or not this was the rationale) it feels like a two-handed tablet needs at least a little non-screen area for the thumbs, and if there was no bezel at the top Apple would have had to include a notch for the TrueDepth sensors. No notch is good notch, as far as we're concerned.
So much for the front. But the redesign continues around the back, where Apple has for years given its tablets a curved edge to make them easier to pick up and to make them feel more approachable. But the 2018 Pros have a more industrial-looking squared-off rear (faintly reminiscent of iPhone design circa 2010) and it's more difficult to get your fingers underneath when picking them up from flat on a table.
This is the third iPad Pro Apple has released with a 12.9in screen, but thanks to this redesign the chassis has shrunk around it. It's far smaller, as well as thinner and far lighter, than the 2015 and 2017 models, while offering the same screen real estate. Here's a visual comparison of the old (left) and new 12.9in chassis:
(Interestingly, Apple has pursued a different strategy with its mid-size Pros, which keep changing screen size. After a 9.7in model in 2016 and 10.5in in 2017, the 2018 model crams an 11in screen into a pleasingly petite body.)
At just 5.9mm thick (compared to 6.9mm in 2017) and 631/633g, we found the 12.9in Pro incredibly light and portable for a device with such a sumptuously large display, and remains lightweight even in its keyboard case. It is comfortable to hold for extended periods, and the ideal tool for sketching on the go.
How to use the iPad Pro
There's no Home button, which means you can get a screen of the same size in a smaller body. But it also means you have to relearn many of the standard controls.
Just think of the functions accessed via the Home button: going back to the Home screen, switching or closing apps, taking a screenshot, unlocking the device, using Apple Pay or Siri. These have all been remapped to other buttons, or to swiping gestures. And by a knock-on process this means still other actions (such as bringing up the Control Centre) have been changed to make room for the new gestures.
It sounds like a nightmare. But the good news is that the nightmare lasts for about half an hour, and then you're used to the new method and can't understand why you ever had a problem. Here's a quick guide showing How to use the iPad Pro 2018.
And if you own one of the X-series iPhones - which use the same gestures in most cases - then you'll get the hang of it even more quickly.
Specs & Features
The exterior changes, then, are significant. But of course Apple does not disappoint by way of spec upgrades. Here are the key features.
Liquid Retina screen
We'll begin with the screen. This is now rated as 'Liquid Retina', and like its namesake on the iPhone XR it's an LCD (not OLED), albeit a bright, bold and colourful one that we loved using. The Liquid Retina branding refers to the pixel masking and sub-pixel antialiasing that allows it to have curved corners.
The pixel density (264ppi) and resolution (2732 x 2048) are standard for iPad screens of this size - the 2015 model had exactly the same - and some have complained about the lack of progress in this department. But we had no issues with the sharpness, partly perhaps because you tend to hold a large device like this pretty far from your eyes; and the 120MHz refresh rate (applied selectively to preserve battery life, thanks to the ProMotion feature) and powerful processor mean responsiveness is exceptional.
Because there's no Home button, there is also no Touch ID. Unlocking (along with verification when buying apps, accessing saved passwords and so on) is handled on this device by Face ID facial recognition.
Face ID is great - fast, reliable, capable of recognising us in the dark or when brushing our teeth - on the iPhone X, XS and so on, but porting it across to the iPad was obviously no small task. Because it's so much larger and tends to be positioned further away from the user, there is far more variation in where the face will be, and this is exacerbated by iPad users' fondness for switching from portrait to landscape orientation and confusing the sensors still further.
The good news is that Apple's engineers recognised this issue and, as far as we're concerned, solved it. We found Face ID on the iPad reliable in both orientations and a decent range of viewing angles.
With the iPad in landscape and the most upright placement in the folio case, it worked reliably even when the reviewer was some way off to the (camera) side - on the other side it spots you when you draw level with the edge of the device. Switching to the more inclined placement in the case, and with the reviewer now leaning back and slouching in his chair to hide from the camera, it still worked fine.
The only issues came when we put the iPad flat on the table - which sadly may be a common usage for artists. We tried to arrange ourselves in the natural drawing posture and found that Face ID was unable to spot us, and we had to lean forward to trigger it.
Note that when handling the iPad in landscape mode, you may find that you obscure the camera by mistake. But the device senses this, and triggers an error popup that even points to the camera so you know which hand to move.
It's hard to imagine many people using the 12.9in Pro for casual photography, slimmed down though it may be. Those who do, however, may be pleasantly surprised.
Like the A12 in the current batch of iPhones, the iPad's A12X chip features a Neural Engine, and among other things this is designed to help the device intelligently respond to challenging photographic conditions using machine learning: something Apple calls Smart HDR.
(Unwisely) take a shot of an object with bright lighting behind it, for instance, and Smart HDR will assess the frame and tweak camera settings so you get detail in the shadow on the object without being overwhelmed by the light source.
This worked pretty well for us, although this can be subjective. In the following shot, for example, some will applaud the 2018 model for finding far more detail in the plant, but others will argue that the overall image feels muddier.
Given the size of the tablet you may be more likely to use the front-facing camera, which is your friend when FaceTiming, Skyping and so on. In most respects it's the same as on the 2017 model: 7Mp, f/2.2, 1080p video and so on.
However, as on the X- series iPhones - and in order to facilitate Face ID - this is a TrueDepth camera, and you can therefore take Portrait Mode selfies (as well as using Animoji and Memoji). We got some nice results with this feature, although bear in mind that Portrait Mode requires some distance between the subject and the background to be effective, which again isn't ideal for a larger device.
One last word on the subject of photography: the Pro doesn't offer Portrait Mode from its rear-facing, single-lens camera. That might sound obvious, but the similarly equipped iPhone XR did offer this from its own single lens via software interpolation. We didn't always love the results achieved that way, but if you would have liked the option to use it here, you'll be disappointed.
The Pro comes with Apple's proprietary eight-core A12X chip, a souped-up version of the A12 in the iPhone XS. We put it through our speed benchmarks and it is fast - although do note that the model we tested was the 1TB version which has 6GB of RAM. Other models have only 4GB so will not perform to quite these standards.
In Geekbench 4's CPU benchmark, which assesses processing speed, the 6GB Pro averaged 18,165 in multicore. For comparison, the super-fast iPhone XS Max scored 11,204, and the Galaxy Tab S4 managed only 6,655.
Indeed, there aren't many laptops that can beat it. Microsoft's Surface Laptop 2 scored 12,730 and the i7 version of its Surface Book 2 scored 14,585. The iPad Pro's performance is actually comparable to the lower-end MacBook Pro models released earlier this year: the 2.7GHz 13in model (with i7 and 16GB RAM) scored 18,454.
But as ever, remember that testing results on paper do not necessarily translate into noticeable real-world benefits. The iPad Pro 2018 is ridiculously powerful, but even at time of updating this article (July 2019) the available range of apps doesn't really take full advantage of those capabilities; until they do, the previous year's models will be largely indistinguishable in performance - you're just getting a lot more future-proofing.
The Pro has a seven-core GPU, and Apple says it's as graphically capable as an Xbox One S. We tested this out using GFXBench Metal, and the results were something to behold.
Here's how it got on in the onscreen tests - now including the newest and most demanding Aztec Ruins segments, which it marched through with ease:
- T-Rex: 120fps
- Manhattan: 79fps
- Manhattan 3.1: 44fps
- Car Chase: 33fps
- Aztec Ruins (normal): 40fps
- Aztec Ruins (high): 29fps
More excellent figures (the Microsoft Surface Go managed only 20fps in the car chase, while the Galaxy Tab S4 recorded 13fps) although it's worth noting that it couldn't match the 11in iPad Pro, which has the same processor and RAM allocation but fewer screen pixels to marshal.
The Pro features a 36.71-watt-hour battery, and Apple claims it will last for 10 hours of wireless web surfing.
We think that may be an underestimate, in fact; the Pro 12.9in lasted 10 hours and 41 minutes in the Geekbench 4 battery test, and that's an unusually demanding benchmark. We'd normally expect devices to last far longer in reality than they do in the test.
Charging is done with a bundled 18W USB-C power adapter, and using this on a fully depleted Pro we reached 19% charge in 30 minutes. But fast charging is possible if you buy a higher-powered charger; using the MacBook Pro's 87W unit we reached 26% in the half-hour.
Connectivity & Audio
The Lightning port at the 'bottom' of the device has been replaced by USB-C, a faster data transfer standard which Apple says will fit in better with pro users' workflow. This can be used to connect to a digital camera or SD-card reader - either of which will now appear in a dedicated Import tab in Photos, or can be accessed from within other apps - or to mirror to a monitor.
These are useful applications and it is pleasing to see Apple adopt a non-proprietary port, but this does not mean it will work with any and every USB-C accessory out there: hard drives, for instance, won't show up in any accessible part of the OS when connected, and our colleagues on Digital Arts found that USB-C adapters from Huawei and Sony didn't work. Check items are compatible with this device specifically before you buy.
And this is without addressing the irritation always caused when a port standard changes. Yes, you may now be able to connect a number of USB-C products you happen to own already, but any Lightning-based docks, rugged cables, headphones etc will have to be ditched. And while we're on the subject of headphones, note that there is no 3.5mm headphone jack, so you'll need an adapter, or a set of USB-C or Bluetooth headphones.
(We found the USB-C port stiff, incidentally - it's harder to get the cable out of this device than the Lightning cable out of other iPads we've reviewed.)
The size of the device and the headphone situation mean you'll probably be more inclined to use speakers for your audio: there are four of them. There's also an astonishing five microphones, a Smart Connector for the keyboard case (which has been moved to the back) and a magnetic docking point for the Apple Pencil.
You get Bluetooth 5.0 (up from 4.2 on the previous generation) and 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Apple boasts wireless will be faster thanks to simultaneous dual-band connectivity. And while there's a conventional SIM tray (assuming you pay extra for a cellular model), the Pro also supports eSIM, making this a multi-SIM device. This could prove handy if you occasionally work abroad.
We've picked out the highlights above, but here's the rest of the specs list.
As ever, Apple keeps mum about the memory allocation, and it was only after the first tear-downs that we found out that the company is offering 6GB of RAM for the first time. But note that this applies to the 1TB model only; the others all get 4GB.
- A12X Bionic processor, Neural Engine, M12 coprocessor
- 4/6GB RAM
- 64/256/512GB/1TB of storage
- 12.9in (2732 x 2048 at 264ppi) LED 'Liquid Retina' screen, True Tone, ProMotion
- 12Mp rear-facing camera, f/1,8, flash, 4K video, slow-mo at 240fps
- 7Mp front-facing camera, f/2.2, 1080p video, 'Retina Flash' feature, Portrait Mode, Animoji
- Four-speaker audio
- Face ID facial recognition
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0
- USB-C connector, no headphone port
- iOS 12.1
- 280.6 x 214.9 x 5.9mm; 631/633g (Wi-Fi/cellular)
A new Apple Pencil was launched to go with the 2018 iPads, and although you'll have to pay extra - and it's not cheap - the updated design and capabilities more than justify the expense.
The second-gen Pencil has a single flat edge shaved off, compared to the perfectly cylindrical first-gen model, which looked lovely but had a tendency to roll off desks and get lost. As well as making the stylus less roll-prone, this edge is functional: it serves as a magnetic attachment point and an input control when double-tapped.
When you attach the Pencil to your iPad it will automatically offer to pair, and start charging wirelessly. This is so much more convenient than the bizarre - and dangerous-seeming - Lightning-based charging setup on the older model that one is torn between relief and renewed frustration that they got it so wrong for so long.
Software & Apps
The third-gen iPad Pro runs iOS and will arrive with iOS 12.3.1 preinstalled if you buy now. iOS is a smooth, slick and stable operating system with a huge library of compatible apps; version 12 added multi-step custom Siri shortcuts, Memoji and Screen Time, while the 12.1 point update brought the delayed group FaceTime feature.
The Pro will be able to upgrade for free to any and all future versions of iOS released in the foreseeable future; the iPad mini 2 and iPad Air 1, both released in 2013, were able to install iOS 12 in autumn 2018, and we'd expect the ultra-powerful Pro 2018 to last at least that long and probably longer before Apple drops ongoing update support.
The next version is iOS 13, which will be released to the general public in September 2019 (it's already available as a beta) and looks like a cracker of an update. It's been confirmed that the iPad Pro (2018) will be able to run iOS 13.
The third-gen iPad Pro is an incredible device (in a good way) at an incredible price (in a bad way). Indeed we're still a little shocked that Apple didn't reduce the price of the previous year's iPad Pro 10.5in by a penny, choosing instead to slot in the new models at an entirely new pricing tier over the top. (The 10.5in model has since been discontinued, replaced by a 2019 iPad Air.)
The creative pros who can afford it will end up with utter, joyous overkill. This is a mega-powerful processing and graphical beast that eats benchmarks for breakfast and will be able to do any complex editing task you throw at it. It's housed in a beautiful and surprisingly light chassis, and offers a set of greatly improved accessories, although of course they cost extra.
Those of us on less Olympian budgets can only admire at a distance and accept that such wonders are not for the likes of us. But it probably goes without saying that this is the best iPad so far, and almost certainly the best tablet on the market.