Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch full review
This is our review of the iPad Pro 12.9in (2015). A newer version has since been announced: see our iPad Pro 12.9in (2017) review for more details. And if you'd prefer a smaller screen, read our iPad Pro 10.5in (2017) review.
Welcome to our iPad Pro review, in which we review, evaluate, test and rate Apple's new big-screen iPad Pro and its new features, design, tech specs and UK pricing. As you will see, the iPad Pro is an attractive, monstrously powerful big-screen tablet that impressed us throughout testing; but while it's perfect for artists, illustrators and other creatives, there remain questions as to its appeal to a mainstream audience.
Our iPad Pro review is based on rigorous speed, graphics and battery testing and many hours of hands-on time and day-to-day use by our team of experts (and incorporates the thoughts of a digital illustrator, Pete Fowler, who reviewed the device's creative capabilities for our colleagues on Digital Arts).
Yet no review is ever truly definitive, and we will continue to revise and refine our thoughts on the iPad Pro as it forms part of our daily routines throughout 2016 - and as more rival products emerge and the market changes around it. Bookmark this page for a regularly updated analysis of the iPad Pro's pros (no pun intended!) and cons.
Does the 12.9in Pro still make sense to purchase, even after its dated launch? Are there better alternatives? Should you get the 9.7in version instead? We look to answer all these questions below.
New iPad Pro: podcast discussion
Build & physical design
The iPad Pro follows the general design principles of the iPad Air 2, but on a significantly larger scale. Its general layout, material, edging and so on all match, while the positioning of the buttons, the Lightning and headphone ports and the Touch ID-equipped Home button are the same as on the smaller iPad Air 2.
The buttons aren't proportionally larger than on the iPad Air models, however: the Home, power and volume buttons are all the same size as on the smaller tablet, and we found the power button smaller - and closer to the righthand edge of the device - than we expected at first. There are speaker grills to fit in on the top edge, however (more on audio improvements), which may have influenced this positioning.
The Pro may be taller and wider than any previous Apple tablet, but it remains pleasingly thin and light; while it's very much a two-handed device, it can be held reasonably comfortably with one. Despite its large size, the build and design works well for those who are interested in iOS gaming and those who like to use the iPad 12.9in for designing.
My Macworld US colleague Susie Ochs, the first of us to try out the iPad Pro at the San Francisco launch event, found the device a pleasure to hold and use:
"The iPad Pro is so much bigger [than the Air 2] but doesn't feel unbalanced or awkward. I could hold it easily, but - and I realise you'll make fun of me for this, and that's OK - I sort of wished it had a kickstand like the Surface Pro."
Aside from the increase in screen area, there are some key design differences, each corresponding to a functional difference.
One is that there are four speakers, as opposed to the twin speakers on the iPad Air 2 (and those positioned too close together to have any real beneficial effect). This results in far more volume output, of course, and Apple says the device is also smart enough to adjust audio balance between the four units to maintain a consistent performance as you hold the iPad in different ways.
There is a new type of connector on the lefthand side of the iPad Pro. Apple calls it the Smart Connector, and it's designed to fit the new Smart Keyboard accessory. We don't yet know if third parties will produce their own accessories to fit the Smart Connector, but we'd have thought it's distinctly likely.
The iPad Pro comes with a 12.9-inch display, compared to the 9.7-inch display on the iPad Air and the 7.9-inch display on the iPad mini. That's 78 percent more screen space than the next-largest iPad.
A diagonal measurement of 12.9 inches makes for a device that is both sharply differentiated from the smaller iPads and a convenient size in terms of productivity and ease of use. The iPad Pro's screen is also pleasingly sharp, with a massive screen resolution of 2732 x 2048, the largest resolution ever seen on an iOS device. That's the same pixel density - 264.68 pixels per inch (ppi) - as the iPad Air 2, stretched across a much bigger screen.
With a total of 5.6 million pixels on show, Apple boasted that the iPad Pro has more pixels than the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro. And it's supposed to be power-efficient too, with the ability to adjust refresh rate as and when the movement on the screen warrants it. "For the first time in any of our devices," says Apple, "iPad Pro knows when the content on your screen is static and cuts the refresh rate in half, to 30 times per second instead of 60. This means that the screen isn't just big, beautiful and bright. It's also incredibly energy-efficient."
The iPad Pro certainly backs up its energy-efficiency credentials in the battery-testing department.
The screen is pleasingly responsive, too: Susie Ochs comments: "I was impressed with the responsiveness of iOS 9 (and iOS 10) on this tablet, as I easily pulled out the sidebar and entered Split Screen view."
We found that with iOS 10, the widgets and notification screen is very easy to see and access. Making full use of the large screen on the 12.9in tablet, through the use of iOS 10.
Speakers & audio quality
As mentioned in the design section, the iPad Pro features four speakers rather than the twin speakers in the iPad Air 2. We're really pleased to hear this - a quad-speaker design is a long-time wish for iPad owners, given their devices' traditional weakness in terms of audio.
The iPad Air 2's twin speakers, at the bottom of the device. They're so close together that you gain little benefit from there being two
The speakers on the iPad Pro aren't just more numerous; the overall design has been enhanced too. A new casing design gives the Pro's speakers a wider frequency range and up to 3x more acoustic output than previous iPad models.
Read next: iPad Pro vs Samsung Galaxy Book
Processing power & speed tests
The iPad Pro gets a super-powered A9X processor chip, one that Apple claims is close to twice the speed of the iPad Air 2's A8X.
"The iPad Pro is far and away the fastest iOS device we have ever made - its A9X chip beats most portable PCs in both CPU and graphics tasks," said Apple marketing boss Phil Schiller.
We'll address this more later in this article when we ponder who the iPad Pro is for, but it's worth mentioning briefly that this kind of power is going to be overkill for most users, at least in the near future. Very few apps are available that can push the iPad Pro anywhere near to its limit.
Gaming devs love to push the fastest available processors to the edge, and games that harness the Pro's graphical power should be along before long. And creative users historically tend to favour more powerful machines - the Mac Pro's main audience is among video editors and other creative-industry workers. But we can't help feel that business users, who in other parts of the launch presentation appeared to be one of the main target markets, may feel that the Pro is overqualified - and consequently overpriced - for the primarily simple tasks they need it for.
All of this will become clearer in coming months, however. Powerful applications of iOS 9's (and iOS 10) split-screen capabilities, for example, may demonstrate the value of the A9X in a business setting.
Speed benchmark tests
As you would expect based on the device's specs and Apple's marketing claims, the iPad Pro performed extremely well in our speed benchmarks, whether those evaluating general processing power or focused on graphics. It beat every other iPad by a large margin.
GeekBench 3 speed benchmark scores (higher is better)
iPad mini 2: 1372 (single-core), 2467 (multi-core)
iPad mini 4: 1714 (single-core), 3108 (multi-core)
iPad Air 1: 1459 (single-core), 2637 (multi-core)
iPad Air 2: 1836 (single-core), 4643 (multi-core)
iPad Pro: 3086 (single-core), 5406 (multi-core)
GFXBench OpenGL (version 3.0.40) (frames per second; higher is better)
iPad mini 2: 8.7 fps (Manhattan onscreen test), 21.9 fps (T-Rex onscreen test)
iPad mini 4: 15.4 fps (Manhattan onscreen test), 37.3 fps (T-Rex onscreen test)
iPad Air 1: 8.9 fps (Manhattan onscreen test), 22.5 fps (T-Rex onscreen test)
iPad Air 2: 27.3 fps (Manhattan onscreen test), 52.4 fps (T-Rex onscreen test)
iPad Pro: 33.3 fps (Manhattan onscreen test), 51.4 fps (T-Rex onscreen test)
iPad mini 2: 56.194
iPad mini 4: 77.799
iPad Air 1: 59.920
iPad Air 2: 83.740
iPad Pro: 143.14
Apple claims the iPad Pro will last for 10 hours (of video play or web use) between charges; that's pretty much standard for Apple tablets, and exactly the same as is promised for the iPad Air 2. The company is generally scrupulously honest when stating battery life for its devices - if anything they tend to be an underestimate - but we naturally put this to the test as as we got hold of a review sample.
GeekBench 3 battery benchmarks (abstract ratings, higher is better, plus time lasted in test conditions to go from 100%-1%):
iPad mini 2: 3990 (06:39:00)
iPad mini 4: 3975 (06:37:30)
iPad Air 1: 4340 (07:14:00)
iPad Air 2: 4601 (07:40:10)
iPad Pro: 6865 (11:26:30)
You shouldn't necessarily expect your tablet to last exactly that amount of time in real-world conditions - there are far too many variables - but we'd be inclined to expect better battery performance than with Apple's other tablets. This performance is based on a 38.5-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery, a far larger unit that the 27.3-watt-hour battery in the Air 2.
Aside from the larger battery unit, Apple has revealed some small improvements in the way it powers the screen. Apple says the Pro's screen adjusts the refresh rate automatically so that it isn't using unnecessary power when the movement on screen doesn't warrant it - something that no other iOS device is able to do.
The iPad Pro's tech specs are state of the art, naturally. Aside from the processor discussed in the processing-speed section - it's Apple's fastest ever iOS device - the Pro comes fitted out with a dazzling array of components.
Apple never officially discloses the RAM allocation in its mobile products, but it's already emerged that the iPad Pro has a chunky 4GB of RAM.
(It was actually launch-event partner Adobe that initially gave the game away, in this since-amended blog post, before being confirmed by developer Hamza Sood's analysis of iOS 9 code. Adobe's blog originally included the sentence "iPad Pro is great for creative workflows with a high res 12.9-inch touch screen display at 2,732 x 2,048 pixels, A9X chip, and 4GB RAM." We hope no one at Adobe got in trouble for this slip.)
4GB is a giant set of RAM to be able to play with (the most any other iPad has included is 2GB, in the iPad Air 2; all other iPads have come with 1GB or less), making multitasking a breeze and performance red-hot. Sure enough, the iPad Pro turned in a dominant performance in Macworld's battery of lab tests.
The iPad Pro has a slightly unusual set of storage flavours. Whereas most recent iOS devices have offered three configurations (16GB, 64GB and 128GB, with the 32GB in-betweener much mourned), the Wi-Fi-only version of the Pro comes with: 32GB, 128GB and 256GB. And if you want the cellular model then you've two options: the 128GB and the 256GB model.
It should be noted that when first released, there was no 256GB option - but since the price increase in September 2016, Apple added the larger 256GB model. This welcome addition to the line is much needed for those who store a lot of films and want to store a lot of files on their iPad.
The iPad Pro comes with an 8Mp (megapixel) rear-facing iSight camera. Specs-wise it's identical to the rear camera on the iPad Air 2, which means:
- 8Mp iSight camera
- ƒ/2.4 aperture
- Five-element lens
- Hybrid IR filter
- Backside illumination
- Improved face detection
- Exposure control
- Panorama (up to 43Mp)
- Burst mode
- Tap to focus
- Photo geotagging
- Timer mode
Video recording specs are also the same as for the Air 2.
- 1080p HD video recording (30 fps)
- Slo-mo (120 fps)
- Time-lapse video
- Video image stabilisation
- Improved face detection
- 3x video zoom
- Video geotagging
Finally, specs for the front-facing camera are the same too.
- 1.2Mp photos
- ƒ/2.2 aperture
- 720p HD video recording
- Backside illumination
- Auto HDR photos and videos
- Improved face detection
- Burst mode
- Exposure control
- Timer mode
To those who are disappointed not to see advances here to match the processor, RAM and screen, we can only say: use a tablet with a 12.9-inch screen as a camera in public without getting embarrassed, and then talk to us about megapixel ratings.
There's a cellular version available for the iPad Pro (although as we mentioned previously, plumping for cellular cuts down your storage options) and it features 802.11ac wireless - just as the iPad Air 2 does.
Apple's iPad Pro press release boasts: "Ultra-fast wireless connectivity keeps you connected wherever you go with 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO technology, support for a wide range of LTE bands and other fast cellular network technologies (DC-HSDPA, HSPA+)."
It was rumoured before the announcement that the iPad Pro could follow the example of the 12-inch MacBook and incorporate a USB-C port. In the event it features just the standard Lightning charging/data port we're familiar with from previous iPads and iPhones. (Although for the first time that I'm aware of - readers are welcome to correct me if I'm wrong - this port can be used to charge something else. The Apple Pencil, which we'll look at in the accessories section, plugs into the Lightning port and charges astonishingly quickly.)
Dimensions and weight
The iPad Pro is impressively thin; Apple has stretched out that iPad Air 2 screen to near double the area and added less than a millimetre to the thickness.
Here are the iPad Pro's vital statistics:
- Width: 220.6mm
- Thickness: 6.9mm
- Weight: 713g (Wi-Fi-only); 723g (cellular model)
For comparison, here are the iPad Air 2's dimensions:
- Width: 169.5mm
- Thickness: 6.1mm
- Weight: 437g (Wi-Fi-only); 444g (cellular model)
At the same time as announcing the iPad Pro, Apple unveiled a pair of intriguing new accessories to accompany the device's launch. There are a number of accessories available through the Apple Store.
Apple Pencil stylus
That's right: Apple has finally given way and launched a stylus, called the Apple Pencil, intended to offer pressure-sensitive drawing and painting (and handwriting) rather than simply a standard control method. But it's an optional extra, costing an additional £99. You don't need a stylus to use the iPad Pro.
(Many moons ago, Steve Jobs said that "if you see a stylus, they blew it", which has been seized upon as yet more evidence that "this wouldn't have happened if Steve was alive". But we feel that this referred more to interfaces that rely on a stylus rather than to a stylus being offered as an optional accessory. In any case, it would hardly have been the first time Cook's Apple broke a Jobs pronouncement.)
In some ways, a stylus makes more sense for the iPad Pro than for other iOS devices. For one thing, designers, artists and other creative types represent a strong potential audience for a big-screen iPad. And very obviously the market and state of technology when Jobs made his comments bear little resemblance to those of today. But we still confess to being surprised by this change of direction from Apple.
The iPad Pro above has an Apple Pencil plugged directly into its Lightning port - this is how it charges, and it does so very quickly indeed. Apple has claimed that 15 seconds of charging time is enough for 30 minutes of use.
Read our Apple Pencil review for a more detailed account of the stylus's strengths and weaknesses, but for an alternative viewpoint, here's what Susie Ochs thought:
"The Pencil felt great from the moment I picked it up. It feels like a pencil, very natural (although you can say the same for other smart Bluetooth styluses on the market), and using it felt natural too. Sensors can detect the pressure and angle, so it was effortless to create lines of different thicknesses. The Notes app even has a ruler that let me draw perfectly straight. Using the side of the Pencil's tip created realistic shading, like using the side of a pencil lead."
(If you'd like to read about Apple's next version of its stylus, read our Apple Pencil 2 rumour roundup.)
In a move that's strongly reminiscent of Microsoft's Surface line of big-screen tablets (which makes it all the more interesting that Microsoft willingly participated in this launch event, giving its implied blessing to a product that appears to imitate and challenge one of Microsoft's more successful lines of recent years - presumably if you can't beat them you might as well partner with them), Apple unveiled a case/cover/hardware keyboard accessory for the iPad Pro.
The Apple Smart Keyboard is somewhat like Apple's previous Smart Cases and Smart Covers, in that it has a folding design and converts from a flat cover to a triangular-prism stand. But for the first time - at least for a first-party Apple iPad cover - this incorporates a (large-format) keyboard.
(When third-party iPad covers have included keyboards in the past there has always been the issue of whether the keys should face outwards, which makes them vulnerable to damage, or inwards, making them liable to rattle against the screen and losing the polishing effect one gets from having the interior fabric finish of Apple's covers rubbing gently against the display. The Smart Keyboard gets around this by having the keys face inwards with an additional layer of cover between them and the screen, but the result is a cover that seems to us quite thick.)
Essentially, this is a Smart Cover except that instead of there being three foldable panels, there's a fourth panel that's a full keyboard. Depending on how you fold it, you can use the Smart Keyboard as a stand without a keyboard, a stand with a keyboard, or folded up like a thicker Smart Cover.
The keyboard is covered in fabric - taut fabric, in fact, since the tension in the fabric provides the 'spring' for the keys - some people following the event got the impression that the Smart Cover uses the butterfly mechanism from the 12-inch MacBook, but it's a completely different design.
Jason Snell, a colleague of ours in the US, has been feverishly testing out the Smart Cover. He concludes:
"The keyboard itself feels pretty good, given how thin it is and how little movement there is when you press a key. I was able to type a few sample paragraphs without much trouble. The keyboard's got five rows, including arrow keys and all the modifier keys you'd expect on a full keyboard. iOS 9 includes a bunch of features that make it easier to discover and use keyboard shortcuts - and now we know one big reason why.
"In any event, it's a miracle that keyboards this thin can even exist. It's hard to quibble about a keyboard that's thin enough to double as a screen protector. Of course it's not going to move like a real, physical keyboard. But when I travel with my iPad, I need to remember to tuck a Bluetooth keyboard into the bag; the Smart Keyboard will always be with you."
This is an obvious nod to the business users that Apple hopes will respond to the iPad Pro launch, but it isn't included in the main bundle. You'll have to pay a further £169 for the Smart Keyboard in the UK, or $169 in the US.
After owning the 12.9in iPad Pro for a while, we've found the keyboard to be a fantastic addition, especially in comparison to the one found on the 9.7in version, where the keys are less spaced out. Thus, the 12.9in version has a fantastic keyboard that is easy to use and improves the overall productivity of the tablet.
Conclusions: Who is the iPad Pro for?
There are pros and cons to the idea of launching a big-screen iPad, but then, there are always pros and cons. One mild concern that is currently troubling us is the issue of who exactly is expected to buy it, and how it will affect (and potentially confuse) the buying decision.
Apple is constantly considering alternative screen sizes. Jony Ive has described the design process for iPods and iPhones in the past, whereby foam dummy units would be created in a wide range of sizes, and the boss (Steve Jobs at the time) would look at the options, feel them in his hands, and decide on the direction to take. You can guarantee that when Apple was designing the first iPad, one of the chassis options was a 12-inch model that roughly matches the iPad Pro.
The difference between Apple and a company like Samsung, though, is that Apple only ships a tiny proportion of the designs it comes up with. It has always championed simplicity - not just simplicity of design, but also simplicity in its range of products it sells. At one point the company offered only two mobile computing screen options: 3.5 inches for its smartphones and 9.7 inches for its tablets.
Apple has since diversified (there are currently three iPhone screen sizes and, prior to this launch, there were two for the iPad) but it will be strongly conscious that every additional option creates confusion in the minds of consumers. You can just imagine an inexperienced buyer looking at the 4-inch iPhone 5s, the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 (or iPhone 6s & iPhone 7), the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus (or iPhone 6s Plus & iPhone 7 Plus), the 7.9-inch iPad mini range, the 9.7-inch iPad Air range and now the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and being baffled. Which one should I get? How big does my screen need to be?
Office/productivity users: So what compelling reason is there to offer a bigger-screen iPad and complicate things further? You can sum this up in one word: productivity.
Five years after its launch, questions still remain over the iPad's ability to operate as a primary work tool - because its screen is smaller than almost all laptops, because iOS is limited in many areas, and because the iPad can't multitask. Some or all of these shortcomings can be addressed in a 12-inch iPad Pro, as we will discuss in this article. It's big and powerful enough to run multiple apps at once, and there's a compelling, large keyboard accessory that will appeal to business types on the go. Microsoft is well on board with its range of productivity apps.
Creative users: So it's a business product, then? Well, perhaps not. Apple also pushed the creativity angle hard, with page-layout and photo-editing demoes from Adobe and videos of artists creating beautiful art with the Apple Pencil stylus. Yet the range of pro-level creative apps available on iOS remains fairly limited, and the level that software companies would realistically be able to price their wares at on the App Store means that creating versions for this platform may not make sense commercially.
Last of all, gamers will love the super-fast A9X processor (and, to a lesser extent, the 32GB inbetweener storage option). But it will be some time before there's a decent library of games on the App Store that really exploit this power. The vast majority of games developers will want to maximise their potential audience by releasing software that can run on older devices too.
Apple has marketed previous iPads as devices that are all things to all people, thanks to the size and variety of the App Store, and this may not be an issue. But it strikes me that business people may not need a device that is quite this powerful (or, consequently, expensive); that the hardcore gamers who need the A9X chip would presumably get a console or a laptop if they wanted to play on a larger screen than the iPad Air 2, since this isn't a particularly portable option; and creatives could easily be put off by the message that this is the sort of device that Microsoft develops for. (On the other hand: a lot of creatives like the Surface Pro, so go figure.)
This is more of a question than a criticism, since I feel that Apple will as usual find the best marketing solution and persuade the right audience that this is exactly the device they didn't know they needed. But at the moment the iPad Pro strikes me as a sparkling enigma.
The iPad Pro 12.9in (2015) is no longer available from Apple or most other retailers, having been replaced by the iPad Pro 12.9in (2017).
But for historical interest, here's what it cost in the UK when it launched:
- £729 (32GB, Wi-Fi only)
- £819 (128GB, Wi-Fi only)
- £909 (256GB, Wi-Fi only)
- £939 (128GB, Wi-Fi plus Cellular)
- £1029 (256GB, Wi-Fi plus Cellular)