iPad Pro review:

A killer creative canvas with laptop-replacement dreams

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4 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

2.5 stars 7 user reviews

The Good The new iPad Pro is the biggest and fastest Apple tablet to date. The pressure-sensitive Pencil stylus offers superior sketching and drawing, and the Pro's gorgeous giant screen and quad speakers are ideal for split-screen apps, multitasking and watching movies.

The Bad At launch, very few apps are currently optimized to take advantage of the iPad Pro's full potential. Its large size makes it less portable than other iPads. Once you've paid for the Pencil and keyboard peripherals, the iPad Pro costs as much as a good laptop, but lacks its flexibility.

The Bottom Line The iPad Pro is a dream machine for graphic designers and media mavens, but this elegant tablet needs more optimized apps and accessories before it can fully achieve laptop-killer status.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 9.0

Summer '16 update

As we edge closer to the introduction of the next generation of iPhones expected this fall, the near-term future of the iPad line is anything but certain. In March 2016, Apple unveiled a smaller version of the original, 12.9-inch iPad Pro (reviewed below).

Aesthetically identical to the iPad Air 2, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro features some significant improvements over its super-sized Pro sibling. Chief among them are a much more reasonable base price ($599 vs. $799); a 12-megapixel rear camera that records 4K video; a 5-megapixel front camera with Retina Flash; and a fantastic display with markedly better glare reduction, brightness, and Apple's TrueTone automatic color adjustment. Since then, Apple has also previewed the next version of its mobile operating system, iOS 10, though it added disappointingly few unique iPad-optimized features. Expect iOS 10 to be released in September, around the time the next iPhone is released.

Editors' note: The original Apple iPad Pro review, published in November 2015, follows.

The iPad has dreamed of owning the future of computing since the day it was born. Five and a half years later, the iPad Pro -- the biggest, fastest, most powerful Apple tablet to date -- stakes a powerful claim on that lofty goal.

Looking back, it's been a steady march. When I bought my first iPad half a decade ago, it became my all-in-one e-reader, game machine, even modular laptop. It did a lot of things I needed. I carried it to work each day, in a small bag over my shoulder. It kept me company when my dad was sick in a hospital uptown. It kept me connected on trips to my mom's house on Long Island. It stayed with me, while my laptop sat at home.

I wanted it to replace my Mac. But it couldn't do everything. I needed, and still do need, my everyday laptop. For work, in particular. Certain apps and Web tools just didn't work well with it and I couldn't edit easily. I kept revisiting the iPad, with similar results.

Since then, PCs have arrived to bridge the gap between tablet and laptop. But compared to something like the Microsoft Surface Pro, Apple has continued to keep iPads and Macs separate, even as they have drifted closer in spirit. There's no need to wait on the future: the future is now.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Apple's iPad Pro is the biggest -- literally -- and boldest attempt to reinvent what the iPad fundamentally is and can be. It has a nearly 13-inch screen. Some new inputs and accessories, like a super-accurate stylus called the Pencil, and a new side connector for keyboards. An operating system that allows for split-screen multitasking.

I'm writing this review on the iPad Pro. I've been living my life off its large screen, and I'm not the only one. We had three other people at CNET using the iPad Pro, working on this review and much of their other normal workday responsibilities: Marc Mendell, creative director for CBS Interactive, who guides the look and feel of CNET.com, CNET Magazine and all of our sister sites; Ariel Nuñez, one of our many talented videographers and video editors, who edited the video below completely on an iPad Pro; and Lindsey Turrentine, CNET's editor in chief, who used it for more than a week as a stand-in for her everyday computer.

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You'd think a super-large iPad might feel absurd. But over time, it grew on all of us. It's beautifully made, and its extra space can be surprisingly useful at times. But it still wasn't a complete stand-in for an everyday computer for any of us...although it's priced like one: $799, £679 or AU$1,249 for the starter 32GB model; $949, £799 or AU$1,499 for the 128GB model; and $1,079, £899 or AU$1,699 for the version with 128GB and 4G LTE data. And that doesn't even include a keyboard or any other accessories.

It's an amazing tablet for artists, however, and this is what the iPad Pro might really be best at: a larger canvas for graphics work, with an input tool in the Pencil that's as good as it gets.

For everyone else, it has its limitations -- like any other iPad. But it could become a Mac replacement, if and when Apple lets it , through apps and iOS. The hardware's fantastic, fast, and the screen's as impressive as advertised. But the apps and the inputs it supports need to rise up to make it everything it can be. I hope it happens, because the one thing standing in the way of this "Pro" iPad is greater flexibility and more customized software. The iPad is growing up, and it can use some new tools. And a lot more apps.

Drawing like an artist

I'll tell you right now who's going to want an iPad Pro: anyone who draws or works with images. Its killer app doesn't even come in the box. The Pencil, Apple's new stylus is sold separately, for $99, £79 or AU$165. It's specifically designed to work with the iPad Pro, and it blows away any other stylus I've ever used , even Microsoft's Surface Pen. It's fast, accurate, pressure-sensitive, comfortable, and for apps that support it, glorious.

Marc Mendell, an artist by trade, loved it right away. "This device was made for me," he said. "So sweet, it made my teeth hurt." While noting that it was "ultra precise and reactive to drawing actions," he missed some of the wider, brush-like qualities of the capacitive 53 Pencil, a stylus that's been available for several years and made to work with 53's own Paper app. Still, he found Apple's Pencil better to use as a tool: "I'd gladly use it in an additive sense."

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Apple Pencil (left) next to 53 Pencil (right).

Josh Miller/CNET

Even non-artists like me can appreciate it: it feels like a regular pen. I was able to write by hand and have it feel normal. The Pencil is far more accurate than the mushier capacitive styluses you're probably used to trying on an iPad. It's more like Samsung's S-Pen for its phones and tablets, or Microsoft's pen for Surface.

The magic part comes when you tilt the Pencil's tip to an angle: it can do shading like a real pencil. Any amount of off-angle tilt can do extra things depending on what an app allows. Pressure sensitivity, while it takes getting used to, is finely tuned. The combination make this feel like a physical art tool, rather than a piece of technology. "It took time, but I got used to what I referred to as the shock absorber -- how the nib reacts to contact with tablet," said Mendell. "It's responsive and recognizes the pressure well."

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Marc Mendell, creating art on the Pro.

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I loved doodling around with Pencil on as many apps as I could find to support it: Apple's Notes app, Procreate, Paper by 53, Adobe's new suite of iPad Pro-optimized tools and Evernote. My 7-year-old son picked it up and loved drawing with it too. He just treated it like one of his colored pencils in his art box. To him it was just a sketchpad. Lindsey Turrentine noted that her 9-year-old daughter immediately took to it and started making art in the Notes app. "She said, 'It's pretty good. I like it so much better than how you have to use your fingers in drawings. This pen really works; it's very accurate.'"

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Don't lose that cap.

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The Pencil pairs via Bluetooth, and also needs charging: a Lightning plug on the end lets you plug it into the Pro for a quick charge (20 minutes took it from 38 to 100 percent), or plug into a Lightning cable using an included adapter to charge separately. It gets 12 hours on a charge, but I've never drawn long enough at a clip to exhaust it.

I love the Pencil, but I wish it came included with the already very expensive iPad Pro. It's also weird that there's nowhere to clip it or magnetically attach it to the iPad, either. And I don't like how it has a removable end cap to hide its Lightning charger, or that it juts weirdly out the side of the iPad when charging, like an awkward thumb.

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The Pencil can charge from the iPad Pro, like this, which is a little awkward.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But those are quibbles. The Pencil is so good, all iPads should support it, but right now, it only works with the Pro (I'm sure future iPads will). And it really should come packaged with the Pro, because even if you're not an artist, you're missing out on what the iPad Pro can do if you're not using it.

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The new Smart Connector, up close.

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Smart keyboards, smart connectors

Apple's added bags of potential to the iPad Pro with a new side connector port, called Smart Connector. It's a small row of magnetic contacts used to attach accessories, similar to how Microsoft's Surface tablets connect to their keyboard covers. Accessories snap on, and can be powered by the iPad.

I wrote this whole review on the iPad Pro's first two Smart Connector accessories: the Smart Keyboard, made by Apple, and the Logi Create Backlit Keyboard Case with Smart Connector. I alternated between them over a week and a half. I don't have a clear favorite.

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Apple's Smart Keyboard: very compact, but requires folding.

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Apple's is thin and light, but offers no back protection and unfolds into origami-like keyboard and iPad stand modes. The keys, covered in a smooth nylon, are sealed off from dust and are extremely responsive, but feel a little widely spaced for me.

Logitech's keyboard is bulkier: with the iPad snapped in, it's nearly the size of a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. It gives the full protection of a proper case, and the backlit keys are fantastic, more like a standard laptop. But these keyboards are both sold separately, and cost over $150 each (Apple's is $169, £139 or AU$269). Yes, you can buy a $40 Bluetooth keyboard that handles the basics, but it wouldn't double as a case or screen protector. And neither keyboard comes with what I really want most: a trackpad.

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Logitech's keyboard is better for typing on your lap.

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The Smart Connector could power other peripherals and inputs, in theory: like, for instance, a trackpad. The iPad Pro lacks one, and its iOS 9 software doesn't support the idea of one except for some limited cursor control on the iPad's soft on-screen keyboard, if you press both fingers down. To edit and work on the Web with my work tools (Google Drive, or my company's Web-based content management system), I need a trackpad. I hope iOS 10 and future peripherals allow it.

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iPad Pro, and Surface Pro 4. Notice a difference on the keyboards?

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For writing, however, I could work at a fast clip on the iPad Pro. The Logi keyboard was better for my lap, while Apple's is best on a flat desk. Neither, however, allows adjustable angles for the screen like a laptop does. And the extra-high iPad screen made it a tough fit in cramped places like my New Jersey Transit train seat. Apple's 12-inch MacBook, or the 11-inch Air, are far more compact.

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iPhone 6S, 6S Plus, iPad Mini 4, iPad Air 2, iPad Pro (left to right).

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Plus size

There are times when I forget I'm working on an iPad at all: sitting at my desk, losing myself in that gigantic screen.

Yeah, the iPad Pro is big. It's like the top half of a MacBook, literally. In terms of length and width, it's between a 13-inch MacBook Air and 12-inch MacBook. You can hold it in one hand, but its giant size makes it seriously unwieldy. It's lighter than it looks, though, trust me: At 1.57 pounds (713 grams), it's not much heavier than the very first iPad. That's an impressive accomplishment, given how much bigger it is.

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Because of its dimensions, you'll need a work area with enough space for its footprint and a laptop-size bag to carry it around in. It stands up fine on a desk with keyboard and stand accessories, like a mini monitor, but its best use might be flat on a table, or your lap.

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