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The new iPad Pro gets my dream features and an expensive keyboard case

Trackpad support, better microphones and a lidar 3D scanner. But that new keyboard case is $$$.

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The new Magic Keyboard on the iPad Pro makes it almost seem like a MacBook.

Apple

I've been wondering for years when the iPad would take over and be my total everyday computer. I don't know for sure yet because I haven't tested the new iPad Pro, but I think that moment has arrived... if all the features live up to what's being promised.

The last iPad Pro arrived a year and a half ago. The newest iPad Pro hardware, announced out of the blue at a time when I'm locked in and working from home for an undetermined period, has features I've been thinking about for months (actually, years). It has a better processor, yes, but it's the other details that sound really exciting. Provided, of course, they do everything they promise... and you can stomach the prices.

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What's a computer again?

Apple announced the iPad Pro alongside a new $999 MacBook Air with an improved keyboard. Apple still keeps its Macs and iPads separated, although the ecosystems are getting ever closer. Trying to decide between two $1,000-ish computers (in a state of global economic strain, no less) is a challenging proposition. Apple hasn't yet laid the gauntlet down to make the iPad the complete Mac successor, but the lines feel blurrier than ever. In some ways, that's great.

Trackpad, at last

A new case and iOS 13.4 support give the iPad trackpad support, something I've wanted since 2012. This looks like the full deal, not the accessibility-focused cursor option in iOS 13 that was great for those who needed it, but wasn't  truly a way to get work done.

The trackpad support (and mouse support) will come to a variety of iPads. Per Apple's news release, meaning it's not an iPad Pro-specific feature. So it'll come to the $300-ish iPad as well. Specifically, "iPad Pro models, iPad Air 2 and later, iPad fifth generation and later, and iPad mini 4 and later."

Apple is promising its core apps will get the support first, and Apple says it will work across apps and iOS 13 right off the bat by default, with apps open to customize the support if they want. Here's hoping every developer jumps on board (when they can, considering worldwide conditions right now).

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Will this feel like a laptop?

Apple

A crazy new case with a crazy high price

The Pro does get Apple's new iPad Pro case, called the Magic Keyboard, which includes a trackpad. It also elevates the iPad like a monitor stand of sorts, floating it in the air. It has a number of other new features, including MacBook-like backlit scissor keys and a passthrough USB-C port. 

It looks, at first glance, like the keyboard accessories I tried with Google's Pixel Slate. But the price for Apple's perfect keyboard accessory is seriously high. At $299 for the 11-inch one or $349 for the 12.9-inch, it's the cost of a basic iPad. Add the price of a new iPad Pro, and you're in premium laptop territory. These new keyboard cases aren't arriving until May, while the iPad Pros should be ready next week. Of course, with coronavirus delays and retail shutdowns starting to occur in the US, actual timeframes are more unclear.

Right now, with so many people entering a state of financial uncertainty, these premiums seem like a lot to swallow.

A more interesting option could come from trackpad accessories for existing iPads. Logitech has its own $149 trackpad keyboard case for the iPad Air and 10.2-inch iPad coming in May, which would be a lot more affordable on a number of levels. Standalone Magic Trackpads will work as well. 

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The Apple Arcade game Hot Lava, using Apple's new AR cameras to place objects everywhere in a room.

Apple

AR boost, and 3D scanning via lidar

The rear camera array introduces features that were also rumored in the next iPhone: besides dual cameras (one wide-angle), there's lidar, which can measure depth in a room and take a 3D scan of an environment, like a larger-scale version of Apple's front-facing TrueDepth camera, or Google's older Tango phones that pioneered that idea. A company called Occipital had its own 3D room-scanning iPad accessory, Structure, which did something similar years ago, too.

The extra depth sensing will make ARKit apps work faster and more accurately, but they'll also measure objects better (think rulers that can pinpoint edges and give you improved measurements). Apple's added Scene Geometry API will build out more advanced environments with 3D meshes, and games and apps will be able to lay down objects (or virtual things) more seamlessly. It's the sort of stuff Apple will need for an AR headset, eventually.

As a step forward in Apple's AR plans, these new rear-camera features fascinate me. The iPad will make 3D meshes of rooms and overlay objects, much like AR headsets such as Magic Leap or the HoloLens 2. But some AR apps were already demonstrating capabilities that approached this through software, not hardware. The iPad Pro looks like the testing ground for Apple's AR efforts, but for a lot of people these steps won't be necessary to explore. I'm hoping (or expecting) that Apple will figure out ways to incorporate some of these more advanced room-awareness features in future versions of iOS, too, to work on other Apple devices.

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The floating Magic Keyboard case from the side, and a look at the new camera array on the iPad Pro back.

Apple

Could you stick with your existing iPad?

Yes. Of course you could, and probably should. I'm optimistic that the upcoming iOS 13.4 with trackpad and mouse support will open up more work advantages for those using iPads at home over the next few weeks (or months). In a way, that's the most exciting iPad news of all.

The iPad Pro also seems promising, but its high price demands that it deliver on those promises, too. $300 iPads are one thing, but $1,000-plus iPad-and-keyboard packages are something entirely different.

I'll have more thoughts when I get a hands-on look at the new iPad Pro in a future review. The new iPad Pro is expected to be available next week.