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Apple's newest iPad Pros hands-on: The iPad X we expected

The big-screen, home button-free iPad Pro goes for the bleeding edge of tablets.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
5 min read
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I couldn't tell if I was looking at the 12.9-inch iPad Pro or the 11-inch one. That's a testament to how Apple has shrunken down the Pro lineup, and seems to have delivered on a more portable high-octane iPad this year. But can it get any closer to replacing my laptop?

The new iPad Pros announced at Apple's October event in New York are pretty big changes, if you're looking to maximize display in a metal frame. Both new versions fit larger displays in smaller, thinner bodies. Face ID has been added nearly invisibly, built into the thinner bezel via a depth-sensing TrueDepth camera, just like the iPhone X has. But there's no notch, which makes it seem a lot more subtle.

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That also means no home button. It's more like a big, magic window now. But with a display and a beefed-up A12X processor inside that are promising this much, it seems like it's time for the iPad to unleash even more inputs and accessories. Apple has delivered on some, and not on others.

Watch this: Apple's iPad Pro gets a giant makeover

Lighter, more screen and Face ID hides away

I held both new iPad Pro sizes for a little while in Apple's demo room, and they're sometimes hard to tell apart. The 12.9-inch version is lighter, and finally feels one-handable, provided you're OK with keeping a sheet of metal and glass in one hand. I had an urge to coddle these tablets more than ever. The bit of bezel around the edge of both helps give a hand-grip zone, but I really wanted these iPads in protective cases.

It seems like the 12.9-inch version is the most impressive change this time around. The new 12.9-inch version has a smaller footprint than last year's model, while the 11-inch Pro fits a larger display into a size very similar to last year's 10.5-inch Pro.

The iPad Pro's displays now have slightly curved corners like the iPhone X and Apple Watch, but it has an LCD screen Apple has called "Liquid Retina" that should be similar or better to the iPhone XR display. Display resolutions this time around are 2,388x1,668 for the 11-inch, and 2,732x2,048 for the 12.9-inch, both 264 ppi (the entry-level iPad has a 9.7-inch 2,048x1,536 display, by comparison, with the same pixel density).

For me, smaller is better. The difference between iPads feels a lot subtler, though, similar to the bump-up between the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. The 12.9-inch version costs an extra $200 per storage configuration. For a full comparison of specs and what's new, read our breakdown.

iPad Pro 2018: Feast your eyes on Apple's big iPad update

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USB-C, with a few caveats

USB-C replaces Lightning on the new iPad Pro, which sounds exciting, but doesn't necessarily mean what you think it does. The new Pros will support USB accessories and export video to monitors, but last year's Pros could do that too, with dongles. More interestingly, the iPad Pro can use its USB-C port to reverse-charge other USB-C gadgets, or an iPhone via a USB-C-to-Lightning cable. It also could mean buying USB-C charging cables and adapters for the Pro will be a lot easier (and more affordable).

Apple has already said that the USB-C port won't support external storage. However, app developers could design specific USB-C accessories that do specific things. Not needing to connect via Lightning could open up new possibilities. (Apple does support SD card readers over USB-C, but only for transferring photos and videos to the iPad.)

It also brings in a few complications. There's no headphone jack on the new Pros, and there's no Lightning port, either -- so Apple's own Lightning EarPods packed with current iPhones won't work. And it also means the existing Apple Pencil won't work. Instead, there's a new Pencil.

iPad Pro 2018 apple pencil

The Pencil now charges against the side of the iPad (and has a tappable side that performs actions).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Pencil: Now magnetic, wireless-charging, with double-tap sides

Apple's improved Pencil stylus now charges inductively via a magnetic strip on the side of the iPad: snap it on and it charges. The Pencil's still round, but that flat side also keeps it from rolling away on a table. The Pencil's latency and pressure sensitivity are the same as last year (the new Pros also have similar ProMotion faster-refresh displays as last year, up to 120Hz).

There's also a new double-tap control that can do specific things in particular apps. Sketch apps and Apple's Notes app use it to swap between the last brush and the eraser. Other apps could use it in other ways. But the double-tap action seems limited to a single action at a time, almost like how Apple's wireless AirPods' double-tap functions work.

These changes are welcome. But, I'm not wild that Apple's asking us to buy a whole new Pencil.

iPad Pro 2018
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A new keyboard folio case

Apple has its own unfoldable keyboard case that seems like shades of what Logitech has made for previous iPads. The case is powered via Apple's new smart connector on the Pro models, and unfolds to a more lap-friendly base where the iPad docks into the keyboard like a little laptop. It looks like a nice enough case, but I haven't lap-tested or spent enough time typing on it. But it's missing the thing I wanted most: a trackpad like the Google Pixel Slate and Microsoft Surface keyboards have. And it's also expensive, at $179 for the 11-inch version or $199 for the 12.9-inch version.

Fancy, and $$$

The iPad Pro seems like a perfected vision of where Apple's touchscreen computers are heading, but these tablets are expensive this year. Starting at $799 or $999 for 64GB of storage means you'll want the next tier up at least, plus the $129 Pencil and some sort of keyboard case (Apple's or otherwise). Expect to pay well over $1,000. At those prices, I wonder, would you have been better off with an older iPad model and a laptop instead? Last year's 10.5-inch iPad Pro started at $649 for the same amount of storage.

But, if you were dreaming of an even better art tool at a still-super-high price, maybe this was the iPad you were waiting for. Even more than the beefed-up hardware, these iPads will only be as good as the new apps that make the most of them.

Of course, we'll have a full review on CNET at some point. These are just early thoughts in a demo room.

Follow CNET's live blog for real-time coverage of the Brooklyn iPad event.

The new iPad Pro: Everything we know so far