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iPad Pro (2018) review: A powerful, beautiful tablet that needs a software overhaul

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The Good The 2018 iPad Pro sports a gorgeous new all-screen design, Face ID and scary-fast performance. The new Pencil is a huge step forward in terms of design and charging.

The Bad The Keyboard Folio Case and Pencil are necessary accessories that jack up the already-high total price. None of your old iPad accessories will work, including the original Pencil. The headphone jack is gone, and its single USB-C port won't pay real dividends until more compatible accessories arrive.

The Bottom Line The new iPad Pro is in many ways the pinnacle of tablet hardware design, but its nosebleed price and software limitations narrow its appeal to creatives willing to bend to its current compromises.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 10

Editors' note, March 18, 2019: Apple has announced two new iPads. Starting at $499 (£479, AU$779) for the 64GB model, the new iPad Air features a 10.5-inch Retina display, an A12 Bionic processor and support for the Apple Pencil. It replaces the 10.5-inch iPad Pro from 2017, which is no longer sold. The new iPad Mini, starting at $399 (£399, AU$599) for the 64GB version, also has the A12 chip and Pencil support, but is otherwise nearly identical to the iPad Mini 4 it replaces. The iPad Pros that Apple announced in 2018 remain, unchanged, in Apple's tablet lineup; the original review of those devices, last updated on Dec. 14, 2018, follows. 

Traveling with an iPad Pro isn't new to me. I've used the previous iPad Pro as my main commuter computer and, before that, other iPads. They're great for quick reading, communicating, writing on a keyboard, and... for me, that's about it.

The new iPad Pro, released in November 2018, is a story of impressive hardware and untapped potential: A device that still hasn't taken the final leap into being the "everything" computer for my needs. It has a great keyboard case, though it could use a trackpad. It's got a big, laptop-like screen. It's more portable -- and far more powerful -- than the last version. But it doesn't solve the final few things I need to make it a true laptop. Is the iPad Pro even the computer of my dreams? Not quite yet -- and not until the iPad version of iOS gets a fairly major overhaul.

Welcome to the 2018 iPad Pro: a half-step forward.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Update, Dec. 14: An earlier version of this review posted on Nov. 5. It has been updated with final thoughts, benchmarks and full ratings.

Still a superior tablet, but...

The new iPad Pro definitely bags some huge wins over its predecessor: It's shockingly fast, has USB-C, a far better Pencil design, easy login with Face ID and there's more screen real estate crammed into a more compact design. From a pure hardware perspective, it's a knockout -- and drop-dead gorgeous, to boot.

But the iPad Pro just isn't flexible enough, yet. The browser is not the same as a desktop-level experience, which can make it hard to work with web tools. No trackpad on the optional keyboard and no support for mice makes text editing cumbersome. Furthermore, iOS hasn't changed enough. It's way too much like an evolution of the iPhone, instead of a fully evolved computer desktop. And the current crop of available apps don't yet exploit this awesome new hardware. A true version of Photoshop is on deck from Adobe, for instance, but it won't be available until 2019. (I got an early peek and it looks great, but it's not here yet.) Mostly, the iPad Pro's software story feels iterative, not transformational, versus what was available previously.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Those drawbacks notwithstanding, this new hardware is going to cost you -- a lot. The iPad's price has gone up, to $799 for the 11-inch version with 64GB compared with $649 last year for the 10.5 inch. The 12.9-inch version costs $999 for 64GB of storage. My top-of-the-line review unit, with a crazy 1TB SSD and cellular data, is $1,899. Add in the new and improved Apple Pencil (increased in price from $99 to $129), that new fancy Smart Folio keyboard case ($179 or $199, up from $159), and new USB-C dongles and headphone adapters you'll need, and that's one expensive iPad.

iPad Pro 2018 and accessories

US UK Australia
iPad Pro 11-inch (64GB) $799 £769 AU$1,229
iPad Pro 12.9-inch (64GB) $999 £969 AU$1,529
Smart Keyboard Folio 11 $179 £179 AU$269
Smart Keyboard Folio 12.9 $199 £199 AU$299
Pencil 2 $129 £119 AU$199

Right now, the iPad Pro echoes the familiar pattern of Apple's 2018 iPhones: Faster, larger screens, higher prices. Six or 12 months from now, if Apple and third-party developers continue to invest in evolving iOS and expanding the universe of available accessories, it could very well unleash the full potential of this amazing device. (WWDC 2019, likely in June, will be a key waypoint.) There's no reason why this hardware couldn't allow greater possibilities. 

In the meantime, this is more of a niche product for artists and creatives willing to live within its bounds, or for those who can take a splurge on a seriously nice tablet. If you'd like a hint of the creative possibilities at a much lower cost, I'd recommend the far less expensive entry-level 9.7-inch iPad (which works with your old Pencil or the Logitech Crayon, too).

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It's all just one big screen now.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Welcome to the iPad X

The new iPad Pro looks like a large iPhone X. And, in a lot of ways, it really is like a large, super powerful iPhone X or XS.

Face ID hits the iPad, without the notch: It has Face ID, and the same TrueDepth front-facing camera. Whatever you could do with the iPhone XS, XS Max or XR and its front camera, you can do here. Depth-based portrait mode photos look as good as the iPhone, and it can do Animoji and Memoji and other depth-sensing AR. Face ID is nearly invisible. The camera now fits seamlessly into the narrower bezel around the edge. It's hard to even remember where it is sometimes.

The camera works in landscape and portrait and recognized me quickly. Face ID feels like a better fit for tablets, and even better for laptops, but Apple hasn't introduced it to Macs yet. I had to bend over or lift the iPad up occasionally for logging into an app, or paying for something on iTunes. That's where Face ID can get annoying over Touch ID.

Also, Face ID is only designed for one user. It highlights the still outstanding lack of multiuser support on iPads. For families, or anyone sharing an iPad, there's no way to store multiple logins, short of convincing Face ID to accept someone else's face as an "alternate appearance."

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The new 12.9-inch iPad Pro (middle) between the 2017 12.9 inch Pro (left) and 10.5 inch Pro (right). It's a big difference.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Gorgeous makeover: No doubt about it, this iPad's pretty. Both new sizes fit more screen in less space, in different ways. The 11-inch Pro fits a larger display into a similar-sized body to 2017's 10.5-inch version (that one remains on sale, at least for now). The 12.9-inch shrinks down the body of last year's larger Pro and keeps the same screen size, and the difference is dramatic. The bezels are nice and small, and Face ID blends in. It's a perfect look... except for the lack of a headphone jack.

An amazing screen: The iPad Pro display is lovely. It's LCD, not OLED, and its curved corners are engineered similarly to the iPhone XR's LCD screen. The display can reach 120Hz ProMotion like last year, which pays off in smooth scrolling, and sometimes in games and animation. It's bright and colors look great. Technically, the iPhone XS OLED bests it in detail, but this is just as good or better than the iPad Pro's display last year. And having a thin tablet that's nearly all screen makes for an eye-catching upgrade. 

But there's one downside that's popped up over and over: non-optimized apps show up with an extra black bar letterboxing the display and basically adding extra bezel. It's something I didn't even notice much at first, since the iPad Pro's got a pretty massive display, and the black bezels hide the extra black bar a bit. But it's annoying, and never happened with 2017's iPad Pro. (When apps are updated, the black bar problem can go away...but that depends on how fast app developers update their apps.)

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Yes, you can do Animoji/Memoji.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Booming audio: The speakers sound fantastic. Crisp and loud. Last year's iPad sounded great, too. Now the speakers boom so loud the entire iPad vibrates at full force. It's like holding a speaker cabinet. If nothing else, the iPad Pro is a killer TV.

USB-C in, Lightning and headphone jack out: Yes, it happened. As rumored, Apple dropped its Lightning connector on the new iPad Pro, and subbed in USB-C. This means an accessory transition that's both frustrating and potentially game changing. More on that later.

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Your one and only port on the iPad Pro, besides that magnetic smart connector.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But Apple also followed its worst iPhone design instincts and dropped the standard 3.5 millimeter headphone jack. As with the iPhone, you can buy a $9 dongle (USB-C to 3.5mm), but then you'll have cut off the only port. And because the iPhone still uses Lightning, you won't be able to swap headphone adapters between it and this new iPad Pro.

Navigating iOS on iPad Pro: Welcome to swipeland

The iPhone X swipe gestures are now on the iPad, mostly intact. Swiping up goes to the home screen, swiping down from the corner brings up Control Center. The previous iPad OS had some similarities. Now a few new wrinkles pop up. You bring up the app dock by swiping up a bit and holding, which can get confusing. Swiping up further brings up all open apps, including some that stay in split-screen pairing, just like before. Because the iPad version of iOS was already hinting at where the iPhone X gesture language would go, the continued leap here isn't jarring at all.

But would I have liked some more new moves to make the iPad Pro feel even more PC-like? Yes, I would have. Multitasking keeps getting better year after year, but it's still not as fluid as I'd like for my workflow.

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Getting to the app dock means swiping part way up, not all the way -- a little weird.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Speaking of workflow, let's talk about Shortcuts. What used to be called Workflow is now Apple's own Shortcuts app, offering ways to build macros and link actions together and tie into Siri commands. I think Apple is aiming for Shortcuts to be the way to make productivity smoother, do things better, and not feel as limited by iOS. I don't spend a lot of time in Shortcuts -- I'm not a big macro-user, or IFTTT (if this, then that) programmer. But it could help produce some interesting results, if you're creative and patient. I'd prefer it if iOS could just allow me to lay more things out simultaneously, show more on the home screen and multitask that way. The iPad Pro promises so much power, but it doesn't give me an easy way to access that power.

For comparison, I quickly hopped on an old Chromebook to save some file attachments, fill out a form, write back to someone and attach the files. Just some quick everyday work. Simple on a Chromebook, but it feels harder to do the same thing on an iPad Pro. In fact, the Google Pixel Slate shows Chrome's work advantages clearly, even though the Pixel Slate also suffers some multitasking and UI oddities.

After using the iPad Pro for a longer span of time, it's increasingly clear that Apple could do with an even greater iPad-focused revamp and enhancement of iOS, targeted at multitasking specifically.

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The old Pencil (left), charging and jutting out like a dagger. The new Pencil (right), charging up top, very nice.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Pencil: A big improvement -- but you'll need to buy a new one

The first Apple Pencil was great to use, but had a host of annoyances, especially its awkward "jam it into the iPad's Lightning port" charging methodology. The new Pencil has finessed the solution with elegant magnetic inductive charging. It snaps right onto a panel on the edge of the iPad Pro. By giving it a place to charge, much like the AirPods, it means your Pencil is likely to be ready when needed instead of rolling around somewhere and probably depleted. New, too, is a double-tap capacitive sensor on the iPad's lower third, which makes a single action happen. Apps need to activate it individually: iOS 12 doesn't make use of it, except in the Notes app. There are some individual apps that use it, but not a ton...and even then, its uses are limited.

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Liza Donnelly uses the iPad and Paper app to do quick, fluid work at live events.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Notes are one thing, but the iPad shines as a digital art tool. How is the new Pencil for drawing and sketching? Earlier this fall, I met up with New Yorker and CBS News cartoonist and journalist Liza Donnelly to see what she thought. She's worked with the iPad and 53's Paper app to do live sketches during news moments, creating on-the-fly sketch-based journalism. Watching her work on it, it impressed on me how good Pencil continues to be.

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