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iPad Pro (2018) review: Big beautiful tablet? Yes. Flexible computer? TBD

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Pencil remains a killer art tool (and is easier to keep nearby).

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The Pencil's accuracy and latency are the same as last year on the iPad Pros, but according to Donnelly, she felt more "drag" on the new Pencil-to-iPad-Pro display. Ultimately, that's a good thing. It made the experience more paper-like and tactile, but it also took some getting used to.

For me, the whole experience and new ease of charging now makes the Pencil more likely for me to use, instead of ignore. It feels like a part of the iPad, now. Oh, and the new Pencil ditches the cap you always lost, and its one flat side means it won't always be rolling off the table -- both great little design improvements.

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Old Pencil (top): goodbye. New Pencil (bottom): hello.

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But it's a Faustian bargain. First, it's more expensive now ($129). Also, it doesn't come with the iPad -- even though it should, it really should. And older Apple Pencils don't work at all with the new iPad Pro. The new Pencil doesn't work with older iPad Pros, either. Now you need two Pencils, if you have two generations of iPad Pros.

I hate that. But I love pretty much everything else about the new Pencil.

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Solid keyboard, but...

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Folio Case keyboard: Nice, but where's my trackpad?

I'm a writer. So, for me, a computer is something I can write, edit and publish on. The iPad Pro doesn't do that much more for me than previous iPads in that regard. The new keyboard case Apple makes is much better designed, closer to what my favorite keyboard cases from Logitech have been. It locks strongly into one of two viewing angles, and it's reasonably lap-friendly. On New Jersey Transit, I perched it on my knees and wrote this section you're reading now.

But it's not ideal. The iPad's display ratio is a little odd for writing -- too tall, maybe. The 12.9-inch version feels too big, somehow. More than ever, I want windows or multiple panes to hover around the screen freely. The iPad can still only multitask two split screens at once.

The separately sold Apple Smart Folio keyboard, though, is good ($199 for the 12.9-inch version). It's good enough that I was able to write this review, and do it on the train, and do it on a desk or in my lap. The keys and key feel is not much different than last year, but if you've never used an iPad to write, the experience is better than you think. The keyboard base is far more solid, the keys feel sturdier, and I can type away on my lap without worrying.

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Editing, though? That's another story. I use a trackpad to edit. Apple allows a virtual trackpad in iOS 12 using the onscreen software keyboard, but there isn't an option for the physical keyboard. Yeah, I can touch the screen to make edits, but it's an odd flow. It seems like it should be simple to add a trackpad: Microsoft Surface and the Google Pixel Slate have it. Why not the iPad?

The keyboard's not backlit, either. Third-party solutions might add that, but I'd like to have seen it in Apple's keyboard.

The keyboard folio covers the iPad Pro snappily, but doesn't offer a ton of protection. The edges of the iPad are exposed. It wouldn't be a pretty scene if I dropped the iPad Pro with this folio case on. It's best as a general home-and-in-a-padded-bag type of accessory.

So, is it something I can write on? Yes. Is it a writer's computer? No. (This is where I remind you that the new MacBook Air is hitting stores the same day as the iPad Pro.)

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By the way, AR looks really nice on this iPad.

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Performance: Scorching-fast speed

It's hard to judge the real-world power of an iPad Pro. Optimized apps haven't emerged yet, but dedicated graphics, video and photo tools could end up making the most of what's on tap. In the meantime, benchmark scores help give us a sense of what's under the hood. The octacore A12X powering the new iPad Pro delivered a Geekbench 4 single-core score of 5,019, which is 28 percent better than last year's iPad Pro, and a whopping multicore score of 18,149.

Let's put that multicore score in perspective. That's 95 percent faster than last year's iPad Pro. Faster than a Razer Blade 2018 with a 2.2GHz Core i7 processor. A tiny bit faster than a 2017 MacBook Pro with a 2.9 GHz Core i7. Yes, really. The 2018 Core i9 MacBook Pro is still faster.

Speed is one thing, but what does it translate into in graphics, sustained performance and everyday use? There aren't many killer pro video editing tools on the iPad Pro. Apple only makes iMovie for iOS, not Final Cut Pro X. Art tools are plentiful, and as mentioned above, Adobe is looking to bring powerhouse "full" Photoshop and other promising Creative Cloud apps to the iPad Pro in 2019.

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Stardew Valley is about the level of game intensity I tend to use on an iPad.

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Games, meanwhile, can look terrific. The iPad Pro is clearly a killer graphics machine, but I struggled to find titles that could even push it to its limits -- the potential is sky-high. But even an entry-level iPad is is really good at most current games. Ultimately, I don't think anyone is going to spend upward of $1,000 to play games on this thing. If you want gaming, I'd get a console. Or get all three consoles: You can buy a Nintendo Switch, an Xbox One and a PS4 for the price of a single iPad Pro, after all.

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You'll need some new dongles and things.

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USB-C: Frustrating today, promising tomorrow

USB-C has replaced Lightning as the single port on the new iPad Pro, not counting the functionally limited magnetic smart connector on the back and the side magnetic inductive charge zone for the Pencil. It sounds exciting: At last, compatibility with more accessories, and things that used to be hard to plug into an iOS device! 

Some of that is true. USB-C chargers and battery packs can now be used, which is great. The iPad can also charge other devices, which is pretty wild. You can use the iPad Pro to charge an iPhone with the proper cable or USB-C adapter dongles, a Pixel 3 and a Nintendo Switch. They all started juicing up when connected.

In theory, the iPad Pro can connect to cameras, USB thumb drives and SD cards (via adapters or proper cables), but the Lightning iPad Pro could, too, with dongles. But don't expect plug-and-play support for storage and accessories here as you would with a Mac or Windows PC -- or even a Chromebook. Accessories are generally supported with individual apps. A GoPro supports GoPro's app and so on.

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The default mode of iOS 12 and a monitor is to mirror the iPad, unless an app takes advantage of the extra display possibility.

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The same too goes for external displays, where an app could allow up to a 5K monitor to be used as a second screen. That's great, but in general iOS 12 on the iPad Pro doesn't do these things across the whole system. Unless an app supports extra monitor modes, all a monitor can do is mirror the iPad's resolution on a second screen. It works either with an HDMI cable or with a direct USB-C cord. (The iPad Pro works with USB-C monitors that work via DisplayPort, according to Apple. Otherwise you'll need to connect via an HDMI cable or adapter.) FYI: The USB-C charge cable in the iPad Pro box is USB 2.0. You'll need to buy a Thunderbolt 3 USB-C cable to connect directly to a USB-C monitor.

One hopes there's a future where you plug in a hard drive full of 4K video or photos, and the iOS Files app pops up and lets you start accessing directories, moving and opening files at your heart's content, without the need for a gaggle of proprietary apps. The same goes for tethering cameras, microphones and everything else that content creators use in their daily routines.

Likewise, USB-C could work with docks, enabling the iPad to become a display-connected, mouse-and-keyboard-and-trackpad machine that sits on a desk and becomes a complete, everyday computer in a heartbeat. It could, but so far it doesn't. Changing iOS to allow plug-and-plug peripherals would be the breakthrough here, but who knows when -- or if -- that's coming.

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Google's Pixel 3 USB-C earphones are a pretty great fit with the iPad Pro. Apple's 3.5mm and Lightning EarPods? Not so much (AirPods, though).

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Meanwhile, adding USB-C also has a major drawback: Lightning and the headphone jack are now gone. It means the iPad Pro no longer works with any of Apple's wired headphones via 3.5mm or Lightning. AirPods are the suggested solution, perhaps, or another set of Bluetooth headphones. Or, you'd have to use a USB-C adapter, which means finding a splitter dongle if you're already using USB-C for other things. There's only one port out on this iPad, and that's a shame.

Important note: I've spent less than a week with the iPad Pro so far, so we'll be testing USB-C compatibility more in the coming days and weeks.

Battery life: Good enough

Apple claims the long-familiar 10 hours of battery life on the new iPad Pro, matching what it's been around for years. In daily use, it's fine. I worked on it a solid, serious half-day and exhausted about half the battery. It'll last a full day, but I'd take the charger. It's an upgraded 18-watt USB charger, better than the old 12-watt Lightning one, although it's also a fatter plug. But other laptops and tablets have caught up. The iPad's no longer an astonishing battery-life device, just a good-enough one. We'll post full battery benchmarks soon.

Cellular: Easy to set up, but you could also just tether

A note on cellular on the iPad Pro: I set up a monthly AT&T account for wireless data easily and with no Wi-Fi nearby while on the train. The Gigabit LTE, 4x4 MIMO connectivity is similar to what's on the iPhone XS and XS Max. Instant connection in the US via eSIM can happen via AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, AlwaysOnline and GigSky, and global partners are available for eSIM, too. Verizon requires a physical SIM card. 

On New Jersey Transit, the connection seemed to hold decently, even in areas where the signal strength was low. But, for the extra cost of the cellular antenna-equipped model ($150) and the extra cellular data plan, you may be fine just tethering to your phone's hotspot instead.

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The future of Macs lies in the iPad... and the future of iPad lies in the Mac

To be clear, more than anything else I want the iPad's newest features in Macs. Face ID, a really excellent pressure-sensitive stylus, accessories that magnetically connect and pair, and of course, a touchscreen.

That's my first feeling about the newest iPad Pro: It's got the pieces that represent Apple's computer future. And, based on performance benchmarks and the feel of the tablet as I use it, the processor inside the iPad has become a serious contender against any regular PC experience, at least in terms of raw horsepower.

But let's back up a few steps. The iPad Pro is a product that's becoming more expensive, more refined and more "pro creative-centric" every year. I have the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in my lap right now as I work on this review. It's a beautiful, sleek, crisp tablet. But it is still, willfully, Not A Mac. Its OS and interactions can be limiting. It's not as easy to multitask. It's locked down, making expandable storage impossible, and even on-device file management is tough. And its raw power feels hard to tap since multitasking is still limited to two apps at a time.

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The iPad Pro seems like a device that assumes you already have a Mac somewhere -- back at home, the office, the studio. No, this is not Apple's version of the Microsoft Surface Pro. But you probably knew that already. Google is exploring more computer-like tablets through the Pixel Slate. There are plenty of Windows alternatives thanks to Microsoft's embrace of touchscreens and flexible hardware offerings: Detachable keyboards, two-in-one convertibles and traditional laptops all peacefully coexist in the Windows ecosphere. Apple's approach makes for a spectacular tablet, but a sometimes not-so-great standalone, flexible, do-every-pro-task computer.

The iPad's a beautifully designed thing, now -- practically perfected, from a pure hardware perspective. The whole screen ratio to body size is just right, and the thickness, and everything else. Now it needs the accessories, the keyboards and trackpads, and the inputs, and maybe a more advanced OS that shows more on screen at once.

But without the apps that show off what it can do, and push it into new territories -- USB-C camera tethering, multidisplay app workflows, ways to maybe eventually add a mouse or trackpad or other inputs beyond a keyboard -- it feels hindered.

Then again: I wrote my whole review on this iPad Pro, used Slack, pulled together photos, did benchmarks, wrote emails and used Twitter -- and it all was fine... but when it came to making edits, the Pencil's in-beta markups didn't help me enough in Pages, and in Google Docs I couldn't see group edits properly. Back to the MacBook I went.

The iPad Pro really has the power of a full computer now -- a really good one. It's just that it could be so much more, if iOS wasn't quite so limited.

More thoughts to come as I work on the iPad Pro in the coming weeks.

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