iPad Pro review: A killer creative canvas with laptop-replacement dreams

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
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9

Editors' note June 8, 2017: At its Worldwide Developer's Conference, Apple unveiled a new iPad Pro that replaces the 9.7-inch iPad Pro introduced in 2016. Starting at $649, £619 and A$949, the new model packs a a bigger screen -- a 10.5-inch Retina display -- into a footprint similar to that of the cheaper, non-Pro 9.7-inch model Apple debuted in March. The new 10.5-inch iPad Pro also comes equipped with a more powerful processor, higher-quality cameras, and, when it debuts in the fall, iOS 11 -- upgrades that are also coming to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro (reviewed below), which starts at $799, £679 or AU$1,249. The other two iPad models -- the iPad and iPad Mini 4 -- remain a part of the lineup, unchanged since their respective introduction and refresh earlier this year. 

The original (12.9-inch) iPad Pro review, published in November 2015 and updated regularly since, 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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Sarah Tew/CNET
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.

Now playing: Watch this: Working on iPad Pro: The experts weigh in
3:45

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.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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?

Josh Miller/CNET

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).

Sarah Tew/CNET

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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Sarah Tew/CNET

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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This Pad & Quill laptop sleeve was the best iPad Pro slipcase I could find.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Our editor in chief took to its size. "As a media professional, I found the iPad to up my professional game during my downtime," said Turrentine. "I found that I work faster on my laptop, but that the browsing and media consumption -- all the evaluation I have to do as a person who guides editorial teams -- was much more fun and satisfying on the iPad Pro."

Its size turns it into something almost like a TV. I sit back on my sofa and fire up Amazon Video. The iPad Pro is propped up on the ottoman. This is, in a sense, the other Apple TV. The 12.9-inch screen and its 2,732x2,048-pixel resolution (264 pixels per inch) feels larger because it's in a 4:3 ratio, meaning it's extra tall compared to TVs or laptops (in landscape mode, it's as tall as a regular iPad standing in portrait mode). It's the screen height of a 15-inch laptop.

Pair a Bluetooth game controller -- the same sort of ones that work with the new Apple TV -- and this iPad is a stellar game machine.

You could do this on a smaller-screened iPad too, but this iPad's extra pixel resolution and bright display look fantastic even with non-optimized games and video apps.

Even better, its four speakers -- positioned on the four corners of the sides of the iPad's thin body -- automatically adjust treble and bass based on orientation, deliver some decent stereo separation, and won't muffle sound when you cover one up by accident. They finally sound as good as the screen looks. They're loud, too.

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"Sandman" looks great.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's great having a screen this large for reading websites -- it feels like immersing myself in a big laptop or even a small desktop PC. The New York Times (website, not app) spreads out in front of me like a newspaper on my kitchen table. Documents sprawl out, like massive printouts. It starts to feel like I'm no longer aware of any machine at all -- an experience the iPad was originally created to inspire.

Speedy, in a relative sense

The iPad's A9X processor is Apple's fastest ever in an "iDevice," and our benchmarks bear that out. Not surprisingly, the Pro trounced its iPad siblings in speed tests.

But can the iPad Pro take on "real" laptops? Tests between PCs, Macs and tablets are necessarily more anecdotal, but using the Jetstream browser benchmark, a MacBook Pro and Surface Pro 4 came out on top. But when you consider that both of the computers were running full-on Intel Core i5 chips, the iPad Pro's performance was quite good.

Geekbench 3

Apple iPad Pro
3,146
5,287
Apple iPad Air 2
1,813
4,331
Apple iPad Mini 4
1,722
3,122
Apple iPad Mini 2
1,320
2,371

Legend:

Geekbench 3 Score (Single-Core)
Geekbench 3 Score (Multi-Core)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance


But speed, on something like an iPad, is relative. The iPad Air 2 still feels fast running iOS 9, even split-screen multitasking. I can get plenty of everyday work done on that, too. Speed depends on the specialized apps and tools that can take advantage of the iPad Pro's power. There just aren't enough optimized iPad Pro apps, yet, to determine what the difference could be.

3DMark Score (Ice Storm Unlimited)

Apple iPad Pro
32,412
Apple iPad Air 2
21,985
Apple iPad Mini 4
18,909
Apple iPad Mini 2
14,798
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8.0
11,877

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance


JetStream 1.1

Microsoft Surface Pro 4
186
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
176
Apple iPad Pro
139
Apple iPad Air 2
83

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance




The Pro handles its higher screen resolution and never flags. Games, apps and every other task I tried flow fast and without hiccups. Skipping between apps is quicker than ever. But the Pro only allows two split-screen apps at once, just like on the Air 2 or the Mini 4 (or three, if you count a picture-in-picture video stream). With this much screen and power, I wish I could have run three or even four apps at once.

And I'd do things faster on the Pro if I had a trackpad, or apps that allowed even more seamless flow between each other: on a PC, I have windows I can lay out. The iPad is still rigid in how it can be configured.

Battery life, according to Apple, is 10 hours, same as most other iPads. I used the Pro all day long and it lasted most of the day without a problem, but I needed a recharge by the end of the day. And charging on the Pro takes longer, because of its larger battery. (We'll have more detailed battery testing info soon.)

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Playing with Paper, by 53.

Josh Miller/CNET

Software: Waiting for Pro-optimized apps to arrive, and split-screen iOS 9 apps to thrive

What the iPad Pro needs most of all are killer apps. At the time of this review, days before the iPad Pro is even on sale, there are few optimized apps that take advantage of what this Pro can do. But those that are here show off the extra pixels and potential. Adobe's creative tools take advantage of the extra space and Pencil compatibility nicely; art apps like Procreate get bigger canvas sizes. iMovie feels easier to navigate, it's easier to look at video clips and it can handle video editing more smoothly. Apps like Evernote begin to feel almost like desktop applications, because you can manage so much at once.

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Split View apps: Crossy Road one of the few supported games I could find.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But you have to work within the limits of what the App Store will give you, and what iOS 9 will allow for split-screen work. For video editing, that becomes a challenge: Senior Producer Ariel Nuñez edited one of our videos on iMovie, and found it very different to working on his iMac. "Touch and pinch gestures make edits easier and faster than many steps you'd have to take on a desktop system," said Nuñez, but its "basic edit features" throw him off: "No preview window, no stereo editing, limited filters and transitions, no compositing, no key framing." He admits it's "easy to preview videos" and that simple edits can be done fast: "Recording voiceover or live capture is really easy -- no rendering." But he sees it as a quick tool, not a way to do lengthy or intricate work. "I can't see myself doing a documentary or music video, something that needs intricate editing."

iMovie is one of the only video editing apps we could find right now for iPad Pro. Will others arrive, and use their own peripherals and inputs? Right now we don't know. And that's the problem for any professional.

Microsoft Office is another interesting case. Pro-optimized versions weren't yet ready at the time of this review. But when they do arrive, you'll need to be a subscriber to Office 365. Unlike the smaller iPads, the Pro won't run the freemium, "it does most of the stuff you need" version of the apps. Yes, your employer (or your school) probably pays for your subscription, but it's just another one of those asterisks on the Pro, at least in these early days.

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Split-screen can be a great thing, with the right apps.

Sarah Tew/CNET

iOS 9 handles multitasking by splitting two apps on-screen at a time (it's called Split View), and while the iPad Mini 4 and iPad Air 2 can also do it, on the Pro in landscape mode it starts feeling much more useful. Two apps can be opened side by side, and each nearly feels like a whole iPad screen. I was able to look at notes while writing, or one edit of my review while making changes in another version. Sliding the split view for email or Twitter to a narrower side pane still offers plenty of screen space for messages (wider than an iPhone 6S screen), and the rest of the display feels plenty wide to do work at the same time.

It starts to feel like a full computer. But the limited configurations of split-view apps, and the fact that many iPad apps can't even work in Split View yet, makes it less exciting than it should be.

And, because the Pro has such a large screen, non-optimized apps (like, currently, Google Drive and Docs, which is what we use for work at CNET) look too big, with text and icons taking up too much space. "As a regular Google apps user, it was certainly frustrating for those apps not to be optimized," said Turrentine. "This isn't Apple's fault, of course, but I'm very much looking forward to more apps with more Pencil integration and that take advantage of the large screen and high resolution."

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iPad Pro, meet 12-inch MacBook.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What the iPad Pro could be

Do I expect a lot of this iPad Pro? Heck yes: it costs as much as a MacBook Air, when you add in the extras you'd surely want (keyboard, Pencil and 128GB of storage). There are lots of opportunities where this could have been a bolder, more Pro experience.

The home screen: there's tons of wasted space. The pinned apps on the dock below still only hold six icons, max. I'd like to add more, like I can on the MacBook's app dock. And I want to have notifications and widgets, now available via a pull-down menu, able to live on the side of my display if I want. I want access to more things at once. I want more side-by-side apps and widgets. Why can't I customize more? This iPad can handle it, and so can I.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

There's no USB port on this iPad, but the Lightning port supports USB 3-level speeds with forthcoming adapters. Why not open that up more, with new accessories? Yes, admittedly, using cloud storage to drop files to and from the iPad Pro is easier than ever (although still more app-dependent than a regular Mac or Windows computer), and using AirDrop from an iPhone or Mac to the Pro works like a charm. And, yes, Apple is always famously pushing the envelope when it comes to dropping legacy ports and drives. But the last big design change to the MacBook Pro added HDMI output to the Thunderbolt, USB and SD card ports that were already there -- and with good reason for those of us who use them every day.

I want a trackpad too. And I want iOS to welcome it. Or, at least let me use apps that work with one. That Smart Connector port has a ton of potential, but keyboards don't really show off what it could do.

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Left to right: 13-inch MacBook Air, iPad Pro, Microsoft Surface Book.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion: One more small step towards Apple's future of PCs

The iPad Pro's biggest strength right now is for creative visual artists. For that Pencil, and for the potential of using larger-scale apps on that fantastic screen, this is a dream iPad canvas. It's expensive, but it's far better for those needs than any other iPad. It's big and beautiful, and its pressure-sensitive stylus support makes a huge difference.

And if you're looking for the ultimate "media" iPad -- to play video and listen to music -- this certainly fits the bill, albeit at a swingeing premium.

For others? This iPad Pro will probably feel like something that's not quite ready yet. Until its unique software and accessories finally arrive, it's really just a very large, very powerful iPad with some enhancements.

Right now, the iPad still can't fully replace my laptop. And it probably can't replace yours, either. But at times, it comes close. The whole weekend before I filed this review, I didn't open up my laptop once. I just used this iPad Pro. And I liked it. Except for approving edit suggestions in Google Docs, which it didn't handle well.

Now I'm back to working on my 13-inch Retina Pro. Using split-view apps, just like on the iPad Pro. Making edits on the same desk. And I miss the iPad Pro, a little bit. For some things.

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13-inch Air, iPad Pro, 12-inch MacBook.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I want the future of computing. I don't like making difficult purchase decisions. Apple's iPad Pro is a weird product: it's half the future of all Apple computing. And it's half not. It's a 12.9-inch massive tablet, in a place where many other 12- and 13-inch Apple products already thrive: the MacBook Air, Retina MacBook Pro and new MacBook.

I want the iPad to eat the Mac, the way the iPhone ate the iPod. This iPad has already crept up to become as large as a Mac. But iOS needs to fully change with it. I need to connect to my old files and Web tools better, because that's what I need as a pro. I want it to become as flexible as a computer should be. The iPad needs to bridge the gap.

The iPad Pro feels like the top half of a new futuristic superpowered laptop. I want the bottom half, too.

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