Apple iPad Pro 12.9 Review

LiDAR and a radical OS update re-imagine the iPad Pro

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4.5

Apple iPad 12.9 (2020)

Apple iPad Pro 12.9

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

What We Like
  • Excellent design

  • Great screen

  • LiDAR shows potential

  • Unstoppable performance

  • New OS makes it almost a laptop

What We Don't Like
  • TrueDepth Camera needs an update

  • Not enough apps to test LiDAR

Thanks to more powerful components and a hybrid OS (iPadOS 13.4), the iPad Pro is no longer just a tablet. It’s a computer in a screen just waiting for a keyboard and mouse.

4.5

Apple iPad 12.9 (2020)

Apple iPad Pro 12.9

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

We received an Apple iPad Pro 12.9 review unit from the company so our expert reviewer could thoroughly test and assess it. Keep reading for our full product review.

A new paradigm, that’s what it is to work on an iPad with full mousing capabilities.

I’ve been using iPads for a decade and, even when I do real work on them, as opposed to drawing or streaming another episode of Love is Blind, I feel like I understand how to use them. It is, obviously, an adjustment to work in a 100% touch environment. The addition of the Smart Keyboard Folio and Apple Pencil did alter that things a bit. But when it came to to selecting, moving, or adjusting things on screen, I had to do it the touch-screen way.

iPad Pro
It's not a laptop, it just acts like one.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Now I don’t. With iPadOS 13.4, the iPad is fundamentally altered. It’s now a mouse-friendly system and it will never be the same.

A New iPad

Apple sent me the new iPad Pro 12.9, which looks and feels almost exactly like the last iPad Pro, a tablet I love. It’s still 11.04 inches x 8.46 inches x 0.23 inches thick. At 1.41 pounds, it’s marginally heavier than the last model, which was 1.39 pounds (we’re talking Wi-Fi-only models here).

Apple iPad Pro 12.9
The Apple iPad Pro 12.9 with Smart Folio Keyboard Cover and Apple Pencil, second generation.   Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Externally, the most obvious difference is the new dual camera array, which includes a 12 MP wide camera with an f 1.8 aperture (same as the last iPad Pro) and a new 10 MP ultra-wide camera with a 125-degree field of view. That raised square also includes the new LiDAR scanner (a first for consumer-grade mobile technology) and LED flash.

The 2388 x 1668 Liquid Retina touch screen is unchanged from the last iPad Pro, right down to the smooth, 120 hz refresh rate. At the top of the screen is the same TrueDepth module, including a 7 MP selfie camera and FaceID unlocking system.

Inside, there’s a new A12Z Bionic mobile CPU and a new 8-core GPU with a revised thermal architecture. More on how its performance differs from the A12x Bionic later.

iPad OS 13.4 and Mousing Around

When Apple announced its new iPad Pros and the new mouse-friendly iPadOS, it also introduced a fascinating new Magic Keyboard and cover that, notably, included a trackpad. It ships in May and, sadly, was not including in my review package. Even so, iPadOS 13.4 enables mouse support on virtually all modern iPads. To test this new capability, Apple sent me a lovely Magic TrackPad.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9
I'm controlling the Apple uPad pro 12.9 with a Magic Mouse. Look carefully and you can see the grey circle cursor on the screen.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I connected it to the iPad via Bluetooth and began my first time using a trackpad with an iPad.

As I mentioned, it takes some getting used to. I had to train my right hand to not reach for the screen and, instead start using the large, glass-covered pointing device to the right of it.

iPadOS enables virtually all the same gestures you can use on a MacBook Air's trackpad, including pinch to zoom, three-finger sweep up to minimize or sweep across to switch apps, two fingers to scroll, tap to place cursor, two presses to select a word, three to select a sentence. This is how a trackpad works.

Instead of an arrow, the on-screen mouse is a gray, translucent circle that morphs into different shapes depending on app and activity. In a search bar, for instance, it might turn into a narrow bar. It’s so fungible that I’ve taken to calling the cursor “Blobby.”

Apple iPad Pro
The back of the iPad Pro, where you can see the new camera module and LiDAR scanner.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

There are also numerous mouse gestures that align with iPad functionality. A single finger sweep to the bottom of the screen brings up the dock. A single finger sweep to the upper right corner drops down the Control Panel.

In multi-app mode, I can now use the mouse to grab images from the the gallery and drag and drop them into other apps. I do this as I would on any other trackpad.

To precisely place the cursor anywhere within text, I just pressed harder on the Magic TrackPad until Blobby transformed into a narrow cursor and then dropped it wherever I wanted.

iPadOS 13.4 and the new cursor and mousing capability are going to change how we use these systems. It arguably makes the iPad a true ultra portable competitor

LiDAR and ARKit 3.5

Ever since Apple introduced ARKit in 2017, its interest in augmented reality has been clear. Thanks to that and new imaging hardware, its phones and tablets are the portals through which we see the mixed realities of photo-realistic-looking 3D objects and our real world. With a built in LiDAR scanner, Apple is taking its AR capabilities to the next level.

AR guitar on couch
This is a fake, AR electric guitar that I placed on my real couch using Apple's AR Quick Look Gallery. The new LiDAR scanner and ARKit 3.5 helps the virtual object find the couch curves.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

In your current iPhone, iOS uses computer vision, AI and the device's other sensors to analyze a scene and discover the floor, furniture, even people. Once you scan the floor, basically giving it critical information about the space, it can place a 3D object that looks like its part of the real world.

LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, uses a laser to scan the environment, quickly building a live 3D mesh that the system, in this case iPadOS with ARKit.35 and the A12Z Bionic’s neural engine, uses to instantly place 3D objects without the need for first scanning the floor space.

Because Apple released the hardware and kit just a week or so ago, developers haven’t had much time to build new experiences around it. The LiDAR ostensibly makes the current AR experience better than it would be on, say, an iPhone 11 Pro, but when testing it with Apple’s own AR Quick Look 3D objects on the iPad Pro 12.9 and an iPhone 11 Pro, I initially didn’t see much of a difference. There is, however, a difference in how the iPhone’s mostly AI-driven AR and the iPad’s LiDAR system interpret curved objects. In placing an AR electric guitar on my futon, I found that the iPad did a much better job of recognizing the curved surfaces than did the iPhone 11 Pro.

Apple's new Measure App
Not only can I more easily measure objects (the app finds corners and edges more easily), but now the app shows ruler-like measurements, as well.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Apple’s Measure app, though, is a different story. The LiDAR helped it find edges more quickly. I also liked the new ruler view, but had to learn on my own that they ruler marks only appear when you move closer to your measurement and automatically disappear when you step back.

Cameras and Picture Time

I will never be one of those people who is comfortable holding up a 12.9 inch iPad to take photos, but I do think it makes sense to add pro-level lenses to a “Pro” product.

A back yard
I took these two photos with the 12 MP wide and 10 MP ultra-wide cameras. Note the amount of information the 125-degree field of view the 10 MP camera can pull in.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The 12 MP wide is just as good as it was on the last iPad 12.9 and the new 10 MP ultra wide can capture impressive vistas. The tablet is also capable of shooting excellent portrait mode images and crystal clear 4K video, all of which looked stunning on my Roku Series 6 4K TV.

Flowers
The iPad Pro 12.9's 12 MP wide camera takes sharp, colorful pictures.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The choice of a 10 MP ultra-wide over a 2X optical zoom lens is a little curios to me. When I have the choice, I always opt for a longer zoom lens—I can never get close enough to my subjects. Still, the 125-degree wide angle view does create some dramatic imagery.

Lance Ulanoff
The 7 MP selfie camera is getting a bit old, but I like the image quality, especially on Portrait Mode shots.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

As for the TrueDpepth cameras, 7MP is starting feel a little anemic for selfies. At least FaceTime video shoots at 1080p.

Speaking of that module, it only took me a about 10 seconds to register my face and, from that point forward, as long as my hand was not covering the module (in landscape mode, the TrueDepth module sits on the left side), it could almost instantly unlock the tablet.

Entertainment and Creation

Obviously, this is a fantastic device for content consumption. Movies and videos look awesome and the four-speaker system can get loud. The iPad connects easily to your Bluetooth headphones (AirPods), but don’t go looking for a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Some guy
I drew this on the iPad 12.9 using the Apple Pencil and Adobe Fresco. The Pencil, Liquid Retina Display and art app offer the near-perfect and symbiotic relationship for art creation, limited only by the skill of the artist.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Apple supplied me with an Apple Pencil 2nd generation, which connects and charges through the top of the iPad Pro 12.9 screen. It’s an excellent and precise writing, drawing, and painting implement that recognizes angles and pressure, and lets me change app tools by tapping on the Pencil itself.

Asphalt 9 Legends
I had a great time playing Asphalt 9 Legends on the iPad pro 12.9.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Performance and Battery Life

Apple likes to use the iPad Pro to introduce new CPUs and the 2020 edition of the iPad Pro is no exception. It features the new A12Z Bionic.

I know, the iPhone 11 Pro features an A13 Bionic, which means this is sort of a silicon fork. Apple apparently tore down the A12 to rework every block on the chip. The 64-bit cpu has an optimized thermal architecture, a new thermal controller and the aforementioned 8-core GPU and an M12 coprocessor. The goal was to improve graphics and peak sustained performance (think editing multiple streams of 4K video). Like the previous iPad Pro, this one is supported by roughly 6 GB of RAM and an 8 MB L2 cache.

When I ran Geekbench 5 benchmarks on the new iPad Pro, I was surprised to see that its Single and Multi-core scores were essentially identical to those of the A12X on the last iPad Pro. The Metal Scores, a measure of graphics performance, were, not surprisingly, noticeably higher.

Perhaps more interesting is that these scores handily beat those of the new MacBook Air running on a 10th generation Intel quad-core Core i5.

Adone Premiere Rush CC
I shot some 4K video on the iPad Pro 12.9 and then threw it into Adobe Premier Rush to Edit. Noe that even the four-square image is four 4K clips running simultaneously. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Numbers aside, the iPad Pro 12.9 2020 edition is as much a workhorse as its predecessor. Whether it was editing multiple 4K video streams, playing games, opening dozens of Safari windows or running more than one of these tasks at a time, the iPad Pro appeared unfazed. This is undeniably desktop-class power in a portable frame.

The only indication that the iPad Pro is working hard is the bit of warmth I could feel dead-center (under the Apple logo) on the back of the device.

iPad Pro 12.9 USB-C port
The Pad Pro 12.9 may be getting more laptop-like, but it still has just one USB-C data/charging port.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Apple promised 10 hours of battery life and, with mixed use, I got at least that. I’m not surprised; Apple can fit a lot of battery in a 12.9-inch device. You charge through the USB-C power (no wireless charging here). You can also use that port to connect the iPad Pro to a MacBook and using Sidecar, extend the laptop screen to the iPad. Since this turns the iPad Pro into a dumb screen, it’s of limited utility.

Bottom Line

Without the new Magic Keyboard and richer apps to test the new LiDAR scanner, I feel like this review is incomplete. Yet, the potential is clear. Thanks to more powerful components and a hybrid OS (iPadOS 13.4) the iPad Pro is no longer just a tablet. It’s a computer in a screen just waiting for a keyboard and mouse.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9
 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

With a starting price of $999 for the 12.9-inch tablet ($799 for the 11-inch), and an additional $199 for the Smart Keyboard Folio and $129 for the Apple Pencil, the iPad Pro 12.9 compares favorably to a Microsoft Surface Pro 7 running a Core i5 with the Type Cover and Surface Pencil (roughly $1,127). On the other hand the iPad Pro doesn’t ship with a mouse and there’s no mouse on the Smart Keyboard Folio. To get the keyboard and mouse combo, you’ll have to pay $299 for the Magic Keyboard ($349 for the Magic Keyboard that fits on the 12.9 iPad Pro) when it ships in May or use an external Magic TrackPad (roughly $150).

There is, however, another option. You can connect the iPad Pro to almost any Bluetooth mouse device. I paired my $30 Surface Mouse and it worked perfectly, even the scroll wheel. Like I said, there’s more touch-screen laptop in the device than pure tablet, and I’m okay with that.

Check out my video review!

Specs

  • Product Name iPad Pro 12.9 (2020)
  • Product Brand Apple
  • Price $999
  • Release Date March 2020
  • Product Dimensions 11.04 x 8.46 x 0.23 in.
  • Storage 128 GB