2020 iPad Pro Review: Don’t call it a laptop replacement

Vincent Nguyen - Apr 20, 2020, 11:30 am CDT
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2020 iPad Pro Review: Don’t call it a laptop replacement
Editors' Rating: 9/10
Pros
  • Timeless hardware design
  • Superb performance
  • Display is excellent
  • Speakers and microphone punch above their weight
Cons
  • Charging feels slow in 2020
  • 3rd-party trackpads lack three finger gestures
  • Can get expensive depending on configuration and accessories

The iPad is in many ways like the electric cars of the automotive world. Range anxiety is one of the biggest concerns for many EV buyers, which is why there are still so many gasoline engine cars on the road. Much the same, in laptops versus tablets, the biggest question is whether an iPad can do “enough” to replace a regular laptop. For would-be buyers of the 2020 iPad Pro, the most important question is likely whether it’ll tick all – or at least most – of the boxes to supplant a traditional laptop. While I can’t make that buying decision for you, I’d like to lay out what’s new with the 2020 iPad Pro, why it’s now the only “computer” I need with me on the road, and why the obsession with “replacement” may now miss the point.

The history of the iPad

For me, the idea (and now reality) of carrying around an ultra-portable personal computer or UMPC didn’t start with Apple, but with Microsoft. The revolution started way back in 2007, when Microsoft pushed the concept of an “Origami Experience.” By design, it would be portable, always-on, and always connected to the internet; you’d be able to capture images and videos to share using an integrated camera. Two years later, Microsoft squashed all of our hopes and dreams for an-all-in one portable, carry anywhere device. In one blow, I was both sad and relieved that Microsoft put the underpowered devices out of their misery.

Microsoft’s vision for the UMPC was ahead of its time. Battery technology was terrible, while processing power was anything but powerful. I was so turned off by the user experience, I swore off everything and anything to do with the category.

Nearly a year after Microsoft shuttered the Origami Project website in April of 2009, Apple gave birth to the first-generation iPad on April 3, 2010. For many, the iPad was a larger version of the iPhone and notably lacked a camera. For me, though, I saw the future: one that would allow me to leave a 5.6-lb 15” MacBook Pro at home. Believe it or not, that was still lighter than Dell and HP’s laptops at the time.

That didn’t happen for a very long time – well, at least for me, it wasn’t until Apple released the all-new iPad Pro in 2018. It was only then that iPad Pro was inching closer to giving the MacBook Pro an early retirement.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Steve Jobs unveiling the iPad at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and wow, how much it has changed since: evolve or die. You can’t argue against the fact that the iPad is alive and thriving, while Android tablets have shrunk in terms of market share.

Design, Performance, and Versatility

Back to 2018, when Apple unveiled the newly redesigned iPad Pro. It was love at first sight. The performance exceeded all of my expectations for daily tasks and, more importantly, the raw processing power crushed everything else out there, performing even better than most Windows laptops on the market.

As design goes, I’m not a fan of curves around the edges on the back of prior iPads. In my opinion, they’re much harder to hold, so flattening out sides using a frame of stainless steel not only makes the iPad look more professional, it’s more comfortable to hold. The sharp edges fit perfectly between the creases of your fingers. I’m happy Apple retained the same design language and didn’t mess with what’s already a perfectly symmetrical device.

I welcomed the replacement of Touch ID in place of Face ID for both convenience, and it allowed Ives’ design team to shrink down the overall physical size compared to the old iPad Pro, by a lot. The physical appearance is attractive and screams out, “pick me up, now!” When you do, what you don’t notice is what’s important: it’s beautifully balanced, with the weight distribution evenly spread to the edges.

Two years ago, I was traveling a lot more than prior years, averaging around 400,000 air miles a year. Being the sort of person who only wants to drag around one bag with them, every item that makes it inside had to serve multiple purposes. Big asks, yes, but for me the iPad Pro turned out to be the most appealing device based on size and form-factor.

No small part of the appeal is the Liquid Retina display. Now, for 2020, the 11-inch and the 12.9-inch displays haven’t changed, but neither did they really need to. The P3 wide color support, plus 120 Hz refresh rate brings everything to life, and is buttery-smooth when scrolling through web pages or playing fast action games.

I spend no small amount of time sitting around waiting for my flight, then for the plane to take off or land, and then wait around again in the next airport for the next connection. Whether I’m seated alongside a bright window or in a pitch-dark cabin, iPad Pro screen brightness has rarely been a problem. That’s partly thanks to the antireflective coating Apple treats it with, but more importantly True Tone automatically adjusts the color balance to the environment. This feature alone helps reduce eye strain and brain fatigue.

Unlike with a regular laptop, for the most part flight attendants leave me alone during take-off and landing. If Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio’s attached, the keyboard easily folds back, which would otherwise be impossible to do with a laptop and extremely heavy to hold using a convertible 3-in-1 Windows laptop combo.

Speaking of the Smart Keyboard Folio, when the keyboard isn’t needed, you can flip it back into a tent to create a natural stand for the iPad. It’s exceptionally convenient in tight spaces and stands up on its own on the fold-out dinner tray.

The 2020 iPad Pro

Two years on, I’m still in awe at the performance of the A12X Bionic chip. For 2020 Apple has massaged it into the A12Z, unlocking a GPU core but otherwise not messing with what was already working so well. Processing 5.7K 360 videos can be a challenge for any laptop or tablet, for example: the file sizes are massive, and can often reach 12 GB or more. Nonetheless, I rarely have any issues with rendering these files in real-time editing or post-processing via Insta360’s app.

One performance area where I’m pleased to see an improvement is in audio, which could periodically cut out on the old iPad Pro. With this A12Z-based update, everything from video to audio runs smoother. The audio file going missing is no longer an issue, and real-time edits are jitter-free. Processing time is speedier, too, not just for post-processing but during the wireless file transfer from the Insta360 One R camera to the iPad itself.

While the eighth GPU core helps, undoubtedly, there’s a memory improvement too. Apple has now made 6GB of RAM standard across all iPad Pro 2020 configurations, whereas it was only made available on the 1TB model with the old version of the tablet.

There’s a noticeable difference in performance when processing larger video files and images in Photoshop, Rush, or Videoleap. It’s been said before, but seeing how this fanless machine whips through tasks in those apps just underscores the iPad’s most significant performance advantage over its competitors: Apple’s in-house processor design, and its ability to match that perfectly with iPadOS. For my day to day workflow, the iPad Pro is perfect.

New Camera Setup for Improved Augmented Reality Experiences

Raise your hand if you use any sort of augmented reality application on your iPhone or iPad? I suspect that many of you reading this – like me – do not. AR is important for Apple, so it’s been a part of the iPad and iPhone family for the last three years since the first introduction of its ARKit development platform. Since then we’ve seen nifty demos, but nothing has really leapt out at me to entice daily usage. It’s why I’m a little shocked to see the inclusion of a relatively expensive addition to the camera setup: a light detection and ranging scanner, also called LiDAR.

Generally found on high-end cars and drones, the use of LiDAR for AR applications makes a lot of sense. When paired with motion sensors, camera data, and the Neural Engine, AR apps can precisely measure surrounding objects and quickly track peoples’ movements. For instance, using IKEA’s AR app to place a couch between two end tables against a wall will be more accurate than using the camera data alone.

Most of us don’t upgrade our sofa every other week, but in light of the coronavirus it’s not unlikely that we’ll all be shopping online more. Imagine if you need to see what a pair of glasses might look like on your face: using the LiDAR Scanner could provide a more precise 3D data map, so that the rendering is more accurate. It’s similar to Face ID, though not to that level of precision. After all, Face ID only has to map your face from an arm’s lengthy, while LiDAR can extend up to 16.4 ft or 5 meters away.

There’s no doubt Apple plans to future-proof the iPad for better AR applications down the line, but for now it’s mainly there idling. Which is okay, because this will allow developers time to integrate the new LiDAR Scanner technology into their applications. The big bombshell comes later, when the new iPhone comes packing the new LiDAR Scanner. With sales of Apple’s smartphones normally in the tens of millions, AR may just make it mainstream.

For the moment, though, I’m more excited about the new 10-megapixel ultra-wide camera; this should make my work life much easier. Rarely do I use the iPad to take pictures or shoot videos for social or whatever else: that job is left to the iPhone 11 Pro Max. But as a journalist, I do use them to capture presentations. I sit through more than my fair share of press briefings, and sometimes it’s just easier to take a picture or video of what’s being presented instead of taking copious notes.

Depending on where I am in the room, the wide-angle camera sometimes just isn’t wide enough to capture the entire stage or a whole car, for instance. With the flexibility of the additional ultra-wide lens, the iPad Pro becomes an even more useful work tool. Still, that doesn’t mean I won’t use the cameras for personal recordings as well.

On Easter morning, for instance, I used the iPad Pro to record a video of my kids unwrapping their Easter baskets. For something like that I’d usually use my iPhone, and if you’re a parent you know how kids can go on and on forever. By the time they’re done, the iPhone feels like it weighs a ton. In this instance, the iPad Pro was connected to the Brydge Pro+ keyboard, which I find it to be more convenient to use than Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio.

That’s primarily because the dual hinges on the Brydge Pro+ allow for 180-degree articulation, while the Smart Keyboard has fixed angle settings. With the flexibility of the ultra and wide-angle cameras, I could capture the moment in 4K at 60fps and then post-edit later.

The other new feature worth noting for anyone looking to use the iPad Pro for a professional video shoot is the new quad pro-quality microphones. Usually I’d always plug in a standalone mic, so to have built-in mics capable of replicating that sort of performance is a game-changer.

Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro

I suppose this is a good time as ever to discuss the new Magic Keyboard. Everything about the Magic Keyboard is magical, except for the price of $299 and $349 for the 11 and 12.9-inch iPad Pro, respectively. That said, as an iPad Pro user, I’m more than willing to shell out the money. Apple has strategically given the Magic Keyboard features not available on third-party keyboards, like three-finger gestures and two-finger swipes back and forward on the trackpad

It’s a real bummer because, for $199.99 or $229.99 (11 and 12.9-inch iPad Pro respectively), the Brydge Pro+ is a fantastic keyboard with an equally excellent trackpad. iPadOS, though, locks the latter down to the feature set of a mundane mouse. Otherwise, Brydge’s keyboard leaves the new iPad Pro feeling much more like a regular laptop; the only drawback is that it’s less convenient when you want to use the iPad as a tablet. Unlike the Magic Keyboard, which is held in place by powerful magnets that can be pulled apart relatively easily, trying to disassemble Brydge’s setup involves holding down the Pro+ as you forcibly prize the iPad out of the hinge.

That said, the Magic Keyboard is a thing of beauty to look at. It’s also worth mentioning that it works with the old 2018 iPad Pro, too. The design and form-factor are almost entirely new, while the actual keyboard itself is the same as what you’d find on the new 2020 MacBook Air and 16-inch MacBook Pro.

That makes it 100% a proper keyboard, with scissor switch keys promising 1mm of travel, along with backlighting. It’s a big contrast to the keys on the Smart Keyboard Folio, with their next-to-zero key travel.

I know what you’re thinking, why’s everyone making such a big fuss about a keyboard with a touchpad accessory when every single laptop in the world already has it? The difference is laptops are just that, laptops: being able to optionally leave the keyboard behind gives the iPad Pro its creative advantage, while with the addition of the Magic Keyboard, in theory, you’ll be just as productive.

The cantilevered hinge solves my biggest gripe with the Folio’s limited two viewing angles, which now allows for articulating the angle up to 130 degrees. Sadly, while the “floating” iPad design has to be one of the most beautiful in Apple’s recent portfolio of products, it doesn’t support flattening th touchscreen all the way back.

Lastly, there’s a USB-C pass-through port for charging on the left-hand side of the hinge. This frees up the port on the iPad for USB-C adaptors. While on this topic of USB-C adaptors, up until recently, the iPad Pro fulfilled all my needs except for accessing external media such as a hard-drive. In my experience, most brands still use USB drives and SD cards to share press material, images, and b-roll. This could make it challenging to rely mainly on the iPad Pro when I’m traveling for work. With the recent iPadOS update, and its ability to directly mount external storage, that’s no longer an issue.

Traveling for work three weeks of the month for the past few years has made me appreciate what the iPad Pro offers in terms of portability, not to mention the slew of pro features depending on which hat I’m wearing: journalist or video and photo editor. On longer flights, I use it to consume content I’ve downloaded via Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

The applications I find myself using most frequent include Microsoft (Word, Excel, OneDrive), Google (Mail, Keep, Photos), Apple (Mail, Photo, iMessage, News), Insta360 One, Tidal, Riot, Safari, Twitter, Facebook, Adobe (Rush, Lightroom, Photoshop), and Flipboard. Most of those don’t really demand a powerful processor to get the job done, and the upside to that has been excellent battery life. Apple suggests you’ll get about ten hours of browsing over WiFi or media playback, and that’s easily achieved. Standby times are great, too, and with minimal use you could get more than a week on a single charge.

iPad Pro 2020 Verdict

All-in-all, the 2018 and 2020 iPad Pro both satisfy 99% of what I need to be productive and work with ease while traveling. If you already own a 2018 iPad Pro my advice would be don’t upgrade: save your money and spend it on the new Magic Keyboard. If you own an Android tablet, aging Microsoft Surface, or a laptop, hawk it on Offerup and put that money towards the new iPad Pro.

I have one last piece of advice; buy the LTE model. Yes, it’ll cost you more initially, but it’ll also save you valuable time in the long run. In fact, it’s one of the primary reasons why I grab the iPad Pro before any other device when I run out the door.

On the other hand, if your employer already provides you with a work laptop and you need a second device for private use, buy the iPad Pro. It’s even better if your phone is an Android. With iPadOS, you get access to iMessage – a secure chat message I’m sure 7 out 10 people you know are using.

The biggest hurdle is price. As tested, with LTE and 1TB of storage, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is $1,649 before tax. Figure on $2,127 if you want the keyboard and Apple Pencil, too. That’s well into MacBook Pro territory, and I’m sure will give some of you pause.

Here’s the thing, though. Just as when you’ve lived with an electric car it can be hard to go back to old-school gasoline, so getting a taste of the iPad Pro mobile life can make laptop shortcomings glaringly clear. For an increasingly large number of people, Apple’s tablet isn’t just an alternative to a traditional laptop, it’s better than one. That’s abundantly clear with the 2020 iPad Pro


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