At this point it probably isn’t a secret that tablet sales have leveled off, and in some cases they have declined. Pretty much anywhere you care to look you’ll see evidence that the tablet market just isn’t as strong as it once was. It’s undeniable that touch-only tablets have utility, but it seems that the broader market has been rather lukewarm about tablets. I suspect at least part of the problem here is that the rise of the phablet has supplanted small tablets. Large tablets are nice to have, but almost feel like a luxury good when they’re about as portable as an ultrabook. While a compact laptop can’t easily be used while standing, or any number of other situations where a tablet is going to be better, a compact laptop can do pretty much anything a touch-only tablet can. A laptop is also going to be clearly superior for a significant number of cases, such as typing or precise pointing.

As a result, large touch-only tablets feel like they’ve been limited to home use as a computer away from the computer. Tablets are great when you’re on the couch or in bed, but once you get to this point there are some obvious questions as to whether it makes sense to drop $500+ USD on a tablet that seems to have relatively limited utility. The Surface lineup has been showing signs of growth, but in general the Surface is more of a mix between laptop and tablet rather than a tablet. I would argue that given the OS and overall design that the Surface and Surface Pro are really more laptop than tablet, even if at the hardware level the Surface Pro 4 and Surface 3 are basically tablets with kickstands and keyboard covers.

If you’re guessing that this means Apple has had some issues with growing sales of their iPad lineup, you’d be right. From my first experiences with the iPad 3, I was impressed with the improved user experience for things like web browsing and other smartphone tasks, but I never really felt like it made enough sense to get one for myself. The iPad Air 2 was once again impressive and I felt like I could recommend it to other people that wanted a tablet, but I personally struggled to come up with a reason why I would buy it.

This brings us to the iPad Pro. This is probably the first time Apple has seriously deviated from traditional iPad launches, putting together a tablet built for (limited) productivity and content creation rather than just simple content consumption, creating what's arguably the iPad answer to the Surface Pro. To accomplish this, Apple has increased the display size to something closer to that of a laptop, and we see the addition of a stylus and a keyboard cover for additional precision inputs. Of course, under the hood there have been a lot of changes as well, so the usual spec sheet can be found below to summarize those changes.

  Apple iPad Air 2 Apple iPad Pro
SoC Apple A8X
3 x Apple Typhoon @ 1.5GHz
Apple A9X
2 x Apple Twister @ 2.2GHz
GPU PowerVR 8 Cluster Series6XT
(Apple GXA6850)
PowerVR 12 Cluster Series7XT
RAM 2GB LPDDR3 4GB LPDDR4
NAND 16/64/128GB 32/128GB
Display 9.7" 2048x1536 IPS LCD 12.9" 2732x2048 IPS LCD
Size and Mass 240 x 169.5 x 6.1mm
437g WiFi, 444g LTE
305.7 x 220.6 x 6.9 mm
713g WiFi, 723g LTE
Camera 8MP Rear-Facing, f/2.4, 1.1 micron, 1.2MP Front-Facing, f/2.2
Battery 27.3Wh 38.5Wh
Launch OS iOS 8 iOS 9
Cellular Connectivity MDM9x25 Category 4 LTE + GPS/GNSS in Cellular SKU
Other Connectivity 2x2 802.11a/b/g/n/ac + BT 4.2, Apple Lightning
SIM Optional NanoSIM
Price $499/599/699 16/64/128GB $799/949/1079 32/128GB/128GB LTE

At a high level, the iPad Pro gains a larger display with a higher resolution, more memory, a new SoC, and a larger battery to compensate for the change in display size. In addition to these changes, the iPad Pro also brings noticeable changes to the speakers, with an increase to four speakers which allow the iPad Pro to compensate for device orientation when projecting stereo audio.

Design

The most immediate change that you can see in the iPad Pro is the sheer size. The 12.9” display of the iPad Pro basically makes it feel like you’re carrying a laptop around. I would argue that this doesn’t actually affect the portability of the iPad Pro, but this is mostly because the iPad Air 2 was something that I only carried in a backpack to begin with. People carrying their tablets in a small bag, purse, or even just in their hands will notice the difference, so the change in size might be more or less noticeable depending upon how you carry things around.

The increase in size does affect weight. After significant use, I honestly don’t think the mass is a significant issue. It does feel heavier than the iPad Air 2, but the mass distribution is such that there isn’t a ton of battery hanging out at the edges of the device where it’ll affect the moment of inertia. This does raise the question of whether Apple included enough battery for sufficient battery life, but that’s a question best left for the rest of the review.

In terms of design, the iPad Pro is rather unremarkable if you’ve ever seen an iPad Air before; it is for all intents and purposes a bigger iPad Air. On the front, the display dominates, with some bezels on the sides and top. The top has the front-facing camera, and the bottom has the home button with TouchID.

Looking at the sides of the tablet, the top edge has the power button and 3.5mm port, along with two of the four speakers. The right edge has the volume buttons, and the bottom edge has the Lightning port and the other two speakers. The left edge is mostly empty, but contains the Smart Connector for the Smart Keyboard and similar accessories.

The back of the tablet is mostly unremarkable as well. For the LTE model, an RF window is visible on the top of the device to allow LTE and other connectivity to function. For the WiFi variants, it looks like the bottom display bezel and the bottom two speakers are the RF windows, so there aren’t any visible areas that indicate where the WiFi antennas are.

Overall, the iPad Pro feels like an iPad, with nothing all that remarkable beyond its size which is carried well. I never really noticed the mass or size of the iPad Pro even if it is clearly larger and heavier than the iPad Air 2. I also didn’t notice any issues with the back cover flexing, but given enough pressure on the back cover pretty much any device this large will see some screen distortion or bending. The iPad Pro does technically regress in thickness compared to the iPad Air 2, but I never noticed the difference in practice, especially when the larger display is really what matters more.

SoC Analysis: Apple A9X
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  • willis936 - Monday, January 25, 2016 - link

    I am very interested in energy per calculation comparisons between the A9X and the Core M. Yes Core M will beat out the A9X from a power perspective but are both within the same power budget? If so then Intel has done some impressive work. Reply
  • Constructor - Monday, January 25, 2016 - link

    That's not even cut and dried. The Anandtech performance comparison leaves quite a number of question marks. It looks a lot as if some of the tests were written originally so autovectorization would work with known desktop compilers but LLVM for iOS just didn't catch on to it.

    The drastic swings between the various tests are not very plausible otherwise.

    Which makes that comparison utterly useless if that's the case. And that the testers didn't even bother to check the generated code is highly disappointing.
    Reply
  • Icecreamfarmer - Monday, January 25, 2016 - link

    I just registered to post this but I have a question?
    How so cant you draw diagonal lines with a surface 3?
    I just tried it several times with and without ruler but they are flawless?

    Could you explain?
    Reply
  • VictorBd - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    Surface diagonals: The MS N-Trig pen tech manifests a subtle but distinct anomaly when drawing slow diagonal lines in that the lines waver a bit. If you search on this you can see it demonstrated. It is a genuine defect in the current tech. For my use case it is not a concern. I use the pen extensively for interview and meeting note taking (and for light sketching for fun).

    For my own purposes, the SP4 provides the most compelling overall device available on the market at this time: the power, form factor, desktop docking, OS and apps, ports, and pen when taken all together cannot be matched. It is my primary device every day all day.

    At night when I just want to consume web, video, or music, I use an iPad Air 2. Perfect for that. I bought and returned an iPad Pro. I could never try to do production work on it. And it's price and bulk are not worth the beauty of its screen. So I'm keeping the Air for casual consumption. But for work its the SP4 (with a Toshiba dynaPad as a light backup).
    Reply
  • Constructor - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    There also seem to be problems properly following the pen near the edges of the screen, even requiring calibration by the user, apparently.

    The Apple Pencil has neither of those problems. It works very precisely and consistently in any direction and right up to the edges.
    Reply
  • VictorBd - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    I initially had pen issues at the edge with the SP4, but it was completely resolved for me by a pen calibration reset. The only thing left is the subtle diagonal - which does not impact me.

    I also note that the iPad's palm rejection isn't perfect. It allowed my palm to make marks on the screen in OneNote, and it will register finger input as drawing from your "non pen hand" as well in some apps. And right now there's no way to switch off touch input while using the pen so you can grab it however you want. (Another IOS "protected garden" limitation.)
    Reply
  • Constructor - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    Nope. The Procreate app, for instance, ignores my fingers completely for any drawing tools but I can still simultaneously draw with the Pencil and operate the UI with my fingers (such as the opacity and size sliders, or the two- and three-finger undo/redogestures.

    That bit about the "protected garden" is pure rubbish – iOS provides separate APIs for the Pencil and apps already make use of that.

    By the way: Palm rejection (in apps where you can't disable finger touch drawing on the canvas) can be trained to some degree. if you're setting your palm clearly on the glass with a larger area touching the surface, it works best. Avoid just light touches with a knuckle of your pinkie finger, for instance (which is when palm rejection can't distinguish it from an intended finger touch), but actually fully rest your hand on the glass for drawing and trust palm rejection to filter that out.
    Reply
  • VictorBd - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    Glad to hear that Procreate has done it right. Users will benefit greatly if other apps follow suit. Until they do (and many likely will not)

    On my other point, I think it unlikely that Apple will either provide or allow others to provide (in the controlled garden of the app store) a utility that toggles the touch input off and on while using the pen. If you haven't used a pen tablet with this feature it may not be obvious at first. But many of those who do discover and use it find it to be a "game changer." All of a sudden your tablet can be handled like a physical piece of paper without any concern for unintended touch inputs. It is the first thing I install on a pen tablet. If iPad Pro had it the experience for me would greatly improve. But I predict that Apple won't allow it. But there is much to the iPad Pro to love no doubt.
    Reply
  • VictorBd - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    EDIT: "Until they do.... I don't think Apple will allow the touch toggle ability....." Reply
  • Constructor - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    Your theory is completely wrong. Apple doesn't "disallow" anything!

    Any app can distinguish between passive finger touch and active Pencil dtection at their own discretion. The APIs already provide that distinction, and I have no idea where you get that idea from that Apple would have any interest to interfere with that.

    Again: In Procreate I can simultaneously draw with the Pencil and during the same time move the size slider with a finger while the Pencil keeps drawing – there is no "toggling" of any kind.

    It is purely on the application to decide how to treat fingers on the one hand (ahem) and the Pencil on the other – and both are clearly distinguishable at the same time!
    Reply

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