Apple iPad Pro review: More than meets the eye

Apple iPad Pro review: More than meets the eye
PHOTO: Hardware Zone

In 2010, Steve Jobs unveiled the very first iPad and forever changed the landscape of computing. It spawned a new category of devices and even now, five years later, the iPad remains to be the best-selling tablet by a fairly healthy margin. In Q2 2015, iPads accounted for over 24 per cent of all tablets shipments, with Samsung in second place with 17 per cent, and Lenovo a distant third with 5.7 per cent.

While there's no doubt that Apple still sells a fair amount of iPads - it sold around 10 million of them in the past quarter - sales of iPads have been shrinking for the past couple of quarters. Numerous reasons have been offered by analysts, but a few are especially true for tablets.

The emergence of phablets (smartphones with large displays) in particular has meant that tablets (especially the smaller ones) are now largely superfluous for most users. This is a view shared by Apple CEO Tim Cook, who, in April, admitted that he sees sales of iPad being cannibalized by the iPhone 6 Plus and the new MacBook and MacBook Air. With displays that rival tablets in size, consumers see little reason in getting a tablet or upgrading from their old ones. Speaking of upgrading, tablets usually see very long upgrade cycles as well. According to numbers from analytics firm Localytics, the iPad 2 from 2011 is the most popular tablet today, accounting for 20 per cent of all iPads in service. In second place is the first generation iPad Mini from 2012 with a share of 18 per cent.

Nevertheless, Cook has time and again reaffirmed Apple's commitment to tablets and said that the company will continue to invest in the iPad product pipeline and even made a bold prediction that iPad sales will soon return to growth. Evidence of this commitment was finally seen at Apple's special September 9th event, where it announced the heavily rumored 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

Now, it would be tempting to dismiss the iPad Pro at first glance as nothing more than a giant iPad. To be blunt about it, we were squarely of this view - until we actually tried it out. The short story here is that it is not just a giant iPad, and that the iPad Pro is more than the sum of its parts, and is certainly more than meets the eye. For the long story, read on.

Design

The design of the iPad Pro follows closely of Apple's other iPads. It really just looks like a larger iPad Air 2. However, it remains remarkably slim at just 6.9mm thick, just 0.9mm thicker than the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4. In fact, 6.9mm is the same thickness as the iPhone 6!

But what's more impressive is the weight of the iPad Pro. Even with the expansive 12.9-inch display, the iPad Pro weighs just 723g (the non-cellular model is lighter at 713g) or the same as the very first generation iPad, and that has a smaller 9.7-inch display.

Like iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4, the iPad Pro is mostly devoid of physical buttons and switches. Beneath the display is the home and Touch ID button and there's a power button on the top and volume buttons on the side. The bare necessities as it were. I'm still hoping that Apple brings back the lock orientation switch, but then Apple hates buttons since the days of Steve Jobs, so there you go. In terms of connectivity, the iPad Pro has the same headphone jack and Lightning connector as the tablets that came before it, so no surprises there.

And like the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4, the iPad Pro has an all-aluminium body with chamfered edges. It also comes in the same colors as the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4 - silver, gold and space gray. Sadly, there's no rose gold option for now. Overall, there's nothing really wrong with the way the iPad Pro looks and feels. Some I know have their reservations about the chamfered edges and that the iPad is also beginning to look a little dated; but there's no escaping the fact that It's relatively light considering its size, and that it still looks and feels like a premium tablet.

Display & Multitasking

The iPad Pro is mostly about the display and it is considerably larger than that of the iPad Air 2 despite what the specifications may tell you. At 12.9 inches large, the iPad Pro actually offers 78 per cent more screen real estate than the iPad Air 2. And with a display resolution of 2,732 x 2,048 pixels and a pixel density count of 264 pixels per inch, the iPad Pro's display surpasses the Retina MacBook Pro notebooks. In fact, the iPad Pro's display is so large that you could actually comfortably fit two iPad Mini 4's within! Coupled with iOS 9's support for multitasking, you can begin to appreciate just how much more productive you can be with the iPad Pro.

With iOS 9, Apple finally introduced split-screen multitasking to their iPads. This feature is available on the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4 and in different variations for older iPads, but I think it works best for the iPad Pro. As we've seen above, in Split View (two apps taking up half the display each), half the iPad Pro's display is roughly the same as an iPad Mini 4. In other words, users don't sacrifice as much legibility when using Split View on an iPad Pro as compared to the iPad Air 2 or iPad Mini 4. However, a thing to note that is multitasking only works for compatible apps - so it only works mostly with iOS 9's native apps for now.

Apart from Split View, there's also other modes such as Slide Over, where the second app takes up a quarter of the display; and Picture in Picture, where users can minimise their videos so that it continues playing in a corner of the display while running a main app.

With such a large display, the iPad Pro borrows a lot of display tech from the iMac with 5K Retina Display, including something called photo alignment, a process that uses UV light to ensure that the liquid crystals are properly aligned for better colour reproduction and contrast. In our experience, the iPad Pro's display is bright and shows images crisply. And with a higher density pixel density count than the Retina MacBook Pro notebooks, text looks incredibly fluid, making reading on the iPad Pro a pleasure.

But size aside, the two most major improvements to the iPad Pro's display is its upgraded multi-touch subsystem and its variable refresh rate. The multi-touch system has been thoroughly reworked and the display now scans for inputs at a much higher rate so that touch inputs can be more quickly and accurately captured and recorded. This is important because in conjunction with the new Apple Pencil (more on it later) it allows the iPad Pro to be a more accurate tool for drawing and note-taking.

On the other hand, the variable refresh rate is crucial because it helps the iPad Pro to be power efficient. At times when the display isn't showing anything that is animated, the iPad Pro's refresh rate drops to 30Hz. However, in instances where there are animations or videos, the refresh rate gets bumped up to 60Hz for more fluid looking graphics.

Sound

Another thing that has been dramatically improved is sound - hence, it has got its own section here. The audio performance of previous iPads were nothing to shout about, but Apple wants to change that with the iPad Pro. Look around on the iPad Pro and you will notice that there are speaker grilles located at all four corner of the device. This because the iPad Pro has four speakers, which, for the first time, having housings that have been machined directly into the aluminium enclosure. The speakers are also sealed with carbon fiber caps to produce deeper, fuller bass. And lastly, the speakers are clever in the sense that regardless of the iPad Pro's orientation, the top two speakers are always dedicated to produce the mid and high frequencies and will automatically adjust themselves to match the iPad Pro's orientation.

The end result is that the iPad Pro is Apple's best sounding tablet by a wide margin. Thanks to the orientation of the four speakers, the iPad Pro produces a respectable soundstage and also convincing stereo effects - no matter if you hold it in landscape or portrait orientation. Apple claims that it is over 60 per cent louder than the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4 and is just as loud, if not louder than a MacBook Pro. Plus, it can play at maximum volume with only very minimal distortion to the sound. All in all, we are quite impressed with the audio capabilities of the iPad Pro, and it turns the iPad Pro into a much more capable device for media consumption, especially for the times when you want to share music or movies with friends. Not to mention, the large screen also more than amplifies the movie watching experience.

Benchmark Performance Apple have always fitted their iPads with cutting-edge hardware and the new iPad Pro is no different. Powering it is Apple's new A9X processor that offers desktop-class performance. In fact, Phil Schiller, Apple's SVP of Worldwide Marketing, claims that the A9X is faster than 80 per cent of portable PCs that were shipped in the past year. Compared to the A8X in the iPad Air 2, the A9X offers 1.8 times the CPU performance and 2 times the GPU performance.

Looking at the charts below, we have no reason to doubt Apple's claims. In the SunSpider benchmark, the iPad Pro recorded a timing of just 180.2ms, which is an improvement of 37.5 per cent over the iPad Air 2 and makes it the fastest device by a considerable margin. It's also very much quicker than the other 12-inch tablet here, the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2, which is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor.

On 3DMark, it recorded a score of 33790, an improvement of 55 per cent over the iPad Air 2 and over 80 per cent over the iPad Mini 4. It is also over 50 per cent greater than the Sony Xperia Z4 tablet, which is powered by a high-end Snapdragon 810 processor; and over 35 per cent greater than the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 edge+, which are powered by Samsung's powerful Exynos 7420 processor. The iPad Pro also scored over 210 per cent higher than the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2.

Imaging Performance

If you think taking photos with iPads is ridiculous, it's even more so with the iPad Pro. Even so, Apple hasn't cut corners here and has outfitted the iPad Pro with the same front and rear cameras as the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4. This means a 8-megapixel rear camera with a ƒ/2.4 aperture that also records Full-HD videos at 30fps and slow-motion videos at 120fps, a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera with a ƒ/2.2 aperture. Unfortunately, there's no flash for the rear-facing camera, and the iPad Pro doesn't have Retina Flash for the front-facing camera like the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.

The iPad Pro's imaging performance is pretty good if you have got decent lighting, but it's no match for smartphones, especially since the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus now have upgraded cameras. Images are a little noisy, but certainly usable for most instances. Color reproduction is also good and focusing is quick. Nevertheless, it's still better to use your smartphone for photo-taking. Besides, taking photos with a tablet, especially one as large as the iPad Pro, makes you look ridiculous.

Battery Life

The iPad Pro has a fairy large 38.5Wh battery, which is actually comparable to a many ultraportable notebooks and tablets such as the MacBook and Surface Pro 3. This also means that the iPad Pro's battery is just under 40 per cent larger than that of the iPad Air 2 (27.62Wh) and nearly double that of the iPad Mini 4 (19.32Wh).

Our standard battery test for tablets includes the following parameters:

Looping a 720p video with screen brightness and volume at 100 per cent Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity turned on Constant data streaming through email and Twitter

Our tests found that the iPad Pro has a battery life of around 257 minutes or 4 hours and 17 minutes. Which is considerably lesser than both the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4. This is not entirely unexpected, given that the iPad Pro has a considerably larger display with many more pixels to drive. It also has a more powerful audio system. A cause for concern is that when compared to the 12.2-inch Galaxy Note Pro, which also has a comparably sized 36.1Wh battery, the iPad Pro is down by around 334 minutes or over 5 hours! Clearly, either the iPad Pro's display or the A9X processor is not quite as power efficient as it needs to be. Granted that the iPad Pro still needs to drive 1.36x more pixels than then Samsung Galaxy Note Pro, the differential in battery life is much more than expected.

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