Apple's iPad has had eyes on eventually becoming the future of computing for years now, and it's been getting there in gradual steps. The 2015-2016 iPad Pro tablets made strides with a great Pencil stylus and seriously fast processing. From a hardware perspective, the 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro was a nearly perfect package.
This year, the tablets are back, offering hardware revamps in two different screen sizes: 12.9-inch, and a slightly-larger-than-before 10.5-inch. Both seem ready to take advantage of iOS 11, which offers a slew of new split-screen, app-managing and file-management tools that could make them feel more computerlike -- in a good way -- than ever before.
There's only one problem. iOS 11 comes out this fall, and the tablets are here now.
To date, the has been fine as a laptop stand-in, some of the time. I've lived for a while with the 9.7-inch as my daily device, my "when my laptop is not around" laptop. It's great for writing -- used with a good keyboard case like the Logitech Create -- and for photo and graphics work as well as for games. And the Apple Pencil is a great pressure-sensitive stylus. But to date, the iPad Pro has still been not so great for editing or serious multitasking.
Can the new iPad Pro tablets replace my laptop? Can they change the equation?
We won't know definitively until that new operating system arrives. In the meantime, I can tell you the hardware is solidly improved. Most existing owners can wait until that iOS 11 upgrade hits before taking the plunge, though the upgrade from the 2015 12.9-incher to the 2017 version is more substantive than the step up from the 2016 9.7-incher to its 2017 10.5-inch replacement. Anyone with more modest tablet needs -- those who don't need to sketch on the screen with the Apple Pencil, for instance -- should stick with the baseline 2017 iPad that was introduced back in March.
Here's how it all shakes out.
iOS 11: The iPad as multitasking, file-sorting king
The iPad Pro that you may buy this week isn't the whole story. iOS 11 has lots of features designed to reboot the iPad experience and give it a far more computerlike feel, especially for things like dragging and dropping files, finding files and storing go-to apps on a Mac-like lengthened dock. I can't comment much more on them here, really, because I don't have them to use yet. Developers can try iOS 11 now, and the public beta will arrive in a few weeks (if Apple follows last year's schedule).
iOS 11 for iPad will allow up to three apps to be open at once on the new iPad Pro models: two in split screen and one hovering on top of that. The extra quick-swapping desktop modes and increased focus on drag-and-drop could make the new iPad Pro's added punch worth the expense. That's "could," versus "will."
Two Pro tablets to choose from
The previous 2015 and 2016 Pro tablets had a weird spec divide. The older, larger 12.9-inch model had faster USB 3.0 data transfer that was lacking in the 9.7-inch 2016 model. But the newer one had a much better screen, with a wider color gamut True Tone display, along with better front and back cameras (with flash).
Thankfully, besides size and weight, both new 2017 models have effectively the exact same upgraded specs, with only one major exception: screen resolution. The 10.5-inch model has a resolution of 2,224x1,668 pixels, while the larger 12.9-inch model retains the 2,732x2,048 pixels of the 2015 model. Both of them (and the non-Pro iPad released this year) have the same pixel density: 264 pixels per inch.
Entry-level storage now doubles to 64GB from 32GB, and you can go all the way to 512GB on the high end. And the new Pro tablets have the fastest-ever Apple mobile chip, the A10X.
iPad Pro (10.5) prices
|64GB Wi-Fi||256GB Wi-Fi||512GB Wi-Fi||64GB LTE||256GB LTE||512GB LTE|
The base model iPad Pro isn't bad, price-wise, starting at $649, £619 or AU$979 for 64GB of storage. But it's also twice the price of the very capable non-Pro iPad released this spring that's half the price (with half the storage). On the other hand, Microsoft's newest Surface Pro starts at $799, £800 or AU$1,200 with an Intel Core M3 processor and 128GB of storage.
For a full-on computer, if the iPad Pro were to be that for you, $649 isn't unreasonable. But add on the extras, and it'll pile up fast: 256GB of storage is $749 (£709, AU$1,129) and 512GB -- a new storage option, which is for more serious video and photo creators -- is $949 (£889, $AU$1,429). A model with LTE costs an extra $130 (£130, AU$200) at each level. The Pencil stylus is an extra $99 (£99, AU$145). The Smart Keyboard, another $159 (£159, AU$235). You see where we're going here.
The larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which has the same specs but a larger screen, is even more expensive, starting at $799, £769 and AU$1,199.
How much better is slightly bigger?
I've been using the new iPad Pro for a week, and it's a better machine than the 9.7-inch Pro I loved the year before. It's got a larger screen without really sacrificing any size. It's even faster, although I can't even appreciate that in what I'm using it for. It zips through tasks and its display is excellent.
And yet, there's a heavy sense of familiarity.
Working on the Pro -- at an airport, on a train, at a cafe, on my sofa, on my bed or at my desk -- is basically the same as on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The tablet's dimensions have expanded slightly, but not in any way you'd notice. Except, however, that all your old iPad case accessories won't work. (The 10.5-inch Pro has the same Smart Connector port as other iPad Pro tablets, so it fits into Logitech's charging dock and the larger or smaller editions of the Apple Smart Keyboard case in a typing emergency, but you'll need a new case to match its dimensions.)
The 10.5-inch upgrade feels lighter despite weighing a hair more than last year's 9.7-inch iPad Pro (1.03 pounds, versus 0.96 pound), maybe because it's bigger (by 0.2 inch or 5.1 mm in width, 0.4 inch or 10.2 mm in height) but still as thin (0.24 inch or 6.1 mm). It feels perfectly sized for a bag or travel: smaller than the 12-inch MacBook yet easy to grab and go.