Review: 2020 iPad Pro is more about future software than the hardware gains today

Posted:
in iPad edited January 21
The new 2020 iPad Pro is slightly more powerful than ever, and that minor spec upgrade that it got this time around, it is now more about what can happen with software down the road than hardware improvements today.

11-inch 2020 iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard Folio
11-inch 2020 iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard Folio


When Apple launched iPad back in 2010, it didn't quite know what iPad would be. It went through a number of exploratory phases like going all-in on periodicals with Newsstand before killing it off then coming back with Apple News+ years later, and adopting the Apple Pencil.

During the time of the first iPad, little did we know that iPad would eventually embrace the mouse or trackpad, and cameras would play a huge part of the iPad's feature set.

Yet here we are, in 2020, with the latest iPad Pro that does all of those things. Apple's iPad is no longer just a consumption device or a casual tablet for light work -- it is a full-on content-creation, multitasking, mouse-wielding, portable device that can get the job done.






When we tell people that we use iPad as a tool to produce 4K videos or as our writing instrument of choice, people no longer show surprise or act as if its some insurmountable task. People everywhere have embraced iPad for a huge array of different purposes and the 2020 iPad Pro is absolutely the best one yet -- even if the differences model-over-model aren't all that riveting.

Hardware changes on iPad, like iPhone before it, have become a bit more predictable and a bit less flashy. Apple has iterated on tried-and-true tactics to perfect the device while also focusing strongly on the software.

Apple started down this road in 2019 with the branching off of iPadOS from iOS to allow more iPad-specific features and we expect Apple to continue that trend.

Cursor support arrives on iPad
Cursor support arrives on iPad


Announced alongside the new iPad Pro was iPadOS 13.4 that, much to everyone's surprise, brought full-fledged cursor support plus support for Bluetooth mice and trackpads to the tablet line. For productivity users, this update paired with iPadOS will play a large part in how successful the iPad Pro is as a pro tablet.

De-prioritizing hardware changes

11-inch iPad Pro
11-inch iPad Pro


This time around, the physical changes to iPad Pro are minimal. It looks identical to the 2018 iPad Pro.

The new iPad Pros still have the same gorgeous Liquid Retina display, the same support for Apple Pencil, and the same TrueDepth camera system.

The new camera bump houses a 12MP wide-angle camera and a 10MP ultra-wide angle camera
The new camera bump houses a 12MP wide-angle camera and a 10MP ultra-wide angle camera


Where it changed primarily was with the rear-facing cameras. It got a new 10MP ultra-wide-angle camera and a new LiDAR scanner. These are big changes, but if you don't ever use augmented reality or take photos with your iPad Pro they are largely a moot point.

The tablets now support Wi-Fi 6, though you need a Wi-Fi 6 router to take advantage of that feature. The base models now start at 128GB of storage rather than only 64GB.

Apple even slipped essentially the same processor as the previous generation in, just incrementing the letter and activating one additional GPU core. A new report says the A12Z is the exact same chip as the A12X, but the latter had one of the eight GPU cores deactivated. They enabled it with the A12Z and stuck a new marketing name atop.

That paints a fairly underwhelming picture if you own a 2018 iPad Pro and wanted a big worthwhile, headline-grabbing reason to upgrade. Fact is, almost everyone on the 2018 iPad Pro will have no need to make the jump, unless you want that LiDAR scanner.

Taking measurements with iPad Pro as a massive viewfinder
Taking measurements with iPad Pro as a massive viewfinder


iPad Pro, as much as some don't want to admit it, is starting to be more like a computer. Most folks don't upgrade their Mac every year because a new model drops, yet a kitted-out iPad Pro can get into 13-inch MacBook Pro territory.

So while these changes aren't flashy for 2018 would-be upgraders, they are quality of life improvements for anyone else who was contemplating picking one up.

The iPad Pro was already such a powerful and polished device that its biggest gains were to be had through software, and possibly additional accessories. We're looking at you, Magic Keyboard, that has yet to ship.

Performance ceiling

There is something to be said for Apple making its own chipsets. They are industry-leading in power and battery utilization and have been for some time. It poses a bit of a query for Apple when developing a new chip. In the case of iPad Pro, most users weren't hitting the performance ceiling that the A12X Bionic imposed.

Multitasking App Switcher on iPad Pro
Multitasking App Switcher on iPad Pro


In reality, the biggest spec iPad Pro had to boost was graphics. And not because the previous-generation graphics were underpowered, but because you can always encode that video faster or export that massive RAW image quicker. This is what Apple gave us in the new A12Z Bionic processor, slightly better graphics.

To test, we ran the latest Geekbench 5.1 benchmarks. Our 2018 iPad Pro delivered around a 1116 single-core and a 4584 multi-core score. The new 2020 model garnered a similar 1117 single-core and a 4653 multi-core. These are effectively identical results if you take into account the variability of Geekbench testing.

An extra GPU core means better graphics scores. 2018 iPad Pro (left) compared to 2020 iPad Pro (right)

Geekbench Computer Metal graphics test on 2018 (left) and 2020 (right) iPad Pros
Geekbench Computer Metal graphics test on 2018 (left) and 2020 (right) iPad Pros


When we turned to the Geekbench Compute benchmark which tests the Metal graphics performance, the 2018 Pro earned a 9069 while the new 2020 pulled a 9616. This gain is explained by the increase in GPU cores within the A12Z Bionic.

For another test, we turned to iMovie. We created a four-minute and 39-second 4K video on the new and previous-generation iPad Pro and exported the video for sharing. The 2018 iPad Pro took 20.05 seconds to complete and the 2020 iPad Pro only took 5.12 seconds.

This is a practical real-world gain and demonstrates why even just one additional core can make a difference. Videos editors who are doing more than just a four-minute clip are going to be happy with those improved render times.

iPad Pro cameras

The iPad Pro doesn't have quite the same 12MP camera as the iPhone 11 does, but it isn't far off. The cameras aren't just used for taking pictures of your pets, there are a ton of commercial and professional applications as well. For these, a competent camera is necessary.

New camera module on 2020 iPad Pro
New camera module on 2020 iPad Pro


The ultra-wide lens helps out further. It is only 10MP, but otherwise takes decent shots. The ultra-wide, like it does on the iPhone 11 line, takes in up to twice as much horizontally. Perfect for close quarters or scenic views.

There is a part of us that wishes Apple would have taken advantage of this lens to enable 1X portrait mode on the iPad, or even standard 2X with the help of both lenses or even the LiDAR scanner. At the same time, we don't want to necessarily encourage everyone to prioritize taking pictures with a massive tablet.

LiDAR demo using a pre-release version of the Primer app
LiDAR demo using a pre-release version of the Primer app


The LiDAR scanner sits next to the other dual shooters. LiDAR, an acronym for light detection and ranging, measures how long it takes for light to hit a surface and return which allows the system to create a 3D image of the scene in front of it.

The most obvious use of LiDAR is to enhance augmented reality capabilities, a vertical Apple has been exploring for quite some time. LiDAR assists with person occlusion and is able to create a real-time mesh around complicated scenes.

We saw this for ourselves when we spoke to the developers behind the Primer app. This app allows you to preview wallpaper, paint, or tile in your own home. After only a couple days with the updated ARKit 3.5 SDK they were able to get a working build. It is quite impressive, though it loses its luster if you don't have any practical application for AR in your own use.

Updated Measure app on iPad Pro
Updated Measure app on iPad Pro


Without any user-facing application, other than the Measure app, most users may never even know the LiDAR scanner exists.

The new Measure app easily finds vertices
The new Measure app easily finds vertices


Speaking of the Measure app, Apple did take the chance to improve it on the new iPad Pro. In our tests, it is more accurate, faster, better at detecting surfaces, and can display a running list of measurements for you to copy out to notes, a message, or an email.

It snaps to edges, can project angles, and aws closer to the actual values when compared to a physical measuring tape measurement.

The Apple accessory lineup

Per usual, Apple has myriad accessories it hopes to add to your iPad Pro setup.

2020 iPad Pro in the blue Smart Cover
2020 iPad Pro in the blue Smart Cover


There is an updated version of the Smart Cover which comes in new colors but otherwise functions as it always has. Using magnets, it wakes and sleeps your iPad Pro when it opens and closes and can roll back to act as a stand for the iPad Pro in both vertical and horizontal orientations.

Using the second-generation Apple Pencil with 2020 iPad Pro
Using the second-generation Apple Pencil with 2020 iPad Pro


Then we have the second-generation Apple Pencil. Nothing changed here either and our original review still stands. It remains a greatly useful device for drawing, note-taking, coloring, dealing with documents, or editing photos.

Our biggest hangup is with the Smart Keyboard Folio. It was mildly updated to highlight the Apple logo horizontally while typing, but otherwise appears to be the same. Unfortunately, there were issues with the design that debuted with the 2018 version. We aren't talking about all our gripes we highlighted in the original review, we are talking about reliability issues that have sprung up over time.

Typing on the Smart Keyboard Folio can be frustrating
Typing on the Smart Keyboard Folio can be frustrating


We have had our Smart Keyboard Folio swapped out twice but it appears the issue is systematic and plagues all the units across the board. Because the keyboard of the folio is atop a thin piece of plastic, it has a tendency to warp as well as inadvertently "press" certain keys. It happened most frequently with the lower-left command key for us which cause all sorts of issues while trying to write.

To remedy, we have to briskly wipe our hand across the keyboard to unstick the key. Luckily the solution is that simple but it is annoying and an issue nonetheless.

iPad Pro Magic Keyboard
iPad Pro Magic Keyboard


These issues appear resolved in Apple's Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro. Launching in May, the Magic Keyboard has physical keys with a mechanical scissor-switch mechanism, a backlight, a fully articulated holder for the iPad Pro, and an additional USB-C port.

The USB-C port will be perfect because it doesn't require any additional hub to both power the iPad Pro, as well as to connect external storage or a monitor.

That leaves us in limbo until the Magic Keyboard launches, but we are very excited to test it out. Even better, it will work on the 2018 iPad Pros giving existing users an upgrade of sorts.

A true pro device has emerged

After years of incremental updates, the iPad Pro has finally started to come into itself. The hardware overhaul in 2018 was major but the software updates iPadOS 13 and iPadOS 13.4 have cemented the iPad Pro as a true workhorse.

iPad Pro
iPad Pro


Truly, the 2020 iPad Pro doesn't feel much different at all than the 2018 model. We have relied on the Measure app a few times as we are doing some renovations, but otherwise, it has been business as usual.

It is mildly faster for content exports and any extra headroom for large photo edits is appreciated. USB-C is still a favorite for us, allowing us to rely on external SSD storage, connect an external display to edit video, and connect other peripherals such as microphones.

Apple may have slowed down the pace of iPad Pro hardware refreshes. It appears that Apple does seem to have some surprises left in store for the next model, but even with that rumored refresh, software is going to be the focus going forward more than any other factor.

Should you buy the 2020 iPad Pro?

11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros
11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros


As with any other "buy or not" debate, it all hinges on the work that you do, the tools you need, and what devices you are coming from.

If just looking at the device in a bubble on its own merits, the 2020 iPad Pro is a stellar device. Apple has made strides over the years, iterating on the small aspects to perfect the user experience of the device.

The 2020 iPad Pro is more powerful than ever, more full-featured than ever, and has a mass of potential waiting to be unleashed by iPadOS 14 and the updates that follow. You just probably don't need it if you jumped on the 2018 refresh.

Pros
  • Still a great-looking tablet

  • Better graphics, albeit not by much

  • Wi-Fi 6 support

  • Both the 2018 and 2020 will support Magic Keyboard

  • iPadOS 13.4 is a great update for iPads across the board

  • Revamped Measure app is much better

  • LiDAR is a game changer, but only if you use AR

  • Ultra-wide lens is great for those who need the camera
Cons
  • Increimental update

  • Smart Keyboard Folio still has problems

  • LiDAR has no user-facing app and relies on developers to use

  • No notable speed improvements

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 28
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 9,794member
    VERY nice review!   Thank you!

    I especially appreciated the comments about the hardware upgrades where "if you don't use them, you won't appreciate them".   These things, like the upgraded camera, are easy to hype -- but I simply don't see the benefit of high end camera on an iPad -- why not use your phone which is much easier to handle and pretty much always there and ready?

    But, the real point was:   the software upgrades have finally brought the iPad up to be able to challenge laptops.   That is not only very true but very important.   This could mark the beginning of a whole new era -- particularly as they may soon be sharing the same CPU's & GPU's!
    jcs2305
  • Reply 2 of 28
    There's a ton of older (than the 2018 iPad Pro) users that will upgrade. Many of the non-Pro Installed Base may upgrade to this Pro. All in due time.
    yojimbo007StrangeDayswatto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 28
    razorpitrazorpit Posts: 1,796member
    My 2017 model has been flawless for me and I get to keep my preferred Lightning port. I wish I could get the new keyboard and trackpad, but not the end of the world repurposing first generation “Magic” accessories.

    Hopefully people looking for radical changes next generation are in for a disappointment. That $350 keyboard better carry over the next generation or two or else there’s going to be a lot more upset people.
    cpsrowatto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 28
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 1,614member
    razorpit said:
    My 2017 model has been flawless for me and I get to keep my preferred Lightning port. I wish I could get the new keyboard and trackpad, but not the end of the world repurposing first generation “Magic” accessories.

    Hopefully people looking for radical changes next generation are in for a disappointment. That $350 keyboard better carry over the next generation or two or else there’s going to be a lot more upset people.
    I’m staying with my 2017 iPad as well. This is great, definitely droolworthy, and FaceID is very tempting. But what I have works fine. This fall my wife gets an iPad Air. Next year is my turn.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 28
    hmlongcohmlongco Posts: 300member
    So one rumor going around is that sometime in the fall the current ARM-based iPad Pro with the new keyboard and trackpad will be able to act as a developer testbed for macOS on ARM.

    Much as Apple made custom Intel-based Macs available to developers during the PowerPC transition.

    That could be VERY interesting....
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 28
    yojimbo007yojimbo007 Posts: 1,134member
    This ipad is not meant for as an upgrade for the present iPad pro owners imo.... 

    The  MiniLED version with a new processor is what will serve that purpose  later this year as rumors suggest... but i bet at higher price.

    I Absolutely Love my Ipad Pro 12.9 .. i RARELY touch my desktop anymore and i dont have a laptop . 
    unbeliever2watto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 28
    If I could only get it in a 65” size
  • Reply 8 of 28
    thttht Posts: 3,980member
    For another test, we turned to iMovie. We created a four-minute and 39-second 4K video on the new and previous-generation iPad Pro and exported the video for sharing. The 2018 iPad Pro took 20.05 seconds to complete and the 2020 iPad Pro only took 5.12 seconds. 
    Typo? 20.05 to 5.12 seconds is 75% faster or the 2018 model is 4x slower. There shouldn’t be any real hardware difference than another 10% in GPU performance. 

    If not, more testing please. Also compare to Macs. 

    watto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 28
    PShimiPShimi Posts: 37member
    tht said:
    For another test, we turned to iMovie. We created a four-minute and 39-second 4K video on the new and previous-generation iPad Pro and exported the video for sharing. The 2018 iPad Pro took 20.05 seconds to complete and the 2020 iPad Pro only took 5.12 seconds. 
    Typo? 20.05 to 5.12 seconds is 75% faster or the 2018 model is 4x slower. There shouldn’t be any real hardware difference than another 10% in GPU performance. 

    If not, more testing please. Also compare to Macs. 

    I thought the same thing. I recon the slower iPad Pro has 4GB RAM, vs the newer 6GB, and that this is the main cause of the speed difference rather than one extra GPU core.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 28
    Part of me wishes I'd upgraded to the 2018 model back when it came out. I knew it was a good buy then but I didn't because I'd just gotten laid off. I bought this model HOPING that it was a big improvement under the hood, and it isn't. However I've been drawing in Procreate with it and the number of layers I can have moving from 2 gigs on my 9.7 inch Pro to 6 gigs on this new one is staggering. I was really constrained by my old one. So I think the plan is to keep this one, and upgrade to the next one that has a big processor upgrade and try and sell this one without taking a bath on it.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 28
    fastasleepfastasleep Posts: 5,477member
    Just ordered mine. For some reason Amazon can get it to me in 2 days but Apple is backordered weeks. 
    ¯\(°_o)/¯ 

    Replacing my 2018, but only because it was stolen. :)
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 28
    Most likely this iPad Pro will stick around at a lower price point come with fall when the mini-LED model is released.

    Surely they can't be so insanely greedy to think mini-LED will be another higher tier beyond the already ridiculously priced iPad Pro.
  • Reply 13 of 28
    thttht Posts: 3,980member
    Most likely this iPad Pro will stick around at a lower price point come with fall when the mini-LED model is released.

    Surely they can't be so insanely greedy to think mini-LED will be another higher tier beyond the already ridiculously priced iPad Pro.
    You are setting yourself up for disappointment. Expect a miniLED iPad Pro to be $1300 for the base model, especially if it has an A14X.
    canukstormwatto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 28
    I have 3 ipad 12.9 and like them a lot. Use them for email, imessage, tv/video playback, photo editing. The software is the limiting factor. File management improved but is still too cumbersome to be really productive. Multitasking is not the really functional. So for me its not a replacement of my MBP yet.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 28
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 3,134member
    dutchlord said:
    I have 3 ipad 12.9 and like them a lot. Use them for email, imessage, tv/video playback, photo editing. The software is the limiting factor. File management improved but is still too cumbersome to be really productive. Multitasking is not the really functional. So for me its not a replacement of my MBP yet.
    I use my 2nd gen iPad Pro daily and love it for many things. I don’t do video editing or anything else that is processor-intensive so I’ve yet to have performance really be an issue for me. My takeaway from this article is that I can stick with my current ipad and enjoy the improvements of iOS 13.4.

    I have to agree with @dutchlord , though - I’m still waiting for iOS to become ‘fully functional’ to replace my MBP. True, I can do most things on my ipad, but many of them are so cumbersome to do that it seems more like I’m doing them on the iPad just to make a point that it can be done rather than because it’s easy and efficient.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 28
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 6,816member
    VERY nice review!   Thank you!

    I especially appreciated the comments about the hardware upgrades where "if you don't use them, you won't appreciate them".   These things, like the upgraded camera, are easy to hype -- but I simply don't see the benefit of high end camera on an iPad -- why not use your phone which is much easier to handle and pretty much always there and ready?

    Because then you wouldn’t be able to block other folk’s view at rock concerts. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 28
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 6,816member

    hmlongco said:
    So one rumor going around is that sometime in the fall the current ARM-based iPad Pro with the new keyboard and trackpad will be able to act as a developer testbed for macOS on ARM.

    Much as Apple made custom Intel-based Macs available to developers during the PowerPC transition.

    That could be VERY interesting....
    That is very interesting, but I’m not so sure this MacOS on ARM is such a fire thing now. 

    The iPad is becoming more capable with each iteration. Wouldn’t it be easer to continue building on this platform?

    iOS -> iPadOS -> deskOS

    and allow the MacOS to continue on Intel as the legacy system?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 28
    If I would have known that the processor wasn't a big bump over the A12X then I probably wouldn't have pulled the cord and gotten this one. On the other hand I was in isolation and just wanted a new Apple device to make me happy. Also the big 6 gig RAM allotment allows for more layers in Procreate which was really the major limitation that I was running into with my 9.7 inch Pro. So in the end it's a good upgrade. Part of me still wishes I'd gotten the 2018 model since I'd have had a newer beefier iPad Pro for longer and I doubt that Apple is going to support this model any longer than they support the 2018 model. But whatever... it's fine.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 28
    Until it can run things like Terminal, Homebrew and a Linux VM the iPad will remain, relative to my personal computing needs, nothing more than a very nice toy.
  • Reply 20 of 28
    If I would have known that the processor wasn't a big bump over the A12X
    Wasn't the A12Z name a big enough give away?
    Metriacanthosaurus said:
    Surely they can't be so insanely greedy to think mini-LED will be another higher tier beyond the already ridiculously priced iPad Pro.
    Why not? They are obliged by the rules of capitalism to make as much money as possible, otherwise shareholders can sue them.
    watto_cobra
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