A productive update: Impressions of the 2020 iPad Pro

Image courtesy of Apple

What better time to launch a new iPad than during a global pandemic. Am I right?

For full transparency, I don’t have the new iPad Pro, nor do I have the 2018 model. Because I’m not a true tech journalist I don’t receive demo models, and I’m not someone who upgrades their devices that often. So, my impressions of the iPad will are based the reviews I’ve read so far. Stay tuned for my iPadOS 13.4 impressions in the next few days.

If you’re considering purchasing the new hardware this year, I’d recommend checking out these reviews — in this order. These folks have had experience working with the hardware.

Performance and specs

This is a strange spec bump for new iPads. The new devices have been upgraded from the A12X processors to the A12Z. I agree with Dieter Bohn that Apple has run out of letters. The new devices have improved graphics capabilities which makes sense given that Apple is really pushing the augmented reality (AR) features inside the new camera system (see below).

Based on the Geek Bench scores from Six Colours and Daring Fireball, the CPU increases are negligible. Graphics performance is improved, but even that isn’t a huge leap.

What I found most interesting was the improved thermal system and increased RAM.

“If there’s any other performance to be gained on these iPads, it’s from a somewhat improved thermal system in the tablet’s internal design. A more efficient thermal design doesn’t change the fundamental speed of the processor, but the better a chip can be cooled, the longer it can run at higher speeds. This means that for extended activities that tax the processor, like a video encode, the new iPad Pro might be a bit faster than the older model.”

— Jason Snell, Six Colors

This combined with 6GB of RAM (as opposed to the old 4GB) allows for potentially better multitasking — i.e. keeping more apps running in the background without refreshing them. If the rumours are true that the U1 chip is also included, this iPad will have ultra-wideband tech inside for improved location sensing and spatial awareness. It’s not something that will matter much today, but it’s another future-proofing measure that gives this hardware generation an advantage. Collectively, these updates will make your device last longer, and iPads tend to last a long time.

Camera and augmented reality capabilities

By far the most interesting hardware feature is the camera system. Though this isn’t an iPhone quality camera, it’s a lot better than the older single-lens system. Apple included a liar scanner in the camera module specifically for better AR features.

AR is a really great tech demo. If you want a cool application, try out Minecraft Earth. The liar system in the iPad allows for much better tracking of AR objects in space. (See the example from The Verge to see what I mean).

“The lidar sensor also greatly helps with identifying walls and ceilings. It’s just as easy to use Measure to tell how far away something — again, say, a piece of furniture — is from the wall as it is to measure how big the thing itself is. On all other iOS devices — which is to say, all non-lidar-equipped iOS devices — Measure is not good at this.”

— John Gruber, Daring Fireball

Here’s my theory. The inclusion of liar on the iPad is to get developers used to working with this technology, so there’s lots of apps that take advantage of when this technology is inevitably included in the new iPhones.

New microphones

I don’t have a lot to say about this. I’m not a podcaster (maybe someday…), but I am an instructional librarian at a university. Any activity such as screen-casting, recording voices, doing voiceover alongside annotation will be greatly improved. I often annotate documents using the Apple Pencil with voiceover to show my students how I work through research problems. I’d also expect video conferencing to be improved as well. All these things make the iPad that much more capable as a ‘conference device.’

Same keyboard case… not the one we want

The coolest accessory for an iPad ever, hasn’t released yet. The new Magic Keyboard transforms the iPad into a clamshell design. The accessory includes a trackpad — since iPadOS 13.4 officially supports mice and trackpads. When in use, the iPad floats gracefully on a suspended hinge. It’s a very cool design, but nobody has one to test. It’s also super expensive.

Support for trackpads is awesome. But, you don’t need an iPad Pro to test it. In fact, a 2014 iPad Air 2 will support this feature. Apple has done such a good job of bringing these software upgrades to the cheapest devices that it begs the question, does anyone need the Pro model? I don’t have an answer to that right now. I suspect we’ll see another iPad refresh sooner than later (a ‘pro’ Pro so to speak). Overall this is a solid, if incremental, upgrade. If you use an iPad a lot like I do, I think it’s worth swinging for it. My advice for all iPad buyers: skip Apple’s Smart Keyboards and cases. Purchase a good third party case and get yourself a light and portable bluetooth or USB-C keyboard. It’s a lot cheaper and a better experience. Modularity is the iPad’s strength, so why have it stuck in landscape? With a separate keyboard you can writing in portrait mode (as John Gruber does) and you can use the keyboard style of your choice. I moved to this setup and I’ve never looked back.

Those are my thoughts for now. The new iPad’s mouse and trackpad support has me thinking about where tablets are headed as laptop replacements. I want to explore the history of the 2-in-1 computer/tablet device a little more to put things in context — so expect a longer post in the future about where the tablet is going as a productivity device. I outlined my thoughts on this a few years ago, but I think it’s probably time to return to this topic.

Originally published at https://tech-bytes.net on March 25, 2020.

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