iPad Pro 2018 review: there's much for artists and designers to love about Apple's new iPad

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  • Price When Reviewed: 11-inch from £769, 12.9-inch from £969. Apple Pencil second-generation £119

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The new iPad Pro is smaller, much more powerful and features a sleek new design – but it's the new Pencil that will make the most difference to your life.

Following Apple’s launch last week in New York, I’ve spent over a week with the brand new iPad Pro, testing it with a wide range of professional-level art and design apps from Procreate to Affinity Designer. So have illustrators including lettering artist Ian Barnard and concept artist Rob McCallum, who give us their thoughts later in this review.

There are two new iPad Pros. I’ve been testing the 12.9-inch model, but as spent some time with the 11-inch model at a hands-on event directly after the launch. There’s also a new Pencil – which is as much something to delight in as the new iPad Pro itself – and a redesigned keyboard. I’ll review each of those in turn after considering the new iPad.

Both look and feel quite different to 2017's models. They're thinner by half a millimetre and less curved at the back for a look that reminds me of the old iPhone 5. The top and bottom bezels (and home button) have disappeared so that they're barely any larger than their screens. And they're still both incredibly light in the hand, being comfortable to hold for extended periods and move around as you sketch, draw or paint.

The smaller 'iPad Pro 2018' has an 11-inch screen, up a little from last year's, still-available 10.5-inch model. Placed next to my 10.5-inch iPad here at a hands-on session following the launch last Tuesday, you can see that without the bezel the new 11-inch model is smaller overall than the model it essentially replaces. The 11-inch iPad's resolution is about the same as the 10.5-inch model - it's just 164 pixels wider at 2,388 x 1,688.

The new 11-inch iPad Pro (left) next to last year's 10.5-inch version (right).

The 12.9-inch is also smaller than its predecessor, this time the 2,732 x 2,048-resolution screen remains the same and the shrinkage is all due to the lack of bezel. It no longer feels much less portable than the smaller version and the only choice between the two models is how you feel about spending £200 on 1.9-inches of extra screen.

Last year's 12.9-inch iPad Pro (left) next to the new model (right).

The screens have a new design, being based on the same 'Liquid Retina' display as Apple's 'budget, but in the sense of I've got a large budget for a phone but not enough for an XS' handset the iPhone XR.

The display certainly looks the business - bright and bold with subtle gradation between shades in artwork, photos and video. However, when looking at the same artworks, photos and videos on the new and old model, we couldn’t spot any difference.

The lack of a home button means current iPad users will have to learn a new set of gestures if they upgrade to one of the new models. If you own an iPhone X or newer, you'll be familiar with these - but as with these phones, it takes a while to build up the muscle memory. Even in the brief time I spent with the new iPad Pros, I reached instinctively for the home button without thinking.

Instead of your finger, you use FaceID unlock your iPad. This tech works well on the iPhone and I can't see it being any different on the iPad Pro - with one design flaw. If you're the kind of artist or designer who likes to draw on a table rather than your lap, unlocking your iPad Pro with FaceID isn't quite as seamless as with a device you look at front on - you have to swipe up to begin the unlocking process then move yourself so you’re peering over the iPad in a way that gets you odd looks from colleague.

Alternatively you have you tilt the iPad Pro towards you with one hand as you swipe up with another. This takes a while to get used to, and is less user-friendly than the old Home button. I’m not sure shaving an inch of bezel was worth this.

You can open your iPad quickly by tapping twice with the new Apple Pencil, but this only opens the Notes app. I can see why Apple has done this - if you could unlock your iPad with the Pencil, it defeats the purpose of FaceID security - but you do wish you could go straight into Procreate, Affinity Designer or whatever your app of choice is.

The headphone socket has gone the way of the Home button. Apple supplied a pair of its smart wireless headphones – AirPods – with the review unit (above), which are a rather marvellous piece of technology that not only sound much better than I’d expect from a pair of in-ear headphones but also seamlessly connect from device to device as you move from iPad to iMac to MacBook Pro to phone (whether iPhone or Android, though you need an extra app to make them work with Google Assistant).

As with the iPhone XS, there’s no headphone adapter in the box – so if you’ve got a lovely pair of Denon D9200 headphones you’ll need to shell out £9/$9 for an adapter to plug into the USB-C port on the iPad Pro’s ‘lower’ edge (which replaces the Lightning connector on the previous model). Note that you can’t just pick up any old USB-C connector from Amazon or an Android phone and use that – we tried adapters from Huawei and Sony and neither worked.

If you own an iPhone or modern Android phone, you’ve now got to deal with yet another easy-to-lose, easy-to-break adapter – though we’ve yet to be able to test whether the Apple adapter will work on Android phones such as our favourite, the Huawei P20 Pro.

The move to USB-C (below in the middle of the iPad's rim) – a faster connector than Lightning – is part of Apple’s attempt to position the iPad as a computer in it’s own right, rather than just a peripheral: not just a sketchbook but a drafting table or easel. For example, it makes it faster to bring in photos from an SD card (using the £39 SD card adapter or just connecting your camera to the iPad Pro using a USB-C to A lead).

Apple says that the USB-C port uses a standard spec, so hardware developers are free to build any type of peripheral as long as there’s an app to go alongside it – from control surfaces to hard drives. You can also use it to charge an iPhone, if you so wish.

The USB-C port also how you change the iPad itself. In the box is a 18W mains power adapter, though the iPad will charge faster if you have a MacBook Pro and use its 61W charger (or buy one of Apple’s 30W, 61W or 87W chargers for between £49/$49 and £79/$79).

What it won’t charge from is the USB-C to A cables connected to 5W adapters (or standard USB ports) that all but the most Apple-fixated studios, offices and homes will have lying about. The previous generations of iPad would charge from lightning cables connected to these, so you expect it to work (albeit slowly) – but the new iPads clearly require more power than this.

iPad Pro 2018 benchmarks

The reason for needing all that power is the impressively specced hardware under the hood. You’ve an 8-core CPU and 7-core GPU - plus a neural engine chip for specific machine learning applications. At the launch I saw a quick demo of an unreleased version of Adobe Lightroom for the iPad that had an ML button that automatically improved a photo in a way the demonstrator claimed was much better than the current Auto tool (below).

Apple has made some grand claims for the new iPad Pros - 90% faster multi-core performance, graphics as powerful as the XBox One S - and, if true, would make for an outstanding computer than could rival most laptops.

In Geekbench, my review 12.9-inch iPad Pro produced scores of 5018 (single-core CPU), 17624 (multi-core CPU) and 43138 (GPU compute performance – ie using the GPU for intense '2D' processes such as filters, effects and video encoding).

This is up 25% on the previous 12.9-inch model also running iOS 12.1 for single-core CPU, 84% for multi-core CPU and 46% higher for GPU compute.

This nerdery means nowt if the applications don’t take advantage of the extreme power, and I found that even large-scale projects with a huge number of layers in Procreate and Affinity Designer were just as nippy to work on on the old 10.5-inch iPad Pro as on the new 12.9-inch model.

Instead, we'll have to look to the next-generation of apps to see what the new iPad Pro is capable of – not only new apps like Adobe's Photoshop for iPad and Project Gemini, but where Procreate and Affinity go next.

The new Apple Pencil review

There are two schools of thought when it comes to what's the best digital stylus. Some prefer the chunky, traditional Wacom shape, others prefer the sleeker Apple Pencil introduced in 2015 - both being more solid and better balanced for drawing than biro-like stylii such as the Microsoft Surface Pen.

The second-generation Apple Pencil isn't going to change anyone's mind about this - but it does have advantages over the previous Pencil, even if it isn't quite as pure in its design. The fully round thread has been sliced longways to give a short flat edge along one side. This has the immediate benefit of stopping your Pencil rolling off your desk - I often locate mine on the floor after time away from the desk - but also allows you to clip it to the ’top edge' of your iPad Pro using magnets, where it also automatically pairs with the iPad and charges wirelessly from it.

No more do you need to having it sticking oddly out the bottom of your iPad to create some kind of giant flyswatter - and you can now charge both at once (which is only a minor advantage, as the first-gen Pencil charged quickly and lasted a very long time between charges.

The first-generation Apple Pencil (above) next to the shorter new stylus.

You can also double tap on the flat edge under where your finger sits naturally to switch tools - for example, from a brush to an eraser - or perform other functions, though app developers need to add support for this. I was shown a future version of Procreate where double tapping opened the radial Quick Menu of controls and buttons (below).

Support for the Apple Pencil double tap is turned on in Procreate's Gesture control panel

Apple is offering laser engraving of the flat edge for free - though at £119/US$129 versus £89/$99 for the older model, free engraving doesn't seem like the benefit it might otherwise have done.

The new Apple Pencil is also slightly shorter than the older stylus - though this makes no difference to how it sits in your hand. It still has the same really natural-feeling heft and balance as before, and the drawing experience is just as excellent as before.

If you buy a '2018' iPad Pro then you'll need to buy a second-gen Apple Pencil. Your old one won't work, and apparently that's not just because the Lightning connector on the bottom edge of the iPad Pro has been replaced by a USB-C connector. Even if you got a USB-C to Lightning lead - something you might use to charge an iPhone from the iPad - then the older Pencil won't pair.

This is a shame as - double tap functionality aside - there's no difference between the two Pencils that we could tell. Comparing drawing on a new iPad Pro 2018 with the ‘Apple Pencil 2.0’ against the original Pencil on a 10.5-inch iPad across a range of drawing, painting, design and photography apps from Procreate and Adobe Draw to Lightroom for iPad and Apple’s own Notes app, I could feel no difference in how sensitive it was to pressure and tilting to vary the shape of the mark made worked the same as before – and, as before – rotation doesn’t change your brush or pen as it does with the Wacom pen. They both also use the same replaceable nibs.

Upgrades were hardly necessary here, as the Apple Pencil is still an outstanding creative tool – every bit as good as a Wacom pen, with the choice between them being more about whether you prefer to draw on an iPad or a computer (unless Apple can add the ability to use the iPad as a Wacom tablet or Cintiq to macOS 10.15 Sequoia.

The new keyboard for the iPad Pro 2018

The other new accessory is a redesigned keyboard - or Smart Keyboard Folio as Apple is now calling it. For typing, it hasn't changed much beyond being resized to match the different edge lengths of the new 11- and 12.9-inch models. It's a moderately good keyboard that's much more comfortable for typing than the Surface Pro's for example - but lacks the travel in the keys that aids swift typing that you get with a full laptop keyboard. So while I'm happy writing emails and briefs on it, I wouldn't want to write something as long as, say, this review on it.

HP's new Spectre Folio tablet/laptop hybrid has a built-in keyboard that I'd still consider to be ultra-thin but has much deeper keys - and I hope keyboards that are as comfortable to type on are released for the new iPad Pro soon.

What has changed is how the keyboard attaches to the iPad itself. Apple has moved the Smart Connector from the side to the back (below), so the rear part of the keyboard now covers the entire back of the iPad Pro - hinged about a third of the way from the bottom to create the triangular stand that holds it up in a way that's more similar to tablet/laptop hybrids like the HP Spectre Folio. This means the base part of it, including the keyboard itself, is made from a single piece, which feels more stable on your lap.

You lose being able to position the Smart Keyboard Folio as a keyboard-less stand - though Apple notes that it found that few iPad owners used it in this way. But you gain a choice of two angles to place the screen at - a tilted angle that's the same as with the previous keyboard that I'll call 'laptop mode', and a more vertical position that so far has been called the 'lying in bed watching Netflix mode' by me and my partner.

Flip the keyboard over to hold the iPad in ’tablet mode’ and the keys sit under your fingers as you grip it – though of course they don’t type when it’s like this. Being used to a flat back from the previous-generation iPad, this felt a bit weird to begin with – but as with Face ID I soon got used to it.

What professional artists think of the new iPad Pro

Artists Ian Barnard and Rob McCallum were also at the iPad Pro launch event and were loaned review units shortly after, and I spoke to both about their experiences.

Scottish concept and storyboard artist Rob Callum started his career as a comic artists for imprints including DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Rebellion (2000AD), but turned to film and TV, working on projects as diverse as Pacific Rim and Mandy (below) to Hairspray and Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. He’s currently working on the latest Star Trek TV incarnation, Discovery.

Rob draws and paints exclusively with Apple’s iPad Pro, and has been since 2015.

"I’ve been using the new iPad Pro for just over a week and for storyboards and being a mobile studio, its perfect for my usage," he tells me. "The new iPad Pro is a beast. The new Apple Pencil is the secret that makes it better. I’m adjusting to the gestures, even tried using them on my previous iPad after a few hours so my brain seems to overwrite itself quickly apparently."

"The feel of the Apple Pencil is subtly different. It feels better on the screen and the weight and balance is more refined now, which makes a great difference when drawing.

"I’m adjusting to Face ID. It’s pretty handy and works well – but the home button was almost a part of my process.

"The ball is in the developer’s courts now. They’ve got the foundation to do such powerful apps and someones going to find something genius to do with the tap function on the Pencil."

Rob's Twitter feed is full of artwork he's been drawing with the new iPad Pro and Pencil, like the below.

Ian Barnard is a lettering artist who creates and sells his own tools for Photoshop and Procreate, as well as co-hosting the Honest Designers podcast.

He says that "80 to 90% of my time is now spent using the iPad Pro for my lettering. It’s an awesome tool and combining that with apps like Procreate and the quality of the Apple Pencil, it’s the best in its class."

You can watch his full review on YouTube below.

iPad Pro 2018 review: Verdict

For the time being, the real reason to buy the new iPad Pro – beyond ‘I must have the new Apple kit’ fetishisation – is the new Pencil, though again we’ll have to see how quickly app developers support it.

The new iPad Pro is a staggeringly powerful creative tool. But the additional performance of the new chips will only be a benefit if app developers really find a way to take advantage of them - the current iPad Pros don't feel like laggards - but it will be interesting to see what Adobe, Affinity, Autodesk and others can make of the potential of these new iPad Pros.

This isn't just about improving the apps they have in art and design. For the iPad Pro to truly be the equal of a laptop, we need to start to see UX, graphic design, 3D and animation apps coming across to it – and CG especially requires extreme performance. And these new iPad Pros may just be powerful enough to deliver it.

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