The new iPad Pro got a nice upgrade, and it makes a tempting laptop replacement

Key Points
  • Apple's new 11- and 12.9-inch iPad Pros are great.
  • Apple's new added mouse support for iPads makes these, and other iPads, much more powerful work machines that really can replace your laptop.
  • You don't need to upgrade if you have the 2018 iPads Pro, however, since the upgrades probably won't be needed by most people.
The 12.9-inch 2020 iPad Pro with Apple's Magic trackpad accessory.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Apple announced its new 11- and 12.9-inch iPads Pro last week. There are a few big changes, including a more powerful processor, new cameras and a 3D sensor for more accurate augmented reality applications.

With a software update Tuesday for all iPads, it now supports mouse input, a huge change from Apple's previous suggestions that the iPad was built around touch-only interaction. With mouse support, the iPad is inching closer to a real laptop replacement, something Apple has been promising for years with mixed results.

The new 11- and 12.9-inch iPads Pro look and feel like the previous models launched in 2018. And if you own them, you probably don't need to upgrade unless you want slightly faster speeds and the 3D sensor camera. But, if you haven't owned an iPad Pro before, these are great machines that are more and more capable of replacing your laptop entirely.

But, as I said in my 2020 MacBook Air review, it's a tough time for Apple to launch new products. Apple stores are closed indefinitely outside China, so you can't try them out in person. And people may be more concerned about the economy and might not have a lot of disposable income right now. The new iPad Pro starts at $799, not including the optional-but-essential Magic Keyboard accessory with built-in trackpad that's coming in May. Apple will charge $299 for the keyboard that fits 11-inch iPads and $349 for the version that fits 12.9-inch iPads.

On the other hand, millions of people around the world are being asked to stay indoors. And the iPad is a heck of a device that can help you get work done, stay in touch over video chat, keep you entertained with movies and games and help you stay up on the news.

I love the 12.9-inch iPad Pro I've been testing for the past several days. Here's what you need to know about it.

There's finally real mouse support

I bought the 2018 11-inch iPad Pro, which I still use pretty much every day. A couple of years ago, I argued that this still wasn't quite a device that could replace your computer. But my thoughts have changed. Aside from a proprietary system we use for entering articles for, and while using Apple's $179 keyboard, I can do everything I normally do from a laptop.

Over the last several years, Apple has added lots of multitasking capabilities that makes it easier to run apps side by side, so I can have my work Slack up next to the web browser, and a small box running CNBC live on TV down in a corner. It's great, and I know other colleagues of mine can use the iPad for most of their work, too. This wasn't enough for me, though: I still didn't like the need to use the screen to maneuver.

Running Twitter and the CNBC app side-by-side.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The latest update to the iPad's operating system makes it even more powerful: It finally supports a mouse. I tested it with Apple's $129 Magic Trackpad, which supports gestures that let me close apps, see all open apps, move with accuracy through text, scroll through websites and more. A new Magic Keyboard that works with the iPad and has a trackpad with all those features built in won't launch until May, and I can't wait to try it.

The Magic Keyboard is expensive, but the added mouse support makes the iPad feel so much more powerful. Plus, if that keyboard works well, it'll also add other benefits like backlighting and better quality keys than the fabric-covered keys on today's iPad keyboard.

In the meantime, though, the iPad works with regular wireless mice.

The new iPad cursor looks like a little circle instead of an arrow.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I can use the cursor, which is a small circle instead of the standard arrow you might be accustomed to, to more accurately select into text without having to touch the screen. I can use the trackpad to see all of my open apps by swiping three fingers outward on the trackpad, or swipe between pages with two fingers. And Apple specifically made other areas easier to access with a mouse, like control center, which shows me my Wi-Fi connection, volume levels and other basic settings. Normally, you'd need to swipe down from the top right of the iPad to access this. Now, I can just click the battery icon to open it up. 

Bottom line: The iPad can finally replace the laptop for most people thanks to mouse support.

A new 3D camera

Wide angle, ultra wide angle and new Lidar sensor on the iPad Pro.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Apple also improved the cameras on the new iPads Pro. There are wide-angle lenses that let you capture more in a scene, which work great and are just like the ones on the latest iPhones. And you can now record in 4K with the wide-angle and ultra-wide angle lenses, which videographers may appreciate. But I don't use my iPad for taking pictures or video that often. If you do, they're even better than before. The most important update is a new lidar sensor, which I've referred to as a 3D sensor.

I used AR to create a floor plan of a nursery in my house.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Augmented reality, which lets you place digital objects over the real world, has been a feature in iPhones and iPads for a few years now. But iPad Pro's lidar sensor makes AR much better and faster because it can accurately scan your real-world environment better than standard cameras.

I tested Ikea Place, an app that lets you drop furniture into your room to see how it looks before you buy it. Now, instead of using the camera to scan the room for a few seconds, the augmented reality works immediately. That's because the lidar sensor is constantly sending and receiving information about the environment around you in real time.

The IKEA Place app lets you drop furniture into a room.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I found AR to be really useful now that it's faster. I'm working on a nursery for a baby due in May. And using an app called "AR Plan 3D" the iPad Pro was able to scan the measurements of the room in just about five minutes, as I walked around using the built-in measuring to capture the room's dimensions. In seconds, I had a floor plan. And the Ikea app let me imagine what our crib, dresser and chair will look like in the room. (Even though we purchased these elsewhere, it gave us good estimates of the layout and size of the items.)

AR is much faster with the Lidar sensor so you can quickly grab measurements.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Right now, the faster augmented reality sensor isn't enough to upgrade from an iPad that already supports AR. But it is an improvement and will hopefully spur a slew of new AR development.

Apple on Tuesday released new tools for developers, called "scene geometry," which lets apps scan the room even faster. Apple said apps like Ikea will be able to use this information to understand a room's size and what's in it, so it can recommend furniture it knows will fit in your room.

Other features I like

The 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Then there's everything else about the iPad Pro that's still great, just like the 2018 models.

The screen refreshes at a higher rate than regular iPads, meaning animations are super smooth, especially for games and scrolling through lots of text, like news articles. There's plenty of power for running lots of apps at the same time without any sort of sluggishness, and Apple said the new chip offers a significant upgrade for games and video editing, though my older 2018 iPad still seems like it handles those tasks just as well.

It can definitely run a ton at once, though. I had Slack and Safari running at the same time, TV streaming in a tiny window, Twitter and Spotify open, and it didn't ever feel slow.

Apple promises 10 hours of constant use on a single charge, so it'll last long enough for most people. For me, it lasted throughout the weekend, even with lots of chatting, video streaming and a FaceTime call with eight buddies from college that lasted more than an hour or so. After fully charging on Sunday, I plugged it in on Monday at about 8 a.m. with 35% of the battery still left. And it charged up to 88% in about an hour, which is really fast.

The 12.9-inch 2020 iPad Pro with Apple's Magic trackpad accessory.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I don't normally use the Apple Pencil for much, but I still really like having it around. It's super convenient if you need to sign and send a PDF to someone. Your kids might love it for drawing and sketching when they're inside, too. It charges magnetically on top of the iPads Pro when you're not using it, which I like better than the original Apple Pencil that needs to be plugged into the bottom of an iPad to charge.

Finally, I love that, like the MacBook Air, Apple has doubled the storage in the entry-level 11-inch iPad Pro and 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which start at $799 and $999, respectively, and include 128 GB of storage. The model I tested, which was fully loaded with LTE and 1 TB of storage (a ton!), costs $1,649. Most people don't need to spend that much, and the added costs really come down to the massive amount of storage on the high end. Oh, and if you get the LTE model, you'll find that speeds are up to 60% faster than the earlier iPad Pro over LTE. 

What I don't like

The 12.9-inch 2020 iPad Pro.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

They're expensive! If you just need an iPad, this probably isn't the model for you. But, if you're someone who needs an iPad that's capable of recording 4K video from two cameras at the same time, need stereo speakers and studio-quality microphones, and as much power as Apple can stuff in a tablet for things like video editing, this is the iPad for you.

Also, I wish Apple launched that Magic Keyboard now, instead of waiting until May, since the added mouse support built right into the keyboard will be really useful. For now, though, you can use a Magic Trackpad as I do, or any Bluetooth mouse.

Finally, the 12.9-inch model is really big. That screen size is really awesome for work and for watching movies, but it's a bit cumbersome if you just want to sit in bed and read the news or check Twitter. I kept worrying I'd drop it on my head. And typing on such a big screen without a keyboard is pretty tough. So, if you like to use your iPad in bed and for work with a keyboard, get the 11-inch model. The only real difference between the two models is the screen size. So it's a matter of personal preference.

Should you buy it?

The 12.9-inch 2020 iPad Pro with Apple's Magic trackpad accessory.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Yes, but it depends on who you are.

The iPad Pro is really expensive, especially since you can get the regular iPad starting at $329. But you get 4x the storage, a way better and bigger screen, a more powerful processor, support for Apple's upcoming Magic Keyboard, better cameras, faster AR and more. For some people, especially folks who use this as a primary computer, that's well worth the price.

If you think AR is important and you're a designer who does 3D modeling or video editing, this is the iPad for you. It's also the best bet if you're like me and you notice the difference in screen quality between Apple's regular $329 iPad and its $799 11-inch iPad Pro.

If you just need a tablet, you're fine with the regular iPad or even the iPad Air, which starts at $499. The iPad Air has a nicer screen than the regular iPad. But Apple isn't making a Magic Keyboard for the iPad Air, so you'll either need to use your own mouse or check out the new keyboard case with trackpad coming soon from Logitech. You'll also miss out on Face ID, the better cameras, faster processor and better keyboards, but it's still a great tablet.

If you're thinking about an iPad Pro and have more than $1,000 to spend, here's what I think you should do: get the $799 11-inch iPad Pro instead of the bigger, 12.9-inch model (which I love, it's just too big for me) and save some money. Then take the money you're saving and get the Magic Keyboard when it launches. You'll have a powerful tablet that should be able to do pretty much everything a laptop can, so long as all of your work apps are supported on the iPad. All in, you're looking at around $1,100 for the new keyboard with built-in trackpad and the 11-inch iPad Pro with 128 GB of storage.

If you still need a Mac for work, instead of just an iPad, get the new MacBook Air. It starts at $999. I recommend spending $1,099 for a slightly more powerful model.

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