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Hands-On With Apple’s New iPads: My Take on the Fancy New Upgrades

 Hands-On With Apple’s New iPads: My Take on the Fancy New Upgrades

After a whole year where Apple had no iPads at all, 2024 now has four new iPads all at once. The newest iPad Pro and iPad Air models are here, and I’ve tried them all hands-on. Over a few hours at a series of meetings with Apple in New York, I got an early preview of the new iPads, and after spending time with them, I really appreciate their hardware. They also have a totally new, gyroscope-equipped, vibrating Pencil Pro accessory too.

Even though Apple’s new iPads are lovely, fancy and expensive, I can’t say they’re any closer to being your Mac. That’s because, well, Apple doesn’t want them to be. 

The iPad Pro is, by all measures, a superior piece of hardware. It’s very likely the device I’d choose to be my future Mac. But it’s not a Mac yet, it’s an iPad. And even though iOS and MacOS are getting closer every year, they’re still quite different. We’re only a month away from the Worldwide Developers Conference, where Apple will announce new versions of every OS including iPadOS. It could be that Apple reveals plans to transform iPads even further and maybe fuse them with Macs as we know them, then. But I wouldn’t count on it.

Watch this: Everything Announced at Apple’s iPad Event in 7 Minutes

If you’ve been thinking about getting yourself a nice iPad, and you have needs that include graphic arts, sketching or photo/video work, these new models look great. But they’ll cost you. Even though the entry-level iPad Air starts at $599 (£478, AU$907) with 128GB of storage, the top-end iPad Pro starts at $1,299 (£981, AU$1,861). And then there’s the nice new Pencil Pro for $129 (£103, AU$195), Magic Keyboard with new aluminum design and haptic trackpad for $299 (£238, AU$453) and $349 (£279, AU$528) and any extra storage you might want to tack on. The Pro models have 256GB storage to start, and ramp up to 2TB.

ipad-pro-pencil-pro ipad-pro-pencil-pro

The new Pencil Pro rotates and vibrates: in apps like Procreate, it can be used for new ways to control brushes and tools.

Scott Stein/CNET

Pencil Pro has useful haptic vibration, in-hand rotation

The new Pencil Pro looks exactly like the previous Pencil 2 but adds a few new features onboard for the same $129 price. You can squeeze the Pencil now to bring up pop-up menus on the iPad screen, with haptic vibrations that give a little click response. That’s a nice little touch, but the more useful part to me was an embedded gyroscope that allows for Pencil rotations in-hand. The Pencil can rotate brush tools on the fly now, which feels in-hand more like using an actual brush. 

Thanks to the over-iPad-display hover feature introduced on the 2022 iPad Pro, the Pencil previews brush tools in advance and then you can rotate the Pencil to adjust the brush position as needed before pressing down.

I do love the new additions to the Pencil Pro and am glad it doesn’t cost more. Except it does. You need to buy a whole new iPad Pro or iPad Air to use it, since the new Pencil charges and connects only with these new models. That’s a lot to pay for a few new Pencil features.

iPad Pro with matte display iPad Pro with matte display

The iPad Pro’s new OLED display is hard to appreciate here. This is the new nano texture glass option, which is matte.

Scott Stein/CNET

iPad Pro: Thin, fancy, heck of a screen

The new iPad Pro model seems similar at a distance from the iPad Air or even previous iPad Pro models. It’s a big display with metal bezels, and honestly, all iPads have nice displays. Getting closer reveals some differences. Apple’s made these Pro models even thinner than before. Why, you may ask? It isn’t really needed, in theory, but if you live with a Magic Keyboard attached, you might feel differently. 

It’s the whole Magic Keyboard-on-iPad setup that the new Pro seems fine-tuned to, since the new aluminum-interior keyboard case and iPad Pro together now make for a thinner, lighter package overall. How thin and light? My demos were brief, but it seemed like it would fit a bit better in a backpack. 

The new Pros have M4 chips inside, which are a whole new chip Apple announced just half a year after the M3 debuted last Halloween. The M4 sounds very closely aligned with the M3, from its 3 nanometer architecture to its cores and GPUs. Apple has indicated that the M4 has better thermal design for thin devices like this iPad and also a new design to work with the upgraded OLED display. How much faster it is is unclear, since all of Apple’s comparisons were stated in terms of the M2, not the M3. We’ll know sometime soon, though.

iPad Air and a Pencil Pro, close up drawing flowers iPad Air and a Pencil Pro, close up drawing flowers

Using the Pencil Pro to rotate a brush to make flowers on the iPad Air. This is a great display too.

Scott Stein/CNET

The new display looks lovely. Apple finally moved to OLED for its iPads, something companies like Samsung have done long ago for tablets. Apple promises these are even better, calling them Ultra Retina XDR displays – they use a technology called Tandem OLED, which uses two OLED panels at once and increases brightness for HDR (1,000 nits in everyday use, up to 1,600 nits for HDR). There’s also a fancy matte finish option (nano texture glass), similar to what Apple has for its high-end Studio Display, which made the screens I saw pop with far less glare.

Do you need them? Well, they look great, but Apple already has great displays in its other iPads. For anyone needing a particular bleeding-edge quality for film or graphics work, well, TBD. In any case, these screens seem like Apple’s new display templates for Pro devices across all its products to come.

iPad Air models, looking at the backside, on a wooden table iPad Air models, looking at the backside, on a wooden table

The iPad Air comes in two sizes now, just like the iPad Pro. They both work with the new Pencil Pro, too.

Scott Stein/CNET

iPad Air: 2022’s iPad Pro, but more affordable

The iPad Airs have been favorites of mine for being middle-range picks for FancyPad shoppers. The 11-inch Air, at $599 (£478, AU$907), has an M2 chip and seems like the one to get. Apple doesn’t have Mini LED on its new 13-inch larger-screened iPad Air model, starting at $799 (£639, AU$1,210), like the 2022 12.9-inch iPad Pro does, and the Airs don’t have faster refresh rates (ProMotion) like the Pros do. The Airs don’t have lidar sensors on the back or Face ID on the front: instead, there’s a side Touch ID button, which some people may prefer.

The Airs seem Totally Fine, though, and while thicker than the Pros, they’re more affordable. They work with the new Pencil Pro, too. I don’t have a lot to say about them, because…well, I’ve seen these iPads before, sort of. The only question is: Are 2022 iPad Pros on sale for less? If so, get those over these Airs, because they’re the same but slightly better.

Cameras in the right place, at last

All these iPads moved their front cameras to the landscape edge, just like the 10th-gen iPad. It’s an overdue move. In keyboard-connected modes, that means video chats are finally properly centered (who uses an iPad for video chat in portrait mode, anyway?). It makes them feel even better as Zoom machines.

Cheaper 10th-gen iPad: the one to get?

Apple also dropped the price on the 10th-gen iPad, now down to $349 (£279, AU$528) with 64GB of storage. I’d recommend the 256GB model for $499 (£399, AU$756) instead, but either way, these prices are finally at the range I wanted them to be back in 2022. 

The only question is: Does Apple update this iPad in the fall with even better specs? At this new price, with likely online sales as well (as there always are), the basic iPad seems like the way to go for most. Otherwise, you’re looking at a lot to spend for a tablet that, while amazingly versatile, still isn’t the same as a Mac. 

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