Much like reviews of the high-end iPads that preceded them, reviews for Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) new 10.5-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros drive home how Apple's mobile hardware engineering is still as good as it gets. But in a market whose sales have been declining for several years, releasing new devices with great displays and cameras, plenty of processing power and long battery lives is only going to accomplish so much for a company that estimated to account for over 80% of $200-plus U.S. tablet sales.
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To breathe fresh life into a moribund tablet market, Apple needs to convince large numbers of consumers and professionals that tablets are worth using in new ways -- or, for those solely relying on smartphones and PCs for their computing needs, that it's worth adding a tablet to their hardware arsenals. Pulling that off will depend quite a lot on the software that Apple will be rolling out for its shiny new hardware (and some older hardware) in three months, as well as successfully selling consumers on what its newest offerings can do.
Reviewer praise for Apple's 10.5-inch iPad Pro often starts with the tablet's screen, which (thanks to smaller bezels) is larger than the one found on the 9.7-inch Pro launched last year (and now discontinued), even though the devices have similar form factors. In addition to the extra real estate, reviewers talk up the ProMotion display tech found in both new Pro models -- it doubles the display refresh rate to 120Hz, and automatically lowers the rate when it makes sense. "Using the iPad Pro 10.5 just feels subtly, almost invisibly better," writes The Verge's Dieter Bohn while taking stock of its new display. Others note ProMotion made a visible difference for certain game and movie scenes.
Meanwhile, benchmarks showed the A10X Fusion processor built into the latest Pros -- it contains 3 high-performance CPU cores, 3 low-power cores and a 12-core GPU -- is as good as advertised. When running the Geekbench 4 multi-core CPU benchmark, Engadget found the 10.5-inch Pro outperformed its 9.7-inch sibling, which runs on the dual-core A9X processor, by 75%; CNET found it also outperformed Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Surface Pro 4 while running Geekbench 4. When running the 3DMark IS Unlimited graphics benchmark, Engadget's tests showed a 62% edge for the 10.5-inch Pro relative to its predecessor.
Other hardware commentary was in line with what one would expect. The 12-megapixel rear camera on the standard iPhone 7 deliver good low-light shots and solid image quality overall, and thus it's no surprise that the identical rear cameras on the newest iPad Pros do the same. The same goes for the devices' 7-megapixel front cameras.
And though the 10.5-inch Pro has a larger display than the 9.7-inch Pro, battery life is improved. But the size of the improvement depends on who's doing the testing. Engadget got 9 hours and 40 minutes of usage during its battery life test, slightly better than the 9 hours and 21 minutes posted by the 9.7-inch Pro. But Ars Technica got nearly a 2-hour improvement (772 minutes to 657) in its Wi-Fi browsing test.
Regardless, while the the new iPad Pros' various hardware improvements and the March launch of a reasonably-priced standard iPad should boost Apple's tablet sales over the next few months, one shouldn't expect fireworks. That's partly because the 10.5-inch Pro features a $649 starting price -- $50 higher than the 9.7-inch Pro's -- and its 12.9-inch sibling a $799 starting price. It's also partly because iOS 11, which brings a number of iPad-specific features, won't be available until this fall outside of a developer preview.
As some reviewers noted, rendering a final judgment on the newest iPads is tough in the absence of iOS 11. Much of Apple's marketing message for the iPad Pro line has been and remains that the tablets are a more portable, more secure and easier-to-use alternative to using a notebook, and iOS 11 packs several features meant to strengthen that message.
These include an expanded app dock that -- like the app docs found on Windows and macOS -- can be accessed from any app, with an app launched from the dock able to do so in either standalone or split-view mode. It also includes the ability to multitask with three apps rather than two, and the ability to drag and drop content between apps in split-view mode. Apple also added an app-switcher that lets users quickly preview and move between launched apps, and a Files app that basically acts as iOS' version of macOS' Finder app or Windows' File Explorer.
Add those features to a pair of tablets sporting superb displays, more processing power than many laptops and a large ecosystem of productivity and content-creation apps, and an Apple sales pitch that had made limited headway to date gets meaningfully stronger.
That doesn't mean consumers and professionals will start abandoning their notebooks for iPads en masse after iOS 11 launches. But -- with the help of effective marketing -- it could put an iPad business pressured for a long time by phablet adoption and slow upgrade rates on sounder footing going into 2018.
Apple's stocks were up 0.6% to $146.24 on Tuesday in the early afternoon.
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