Introduction

With the release of every new tablet, photographers peer past their laptops and wonder: could this be the one that lightens my gear load without sacrificing performance? The appeal of a fast and light tablet is seductive, even if you’re not looking to completely replace a desktop or laptop, but tradeoffs have so far made it a difficult choice.

2018 iPad Pro key specs:

  • Resolution of 2388x1668 pixels (11" model), 2732x2048 pixels (12.9" model)
  • 64GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB storage capacity options
  • 64-bit A12x chip
  • USB-C connection
  • 468g (11" model), 632g (12.9")

Apple’s latest iPad Pro models boast impressive hardware that makes them competitive alternatives. Depending on what you need to do, though, the software still isn’t quite there yet. Partly that’s due to limitations imposed by Apple and iOS, but it’s also because third-party developers have only recently had the power to build the types of full-blown apps photographers expect.

That said, based on what’s been announced about the next versions of iOS (called iPadOS 13 for the tablets), the iPad Pro will become even more capable when it’s released in the fall. I haven’t run the iPadOS beta on the current iPad Pro because the software is still in development, so I won’t be evaluating any of those features in this article. However, I’ll reference them as needed to talk about some of the current limitations and what to expect later this year.

Performance

During the early days of the iPad, Apple didn’t share all the hardware specifications, preferring to convey the message that the iPad was perfect for anyone’s needs. Processor speed, memory, and graphics specs were details for nerds and pros, and the computer industry had become fixated on them. Honestly, Apple was likely deflecting from the fact that the original iPad shipped with just 256 MB of RAM—not terrible for most uses on that first model, but it hampered the machine when working with large image files. It wasn’t until the third-generation iPad that it crossed into the 1 GB territory for RAM.

Affinity Photo on this latest 12.9-inch iPad Pro isn’t fazed by significant demands

Apple has since returned from that marketing sojourn with a lot to trumpet. The iPad Pro is powered by an Apple-designed, 64-bit A12X Bionic processor with eight cores that balance power and battery life: four high-performance cores and four high-efficiency cores. When needed, all eight cores can be put to use. It includes 4 GB of LPDDR4 RAM, though the model equipped with 1 TB of storage includes 6 GB of RAM (the model I reviewed). The A12X also includes a 7-core graphics processor that Apple says delivers the same graphics performance as an XBox One S, and a Neural Engine that processes machine-learning tasks (such as identifying faces in the Photos app).

What does all that mean for photographers? It never feels like I’m waiting for the device to catch up. For example, in my review of Affinity Photo for iPad using a 2016 iPad Pro, I noted, “The tradeoff is that adding several Live Filters will slow down the live rendering performance. I added five Live Filters to a layer to test this, and making subsequent edits did lag significantly.” Affinity Photo on this latest 12.9-inch iPad Pro isn’t fazed by the same demands.

We'll call it abstract art: a photo with multiple Live Effects applied in Affinity Photo for iPad.

Similarly, making adjustments in Lightroom for iPad is responsive, even on large raw files created by the Nikon Z7 and Sony A7 III cameras. I threw images at other photo editing apps, such as RAW Power, Pixelmator Photo, and Snapseed and I swear the iPad Pro yawned and asked, “Is that all you’ve got?” (I may have been overcaffeinated at the time.)

Editing in Lightroom for iPad Editing in RAW Power
Editing in Pixelmator Photo Editing in Snapseed

Storage for two of the configurations is roomy enough for photographers generating gigabytes of image and video files. While the 64 GB base model is pretty sparse and the 256 GB level is what I would consider tight, jumping to 512 GB or 1 TB is a lot more workable. Of course, you’ll be paying for the privilege: the 11-inch iPad Pro with 1 TB costs $1549. Depending on the speed of your Internet connection and your comfort level with cloud services, even the 256 GB configuration is workable if you’re using Apple’s Photos or Lightroom for iPad due to their ability to temporarily delete originals to conserve space and re-download them as needed.