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Apple’s 2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch brings a useful speed bump, overhauls the main camera, adds full mouse and trackpad support.

This is part one of a series of posts looking at the new iPad Pro.

The 2018 re-imagining of the iPad Pro was a huge leap forward for tabletkind.

Apple created a laptop replacement that keeps the advantages of a tablet. The result was to deliver a productive computing experience. It has little in common with the Windows alternatives, yet is still capable of serious work1.

This year’s update builds on that. Most, but not all, of the hardware changes are incremental. We will look at the big changes in future posts. What has changed since 2018 is that iPadOS has come of age. The software is now far better suited to mobile computing.

All the best things about the 2018 iPad Pro remain. The design remains stunning.

The screen is still beautiful. In use it is nicer than any other tablet display I’ve seen. There is next to nothing in the way of bezel, that’s the thin strip surrounding the display. Apple’s designers squared off the edges and went for rounded corners. It feels so right that it’s hard to envisage what a better design could look like.

Apple 2020 iPad Pro

Bionic

While the A12Z Bionic system on a chip is faster than its ancestor, few will notice much improvement. The 2018 model used the A12X. Like its predecessor there are eight cores divided into two groups. It uses four cores for high performance, four for efficiency.

The A12Z is not a Great Leap Forward, more a pigeon step in the right direction. No-one is going to upgrade their iPad Pro for a better raw computing performance.

I noticed a little more power with graphics-oriented tasks like photo-editing. There was extra speed when working with audio applications. Other high performance tasks were also a tad faster than before. While the responsiveness was noticeable, it wasn’t enough to measure. It felt better, but I can’t put numbers on it.

When it comes to everyday tasks like browsing or writing; I couldn’t see a difference.

That’s not to say the 2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch isn’t fast by today’s computing standards.

The 2020 iPad Pro not as grunty as the new MacBook Pro. But that’s a high octane laptop for power users. It performs very well compared with the 2019 MacBook Air which uses the Intel Core i3 processor.

2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch battery life

I’ve used the 2018 iPad Pro as my main portable device for over a year. When I’m not pushing it hard, the battery can last for as long as 12 hours continual use.

iPad battery life is dependent on the task in hand. Run high end software and you might only get six hours of intense computing.

With basic tablet tasks, the 2018 iPad Pro is good for a full day and then some. I could get 10 hours. When taking meal breaks into account there’s enough to get me from Auckland to Singapore2.

There is a fraction less battery life in the 2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch. It can still cope with a full day’s everyday work with a little left over. I managed a little over nine hours. Thanks to the Covid–19 lockdown, I didn’t get to test this on the road.

You might get the impression from above that the performance is good, but not outstanding. After all, we’re talking about an incremental speed bump when compared to a two year old iPad.

This fails to take into account how far the 2018 iPad Pro was ahead of its time. When Apple launched the 2018 iPad Pro, it was, according to some benchmarks, the fastest portable computing in the market. The 2020 is still blistering fast by everyday laptop standards.


  1. It’s remarkable how unlike the two are considering most of the time they are used for similar tasks. ↩︎
  2. I doubt I’ll be doing that again any time soon. ↩︎

After spending more time with the 15-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 there is more to say.

My original review is dismissive of the keyboard. That needs to be updated.

First time around I wrote:

“The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about.”

That was written after a couple of hours tinkering with the machine. Later I used the laptop to write a long feature and realised the keyboard deserves more praise. It is among the better laptop keyboards I’ve used.

For someone who writes all day, this is important. Laptop typing can leave me exhausted after ten hours at the keyboard.

This goes a long way towards justifying what is, by 2020 standards, the expensive price tag.

Charging

The Surface Laptop 3 charges faster than most laptops. If the machine is running low, say between 10 and 20 percent battery left, it takes a little over an hour to get back to full charge.

This is wonderful news if, like me, you might work late into the evening, then get up next morning and realise there is not enough power for a day on the move. Plug it in, wander off for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea or coffee, by the time you are dressed and ready to go the computer will have a full charge or be close to it.

The propritary charging plug for the Surface Laptop 3 reminds me of the old-style Apple Magsafe. It’s a similar shape and magnetic. Like Magsafe, it attaches to the laptop body loosely so that should you trip over the power cable, it detaches instead of sending your laptop flying across the room.

What Microsoft designers give with the charging plug, they also take away. The magnetic plug is difficult to attach to the laptop in the first place. You can’t simply connect it while the laptop is sitting on a flat surface, you have to lift and turn the laptop first. It’s far from a deal breaker, but is strange given the computer is otherwise so well thought out from a usability point of view.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Power Supply

One last power supply observation. Microsoft includes an old-style USB port on the power brick, so you could charge, say, your phone or wireless headphone without hunting for another power socket.

A better Windows experience

There’s one other aspect of the Surface Laptop 3 that took more time to sink in is how much better Windows 10 is in 2020 than in earlier versions. Yes, I know most people use Windows most of the time and this might be an unremarkable comment for many readers. My Windows 8 experience was so negative I switched to an Apple Mac. My productivity soared and I never looked back.

The earlier incarnations of Windows 10 didn’t fix things for me. Eight years later it finally feels as if Windows is back on track. That doesn’t mean I plan to switch back from MacOs to Windows, it does mean that doing so would no longer be a jarring backward step.

The 15-inch version of Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 is big, beautiful and nicely put together. While it is less powerful than most other laptops of this size and price, it meets a real need.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 - large and small models

At a glance:

 

For: Large screen with 3:2 ratio for document work. Well made. Good keyboard. Excellent trackpad.
Against: Lack of ports, AMD Ryzen processor not up to serious media editing.
Maybe: OK battery life, lack of ports and general minimalism could go either way.
Verdict: Great for writers, lawyers and other people who work with documents.
Price: Official Microsoft price is NZ$3100, but shop around, retailers have better deals.
Web: Microsoft NZ

Microsoft offers a range of Surface Laptop 3 variants. Prices start at NZ$1900. Here I looked at the NZ$3100 model that sports a 15-inch screen and, in a brave move, AMD’s Ryzen 5 processor. It also has 256 GB of storage and 16 GB of ram.

Although bigger screens add to laptop prices, NZ$3100 is a little more than you might expect to shell out for that combination of processor, storage and ram.

You may not have to pay that much. Microsoft’s online store asks NZ$3100, but if you shop around, you’ll find retailers offer the same hardware for up to $300 less. At least they did at the time of writing.

For the same money you could buy a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro or an HP Spectre x360. The other PC makers all have models that offer a little more power for the price. Keep this in mind as you read on.

AMD or Intel inside?

Microsoft doesn’t appear to sell a 15-inch model with an Intel processor in New Zealand1. You can purchase a model with a 13.5 screen and an Intel i7 processor that cost about $100 less. That may be a better choice for some readers.

From the moment you open the box, the Surface Laptop 3 looks impressive. It has a matt black, all-aluminium case. There is none of the fabric coating found on other Surface Laptop models. It looks and feels like Microsoft made it for serious work. Up to a point it fits the bill.

The 15-inch screen gives you much more working real estate than a 13-inch screen. There’s enough to put two documents side-by-side without compromise. Microsoft has opted for a 3:2 screen ratio which is more business-like.

It works better with text documents and web pages than watching wide-screen video.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

Design choices

The trackpad works well enough. It sits at the centre of what feels like acres of room. At a guess Microsoft dropped a 13-inch laptop’s keyboard into the 15-inch model’s shell. This is an unusual design choice.

Despite this, the trackpad is one of the best I’ve seen outside of Apple hardware. It works well and it a pleasure to use. In my experience this can be weakness with Windows laptops.

It’s been a while since I’ve used a stand-out laptop keyboard. They must be out there. The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about. See my revised opinion on the Surface Laptop 3 keyboard.

There’s plenty of travel for more demanding touch-typists. The keys are nicely pitched an it is comfortable. It could be a fraction crisper in its action, but that’s quibbling.

Spacey

Microsoft has failed to use the extra space around the keyboard on the 15-inch model in any way. Other laptop makers often use this extra real estate to provide bigger speakers. That often means better sounding speakers.

It’s a missed opportunity. The sound from the speakers is more than adequate for work purposes, but disappointing for music. This ‘good for everyday work, not great for entertainment’ is that theme that continues again and again with this computer.

Microsoft has also been stingy about the ports on the Surface Laptop. Sure, Apple has shown that you can build popular laptops with few ports. Here there is Microsoft’s proprietary charging port, one USB-C and one USB-A. Welcome to the world of dongles.

Generally, larger laptop screens mean more grunt under the hood. Gaming laptops have big screens and powerful graphics processors. So do large screen models from brands like Dell or Apple. They aim at creative professionals. Microsoft has not gone down any of those paths.

Solid, not stellar performance

The Surface Laptop 3 is solid performer for the kind of work I do: writing, researching, some basic web design. It is unlikely the Ryzen 5 processor is enough for people who work with large spreadsheets or databases. And you can forget about compiling code without wandering off for a tea break.

This specification is not necessarily a bad thing, many laptops have more power than necessary for the work thrown at them. There are people like writers and journalist who wold enjoy being able to see more on screen but don’t need a stonking CPU to power through numbers.

If it is a little underpowered, the Ryzen chip has its good side: it offers great battery life. Microsoft claims 11.5 hours. In testing that seemed ambitious. I saw nothing like that. Yet there is enough to cruise through an eight-hour working day without looking for a socket and a little more in the tank if you’re asked to stay behind for a wee while.

When the Surface Laptop 3 arrived I felt excited about the machine. At first sight it appears to be a great work computer for people who need a larger screen.

That impression didn’t go away. Yet there is also the dawning realisation that the big screen is all you get with the 15-inch Ryzen 5 Surface Laptop 3. It might help to think of it as a physically pumped-up version of a smaller computer with a bigger screen. That makes it good for personal productivity, not so good for games or media production.


  1. There are overseas 15-inch models with Intel CPUs, but Microsoft’s web site forces local users to the NZ range and prices. ↩︎

Apple’s iPhone 11 is all about the camera. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about a phone and said much the same thing. So let’s put it another way: Apple’s iPhone 11 is even more about the camera.

You can’t miss the cameras on Apple’s iPhone 11. Two lenses and a camera bump dominate the phone’s rear.

Not so long ago camera bumps were controversial. People fretted they spoiled the clean lines of otherwise near pure metal-glass slabs.

Bump baby bump

Apple’s earlier camera bumps were small. On the iPhone 7 Plus, the entire bump, including the non-bump flash, measures around 30 by 10mm. On the iPhone XS Plus the bump is more like a 25 by 10mm strip. The iPhone 11 bump is 30 by 30 mm and squarish.

iphones 7 Plus XS Max 11
iPhone bump evolution: 7 Plus, XS Max, 11

This physical dominance reflects the camera system’s importance. Yes, that’s what Apple calls the collective photography components in the iPhone 11. Camera system may be marketing, but it makes sense.

Speaking of marketing, Apple’s iPhone 11 message is all about the photography.

That should not surprise anyone. Two years ago I wrote that modern phones were all about the camera. It was true then. It is more true today.

It’s a camera

Strip away the marketing and Apple’s iPhone 11 is a camera packed in a phone’s body. It is an excellent camera that happens to sit alongside a terrific phone and pocket computer.

Great though it may be, all that non-camera stuff is almost a footnote.

By camera standards it is tiny. 1

While the hardware is clever, it’s clear from the size and depth there is more to picture quality than optics. A lot of smart software does the heavy lifting.

iPhone 11 photography in practice

What does this mean in practice? To understand take a look at this example shot I took one night in December from a Coromandel Beach.

Mercury Bay Moonlight December 2019
A casual iPhone 11 shot. Click on this to see a larger version.

It’s stunning, but it shouldn’t be. I’m no photographer. Before we go on, let’s make one thing clear, I wasn’t making an effort to take a great picture to show off the iPhone 11. This was a casual shot taken on the spur of the moment.

While walking home from dinner, I noticed the moon coming out from behind the clouds. I took the camera out, stood on the beach and that was it.

The iPhone did all the hard work. My role was choosing the scene, holding the camera and timing my click to take the shot between the flashes of the lamps on the harbour buoys. It was that easy.

Sure, it wasn’t pitch black at the time, but it was dark. The naked eye couldn’t pick out the plants in the foreground, let along the individual blades of grass.

It looked more impressive when I got back to my room and looked again at the shot. It seemed like a professional picture. Sure, experts can nitpick this statement. Over the years I’ve edited newspaper sections and magazine. I’ve hired professional photographers. From my editor’s point of view it looks like a professional photo.

Night mode

What I didn’t know at the time, I only had the phone a few days, is Apple’s camera system includes a night mode. It is automatic and kicks in when needed.

Night mode simulates long exposure: one, two or three seconds depending on conditions. In the case of my picture, that’s important because the navigation buoys in the harbour flick light on every second or so. The window between them is shorter than the camera needs for a long exposure shot.

Night mode isn’t to everyone’s taste. There may be times you don’t want or need it. That’s cool. It’s possible to turn it off. This works in much the same way as the automatic flash, which can kick in as needed. Again, you can use a manual setting to turn it off.

When I take night time pictures with my digital SLR, I need a tripod to keep the camera still. My hands shake too much for a traditional long exposure shot. That’s not necessary with the iPhone 11. Look again at the example, it’s crisp and clear.

iPhone 11 makes bad shots harder

As my trip went on, it became clear. The iPhone camera system makes it hard to take bad shots. Of course, you can still take terrible shots if you work at it. My point here is that casual, off the cuff snaps often come out looking great.

For a second example take a look at the shot of three chilli bottles. I made no effort to compose something artistic. All I did was line up the bottles so I could remember what sauces to buy later.

Three Chilli Bottles
Another casual iPhone 11 shot that you wouldn’t expect to look good.

It’s not art, it’s an aide-mémoire. And yet somehow it’s also a bit, well, artistic.

Keen price

The iPhone 11 has been my day-to-day phone now for about four weeks. Before that I was using the iPhone XS Max. The 11 is a little smaller, but otherwise on a par with the XS Max. It costs about $1000 less. With iPhone 11 prices starting at $1350, it compares well with Android flagship phones.

The two other big brands in New Zealand: Samsung and Huawei, also have great cameras on their top phones.

Each brand has its own set of camera strengths and weaknesses. They are all good.

That said, for my needs, Apple’s iPhone 11 (and 11 Plus) have the best all-round mix of features, function and usability.

Soon, I’ll write a more comprehensive overview of my iPhone 11 experience. There are other surprises worth sharing.

Like most, but not all, product reviews on this site, I didn’t buy the iPhone 11. Apple gave me a loan unit. It’s a bright red model and will go back to the company. For the record I own an iPhone 7 Plus.


  1. It may not do everything my digital SLR can do, distant wildlife close ups remain tricky, but it can handle most of my work photography needs and then some. ↩︎

They sound great and last for hours on a single charge. Apple AirPods Pro pack impressive noise cancelling into a tiny space. At NZ$450 the price is competitive if you are looking at more traditional noise cancelling headsets.

Apple AirPods ProApple’s original AirPods were a surprise hit. You see them everywhere. Almost everyone who has a pair loves them.

Reports say they account for six of every ten wireless earbuds sold worldwide.1

My old AirPods are the second generation model. They fit my ears and work better than you might expect.

Airpods Pro are a step up in every dimension. Apple added active noise cancellation to an already successful recipe. It then improved the fit and upgraded the functionality. They look like another hit.

AirPods Pro wake-up

My first AirPods Pro demo was in a noisy cafe with hard floors and background clatter. We connected them to an iPhone.

From the outset the earbuds blocked out most of the noise. They allowed me to hear music with an unexpected clarity.

It got better fast.

That’s because there is a built-in feature that lets you check how well the earbuds fit in your ear. Unlike the original all hard plastic AirPods, Apple uses removable soft tips. Three sizes of removable tip come packed in each box. Mine needed changing. This is a little fiddly, but only takes a minute or so.

After swapping, the new tips block even more of the background sound. The sound quality is astounding for something so small.

Later, I listened again on the bus ride home. The experience was even better than the cafe. I’m not sure I’ve heard such outstanding crystal clear sounds while on public transport.

At home I can be blissfully unaware when helicopters pass overhead or if the Royal New Zealand Airforce takes off from nearby Whenuapai,

Both types of music

AirPods Pro work well with all kinds of music, which is good because I listen to all kinds of music. One acid test I use to gauge loudspeaker or headphone quality is high quality recordings of piano music. Both the classical and jazz tracks I tested came out near perfect… on a bus. You don’t get a bass boost, which may not be your taste.

I’ve enjoyed noise cancelling for a few years now. When I reviewed the Sony MDR-1000X headphones, I liked them so much I bought a pair. They proved their worth on long distance flights.

There is some colour to the MDR-1000X sound. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They sound fine when listening to my favourite music. In comparison, the Airpods Pro have a much flatter, more accurate sound.

In the past I’ve always thought the MDR-1000X-style over-the-ear form is more comfortable if you use them for hours, say on a trans-Pacific flight.

I haven’t been on a flight since getting the Airpods Pro, but I have enjoyed long listening sessions. The earbuds don’t get uncomfortable if you wear them for a few hours. They are certainly much easier to drop into carry-on luggage. I expect them to replace my older style noise cancelling headphones.

On most measures the Airpods Pro are the better or equal to the Sony headphones. It feels like the Sony controls are easier to use, but that could be familiarity; I’ve only had the Airpods four days.

The flat response is so good that I can use them as a reference when mixing music tracks on my iPad without waking the house. They are that good.

During testing I never heard any lag or had trouble connecting. Although, if you pull the AirPods Pro out to talk to someone the music will pause. This isn’t always necessary as we will see later. I found Apple’s Music didn’t have a problem, but some other non-Apple apps can stop altogether and need a restart.

Controls

AirPods Pro have smaller stalks than the older AirPods, but are a fraction heavier. Not that you’d notice. They come in a slightly larger snap-top box.

You can store AirPods in the box when they’re not in use. The box charges the AirPods, you can use a lightening connector or wireless charging. When charged, the box carries its own reserve of charge, so you can top-up the AirPods Pro charge between sessions.

A single charge gives around four hours listening time. Depending on how you use the box, Apple says you can get up to 24 hours before needing a recharge. This more or less squares with my experience, although my record keeping while watching the battery life wasn’t perfect.

There’s a squeezable control surface. Squeeze once and the music or other audio will stop playing. Squeeze twice and you skip to the next music track.

Squeezing and holding either fires up Siri or turns off noise cancelling. You can also start Siri by saying “Hey Siri” and have your text messages read. It also uses the microphones to deliver external sounds. You might want to do this if, say, a flight attendant wants a word.

One of the magical features is the way AirPods Pro pair with your other Apple devices. Once they have met one Apple device, all the others can find them. Open the box close to an Apple device and you’ll see a message telling you how much charge is left.

Apple AirPods Pro Verdict

AirPods Pro show off Apple technology at its best. They feel a little magic. It’s rare for someone like me who has been looking at new gadgets for decades to break out even a modest smile. The AirPods Pro left me grinning.

They are comfortable, sound good and have battery life to see you through everything except a long haul flight. The noise cancellation is excellent, on a par with headphones costing much more. You can use them if you have an Android phone or Windows device. Best of all, they fit into a tiny pocket.

While the price tag looks expensive, you get a lot of value for the money. Decent noise cancelling technology is never cheap.


  1. This success came at the moment Apple’s iPhone sales stumbled. ↩︎