The thinnest, most powerful iPads take center stage

An artistic graphic made by Apple of a bunch of hand-drawn Apple logos, used as promotional material for the “Let loose” event. Let loose. Image: Apple.

Apple on Tuesday announced updates to its iPad lineup, including refreshed iPad Air and iPad Pro models, adding a new, larger size to the iPads Air and new screen technology and processors to both new iPads Pro. The company also announced new accessories, such as a new Apple Pencil Pro and Magic Keyboard for the iPads, as well as software updates to its Pro apps on iPadOS. The new announcements come at a time when Apple’s iPad lineup has remained stagnant — the company has not announced new tablets since October 2022, when the iPad Pro was last updated with the M2 chip. On Tuesday, Apple gave the iPad Air the M2 — an upgrade from the previous M1 from when it was last updated in 2022 — and the iPad Pro the M4, a new processor with more cores, a custom Display Engine, and enhanced Neural Engine for artificial intelligence tasks.

Most iPad announcements as of late aren’t particularly groundbreaking — more often than not, iPad refreshes typically feature marginal improvements to battery life and processors, and Apple usually resorts to rehashing old iPadOS feature announcements during its keynotes to fill the time. Tuesday’s event, however, was a notable exception: Apple packed the 38-minute virtual address chock full of feature enhancements to the high-end iPads, with Tim Cook, the company’s chief executive, calling Tuesday “the biggest day for iPad since its introduction” at the very beginning of the event. I tend to agree with that statement: The iPad Pro, for the first time ever, debuted with a new Mac Apple silicon processor before the Mac itself; it now features a “tandem” organic-LED display with two panels squished together to appear brighter; and it’s now thinner and lighter than ever before. These are not minor changes.

But, as I’ve said many times before, I think the biggest limitation to the iPad’s success is not the lack of killer hardware, but the lack of professional software that allows people to create and invent with the iPad. While Apple’s “magical sheet of glass” is now “impossibly thin” and more powerful than Cupertino’s lowest-end $1,600 MacBook Pro announced just last October, its software, iPadOS, continues to be worthless for anything more than basic computing tasks, like checking email or browsing the web. And while the new accessories, like the new Magic Keyboard made out of aluminum featuring a function row, are more professional and sturdy, they still don’t do anything to make the device more capable for professional users. Add to that the $200 price increase — the base-model 11-inch iPad Pro now starts at $1,000, while the larger 13-inch model starts at $1,300 — and the new high-end iPads feel disappointing. I don’t think the new iPads Pro are bad — they’re hardly so — or even a bad value, knowing how magical the iPad feels, but I wish they did more software-wise.

Here are my takeaways from Tuesday’s “Let loose” Apple event.

iPads Air

The easiest-to-cover announcement was the new iPads Air — plural. Before Tuesday, the iPad Air — Apple’s mid-range tablet — only came in one size: 10.9 inches. Now, the device comes in two sizes: the same 11-inch smaller version, and a new 13-inch form factor. Aside from the size, the two models are identical in their specifications. Both models feature M2 chips, their cameras have been relocated to the horizontal edge to make framing easier due to how most users hold iPads, and new storage options have been added now up to 1 terabyte. The smaller model’s prices also remain the same, starting at $600, and the 13-inch version sells for $750. Starting storage has also been increased to 128 gigabytes, and there is now a 512-GB variant.

The new iPads Air, otherwise, are identical to the last-generation model, with the same camera and screen resolutions and mostly identical accessories support. The first-generation Magic Keyboard from 2020 remains compatible, but the second-generation Apple Pencil from 2018 that worked with the previous model is not. (More on this later.) They both come in four colors — Space Gray, Blue, Purple, and Starlight — and ship May 15, with pre-orders open on Tuesday.

I am perplexed by the iPads Air, particularly the smaller version, which is often more expensive than a refurbished last-generation iPad Pro of the same size. Choosing to buy the latter would be more cost-effective, and the iPads Pro also have Face ID and a 120-hertz ProMotion display. Add to that the better camera system and identical processor, and I truly don’t see a reason to purchase a new (smaller) iPad Air. The larger model is a bit of a different case, since buying a larger refurbished iPad Pro would presumably be more expensive, so I can understand if buyers might want to buy the newer 13-inch iPad Air for its larger screen, but the low-end model continues to be a fantastically bad value.

The M4

Rather than use October’s M3 processor in the new iPads Pro, Apple revealed a new system-on-a-chip to power the new high-end tablet: the M4. Exactly as predicted by Mark Gurman, a reporter at Bloomberg with an astonishing track record for Apple leaks1, the new M4 is built on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company’s enhanced second-generation 3-nanometer fabrication process called N3E. The new process will presumably provide efficiency and speed enhancements, but I think they will be negligible due to iPadOS’ limited feature set and software bottlenecks. The processor, by default, is binned2 to a nine-core central processing unit — with three performance cores and six efficiency cores — and a 10-core graphics processor, but users who buy the 1- or 2-TB models will receive a non-binned 10-core CPU with four performance cores. The low-end storage tiers also only have 8 GB of memory, whereas the high-end versions have 16 GB, though both versions still have the same memory bandwidth at 120 gigabytes per second.

John Ternus, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, repeatedly mentioned during the event that the new iPad Pro would not be “possible” without the M4 chip, but I struggle to see how that is true. The new processor has what Apple calls a “Display Engine,” which Apple only made a passing reference to, presumably because it is not very impressive. As far as I know, the M3’s “Display Engine,” so to speak — which is already present in MacBooks Pro with the M3 — powers two external displays, so I’m having a hard time understanding what is so special about the OLED display found in the new iPads that warrants the upgraded, dedicated Display Engine. (It isn’t even listed on Apple’s “tech specs” page for the iPads Pro, for what it’s worth.)

Whatever the Display Engine’s purpose may be, Apple claims the M4 is “1.5 times faster” in CPU performance than the M2, though, once again, I don’t see a reason for the performance improvements because iPadOS is so neutered compared to macOS. I have never had a performance issue with my M2 iPad Pro, and I don’t think I will notice any difference when I use the M4 model. Other than for the cynical reason of trying to shift more iPad sales during Apple’s next fiscal quarter, I don’t see a reason for the M4’s existence at all. I’m unsurprised by its announcement, but also awfully confused. Expect to see this processor in refreshed Mac laptops in the fall, too.

iPads Pro

The star of the show, per se, was the new iPad Pro lineup, both the 11-inch and 13-inch models. (There is no longer a “12.9-inch” model, which I am grateful for.) Both models have been “completely redesigned” and feature new displays, cases, processors, and accessories. The update is the largest since the complete redesign and nixing of the Home Button and Lightning port in 2018, but it isn’t as monumental as that year’s revamp. From afar, the new models look identical to 2022’s versions, aside from the redesigned camera arrangement, which is now color-matched to the device’s aluminum body à la iPhones, whereas it was previously just made out of black glass. The displays are now “tandem OLED” panels, which use a special technology to fuse two OLED panels for maximum brightness and earn the display a new name of “Ultra Retina XDR.” (The iPhone’s non-tandem OLED display is called “Super Retina XDR,” and the previous generation’s 12.9-inch model’s mini-LED display was called the “Liquid Retina XDR” display.) And just like the iPads Air, the iPads Pro’s front-facing camera has been relocated to the horizontal position.

Most impressively of all, Apple managed to thin the iPads down significantly from their previous girth. Apple, in a Jony Ive-like move, called the new 13-inch model the “thinnest device” it has “ever made” — even thinner than the iPod nano, which held the title previously. Ternus, the Apple executive, also assured that the device didn’t compromise on build quality or durability, though I would imagine the new model is easier to bend and break than before. (Tough feat.) I do not understand the obsession over thinness here, but the new model is also lighter than ever before due to the more compact OLED display. The new iPads Pro are so thin that the Apple Pencil hangs off the edge when magnetically attached to the side, which may be inconvenient when the iPad is set on a table; Thunderbolt cables plugged into the iPad also protrude upward from the body, a consequence of the sheer thinness. One thing is for certain, however: The new iPads Pro do look slick, especially in the new Space Black finish.

The thinness is a byproduct — or consequence, rather — of the new beautiful OLED display found on both models, replacing the LED “Liquid Retina” display of the last-generation 11-inch model and mini-LED display of the 12.9-inch version. While the mini-LED display was able to reproduce high-dynamic-range content with high brightness levels down to a specific “zone” of the panel, it also suffered from a phenomenon called “blooming,” where bright objects on a dark background would display a glowing halo just outside of the object. OLED displays feature individually lit pixels, allowing for precise control over the image, alleviating this issue. The panel’s specifications are impressive on their own: 1,000 nits of peak brightness when displaying standard-dynamic-range content, 1,600 nits of peak localized brightness when content is in HDR, a two-million-to-one contrast ratio, and a ProMotion refresh rate from 10 hertz to 120 hertz. The new display, as Apple says, truly is “the most advanced display in a device” of the iPad’s kind. I would argue it’s one of the most advanced displays in a consumer electronics device, period, aside from probably Apple’s own Vision Pro. It truly is a marvel of technological prowess, and Apple should be proud of its work.

Apple allows buyers who purchase a 1- or 2-TB model the option to coat the display in a nano-texture finish for a $100 premium, which will virtually eliminate glare and provide for a smoother writing and drawing experience when using the Apple Pencil. The finish is the same as found on the Pro Display XDR and Studio Display, and while I don’t think it is for me, I appreciate the option. (I do wonder how wiping away fingerprints would work, though, since this is the first time Apple has applied the coating to a touch device.) One quirk of the nano-texture coating, however, is that it cannot cover the Face ID sensors, located at the side of the iPad Pro, so the finish stops at the edge of the screen itself, displaying a glossy bezel around the display. I think it looks strange, but this problem couldn’t possibly be alleviated without redesigning Face ID entirely.

Apple has made some noteworthy omissions to the product, however. Most distinctly of all, it has removed the ultra-wide lens at the back of the iPad, a lens it added in the product’s 2020 refresh. Personally, I have never once touched the ultra-wide camera, and I don’t know of anyone who did, but it might be missed by some. To compensate, Apple has added a new AI-powered shadow remover to the document scanner in iPadOS, powered by the M4’s improved Neural Engine and a new ambient light sensor, which takes a prominent space in the iPad’s new camera arrangement. I’m unsure about how I feel about its physical attractiveness — there are only so many ways to design a camera on a tablet computer before it gets boring — but I think the swap is worth the trade-off. (The ultra-wide camera at the front added in 2021, which powers Center Stage, has not been removed.) The SIM card slot has also been removed from cellular-equipped models, mirroring its omission from 2022’s iPhone 14 Pro, and the 5G millimeter-wave antenna located at the side has also been axed reportedly due to a lack of usage.

The new models have both received price increases of $200, with the 11-inch model starting at $1,000, and the 13-inch at $1,300. I think those prices are fair; I expected increases to be more substantial due to the cost of OLED panels. Base storage amounts have also been subsequently bumped; the new models begin with 256 GB of storage and are configurable up to 2 TB. They ship May 15, just like the iPads Air, and are available for pre-order beginning Tuesday.

Hardware-wise, the new iPads Pro are truly some of the most impressive pieces of hardware Apple has manufactured yet, and I’m very excited to own one. But I can’t help but ask a simple question about these new products: why? Apple has clearly dedicated immense time, energy, and money to these new iPads, and it’s very apparent from the specifications and advertising. Yet when I unbox my new iPad come next week, I’ll probably use it the same, just as I have always used my iPad. It won’t be any better at computing than my M2 iPad Pro I’ve owned for the last year and a half. The Worldwide Developers Conference in June is where the big-ticket software announcements come, but just as Parker Ortolani, a product manager at Vox Media, said on Threads, we have collectively been waiting for “the next big iPadOS update” since the first iPad Pro was launched in 2015 — before iPadOS even existed. iPadOS is a reskinned version of iOS, and Apple must change that this year at WWDC. Until then, the new iPads, while spectacular from every imaginable hardware angle, lack a purpose.

Apple Pencil Pro and Magic Keyboard

Apple announced updates to its two most popular accessories for the iPad Air and iPad Pro: the Apple Pencil, and the Magic Keyboard. The second-generation Apple Pencil, first announced in 2018, has remained unchanged since its first debut and has been compatible with all high-end iPads since 2020, and the Magic Keyboard, first announced in 2020, has also been kept untouched. Both products on Tuesday received major overhauls: Apple debuted the Apple Pencil Pro, a new product with haptic feedback and a touch sensor for more controls, and the new Magic Keyboard, which is now finished in a sturdier aluminum, has a function key row, and features a redesigned hinge. Both products are strictly only compatible with Tuesday’s iPads; subsequently, prior versions of the Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard cannot be used with the new iPads Pro or iPads Air, aside from the USB Type-C Apple Pencil released in October, which remains as a more affordable option.

The Magic Keyboard’s redesign, Apple says, makes it a more versatile option for “professional” work on iPadOS. The keys, using the same scissor-switch mechanism as the previous generation, now have a more tactile feel due to the hefty aluminum build, which also adds rigidity for use on a lap — the lack thereof was a pitfall of the older Magic Keyboard. The trackpad is now larger and features haptic feedback, just like Mac laptops, and the hinge is more pronounced, making an audible click sound when shut. The Magic Keyboard also adds a small function row at the very top of the deck, adding an Escape key for anyone bullish enough to code on an iPad. (This would’ve been a great time to put Terminal on iPadOS.) While the new additions will undoubtedly add weight to the whole package, I think the trade-off is worth it because it makes the iPad feel more like a Mac. The new Magic Keyboard retails for the same price: $300 for the 11-inch version, and $350 for the 13-inch one. It, again, ships May 15, with pre-orders available Tuesday.

The Apple Pencil Pro, while not as visually striking of an upgrade as the Magic Keyboard, does build on the foundation of the second-generation Apple Pencil well. That stylus, which Apple still sells for older iPads, features a double-tap gesture, which allows quick switching between drawing tools, such as the pen and eraser. The new stylus builds on the double-tap feature, adding a touch sensor to the bottom portion of the stalk which can be squeezed and tapped for more options. Instead of only double-tapping the pencil, users are now able to squeeze it to display a palette of writing tools — not just the eraser. This integration works in apps that support the new PencilKit features in iPadOS; for those that don’t, the double-tap gesture works just as it did before. To select a tool, it can simply be tapped on the screen like normal with the pencil.

The Apple Pencil Pro also supports a feature called “barrel roll,” which allows users to move their fingers in a circle around the pencil to finely control its angle on the virtual page, just like someone would do with a real pencil. And when squeezing, double-tapping, or using the barrel roll gesture, a new Haptic Engine added to the pencil will provide tactile feedback for selections. Apple also added Find My functionality to the pencil, though it is unclear if it included Precision Finding, the feature that utilizes the ultra-wideband chip in recent iPhones to locate items down to the inch. (I don’t think it did since the iPad doesn’t have a U2 chip.)

The Apple Pencil Pro retails for $130 — the same price as the second-generation Apple Pencil — and is available for pre-order starting Tuesday, with orders arriving May 15. The more comedic aspect of this launch, however, is the new Apple Pencil Compare page on Apple’s website, which looks genuinely heinous. Apple now produces and sells four different Apple Pencils, all with separate feature sets and a hodgepodge of compatibility checks. To review:

  • Apple Pencil Pro: The latest version is compatible with the M2 iPads Air and M4 iPads Pro announced Tuesday. It retails for $130.
  • Second-generation Apple Pencil: The older version of the Apple Pencil is compatible with iPads Pro from 2018 and newer and the fourth- and fifth-generation iPads Air from 2020 and 2022. It is not compatible with any of the new iPads announced Tuesday. It also sells for $130.
  • USB-C Apple Pencil: The new USB-C Apple Pencil from October, which does not have double-tap or pressure sensitivity, is compatible with every iPad with a USB-C port, including the latest models. It is available for $70.
  • First-generation Apple Pencil: This pencil is for compatibility with older, legacy iPads, as well as the now-discontinued ninth-generation iPad. It costs $100.

No reasonable person will choose to remember that information, so Apple has assembled an Apple Pencil compatibility page, which is absolutely abhorrent. There is even a Contact Us link on the page for those who need assistance to figure out the chaos. “Who wants a stylus?”


As I have stated many times throughout this article, I think the new hardware announced Tuesday is spectacular. The new iPads Air fit in well with the lineup, the 10th-generation iPad has received a price reduction of $50, replacing the archaic ninth-generation model which had a Home Button and Lightning port, and the new iPads Pro are marvels of engineering. I think all models are well-priced, I like the new design of the Magic Keyboard, and I’m thankful the Apple Pencil has been updated.

But none of the above overshadows how disappointed I am in the iPad’s software, iPadOS. As good as the new hardware may be, I don’t think I will use it any differently as I do my current iPad now. That’s a shame — for how much work was put into Tuesday’s announcements, the bespoke software for the iPad should do better. Until then, the iPad will continue to remain a product in Apple’s lineup — nothing more, and nothing less.

A correction was made on May 5, 2024, at midnight: An earlier version of this article stated that the new M2 iPad Air supports the second-generation Apple Pencil. That is not true; it only supports the USB-C Apple Pencil and the new Apple Pencil Pro. I regret the error.

A correction was made on May 14, 2024, at 2:11 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that the USB-C Apple Pencil was released in March. It was actually released in October of last year. I regret the error.

  1. In Gurman we trust. I’ll never make the mistake of doubting him again. ↩︎

  2. I recommend reading my “Wonderlust” event impressions from September to learn more about processor binning. Skip to the section about the A17 Pro. ↩︎