Dissecting a Design: The New Apple iPad Pro

Apple’s reputation for revolutionary products has been well established and extensively reported. It’s a single-facet and cultivated narrative that has a tendency to eclipse the company’s quieter obsessive commitment to the iterative process over the decades. Public expectations may demand wonders every year, but the truly notable advances in technology rarely arrive with the dependable flow of a river so much as with the infrequent delivery of a geyser. Concepts remain conceptual sometimes because the capabilities of technology limit the potentials of imagination. Take for example the newly revealed 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro, portable devices brimming with the sort of category-leading specifications and features that have earned the device high praise from both technologists and creative alike. The new iPad Pro is representative of technology finally catching up with imagination.

We recently sat down with Apple’s Phil Schiller, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, and John Ternus, Vice President, Mac and iPad Hardware Engineering to discuss both the seen and unseen advances behind designing the new iPad Pros.

Photo: Apple

Many, many products come through the years, but sometimes all the changes add up to something that fundamentally takes the experience somewhere not possible before.

– Phil Schiller, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing

Photo: Gregory Han

The new iPad Pro presents a significant upgrade compared to previous iterations of the iPad, both in form and function. Maximum function (and screen) countered by a minimization of extraneous form. This dichotomy is most apparent in its 12.9-inch form, with the new edge-to-edge Liquid Retina Display finally liberated from the presence of a home button. But this seemingly simple feat simply could not be executed to Apple’s standards until recently.

John Ternus: For us the iPad is all about the display. Face ID is a huge technology enabler for that, allowing us to construct [the iPad Pro] to have these narrow borders and rounded corners on the display – all these things had to come together, it’s just taken time to invent a lot of those technologies.

John Ternus reveals the new iPad Pro, with all-screen design, Liquid Retina display and Face ID. Photo: Apple

About those rounded corners: they can seem purely an aesthetic decision rather than an engineering challenge.

John Ternus: You have to grind the display glass itself to create the physical rounded corners, a challenge in itself. But then there’s also anti-aliasing, hardware built into the silicon that can enable high-quality images without aliasing the corners on the display itself – masking the pixels, to avoid blocky corners.

Phil Schiller: Also building in the LED backlight system. Because unlike an OLED display where pixels are backlit individually, we have to get the backlighting system into a thinner border with more brightness.

John Ternus: We actually had to develop new LEDs that are much smaller. We have almost twice as many of them, packed really closer together, so the distance is closer to the active area.

The new iPad Pro arrives accompanied by a redesigned Smart Keyboard Folio, now covering both front and back of the device, alongside a second generation Apple Pencil. To minimize adding any thickness and weight, Apple engineered the cover to invisibly adhere magnetically to the iPad Pro’s body and the Apple Pencil to stick+charge along the device’s left length, attaching with a satisfying tactile and confident attraction thanks to an array of magnets situated within (revealed using a magnetic field viewing film).

Photo: Apple

“The previous cover design was really kind of a one dimensional problem, because it was on the edge. This one, the way it attaches on the back, it became a two dimensional problem,” says Ternus, “And so there’s this really fine balance of making sure you have enough magnetic force with a robust enough connection while also making sure the magnets themselves will align. We ran tons and tons of simulations and analysis to get just the right patterning of the magnets for perfect alignment every time.”

This new Apple Pencil feels great. The matte texture and lighter weight add up to a more comfortable drawing/writing instrument.

John Ternus: The Apple Pencil is a writing instrument, so we want it to be a really great writing instrument. Lots of time went into determining the right balance, the right length, the diameter, how does it feels in your hand, and creating the goals.

Phil Schiller: There was a lot of testing for durability of the materials, and improving the ability of the surface to stay clean.

Photo: Gregory Han

Apple also announced developing a process of using recycled aluminum gathered from the manufacturing of the iPad Pro to use to make parts for the new MacBook Air and Mac Mini.

Are there any trade-offs in feel, durability, thermal conductivity, or finish using this recycled aluminum compared to virgin aluminum?

John Ternus: We have this amazing alloy engineering team that have been working toward the ability to actually simulate alloys at an atomic level, and then simulate the resulting properties. We tweaked the resulting recipe in such a way – with very very minor adjustments – resulting in a material where even when there is a small amount of impurities, it doesn’t actually impact the resultant alloy.

Phil Schiller: It’s incredible how far the environmental effort at Apple has come over the last five+ years. Decades ago it was about “can we make the packaging 10% smaller each year so we can save on fuel costs of shipping?” And then it was things like, “can we create power cables that had less PVC material and harmful chemicals and yet keep the design beautiful?” Now we’re doing metallurgy. It’s just an amazing amazing growth of that expertise.

Photo: Gregory Han

One of the things that really defines what iPad is, is that it’s designed to be versatile enough that you can absolutely use it entirely as a handheld device with touch, and there’s nothing lacking in that experience. If you want, you can then add the keyboard and use it in a more traditional laptop or desk configuration, and that works too. You can use it with Apple Pencil, either without the keyboard or with the keyboard, and so that flexibility to let you decide what mode you like is core to the design.

– Phil Schiller

Underneath the spectacle of specs, the new Apple iPad Pro seems to represent the culmination of numerous decisions that will probably go mostly unnoticed by the public, but nevertheless add up to a significant improvement of human experience, empowering creatives to simply forget they’re using a device and are utilizing an adaptable tool. Or so the hope.

We’ll be following up with a hands-on report about our own experience using the new iPad Pro in our own daily workflow to see whether these changes all add up to a new relationship between user and device.

Gregory Han is a Senior Editor at Design Milk. A Los Angeles native with a profound love and curiosity for design, hiking, tide pools, and road trips, a selection of his adventures and musings can be found at