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2021 iPad Pro review: More of the same—but way, way faster thanks to M1


Apple’s new iPad Pro is better than its immediate predecessor. It’s a little more versatile, and it’s a lot faster. Like most good sequels, it offers more of the same, but the characteristics you love have been amped up enough to grab your attention all over again.

The major storyline in this sequel is that the new iPad Pro uses the same system-on-a-chip as that found in recent Macs—the M1. This marks the first time that one of Apple’s mobile devices is running on the same silicon as its laptops and desktops. The choice of SoC also means that all the R&D effort that went into making the M1 efficient has arrived on a new platform with performance improvements in tow.

It’s fair to say that the iPad’s move to the much-talked-about M1 is not as monumental as the Mac’s. After all, the M1 isn’t as different compared to the A12Z chip that was in the prior iPad Pro as it is compared to the Mac’s Intel processors.

But several interesting subplots are here in the form of miscellaneous modernizations and tweaks—a higher-resolution front-facing camera, 5G support, an upgrade from USB-C to Thunderbolt, more RAM and storage, and most notably, a new screen technology only available in the 12.9-inch model.

These things considered, the latest iPad Pro is bigger and better than 2020’s refresh, but it also doesn’t do anything to fundamentally change the story. The iPad Pro is like the latest Marvel movie: it’s an impressive showcase for all the latest and greatest technology and trends, and it does its intended job wonderfully. If its predecessors appealed to you, the iPad Pro is worth checking out again this time around. If it didn’t interest you before, though, your opinion is unlikely to change.

Specifications

Apple iPad Pro (2021) product image

Apple iPad Pro (2021)

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Most of the specifications are the same as last year, so we’ll focus on what’s different. First up: storage and RAM options. When you buy the iPad Pro, you’re presented with multiple storage configuration options—128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, and 2TB.

It’s not clear at time of purchase unless you look at the specs page, but you’re picking different RAM configurations when you pick your storage option, too. The 128GB and 256GB options come with 8GB of RAM, and the 1TB and 2TB have twice that much at 16GB.

M1 comes to the iPad

As noted above, the new iPad Pro features the M1 processor that Apple has also introduced to its MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and 24-inch iMac laptop and desktop computers.

The M1 in the iPad Pro is just like the M1 in the Mac. It has eight CPU cores (four performance, four efficiency), eight GPU cores, and 16 cores for the machine-learning-focused Neural Engine. The M1 really is the same chip that we’ve talked about at great length previously, so we won’t do it again here.

Specs at a glance: 2021 Apple iPad Pro
Screen 2,388×1,668 11-inch or 2,732×2,048 (264 PPI) touchscreen
OS iOS 14.5.1
CPU Apple M1 CPU
RAM 8GB or 16GB
GPU Apple M1 GPU
Storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
Networking Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5, GPS, 5G
Camera 12MP and 10MP rear cameras, lidar ToF sensor, 12MP front camera
Ports 1x Thunderbolt 3/USB-4/USB-C
Size 9.74×7.02×0.23-inch (247.6×178.5×5.9mm) for the 11-inch; 11.04×8.46×0.23-inch (280.6×214.9×6.4mm) for the 12.9
Weight 1.03 pounds (466g) for the Wi-Fi 11-inch, 1.5 pounds (682g) for the Wi-Fi 12.9-inch
Battery life “Up to 10 hours”
Starting price $799
Price as reviewed $2,399 for 12.9-inch, $2,099 for the 11-inch
Other perks Thunderbolt cable, Face ID

We will, on the other hand, expound on how the M1 compares to what came with the iPad Pro before. Apple claims the M1 offers 50 percent better CPU and 40 percent better GPU performance than the A12Z chip found in the 2020 iPad Pro. Here’s a little spoiler from our benchmarks later in the review: it’s really fast.

We edited 4K video, worked with 3D models, and handled mammoth Photoshop files during our time with the device. The M1 is not always as fast as an ultrahigh-end desktop or laptop workstation, but it usually is. We’re not exaggerating when we say that this device has no rival at all among tablets with regard to performance.

5G is here, for those chosen few

Like the 2020 model, the iPad Pro supports Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0. This time around, the tablet also gets a 5G cellular option to replace the LTE-only cellular configuration seen previously.

As with the iPhone 12, which was the first iPhone to offer 5G, the iPad Pro will use LTE most of the time but kick into 5G when you’re running into LTE’s limits and need something faster. This approach makes substantial savings in terms of battery life.

Of course, 5G coverage is nascent at best in much of the world. Most people don’t have access to it, and many who do won’t enjoy the very fastest version of it. But if the stars align for you, 5G can be considerably faster than LTE in terms of download speeds and latency.

Since 5G is still rolling out in most places, we don’t recommend 5G as a selling point for this device. Sure, there’s a chance you’ll benefit if you live or work in a place like downtown Chicago or San Francisco, and those benefits can be significant. But if your living situation isn’t like that, don’t worry about 5G yet. You’re going to be on LTE most of the time anyway—at least in the immediate future.

Liquid Retina XDR: Just call it Mini LED

There’s nothing new to talk about regarding the 11-inch iPad Pro’s display, but the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s screen is significantly different from its predecessor.

While Apple hasn’t dumped LCD technology for OLED here, the tablet now uses roughly the same Mini LED technology seen in Apple’s expensive, professional-targeted Pro Display XDR monitor and Samsung’s latest high-end TVs.

While LCD displays are relatively cheap to produce and can offer very high peak brightness compared to the competing OLED technology, they have one major flaw. They have a very difficult time achieving deep, inky blacks, especially right next to bright parts of the image.

A screen-size comparison of the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro side by side.
Enlarge / A screen-size comparison of the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro side by side.

Samuel Axon

This is because, unlike with OLED, the pixels in an LCD screen are not individually emissive. Rather, the whole screen is lit by (usually) a single LED backlight. The black areas of the screen are more of a washed-out, somewhat illuminated gray, and a glow effect rings white letters on a black background.

A whole bunch of optimizations have been made by LCD screen-makers over the years to counter this limitation, from edge lighting to local dimming. The latest is Mini LED, which could be described as a sort of half-measure toward OLED.

Instead of using one LED backlight, Mini LED uses a whole bunch of them, and each one is responsible for a corresponding zone in the panel. In the case of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, we’re looking at 10,000 Mini LEDs, which facilitate 2,500 individual zones that can be managed individually.

This doesn’t necessarily always get rid of the dreaded glow effect around bright objects in otherwise dark scenes, but it does bring black levels down and improve contrast drastically when the image is nice and clean-cut between dark and light. (Think situations like the black letterboxes on either side of an image that don’t match the display’s aspect ratio.)

We viewed a few movies and TV shows that are available in 4K and HDR side by side with the previous 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and there’s no question at all that the difference in contrast and black levels is, no pun intended, night and day.

The Pro’s image might not be quite as flawless as OLED screen tech (wherein each and every pixel is individually emissive, allowing for perfect blacks next to high peak brightness), but it’s more than close enough for almost anybody. And the peak brightness is something to be reckoned with.

That said, Apple’s continued use of made-up terms like “Extreme Dynamic Range” instead of standard industry vernacular like plain “old High Dynamic Range” is grating. The same goes for “Liquid Retina XDR”—it’s a Mini LED display; just call it that and people won’t be so confused about what they’re getting.

Speaking of, what are they getting? Well, they’re getting a claimed 1,000 nits of full-screen brightness and 1,600 nits of peak brightness. Apple also claims a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio and native support for the Dolby Vision, HDR10, and HLG formats.

Both iPad Pro sizes have 120 Hz displays. The 11-inch iPad Pro has a resolution of 2,388 by 1,668. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro comes in at 2,732 by 2,048. Both have the same pixel density: 264 ppi.

But it sure is pretty

As much as Apple’s over-the-top and confusing marketing message irritates, I still have to say: this is the best screen I’ve ever seen in a tablet. No runner-up is even remotely close.

This is obviously nice for watching movies and TV—something I have a feeling people do on the regular with iPads—but it’s potentially quite powerful for content creators on the go. No other tablet can handle HDR video this well.

No, the old guard of media and content creation isn’t going to leave behind the laptop paradigm for this screen. But for those younger creators who live in an iOS/iPadOS-first world, the Pro is amazing to see.

While we’re disappointed that this new screen tech is not available in the 11-inch model, this new display is every bit as big of a story—if not bigger—than the M1 for a certain set of users. It doesn’t disappoint.



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