It might be aimed primarily at creative types, but the new iPad Pro 12.9 is also the best tablet there’s ever been if portable cinema is your thing
At this stage, each new iPad feels like an incremental improvement on the one before it. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – in practical terms, Apple is almost unchallenged in the tablet arena, so a nip and tuck is generally all that’s required, but it’s not exactly exciting.
That’s where the new iPad Pro 12.9 comes in. Despite being aesthetically similar to its predecessor, this is a big step forward for tablets.
The headline-grabber is the new, high-end laptop-derived processor, but the new mini LED-lit display is the real game-changer as far as we’re concerned. Ever wanted an OLED or QLED TV that you could fit in a backpack? The new iPad Pro 12.9 is that – and plenty more.
The new iPad Pro 12.9 starts at £999 ($1099, AU$1649) for the 128GB wi-fi-only model. There are lots of storage options available, all the way up to a £1999 ($2199, AU$3299) 2TB version. Adding cellular functionality to any model adds £150 ($200, AU$250).
The smaller iPad Pro 11 starts at £749 ($799, AU$1199) but, as well as being 1.9 inches smaller, the screen uses different underlying technology, so picture performance won’t be the same.
There’s little difference between the physical design of the new iPad Pro 12.9 and its predecessor. In fact, other than the new model being 0.5mm thicker, the dimensions of the two models are identical.
It is a large tablet, as you’d expect of a device with a 12.9in screen, measuring 28 x 21 x 0.6cm (11 x 8.5 x 0.3 inches) in total. You have to be committed to the cinematic (or productivity) potential of the big display to opt for such a large device.
Unlike the iPad Air, which is available in a number of subtle metallic hues, the iPad Pro 12.9 comes only in Space Grey or Silver. More variation would be nice, but both finishes are lovely and the new Pro both looks and feels utterly premium.
On the otherwise flat rear is a protruding camera array that will rest directly on a surface when the iPad is laid down. It’s designed to resist damage from such placement, but a case that physically raises the lenses will be a first add-on for many.
The top and bottom edges of the tablet each have two sets of speaker perforations so you’re listening in stereo when the iPad is oriented horizontally. Also along the edges are physical power and volume buttons, plus a USB-C socket that supports the much faster Thunderbolt standard, opening up the opportunity to connect higher-end storage devices and monitors.
The front is all glass, but there’s a 9mm black border between the display and the tablet’s edge. Embedded into this border is a new front-facing camera that can follow you around in the style of Facebook Portal. This is a great feature for FaceTime calls but the positioning of the camera on one of the shorter edges means you’re awkwardly off-centre when video calling in landscape mode.
Positioning aside, that front-facing camera is excellent in terms of image quality, thanks to a 12MP resolution and ultra-wide field of view. The rear camera array is solid, too, boasting a main 12MP wide camera, 10MP ultra-wide camera and a true tone flash.
If you’re the sort of person who’s considering buying a new iPad Pro, you may already have a top-end iPhone with an even better camera, but the iPad takes perfectly good photos and videos (the latter in up to 4K at 60fps) in its own right. It’s also of a high enough quality to enable lots of interesting and useful app-based features, such as document scanning and augmented reality experiences.
Apple positions its iPad Pro models as productivity and creativity devices, and the new M1 chip takes this to the next level. This is the same chip that Apple has just started putting in its MacBooks and has shaken up the laptop market thanks to its vast performance upgrade over previous processors.
Apple claims that it makes the new iPad Pro’s CPU performance 50 per cent faster than that of the already lightning-fast previous version, and GPU speed is up by 40 per cent. Frankly, that sort of power is overkill for those of us primarily interested in watching movies and listening to music but, needless to say, it makes the user experience smoother than Cristiano Ronaldo’s chest.
If you are looking to use the new iPad Pro for creating as well as consuming, you might want to consider combining it with the Apple Pencil (2nd Generation), which wirelessly charges when magnetically connected to the tablet’s edge, and/or the new Magic Keyboard, which essentially turns the iPad into a slick laptop, trackpad and all. Both accessories are expensive, though. In fact, adding the £329 ($349, AU$549) Magic Keyboard to the most affordable version of the iPad Pro 12.9 makes it more expensive than buying an M1-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro.
While content creators might be most excited about the new iPad Pro’s M1 power, we content consumers will be far more excited about the 12.9-inch model’s new screen. Apple calls it a Liquid Retina XDR display, with the ‘XDR’ standing for ‘eXtreme Dynamic Range’. This is the first mini-LED backlight in an iPad. There are 10,000 of the things, arranged into 2500 independent dimming zones – Samsung’s top mini LED-based 4K TV for 2021 (the QN95A) is thought to have around 800 dimming zones, so the iPad’s figure looks incredibly impressive.
The more dimming zones a display has, the more exact and precise it can be in terms of contrast, producing deep blacks next to bright highlights. Apple claims the iPad Pro 12.9 can maintain a full-screen brightness of up to 1000 nits and hit peaks of up to 1600 nits, which is around double the peak brightness of a modern OLED TV. Contrast ratio is claimed to be 1,000,000:1.
Those screen specs should make the iPad Pro 12.9 a great performer with HDR content – and they do. It’s not so much that it goes vastly brighter than other iPad models, such as the iPad Air, it’s that it combines bright highlights with awesomely deep blacks to create a vastly more dynamic and exciting picture.
We play Blade Runner 2049 in Dolby Vision from the iTunes store and set both models to their highest brightness setting. The Pro’s peaks are noticeably brighter than the Air’s but not vastly so. However, to reach those levels the Air has had to entirely sacrifice its black performance, producing something clearly grey in hue. There’s no such sacrifice necessary with the Pro – its blacks are near-perfect.
That combination of deep blacks and very bright highlights makes for a supremely punchy image, particularly in the scenes around LA, which feature neon lights and holographic adverts lighting the city’s grimy gloom.
Thankfully, Apple hasn’t thrown away its reputation for colour authenticity while reaching for new heights in contrast. On the contrary, Apple claims that every iPad is calibrated for colour, brightness, gamma and white point before it leaves the factory, and it shows – there’s great consistency across iPad models, all of which come across as extremely authentically balanced. It’s the same with the new Pro.
There’s a little more vibrancy afforded by the greater dynamic range, seen in the yellow porch of Sapper Morton’s farm, for example, but there’s no hint of garishness or exaggeration. As we switch between films and TV shows from various streaming services and in various resolutions and formats (HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision are all supported), colours combine vividness and nuanced authenticity to an exceptional degree. Everything looks awesome, but it also looks correct.
Apple increases and decreases the resolution of its iPads depending on the size of the screen, so that pixel density is kept the same (all current models have 264 pixels per inch with the exception of the iPad Mini, which has a higher pixel density of 326ppi). As a result, the new iPad Pro 12.9 isn’t vastly sharper or more detailed than siblings such as the Air (although it does dig up more fine details in the brightest and darkest parts of the picture), but the deeper blacks help reinforce edges, making for a more solid and three-dimensional image.
That solidity is retained even during fast and otherwise tricky motion. The iPad Pro maintains a firm grip on the action at all times, sharpening and smoothing without adding any artificiality or shimmer. It doesn’t even get confused by K’s car moving behind a row of skyscrapers as he flies back to HQ at the beginning of Blade Runner 2049, or by the dogfighting planes in 1917. If this was a TV, in terms of motion handling it would be right up there with the superb Sony A90J.
In fact, that’s the underlying beauty of the new iPad Pro 12.9: it’s like having a miniaturised top-end TV you can take almost anywhere.
With two speakers on each of the short edges, the iPad Pro is capable of producing proper stereo when in landscape orientation and, with some clever onboard processing, it’s even able to deliver some virtualised surround sound, with some of the radio chatter at the start of Gravity appearing to come to your left and right rather than being completely tethered to the drivers.
That effect is ramped up to astonishing degrees if you add a pair of AirPods Max or AirPods Pro headphones and take advantage of the spatial audio feature. It’s incredibly effective, particularly with the Max cans, and is like being in a personal Dolby Atmos cinema, with sounds coming from all around you. If the iPad Pro 12.9 is like having a top-end TV you can take anywhere, adding a pair of AirPods Max makes it like having a whole portable cinema. It’s genuinely amazing.
Of course, the tablet will also output sound to any standard wired and Bluetooth headphones, although you will need to buy a USB-C headphone adapter for the former. As with its approach to video, Apple has always favoured authentic, uncoloured sound, and so it proves here – movies and music are both presented with deft tonal balance, impressive rhythmic organisation, lots of engaging punch and detail, and dynamic shifts both big and small.
While it’s not a vast step up from the current Air in terms of its audio quality through headphones, the new iPad Pro does sound noticeably cleaner and more nuanced than its smaller, much more affordable sibling. It has added richness and dynamic subtlety, too. Play both out loud, meanwhile, and there’s a clear increase in available volume and weight from the Pro, although both models are fairly bass light, as you’d expect from drivers small enough to fit inside a tablet device.
Apple’s Pro tablets have, as the name suggests, always been aimed at professional, creative types, and they will be delighted by the huge power brought to the new models by the M1 chip.
Our focus is on the picture and sound, though, and the iPad Pro 12.9 is at least as exciting here. The picture performance is superb – punchy and deep, vibrant and natural, exciting and nuanced. It’s right up there with that of the very best TVs you can buy. Sound, meanwhile, is great from the speakers, excellent via standard Bluetooth or wired headphones, and simply amazing with a pair of AirPods Max cans.
This is a hugely expensive tablet and the price is hard to justify for anyone who has no intention of taking advantage of its productivity potential, but it’s also the best tablet you can buy for watching movies on the move. Sure, this is a luxury device, but it’s an extremely persuasive one.
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