The new iPad Pro is too good for its operating system. An absolute hardware tour de force, this $1,099, 12.9-inch tablet is gorgeously built, with power to match the latest Apple laptops, the finest screen we’ve ever seen on a slate, and connectivity options that the latest MacBooks can’t touch. But iPadOS can’t take advantage of the new power under the hood, which means the $599-and-up iPad Air is still our Editors’ Choice winner for Apple tablets.
A Tablet With Laptop Power, at Laptop Prices
There are two models of the new iPad Pro. The 11-inch model starts at $799, and the 12.9-inch model starts at $1,099. We’re reviewing the larger model, which is the only one with the new XDR Mini LED display. They both come in gray or silver. The 12.9-inch model measures 11.04 by 8.46 by 0.25 inches (HWD), and its weight of just 1.5 pounds belies its speed and power.
You’re unlikely to pay just $1,099 for this tablet. That price is for a 128GB model, and you’ll probably overrun that with large media files after a year or so. The Pro can use external storage, but in iPadOS, external drives are second-class citizens that can’t be used directly by some apps, so you want that internal storage. Hard drive options include 256GB (for an extra $100), 512GB ($300 more), 1TB (add $700), and 2TB (add $1,100; totaling two times the entry-level cost).
But wait, there are more add-ons. Adding a 5G modem costs another $200, not including the price of a prepaid eSIM or monthly service plan. The Apple Pencil is $129. A good keyboard case from Apple or a reputable third party like Logitech will run you $200 or more; the Magic Keyboard with trackpad that Apple sent us along with our test unit costs $349. You can reuse some accessories from earlier iPad Airs and iPad Pros, including last year’s Magic Keyboard With Trackpad and second-generation Pencils (first-generation ones aren’t compatible with the iPad Pro), but it’s still perfectly possible to head into an Apple Store intending to buy an iPad Pro and walk out $2,000+ lighter.
Apple iPad Air (2020)
Apple iPad (2020)
Apple iPadOS 14
Microsoft Surface Pro 7
Samsung Galaxy Tab S7+
Apple iPad Pro (2020)
That changes the whole equation of what the iPad Pro is and who it’s for. A $2,000 device should be able to serve as your primary computer, and it has to do more than a $1,000 laptop or desktop can do. The M1 chip in this generation of iPad Pro indisputably has that capacity, but iPadOS doesn’t take advantage of it.
A New Vision
The XDR display on the 12.9-inch (and only the 12.9-inch) iPad Pro is staggeringly good. Instead of a handful of backlights like on most LCDs, or self-illuminating pixels like on OLEDs, this screen has 10,000 tiny LED backlights divided into 2,500 “local dimming zones.” It makes images look richer and more real than they do on my Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon laptop or on less expensive iPads.
Mini LED displays bring LCDs much closer to the absolute blacks we’re familiar with from OLEDs. When you’re watching streaming HDR video at the highest possible bitrate (that is, on a good internet connection), you really see what a difference that makes. Detail in shadow areas is more clearly visible; muddiness is banished.
Quality audio completes the luxurious media experience. I’m a little annoyed though that the iPad Pro lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack. But the quad speakers deliver the best sound I’ve ever heard on a tablet. (The iPad Air is the runner-up.) When playing “All The Things That I’ve Done” by the Killers on YouTube, for instance, I heard everything from the high-hats to the organ overtones; many of those sounds are missing when I listen to the song on cheap tablets or my laptop.
The 2,732-by-2,048-pixel display has other features we’ve seen in iPad Pro screens before, most notably the 120Hz ProMotion refresh rate. 120Hz is common on Samsung and OnePlus phones now, but Apple saves it for the iPad Pro line. The higher frame rate makes the Pencil more responsive, and scrolling is very smooth.
Apple says that both the 11-inch and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro models have 1.8% reflectivity, which is extremely low. Using the iPad Pro outside on a sunny day, of course I saw reflections in the display. But it’s still very usable, and all I had to do was take it into the shade to banish reflections almost entirely.
For Connectivity, the Sky’s the Limit
The cellular model of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro packs Qualcomm’s X55 modem that’s in the iPhone 12 series. There are three regional models, all of which have every 4G LTE band and sub-6GHz 5G band used in the US, including the upcoming C-band. Model A2379, the version sold in the US, has an eSIM and millimeter-wave 5G. Model A2461 has an eSIM but no mmWave; that will likely be sold in Canada and in other countries without mmWave networks. Model A2462 has a physical SIM and no mmWave; that will probably be sold mostly in China.
The iPad’s eSIM interface makes it very easy to add ad-hoc service plans from different carriers, even on the fly. In the US, your choices are AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and three providers that specialize in multi-country roaming: GigSky, RedteaGO, and Truphone. Verizon doesn’t let you easily add prepaid plans; it wants you to create an account and add a line in the traditional manner. But you can grab 25GB with AT&T for $35 and then swap over to 30GB with T-Mobile for $40 pretty effortlessly.
Given the $200 cost of adding a cellular modem to the tablet as well as the price of data, you might opt to use your phone as a hotspot instead. But having 5G built in makes connectivity incredibly easy, meaning there’s no hunting for networks or having to make sure your phone is charged—the tablet is simply on the internet all the time.
The other perk of built-in 5G is that it can be faster than Wi-Fi, or a connection tethered over Wi-Fi. Hotspots generally max out around 600Mbps, but if you’re using Verizon’s ultra-fast millimeter-wave 5G system, you’ll see much higher connection speeds.
I set up the iPad Pro in an area covered by Verizon mmWave, and Ookla Speedtest showed raw network speed of over 2Gbps. (Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s parent company.) However, your download speeds over 5G—on any device—may still be gated by the services you’re using. Downloading multi-gigabyte files from various cloud services, I didn’t see real speeds much over 500Mbps because of the interconnections and internet pathways along the way. So don’t let the “5G is faster than Wi-Fi!” hype sway your buying decision too much.
With reception, the iPad Pro is spectacular. A big chassis means big antennas, and big antennas make for strong connections. The iPad Pro had even better mmWave reception and speeds on Verizon’s UWB 5G than a Samsung Galaxy S21, which has a newer X60 modem. For wireless connectivity, there’s Wi-Fi 6 (though not Wi-Fi 6E) with excellent performance, as well as Bluetooth 5.0. I did several Zoom calls using OnePlus earbuds on the iPad’s Bluetooth connection and didn’t notice any lag. The only port is a Thunderbolt 4 USB-C port.
Cameras and LiDAR, Perfect for AR
The back of the iPad Pro has a 12-megapixel, f/1.8 main camera and a 10MP, f/2.4 125-degree wide-angle camera, along with a LiDAR depth sensor that greatly accelerates augmented reality (AR) and 3D image capture. On the front, there’s a 12MP, 122-degree wide-angle camera, upgraded from the 7MP on last year’s models. The main cameras record video at 4K up to 60fps; the front camera records 1080p video at 60fps.
This is as good as you’re going to get with a tablet camera, and it’s almost up to recent iPhone standards, with one big missing feature: the iPhone’s aggressive and capable Night mode. Low-light photos taken on the iPad Pro struggle with definition, and they certainly don’t show the revelatory effect that you get on the latest iPhones where night looks almost like day. With better lighting, the Smart HDR 3 algorithm does incredible work with outdoor scenes, giving you blue skies and rich skin tones without ever blowing anything out.
A 12.9-inch tablet is unwieldy for photography, but the combination of good cameras, LiDAR, and a top-notch processor is terrific for large-scale augmented reality. Home-measuring apps like CamToPlan, which combine a picture of the world with virtual objects, work smoothly even in extremely cluttered rooms that have complex textures and limited floor space.
The front-facing camera is a huge leap beyond most tablets and laptops for video calling. The 122-degree wide-angle lens allows for Center Stage, a new feature where the camera tracks you, just a little bit, if you move around the room during a video call. It’s still pretty easy to slide out of frame, but the feature is neat.
There’s one caveat for the front-facing camera: I primarily use my tablet in landscape mode, as do most people who use drawing apps and anyone who uses a keyboard dock. But the front-facing camera is positioned for portrait mode; in landscape mode it’s all the way on the left, which makes for weird angles on video calls. During the test period, I sometimes had Face ID fail while I was holding the tablet because my thumb was covering the camera.
Power Like No Other Tablet
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro, with Apple’s M1 processor, is massively more powerful than any previous iPad and benchmarks almost exactly like Apple’s M1 Macs. The Geekbench 5 benchmark jump is gigantic; take a look at the chart below. The M1’s GPU is just as juiced up as its CPU, too, as the difference in the GFXBench benchmarks shows.
However, the iPad Pro falls far short of the M1 Macs on the cross-platform Basemark Web 3.0 browser benchmarks. iPadOS and iPad applications just don’t know what to do with all this power.
It’s hilariously difficult to find an iPad app that stresses the M1. Video editing absolutely doesn’t do it. Downscaling a 10-minute video from 4K to 720P, for instance, is just as fast on the 2021 iPad Pro as it is on the 2018 and 2020 versions. (All of them are about 14% faster than the $329 8th-gen iPad.)
The iPad Pro easily handled games including Genshin Impact, the most processor-stressful mobile title. There is no game that pushes the limits of even the 2020 iPad Air or 2020 iPad Pro. My daughter uses a 2018 iPad Pro; she’s one of those 120-layers-in-Photoshop artists and she never sees a delay. Unsurprisingly, the 2021 iPad Pro handles all of these tasks without blinking.
The closest I’ve gotten to an app that starts to make use of the new iPad Pro’s potential is the genre of LiDAR 3D room-scanning apps. On the 2020 and 2021 LiDAR-equipped iPads, these apps let you make shockingly realistic 3D models of the insides of entire homes, which you can use for making home renovation plans, selling a house, or creating art. The 3D modeling is processor-intensive, and the 2021 iPad Pro finds surfaces and models objects very quickly thanks to the M1 chip.
We may find more app makers starting to take advantage of the M1’s headroom within a few months. Zoom already has: You can see 48 people in Zoom’s Gallery View on a 12.9-inch M1 iPad, as opposed to 25 on any other iPad model.
The 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB storage models come with 8GB of RAM; the 1TB and 2TB models have 16GB. That, once again, is just like an M1 Mac.
Battery life, at 5 hours, 28 minutes of screen-on video streaming time, falls between the iPad Air (4 hours, 45 minutes) and the 2020 iPad Pro (6 hours, 16 minutes). Using the tablet for everyday tasks with some 5G use, it delivered between 5 and 6 hours of usage time. The iPad Pro recharges at up to 20W with a USB-C adapter, but doesn’t support wireless charging.
iPadOS 15: One Step Forward (When You Need Two)
I tested the iPad Pro with iPadOS 14.6. The upcoming iPadOS 15 makes a bit of an effort to loosen some of the iPad’s restrictions. But as of now, it feels like Apple’s hardware and software teams didn’t really talk to each other: The hardware has matured, but the OS keeps it in the cradle.
iPadOS 15 brings a new multitasking menu to the iPad, which makes the tablet’s split-window interface more obvious; up until now, generating two windows on an iPad has required a bunch of completely unintuitive gestures. The new OS also adds synchronized tab collections in Safari. And you can mix apps and widgets on the home screen for a better quick view of your work.
Video calls feel luxurious. The camera is far sharper than any laptop’s, and the Center Stage feature is a bit of a perk, though it didn’t have enough range to follow me when I was ducking and weaving. During a call, I can take notes in a side window. For pure writing or drawing, this iPad Pro is as good as the iPad Pro has always been, which is unbeatable. There’s a tremendous range of art apps, and the Pencil is both comfortable and sensitive.
But I spent several days working exclusively on the iPad Pro, and it has a very typical iPad problem: You can only do one or two things at a time. Let’s say you need to edit a video while keeping an eye on Slack, checking the video notes in OneNote, and looking up the spelling of a name for the captions. Or you need to take elements from two emails and a bunch of Facebook messages and slot them into a spreadsheet, which you would also like to keep open as you paste it into PowerPoint. There is an iPad workflow that lets you do these things, but it involves a lot of flipping apps back and forth; it’s much more awkward than on MacOS or Windows. (And don’t get me started on transferring files between apps, which at least is now possible but is often more complex than it needs to be.)
I’ve seen people saying the iPad is a “real computer” because you can code on it. But when I code, my workflow involves multiple Notepad++ documents, several StackExchange tabs, and the relevant IDE. I can’t do that on an iPad. iPadOS makes it unnecessarily hard to have a messy mind.
The top missing feature that’s driving media pros up the wall is true external display support, and that’s connected to iPadOS’s continued refusal to believe that we want multiple windows. Plugging a USB-C display into the iPad Pro lets you mirror, not extend, the display. That’s fine if you’re doing presentations, but it doesn’t get you any additional working screen area. Extending the display would likely require a more flexible multi-window approach than the iPadOS designers are willing to give us.
In addition, some pro apps and pro features are still missing from the iPad platform. Photoshop exists for the iPad, but it doesn’t have feature parity with the Mac version. The new Swift Playgrounds for programming is not Xcode; it is baby Xcode. Everybody I talk to wants Final Cut Pro. Personally, I’d love to see Tableau Desktop and a version of Microsoft Excel that has desktop feature parity. The iPad interface isn’t holding any of these back, now that it has full mouse-and-keyboard support, and neither is the CPU. Only the OS stands in the way.
The Universal Control feature in iPadOS 15 and Mac OS Monterey will let you operate your Mac and iPad with one keyboard and mouse, but as two separate devices, each running its own OS and applications. (The older Sidecar feature already let you use an iPad as a Mac monitor.) Universal Control shows that Apple wants you buying an iPad and a Mac, running different applications on the two. That’s a powerful combination, to be sure, but one that costs a fearsome amount of money. If Apple is deliberately keeping chains on iPadOS so that you end up shelling out for some variety of iPad for creative tasks and a MacBook Air for anything that really needs the M1’s power, that feels a little sketchy.
Too Much Tablet, Not Enough OS
This year’s iPad Pro is a marvel. It’s impeccably designed, with a screen that’s better than your laptop’s, a pro-level processor, and 5G that’s actually too fast for the cloud. It’s also, infuriatingly, saddled with an OS that still embraces a 2012-era idea of tablet computing. The result is an amazing tablet that can’t quite justify its luxury-laptop-level price, because you still need a computer running a non-tablet OS if you want to open more than three windows or use a second monitor.
The iPad Air, at $599, is where the iPad line really shines right now. It works with the reliable second-generation Pencil and has a processor that handles almost every actual iPad use case, excepting only 3D AR apps that need LiDAR. Even if you’re an illustrator or other design professional, you won’t be disappointed by the Air.
If you want the 120Hz responsiveness of ProMotion, the LiDAR, or the enormous screen, last year’s iPad Pro models are still floating around for about $120 less than this one.
To justify selling a high-priced tablet with the power of a pro laptop, Apple needs to unshackle the iPad Pro. This doesn’t have to be as simplistic as “run Mac apps on the iPad,” but it does need to involve properly handling external monitors and switching between several windows when assembling content.
The story of iPadOS 15 isn’t entirely written yet. Along with the features announced recently, there will be more coming when the OS officially launches this fall. Hopefully, that will push the iPad Pro to the forefront, where it belongs.
Apple iPad Pro (12.9-Inch, 2021)
The Bottom Line
The 2021 edition of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is just as powerful as a Mac, but its operating system keeps it so tightly leashed that much of its potential goes unrealized.
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