Apple iPad Pro 2021 Review: Speedy Performance, Awesome Display, Same Old Design


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May 22 update below. This post was first published on Friday, May 21.

This is an updated version of my iPad Pro review which was first sent to subscribers to my AppleUnboxed newsletter on Wednesday. That content is usually exclusive to subscribers, but this was a special extra bonus issue, so I’m sharing it here.

I’ve been using the new iPad Pro in its 12.9-inch size for more than a week now, putting it through its paces. You can sign up to my newsletter here. Is it worth considering? Should you think about it if you have the 2020 version? And how good is the display?

May 22 update. You can read what other reviewers have said

here

. But there’s an aspect in the other reviews that came up over and over, that the power of the iPad Pro is spectacular but that the software is holding it back. Some reviewers were even specific that until the software gets better, the iPad can never be a decent laptop substitute.

I have two thoughts on all this. First, the iPad isn’t meant to be a substitute laptop, or anything else, it’s meant to be an iPad. It’s true that the original software seemed more aimed at media consumption than creativity, but that’s changed.

It’s true that the iPad is certainly useful, when it has a keyboard attached, for many of the productivity capabilities that a laptop manages. And, unlike Apple’s laptops, the iPad has a touchscreen, something that’s central to the product and has directed its development.

I’d like iPadOS 15 to offer more productivity benefits, like more multi-window features. But even then, I don’t think it will replace a MacBook and it might be time to stop asking it to.

The other thought is that it’s true the power of the M1 chip is remarkable and much of the time it’s not needed. Except for two things. The iPad Pro is designed to satisfy the most demanding user, with capabilities the rest of us will sometimes find excessive. That’s the first thing, and we have more affordable alternatives in the elegant shape of the iPad Air, for instance.

The other thing is that all that power may not be needed yet, but that could change as developers create that unexpected must-have app that pushes one part of the hardware especially hard. We know that iPads are very durable items with long lives, so it could be a year or two before the headroom is used up, or even longer, but how great to be able to run the latest, most demanding apps on today’s iPad Pro in four, five, six years’ time?

Anyway, I’ll let you get back to the main review.

The new iPad Pro went on sale yesterday, Friday, May 21, in two screen sizes, 11-inch and 12.9-inch. Apart from the size and the price tag, the two models are identically equipped. Identical except for one feature: the screen technology. 

The 11-inch model has the same, excellent LCD screen found on the previous iPad Pro, but the 12.9-inch screen has an all-new screen. It’s also LCD, but it has more than 10000 miniLED backlights, which is why Apple is calling it Liquid Retina XDR. That’s named after the company’s XDR display, which is remarkable, so it has quite a bit to live up to. 

Turns out, it’s not an idle naming boast. The display on the new iPad Pro is astonishing. Unlike OLED, it goes very bright indeed, but because the 10,000+ individual miniLEDs can be turned on and off in 2,500 local areas, the screen has no visible backlight, stunning deep black shades and extremely good contrast levels. Look at HDR content, and you’ll notice details you just can’t see as well on a regular display. 

For HDR video it makes the images seem more immediate and impactful, allowing bright sunshine and detailed shadow to have equal effect. Watching a movie with the inevitable black bars at each side, the bars are now completely black, with no distracting glimmers of backlight seeping through.

This new display is the visual highlight of the new iPad Pro and it’s amazing. 

It’s the only striking visible difference here—the overall design is the same as last year’s iPad Pro with its flat edges, matching the industrial design of the iPhone 12 series.  Mind you, the design is pretty spiffy, so sticking with it is hardly a bad thing.

There are other differences but they’re minor, such as the speaker grilles which now have fewer holes, but bigger ones. The audio, by the way, is unchanged, which is a relief as the iPad Pro has spectacular sound.

The new speaker arrangement is purely practical, it’s to allow for a redesign, internally, for 5G connectivity, which comes to the iPad for the first time with this version. 

As 5G networks grow faster and more ubiquitous, this capability will become increasingly important, offering the same sense of freedom that wi-fi does in the home. With 5G, the speed of connection is so fast that it makes wi-fi almost redundant, and its availability outdoors is important. 

There are several other big changes to the iPad Pro and again they’re invisible to the naked eye. The most notable change is the processor. The A14Z chip from the iPad Pro from 2020 is replaced by the M1, the same chip found in the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and the new iMac. 

To put a processor from a Mac in a tablet is a pretty remarkable thing to do and it’s a gamble that has paid off. The performance on the new iPad Pro is blazing-fast, with the tablet shrugging off whatever you throw at it. Video editing with multiple high-resolution streams in use at the same time are no problem for it, for instance. 

And, as developers create apps and games to make the most of the M1, the results of what you see on the iPad screen will be more impressive still. 

Apple’s iPads have consistently had super-fast processors inside, but this is something else. 

Here’s a simple example: Center Stage. Because of the Ultra Wide camera that’s new to the front of the iPad Pro, and the power of the M1 chip, video conferencing will get much better. 

Center Stage helps frame the shot for your FaceTime or other video calls, intelligently panning across the image as you move around to keep you in the center of the frame. It works brilliantly, and if there’s any downside at all it’s that if you fidget a lot, the video jigs about a bit.

It’s here on FaceTime now, but will be available to other videoconferencing apps as well. 

There’s a new Magic Keyboard that goes with the iPad Pro, and it now comes in a splendid white version as well as the familiar space gray. Mind you, you’ll want to look after it to make sure it stays as pristine as the day you buy it.

Note that the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro is thicker, by just half a millimeter, than last year’s tablet, and Apple has warned that if you put it in last year’s Magic Keyboard folio, although it will be functionally compliant, it might not close properly, especially if you have a screen protector on the iPad Pro. 

First of all, putting a screen protector on such a beautiful display cannot help the image quality, I’d say. But in my experience, the new iPad Pro fits the old Magic Keyboard case perfectly. If you have the old Magic Keyboard, at least try fitting the new iPad Pro in it before you splash out on a new keyboard. If you’re still not happy with the fit, you can always buy it then. 

This only applies to the 12.9-inch version, the 11-inch model is identically sized to last year’s. 

The other main hardware change is the USB-C connector which has been upgraded to Thunderbolt, which is much faster for data transfer.

I was concerned that battery life might take a tumble from the super-bright display but in use, this doesn’t seem to have affected it at all. 

It’s a pretty amazing piece of kit, faster than any other tablet I’ve tried and most laptops, including high-end ones. The performance is amazing, and will not disappoint. 

Additionally, if you want an amazing display, the 12.9-inch version has an eye-poppingly good screen that is nothing short of spectacular. 

Apple’s tablets have always led the field: the new iPad Pro takes that leadership to a new level. 

I’ve been writing about technology for two decades and am routinely struck by how the sector swings from startling innovation to persistent repetitiveness. My areas of

I’ve been writing about technology for two decades and am routinely struck by how the sector swings from startling innovation to persistent repetitiveness. My areas of specialty are wearable tech, cameras, home entertainment and mobile technology. I also work as an actor, enjoying equally the first Mission Impossible movie, a season at Shakespeare’s Globe and a part in the latest series of The Crown. 

I’ve written for the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail, the Sun, Metro, Stuff, T3, Pocket-lint, Wareable.com and Wired. Right now most of my work away from Forbes appears in the Independent, the Evening Standard and Monocle Magazine. Follow me on Instagram: davidphelantech, or Twitter: @davidphelan2009.