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With the exception of foldable phones—whose sheer concept of a screen that bends in half is still impossibly futuristic—Apple’s 2021 model of its 12.9-inch iPad Pro is almost certainly going to be the most impressive piece of mobile hardware this year.
This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who follows the industry, since the last two iPad Pros, released in 2018 and 2020, were already ultra-sleek yet powerful machines that represented, in my opinion, Apple’s best hardware. But this year’s update takes that iPad Pro formula and adds the M1 chip, that much-hyped and critically acclaimed Apple silicon, plus a new display technology that’s so far only been seen in high-end televisions.
The result is a device so powerful, it borders on overkill, as the iPad Pro’s software right now can’t really take full advantage of the M1 chip. But that’s okay, because Apple isn’t charging an extra premium for this new iPad—it’s priced similar to the last two models at time of launch—so consumers who buy this are essentially buying a product that’s future-proofed for next several years.
The 2021 iPad Pro looks just like the 2018 and 2020 iPad Pros, so expect a thin, aluminum-backed device with a large vibrant screen surrounded by thin uniform bezels. There’s Face ID scanning system on the front side, hidden in the bezels. Around the back is a triple camera system consisting of a 12MP main camera, 10MP ultra-wide lens and a LIDAR (light detection and ranging) scanner that works sort of like a 3D depth sensor. There are three pogo pins on the back of the device for connection to accessories like Apple’s excellent but overpriced first-party “Magic” keyboard. There are four speakers on the sides of the device that pump out loud, full, even sound.
As mentioned, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro uses a relatively new display technology known as Mini LED, which up until now has only be seen in TCL, LG and Samsung televisions. Mini LED is a new version of LCD display technology, in which the light-emitting diodes (LED) underneath the display panel have been shrunken drastically, which allows more of them to be crammed under the display. Apple says last year’s iPad Pro screen used 72 LEDs; this year’s Mini LED screen uses over 10,000. Having more LEDs allows Apple greater control over what to show on the screen, and this Mini LED screen gets noticeably brighter, with greater range of contrast.
The color black, for example, has historically been problematic for LCD screens, because the fact the display uses backlights means it can’t quite produce pitch black tones the way an OLED display can. But with Mini LED tech, the screen can produce convincing black colors. It’s still not as deep as an OLED display’s black, but the gap has narrowed.
Some readers may be wondering, “if OLED screens still produce greater contrast, then why not just use OLED?” Because OLED display panels are still expensive to produce and has a weakness in that it can’t display the same static image for long periods of time (the panel would suffer “burn in” damage if it did). So for relative small screens that are constantly jumping from app to app, OLED displays work well; but for a large screen productivity machine that may be showing the same word document for hours? LCD display tech is the safer, more practical choice.
Long story short, the Mini LED on this iPad is the best screen in any Apple computer or tablet.
One thing to note: only the larger 12.9-inch model use Mini LED; the smaller 11-inch model still uses a traditional LCD panel.
Before we talk about the iPad Pro’s performance, it’s necessary to recap the significance of the M1 chip, designed and built by Apple. Using the same architecture as a smartphone chip (think Qualcomm’s Snapdragon or Apple’s own A-series), the M1 has all the required computing bits integrated into one chip, making for higher efficiency and synergy between computing parts.
For over a decade, it was accepted in the industry that compact mobile chips such as the M1 were suitable for smartphones, but heavy- duty computing machines still needed a dedicated CPU. Apple followed this order too for over a decade, using its A-series mobile chips on iPhones, but Intel CPUs for MacBooks.
That changed last year when Apple stunned the industry by announcing it would stop using Intel CPUs because Apple has designed a mobile SoC that is powerful enough to run a full-fledged computer.
It was a big promise, but Apple delivered. The MacBook Air that ran on the M1 chip shipped last November to rave reviews, as computer experts and reviewers noted that the M1-powered Macs outperformed Intel-powered Macs significantly in real world tests and benchmarks. So yes, the M1 is a huge deal, a groundbreaking change in the long-established status quo.
I ran two types of tests. The first is a standard benchmark test using the widely used app GeekBench. The M1-powered iPad Pro scored higher than the 2020 iPad Air, an almost spec’ed out 2019 Intel Core i9-powered MacBook Pro, and a Snapdragon 888-powered smartphone. In the crucial multi-core portion, the M1 iPad doubled the score of the others.
In the second test, I rendered a 26 minute 4K/30fps video on iMovie with all my Apple devices. The M1 iPad Pro finished the job in just over 13 minutes, beating all the other devices. The 2019 Intel-powered MacBook took over 30 minutes.
Even though I expected these results (because the M1 MacBook Air beat everyone too in similar tests last fall), it was still surreal to see such a thin, quiet (the iPad doesn’t have fans) device completely outperform an almost spec’ed out Intel Core i9 CPU from 2019—the latter machine was straining itself to finish the job too, with fans whirring and base notably hot.
But as I said at the beginning, using the M1 on an iPad is overkill for most people. Because other than rendering 4K videos (and how many people render 4K videos regularly?) it’s hard to find other tasks that really show off just how powerful the new iPad is. If I’m just using the iPad to send emails, write a word document, surf the web, it will perform virtually exactly as older iPads.
But who knows, maybe Apple has plans to add more functionality to iPad’s software. There are rumors creativity-driven apps (for video editors, digital illustrators, and graphic artists) will get more features and capabilities, so maybe in a few months, there will be more use cases that really make use of such a powerful processor.
Ever since Apple introduced trackpad/mouse support for the iPad, the line between an iPad and a computer has blurred even more. If you pair a keyboard and mouse or trackpad with the iPad, you can navigate the UI almost like a computer—moving the mouse cursor around, clicking to open apps, etc.
Apple’ first party Magic Keyboard, at $350, is really expensive compared to what these types of products usually cost. But for those who buy it, the experience won’t disappoint. The Magic Keyboard is well built, has an excellent keyboard with evenly spaced keys, and a responsive and accurate trackpad.
For general web surfing and writing word documents, I can say I prefer using the iPad more than a real computer. The better looking screen with smoother animations and the fact I can interact with the screen with my fingers make it a more immersive experience.
However, the software running on the iPad, iPadOS, is still a bit too limiting for me. For example, iPadOS still only lets you open two apps at once and downloading files to store locally on the iPad is still a more complicated process than on a regular computer.
This is already a huge improvement from before, when iPads could only show one app at a time and had no real file system to even download things. So Apple seems willing to slowly make tweaks to make the iPad more usable as a computer. I’m holding out hope Apple will make further tweaks, such as allowing resizable app windows and ability to open more than two at the same time.
The iPad has been the best tablet on the market, with the best app ecosystem and software, for over a decade. Samsung closed the gap last year with the excellent Tab S7 series, but the iPad still edges it with more capable hardware and stylus support.
The best-in-class screen along with superb speakers make the iPad Pro a top notch media consumption device, and for gamers, the iPad can run any game the iPhone can, so you know you have the best selection of mobile games.
The iPad Pro’s battery life is just pretty good. On a full charge, the iPad can last about 8-10 hours of continuous use depending on how much you push it. That’s going to disappoint some but it’s enough for me. Plus, charging is easy because the iPad uses USB-C, which in my life is far more ubiquitous than the iPhone Lightning cable.
The 2021, 12.9-inch iPad Pro starts at $1,099, but this is for just the tablet and a measly 128GB of storage. Double the storage and the price jumps by $100, then add a keyboard (even a cheaper third-party one) and Apple Pencil, and the total package will run closer to $1,500-$1,600.
If you just want a tablet for casual tablet-things like reading in bed, or watching Netflix on the couch, or to send emails and read news articles, this 2021 iPad Pro can definitely do the job, but it’d almost be a waste of money to pay over four digits for such a powerful machine for just those tasks. You might as well get the cheaper iPad Air or a Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 instead.
But if you know you can actually get some productivity tasks done with this machine—maybe you’re an on-the-go writer/journalist; or a digital illustrator—then I’d argue $1,500 is a good price to pay for this iPad Pro, because it will be a machine that excels at both work and play.
For some people, this iPad Pro can replace their laptop.computer . It can’t quite get there for me, but I’m really hoping it does one day, because I really like using it.
I’m a Chinese-American journalist in Hong Kong, covering consumer tech in Asia. Before focusing on this exciting beat, I was a general culture writer and editor with
I’m a Chinese-American journalist in Hong Kong, covering consumer tech in Asia. Before focusing on this exciting beat, I was a general culture writer and editor with bylines in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, New York Magazine, among others.
Feel free to email me at [email protected]