Apple’s new 12.9-inch iPad Pro is great but not worth the upgrade

When Apple released its iPad Pro last year, it came with a ton of new and worthwhile upgrades: dual cameras, a LiDAR scanner, trackpad support with iPadOS, and a new chipset. But the same can’t be said for this year’s 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

The latest iteration of Apple’s workhorse tablet only brings along its M1 chip, a mini-LED display, and an upgraded front-facing camera with a new feature for video calls. And neither of those new additions makes all that much of a discernible difference when using the iPad Pro as a regular tablet on a daily basis.

Those new features also don’t revolutionize the experience in a way that makes the 2021 iPad Pro feel exciting to use — mostly because it’s targeted specifically at creatives. With the M1 chip, the new tablet is meant to make heavy-duty tasks — like editing large batches of RAW images and streams of 4K video footage, or designing 3D prototypes — a lot faster and smoother of an experience.

For the regular people, the iPad Pro is still a reliable and capable device for common tasks like web browsing, streaming Netflix, word processing, and messaging. But with a starting price of $1,099 for the base model, Apple is asking its customers to drop a lot of money for an incremental update that feels more like an enterprise machine than a main-stream tablet.

A tried and true design

Apple must really love the design of its iPad Pro.

The iPad Pro hasn’t experienced a full redesign since 2018. And while I let that slide in 2020, I think it’s about time Apple starts getting a bit more creative with it, especially after last year’s colorful iPad Air and this year’s new 24-inch iMac.

Having just reviewed that iMac, the iPad Pro’s Space Gray or Silver color options feel more boring than usual in comparison. Apple sent me the latter — it looks simple and sleek but again, it’s nothing special.

As per usual, the iPad Pro has a boxy aluminum body, a 12.9-inch display with fairly thick bezels on the front, a 12-megapixel ultra-wide TrueDepth camera, and a square camera module on the back.

Those same thick bezels

On top is the lock button, while the right side of the iPad is home to the volume rocker, magnetic connector for the Apple Pencil, and a Nano SIM tray. For ports, there’s only one Thunderbolt/USB 4 to use.

The iPad Pro’s audio output relies on a four-speaker system (two speaker grilles on top and two on the bottom) with four microphones (three on top and one on the left) for input.

Those same thick bezels
Those same thick bezels

While the speakers sound really crisp and clear for the most part, they do get a bit muffled when maxed out. But that’s to be expected for a device this size.

Speaking of size, the new iPad Pro also has the exact same dimensions as the 2020 version, but this year’s model is slightly heavier — weighing in at 1.51 pounds compared to last year’s 1.41 pounds.

It's the same size as last year's iPad Pro but a little heavier.

While it’s not all that much heavier, it’s easy to tell with a tablet as large as the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. That extra weight is especially noticeable when you use it to take photos or read e-books.

If you’re someone like me, who has tinier hands, then I’d recommend the 11-inch iPad Pro. It weighs a little over one pound, so it’ll definitely feel a bit lighter and more comfortable to use.

Hello, mini-LEDs

If there’s any way to immediately tell the difference between the previous 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the current one, it’s by turning on the display.

I do love the mini-LED display though

This year, Apple swapped the standard Liquid Retina display on its larger iPad for a Liquid Retina XDR display with mini-LED technology. That means colors are supposed to look a lot more crisp and vibrant with heavier contrast.

The display certainly delivers on that promise. Colors are a lot deeper and more punchy than on the previous version. It also makes for a far better viewing experience since it provides an extensive scale of colors, with highlights that are well managed and solid color contrast. This is especially helpful for creatives who intend to use the iPad Pro to edit photos and videos.

You can definitely see a difference with that new display.

It’s also why the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is heavier than last year’s model. Apple had to completely redesign the display to support high brightness and backlight with mini-LEDs. So, that meant incorporating a heftier screen into the device.

A similar camera system, with one fun and useful feature

Apple implemented the same exact rear-camera system on its new 12.9-inch iPad Pro as it did for last year’s model.

A dual-camera module on the back
  • a 125-degree 10-megapixel ultra wide-angle lens (f/2.4 aperture)

Sadly, the company still hasn’t added Portrait mode to the rear cameras. It’s only available on the front-facing camera. But you can use the back cameras to shoot footage up to 4K, for those who plan on using its camera for projects.

The main difference from the previous iPad Pro model can be found in the front-facing camera. Apple upgraded the 7-megapixel front-facing TrueDepth camera to a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera with a 122-degree field of view.

It’s thanks to the new front-facing camera and M1 chip that Apple was also able to incorporate a new feature called Center Stage. This uses the wide-angle camera to keep you in the frame when you’re moving around. So depending on your movements, it’ll automatically pan or zoom in and out.

Center Stage also supports third-party video apps, and developers can incorporate it into their video chat apps if they so choose. There’s also an API available to allow users to toggle the feature on/off.

Ideally, the camera feature is useful for those who like to FaceTime while also cooking or getting ready. That way, you don’t have to worry about constantly repositioning your iPad Pro throughout a video call.

A LiDAR scanner for augmented reality apps

I rarely video chat unless I’m at my desk, and I found the feature a bit nauseating to use while sitting down since it has a tendency to pan or zoom with every move you make. It also made me far more self conscious of the camera. Thankfully, you can turn the feature off via Settings.

There’s no denying that it’s certainly a feature fit for a pandemic world where we’re constantly video chatting with loved ones while also trying to get other things done.

About that M1 chip…

When Apple first injected its MacBook and iMac with its own Apple silicon, it was a big deal — particularly because the company finally moved away from using Intel processors. But Apple has always used in-house chips for its iPads, so the switch from its A-series chips to the M1 doesn’t feel like much of a difference (to me, at least).

Sure, Apple points out that it “delivers 50 percent faster CPU performance than A12Z Bionic” and that its “8-core GPU is in a class of its own, delivering up to 40 percent faster GPU performance.” But for someone like me who is using the iPad Pro for basics such as word processing, watching Netflix, answering emails, and iMessage, I can’t say it felt any different than using the previous generation’s version.

The M1 chip doesn't really feel all that different from the A-series chips.

In terms of performance, I didn’t run into any issues. On a typical day, I had Google Drive, Spotify, Google Calendar, Slack, Gmail, Messenger, Telegram, iMessage, and Chrome running simultaneously, and the device ran both quickly and smoothly.

As for battery life, Apple claims up to 10 hours of juice for the iPad Pro. After using those aforementioned apps for about seven hours, I still had about 22 percent of charge left. It’s also the exact same amount I experienced with 2020 iPad Pro which makes sense, so those upgrading from last year’s model won’t see any improvements to battery life.

You should probably weigh your options

The iPad Pro comes in a variety of configurations. Apple sent me a model with Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity along with 1TB of storage. Your other options for the 12.9-inch model include:

Apple also sent me the Magic Keyboard (2nd-generation) and the Apple Pencil (2nd-generation), which go for $349 and $129, respectively. I can’t say I got much use out of the Pencil, but I relied on the Magic Keyboard throughout my work days to write stories and emails.

While that accessory helps the iPad Pro more closely mimic a laptop, I’d recommend really thinking about how you’re going to use the device as a whole. If you plan on using it with the Magic Keyboard more than you will as a standard iPad, then it’s worth looking into a MacBook Air (starting at $999) or MacBook Pro (starting at $1,299).

The M1 chip doesn't really feel all that different from the A-series chips.
The M1 chip doesn't really feel all that different from the A-series chips.

Considering the base iPad Pro coupled with the Magic Keyboard brings you to a grand total of $1,448, you may want to weigh your options compared to a full-blown laptop.

If you already own a Magic Keyboard but plan on upgrading your iPad Pro, I can assure you that you don’t need to purchase a new one. While it’s a snug fit, the 2021 12.9-inch iPad Pro works perfectly fine with last year’s Magic Keyboard case. So please save your money.

Yes, it works as intended

During my time with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, I can’t say I ran into any issues that would deter anyone from purchasing this tablet. Switching between laptop and tablet mode whenever I wanted was ideal; it performed without a hitch; it offers good battery life; and its display is stunning.

That said, those are the exact things I raved about with last year’s iPad Pro. If it weren’t for the 2021 model’s brighter screen, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell which model I was using.

Overall, Apple has delivered another powerful tablet. But unless you’re looking to ditch that iPad Pro you’ve been holding on to for years, then you’re better off waiting to see if next year’s 12.9-inch model truly ups the ante.

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