The 2018 iPad Pro was a watershed moment for so-called personal computing and elicited a breathtaking amount of self-reflection from the industry. Now that the iPad was finally the carte blanche slate Steve Jobs described in 2010, with the form factor, speed, accessories, and operating system to back it up, would the Pro — could the Pro? — be the Mac alternative Apple so clearly wants it to be? Or would it settle somewhere else, as the computer for people who have a set of needs slightly less traditional than the average office worker?
When the 2020 iPad Pro debuted last March, during the early weeks of a pandemic that’s only now subsiding, much of the hand-wringing about “What’s a computer?” had thankfully faded, though many of my favorite creators had proven Apple right by modifying their workflows to take advantage of what the iPad does better than a traditional MacBook or 2-in-1 Windows laptop.
For this review, I not only compared the iPad Pro to its 2018 predecessor (I don’t have the 2020 model), but I used it as my primary computer for a few days, trying to do what many have done before me: seeing whether it could replace my laptop. At the same time, I was keenly aware of highlighting places where the iPad Pro was additive in my life, especially in situations where the MacBook — even an M1 MacBook Pro that can technically open iPad apps and play iPad games — didn’t quite add up.
The conclusion I came to isn’t particular novel — the iPad is getting closer to being the only computer many people need, especially when paired with the Magic Keyboard — but the constraints built into iPadOS, even after the platform’s gradual feature expansion over the past half-decade — are, to me, still an advantage when it comes to doing one thing at a time as well as possible.
iPad Pro (2021): Price and availability
The 2021 iPad Pro series was announced on April 20, 2021, and is available from late May.
Every time Apple announces a new iPad Pro, it has to decide just how much space to leave between it and the other, cheaper models. That’s because of all the companies selling personal computers, be it phones, tablets, or laptops, Apple exerts the most control over the components inside them.
Whereas the 11-inch iPad Pro, which lacks the Mini LED display technology found in the larger 12.9-inch model, starts at the same $799 price of the 2020 version, the 12.9-inch model starts at $1,099, a hundred dollars more than its direct predecessor, even though the base model continues to offer just 128GB of storage. The entry-level iPad Air costs $599, though it drops down to 64GB of storage.
For the first time, though, Apple specifies the amount of RAM in each model: 8GB for models with between 128GB and 512GB; and 16GB for the models with 1TB and 2TB of storage. Yes, this year’s iPads go up to 2TB. Then there are the cellular options.
With the bump to 5G this year, the price increase between Wi-Fi and cellular models has also risen, from $150 to $200. That means if you want a base 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 5G, you’re ponying up $1,299; for the 512GB model, you’re stepping up to $1,599.
These prices are important because the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro now use the same M1 chip as the iPad Pro. A MacBook Air with 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage costs $1,249; the equivalent 12.9-inch Wi-Fi iPad Pro costs $1,399. We’ll get into why a direct comparison may not be entirely fair, but last year, when pricing out MacBook, the iPad always had the power efficiency advantage of Apple’s silicon. This year, that’s no longer the case.
iPad Pro (2021): The new hotness(es)
The 2021 iPad Pro has four major advantages over the previous model that I want to get into, with varying degrees of relevance to both the new user and the one upgrading from a previous model.
The first is the M1 chip itself, which we’ve already seen in action in a number of the best MacBooks, and is launching in the new iMac this month. I was very curious to see whether I would feel as significant an impact jumping from an older Apple silicon device, in this case, a 2018 iPad Pro running the A12X on iPadOS, as I did going from a 2018 MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i7 to the M1 MacBook Pro. And the truth is no, the delta isn’t even close.
The iPad Pro doesn’t feel significantly faster than its immediate predecessor, but every benchmark bears out a massive upgrade over the 2018 and 2020 models.
While the M1 is significantly faster in synthetic benchmarks compared to anything Apple’s put out before, even the A14 Bionic found in the iPad Air and iPhone 12 series, the day-to-day differences using the majority of the apps I open daily are limited. Like most of Apple’s hardware upon release, the iPad Pro already has enormous amounts of performance headroom.
That said, those benchmarks do tell a pretty interesting story. In Geekbench 5, which tests both CPU and GPU performance, the iPad Pro performed nearly identically to the M1 MacBook Pro, with a single-core score of 1714 and a multi-core score of 7,210. That’s a 50+ percent improvement over last year’s A12Z, another 8-core chip, though the M1 is clocked at a much faster 3.2GHz compared to the 2.5GHz of the A12 series.
What’s even more impressive is the graphics performance. I pitted the M1 iPad Pro against the 2018 model running the A12X (if you recall, the only difference between the A12X and A12Z is the bump from a 7- to 8-core GPU) in 3DMark’s new, very GPU-intensive Wild Life benchmark and the results were staggering. The A12X ended the test with a score of 3207 and an average of 19.2 fps; the M1 finished with a score of 17201 and an average of 103 fps. (3DMark also lists the A12Z-based iPad Pro as scoring a 3550 on the same test.)
Yes, this is just one synthetic benchmark test, but this isn’t the first time I’ve come away surprised by just how much faster the M1 is than previous Apple silicon. That it’s in the iPad Pro now, virtually unchanged despite a smaller, narrower chassis than even the fanless MacBook Air, speaks to its versatility.
In day-to-day use, the M1’s advantages aren’t nearly as pronounced as they are in tests, but the truth is that the iPad Pro flies through whatever you need it to do. iPadOS’s constraints may not be to everyone’s tastes, and the limitations to multi-tasking and app foregrounding — it’s a real bummer that due to sandboxing, the camera automatically disables when you put a Zoom or Google Meet call in the background — but as I tried to use the iPad Pro to get my job done, I found that forced focus worked in my favor from a productivity perspective.
The second major improvement over previous iPad Pro models, at least on this massive 12.9-inch model I’m using, is the new Mini LED display. Apple says that the screen, which is backlit using over 10,000 tiny LEDs grouped into more than 2,500 local dimming zones, is not only more color-accurate but brighter and can generate deeper and richer blacks more akin to an OLED display.
While Mini LED is in its infancy, its main advantages stem from those OLED-like blacks, which are very clear when compared to the older iPad Pro in a dark room. Apple always puts its best LCD displays into its iPad Pro lineup, but you can’t fight physics, and having a single backlight makes black scenes appear more washed out and grey. In comparison, the new iPad Pro has far better dynamic range and suffers from fewer flares when displaying content where it goes very dark, and light pixels are densely packed together.
Source: Daniel Bader / Android CentraliPad Pro 2018 (left) | iPad Pro 2021 (right): Mini LED really does improve black levels
This is most obvious when watching content, particularly HDR content such as movies or shows encoded in Dolby Vision, since it’s been specifically designed to take advantage of the iPad’s wider color gamut, higher contrast ratio, and increased brightness. I watched a few minutes of Star Wars Episode IX on Disney+ in a darkened room next to the 2018 iPad Pro, and the differences were stark.
Max brightness isn’t higher without HDR content to back it up, but the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s Mini LED display makes a huge difference in dark scenes.
I do take a bit of issue with Apple’s claim that the new iPad Pro’s display has “1000 nits max full-screen brightness,” since that number can only be reached while watching HDR content. In the vast majority of situations, both the 11-inch and 12.9-inch models have the same mediocre 600 nits of brightness as their predecessors, making them difficult to use outside in direct sunlight (though they perform better than the 500 nits of the M1 MacBook Pro).
The third major advantage is the addition of 5G. Now, you’ll have to temper your expectations here, because the quality of 5G varies from country to country, but hear me out on this: in the U.S., where millimeter-wave is slowly rolling out across the country, I think it will be considerably more useful on a cellular iPad than an iPhone. iPad usage is more stationary than an iPhone, so I can see a time where catching a mmWave signal on a park bench, on a patio, or even (you lucky few!) inside a coffee shop will be tremendously useful.
5G support isn’t as important as Apple may think, but the iPad’s cellular exclusivity among Apple’s large-screen devices definitely is.
The iPad’s exclusive support for cellular connectivity among Apple’s bigger screens, even in the Apple Silicon era, feels like one of the primary advantages to buy the iPad Pro over an equivalent MacBook, even if its absence from the company’s laptop lineup feels more unjustifiable than ever. I spoke to several creators who use iPads as their main computers, and many of them said that the tablet paired with a keyboard and a SIM card feels more “portable” than even a MacBook Air, though most of them used the 11-inch version.
While the price of adding cellular connectivity has risen by $50 over the previous generation, and the inclusion of 5G feels superfluous at best right now, that iPads have extremely long lives in most homes, and I suspect that won’t be the case in a couple of years.
The fourth advantage, and one of my favorite new features, is Center Stage. The iPad Pro has the same rear camera setup as the previous model, including LiDAR, but the FaceTime camera is an all-new 12MP ultrawide setup that uses its additional resolution to crop in and “follow” you as you move around the frame. It’s a trick that works surprisingly well in most situations, especially when, like I was last weekend, propping the iPad on a table for a family Zoom call with a restless toddler.
That Center Stage works in every video-calling app I can think of, from FaceTime to Google Meet to Zoom to Teams and WebEx, makes it one of those set-it-and-forget-it features Apple employs so well. Even when using the iPad on my desk for daily work chats, the camera made sure to place me in the center of the frame every time. It’s a small thing but a nice thing.
The quality of the selfie sensor in the iPad Pro is undoubtedly better than anything in a MacBook, too, making the tablet, ironically, a far better machine for work calls than any of Apple’s recent laptops (provided you don’t use an external webcam, which isn’t possible on the iPad).
iPad Pro 2021: The computer question
My review iPad Pro came with Apple’s Magic Keyboard, an accessory that was announced but unavailable during last year’s iPad Pro review cycle. When it did debut about a month later, most people praised it for its build and keyboard quality, versatility, and convenience, docking it for its price and weight.
My iPad Pro spent most of its time in that case, which combined weighs just about three pounds, or slightly less than a MacBook Pro. Together, this laptop-like setup also costs a hair under $1,900. Add an Apple Pencil, and the price jumps above two grand.
I kept all of this in mind when I tried to get through a few days of work only using the iPad Pro in its Magic Keyboard case. Aside from its inability to expand its usable canvas with an external monitor (though I did mirror it on my ultrawide for a bit of fun), it wasn’t particularly difficult to mimic a MacBook; it even felt like a bit of a break from the freneticism of unchecked macOS multitasking. Slack, Google Docs, Lightroom, Outlook, Todoist, and a whole bunch of Safari tabs worked surprisingly well once I figured out the iPadOS shortcuts using the Magic Keyboard’s trackpad and mouse.
Interestingly, despite its massive size, I always enjoyed using the iPad more undocked and held in the hand since its differentiation from the MacBook is in the moments you treat it most like the tablet it was designed to be all those years ago.
This is especially true when gaming on the iPad Pro, from the one-touch ease of Apple Arcade hit SP!NG to the console-quality Divinity: Original Sin 2, which is brand new and exclusive to the iPad among mobile devices and costs a cool $20. I spent a couple of hours diving into Larian Studio’s renowned RPG using a DualSense controller connected over Bluetooth, and it was a tremendous experience, but also reinforced the idea that, as Apple battles Epic in court, its tight grip on App Store distribution is limiting the proliferation of console-quality gaming experiences on iOS through Xbox Game Pass, Stadia, and other alternative app stores.
It’s encouraging to see studios like Larian treat the iPad like the console it has the potential to become, but it still feels like most developers treat iOS, and specifically the iPhone, as primarily a vehicle for free-to-play experiences.
It’s also in the Apple Pencil that I continue to appreciate the iPad’s blank slate. I bought myself a subscription to Lake, one of the iPad’s many digital coloring books, and spent a few nights unwinding with a sketch rather than scrolling through Twitter. A couple of other times, when I returned to my MacBook for a work-related meeting, I used the iPad’s Notes app to jot down handwritten notes instead of noisily clanking away on my mechanical keyboard.
I also want to shout out a few other iPad things that make this tablet a joy to use. Having Face ID on your “computer” is truly marvelous and considerably more seamless than Touch ID built into the keyboard of a MacBook. (Seriously, Apple, bring Face ID to the Mac.) Aside from the backlight technology powering the display, the iPad Pro’s TrueMotion 120Hz panel is still best-in-class and makes me even more excited for the inevitable refresh-rate doubling coming to the iPhone.
The iPad Pro’s four-speaker setup is ridiculously good, especially for watching movies — easily the best audio experience in a mobile product. Similarly, the microphone quality in this thing is remarkable. I’m tempted to record a podcast on it and see if my producer will be able to tell the difference (hi, Jim!). I didn’t take many photos with the iPad Pro, nor did I use the USB-C port for anything other than charging, but I plan to revisit this review after I’ve had a chance to do both.
Almost everything about the iPad Pro has been improved this year, but the M1 doesn’t do battery life any favors.
At the same time, I was pretty unimpressed by the iPad Pro’s battery life. When using it on a daily basis, I rarely managed to make it through ’til dinnertime before needing to top it up. That the M1 was such a boon for MacBooks speaks less to the efficiency of Apple Silicon than to the long-time inefficiency of Intel’s chips. The M1 may be built on the same 5nm process as the A14 Bionic, but it runs 200MHz faster and, along with the brighter, higher-hertz panel, taxes the battery more than the iPad Air.
Finally, I spoke to someone who uses the iPad Pro in a very different way to try to get a sense of what it’s like building a creative workflow with the iPad. Isaac Mosna, also known as Canoopsy on YouTube and around the web, has made many videos about how the 11-inch iPad Pro has become his primary computing tool, from writing school reports to sketching storyboard ideas to acting as a viewfinder for his Canon camera to editing photos in Affinity Photo to creating full videos in LumaFusion.
“Every computer task is possible on an iPad,” he told me. “It’s the best tool I can think of” for getting his work done. Mosna initially started taking the iPad to university class because it was lighter than a MacBook and performed a wider variety of functions. Eventually, he found replacements for all the apps he took for granted on the Mac and modify his workflows to suit the tablet experience. “Apple’s accessories make this sheet of glass a full-on production machine,” he said. His only complaint?
When you look at how he structures his day around the iPad, it’s clear many of those actions would be impossible on a laptop, while others — the more rudimentary ones — would likely take less time on macOS. While I’m not quite ready to switch to an iPad for full-time work, it feels like Apple is getting closer every year to convincing me it’s possible.
iPad Pro 2021: The competition
A few years ago, I would have mentioned the top-of-the-line Samsung Galaxy Tab as the iPad’s biggest competition, but today the comparison isn’t even fair; in the battle for mobile operating systems on tablets, Apple’s won this fight fair and square.
One could argue that Microsoft’s Surface Pro X is a proper competitor to the iPad Pro, but its Qualcomm-powered SoC is much less powerful than the iPad’s M1, and the library of ARM-optimized Windows apps is anemic at best and laughably bad at worst. Maybe the Surface Pro 8, with its 11th-gen Intel chip and impending redesign, will be a better rival later this year.
That leaves only other Apple products, and here’s where things get interesting. As much as I love the Mini LED display of this 12.9-inch iPad Pro, it’s truly too big to just hang out with on the couch; this is a productivity machine through and through. For most people, I’d recommend the cheaper and almost-as-upgraded 11-inch iPad Pro, which still rocks the M1, 5G radios, improved front-facing camera with Center Stage, and starts at a more reasonable $799.
If 120Hz, Face ID, and LiDAR are not essential, stepping down to the $599 iPad Air, which thanks to an iPad Pro-like redesign last year is possibly the most attractive tablet Apple’s ever made, is a good idea. It supports the Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil, has USB-C and LTE, and comes in a bunch of funky colors.
iPad Pro 2021: Should you buy it?
The iPad Pro delights me. When you get past the hand-wringing about whether it can emulate a MacBook and try to embrace the potential in its in-betweenness, it’s a really fascinating and useful computer.
But Apple’s biggest issue with the iPad Pro has not changed since the first Pro tablet debuted more than half a decade ago: it’s expensive. The fact that Apple hasn’t balked at this fact and instead continues to raise the price of the larger model means it’s likely unconcerned about the thing I’m concerned about: are people buying this thing in addition to a laptop or instead of one?
As I said above, the iPad Pro continues to inch towards a true MacBook replacement, but it’s not there yet, and given that the configuration I’m reviewing runs $2,000 makes it a pretty hefty investment, especially as a second machine.
Regardless of the purchase motivation, though, the M1-based iPad Pro is a barnstormer of a computer, a thin-and-light piece of metal and glass that does plenty on its own, and plenty more accessorized.
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Daniel Bader is a Senior Editor at iMore, offering his Canadian analysis on Apple and its awesome products. In addition to writing and producing, Daniel regularly appears on Canadian networks CBC and CTV as a technology analyst.