iPad Pro 2021 with M1 chip review: Stupidly powerful

Apple’s latest iPad is its most powerful to date, complete with a new M1 chip and 5G support, but do you really need so much power in a tablet?

Quentyn Kennemer

No longer content with limiting its M1 processor to its computers, Apple’s latest wheeze is to bring its new chip to the iPad, creating what the company promises is the most powerful and advanced tablet to date.

While each subsequent product release is technically an improvement on the last in some form or other, Apple has a better claim than most with the new iPad Pro. The M1 chip has been praised for making Apple’s latest MacBooks significantly faster while boosting performance, improving energy efficiency and waking time, but how do these grand boasts translate for a tablet?

If last year’s device was designed to pose a serious threat to cheaper Windows-running laptops, this year’s model builds on those strong foundations with some new features designed to make the tablet even more of a one-stop-shop for all feasible work and entertainment needs.

New iPad Pro 2021 review (Photo: Rhiannon Williams/i)

While the entry-level iPad and iPad mini are more than adequate for the basic, everyday tasks the majority of people will want an iPad for, the iPad Pro is designed squarely with artists, developers and other digital creatives in mind, with the aforementioned M1 chip, 5G support, a lighter, brighter screen and updated front camera among this year’s key selling points.

What does it look like?

While there’s nothing much to differentiate this latest model from its March 2020 predecessor in terms of appearance, the fifth generation iPad Pro remains an extremely premium looking device: a finely-milled slab of metal and highly polished glass.

Apple is very proud of the fact this is the first iPad Pro made from 100 per cent recycled aluminium (plus all-recycled rare earth elements in its body and magnets inside its speakers and tin in the solder on its logic board), creating a glossy finish in just two colours: silver or space grey. If you’re after jazzier colours, you’re better off checking the iPad Air range.

New iPad Pro 2021 review (Photo: Rhiannon Williams/i)

Like its predecessor, the new device’s USB-C port allows you to connect to cameras, iPhones, external displays and other accessories directly, but is significantly faster at wired connection speeds of up to 40Gbps (up from a previous maximum of 10Gps).

While your average user may not have much need to plug bits and pieces into their iPad, this will appeal to the power users who left frustrated by Apple’s prior reluctance to play nicely with other manufacturers and peripherals.

The high-end display has always been among the key reasons to buy an iPad Pro, and this year’s model is no exception. Apple has chosen to stick to the same sizings (11-inches or 12.9-inches) and the same display resolutions (2388×1668 resolution at 264 pixels per inch for the 11-inch, 2732×2048 resolution at 264 ppi for the 12.9-inch) – as last year, although the larger of the two has been upgraded to Liquid Retina XDR (the 11-inch model’s display is Liquid Retina).

New iPad Pro 2021 review (Photo: Rhiannon Williams/i)

What this means in practice is that videos and images on the 12.19-inch model appear brighter, sharper and more faithful to life in what Apple claims is its most advanced iPad display to date, which I’d agree with.

While the screen on the 2020 iPad Pro was already extremely impressive, playing videos and comparing photos side-by-side highlights how images are rendered in marginally finer detail, while colours appear more intense. While you’d have to invest a lot of time and energy into picking faults with the 2020 model to say it’s a vast improvement, it’s fair to say Apple has managed to refine a display that was already exceptional. Its refresh rate tweaking ProMotion technology is also great: adjusting what’s being displayed onscreen at any given moment to ensure it appears as smooth and clear as possible.

First iPad with the
M1 chip

It’s a similar story with the M1 chip. You could never accuse any of the iPad Pro range of being slow, so upgrading the (already very zippy) A12Z Bionic to an M1 chip could almost equate to overkill. Consequently, it can – unsurprisingly – handle running multiple apps simultaneously, playing games smoothly and without lag and switching between videos and streaming apps without a hitch.

Comparing an AnTuTu Benchmark test between the 2020 and 2021 12.9-inch iPad Pros, the newer device is significantly faster across all categories. While this is great news on paper, the majority of users are unlikely to witness a dramatic difference while actually using it as the previous model was already extremely fast and capable. Rest assured, it’s stupidly powerful.

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2020)’s AnTuTu benchmarking

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2021)’s AnTuTu benchmarking

Does the M1 chip improve the battery life?

Not quite. Interestingly, Apple is claiming the new device’s battery life is roughly the same as last year’s model despite the presence of the M1 chip. I found this was accurate: a single charge lasted around 10 hours with lighter usage (flicking between videos, writing documents, scrolling web pages) and closer to nine when either playing energy-intensive games for prolonged periods of time or during video calls. Talking of which…

Taking Centre Stage with the new front-facing camera

Following a year of seemingly endless video calls (and quizzes) thanks to the pandemic, Apple has given the people what they wanted by significantly upgrading the front-facing camera. The new 12MP Ultra Wide camera enables a clever new feature called Centre Stage, which automatically adjusts to keep all (human) participants in-shot during video calls.

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Opening up the FaceTime app for the first time triggers a notification from Centre Stage, after which it works automatically – though any app that uses the front camera can technically use Centre Stage.

The Ultra Wide camera follows you around 120-degrees off its centre point, meaning there are limits to how squarely it’ll be able to keep you in the centre of the screen when ascending a staircase or ducking to the depending on where the iPad is positioned.

On the whole, the camera’s panning is smooth and slow enough that it’s not too distracting during calls. The system is also smart enough to not swivel to try and re-centre you for making small head movements, while moving your hands and arms off-screen similarly won’t trigger it (the camera is looking out for heads and shoulders, which is also why it won’t move for animals). That said if you’d prefer that your camera didn’t track your motions during video calls, it can be turned off in settings.


5G capabilities

Does an iPad really need 5G? If you decide to splash out on a Wi-Fi + cellular model, the new Pros are the first iPad to support 5G connectivity, allowing you to connect to the internet whenever you please without having to rely on public networks while out and about.

I used a 5G SIM from EE to stream music, video and make both voice and video calls on the move around London, and found download speeds averaged around 270Mbps while upload speeds averaged 35Mbps – a fast and reliable connection that didn’t falter. I’m still not convinced that even the majority of people who already own iPad Pros would be swayed by 5G support enough to rush out and upgrade, but it makes sense to follow in the iPhone’s footsteps.

New rear-facing cameras and LiDAR scanner

Last year’s Pro was the first to sport a a LiDAR (light detection and ranging) scanner, a technology best known for helping driverless cars to navigate by bouncing and reflecting light off nearby walls and objects to gain a sense of its surroundings up to five metres away. The main purpose for this was and still is to create augmented reality (AR) experiences, overlaying digital elements into your real-world environment thanks to the device’s cameras and internal motion sensors.The LiDAR scanner works with the new M1 chip to focus the rear-facing cameras swiftly in low light (if taking photos on iPads happens to be your thing), and it also appears to map surrounding surfaces more quickly than last year’s model. One of the most compelling apps I’ve tested is SwingVision, an intelligent tennis app designed to improve your swing, analyse your game and can even tell you if a shot is in or out via the iPad’s camera and AI analysis.

New iPad Pro 2021 review (Photo: Rhiannon Williams/i)

I wrote last year how the Magic Keyboard – a keyboard cover for the iPad Pro complete with a mouse trackpad and £299+ price tag – helped to bridge the gap between the iPad as a tablet and a genuine laptop replacement, if not close it entirely. This time round Apple has added a white version to the roster: with the same cantilvered mechanism to tilt the magnetically-connected iPad backwards and forwards as you would a laptop screen, large trackpad and satisfyingly-clacky keys. However, at £279 for the 11-inch model and £329 for the 12.9-inch, it’s far from cheap. Coupled with the fact the 11-inch Pro starts at £749, you could buy a MacBook Air for more or less the same price.

New iPad Pro 2021 review (Photo: Rhiannon Williams/i)

So, should you buy the new iPad Pro?

In many ways, the iPad Pro’s abilities are both its biggest strength and weakness. The iPad is so superior to every other tablet out there that comparing the iPad Pro to its rivals is the equivalent of racing a donkey against a racehorse – meaning that year after year, Apple is left competing with only itself. While other companies may be tempted to rest on their laurels, Apple continues to add new features and capabilities and we get to the point when it feels like the iPad Pro has surpassed all reasonable expectations of a tablet.

New iPad Pro 2021 review (Photo: Rhiannon Williams/i)

It’s now capable of so much that there’s a very real danger that the majority of users will never get around to using it for a fraction of the things it can do. As each new iPad Pro becomes faster, more powerful and more highly-specced, it moves further away from being a great device to watch Netflix on and more towards the laptop-killer Apple is so keen for it to be perceived as. But the slight niggles that stop it from being a complete no-brainer laptop replacement (you still can’t right-click on links in Chrome, though Apple does let you run two Chrome windows in Split View now, smaller trackpad, battery life not quite as long) are still there. The iPad Pro is an insanely powerful tablet, but it’s still a tablet.

So while the fifth generation iPad Pro is a brilliant, all-singing-all-dancing device with endless creative potential, don’t feel guilty if you don’t find yourself using its LiDAR to its fullest potential or knocking up 3D models on a Tuesday morning. It’s just as great to watch films on too.

The iPad Pro 2021 is available to order now, priced from £749