Another year, another iPad Pro. How much can Apple’s latest slate improve in a little more than 12 months? Well, it’s complicated. There are a few big upgrades, but most of them feel small because the hardware enhancements are constrained by Apple’s software. This might change soon, as the company is set to debut a new version of iPadOS in a few weeks at its Worldwide Developer Conference.
But I can only test what I have in front of me, and there’s no denying that this iPad is the absolute best tablet around. Year over year, Apple inches ever closer to making an iPad I can use as a full-on laptop substitute, and the 2021 iteration is its best effort yet. The iPad Pro is not 100 percent there, but with its current hardware, it’s primed to take over my day-to-day computing needs. It feels as if it’s waiting for one big over-the-air update to unleash its true power.
As usual, the iPad Pro comes in two sizes: 11 and 12.9 inches. The latter is the model to pay closer attention to this time around, as it boasts a new display technology. Apple calls it a Liquid Retina XDR display, but we’ll stick with what the rest of the industry calls it: Mini LED. It’s pretty much the biggest reason to upgrade to this machine.
The tablet still uses an LCD display, not an OLED. But what’s different here is the backlighting technology used to brighten the LCD. Whereas previous iPad Pros had 72 LEDs behind the screen to illuminate the display, the latest model bumps that number to more than 10,000. That’s essentially Mini LED tech—thousands of tiny LEDs lighting up the display. The more LEDs you pack in, the better you can control the overall screen contrast and the deepness of blacks in any region of the screen. This is known as local dimming technology, which allows for finer control of the areas of the screen (called zones) that need to stay bright and the areas that need to stay dark. There are 2,596 local dimming zones here. Of course, with that many Mini LEDs, you can also make the whole display much brighter.
To put it to the test, I watched several scenes of Zack Snyder’s Justice League on the 2020 iPad Pro and the 2021 version with Mini LEDs. The difference is, frankly, astounding. The best way I can explain it is that it feels like someone cranked up Instagram’s fade setting on the older Pro. Shadows look washed out and nowhere near as jet-black as on the iPad Pro with Mini LED backlighting. The significantly improved contrast on the newer machine makes the film look cleaner and sharper too. It’s so good, I preferred finishing it on the iPad instead of the iMac I was simultaneously reviewing. (I’d still like my four hours back, Zack.)
This display impresses whether you’re gaming—it still maintains the 120-Hz refresh rate for smooth and responsive gameplay—sketching with the Apple Pencil, or editing photos in Lightroom. It’s a darn shame it’s not present in the smaller 11-inch tablet.
The iPad Pro is powered by the same new M1 processor inside the recent MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, and iMac. So does that mean you get desktop-class computing on the iPad Pro? Correct! Its benchmark scores resembled the MacBook Air’s results while beating the 2020 iPad Pro by a wide margin. However, in everyday use, that extra power didn’t make much of a difference.
The iPad Pro and its predecessor are both very fast machines. Both handled all my usual tasks with ease, whether it was sketching, writing, editing with several Safari tabs open, or even playing long sessions of Civilization VI. Most people aren’t going to tap into that extra power the M1 offers, especially because full-on desktop versions of apps are lacking. Of course, there will be folks that can harness this new power, like if you’re the type to edit multiple streams of 4K video or render complex CAD models. If so, you’ll be overjoyed at the speed of this thing.
Another desktop-grade feature is the Thunderbolt port. It still offers the same USB-C connectivity as before, but now you can benefit from faster data transfer speeds if you connect it with Thunderbolt-supported external storage drives. You can even hook the iPad up to docks to pair it with external monitors.
But don’t get swayed by all the desktop-grade features Apple is waving in your face. This machine still won’t feel as reliable as a good ol’ laptop. Not because it can’t supply enough power—absolutely not. There’s just some wonkiness that makes working off of it feel limiting. For example, I connected the iPad Pro to an external monitor and it still only mirrors the iPad’s screen. Give me a two-screen solution, Apple!
I also spent several days purely working off the iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard, and once or twice, I had to switch back to my desktop. It’s because the content management system we use here at WIRED acts up sometimes on the iPad and doesn’t allow me to tap certain buttons on the screen (it works fine on my PC). That and the fact that the iPad kept logging me out of our CMS. These are the small kinds of woes that ruin the experience overall. You might need to use a specific app or website for your job or for school, and it might be a little too quirky on the tablet.
The cursor Apple added last year has greatly improved my accuracy in selecting text and has helped make the iPad Pro feel more like a laptop, but generally, I find myself working slower overall. Having to deal with floating apps or even switching between apps, since you can’t have them all sitting in the background like in macOS, can be time-consuming.
I’m not saying I want Apple to convert iPadOS into macOS. The iPad is an unrivaled tablet. I get to unwind with it at the end of the day and sketch with the Apple Pencil or read the news before bed (bad idea). Making it into a full desktop operating system would ruin that. But there’s a lot Apple can do to make the existing software more desktop-like and take advantage of the speedier processor, without sacrificing what makes the slate so great.
The two other major new features here are 5G connectivity and the Center Stage feature of the camera. If you opt for the 5G model instead of Wi-Fi-only, just know that you’ll likely be connected to 4G LTE most of the time. 5G is really sparse in the US right now, and even if you can connect to a 5G network, there’s a good chance your internet speeds aren’t going to be much faster than what you already get.
Center Stage is much more useful day to day. It mimics a feature from Facebook’s Portal devices, where the wide-angle camera tries to keep you in the frame if you’re moving about in front of the iPad during video calls. It sounds a little creepy, but it’s genuinely helpful. It does a great job tracking my face, and I can see it being especially helpful for folks video-chatting while in the kitchen. It’s supported in FaceTime and select third-party videoconferencing software, like Zoom. It automatically turned on when I hopped on my first Zoom meeting with the tablet, and you can turn it off in the Settings app if you don’t like it. Hopefully, more developers will add support soon.
This feature compensates for the left-side placement of the iPad Pro’s selfie camera, but I wish the lens sat at the center in landscape orientation. It still tends to look as though I’m facing away from the person I’m video-chatting with.
As for the rest of the iPad Pro, it’s business as usual. The battery lasts a little more than a full workday. (I hit around nine and a half hours of screen-on time.) It looks no different, the lidar camera is there if you want to check out augmented reality apps and games, and the quad-speaker setup still sounds excellent. My only wish? More ports! If you want this to be more like a computer, bring back the headphone jack. Add another USB-C port! Maybe an SD card reader? Pretty please?
If you’re deliberating on a new iPad, I’d skip the 11-incher. If you want a midsize iPad, save your cash and go for the iPad Air. That’s the tablet I’d recommend to most people that want to get some work done while also using it for entertainment. If your purposes are purely for the latter, then stick with the $330 iPad.
At $1,099 without counting any accessories, it’s hard to say who should buy the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Maybe you want the large canvas for your digital art, or maybe you want the raw power for digital rendering. Either way, there’s nothing else like it right now, and I suspect that it’s about to get even better.