iPad Pro 12.9in (2021) review

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The difference between the 2018 iPad Pro and last year’s upgrade was so modest that the generation was largely overlooked with a yawn. But this year, Apple surprised us with such a dramatic upgrade that we thought we must have heard wrong.

The same lightning-fast processor as the Mac range? A mini-LED screen that even the Macs haven’t got? Is this finally the laptop replacement that Apple has spent years trying to convince us the iPad can be? Let’s find out.

Design and build quality

There are major upgrades on the inside, but very little has changed on the outside. The dimensions are the same (except that the new screen means the chassis is half a millimetre thicker). We still don’t get an iPad with screen bezels as narrow as those of the iPhone. Even the camera module on the back is the same.

This is not to say that the iPad Pro is a bad design. On the contrary, it is extremely solidly built, with confidence-inspiring material choices, which makes it feel like a quality product in the hand. We just wanted it to look new on the outside as well.

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iPad Pro (2021) review: Design

Models and accessories

As before, you can get the iPad Pro with an 11in or 12.9in screen. Other than sheer size and battery capacity, the main difference between these options is that the larger model has a mini-LED screen with higher brightness and thus even better contrast.

Both have identical storage options, which now go up to a (slightly crazy) 2TB. They also have more RAM: 8GB gigabytes as standard, and 16GB for the terabyte-plus models. Both are available either with Wi-Fi only, or with Wi-Fi and 5G.

The colour choices are silver or Space Grey. If you want a more colourful iPad, you’ll have to turn to the iPad Air.

A surprise was that the old USB-C port has been upgraded to Thunderbolt 3, with USB 4 support. This means you can connect lightning-fast external SSD disks, which is probably necessary if you want to transfer movies and fill up those terabytes of storage space. But there’s also support for a 10Gb Ethernet connection. DisplayPort support allows you to connect it to a Pro Display XDR at full 6K resolution!

The new Magic Keyboard (£329/$349) is starting to look more and more like a real laptop keyboard. The keys have good stroke length and are at least as comfortable to type on as the standard wireless Magic Keyboard for Mac. They are even backlit so you can work in the dark.

The trackpad has a good feel and supports multi-touch gestures. The floating design it gives the iPad is really nice and it’s smart that you can plug the charging cord into the keyboard when it’s connected.

iPad Pro (2021) review: Accessories

Screen and sound

The iPad Pro has long had an excellent screen: it was an early trailblazer for features like a 120Hz refresh rate (which the iPhone is still waiting for), automatic adjustment to allow for changes in ambient lighting, and support for the extended P3 colour space. And now the iPad Pro pulls away from the MacBook even more by being the first with a mini-LED screen, which in Apple language is branded as Liquid Retina XDR.

Note that mini-LED is not a new screen technology: what it simply means is that the backlight on the screen now consists of thousands of tiny LEDs. This allows the screen to be divided into as many as 2,500 local dimming zones, so when part of the screen has to be black, those lights can be switched off completely. Apple says this provides a contrast of 1 million to 1, while the typical brightness has increased from 600cd/m2 to 1,000; it can increase to 1,600cd/m2 when needed. Now we’re talking HDR.

As far as we can ascertain, nothing special has happened to the sound. Then again, the iPad Pro already had the best speakers we’ve heard on a tablet. Apple clearly believes in the iPad Pro’s audio setup, as it has now used the same technology in the new 24in iMac. The new iMacs also use a similar set of microphones.

Cameras and features

The only noticeable change for the camera setup is that the FaceTime camera has been given a really smart new feature for video calls: Centre Stage. This zooms in on the person having the call, then pans to keep that person in the centre of the frame if they move; it can also pull back to fit in multiple subjects if someone else turns up.

This feature works so well and so smoothly that we wish it was available on the iPhone and particularly on the new 24in iMac.

On the back, the Pro retains its 12MP wide-angle and 10MP ultra-wide-angle lenses. This lack of an upgrade doesn’t worry us because we believe that cameras on tablets are mostly a bonus for scanning receipts and the like. People who take iPads into museums and obscure the view of everyone behind them should be expelled.

The LiDAR scanner remains, of course, which helps with precise AR experiences.

iPad Pro (2021) review: Performance

Performance

We’ve deliberately saved the most spectacular revelation for last. Namely, that the iPad now has the same revolutionary Apple M1 processor that has appeared in the MacBook, Mac mini and most recently the 24in iMac. This means performance has made the biggest leap between two generations that we have seen in years.

Overall performance has increased by 46%, based on the AnTuTu 8 speed test – and bear in mind that the previous generation, which now looks so slow in comparison, already ran circles around the competition.

Graphics performance has improved by 41%, according to our test results in 3DMark Wild Life Extreme. We had to abandon our 3DMark Slingshot test because the iPad Pro hit the performance ceiling! Writing performance for storage has improved by 243%, according to PassMark.

We will see what this means in the long run. Will we be able to run macOS software on the iPad, in the same way that you can technically run iOS apps on the Mac? Apple has dismissed speculation, but in the long term the company probably has some sort of plan to standardise the platform across its computers and tablets.

Can the new iPad Pro replace a laptop?

In short, no, it cannot. For three reasons.

The iPad is primarily a device for consuming content on, not creating it. Of course, we’ve sometimes sat on trains or planes with an iPad and answered emails or even finished writing an article using the keyboard. We’ve sat in cafes and cut together a few video clips, or edited a photo at a press conference. It can be done. But when we sit at the desk and start working in earnest, then we use a Mac, because it makes us more productive.

The argument that it is a smaller and more flexible device than a laptop does not hold either. The new 12.9in iPad Pro has become 41g heavier. Together with the keyboard, it weighs 1,382g, which is 92g more than the MacBook Air with the M1 processor, which has a larger screen and a better keyboard.

It’s not even cheaper. An iPad Pro 12.9in with 512GB of storage, 8GB of RAM and without 5G costs £1,299/$1,399. And if we add the Magic Keyboard, that’s another £329/$349. A total of £1,628/£1748!

A MacBook Air with 512GB of storage and 8GB of memory costs £1,249/$1,249. Or if we want to match the price, we can get a 13in MacBook Pro M1 with 16GB of memory and the same storage for £1,699/$1,699.

Verdict

Apple incorporates the best, fastest and most delicious hardware in its new professional tablet.

We have never seen this standard of performance or image quality on an iPad – but it is very expensive, and we’re starting to wonder why we have to wait for the corresponding progress on the MacBook range.

This article originally appeared on Macworld Sweden. Translation by David Price.

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