iPad Pro (2021) review: Apple’s hardware may have outpaced its software

·Senior Editor, Mobile
·15-min read

For the last week, I’ve been living with Apple’s new iPad Pro, and there are two thoughts I haven’t been able to shake. The first is that this might be the best portable computer Apple has ever made. I mean, think about it: This iPad uses the exact same chipset you’ll find in the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro, and even the new iMac. That’s unheard of for a tablet, especially one with 5G and a screen that puts Apple’s laptops to shame. Tim Cook once said the iPad was the company’s vision of the future of computing, and it’s actually starting to feel like it’s coming to fruition.

Which leads me to my second unshakeable thought: Because this thing is so powerful, it’s begging for more robust software. The new iPad Pro very much feels a portent of dramatic changes to come, but in this moment, it’s — for better or worse — just an obscenely powerful tablet.

Configurations

Apple’s iPad Pro comes in two sizes — 11 or 12.9 inches — with a slew of storage options, including a new 2TB storage tier that’s frankly insane for a tablet. Rather than describe all of these models individually, here’s a handy table breaking down how much each variant costs.

128GB

256GB

512GB

1TB

2TB

11-inch iPad Pro (Wi-Fi)

$799

$899

$1,099

$1,499

$1,899

11-inch iPad Pro (Wi-Fi + Cellular)

$999

$1,099

$1,299

$1,699

$2,099

12.9-inch iPad Pro (Wi-Fi)

$1,099

$1,199

$1,399

$1,799

$2,199

12.9-inch iPad Pro (Wi-Fi + Cellular)

$1,299

$1,399

$1,599

$1,999

$2,399

As usual, Apple sent us one of its tricked-out models to test — this is the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 1TB of storage and a 5G radio. That will cost you a cool $2,000 before you factor in accessories like the Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard. You don’t need me to tell you that you could buy a really nice laptop for less than that, but it’s worth noting that a similarly specced 13-inch MacBook Pro costs $100 less than our review unit does.

Design and hardware

This year’s iPad Pro looks pretty much identical to the models Apple released in 2018 and 2020, and you won’t hear me complaining about that. Really, the clearest physical distinction between this Pro and the ones that came before it is the way it feels.

The new model is a little thicker and a little heavier, which makes it considerably less comfortable to hold onto for long periods. I could hold earlier 12.9-inch iPad Pros in one hand if I wanted to, and I just can’t do that for very long with this year’s model. In fact, if you strap this thing into one of Apple’s Magic Keyboards, it weighs more than a comparable MacBook Pro. Not by a lot, mind you, but enough to make me really think about what one computing device I want to carry with me every day.

Apple iPad Pro (2021) review
Apple iPad Pro (2021) review

That might not sound great for a machine that’s meant to be as portable as an iPad is, but things aren’t as bad as one might fear. For one, the fact the chassis is thicker means the dual-camera hump around back doesn’t stick out nearly as much, so the iPad Pro no longer wobbles when you lay it flat on a table. And despite the outcry that arose when Apple said this year’s iPad Pro wouldn’t fit into its expensive, first-generation Magic Keyboard, it actually seems to fit quite well. It’s certainly not ideal — the keyboard layer presses into the display’s glass when closed, which means the fit could be affected by a screen protector — but I also don’t think you’d have to rush out and buy a new Magic Keyboard if you already own one.

To hear Apple tell it, there was no way to avoid making this iPad Pro thicker — it’s mostly because the newly designed Liquid Retina XDR display takes up more space than Apple’s traditional LCDs. Still, the iPad Pro’s extra girth is generally worth it because of all the stuff Apple squeezed into this package.

For one, our review unit has a 5G radio, which did a lovely job keeping me connected when an electrical fire outside my apartment building knocked out my power and internet service for a weekend. (Brooklyn, am I right?) On the whole, my 5G experience hasn’t been dramatically faster than on LTE, but the fleeting moments I spent plopped in a chair in Bryant Park goofing off on a super-fast mmWave network were pretty lovely. (Note: The 5G iPad Pro almost certainly won’t work on mmWave networks outside the US.)

Apple iPad Pro (2021) review
Apple iPad Pro (2021) review

Apple also swapped out a traditional front-facing camera for a 12-megapixel ultra-wide sensor that has made for some of the best-looking — and weirdest — FaceTime calls I’ve ever been on. That’s all thanks to a new feature called Center Stage, which leans on machine learning and that expansive field of view to keep your face close to the center of the screen at all times. Honestly, it’s a little weird at first, and I still can’t say I’m used to it, but it does a great job panning and zooming to make sure other people can see you clearly.

It even works when you try to trick it by sneaking in at an angle, or when you’re nowhere near the iPad itself. While shooting our review video, I backed up about four or five feet from a live FaceTime call to play with my producer’s dog, and the camera continued to follow my face even as bobbed and weaved to get her attention. What can I say? It works likes a charm.

Still, it has its quirks. When you launch FaceTime, for instance, the camera slowly pushes in on your face like it’s filming some sort of slow-motion reaction GIF. At least one person I’ve called with the iPad Pro has said Center Stage makes me look kinda shifty, but that might be more of a “me” problem. More importantly, Apple's camera placement continues to feel a little silly in an age of near-constant Zoom and FaceTime calls. As always, that front-facing sensor is wedged into the tablet's shorter top edge, which in fairness wasn't always a bad thing. Considering how much this new iPad weighs and how many video conversations are held with landscape-oriented cameras these days, though, you're going to want to use that camera while the iPad is propped up horizontally at least sometimes, which means it's likely looking at you from a weird angle. The end result: some of your video calls will look pretty awkward!

Apple iPad Pro (2021) review
Apple iPad Pro (2021) review

About that screen

Before it was announced, few people suspected that the new iPad Pro would use the M1, but just about everyone knew it was going to pack a better screen. After months of innuendo, Apple’s new Liquid Retina XDR display is here, and yeah, it’s pretty great.

If you’re not a fan of marketing jargon — and who could blame you? — let’s unpack that name. The “liquid” bit refers to the fact that this is an LCD screen, unlike the OLED panels Apple uses in the iPhone 12 series. “Retina” is a bit of classic Apple fluff, meanwhile, and “XDR” refers to the expanded dynamic range made possible by Apple’s new mini-LED backlighting system. This approach to screen design isn’t particularly new — TV manufacturers have used similar approaches for years — but Apple claims this screen was a particular pain for them to develop. They needed precision machinery to correctly place more than 10,000 super-small LEDs and had to re-engineer its optical films to get everything to fit and look good. And it does look good — but it looks better in certain circumstances.

Apple iPad Pro (2021) review
Apple iPad Pro (2021) review

I wasn’t expecting a big difference in screen quality, and I was right at least some of the time — when you’re writing in Google Docs or browsing in Safari, the screen’s max brightness is 600 nits, and it refreshes at 120Hz, just like the last iPad Pro. But when you’re watching movies and videos, maximum full-screen brightness shoots up to 1,000 nits, and especially bright elements in HDR content like explosions or flashy visual effects can hit 1,600 nits. In other words, Apple’s backlighting system means dark things are darker and bright bits are even brighter. The difference isn’t just noticeable — it’s visceral. Videos just look better, and that might make this iPad worth the splurge for people who really need that sort of thing. 

But let’s get one thing clear: The screens Apple uses in older versions of the iPad Pro and devices like the iPad Air are already pretty damned good, and this palpable difference I’m talking about is only really apparent if you have another iPad to compare it against.

Besides, it’s all situational. If you’re going to spend most of your time reading articles or doing crosswords, you probably won’t see any difference at all. But if you’re the kind of creative professional Apple is clearly targeting, then hey — enjoy editing your 4K HDR footage or whatever. It’ll look fantastic while you’re working on it, and after you hit the export button.

Apple iPad Pro (2021) review
Apple iPad Pro (2021) review

In use

If there’s one thing that makes this iPad Pro so unusual, it's Apple’s choice of chipset. Like I mentioned earlier, it uses the exact same M1 chip you’ll find in most of Apple’s new computers, with either 8GB or 16GB of RAM.

Quick side note: The reason I know our review unit has 16GB of RAM is that Apple just says so, and if you’ve been following the company for a while, you’ll probably know just how strange that is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked Apple to confirm how much RAM is in whatever iPhone or iPad I’m reviewing, and they always just smile and shake their heads and say “we don’t really talk about that kind of thing.” The fact that they are now is a sign that Apple is thinking about differently about iPads.

Now, because Apple is using the same silicon across different kinds of devices, I’m not coming into this review as blind as I usually do — we’ve already tested the M1 in two MacBooks, and we were already impressed by how well Apple Silicon stacks up to rival processors from companies like Intel.

Just about every positive thing our PC reviewer Devindra Hardawar has said in his reviews applies here too — the M1 is remarkably fast, and it’s handled basically everything I’ve thrown at it without a hiccup. Games like Genshin Impact, the AAA port Divinity: Original Sin and the hyper-realistic GRID AutoSport ran beautifully. Piecing together long, meandering 4K videos was a breeze, even with loads of transitions and effects. Even manipulating individual layers in a 4GB Photoshop file was mostly painless, which was a pleasant surprise considering the very act of creating the file in the first place slowed my entry-level M1 MacBook Pro to a crawl. Needless to say, there isn't a whole lot in the App Store — if anything at all — that the iPad Pro probably couldn't shrug off. Synthetic benchmarks don't always tell the whole story, which is why I don't rely on them as heavily as I used to, but I think these are particularly telling.

iPad Pro 2021

iPad Pro 2020

iPad Pro 2018

Mid-2018 MacBook Pro

Ryzen 7 3700X Gaming PC

GeekBench 5 CPU (single-core)

1720

1124

1117

1089

1261

GeekBench 5 CPU (multi-core)

7291

4710

4674

3960

8105

GeekBench 5 Compute (Metal and OpenCL)

21445

9745

9180

7181

59993

Premiere Rush 4K-to-1080p export (in minutes)

5:37

6:07

6:58

18:27

4:56

Clearly, there’s a lot of power here. In fact, if you were thinking of buying one just to use it as a tablet, it would be a big waste. (Seriously, that’s what the iPad Air is for.) This might be the first iPad Pro ever that you’d have to be some sort of creative professional to make the most of. And even then, I’m still not convinced you’d see a huge difference across the board

To try and get a sense of the iPad Pro’s creative chops, I stitched together multiple 4K video clips from old reviews when I had hair in LumaFusion and exported it. The 2020 iPad Pro finished in 14 minutes and 20 seconds. Meanwhile, the new M1 in the 2021 iPad Pro completed the test in… 14 minutes and 12 seconds. Not exactly a huge leap. Then, I tried a similar test in Adobe’s Premiere Rush, but with a twist: Instead of outputting the footage in its native 4K, I exported to 1080p at 30fps. The difference was a little more noticeable this time, but still not dramatic. It took just over six minutes for last year’s iPad Pro, while the new one pulled it off in 5 minutes and 37 seconds. (For what it's worth, Apple said "the previous iPad Pro was already optimized to encode and decode video in real-time" and that the same is true of the video engine in the M1.)

So, yes, the M1 makes this iPad Pro the most powerful tablet has ever made, but the extra horsepower may not always feel like a game-changer. And part of that boils down to software — developers haven’t had the time to optimize their iPad apps for the M1 yet, so it’ll probably be a little while before we really get a sense of what Apple’s new chipset can do for a high-end tablet.

Apple iPad Pro (2021) review
Apple iPad Pro (2021) review

That goes for Apple’s developers, too. It took them years, but iPads have finally become more than just giant iPhones — multitasking has gotten a lot better, mouse and trackpad support is now standard, Safari acts like a desktop-grade browser. That’s a lot of progress, but a machine this powerful demands even more progress from Apple’s software.

A lot of people are talking about how a tablet like this needs some version of macOS, and I guess that would be nice, but I also can’t really see Apple doing that any time soon. The underlying architecture might make it possible, but none of my conversations with Apple have indicated that’s what the company wants. That’s fine by me; there’s plenty of room to make iPadOS shine on its own terms. True, multi-window multitasking would be a great start, and wider support for professional video formats would be a huge deal for the creative professionals Apple caters to.

This is a good moment to mention that this iPad Pro supports Thunderbolt, so you can connect it to really nice external displays and transfer data more quickly between compatible devices. But again, Apple’s software sort of gets in the way. I’d love to extend the display with a second monitor, but right now it just mirrors what’s already on the iPad. And faster data transfers are great, but working with the iPad’s extremely limited Files app can be a real pain sometimes. 

Apple iPad Pro (2021) review
Apple iPad Pro (2021) review

If you’re reading this review close to when we publish it, Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference is still a few weeks away. It’s entirely possible the company will show off new software to take better advantage of the new iPad Pro’s muscle.

There’s just one more thing we need to talk about: battery life. As usual, Apple says you can expect 10 hours of use from a single charge, and I managed that a few times without issue. But — and you knew there was a "but" coming — it's possible to drain the iPad Pro's battery significantly faster without too much effort. In fact, I did it a few times without even really thinking about it. 

This past weekend, I spent an afternoon reading articles in Safari, watching YouTube videos, poking through some old photos, and doing my taxes. Apart from blitzing through TurboTax, that’s about as standard as tablet use gets. Still, that was somehow enough to drain the iPad Pro’s battery to 10 percent in less than five hours. A few factors probably contributed to this: I usually restore review iPads from backups to quickly load my suite of test apps, and that process sometimes leads to iffy battery life in the first few days of use. (That fact that I cleared Apple's 10-hour battery estimate a few times leads me to believe this wasn't the issue, but it's worth talking about.) I was also manually setting the screen's brightness to between 50 and 100 percent for most of that time, and that probably had a more direct effect, but hey — it's not like that’s totally unheard of. 

Apple iPad Pro (2021) review photos
Apple iPad Pro (2021) review photos

Wrap-up

There’s no question that this is the best, most impressive iPad Apple has ever built, and that there’s enough horsepower here to future-proof this thing for at least a few generations. If you want a front-row seat to the future of the iPad experience, or if you just don’t mind shelling out beaucoup bucks for nice things, go for it! And if that’s that not you, don’t sweat it — the iPad Air is still the best iPad for most people. No matter where your tastes lie, though, do me a favor: wait until Apple shows off everything it has at WWDC and then make your decision.