What you need to know about 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s swanky new mini-LED display

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There’s more 2021 iPad Pro RAM than in any previous Apple tablet.
The larger iPad Pro packs a mini-LED screen, but what exactly does that mean?
Photo: Apple

The new 12.9-inch iPad Pro boasts a swanky mini-LED display, making it the first Apple tablet without a traditional LCD screen.

Apple calls the mini-LED screen in the 2021 12.9-inch iPad Pro a “Liquid Retina XDR display.” The new technology brings a welcome boost to the iPad’s display quality. And it seems likely that mini-LEDs will show up in MacBook Pros and other Apple gear in the near future.

“This is the display you have to see to believe,” said iPad marketing manager Raja Bose during Apple’s mind-blowing “Spring Loaded” event on Tuesday.

But what exactly are mini-LED displays, and how do they differ from LCD or even OLED or micro-LED screens? Don’t worry: We’ve got the answers to your questions.

Mini-LED vs. LCD, OLED and microLED

As Apple embraces mini-LED displays for the first time, what benefits can users expect? And how does mini-LED compare to the OLED screens in iPhones and Apple Watches? Each technology brings its own strengths and weaknesses.

What is mini-LED and how is it different from LCD?

A standard LCD (aka liquid crystal display), as seen on today’s Macs and most of its iPads, uses LEDs (aka light-emitting diodes) underneath an LCD substrate layer. This glass layer can be used to either block or let through light from the LEDs, as well as filtering the color to turn a normally white light red, green or blue. This can be done for each pixel, resulting in mosaics of colored pixels that combine to create the image you see on the screen.

Mini-LEDs, as the name implies, are smaller than the standard LEDs used in LCD displays. They measure 0.2 millimeters or less — approximately one-fifth the size of regular LEDs. As a result, manufacturers can cram many more of them into a display. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro uses over 10,000 LEDs across the entire back of the display.

The dimmable blocks they are assembled into are much smaller than on a regular LCD display, too. Instead of just a couple of hundred dimmable zones on a regular LCD display, the smaller size of the mini-LED backlights enables thousands.

The mini-LEDs can be dimmed or illuminated in very precise zones to deliver a superior display with deeper blacks, brighter colors and increased contrast. Using mini-LED screens also can make products less bulky and more power-efficient.

The “mini” part of mini-LED has nothing to do with the size of the display, though. Mini-LED displays can be used for large-screen TVs.

12.9-inch iPad Pro mini-LED screen specs

According to the iPad Pro tech specs, the mini-LED-powered Liquid Retina XDR display in the new 12.9-inch model comes with a “2D backlighting system with 2596 full‑array local dimming zones.” It delivers 2732-by-2048-pixel resolution at 264 pixels per inch.

While the 12.9-inch model features the same 600 nits max brightness as the 11-inch model, the mini-LED display is much brighter. It delivers 1,000 nits of full-screen brightness, 1,600 nits of peak brightness and a stunning 1 million-to-1 contrast ratio.

Mini-LED vs. OLED displays

The first iPhone with an OLED (aka organic light-emitting diode) display arrived in 2017: the iPhone X. Apple also uses OLED tech for its tiny Apple Watches screens. However, Apple never brought OLED to the iPad.

OLED screens allow each pixel to be turned on or off. Mini-LED doesn’t offer that degree of flexibility, but it’s a lot closer to that than a regular LCD display. Like OLED, mini-LED enables deeper black tones — with less of the “backlight bleeding” of regular LCD screens — and superior image quality overall.

If mini-LED isn’t as good as OLED, why not just bring OLED to iPad?

Who said mini-LED’s not as good? While OLED has a lot going for it, mini-LED offers some compelling benefits. For one, mini-LED screens don’t suffer from burn-in.

This refers to the effect of, literally, burning-in an image shown on a screen when it remains in a certain spot for a long period. That’s not such an issue with televisions, where the image is moving all the time. But it could become a problem if used in productivity devices like iPads, where the same window or app remains on-screen for a long period.

In a recent note to clients, TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said, “From a technical perspective, OLED is not suitable for productivity devices” due to burn-in. That gives mini-LED a leg up for products like iPads and MacBooks.

They’re brighter, too

In addition, mini-LED screens are brighter than OLED. Like the burn-in problem, this could arguably make OLED screens less-suited for productivity devices, in spite of the extremely high-quality images they can produce. That’s certainly not an absolute, since some very good tablets use OLED screens. However, it could be that Apple didn’t want to bank on OLED screens being used in ambient light and found, in its tests, that mini-LED provided a better look in low-light scenarios.

And maybe cheaper

Another factor to consider is price. The bigger the OLED panel, the more expensive it is. The fact that OLED displays cost more is a big reason they have not found their way into many tablets or computers to date.

This may be changing, however. In fact, it’s not clear that OLED is a whole lot more expensive than mini-LED at this point. In some cases, they even prove cheaper than mini-LEDs. But it’s possible that price considerations and yield — especially over the long term — could play into Apple’s decision.

Is this the same as microLED?

Confusingly, no. Mini-LED and microLED, despite their similar-sounding names, are very different. MicroLED — an emerging display technology being used in some devices — offers some of the same benefits of mini-LED. It offers deep blacks, high contrast and increased power efficiency.

But microLED is a lot closer to OLED, with the ability to turn individual pixels on and off. The difference between OLED and microLED is that the latter delivers higher brightness levels and is more stable.

Will mini-LED be staying exclusive to the high-end iPad Pro?

History would suggest not. Like OLED, which Apple employed across the entire iPhone 12 lineup, mini-LED probably will filter down to other iPad models in the future. It could also come to the MacBook soon. According to analyst Kuo, Apple will add a mini-LED display to the high-end MacBook Pro this year.

There’s no word on whether mini-LED will come to the iMac anytime soon. However, the first mini-LED monitors are starting to arrive, albeit not made by or for Apple. While it would be surprising to see mini-LED on future iPhones, it does look like it will become a fixture on Macs and iPads.

This post was updated to reflect information about the new iPad Pro.