8 reasons to totally love the 2021 iPad Pro [Review]

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7 reasons to totally love the 2021 iPad Pro [Review]
The Liquid Retina XDR display in the 12.9-inch version of the 2021 iPad Pro displays movies better than many TVs.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

There’s so much to love about the 2021 iPad Pro. There’s a better screen, a faster processor and many other enhancements. As a long-term iPad user, I put the Apple’s latest to the test. And there’s a lot here to like.

Previous iPad Pro models were already the best tablets on the market. So Apple had to really stretch to make something that surpassed them by this much.

1. The mini-LED Liquid Retina XDR display looks beautiful

Like previous iPads, the new model comes with an LCD screen. But the 12.9-inch version (not the 11-inch one) packs what Apple calls a Liquid Retina XDR display. This uses mini-LED technology. Instead of a handful of backlights like its predecessors, this screen boasts more than 10,000 tiny LEDs. They’re 0.2 millimeters or less, so about 20% the size of regular LEDs. This allows very fine control.

I’m testing the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and I can see that black letters on a white background now appear darker — there’s not a hint of gray. Really, the overall contrast is improved. Apple promises a 1,000,000-to-1 contrast ratio. For comparison, the 2020 and 2018 versions offer a contrast ratio of about 1,700 to 1.

To really see the new screen at its best, just watch a video. The mini-LED screen won’t go brighter than 600 nits when you’re doing ordinary work, but it pulls out all the stops for video. Maximum brightness jumps to 1,000 nits. And really bright effects can go up to 1,600 nits.

That said, the 2020 iPad Pro I’ve been using for a year also has a really nice display. Both tablets have a 2,732‑by‑2,048-pixel LCD screen, for 264 pixels per inch. The difference is the backlights. And while the Liquid Retina XDR display looks better — especially when playing a movie — it’s not necessarily a game-changer unless you’re seeking visual perfection.

And there’s a cost. The mini-LED screen caused the 12.9-inch version of this tablet to measure 0.02 inches (0.5mm) thicker. It’s a tiny, tiny amount (see here) but enough to cause problems for some accessories. But certainly not all. I can confirm that there’s no problem using the 2020 version of Apple Magic Keyboard with the 2021 iPad Pro. It fits just fine.

Here’s how I look at it: Screen Time tells me I use my iPad for at least nine hours a day, and sometimes up to 12 hours. I work on it all day, then use it to relax in the evening. I want the best display I can get. And that’s the 2021 iPad Pro.

2. Apple M1 processor is blazing fast

Every previous iPad uses an Apple A-series processor. These were upgraded versions of the chips used in iPhones. The new iPadOS model takes things up a notch. Several notches. It uses the same Apple M1 processor as the most recent Macs. Not a scaled-back version — it’s the same chip, with eight cores running at 3.2 GHz.

Benchmarks bear this out. With Geekbench 5, my test unit brought in a 7306 on the multi-core test, and 1718 on the single-core one. For comparison, the late-2020 versions of the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and Mac mini achieve multi-core scores between 7360 and 7410. Their single-core scores are actually a touch slower than the iPad’s, between 1701 and 1710.

I have to point out that’s faster than any Intel-based MacBook ever.

And the 2021 iPad Pro is more than 50% faster than the best tablet Apple introduced in 2020. The fourth-generation iPad Pro has Geekbench 5 scores of 4656 on the dual-core test and 1121 on single-core.

2021 iPad Pro Geekbench 5: Seeing is believing: The new iPad Pro benchmarks as fast as the latest Macs and faster than many Intel notebooks. (Tap for larger image)
The new iPad Pro achieves benchmarks as high as the latest Macs and faster than many Intel notebooks. (Tap for larger image.)
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

But there’s a caveat here. And a big one. Benchmarks are all well and good, but the A12Z processor in last year’s iPad Pro is easily capable of handling just about anything iPadOS 14 can throw at it. In my daily use, I never found myself wishing for more power. So putting a Mac processor in the newest tablet is gilding the lily.

Still, I recommend considering long-term benefits. A chip this powerful will be able to easily handle iPadOS 18. That should be comforting to someone thinking about buying this expensive tablet and using it for years to come.

Even so, expectations for iPadOS 15 are now enormously high. People are asking for features that use all the horsepower brought by the M1 chip, like running additional applications on an external monitor. And there are requests for iPad versions of Apple’s professional-grade applications, like Xcode, Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. There are even calls to run Mac apps. Any or all of these would justify all the new power.

3. More RAM and storage

Apple once portioned out iPad RAM like a miser. Not anymore. Even the base model 2021 iPad Pro comes with 8GB — 33% more than its predecessor. Unlike the faster processor, this is absolutely needed today.

With my 2020 model, it’s not unusual for me to run out of RAM. I’ll be editing a large image and switch back to Safari and find that it needs to refresh the page I was on. This is using WordPress, which I’m in all day long, so I know it doesn’t refresh a page without good reason.

I haven’t been able to re-create this problem with the latest iPad Pro. And I have to think it’s because the RAM increased from 6GB to 8GB.

And if you configure your iPad Pro with 1TB of storage or more, RAM goes up to 16GB. This puts the tablet on the same plane with M1 Macs, which can be configured with 8GB or 16GB of RAM, too.

And you didn’t read incorrectly just there. Starting with the 2021 iPad Pro, you can opt for up to 2TB of storage. That’s twice as much as was possible before. Your other options are 128GB, 256GB and 512GB.

Personally, I stuck with the base 128GB capacity. For one thing, that configuration already costs $1,099, and increasing the storage to 2TB brings the price up to $2,399. For another, there are plenty of cheaper ways to add storage to an iPad Pro. Like an SSD or a USB drive.

But that’s me. There’s an old saying that you can never be too smart or have too much RAM. Or too much storage. The designers of the 2021 iPad Pro clearly believe this.

4. Center Stage improves video calls

2021 iPad Pro review: Center Stage alone might convince some people to upgrade
Center Stage alone might convince some people to upgrade to the 2021 iPad Pro.
Photo: Apple

With everyone sheltering in place, 2020 was the year of the video call, and we’re still making plenty of them. The latest iPad Pro actually includes a way to make video calls better. Apple put in a front-facing 12MP wide-angle lens and created Center Stage. Clever software that powers this new feature shows just the segment of the wide video with the user in it, no matter where you move. This simulates the camera moving to follow you, within reason.

And Center Stage is not limited to FaceTime. Apple created an API so any video-conferencing application can include Center Stage. None of the ones I checked support it yet, but it’s early days.

What isn’t center stage in the 2021 iPad Pro is the placement of the camera. It’s still way over on the left edge when the tablet is in landscape mode, which is how I have my iPad when making a call, typing, using the web … almost all the time. This is more annoying than anything else, as it means I have to keep looking off to the side during my video calls, but Apple should change the placement in a future model.

5. Ubiquitous internet at 5G speeds

The iPad Pro was designed to be used anywhere, not only places with Wi-Fi. And that just got better with optional 5G cellular-wireless networking in the new model.

Previous versions could be configured with 4G, but the new version brings a considerable speed boost. Wireless carriers are still rolling out their 5G networks, but some offer attractive service plans already.

If you’re someone who wants an on-the-go computer, an Pad Pro with 5G could be what you’re looking for.

6. Thunderbolt and not Lightning

2021 iPad Pro looks great from any angle
The 2021 iPad Pro has the same ports as its predecessors, including a Smart Connector on its back and an Apple Pencil 2 charger on one edge.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

A bonus of the M1 processor is that the USB-C port in the 2021 iPad Pro supports Thunderbolt and USB4. That boosts the maximum data transfer speed from 10Gbps all the way up to 40Gbps.

Even with a non-Thunderbolt drive, I saw a speed increase. I moved a 2.4GB file from an external SSD to the tablet in about five seconds. That’s roughly half the time it took with my 2020 iPad Pro.

Beyond faster transfers to external storage, the change means the iPad can drive high-res external displays, including the Pro Display XDR at the full 6K.

7. Battery life is still good

Putting a laptop processor in a tablet could have devastated the iPad Pro’s battery life. It didn’t. Apple says the M1 processor has no effect on the battery life of the 2021 iPad Pro. It’s good for 10 hours of web surfing or video. I can confirm that — I’m going on a full workday on a single charge and have power left over.

Partially, this is because the M1 is designed to sip electricity. It has four high-speed cores and four power-saving cores, and it only uses the ones it needs.

The mini-LED screen saves on power, too. Because the tiny backlight LEDs can be finely tuned, they don’t waste electricity lighting up unwanted sections of the screen.

8. It’s an iPad

We’ve gotten blasé about how amazing any iPad Pro is. The 2018 and 2020 versions are outstanding, and the 2021 model builds on that. Many features didn’t change because they didn’t need to.

The edge-to-edge display and slim casing set the standard that other tablets must try to meet — not often successfully.

The latest version comes with a 12MP ƒ/1.8 Wide camera a 10MP ƒ/2.4 Ultra Wide camera, like its predecessor. These are good options for people who want to take top-quality images with their iPad.

And while I’ve joined in the chorus of people pointing out the limitations of iPadOS 14 and hoping for big changes, I get my job done with it every day. My iPad is my primary computer — I don’t own a Mac. And I’m not struggling. So while I’d like to see additional capabilities, the latest iPad Pro is already a very powerful computer.

The gorgeous mini-LED display, super-fast processor, Center Stage, more RAM … these are icing on a cracking-good cake. They add to Apple’s lead in tablets, and make the 2021 iPad Pro the premier option.