The 2021 M1 iPad Pro Review


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The 2021 M1 iPad Pro Review
By Jason Aten • Issue #18 • View online
The 2021 iPad Pro goes on sale Friday. While it may look the same as what it replaces, make no mistake, there’s a lot going on here. I think it might be the most important device Apple announced this year, but probably not for the reasons you might think.

When Apple introduced the 2018 iPad Pro, there was no question it was something completely different and completely new. It wasn’t the first product with that name, and it was technically still an iPad, but the A12 Bionic processor inside made it more powerful than most of the laptops you could buy at the time. 
That forced the question of whether the iPad Pro could “replace” your laptop altogether. For many people, it did. 
I still love my 2018 11-inch iPad Pro, and I use it every day. At various times it has been my primary device for, well, everything I do on a daily basis. Then, Apple pretty much forgot about the iPad Pro. Sure, it got a small update in 2020, but it didn’t change anything about the way most people use the iPad Pro.
In fact, by the time Apple announced the 2021 version in April, the iPad Pro was more in need of an update than anything besides maybe the iMac.
Now, it’s here.
Credit: Jason Aten
Credit: Jason Aten
The headline feature of the 2021 iPad Pro is that Apple put the M1 processor inside–the same chip it already rolled out in the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and iMac. As a result, the question of whether it can replace your Mac has never been more relevant. Except, I think it’s the wrong question. Here’s what I mean:
I started out thinking that this might finally be the device that lets you ditch the laptop. It makes sense–surely the fact that Apple finally put a desktop-class processor inside the iPad Pro means that it can replace your computer, right?
The thing is, after using one for a week, I think that question misses the point. What is more clear to me than ever is that the iPad Pro isn’t a thing you buy to replace a laptop. It’s something entirely different–and in many ways, better.
M1 Performance 
If you’ve read a review of any of Apple’s M1 Macs, you know everything you need to know about how powerful and fast the 2021 iPad Pro really is. In addition to the M1, the 12.9-inch model I reviewed had a 1 TB SSD and 16 GB of unified memory. The short version–it’s ridiculously fast and powerful. 
Credit: Jason Aten
Credit: Jason Aten
More importantly, it’s quick. That might seem like semantics, but I think it makes a difference in the experience of using an iPad Pro. 
The new version is quicker than ever at doing things like launching apps, using multiple apps side-by-side, dealing with email, or zooming in on photos. I’d even go so far as to say it feels more responsive than any device I’ve used.
Launching an app doesn’t require an intense amount of power, but it is something you do a hundred times a day. In terms of the overall experience of using a device, that might matter even more than how powerful it actually is for doing things like editing a podcast or exporting photos and videos. 
That said, it’s plenty powerful for doing those tasks as fast as an M1-powered Mac. The iPad Pro has more than enough power to do whatever you might want to do with it. 
Liquid Retina XDR Display
It’s also worth mentioning the mini LED display on the 12.9-inch model. Apple calls it Liquid Retina XDR, and it’s only on the bigger model. In short, it’s really good. 
Apple crammed 10,000 tiny LEDs, grouped into 2,500 local dimming zones, which means that the display is capable of 1,000 nits of maximum full-screen brightness. That’s plenty bright enough for use outside on a sunny day. 
Credit: Jason Aten
Credit: Jason Aten
It also peaks at 1,600 nits when you’re watching HDR content. In addition to being bright, each of those 2,500 dimming zones can turn on or off, meaning that if you’re watching a movie, the blacks will be deep and the contrast will be rich. 
Certainly, if you’re editing HDR footage, that matters, but if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t say that the display itself is enough of a reason to buy the 12.9-inch version. It’s really good, but it’s really good in ways that won’t matter enough to most people if they prefer the smaller size of the 11-inch model. 
What do you want to do with it?
That leads us to what I think is the most important question–which isn’t, by the way, whether it can replace your laptop. The real question is what do you want to do with it?
That isn’t an existential question. If the thing you do on a daily basis is fill in spreadsheets, don’t get an iPad Pro–get a MacBook Air or a Mac mini. Desktop computers are great for that, and even if you need one to fill in your spreadsheets on the go, there are a lot of really lightweight and portable laptops. 
Credit: Jason Aten
Credit: Jason Aten
If the thing you do on a daily basis is sitting at a desk and editing photos, get one of the brand new 24-inch iMacs. The display is gorgeous and it has more than enough power you need to manage your RAW image processing workflow. 
The iPad Pro doesn’t need to be a thing to replace your laptop. That doesn’t mean it isn’t capable. It absolutely is. It’s not only the most powerful tablet ever made, it’s the most powerful computer you can buy right now. But, so are all of the other computers Apple has introduced in the past 12 months.
iPadOS Is Here to Stay
By the way, unlike some of my fellow tech journalists, I don’t think Apple will put macOS on the iPad Pro, at least not any time soon. That’s because Apple doesn’t think of the iPad as something that should try to do what a Mac does.
Yes, I know iPadOS has limitations when you compare it to macOS. It lacks window management. Its multitasking abilities leave a lot to be desired. You can’t use an external display as a second monitor. 
All of those things, however, assume that you should use the iPad to do the things you do on a Mac, and I don’t think Apple sees it that way at all. The iPad Pro is something different, and you use it to do different things.
Credit: Jason aten
Credit: Jason aten
The iPad is ideal for situations where you wouldn’t take a laptop, and couldn’t use a desktop. For example, setting an iPad on a piano to transcribe music notation. Using augmented reality to view product designs and prototypes in real-world spaces. Editing a podcast using the Apple Pencil.
Think about it this way: Apple is moving away from making you decide which device to get based on things like memory or processing power. That means you can stop worrying about whether the device you’re considering will be powerful enough for whatever you do–it will. The M1, and whatever comes after, is more than powerful enough. That’s true of the MacBook Air, the new 24-inch iMac, and now the iPad Pro.
Instead, just choose the device based on which combination of form factor and software best serves your needs. The point is, stop trying to figure out how an iPad Pro might be able to do all of the things you use your Mac to do. That’s not what it’s for. It’s meant to do different things–things it can do better.
11-inch vs 12.9-inch
I do want to talk for just a minute about the difference between the two sizes of the iPad Pro. I’ve always been a big fan of the 11-inch size. That’s the version I own, and, though I’ve tested the larger size on multiple occasions (including now), I’ve always gone back to the smaller model for its portability.
Credit: Jason Aten
Credit: Jason Aten
For me, the 11-inch size is a better iPad. What I mean by that is that it’s a better tablet. For things like watching a movie, reading articles or a book, or anything else you might normally do on a tablet, the smaller size is better. It’s easier to hold for longer periods of time, and using it handheld is easier because you don’t have to stretch your fingers trying to reach things in the middle of the screen.
The 12.9-inch, on the other hand, is a better device for doing a lot of the things you might otherwise do on a laptop. Because of the larger size, it feels more capable, even if it isn’t.
You get more real estate when using two different windows side-by-side. It’s a lot easier to type when using it with either the Smart Folio Keyboard, or the Magic Keyboard, since both are closer to what you’d expect on a 13-inch laptop.
Then again, with the Magic Keyboard on the 12.9-inch model, the whole thing feels hefty, even more so than my 13-inch MacBook Air. It’s certainly still portable, but you’re going to know it’s in your backpack.
In the case of the 2021 version, there’s also the difference in the display, which I mentioned above. I still stand by the argument that the display itself isn’t enough reason to opt for the larger model if everything else about how you use an iPad would lean towards the 11-inch.
Also, I’m not much of a gamer, but I did test out Call of Duty: Mobile for the purpose of experiencing what it was like using the display to play games. My take is that a 12.9-inch screen is way to large for touch input on a video game.
That said, I’ve really enjoyed using the 12.9-inch version for the last week. I used it for just about all of the things I do every day, save a couple of times when I wanted to read a book on the Kindle app—for which I grabbed the old 11-inch.
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