iPad Pro (2021, M1) Review

MacBook power in a tablet with a beautiful Liquid Retina display

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4.9

Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2021)

iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2021, M1)

Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

What We Like
  • Blazing fast M1 chip

  • Beautiful Liquid Retina display (12.9-inch only)

  • Supports USB4/Thunderbolt

  • Options for tons of RAM and storage

  • Center Stage keeps you in focus during video calls

What We Don't Like
  • Apps have limited access to RAM

  • 11-inch version has an inferior display

  • Still only one USB port

  • Expensive

The iPad Pro (2021, M1) is a blend of tomorrow’s incredible processing power and beautiful Liquid Retina display shackled with yesterday’s iPadOS.

4.9

Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2021)

iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2021, M1)

Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

We purchased the iPad Pro (2021, M1) so our reviewer could put it to the test. Keep reading for our full product review.

The iPad Pro (M1, 2021) looks a lot like the last iteration of the hardware, but the similarities are only skin-deep. This is an iPad built on the same architecture as the 2020 MacBook Air, the Mac Mini, and the 2021 iMac. The larger of the two iPad Pro models also received a big display upgrade, and both models have a powerful new front-facing camera that enables the brand new Center Stage feature.

The 2021 iPad Pro is powered by the same M1 chip as the 2020 MacBook Air and other recently released Macs, which is big news. The iPad Pro is still a very different device from a MacBook Air due to the differences between iPadOS and MacOS, but the raw power of this tablet is undeniable. Already impressed with the M1 MacBook Air, I was eager to get my hands on an M1 iPad Pro to see what it could really do.

I was able to spend about a month with an M1 iPad Pro, including one week where I strapped the iPad Pro into a Magic Keyboard and ditched my daily driver desktop and laptop altogether. I tested everything from performance to ease of use, productivity, and even gaming during that time. I wrote articles, worked on this very review, edited photos, and only found myself absolutely needing to return to my Windows PC or iMac to play games that aren’t available on iPad OS.

What’s New: The M1 Chip, a Better Display, and Center Stage

The 2021 iPad Pro received a huge upgrade over the 2020 model in the form of the M1 chip. While the A12Z Bionic chip was impressive in its own right, the M1 chip in the latest iPad Pro puts it on a level field, in terms of performance, with the current slate of Macs and MacBooks. The display is also improved in the 12.9-inch model courtesy of Mini LED technology, and the improved front-facing camera enables the Center Stage feature for better video conferencing.

Design: Tried and true design conceals big changes under the hood

The iPad Air and standard iPad lines both received fairly significant facelifts recently, but the 2021 iPad Pro sports the same professional lines as its predecessor. It looks almost exactly like the 2020 version, with all the most important changes and upgrades hiding under the hood.

The model I tested features a massive 12.9-inch display that dominates the front of the unit, surrounded by a uniformly chunky bezel. The edge that conceals the front-facing camera is no thicker than the others.

Equipped with 5G, this model tips the scales at a hefty 1.51 pounds, while the smaller 11-inch model weighs in at just 1.03 pounds. Although it's only nominally fingerprint-resistant, the oleophobic (oil-repellent) display feels nice and smooth whether operated by touch or Apple Pencil. I found it to gather fingerprints quite readily, although it cleaned up easily enough.

iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2021, M1)

Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

Around the back, the 2021 iPad Pro features a mirror-finish Apple logo front and center. The camera array is in the upper left corner, and the familiar three dots of a Smart Connector are near the bottom edge. The Smart Connector is the same connector included on the 2020 iPad Pro and the iPad Air 4, although you need to pick up a new Magic Keyboard if you don't want a really awkward fit.

The bottom edge of the 2021 iPad Pro holds a Thunderbolt/USB4 port and two speakers, while the top edge has two more speakers, three microphones, and the eponymous top button. There is no thumbprint sensor, but the 2021 iPad Pro supports Face ID, which I found to work flawlessly regardless of glasses and messy hair in the morning.

The left side holds yet another microphone, while the right side features the nano SIM tray, a magnetic connector for charging an Apple Pencil, and the volume buttons. The 2021 iPad Pro is available in two colors: silver and space gray.

While it does remain more or less unchanged on the outside, that isn't really a problem. The 2021 iPad Pro has both the premium look and feel that you should expect from such a device. The 12.9-inch model I tested is a bit big and heavy for use as a tablet, but that size lends itself well to multitasking, drawing with the Apple Pencil, and watching movies on the big, beautiful display.

Display: Fantastic Liquid Retina display on the 12.9-inch model

The last iteration of the iPad Pro already has one of the best displays on the market, and the 12.9-inch M1 iPad Pro takes it even further. The bigger version of the 2021 iPad Pro comes equipped with what Apple refers to as a Liquid Retina XDR display. In industry-standard terms, that translates to Mini LED, but it’s gorgeous regardless of what you want to call it. Aside from the M1 chip, which I’ll get to in a moment, the display is one of the most compelling reasons to upgrade if you already have an older iPad Pro.

The display is still liquid crystal display (LCD), not organic light-emitting diode (OLED), but the improvement over the last version of the hardware is still remarkable. The last iPad Pro was backlit by an array of 72 LEDs, while over 10,000 mini LEDs light the Liquid Retina Display XDR on the 2021 M1 iPad Pro. The sheer number of LEDs packed into the display allows for better contrast control, including absolutely abyssal blacks, right next to bright whites, and everything in between.

The last iPad Pro was backlit by an array of 72 LEDs, while over 10,000 mini LEDs light the Liquid Retina Display XDR on the 2021 M1 iPad Pro.

The display is definitely a high watermark, but it’s unfortunately not included with the smaller version of the iPad Pro. The smaller iPad Pro features the same True Tone display, wide color gamut, and great pixel density as the larger one, but it’s nowhere near as bright. In fact, it’s rated at just 600 nits of brightness versus 1000 nits from the bigger iPad Pro that I tested.

Performance: Apple’s M1 chip provides more power than the iPad Pro really needs 

While the 2021 iPad Pro looks a whole lot like its predecessor, looks are deceiving. Within its familiar case, and behind that beautiful display, this iPad Pro packs hardware that has more in common with the MacBook Air (2020), Mac Mini (2020), and iMac (2021) than the last generation iPad Pro. It’s powered by the same M1 chip, with an 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine, and either 8GB or 16GB of RAM.

Eager to see exactly what an M1 iPad is capable of, I immediately installed and ran benchmark apps after I finished unboxing. I started with a few benchmarks from GFXBench Metal. The first was Car Chase, which simulates a 3D game with lighting effects, advanced shaders, and the rest. The iPad Pro scored an impressive 67 frames per second (fps), which is higher than the 60.44fps I saw from the M1 Mac Mini.

In the less-intense T-Rex benchmark, the results were even more impressive. The iPad Pro notched a blistering 119fps, compared to the 60fps I saw from the Mac Mini.

iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2021, M1)

Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

Finally, I ran the Wildlife benchmark from 3DMark. Wildlife is an iOS-specific benchmark, and it runs on iPadOS; I also ran it on the M1 Mac Mini. The iPad Pro hit a score of 17,053 overall and 102.1fps. That’s only slightly behind the M1 Mac Mini, which scored 17,930.

After seeing those impressive benchmarks, I installed Genshin Impact just in time for the massive Inazuma update. My real-world gaming results from the iPad Pro were every bit as impressive as the benchmarks. After successfully pairing an Xbox controller, I found the gameplay in Genshin to be every bit as buttery-smooth as I’m used to on my actual gaming rig.

I ran through my Genshin dailies in no time at all and even killed my weekly world bosses, which is something I’ve never really enjoyed doing on mobile devices. Unfortunately, despite the impressively powerful M1 chip, there’s no way the iPad Pro is going to take over as my main mobile gaming rig. Until it can run macOS apps, and that seems unlikely, most of the games I’m looking to play aren’t available on iPad.

Productivity: Makes a decent laptop replacement with a keyboard case and upgraded to iPadOS 15

The iPad Pro (M1, 2021) is more ready for work than any iPad yet. I found this iPad to be a productivity powerhouse after upgrading to iPadOS 15. The M1 chip provides serious power, and I could chew through my entire normal workload without going back to my regular machine. That includes research and writing, image editing, video conferencing, and everything else.

While the iPad Pro feels a little clunky as a tablet with its big 12.9-inch display, I found it surprisingly competent as a laptop replacement. When I installed the iPadOS 15, multitasking was a breeze, and it didn’t choke a bit when touching up photos.

The iPad Pro leaves a bit to be desired in a few areas, like file management, which makes me shy away from using it as a work machine full time. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw it in my bag with a Bluetooth keyboard or the Magic Keyboard case to get work done away from the office. I still prefer macOS or Windows for many tasks, but the iPad Pro makes a strong case for itself when paired with a Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil.

Audio: Excellent quad speaker stereo

The 2021 iPad Pro features the same excellent quad stereo speaker layout as its predecessor. The speakers are loud, clear, and more than high enough quality to stream music, play games, and watch TV and movies without plugging in a headset. There’s no audio jack, but you can plug in a pair of USB-C headphones or connect Bluetooth earbuds.

Network: Good performance over Wi-Fi, LTE, and 5G

The iPad Pro (M1, 2021) turned in flawless network performance during my time with it. I was impressed with speed and reliability when connected to both Wi-Fi and cellular data. It features 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 with simultaneous dual-band, HT80 with MIMO, and Bluetooth 5.0, and the version I tested also supports 5G, LTE, and a handful of other wireless data standards. For most of my usage, and also for the purposes of testing, I used it with my Eero Mesh Wi-Fi system on a 1GB Mediacom connection, a Google Fi SIM for LTE, and an AT&T data SIM for LTE and 5G.

Connected to my Wi-Fi and measured in close proximity to the router, I measured a download speed of 460Mbps and an upload speed of 25Mbps. That’s faster than the 316Mbps I measured at the same time with my Pixel 3, and the 368Mbps I measured with my iPhone SE. I then took the iPad Pro about 50 feet away from the modem and all access points, and the download speed barely budged. Even out in my garage, more than 100 feet from the nearest access point, it managed an impressive download speed of 250Mbps.

iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2021, M1)

Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

When I switched off Wi-Fi and connected to T-Mobile towers via a Google Fi SIM, a powerful LTE connection yielded an impressive 75.5Mbps down. Measured in the same place and connected to the same network, my Pixel 3 only managed to hit 8.49Mbps down.

I couldn’t get the iPad Pro to play nice with Google Fi’s 5G, so I also tested it with an AT&T data SIM. Connected to LTE at my house, I measured 25Mbps, which is significantly better than the 15Mbps I saw from my Netgear Nighthawk M1 in the same position. When taken closer to an AT&T 5G tower, I measured a top download speed of 85Mbps.

I’ll stick with my LTE Google Fi SIM for now since the network is stronger where I am, but the 5G compatibility will likely come in handy down the line. And that’s kind of a running theme for the 2021 iPad Pro.

Camera: Center Stage puts you in, well, center stage

The iPad Pro (M1, 2021) is the first Apple device to support the Center Stage feature, which leverages the front-facing ultra-wide camera and machine learning to keep you centered in the frame during video calls. Center Stage was built for FaceTime, but other apps like Zoom also support it.

Instead of just sending an image of you sitting off on one side of the screen, Center Stage identifies you in the shot, then crops out the irrelevant part of the shot. Since the iPad Pro has a 12MP front camera with a 122-degree depth of field, it’s able to grab just the relevant part of the shot without losing detail. It even tracks you if you get up and walk around and can identify if a second person enters its field of view and keep you both in the frame.

iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2021, M1)

Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

The rear cameras remain unchanged from the 2020 iPad Pro. It’s still a two-camera array, with a 12MP wide lens and a 10MP ultra-wide lens. Snapping photos and taking videos with a 12.9-inch tablet is a little awkward, but the results come out great in a variety of lighting conditions, with excellent color and clarity. Details come across nicely, with bright, lifelike colors and a nice dynamic range.

Battery: Lasts all day with light usage

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro I tested comes with a hefty 40.88 watt-hour battery, and the smaller 11-inch version packs in a 28.65 watt-hour battery. Even with the powerful M1 chip and massive Retina Display to feed, the battery can still keep the iPad Pro running all day. During light usage, streaming video, and surfing the web, I clocked over 10 hours of use before plugging in.

During heavier use, editing images, and other resource-intensive tasks, I still squeezed an entire eight-hour workday out of the iPad Pro battery. These results aren’t quite up to what I saw from the iPad Air 4, but the M1 iPad Pro is also a lot more powerful and has a much nicer display.

During heavier use, editing images and other resource-intensive tasks, I still squeezed a full eight-hour workday out of the iPad Pro battery.

Software: iPadOS 15 brings better multitasking, the App Library, and Universal Control

The iPad Pro (M1, 2021) initially shipped with iPadOS 14 and later received an update with the significantly improved iPadOS 15. Features that showed up a year earlier in iOS, like the App Drawer and Smart Widgets, are finally available, along with a number of other welcome changes and additions. Multitasking is improved as well, although some apps don't support the new Split View feature.

Improved multitasking is the most crucial feature in iPadOS 15. Instead of the unintuitive gestures used in earlier versions of the operating system, iPadOS 15 uses a small menu that lets you choose between a side-by-side view, a view where one app or window is narrower than the other, and a traditional full-screen option. You can access the menu by tapping an ellipses icon located at the top of compatible apps, and it's pretty intuitive. The only negative here is that some apps don't support Split View.

The new shelf feature also helps with multitasking, allowing you access to an app's open windows. It automatically appears whenever you open an app that supports multiple windows. From there, you can tap the one you want or swipe away any that you no longer want.

While iPadOS still has a ways to go before I'd be comfortable using the iPad Pro as a full-time laptop replacement, the multitasking improvements in this latest iteration bring it closer than ever before.

Another significant improvement is the addition of the App Library, which is a feature that iOS received back in 2020. It's just as useful here as there, and I love having my most-used apps grouped and arranged intelligently. You can pull it up as you do on iOS by swiping right until you reach the end of your apps, but it's also available right on the dock for much easier access.

My favorite new feature in iPadOS 15 is a macOS Monterey feature as well. It's called Universal Control, and it lets you use your Mac's keyboard and mouse on your iPad. It also allows you to drag and drop files between your Mac and iPad, which is a little extra convenience that's really nice to have.

While iPadOS still has a ways to go before I'd be comfortable using the iPad Pro as a full-time laptop replacement, the multitasking improvements in this latest iteration bring it closer than ever before. I was able to use the iPad Pro to research and write several articles while away from my desk during my initial time with the review unit, and I even got some work done on this very review. The shelf and app switcher make it a whole lot easier to swap between different apps and combinations of apps, and the center window feature is a nice touch.

The elephant in the room here is that even though iPadOS 15 brings a lot to the table and helps showcase what the new iPad Pro is truly capable of, it still isn't macOS. You can run iPad apps on your Mac, but that street only goes one way despite the iPad Pro's powerful M1 architecture. So while each new version of iPadOS brings welcome improvements, you'll still need to break out an actual laptop for any task that requires an app that's only available on macOS.

Price: Costs as much as a nice laptop

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro I tested starts at $1,099, and the smaller 11-inch version starts at $799, with both models increasing in price if you want more storage, RAM, or 5G. The specific version I tested has an MSRP of $1,299 as configured, about the same price as the 512GB MacBook Air. It’s an expensive tablet, and that price only goes up if you want to add a Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil. These accessories aren’t strictly necessary, as you can use any Bluetooth keyboard, but they do transform and elevate the experience of using an iPad Pro.

At the end of the day, you can expect to pay the same amount for a fully kitted out iPad Pro as you would for a nice laptop, and a MacBook can run macOS apps that the iPad Pro can’t. The 2021 iPad Pro is just as powerful as the 2020 MacBook Air, though it has a better display, and, most importantly, you can use it as a tablet.

iPad Pro (M1, 2021) vs. iPad Air 4 (2020)

When I took a look at the iPad Air 4, I compared it very favorably to the previous generation iPad Pro. The 2021 iPad Pro changes the game, but exactly how much?

The two crucial differences between the iPad Pro (M1, 2021) and iPad Air (2020) are their displays and chipsets. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a significantly bigger display, making it better for multitasking, and it’s also brighter, more colorful, and has significantly better contrast.

The M1 chip also makes the iPad Pro significantly more powerful than the 2020 iPad Air. According to Apple, it provides 50 percent faster CPU performance and 40 percent faster GPU performance.

When you compare prices, things get more complicated. The iPad Air starts at just $599, compared to $799 for the 11-inch iPad Pro or $1,099 for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. The iPad Air is also a very competent tablet with more than enough power for most tasks. It isn’t future-proof in the same way as the M1 iPad Pro, but it’s still a good deal if you don’t need a bigger display or the extra power.

Final Verdict

For better or worse, it’s like a MacBook without macOS.

The iPad Pro (M1, 2021) comes closer to laptop replacement territory than ever before. It turns in impressive benchmarks even more impressive real-world performance, and the display is a true thing of beauty. It’s also so expensive that it edges right into MacBook territory. And while it has the power to run neck and neck with a MacBook, iPadOS holds the hardware back in some frustrating ways that Apple will hopefully address in the future.

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Specs

  • Product Name iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2021)
  • Product Brand Apple
  • MPN MHNR3LL/A
  • Price $1,099.00
  • Release Date May 2021
  • Weight 1.5 lbs.
  • Product Dimensions 8.46 x 11.04 x 0.25 in.
  • Color Space Gray, Silver
  • Warranty One year
  • Platform iPadOS 15
  • Processor M1 chip (8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine)
  • RAM 8GB or 16GB
  • Storage 128GB - 2TB
  • Camera Rear: 12MP wide, 10MP ultra-wide; Front: 12MP w/Center Stage
  • Battery Capacity 12.9-inch: 40.88 watt-hour li-po (as tested); 11-inch: 28.65 watt-hour li-po
  • Ports Thunderbolt/USB4 (USB-C)
  • Waterproof No
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