Apple iPad Pro 12.9in (Apple M1, 2021) review: Falls just short of greatness
More of a laptop alternative than ever with a stupendous display but iOS still has flaws
Over the past few years, the iPad Pro has slowly matured into quite the powerhouse, but it’s taken a giant leap forward in 2021. Adopting the much-lauded Apple M1 processor – the same chip found inside this year’s 24in iMac, Mac mini, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air – it has finally drawn level with its more “serious” counterparts when it comes to raw power.
The M1 chip isn’t the only big upgrade for the 2021 iPad Pro, either, despite the fact that it looks pretty much identical to the previous model. Next on the list of upgrades is the new “Liquid Retina XDR” display, which employs Mini-LED technology to boost its HDR capabilities, improving the visuals without the cost to peak brightness and battery life that OLED often brings with it. It’s also available in the same two sizes as before – 12.9in and 11in – although take note: the smaller iPad Pro does not come with the revolutionary Mini-LED display.
Coupled with the advances that Apple has made to iPadOS, the latest iPad Pro more closely resembles a full-blown laptop alternative than it ever has before.
Apple iPad Pro 12.9in (Apple M1, 2021) review: Design
Despite all of the upgrades, the physical design of the new iPad is no different from last year’s model. It’s still available in Space Grey or Silver, measures 5.9mm thick and weighs 682g – or 1.4kg with the Magic Keyboard attached to it. For reference, the smaller 11in model weighs 468g for the tablet and 1.1kg with the Magic Keyboard.
You have a pair of cameras on the rear in the corner, in a square, raised housing like the one on Apple’s iPhone 12 range of smartphones. Beside it is the tablet’s LiDAR scanner, which is used to measure objects with the iOS Measure app and by some apps that use AR (augmented reality).
Also on the rear are three metal contacts for all-but-essential keyboard attachment, while around the edges you’ll find a single Thunderbolt 3 port, the volume and power buttons (in the upper left corner if you have the tablet in landscape orientation) plus four speaker grilles for the iPad Pro’s quad speaker array. The audio output of the iPad Pro’s speakers, incidentally, remains among the best we’ve heard on any device.
Apple iPad Pro 12.9in (Apple M1, 2021) review: Display
There are no such caveats with the new “Liquid Retina XDR display”, which is quite frankly bonkers. It measures 12.9in across the diagonal and has a resolution of 2,732 x 2,048, the same as last year, but this time it uses Mini-LED technology. It’s similar to the IPS LED screen in last year’s iPad Pro but with many more of those LEDs in the backlight. The result is blindingly bright highlights and inky dark black level response.
So why has Apple chosen not to go OLED? We can only assume that battery life and brightness each play a significant part. Most of the OLED displays we’ve seen on laptops have negatively impacted battery life, with the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro’s 1080p OLED screen proving the only exception.
Peak brightness also rarely reaches the same levels as it does with backlit LCD screens. You can compensate for that indoors by drawing the curtains but you can’t do that when you’re out and about, and that generally makes OLED displays an inferior choice in bright environments.
The iPad Pro 12.9in’s Mini-LED display strikes the perfect compromise. The contrast ratio isn’t perfect as it is on OLED screens – we were able to observe the black level rising up to 0.17cd/m2 in some circumstances – but combined with a peak brightness of up to 1,600cd/m2 with Dolby Vision HDR material and 1,000cd/m2 at full-screen (that’s genuinely, blindingly bright, by the way) it delivers a contrast ratio that’s very nearly as good.
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Alas, we don’t have the facilities at hand to test the display’s Dolby Vision capabilities but we were able to run tests in SDR and HDR10 on the screen and the results were very impressive. First up, in the standard dynamic range tests, we found that, as per Apple’s claims, the display reached around 1,000cd/m2, making it comfortably the brightest display we’ve ever come across on any portable computer. Colour accuracy is fabulous, too, with the average Delta E (or colour difference from the colour intended) at a staggering 0.32. That’s essentially as good as it gets.
As for HDR10 material, that measures up well, too. Peak brightness again reached just over 1,000cd/m2 and the colour accuracy was a solid 2.33. This translates to wondrously impactful playback of HDR movies and TV.
Sat side by side with the previous model, the differences aren’t night and day but the images do have noticeably more solidity on the new iPad and those black bars at the top and bottom of the screen fade into darker inconsequence. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the twilight world of Apple TV+’s Earth at Night in Colour series. Scenes shot in the dark have more impact, appear more luminous and pack more contrast than on the older tablet. The action simply looks more real and more present on the Mini-LED display.
And it compares favourably with the OLED panels that rivals are beginning to install on their premium laptops and tablets, too. The Samsung Galaxy Tab S7+’s OLED screen, for example, may look glorious indoors but only reached a peak 367cd/m2 in our tests. The iPad Pro 12.9in is nearly three times as bright and, as a result, is much more practical for working in bright conditions.
Apple iPad Pro 12.9in (Apple M1, 2021) review: Battery life and performance
It’s also good to see that improvements to the display do not come at the expense of battery life, as they might have done had Apple chosen to go with OLED instead of Mini-LED. In our video rundown test, the M1 iPad Pro 12.9in lasted 11hrs 35mins before giving up the ghost.
It isn’t as good as the MacBook Air, which lasted 14hrs 40mins in the same test, but that’s hardly surprising given that the iPad’s battery is 40.9Whr versus the MacBook Air’s 49.9Whr. Indeed, given the disparity in battery size, the M1 iPad Pro 12.9 performs pretty much as you’d expect; perhaps even a mite better.
So the M1 processor is efficient; the question is, how much more powerful is it than the outgoing Apple A12X from 2020’s iPad Pro? The answer is a lot. We already know from the MacBooks and Mac mini that the M1 is powerful enough to drive MacOS and full-blown desktop software – a leap forward only seen once in a generation – and it’s the same here, although there’s no big switch in architecture.
Let’s put that into perspective: Geekbench 5 scores of 1,713 for single-core operations and 7,274 for multi-core put it roughly on a par with the MacBook Air but, compared with the previous iPad Pro 12.9in’s scores of 1,125 and 4,539, it’s much, much quicker. It achieved a 56% higher score on average in the Geekbench 5 benchmark and a 45% higher frame rate in the demanding Car Chase GFXbench (offscreen) graphics test. The previous iPad was no slouch but the M1 machine is, quite simply, in a different league.
Apple iPad Pro 12.9in (Apple M1, 2021) review: Features
Apple has made a few tweaks to the iPad Pro’s feature-set as well. Support for 5G and Wi-Fi 6 is present and correct, as is a Thunderbolt 3 port for both charging and connecting various peripherals (more on that shortly).
As before, the iPad Pro employs Face ID as its primary means of biometric authentication, which works as well as it ever did. The camera itself, however, has had an upgrade with the introduction of a feature called Centre Stage.
Simply put, Centre Stage uses the new 10.8MP 105-degree ultrawide front camera to keep your face centred in the frame during video calls. It works pretty well, panning left, right, up and down as you move about and the range of movement it is able to track is impressive. It’s surprising how far off-centre you can move and still stay in frame.
That’s great, but unfortunately, the actual image quality is disappointing. Colours look good and the camera’s HDR capabilities help it cope well with extremes of bright and dark in frame but there’s plenty of image noise, no doubt amplified by the fact that the Centre Stage tracking only makes use of part of the sensor at any particular time.
Apple iPad Pro 12.9in (Apple M1, 2021) review: Software
So do all these upgrades and additions mean the M1 iPad Pro should be viewed in the same category as the M1 MacBook Air? After all, despite the difference in form factor, the hardware inside is, effectively, the same.
The answer is complicated.
Apple has certainly made big strides with iPadOS in the past few years and it’s no longer the pain it once was to do serious work on. With the Files app, you can now perform simple file transfer operations and copy and paste stuff back and forth from external storage.
There are plenty of heavyweight apps available on the platform, too, from pro photo editing apps like Photoshop and Affinity Photo to high-end video-editing packages like Luma Fusion. You can even connect a mouse and keyboard and use it like a regular PC.
The main issue that would prevent us from using an iPad for work full time is that it still doesn’t have proper external monitor support. While you can connect a second screen to the iPad’s Thunderbolt 3 port, the only display option open to you currently is to duplicate what’s shown on the screen of the iPad.
There’s no option to extend the space available and spread apps across two screens as you can with a MacBook or a Windows 10 laptop. And the fact that the Sidecar feature in MacOS allows MacBooks and iMacs to use an iPad as a second monitor simply rubs salt into the wound.
This may change, of course, as Apple updates iPadOS over the coming months and years but, right now, it’s a serious hurdle to iPadOS’ – and, by extension, the iPad’s – professional aspirations.
Apple iPad Pro 12.9in (Apple M1, 2021) review: Verdict
Putting that aside for one moment, however, it’s quite clear that the iPad Pro 12.9in is a fabulous piece of hardware and categorically the best tablet you can buy. It’s as powerful as the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, it has great battery life for a device this compact and the new Mini-LED display tech puts it in a different league.
As we’ve already intimated, the iPad Pro should primarily be seen as a laptop alternative and, as such, that’s the context in which we’ve viewed it while sizing up the competition. This is a tablet you buy for work first, not pleasure.
The price dictates this approach as much as anything else and the iPad Pro sits firmly in premium laptop territory. Prices start at £999 for the 12.9in Wi-Fi model with 128GB of storage; the Smart Keyboard Folio adds a further £199 while the Magic Keyboard with touchpad adds £329. That brings the price of the 12.9in iPad pro up to £1,328 if you want the full laptop alternative experience.
In many ways, it’s as good as a traditional laptop - if not better. However, it’s being held back by silly restrictions like the inability to make full use of a second display and its eye-watering price. If you buy both the tablet and keyboard, it’s considerably more expensive than the equivalent Apple MacBook Air, although the iPad does, admittedly, have a touchscreen and a far nicer display.
This is the dilemma that Apple must contend with now that it has brought the iPad to full parity with its laptop and desktop machines. It’s fabulous hardware, no doubt, but it’s being held back from true greatness by the limitations of its software.
Apple iPad Pro 12.9in (Apple M1, 2021) specifications
Octocore Apple M1 CPU
8GB (16GB for 1TB storage and above)
12.9in 2,732 x 2,048 Liquid Retina XDR display
12MP wide lens, 10MP ultrawide lens
Dust and water resistance
3.5mm headphone jack
USB connection type
128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
Memory card slot (supplied)
215 x 281 x 6.4 mm