M1 iPad Pro: The Review

The new iPad Pro might easily be mistaken as a spec bump. It shares the same design as the last couple of generations, offers little in the way of new software functionality and even the optional accessories are largely the same. But trust me when I say that this machine is no mere spec bump. Let’s take a look.

The Design

As mentioned the 2021 iPad Pro retains the design of its immediate predecessors for the most part. That isn’t a bad thing and I’d go as far as saying that it just demonstrates how right Apple got it with the late 2018 and early 2020 models. The boxy, squared-off edges clearly informed the design direction of recent products such as the iPhone 12 and the just-released iMac. Returning is the smooth, bead-blasted aluminium that we’ve become accustomed to from Apple products and the finish looks as gorgeous as ever. Perhaps it is just me but I can’t help but feel like the quality of the anodised coating seems even stronger, denser even.

On the top of the iPad, we find two speaker grills and a standard power button. Sorry Touch ID fans, if you were hoping Apple would port Touch ID from the iPad Air you’re out of luck. Face ID remains the biometric of choice on the iPad Pro. To the right-hand side are the volume controls and a plastic transparency window to allow for magnetic wireless charging of the Apple Pencil. At the bottom, we’re presented with two more speaker grills as part of the devices quad audio system, the new hybrid Thunderbolt 3/USB-C port and on 5G models in the USA, a transparency window for the millimetre wave radio. To the left is a solitary noise-cancelling mic. On the back is the dual-camera system with LiDAR, another noise-cancelling mic and the smart connector for attaching accessories like the Magic Keyboard.

The front of the iPad looks largely the same as last year (at least while the display is turned off in the case of the 12.9) except for one notable change. The true depth camera system incorporates a new 12-megapixel sensor and its larger size is clearly visible. Fortunately, this doesn’t intrude on the display and remains tucked into the bezel. I’d love to see Apple shrink the bezels even further next year while keeping the size of the displays the same. It would allow for a smaller and lighter device.

The 11-inch model is identical to the 2020 model in terms of volume, thickness and weight. The 12.9-inch model however has increased in thickness by 0.5mm and 40 grams in weight to accommodate its new display and a larger battery (more on that later). The difference wasn’t immediately apparent to me and I might not have noticed had I not been consciously checking to see if I could tell. The smaller 11-inch device is certainly the more couch friendly option and if the size and weight of the 12.9 inch model was already a concern for you, then you’ll be even less enamoured with this years model. If only it wasn’t for one thing that is……

The Display

One of the biggest upgrades to this years iPad Pro is the display. At least in the case of the 12.9 inch model. The 11-inch model retains the same display as last year and while that display is still gorgeous, the 12.9 inch model is really special. The 12.9 inch iPad Pro features what Apple calls the ‘Liquid Retina XDR’ display. It brings across much of the technology found in their desktop monitor, the Pro Display XDR.

The Liquid Retina XDR display is an LCD built using mini-LED technology. An LCD is illuminated with a backlight and in the previous generation iPad Pro, the backlight consisted of 72 LEDs. Apple has increased this number dramatically to a whopping 10,000 individual LEDs! This allows the iPad to dynamically adjust 2500 local dimming zones in the display. It means that the iPad can precisely control the brightness in each zone to be contextually specific to the content being displayed. As a result black looks much darker, white appears brighter and colours appear more vivid. The improvements to contrast are so significant that the display is rated as having a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. Fine details like specular highlights in HDR content are revealed that would otherwise remain hidden on displays of lesser quality.

When I first turned the iPad on, the difference wasn’t immediately apparent to me. I thought that in dark mode the UI looked darker but I wasn’t blown away in the way I hoped to be. Feeling a little disappointed I decided to try watching some HDR content and that’s when it hit me. Instantly all my doubts were swept away and the difference was quite extraordinary. The display comes very close to delivering on the promise of OLED but crucially without the many trade-offs. OLED displays suffer from poor brightness, image burn-in amongst other things. LCD’s don’t have that problem.

One downside to the mini-LED technology Apple has implemented here is that local dimming zones can result in blooming. Look closely around the edges of objects being displayed on-screen and you might see a little bit of light leakage. I haven’t encountered this problem in any meaningful way so far but your mileage may vary. Apple for its part states:

“The Liquid Retina XDR display improves upon the trade-offs of typical local dimming systems, where the extreme brightness of LEDs might cause a slight blooming effect because the LED zones are larger than the LCD pixel size. This display is designed to deliver crisp front-of-screen performance with its incredibly small custom mini-LED design, industry leading mini-LED density, large number of individually controlled local dimming zones, and custom optical films that shape the light while maintaining image fidelity and extreme brightness and contrast.”

I’ve certainly been able to reproduce this but I’ve had to actively look for it. With regular daily use and my normal workflow including editing photos and video, it hasn’t been at all noticeable or impactful. My gut tells me that many of the images floating around the internet that aim to point out this issue, are over-processed smartphone photos. I took a photo of the display using an iPhone 12 Pro Max which by default has smart HDR enabled. Smart HDR pulls up highlights so naturally blooming artefacts become exaggerated.

Note the light leakage in the top right corner around the playback controls of the YouTube app. This was shot on an iPhone 12 Pro Max with Smart HDR enabled as is the case by default.
For comparison here is a shot of the YouTube playback controls from my stand alone Sony camera. It does not have an HDR mode enabled and has a much bigger and higher quality sensor than the iPhone. This is much closer to what you’ll see in real life.

Hopefully, the comparisons above give you a sense of what this so-called #bloomgate is all about. But in my experience, it’s a none issue. What are your thoughts?

The M1 Chip

The other really big news with the 2021 iPad Pro is the processor. Historically Apple has used suped-up versions of its A-series processors from the iPhone. The iPhone XS from 2018 for example uses the A12 while the iPad Pro from 2018 uses the A12X. The X variants typically have more CPU and GPU cores and sometimes more RAM. This year Apple has taken a different approach. The widely praised M1 chip that Apple introduced in November for the Mac has made the leap to the iPad. I was quite shocked when the announcement was made. In hindsight, it seems like an obvious and perhaps inevitable change.

The 2020 iPad Pro was no slouch. I never once found myself complaining about the performance. The M1 chip however has proven to be an extraordinary leap in capability. In my testing in Luma Fusion, a 10 minute 4K clip exported in a little over a minute. Almost 10x faster than real-time. The former iPad Pro by comparison routinely takes around twice that time to export the same length clip. Navigating the operating system is as smooth as you’d expect from an iPad but the real benefit of this chip is in its ability to run pro-level apps. I can’t help but feel like this device is shackled by the self-imposed limitations of iPadOS. To be clear the OS itself is great. But there are so many features that Apple could and should bring across that would transform the iPad Pro into a true laptop replacement. The hardware has caught up and now it’s time for the software to do the same.

In an out of character move, Apple this year chose to reveal how much RAM was contained inside the iPad Pro. Typically the tech giant keeps the amount of RAM in its iPad and iPhone devices off the spec sheet. But I guess it makes sense taking into account that the M1 chip is the same chip found in many of Apple’s Mac Desktops and Laptops. As standard, the iPad Pro 2021 comes with 8GB of RAM, up from 6GB on the previous model. However, for folks that opt for the more expensive 1 or 2 terabyte storage options, the device comes with 16GB of RAM. That’s a huge difference and by far the most we’ve seen on Apple’s touch-enabled devices. Apple has also paired this RAM with a faster SSD. Apple says the storage in the new iPad Pro is twice as fast as last year. My render and export times certainly support this claim.

One final thing to point out in terms of performance is benchmarking. Benchmarks aren’t always indicative of performance, especially when comparing across platforms. But they do serve to provide context.

The Geekbench scores for the iPad Pro with M1 chip.

The numbers for the iPad Pro are pretty remarkable! The score may not mean much on its own but to put this in perspective, the single-core score was higher than any Mac Apple has ever created. Including the 28 core Mac Pro. But in a device that weighs just over a pound and is thinner than an iPhone. With no fans. This kind of leap forward just doesn’t happen. But here we are. For multicore performance, the iPad Pro delivers a score comparable to its Mac cousins with the M1 chip. But what is more impressive is that the new iPad Pro delivers a higher multicore score than the fastest of Apple’s previous-generation Mac Pro. Often referred to as the trash can Mac Pro, the machine weighs in at around 11 pounds and is significantly larger in every dimension and far greater in volume than the iPad. The M1 just proves how far ahead Apple is compared to the competition. It almost feels like Apple is showing off by putting the M1 chip in the iPad. Especially given it retains the same 10 hours of battery life. Check out the Mac benchmarks below and see for yourself.

Connectivity

Following in the footsteps of the iPhone 12 series, Apple has added 5G to the iPad Pro. Models outside of the USA support low and mid-band frequencies. The impressive (albeit impractical) MM wave 5G radio is only available in the states. Regardless the addition of 5G will be welcomed by many customers. And it adds to the story of the iPad Pro being this compelling and truly mobile productivity machine. The modem is the same as that found in the iPhone, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X55. This modem can be a power guzzler which is something to keep in mind if you’ll be away from a charger for a while. Apple states you’ll still get 9 hours of wireless web browsing with 5G enabled but this is in ‘optimal conditions’. They haven’t clarified what optimal means but I’d assume good signal coverage and close proximity to a mast. As with last years model, the iPad Pro of course also supports WiFi 6 and Bluetooth 5.

Further bolstering connectivity this year is the addition of Thunderbolt 3. The USB C port has been upgraded to support the Thunderbolt standard and brings with it tremendous capability. It enabled data to be transferred between the iPad and external storage a whopping four times faster! And it enables the iPad to output to larger and higher resolution displays. Even Apple’s 6K Pro Display XDR. I haven’t been able to test the export times to a Thunderbolt 3 drive unfortunately but Apple is using the same controller as its Mac products that come with an M1 chip. And those devices offer the same transfer speeds.

One continuing frustration for me is the last of proper external display support. Apple may have added Thunderbolt 3 and an M1 chip but the iPad Pro is still shackled by the baggage of its mobile operating system. Plug it into an external 16:9 display and the 3:4 aspect ratio is mirrored awkwardly with black bars on either side. Some apps such as Luma Fusion take better advantage of screen mirroring but that’s an exception and certainly not the rule. Apple really needs to address this sooner rather than later.

The Cameras

The rear-facing wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle cameras on this years iPad Pro are identical to last years. However, they do produce better images thanks to an upgraded Image Signal Processor (ISP) found in the M1 chip. Apple is taking full advantage of the capability of the chip to get the most out of these ageing sensors. Here are the full specs:

  • 12 MP, f/1.8, (wide), 1/3″, 1.22µm, dual pixel PDAF (wide)
  • 10 MP, f/2.4, 125˚ (ultrawide)
  • Time of flight 3D LiDAR scanner (depth)

Also courtesy of the M1 chip, the iPad Pro now supports Smart HDR 3 and portrait mode. But only on the selfie camera. Taking into account that the rear camera also has a LiDAR Scanner for capturing depth data, it isn’t clear to me why Apple did not add Portrait mode to the main cameras. Perhaps the sensor just isn’t up to the task. Regardless Apple knows that the iPad Pro has almost no real competition in the tablet space. And that most customers probably aren’t taking too many photos on this large device. Frankly, there isn’t any incentive for Apple to push the iPad Pro’s camera hardware forward this year. Except for the selfie camera that is….

In the age of the pandemic and with so many of us working from home, Apple has wisely chosen to double down on the capability of the front-facing camera. The selfie shooter is now an ultra-wide-angle, 12 MP, f/2.4 system with a 122˚ field of view. Ironically the resolution of the front-facing ultra-wide camera is higher than the rear-facing ultra-wide camera. But with good reason. Apple has taken full advantage of the front-facing camera to add a new video calling feature called ‘Centre Stage’. Centre Stage automatically pans in and tracks the subjects in video calls to keep them cantered in the action. If additional participants come into the frame, the camera pans out to ensure everyone is fully visible. And if you move around in your environment, the iPad tracks your movement. Super clever and an intelligent and thoughtful use of the hardware. Thankfully any video calling app can take advantage of this functionality. I’ve tested it in Zoom, FaceTime and Google Meet and it worked flawlessly.

Accessories

There isn’t too much to tell this year when it comes to accessories. Apple hasn’t added any new ones. The iPad Pro continues to support the excellent Apple Pencil 2 and the Magic Keyboard introduced in 2020. The keyboard continues to offer USB C pass-through charging (but no data transfer) and a clever floating design. Oh but the keyboard does now come in this stunning white colour and I’m loving it!

Summary

The design remains the same. But on the inside, the 2021 iPad Pro is a totally different animal. The M1 chip levels up the iPad to the same performance standard as the Mac. A gorgeous Mini LED display o the 12.9-inch model brings new capability to HDR workflows. The increased RAM keeps more apps in memory and background processes run smoother than ever. Faster storage improves export times and improved connectivity with Thunderbolt 3 and 5G support make this a truly mobile work machine.

The hardware is ready for the main stage. But the software is bitterly lacking in several key areas. To name but a few:

  • True external display support
  • Windowed options of applications
  • A full-featured file management system
  • Pro applications such as Xcode and Final Cut
  • Support for encrypted local backups to an external drive

In just a few hours we’ll learn more about the future of iPadOS. Apple is set to unveil the next-generation operating systems for its various platforms at WWDC. Coverage to follow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s