Apple’s transition from Intel to ARM processors, announced in summer 2020, was ambitious and fraught with potential problems. But the first generation of M1 Macs ended up a great success, with powerhouse speed scores and great customer demand.
Emboldened, Apple proceeded to put the M1 in the rest of the Mac range and then, unexpectedly, the iPad Pro as well. After years of talking up the Pro as a worthwhile Mac replacement, Apple is putting its money where its mouth is and giving the premium tablet a desktop-class processor.
But does the M1 chip translate into genuine Mac-standard performance? And can the iPad Pro cut it as a work machine in other respects, such as peripheral support and software availability? Our iPad Pro 11in (2021) review puts the new device through its paces and helps you decide if this is the tablet for you.
Design and build
- Same design as 2020 model
- Light and portable
- No notch; Face ID is embedded in screen bezel
There are few external changes from the 2020 Pro model, and other than the inevitable scuffs and marks accumulated from 12 months of use you’d struggle to tell them apart.
That’s something we quite often say about Apple products, the Cupertino company being notoriously fond of finding a design it likes and then driving it into the ground across multiple visually (near-)identical generations. But here’s something else we often say: the design is good, and to an extent we can understand why it’s being re-used.
There’s a pleasing contrast – and again, this is a well-worn Apple tradition – between the brushed metal of the rear, the shiny metal of the Apple logo and the glossy black of the screen surrounds and camera module. The device is light, mostly easy to pick up (those squared-off edges have a slight tendency to sit flush to flat surfaces when uncased) and comfortable to hold for extended periods. The screen size is highly convenient for working, playing games and watching films and TV.
As on the 12-series iPhone handsets, we should note, a compromise was necessary to include Face ID, but the iPad designers picked a different compromise: rather than cutting a notch out of one end of the screen they incorporated thicker-than-optimal bezels which are big enough to accommodate the Face ID sensors. Face ID facial recognition is fast and reliable, and its application on iPad includes a neat graphic that points to the camera when you’ve inadvertently covered it up – a thoughtful inclusion.
- 11in Liquid Retina display
- Resolution is 2388×1668 at 264ppi
- 120Hz refresh rate
Let’s return to that screen. And here too we should start by pointing out the lack of change from the previous generation. As on the first- (2018) and second-gen (2020) versions of the 11in Pro, you get an 11in (2388×1668 at 264ppi) Liquid Retina display with True Tone and 120Hz ProMotion.
This is in contrast, of course, to the major screen revamp seen on the 12.9in version of the iPad Pro for 2021, which gets an XDR display based on mini-LED backlighting.
The 11in Pro for 2021 has an LCD display that’s lit by conventional LED rather than the more advanced mini-LED. And with a brightness of 600 nits it cannot match the 12.9in’s 1,600 nits peak HDR brightness.
In practice the Pro 11in’s screen is exceptionally good quality and the average user is unlikely to find it lacking in any respect. It’s bright, clear and vibrantly colourful; moving or animated images are buttery smooth thanks to the high refresh rate, which also produces market-leading stylus performance with the second-gen Apple Pencil. We’ll return to the accessories later.
I found the blacks surprisingly deep, but you can expect blacker blacks and generally improved handling of subtle difference in light and tone from the XDR display on the 12.9in model. (The step up from Apple’s excellent LCD iPad panels to mini-LED is a smaller leap, however, than the one from LCD to OLED in the iPhone range.) Creative professionals may find the extra investment worthwhile for the XDR’s superior image fidelity, but that investment is not a small one.
- 12MP/10MP twin lenses on rear
- 12MP on front, up from 7MP on previous model
- Excellent photographic performance
One of the ways the iPad Pro sets itself apart from rival options such as the iPad Air is its photographic setup: it features twin lenses on the rear (12MP wide and 10MP ultra wide) whereas the Air has just the 12MP wide-angle lens.
This rear camera setup is largely the same as was offered on the 2020 Pro models. The only differences are Smart HDR 3 rather than plain Smart HDR – these are versions of the AI image-processing tech that the iPad uses to intelligently comp together elements of multiple exposures to handle complex lighting conditions – and an extended dynamic range upgrade for video up to 30fps.
In testing the rear cameras produced images with rich and accurate colour and sharp detail.
Our usual Smart HDR challenge is to shoot a tree with the sun behind it, an exceptionally difficult task involving simultaneously bright and dark conditions. Like the 12-series iPhones (which also have Smart HDR 3) the iPad was able to capture good detail in the shadows at the base of the tree without over-exposing the sunshine at the top. The highest leaves were a touch washed out, as Smart HDR 3 tried its best to compensate for the bright light, but the overall results were good.
We’re at the point now where you have to seek out artificially difficult shooting conditions to challenge the iPad’s camera. Most of us don’t even use our iPads for photography, but if you do, it won’t let you down.
A much bigger photographic improvement compared to the previous generation comes from the front camera setup, where the lens has been bumped from 7MP to 12MP, while the aperture has changed from f/2.2 to f/2.4 with the addition of ultra-wide. It also gains a 2x optical zoom (a zoom out, technically) and the same Smart HDR 3 and extended dynamic range improvements offered on the rear cameras.
We took a range of selfies with the iPad, and these proved sharp, detailed and colourful. Portrait Mode here produced particularly pleasing results.
But the greatest benefit from the improved front camera will be enjoyed when making FaceTime and Zoom video calls, something that, in sharp contrast to outdoor photography, forms a key part of the iPad’s skillset. Our experience using the Pro for FaceTime was a marked improvement on the previous generation, with noticeably sharper image quality. It’s a surprise, really, that Apple hasn’t focused on the front camera before now, since for most iPad owners it’s a more important element than the rear one.
There’s also a new feature: Centre Stage. This pans and zooms automatically as the subject of the call moves around, and as additional subjects enter or leave the frame. It might be worth pointing out that this is a new feature for Apple but not for the industry: I used something similar on the Facebook Portal a couple of years back.
It’s a nice idea, although mainly useful for those raucous group calls – one side of the family calling another on Christmas Day, for example – where multiple people at a single location are frequently joining or leaving the conversation. When it’s just you in shot, the benefits are less obvious; indeed I found it rather disorienting at first.
- 8GB/16GB of RAM
- Mac-class M1 processor
- 56% faster than last year’s iPad Pro
Equipped with 8GB or 16GB of RAM (the 16GB allocation is reserved for the 1TB and 2TB models) and a Mac-class M1 processor, the iPad Pro for 2021 is monstrously fast. It easily surpassed the benchmark performance of last year’s Pro models, whose speed we talked up at the time.
Testing a 2021 Pro with 8GB of RAM in Geekbench 5’s multi-core test, we saw an improvement of 56% on the 2020 Pro. It was even further ahead of the current iPad Air model, showing a 73% advantage.
Graphics performance was also market-leading, with the 2021 Pro showing a clear lead on the 2020 model in all but one GFXBench Metal test: the only test where they tied was T-Rex, where both maxed out at 120fps. In the most difficult test, Aztec High, the 2021 Pro scored 55fps to the 2020’s 37fps, an improvement of 49%.
But here comes the caveat that always accompanies our speed test results: these numbers are essentially theoretical. They reflect performance in artificially demanding conditions, not the way your iPad will behave in the real world.
In reality, the iPad Pro for 2021 is sumptuously slick and fast to use. Apps open and respond instantly; nothing seems beyond it. But this was also true of the 2020 Pro when it came along, and remains true of it now. And the same can be said of the 2020 iPad Air.
The downside, if you can call it that, of the iPad ecosystem is that all the software has been carefully tailored to the hardware that’s available. Nobody would write an app that only runs on the highest tier of iPads, because that would be commercial suicide. And this means that for pretty much any app you care to try, the differences in performance between the iPad Air and the iPad Pro will be indistinguishable.
But the hardware is out there now, and by its very existence it will help to push the processing-demands Overton window upwards. Apps gradually become more demanding as time passes and more capable hardware is launched, and in a couple of years you’ll see the benefit of this device’s swaggering power. It’s a question of future-proofing.
- Lasted 12 hours 12 minutes
- Takes 2.5 hours to charge
The iPad Pro 11in features a 28.65Wh rechargeable battery, and Apple reckons this should be good for up to 10 hours of video or web surfing over Wi‑Fi, or 9 if you’re using mobile data. Our testing suggests you can expect a little more than that (Apple tends to lowball its own battery estimates), with our sample Pro 11in dying after 12 hours and 12 minutes of non-stop Wi-Fi-based video streaming.
Bear in mind that battery performance is one of the most subjective measures in the world of tech reviewing, and a thousand small factors could throw off the performance you experience: gaming, for instance, is likely to carve chunks off your battery percentage, and the battery itself will degrade over the course of its lifetime. But in most situations the iPad Pro should be comfortably fine for all-day battery life, which is quite possibly the single most important measure of success for a mobile device.
That chunky battery cell can be laborious to fill up. We did our standard 30-minute test, using the bundled USB-C cable and 20W charger, and in that time the Pro went from 0 to 24%. It took roughly two and a half hours to completely charge up.
5G cellular support
- 5G adds £150/$200, and you may need to upgrade data contract
- Coverage remains patchy outside major cities
- Connection speeds are excellent
The iPad Pro models for 2021 – assuming you pay extra for the cellular versions – are compatible with 5G. This is a first for the iPad range, although Apple dipped its toes in the 5G waters last year with the 12-series iPhones.
When the iPhone 12 came out we discussed the feature as an important inclusion for the future, but one that wouldn’t transform life for most users in 2020. Eight months down the line it’s hard to argue that things have changed enormously; 5G is still superbly fast if you can get it (on my iPhone 12 Pro I quite often switch to 5G in my own house when I’m more than one room away from the Wi-Fi router) but a lot of people can’t.
Aside from the extra £150/$200 you’ll need to pay simply to get cellular on your iPad, 5G remains a relatively difficult technology to access. Coverage is getting pretty decent in the US, but here in the UK a decent chunk of the population are not within range of 5G. And of course you’ll need to pay for a data contract that supports 5G, which may mean a costly upgrade.
Which isn’t meant to play down 5G, which will become essential in the next few years – for smartphones, at least. (Cellular has always been secondary on tablets, which are more often within reach of Wi-Fi and can generally connect to a phone hotspot in a pinch.) Including 5G support on the iPad Pro is an important step, but don’t expect it to be immediately transformative.
- Apple Pencil (2018)
- Magic Keyboard
- Smart Keyboard Folio
Thanks to the three-point Smart Connector at the base of its rear surface and a magnetic connector along one edge, the iPad Pro 2021 supports the second-gen Apple Pencil (but not the first-gen model, note) and the cantilever Magic Keyboard, which has a trackpad. It also works with the Smart Keyboard Folio.
None of this is news, really, since the previous generation of Pro also supported these accessories, as does the latest model of iPad Air. But it’s worth reiterating that the range of excellent accessories underpins the iPad’s ambitions as a standalone work device. And adds to the cost, of course.
Can the iPad Pro replace a laptop?
- Accessories are key
- iPadOS remains a bottleneck for productivity
- Some key apps still aren’t available on iPad
The Magic Keyboard is costly, but it’s an excellent work tool that single-handedly drags the iPad closer to viability as a laptop replacement. It takes a little adjustment for those who are used to the more spacious keyboard of the average laptop, but you’ll quickly get up to a decent typing speed, and the trackpad is a boon.
The weak link in the chain, and the main reason I’d advise readers against throwing their MacBooks out of the window and rushing to buy an iPad Pro instead, is iPadOS itself.
As my colleague Michael Simon observes, the upcoming iPadOS 15 update “rights some of the wrongs with multitasking and the Home Screen, [but] doesn’t do anything to elevate the iPad Pro beyond being a slightly faster iPad Air with a nicer screen”. The M1 chip is phenomenally powerful but one senses that it’s held back by iPadOS, which creates a largely consistent experience across the iPad range rather than harnessing the extra power of the Pro models.
Right now, iPadOS simply isn’t as conducive to work as macOS – and that’s before you get to the more limited library of professional software, which still misses big Mac names like Final Cut Pro and Xcode. Apple is committed to the iPad as a laptop replacement, and we have high hopes for iPadOS in the future; the inclusion of a Mac processor should also help to encourage developers to bring desktop software to the iPad. But we’re not there quite yet.
There’s no way around it: the iPad Pro is really expensive. The RRP starts at £749/$799, which is what the entry-level model will cost you from Apple’s website.
- iPad Pro 11in (2021, 128GB): £749/$799
- iPad Pro 11in (2021, 256GB): £849/$899
- iPad Pro 11in (2021, 512GB): £1,049/$1,099
- iPad Pro 11in (2021, 1TB): £1,399/$1,499
- iPad Pro 11in (2021, 2TB): £1,749/$1,899
- iPad Pro 11in (2021, 128GB, cellular): £899/$999
- iPad Pro 11in (2021, 256GB, cellular: £999/$1,099
- iPad Pro 11in (2021, 512GB, cellular): £1,199/$1,299
- iPad Pro 11in (2021, 1TB, cellular): £1,549/$1,699
- iPad Pro 11in (2021, 2TB, cellular): £1,899/$2,099
You may be able to pick up the Pro for a little less if you shop elsewhere, and we list the best current deals in the automated price table below this paragraph. (Check our guide to the best M1 iPad Pro deals for all the best savings currently available.) But at this early stage in the product’s life, don’t expect huge discounts.
About the only good thing you can say about those price tags is that they’re smaller than those of the 12.9in Pro, which is even more of a wallet-buster. (It starts at £999/$1,099, and tops out at £2,149/$2,399.)
A more apposite comparison, however, may be with the iPad Air Apple launched last year. The iPad Air (2020) starts at £579/$599, and while it doesn’t boast an M1 processor, 5G support or Face ID, it may well be a better value-for-money option. We look at the differences between the two devices in more depth in our iPad Pro 11in (2021) vs iPad Air (2020) comparison.
The fancy XDR display on the 12.9in Pro means we can only say this is the second-best iPad Apple has ever made, but it remains a superb tablet. Beautifully designed and boasting state-of-the-art specs and features, the new iPad Pro for 2021 is a luxury tablet with a luxury price tag, and for most people it will be overkill.
It’s very fast indeed – far faster than it needs to be to run current apps. It has an excellent rear camera setup that most owners will barely use. And it has features like 5G and LiDAR whose real usefulness will only become apparent in the months and years to come.
We should probably advise you to buy the iPad Air instead, unless you urgently need that upgraded front camera or Face ID. But if you can afford the Pro, you won’t be disappointed.
iPad Pro 11in (2021, M1): Specs
- M1 processor
- 8GB of RAM (with 128GB/256GB/512GB models) or 16GB (1TB and 2TB models)
- 128GB/256GB/512GB/1TB/2TB of storage
- 11in Liquid Retina display (2388×1668 at 264ppi), 600 nits, True Tone, Wide Colour, Fully Laminated, ProMotion
- 12MP/10MP (f/1.8 and f/2.4) rear-facing cameras, SmartHDR, 2x optical zoom, True Tone Flash, 4K video at 60fps, Slo-mo 1080p at 240fps, Continuous autofocus, Cinematic video stabilisation
- 12MP (f/2.4) TrueDepth front-facing camera, 2x optical zoom, Centre Stage, Retina flash, Smart HDR 3 for photos, Portrait modes, Cinematic stabilisation for video, 1080p HD video at 25/30 or 60fps, Animoji & Memoji
- Wi-Fi 6
- Bluetooth 5
- USB-C (Thunderbolt/USB 4) port
- Face ID
- 247.6 x 178.5 x 5.9mm
- 466g/470g (Wi-Fi/cellular)