12.9-inch iPad Pro
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro blurs the line between laptop and tablet with its M1 processor and Magic Keyboard. The standout feature of this flagship tablet is its Liquid Retina XDR display with ProMotion and wide color. Apple promotes this top-of-the-line iPad as a proper laptop replacement.
● Mini-LED backlit display with ProMotion
● M1 processor
● Face ID
● Apple Pencil support (second-generation)
● USB 4/Thunderbolt port
● Liquid Retina XDR Display
● LiDAR for improved AR
● Starts at $1,099
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The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is Apple's most premium iPad, which the company built to help users complement a Mac or replace it entirely. Featuring ProMotion and Liquid Retina XDR display technology, Apple wants this model to offer the best tablet experience available for experts and prosumers alike.
Despite changes to iPadOS, including cursor support and external storage drive compatibility, the iPad still lacks access to many of Apple's professional software platforms like Logic Pro, Xcode, and Final Cut Pro. The iPad Pro is Apple's vision of the future but still has plenty of minor limitations to iron out before many users can consider it over a MacBook Pro.
With Apple updating the processor to a Mac-class chipset, software enhancements and new professional apps are expected to follow. Expect changes in iPadOS to reflect the new chipset when the new version is announced during WWDC in June.
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro launched in 2015 in an almost comical size class compared to previous iPads. Its large forehead, chin, and Touch ID surrounding the enormous display made for a colossal tablet.
Apple's introduction of edge-to-edge displays in the iPhone X pointed to a future tablet with a similar design. The 2018 iPad Pro's LCD display technology and Face ID allowed the 12.9-inch display size to stay the same, but in a much smaller and thinner device. The latest generations of iPad Pro measure less than a quarter-inch thick, making them the thinnest iPads ever.
The iPad Pro also has flat sides, making it easier to grip. It also allows for the Apple Pencil magnetic charging mount to sit flush on one side. The Smart Connector is now on the iPad Pro's back, along with over 90 magnets. The magnets support cases that snap onto the tablet's rear.
This also means that first-generation Smart Connector accessories don't work with the latest iPad Pros, and accessory makers never adapted to the new design. Accessory companies have resorted to clips, cases, and Bluetooth for their peripherals rather than using the Smart Connector.
Starting with the 2018 models, Apple replaced the Lightning connector with a USB-C port. This standard allows for an easy connection to many accessories without proprietary cables. USB-C was an essential change if Apple was ever to convince professionals to switch to iPad, and iPadOS furthers the port's usefulness. The connector's versatility and ubiquity allow external drives, monitors, cameras, and other USB-C devices to plug into the iPad Pro directly.
The 2021 iPad Pro retains the USB-C port, but it now supports USB 4/Thunderbolt connections. This means data transfer speeds up to 40GBps and improved accessory compatibility.
The fourth-generation and fifth-generation iPad Pros have a dual-camera system with built-in LiDAR. A 12MP wide-angle and 10MP ultra-wide-angle camera allows for improved photography and depth capture. The camera system uses a similar sensor to those found in the iPhone XR series of phones, falling short of iPhone 11 photo quality. It also lacks Night Mode.
The LiDAR sensor supports 3D environmental mapping, allowing for improved AR. The scanner works from up to 5 meters away and gets results instantly, making AR apps more accurate and easier to use.
The Liquid Retina XDR Display
Apple's 12.9-inch iPad Pro differs from the 11-inch update using a new display using mini LED technology. Housing 10,000 mini-LEDs behind the Liquid Retina XDR display, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro uses considerably more light sources than the 72 LEDs used in the previous model.
The advantage of the technology is similar to the Pro Display XDR's system of local dimming zones, but the iPad Pro goes further still. Using the sheer number of mini-LEDs, it has 2,596 local dimming zones, enabling it to have a 1-million-to-1 contrast ratio.
The display can output 1,000 nits of full-screen brightness and 1,600 nits of peak brightness.
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a higher resolution than the 11-inch iPad Pro. The 12.9-inch display has 2,732 by 2,048 pixels, giving it a pixel density of 264ppi.
Apart from the addition of mini-LED, the larger iPad Pro has the same display features as the 11-inch model, including ProMotion, True Tone, and P3 wide color support.
The M1 processor
Apple has upgraded the iPad Pro from an A-series processor to an M-series processor. The 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU M1 is present in each of Apple's latest Macs and represents the next-generation in computing. The ramifications for including a Mac processor in the pro tablet hasn't been fully realized and will depend mostly upon what Apple does next with the iPad's software support.
The M1 is 50% faster in CPU performance and 40% faster in GPU performance over the A12Z Bionic. Customers can purchase an iPad Pro with 8GB of RAM when configured with 512GB or less of storage or 16GB of RAM when configured with 1TB or more.
The latest iPad Pro models include a feature called Center Stage that uses a new 12MP Ultra Wide front camera that Apple designed for the newest iPad. Center Stage combines the wider field of view with the M1's machine learning capabilities to keep users in the shot even when moving around.
When users move around during a video call, Center Stage pans automatically to keep them in the frame. If others join in, the camera detects them and zooms out smoothly to fit everyone into the frame.
The cellular variants of the 2021 iPad Pro now support 5G wireless connectivity. It joins the iPhone 12 series as the first Apple devices with 5G cellular.
5G speeds are theoretically faster than LTE, although many users won't see much of a real-world difference today.
U.S. variants of the 2021 iPad Pro support millimeter-wave technology, the higher-frequency version of 5G. It can reach speeds as fast as 4Gbps. Apple describes the 5G-equipped iPad Pro as offering "the most 5G bands on any device of its kind" and "the broadest 5G coverage worldwide."
The 2021 models include the Apple SIM, allowing users to sign up for or transfer 5G service without inserting a physical SIM card.
Previous cellular iPad Pro models maxed out at LTE speeds. However, older LTE versions running on the AT&T variant use a misleading "5GE" logo to denote optimized 4G technology.
12.9-inch iPad Pro accessories
Due to the smart connector's location on the current-generation iPad Pro, Apple is the only company with accessories compatible with the connector: the Smart Keyboard and Magic Keyboard. Other keyboards connect over Bluetooth or USB-C, typically attaching to the iPad Pro directly to form a clamshell design.
The second-generation Apple Pencil is the only model that works with the latest iPad Pros. The first-generation Apple Pencil pairs through a Lightning port, which the current models don't have. The second-generation Apple Pencil uses a magnetic mount on the iPad Pro for charging, pairing, and convenience.
The Logitech Crayon also works with the iPad Pros since Apple included the proprietary pairing tech in the 12.9-inch iPad Pro.
The USB 4/Thunderbolt port offers various accessory options like external drives, monitors, keyboards, controllers, and hubs. Many devices use this standard, opening the door to iPad owners using accessories they already own. Users can also charge an iPhone via the port.
The Magic Keyboard launched in May 2020 with an all-new design. The iPad sits on a magnetic mount, hovering above the keyboard and trackpad. The keyboard works with both the third- and fourth-generation iPad Pro models. A USB-C port in the keyboard's base allows for pass-through charging while the iPad is connected, leaving the iPad's port free for accessories. The keyboard's port does not support data transfer.
The Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro released in 2020 wasn't designed with the new 12.9-inch model in mind. The iPad Pro with mini-LED is 0.5mm thicker, so Apple warns the older Magic Keyboard model may not fit as snugly around the new iPad.
12.9-inch iPad Pro (fifth-generation) Review
The 2021 iPad Pro is a major step forward with several upgrades to consider. The M1 processor, USB 4/Thunderbolt port, Center Stage camera, and mini-LED backlit display add up to a machine that is closer than ever to realizing its potential.
As with previous updates, the hardware is only half the story. We reviewed the 2021 iPad Pro with iPadOS 14, which doesn't take full advantage of the hardware.
Apple has brought the custom Apple Silicon processor built for the Mac, the M1, to the iPad Pro. This chipset makes Apple's pro tablet as powerful as any Mac running the same processor, even the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Apple is also telling customers about the RAM for the first time, moving from a modest 6GB of RAM to 8GB in base models. Customers who choose an iPad Pro with 1TB or 2TB of storage will get 16GB of RAM, an amount previously reserved for Macs.
Our testing didn't show a large increase in app performance even with increased RAM, thanks to Apple's software limitations. It has been reported that iPadOS 14 and earlier limits iPad applications to 5GB of RAM, so users won't be able to take full advantage of the RAM increase until Apple lifts this restriction.
Camera changes and Center Stage
The 16-core neural engine found in the M1 brings big improvements to computational photography. Even though the rear camera system was unchanged, the images captured will reflect the improved processing of each frame.
The biggest change to the cameras was the updated selfie lens. It is now an ultra-wide lens and uses a feature called Center Stage to keep users centered in the frame during video calls.
We liked how Center Stage followed us as we moved around during a call, and it accounted for another person who entered the frame. There are some issues with using Center Stage when walking around, but the feature can be easily toggled during a call.
The USB-C port has been updated to support USB 4/Thunderbolt standards. We found this to be a great step up from the previous USB 3 speeds, but it also seems like a slight miss with Thunderbolt 4 devices already on the market.
Now, users will no longer need to consider which accessories work with their Mac or iPad since both will support the same Thunderbolt 3 specs. More complex desk setups with Thunderbolt docks connected to storage bays and a monitor can now easily switch between a Mac or iPad using a single cable.
Perhaps the most important user-facing upgrade was the display. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a unique display that is backlit with mini-LED. Apple calls it the Liquid Retina XDR display, and it features 2,500 local dimming zones with more contrast and color accuracy.
We liked the new display and its brighter 1,000 nits for outdoor use. HDR content really pops thanks to a peak HDR brightness of 1,600 nits.
The local dimming zones enable portions of the backlight to shut off entirely for more dynamic lighting similar to OLED. One criticism we had for the display is a "bloom"-like effect around elements on black backgrounds. This effect is a result of using LED instead of OLED and is expected on such displays.
The Magic Keyboard
Our testing with the half-millimeter thicker iPad Pro showed the first-generation Magic Keyboard still works. There is an imprecise fit, as Apple says, but it shouldn't be a deal-breaker for users looking to upgrade their iPad Pro without the need of a new $350 keyboard.
The new Magic Keyboard is functionally identical to the original but accounts for the thickness increase in the iPad Pro. Apple also introduced a new white Magic Keyboard with the new generation.
A niche Mac alternative seeking software
With all of the improvements, the iPad Pro still lacks software that makes all of these upgrades worth it. Apple describes the iPad as the future of computing but hasn't held up that statement with pro software.
We believe Apple has big plans for the future of iPad software, but we cannot review a device based on the promise of updates. We hope that WWDC will show us why Apple gave their tablet 16GB of RAM and a display that is better than any Mac.
Apple has breathed new life into the iPad Pro. We're more optimistic and hopeful than we've ever been before about what Apple has in store for iPadOS as well as the tablet line as a whole. This is the beginning of a new chapter for iPad.
- Incredible speed and potential with M1 processor
- Liquid Retina XDR display is a big upgrade for pros and content lovers
- Thunderbolt 3 unlocks a bigger peripheral market and productivity
- 5G is amazing for work on the go
- We love the new white Magic Keyboard
- Camera upgrade is substantial, including Center Stage
- Huge potential for high-end content creation
- Price hike on the 12.9-inch
- 12.9-inch thickness won't support some cases
- Apple still won't support with "pro" software
- Mini-LED not quite as good as OLED, still slight blooming
12.9-inch iPad Pro Pricing
You can purchase the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in space gray or silver and configure it with 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, or 2TB of storage. These models cost $1,099, $1,199, $1,399, $1,799, $2,199 respectively. Add $130 to the total if you want to add cellular to any model.