IPad Pro 12.9” 5th Gen (2021) Review
At £999 the iPad Pro 12.9” is not an impulse buy, but is the new M1-powered tablet worth it? Coming from an original 2015 iPad Pro 12.9” I was eager to see what difference six years and five generations would make, and what tasks that I would usually do on a laptop that could now comfortably be done on the iPad Pro, coupled with the new Magic Keyboard.
Apple launched their first M1-powered iPad in April 2021, following on from the processor’s successful inclusion in the MacBooks late in the previous year. The M1 is a real powerhouse of a processor, and for most people would be absolute overkill in a tablet. Let’s face it, most of us use a tablet as a media consumption device rather than a computer to ‘get stuff done’.
What’s in the box?
While iPhones no longer come with a power supply (or headphones – they were removed a couple of years back), the iPad still comes with both the power supply and cable. The 5th gen iPad is supplied with a small power brick with USB C input alongside a separate USB C to USB C cable. Aside from the iPad Pro itself the only other contents are the (rather scant) documentation.
There’s not much change to last year’s model, but a significant change to the first generation 2015 iPad Pro. The original’s edges were rounded, making it feel slimmer, despite the fact that the 2021 model is actually 0.5mm thinner. It’s lighter too, at 682g versus 713g. As there’s no longer a home button the bezels are smaller as well, bringing the dimensions down from 305.7mm x 220.6mm to 280.6mm to 214.9mm, so around 5mm in width and 25mm in height. The original iPad Pro had the smart connector along the side, but the new model now has it on the rear.
With the Magic Keyboard the iPad Pro 5th gen is significantly thicker and heavier than my iPad Pro 1st gen and case.
The power and volume buttons all remain in their familiar positions, top and right, as does the cable port. Of course, there’s now no longer a 3.5mm jack, so any audio connectivity will have to be done wirelessly. Along the right edge (which is the top when in landscape mode) is where the Apple Pencil 2 connects. As a side note, it’s annoying that the original Apple Pencil no longer works. This connected via Lightning, so would not connect to the new USB C port, but it’s still frustrating that an expensive device that I only used occasionally is now rendered obsolete through this upgrade. (Thankfully my daughter is getting the original iPad, and will make use of the pencil as well).
The iPad Pro boast four speakers, located top and bottom on each side. They’ve always sounded good and this new iPad is no exception. Stereo sound is extremely accurately placed and it’s surprisingly loud for such a small, narrow device. There’s also five studio quality microphones for calls and video/audio recordings.
The front-facing camera is still positioned at the top (in portrait mode). One drawback is that if you pick the iPad up in landscape mode with your left hand you’ll likely be covering the lens, so Facetime won’t work. The screen will helpfully prompt with an arrow to remind you, but it’s still a little jarring that you have to reposition your hands.
The rear-facing camera bump is significantly larger on the 5th gen versus 1st gen, which had a single lens setup with no flash, and sports a square bump similar to the iPhone 12.
One word: gorgeous. While the resolution is unchanged at 2732 x 2048 the new mini-LED display is a massive step up from the original. The brightness levels are considerably greater than the 11” model, at 1600 nits with HDR, and a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. I ran a YouTube 4K video simultaneously on both screens on full brightness and the newer mini-LED literally lit up. While it was not a night and day difference, as the Pro screens have always been excellent, you could see the difference in brightness and the 120MHz refresh rate made it look more like you were looking through a window than at a video on a screen.
Left - iPad Pro 1st Gen 2015. Right iPad pro 5th Gen 2021. Much brigher and more contrast
There is one issue that is noticeable when watching, say, movie end credits – blooming. This is where there’s a glow around the text against a dark background, rather than stark white on black. You’ll only really notice this in a very dark environment, but if you like to watch movies in bed then this is something that you may feel a little aggrieved about paying top notch prices for a screen that has such a visible ‘issue’. I suspect that Apple will move to OLED sooner rather than later, as they have with certain iPhone models, but right now it would be cost-prohibitive for the iPad.
As mentioned earlier, the 2021 iPad Pro at 682g is 31g lighter than the 1st gen model, however add on the 710g of the Magic Keyboard and their combined weight is greater than the 13” MacBook Air. When using the iPad Pro separately you will notice that weight drop, but if you are looking for a laptop replacement there is a trade-off to be made between the flexibility of having a 2-in-1 device versus one that heavier than something it may aim to replace.
The new iPad Pro boast a wide (12mp, f/1.8 aperture) and ultra-wide (10mp, f/2.4 aperture and 125 degree view) setup on the rear, with 2x optical zoom/5x digital zoom. Panorama can deliver up to 63 megapixels. The app will film up to 4K at 60fps, and boost slow-mo to 240 fps, video stabilisation and stereo sound recording. The front-facing camera delivers 12mp and all the usual mod-cons such as portrait mode, but now also include ‘centre stage’, using the new 122 degree front-facing lens to pan and zoom to keep one or more people in shot when on a video call. Note that this will only work with apps updated to take advantage of this feature, but no doubt all of the big names will scramble to support it.
1st Gen iPad Pro Video
5th Gen 2021 iPad Pro
Here I had some fun and games, although it was of my own making. I decided to copy the contents of my old iPad to the new using the direct (wireless) data transfer option. This worked up to the point where I realised that I was running iPad OS 14.6 Beta on the old iPad, and 14.5.1 on the new. Computer said No… Two hours later and a quick online chat with Apple’s (consistently excellent) online chat system and I’d rolled back iPad OS to 14.5.1, kept all of the data and managed to transfer it successfully. It would have been nice if Apple’s migration software had detected this issue up-front rather than further down the line, but then I was the one that installed the beta software.
We’ve already established that the Magic Keyboard adds a certain heft to the overall package, but is it worth it? I did wonder if I would suffer ‘buyer’s remorse’, but so far it’s been a joy to use. The weight is necessary to counter-balance the iPad, but I found no stability issues when typing on my lap when sat on the sofa with my legs at a downward angle. Some people have complained about the lack of shortcut function keys, but there simply wouldn’t have been room, as your fingers would have been hitting the bottom of the screen to access them.
The iPad connects solidly to the keyboard using magnets, with the camera notch slotting in to a hole top-left. I once accidentally tried to connect it upside down, which is semi-possible, but the right way up it connects easily first time, every time. On the left of the ‘spine’ is a USB C port used for power, which keeps the USB C port on the iPad Pro free for other accessories. This is especially useful given the power of the new Thunderbolt connection, allowing the iPad to drive up to a 6K external screen.
I was especially pleased that my HP Spectre external mini hub worked with the iPad. I connected it and then plugged in a couple of USB memory sticks, which were immediately visible in the Files app and I was able to instantly play movies stored on them.
The keyboard is easy to type on, albeit noisier than my HP Spectre laptop, and the trackpad is outstanding – extremely fluid. It’s multi-touch too, so two fingers will scroll and three will multi-task. I was pleasantly surprised with how quick I got used to the trackpad, to the point that when the iPad is attached to the keyboard I rarely feel the need to touch the screen as there is generally a way to do it quicker on the trackpad or keyboard than reaching up. Oh, and CMD and Tab works the same as ALT and Tab on Windows – very useful! You can also configure a single tap to emulate a ‘left mouse click’, which personally I think would be better enabled by default – it’s tucked away under Settings | General | Trackpad.
The keyboard backlight is automatic, lighting up when ambient light dims, and this is also adjustable under Settings.
There are a few minor irregularities in comparison to the standard Windows layout that I’m used to. There’s only a ‘delete left’ key, where Windows has backspace and delete. Also, where I’d press Shift, CTRL and Left Arrow to select the word to the left of the cursor I now have to use the right Option key, Shift and Left Arrow, which is not yet coming naturally to me!
Comparison of app performance
The table below was created after all apps were closed on each machine and both were rebooted. Both were running iPad OS 14.5.1.
IPad Pro 1st Gen 2015
IPad Pro 5th Gen 2021
I tested a number of other apps and there was very little in it. Both camera apps, for example, opened and were ready to shoot in under a second.
Can the iPad Pro replace a laptop?
There’s no doubt that the iPad Pro 5th gen is a beast of a machine. Couple it with the Magic Keyboard and it does become a viable alternative for a laptop for some tasks, if you can forgive the weight. And here’s the thing – for certain tasks the iPad Pro is better than a laptop, for some it’s comparable, for some it’s worse and for others it’s not even an option.
For example, I’ve written this entire article on the iPad; probably the first time I’ve typed anything of length on it (as, to be fair, I never used an external keyboard with my original iPad Pro). Aside from it taking me a couple of minutes to find out how to change text to a heading the rest of the app was intuitive and not too far removed from Word on Windows. I’d have no issue with doing any work in Word or Excel, although the iPad version is missing some features of its desktop equivalent. (I don’t use Page and Numbers, as I use MS Office on my PC and laptop). Note that not all MS Office apps are available for iPad – there’s no Publisher or Access, for example.
Move on to apps such as Photoshop and it gets a little greyer. Don’t expect it to mirror its PC counterpart – the interface is significantly different, and I struggled to even perform basic navigation. If you rely on tooltips to remind you of a feature you will be left wanting! Granted, watching a few tutorial videos would solve this, but given that I’ve been using Photoshop for 25+ years I assumed that the learning curve would not be that steep. Again, it doesn’t have all of the features of the desktop version, so you may hit a roadblock if you are a heavy user.
Of course, there are benefits to a touch interface, especially if you are a (good) designer and invest in the Apple Pencil (which I have not). I do intend to take the time to use all of the Adobe Creative Cloud apps for iPad, as the combination of touch and keyboard/trackpad control give you the best of both worlds.
And then there’s the things that you simply cannot do on an iPad. For me, that largely boils down to web development. On my PC I’m running a web server, SQL Server, ColdFusion and PHP in order to edit web pages. This is a no-no on the iPad Pro. At a stretch I could get a program on the App Store that would allow me to edit HTML pages, but I would not be able to test them locally. There are other apps that I also use that are not available on the App Store, such as CorelDraw, Virtual Box (for running virtual machines) and apps for the company that I work for (and therefore often run/test).
If the iPad Pro were running MacOS I would still have the issue that some of my apps would not be available, but I could at least run Windows under emulation (e.g., Parallels). But then again, I may as well just fire up my laptop for that. It seems that the new M1 iPad Pro is now being held back by limitations of iPad OS. It will be interesting to see if WWDC 2021 will pull iPad OS closer to Mac OS.
For me, it’s about using the right tool for the job. When I travel, I will most likely take both my laptop and my iPad Pro. I may well use them together, with the iPad Pro being a second monitor (using the excellent XDisplay by SplashTop). There will be some tasks that I’ll pick up the iPad for, and this is mainly down to its speed of powering up and opening an app. I tend to power my laptop down when not in use, so to boot up and open Word or Outlook will take a minute or two. With the iPad Pro I can be on and in a relevant app within 10 seconds.
There are tasks that previously I would have endured that lengthy boot up on the laptop rather than use the iPad OS on-screen keyboard for any period of time. In that regard the Magic Keyboard is a game-changer. Now, I am far more likely to pull the iPad Pro out to fire off a quick email or perform any browser-based tasks as it will be the better weapon of choice. But I would stop short of leaving the laptop at home as there may well be some tasks that, armed with an iPad alone, I would not be able to undertake. There is a way around that – leave the PC at home powered on a connect over Remote Desktop, but I’d rather not leave a computer powered up for days on end on the off chance that I may need it.
iPad Pro Storage
You can now purchase an iPad Pro with anywhere from 128GB through to a whopping 2TB of storage, but for the latter on the 12.9” iPad you’ll pay an extra £1000. Yes, £1000 just for 2TB of storage!
Although I plan to do some video editing on my Pro I opted for the smallest 128GB model. The reason behind this is that with all of my apps installed I had over 99GB left. I’ll only ever use the iPad to work on singular projects on the go, so can archive projects immediately once done. Also, as the iPad can recognise external storage devices such as USB C/Thunderbolt hard discs (or traditional drives connected via USB C hub) I can easily move content on and off using the iPadOS Files app. As I also have 1TB of OneDrive space I can easily offload content wirelessly.
An hour of 4K video at 60fps will take around 24GB. Drop that to 1080p at 30fps and you’re looking at 3.5GB per hour.
Remember though that you cannot work directly off the external hard drive – files have to be copied onto the iPad, used within the app and then deleted, so you need a bit of buffer space to work with.
It is testament to the original iPad that I initially did not think that the new machine would make that much of a difference. After all, we’re just talking about a slightly smaller footprint, better screen, faster processor and better camera, right? True, but throw the magic keyboard into the mix and it really muddies the waters.
While the iPad Pro is not ever going to replace my PC altogether, it’s now much more of an all-rounder for more tasks than ever before. iPad OS is maturing, and, given the sheer horsepower of the new M1 processor I am sure that Apple have some tricks up their sleeves in June 2021 to take more advantage of this.
I would stop short of maxing out the credit card on the higher capacity iPads unless you KNOW you need it. As mentioned earlier, I still had plenty of space left. With the new Thunderbolt connection you can easily connect an external SSD if you plan to edit movies or work with large files.
So, should you buy an iPad Pro over, say, an Air? Should you upgrade from an older model? For most people the Air will be more than enough, but if you want the absolute best screen, best processor, best camera and best audio then crack open the wallet a little further. For me, I wanted the 12.9” display as a second screen when I travel, but the decision may not have been so clear if I were considering the smaller screen.
Do I regret my £1329 purchase? No. The original iPad Pro lasted my six years, and hopefully will continue on for several more (albeit probably without further updates from Apple). The addition of the Magic Keyboard has added another dimension that makes the iPad more of a go-to machine than ever before. I’ve found myself more frequently reaching for the iPad for tasks that I’d previously only performed on the laptop. It’s becoming more versatile, and the M1 process means that the hardware now outperforms the OS. Hopefully iPad OS 15 will help to narrow the gap, but in the meantime if you are looking for a high-end, future-proofed tablet that maxes out in every area then you won’t be disappointed.
June 2021 saw the announcement of iPadOS 15, and while it has a number of welcome features I felt that there was nothing standout that drastically narrows the gap between a tablet and PC. The multi-tasking features will be of use, but they are evolution rather than revolution. Developers will be able to take advantage of more RAM than before, which will be more beneficial on the iPads with 16GB of RAM, but aside from that there was little else. Each of the core apps saw incremental features, such as text identification within photos and the notes that can be brought up by swiping from the bottom-right corner, and again these will add some benefit, but iPadOS 15 will not drastically change what you can do on a iPad. Roll on WWDC 2022!