Apple iPad Pro 2021 (11-inch) Review: Untapped Potential

Apple iPad Pro 2021 (11-inch) Review: Untapped Potential

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The iPad Pro series has always had the most powerful Apple silicon, and in this year’s refresh, it gets Apple’s M1 SoC which we’ve already seen run circles around Intel CPUs in devices such as the MacBook Air, Mac mini, and most recently, the iMac. Along with a better processor, the new iPads also have more RAM, a Thunderbolt port, a new Face ID camera, and optional 5G connectivity.

These features can be found in both the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro this year, with the only real difference between the two sizes being the display technology. The 12.9-inch model gets a new ‘Liquid Retina XDR’ display which uses mini-LED backlighting for higher brightness and contrast levels, making it ideal for editing and viewing HDR content. As much as I was looking forward to testing this, it’s not the iPad Apple sent me, so for this review, I will be testing the 11-inch model with its standard ‘Liquid Retina’ LCD panel.

While iPads were not initially designed to replace laptop computers, the new Pro models seem to have hardware that could rival the MacBook Air. Plus, with accessories such as the Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard, you could technically use an iPad Pro as a laptop. The big question is, should you?

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The 2021 iPad Pro (11-inch) looks very similar to the 2020 model

 

Apple iPad Pro 2021 (11-inch) India pricing and variants

The iPad Pro 2021 (11-inch) starts at Rs. 71,900 for the 128GB Wi-Fi only model, and the cost increases dramatically as you go up the storage ladder. Apple, for the first time, clearly states the difference in RAM between variants. The 128GB, 256GB and 512GB storage variants have 8GB of RAM, while the 1TB and 2TB variants have 16GB. The cellular (5G) models cost an additional Rs. 14,000 over the Wi-Fi models, across all storage variants.

As a result, the iPad Pro (11-inch) can get very expensive. The 1TB 5G variant that Apple sent me costs a crazy Rs. 1,48,900. This is premium Ultrabook or even MacBook Pro territory, and we’ve not yet accounted for any accessories, which you’ll definitely need if you want to take full advantage of this device. The 2021 iPad Pros are still only available in two colours — Silver and Space Grey.

Apple iPad Pro 2021 (11-inch) design

At first glance, the 2021 iPad Pro (11-inch) looks identical to the 2020 model. However, there are some subtle differences. While the overall size and thickness are identical, the new 11-inch model is 5g lighter (468g vs 473g for the 5G versions of each). The design includes a matte-finished aluminium body with exposed antenna bands along the flattened sides and a pill-shaped cutout on the right for additional 5G antennas.

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The 2021 iPad Pro (11-inch) is surprisingly slim and light for a tablet of its size

 

There are four speakers in total, a Thunderbolt port (Type-C) at the bottom, and a SIM tray on the right. The Indian cellular models (A2459) support one eSIM and a physical SIM, so it should be possible to switch between networks when you travel, but you can’t use both networks actively (dual-SIM mode) like on an iPhone. Sub-6GHz 5G is supported by the units sold in India, but mmWave 5G is only available on units sold in the US. The back of the iPad Pro has a dual camera bump in the top-right corner, a large Apple logo in the middle, and three contact pins at the bottom for connecting to accessories.

The display is identical to that of last year’s iPad Pro, which is still one of the best you’ll find on a tablet – second only to Apple’s new 12.9-inch iPad Pro. The 11-inch Liquid Retina display uses an IPS LCD panel with a 2,388×1,668 pixel resolution. It supports features that we’ve seen on previous Pro models such as a 120Hz refresh rate, 600nits of brightness, True Tone colour temperature adjustment, and full coverage of the P3 wide colour gamut. The display has rounded corners just like the frame. There are thick black bezels, which makes good ergonomic sense on a tablet.

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The pins at the back of the 2021 iPad Pro (11-inch) help it power accessories such as Apple’s Magic Keyboard

 

The iPad Pro 11-inch has a TrueDepth camera setup on the front for Face ID, but with a new 12-megapixel sensor and a new feature called Centre Stage – more on this later. In the box, you’ll find the usual documentation, a 20W charger, and a USB Type-C to Type-C cable. Overall, the new 2021 iPad Pro (11-inch) isn’t too different on the outside, but it’s the changes on the inside that make it special.

Apple iPad Pro 2021 (11-inch) specifications and software

The biggest upgrade with this generation is of course Apple’s new M1 SoC, which is said to deliver up to 50 percent faster CPU and up to 40 percent faster GPU performance compared to the A12Z Bionic SoC in the 2020 iPad Pros. Not that anyone is really complaining about last year’s models being sluggish, but more performance is never a bad thing. Unlike some of Apple’s base model Mac computers, for which Apple has used M1 chips with a 7-core integrated GPU instead of 8 cores, all variants of the 11-inch iPad Pro get the full 8-core GPU. The amount of RAM does vary though, as we mentioned earlier.

The iPad Pro 2021 also supports Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5. There’s a LiDAR scanner in the rear camera cluster. There are five microphones which promise studio-quality sound recording and far-field Siri activation. The USB Type-C connector now supports Thunderbolt 3 and USB 4 protocols just like Apple’s Mac computers. This allows for higher bandwidth connections, so you can now do things like connect to Apple’s own Pro Display XDR at its full 6K resolution.

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The 2021 iPad Pro (11-inch) has a bright display and the iPadOS software supports basic multitasking

 

The iPad Pro 2021 (11-inch) runs iPadOS 14 (tested on 14.6) which feels polished and refined. Multitasking is possible thanks to features such as Split View and Slide Over, which take some time to get used to, but work well once you get the hang of them. You can have the widget bar permanently displayed on the home screen (when in landscape mode) or choose to access it with a right swipe. The overall usage experience isn’t much different from the iPad Air (2020) we reviewed earlier this year, except that system animations and scrolling are a lot more fluid thanks to the high refresh rate. Sadly, some basic apps such as a calculator and weather forecast are still missing, so you’ll have to download alternatives for these.

Apple’s upcoming iPadOS 15 update will introduce plenty of new features for the iPad such as the ability to place widgets anywhere on the home screen (like the iPhone), new accessibility controls for Split View and Slide Over, and plenty more that are common to the upcoming iOS 15 update.

Apple iPad Pro 2021 (11-inch) performance

Let’s tackle this section in two usage scenarios — first, when using the iPad Pro as a regular tablet and second, as a productivity machine with the optional Magic Keyboard and Pencil.

As a tablet, I was quite surprised at how light the new iPad Pro 2021 model is, considering its size. Holding it one hand and using it didn’t get fatiguing even after long stretches. Touch response was excellent and the interface felt incredibly snappy on this 16GB RAM variant. There is a high chance of blocking the FaceID sensor when using the iPad Pro in landscape orientation, but the UI gives you a little prompt to alert you of this when unlocking the iPad or signing in to apps.

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Games look and run great on the 2021 iPad Pro (11-inch)

 

The display has very good colour calibration out-of-the-box, and brightness is more than adequate. Colours looked vivid and punchy without going overboard. Games and videos looked great on the iPad Pro 2021’s display too. Asphalt 9: Legends and Call of Duty: Mobile ran very well and looked superb. Audio quality from the four speakers was very good too, with clear vocals and mid-range frequencies, although the bass felt a bit weak. The brute force of the M1 SoC really shows in benchmarks. The M1 iPad Pro (11-inch) scored 10,41,519 points in AnTuTu, compared to 6,48,660 points from the 2020 iPad Air with the A14 Bionic SoC and about 7,00,000 points from a 2020 iPad Pro (11-inch).

The cameras on the iPad Pro (11-inch) are among the best you’ll find on any tablet. The rear camera hardware hasn’t changed compared to last year’s model, but there is support for Smart HDR 3 this time for photos. You get a 12-megapixel main camera without OIS which can record up to 4K 60fps video, a 10-megapixel ultra-wide camera, and the True Tone flash. It would have been nice to have Night mode or the ability to shoot Dolby Vision HDR video on this year’s Pro model, but you can’t.

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For a tablet, the 2021 iPad Pro’s cameras are very good

 

One annoyance I faced is that the camera app doesn’t let you change the resolution or frame rate from the viewfinder in video mode, forcing you to go to the main iOS Settings app. Image and video quality was very good for a tablet. AR apps and games work best on the Pro models thanks to the LiDAR sensor, which creates a more accurate virtual map of the room you’re in. Angry Birds AR was fun to play, and apps such as JigSpace allow you to visualise realistic 3D renditions of objects. Apple Clips has some cool AR filters too, which are rendered nicely on the iPad Pro.

2021 iPad Pro (11-inch) rear camera sample

2021 iPad Pro (11-inch) front camera sample

 

The front camera has a new 12-megapixel sensor with a 122-degree field of view. It also supports Smart HDR 3 and can record video at up to 1080p. There’s also a new feature called Centre Stage. It uses AI to detect your face and keep it centred in the frame at all times. If you move around, it will automatically crop and reframe the shot to make sure you’re still in the centre. It works pretty well in apps such as FaceTime, Zoom, and Cisco WebEx Meet, and can be toggled on or off if needed.

The iPad Pro 2021 (11-inch) has absolutely no trouble pulling off regular tablet duties, but now with a performance-shattering SoC like the M1 inside, many might be wondering if the iPad Pro can be used as a laptop replacement to do more intensive tasks. In my opinion, this solution is still a mixed bag and while it may work for some, it won’t necessarily suit everyone.

I’ve been using the Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil (2nd Gen) with the iPad Pro (11-inch) for a few weeks. During this time I rarely had to fall back to my MacBook Air for work purposes, unlike my experience with the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 FE (Review). This is because most of the apps that I rely on for work are already optimised for Apple’s tablets, which cannot be said for the Android ecosystem. Slack, Pages, Microsoft Word, etc work very well even when using them in Split View or Slide Over modes.

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The optional Magic Keyboard lets you use the 2021 iPad Pro (11-inch) as a laptop 

 

There are some exceptions though, such as Zomato and Instagram, which only run in portrait mode and are clearly just iOS apps blown up for the big screen. My USB Type-C hub was recognised properly too, and through it, I was able to read SD cards, pen drives, etc via the Files app.

The Apple Magic Keyboard also works with last year’s 11-inch iPad Pro and the iPad Air (2020). It’s great for typing and is very well built, although it does have its share of glaring issues for the steep price it commands, which we’ve talked about in detail in our iPad Air (2020) review. The Pencil is a nice accessory to have (albeit expensive) if you’re into drawing or sketching. I didn’t end up using it much during my testing period, but that’s just me.

While I had no trouble getting my daily work done purely on the iPad Pro, it still feels as though the M1 SoC is being severely under-utilised. Keep in mind that while Apple uses the M1 name for the same chip used across the latest iPad Pro, Mac Mini, iMac, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models, Apple does not publish speeds or other specifications. These all have different thermal constraints and you won’t get exactly the same amount of sustained processing power on all these devices.

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The optional Apple Pencil is a useful tool if you’re into drawing or sketching

 

Apple says that a lot of pro apps such as LumaFusion for video editing, Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop for photo editing, Procreate for graphic design, etc, have been optimised for M1, which is great, but I would have loved the option of using full-fledged desktop apps on the iPad. It doesn’t seem as though this will happen even when iPadOS 15 is out later this year.

For instance, Adobe Premiere Rush works fine on the iPad Pro and I was able to edit and scrub through multiple high-resolution streams from a GoPro Hero9 Black and a GoPro Fusion without any issues. However, imagine being able to use the desktop version of Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere on an iPad. While you can find decent alternatives for such apps for the iPad, you’ll most likely have to adapt to a different workflow, not to mention purchase these apps separately.

You also don’t get full multitasking or file system access in iPadOS like you would on a Mac. Another feature that’s still sorely missing is true external monitor support. Yes, you can mirror the iPad Pro to an external display, but what we need is the ability to use an external monitor without needing the iPad’s display to be on all the time.

Apple iPad Pro 2021 (11-inch) battery life

Apple claims up to 10 hours of battery life with either web usage or video watching, and in my testing, I found these claims to be pretty accurate. In fact, I often ended up getting close to 12 hours of runtime on a single charge. This number dipped a bit if I used a lot of AR or video editing apps, but overall, battery life was more than satisfactory. The iPad Pro (11-inch) ran for just under 11 hours in our HD video loop test. I was even more impressed with the battery life during actual usage considering I had the iPad Pro (11-inch) docked to the Magic Keyboard almost constantly, and I also charged the Apple Pencil from time to time.

Apple still bundles a charger in the box (20W) unlike with its iPhones, and using it, I was able to charge the iPad Pro (11-inch) up to 54 percent in an hour and about 97 percent in two hours. If you have a higher wattage USB-PD charger, you can charge the iPad Pro quicker. Using the OnePlus 65W fast charger and a third-party charging cable, the iPad Pro (11-inch) charged up to 63 percent in an hour and reached 100 percent in well under two hours.

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While the 2021 iPad Pro (11-inch) can be used as a laptop, the M1 MacBook Air is still the more sensible choice

 

Verdict

Apple really hit a home run with the M1 SoC and it’s only natural to see this chip transition to multiple devices. I wouldn’t be surprised to see future iPhone Pro models get a version of this SoC too. However, if you were expecting to see a massive jump in app performance or battery life between an M1-based iPad Pro and the 2020 iPad Pro with the A12Z Bionic, then you might be disappointed. I am referring specifically to the 11-inch model here, as I haven’t used the new 12.9-inch model with the fancy mini-LED display.

The iPad Pro line has always had best-in-class Apple SoCs but have also always been held back by iPadOS and iPad apps. It doesn’t seem that iPadOS 15 will bring any major changes in the way you use an iPad or the kind of apps you can get, which means the new iPad Pros have a lot of untapped potential that’s just waiting for software to catch up. You might see performance benefits in certain M1-optimised apps compared to the 2020 iPad Pros, but the difference might barely be noticeable unless your workloads can take advantage of them.

The sad truth is that we may never get desktop-class apps on the iPad, no matter how powerful the iPad gets, for one simple reason — Apple also sells laptops and desktop computers, and it wouldn’t want the iPad to cannibalise the sales of its other products.

If you’ve already sunk a good chunk of change into a 2020 iPad Pro (11-inch) then it’s safe to skip the 2021 model. Unless you’re facing performance issues in the apps you use regularly (which should be rare), I don’t think the M1 11-inch model will change your life in any way. If your workflow involves editing HDR content on the go, you might possibly benefit by upgrading to the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro instead, but keep in mind that you’ll have to adapt your workflow to iPad apps.

For most people looking to experience the power of Apple’s M1 SoC, I think the best option is still the MacBook Air. It’s the most-value-for-money Apple computer you can currently buy and is way more versatile in terms of software and usability than an iPad. The new 2021 iPad Pro (11-inch) is a great device, but if you’re going to be spending this kind of money on a tablet, you might as well go all-in and consider the larger 12.9-inch model for its better display. If it’s just the compact form factor you’re after and don’t mind compromising on a few features, the current-gen iPad Air is the next best thing.

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