Back in September 2020, when Apple released a new version of the iPad Air with a look and feel nearly identical to the 11-inch iPad Pro, the latter suddenly seemed like a terrible purchase.
Apple has now unveiled upgraded versions of the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro with beefier specs that set them apart once again. The industrial design hasn’t changed, but these new iPad Pro models offer significant upgrades to the processor, camera technology, display, and more.
Most notably, the new iPad Pro models incorporate the M1 chip found in the latest updates to the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini, plus the just-announced 24-inch iMac. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro also borrows technology from Apple’s insanely expensive Pro Display XDR, for only a small price increase.
M1 Chip Comes to the iPad Pro
It seems fitting that the new iPad Pro models would gain the M1 chip, given that it was largely derived from the A-series chips powering earlier iPads. Apple poked fun at this in the event with a Mission Impossible-style video (starting at 37:26). The iPad and Mac lines have never been so tightly intertwined.
Compared to the A12Z Bionic chip powering the previous-generation iPad Pro models, the new models feature impressive specs, including an 8-core CPU with up to 50% faster CPU performance and an 8-core GPU with up to 40% faster GPU performance. This combo, Apple claims, widens the iPad Pro’s lead as the fastest device of its kind.
12.9-inch iPad Gets an XDR Display
The display on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro represents a significant upgrade derived from Apple’s Pro Display XDR. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s new Liquid Retina XDR display is notable for a vastly larger number of individual light-emitting diodes—more than 10,000 miniature LEDs, up from 72. Other specs include up to 1000 nits of full-screen brightness, 1600 nits of peak brightness, and a 1 million-to-1 contrast ratio. These, according to Apple, combine to offer true-to-life visuals with the brightest highlights and the most subtle details in even the darkest images.
It’s hard to know how much of a difference the Liquid Retina XDR display will make for most uses. If you think the display is the deciding factor between the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros, we encourage you to compare them with the same images or videos in person.
5G Wireless Data
The iPad has long offered cellular-data connectivity for those wanting online access on the go without needing to hunt down Wi-Fi hotspots. But, unlike the iPhone 12, even last year’s iPads lacked support for the speedy 5G service being offered in more places in the United States (see “The iPhone Gets 5G, but What’s It Like in Real-World Use?,” 19 November 2020).
That changes with the new iPad Pro models. They should be able to handle the various flavors of 5G being deployed by at least AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Apple was careful to note that the iPad Pro supports millimeter-wave 5G, the fastest variant available. That’s good news for those living in the growing number of US urban cores that enjoy such connectivity.
iPad Pros Switch to Thunderbolt
While it seemed forward-thinking when Apple switched the port on recent iPads from Lightning to USB-C, it was unclear why Apple didn’t go all the way to Thunderbolt 3. It now seems likely that the A-series chips lack a Thunderbolt controller, and thanks to the switch to the Thunderbolt-enabled M1 chip, Apple has finished the transition.
The new iPad Pro models now support Thunderbolt 3 and USB 4, giving them connectivity parity with Macs and other modern computers. Thunderbolt provides 40 Gbps of throughput—four times more wired bandwidth compared to previous iPad models.
Thunderbolt supports 10 Gbps Ethernet and opens up these iPad Pros to high-performance hardware, such as external storage devices and high-resolution external displays. They even support the Pro Display XDR at its full 6K resolution. How you’ll use all that bandwidth is another question, but at least the hardware is ready for iPadOS 15 to catch up.
Center Stage for Video Calls
Certain “smart displays” from the likes of Amazon, Facebook, and Google have lately provided camera-tracking technology for use during video calls. It helps keep participants in the field of view even if they move around.
Apple has no such product; it arguably doesn’t need one since the iPad fills that role reasonably well when paired with a stand. The new iPad Pro models significantly improve the videoconferencing story, thanks to a 12-megapixel Ultra Wide Camera that enables the new Center Stage feature.
According to Apple, the iPad Pro taps into the M1 chip’s machine-learning capabilities to recognize and keep participants centered. As people move around, Center Stage virtually pans and zooms to keep them in the shot. If others join in, the camera detects them as well and zooms out to fit everyone into the view.
Center Stage will work with Apple’s own FaceTime, of course, and the company says third-party videoconferencing services also will be supported.
The only question is why M1-based Macs don’t get Center Stage as well—perhaps that will happen in macOS 12.
iPad Pro Pricing, Availability
Pricing remains similar for the 11-inch iPad Pro, which starts at $799 with 128 GB of storage and goes up to $1899 with 2 TB. The Liquid Retina XDR screen increases the starting prices of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro by $100 to $1099 with 128 GB; it tops out at $2199 with 2 TB of storage.
Apple says that iPad Pro models with 128 GB, 256 GB, or 512 GB storage come with 8 GB of RAM, whereas models with 1 TB or 2 TB storage come with 16 GB of RAM. So that might be a reason to bump up the storage if you were debating between 512 GB and 1 TB.
The Wi-Fi + Cellular variants previously commanded a $150 premium; that has now risen to $200. However, if you activate with AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon, you can get $150 back from AT&T or $200 back from T-Mobile and Verizon.
Pre-orders for the new iPad Pro models open on 30 April 2021, and Apple says they’ll become available in the second half of May.
Apple’s Magic Keyboard is great for turning an iPad into a laptop-like device, though it’s pricey at $299. Tuesday’s event had a bit of news in this department: you can now get the Magic Keyboard in white. And if you already have a Magic Keyboard for a 12.9-inch iPad Pro, sorry, but you’ll need a new one since the new model is 0.5 mm thicker, just enough to mess up the zero-tolerance fit. The updated Magic Keyboard will work with older 12.9-inch iPad Pros, though.