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iPad Pro (2021) review: dream screen

Mini LED, major improvement

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How much do you care about having a great screen?

That, really, is the only question that matters with the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro. It has a new kind of display so good I think it is the best thing for watching movies that isn’t a high-end television. It starts at $1,099 for a 128GB version, but increased storage and accessories like a keyboard or the Apple Pencil can shoot the price up fairly quickly.

Both the 12.9 and the smaller 11-inch iPad Pro (which starts at $799) feature Apple’s M1 processor and some other updated specs, all of which are excellent. But even that fancy processor — the same as you’ll find in the new iMac, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini — doesn’t fundamentally change the story of what the iPad Pro is and what it can do.

It is an iPad, after all.

But the 12.9-inch version of the iPad Pro is an iPad with a very beautiful display. And so again, the question is what that screen means to the experience of using an iPad, especially since the price has jumped $100 compared to the last model. How much do you care about having a great screen?

Here is a very brief, wildly incomplete, and necessarily oversimplified education on flat panel screen technology. (Chris Welch has a longer one.)

There are two basic types you usually see, LCD and OLED. Both have pixels that combine red, green, and blue subpixels to create colors, but in order for you to actually see those colors the display pixels need to be lit up. OLED pixels are self-lit; LCD panels light up the display pixels by putting one, several, or many LED backlights behind them.

The benefit of LCD panels with LED backlighting is that they’re relatively inexpensive, long-lasting, bright, and unlikely to burn in. The benefit of OLED is that the black pixels are not lit at all, meaning you get superb contrast, but they are relatively expensive and don’t get as bright. Each technology’s strength is the other’s weakness.

Mini LED, the technology powering the 12.9-inch iPad Pro display, is designed to bring the LCD panel as close as possible to OLED’s contrast and black levels. Its display pixels are not self-lit, but instead lit from behind. The trick is that they’re lit by 10,000 tiny LED lights split up by software into 2,500 local dimming zones. It’s almost like the backlight itself is a lower-resolution screen behind the screen, tracking the image and making sure the black parts of the picture aren’t lit up.

https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/22524097/vpavic_210512_4592_0159.jpg
The iPad Pro models have the same shape, and though the 12.9 model is slightly thicker, it still worked with an old Magic Keyboard
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge
Both new iPad Pros. The 11-inch lacks Mini LED, but it still has a great screen with ProMotion.
Both new iPad Pros. The 11-inch lacks Mini LED, but it still has a great screen with ProMotion.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

I would never call the display on the 11-inch iPad Pro bad, because it’s a stellar display. But because it uses a more traditional LCD backlight system with fewer dimming zones, you can see that the blacks are actually just a little gray. On the 12.9-inch version, Mini LED lets blacks be truly black, offers a high contrast ratio, and can also get very bright.

Apple is calling this screen the “Liquid Retina XDR display.” And it has all the benefits of Apple’s previous iPad Pro displays: it’s very high resolution, color-accurate, and it has fairly good viewing angles. It supports ProMotion, Apple’s term for a variable refresh rate to increase smoothness and match the frame rate of videos. (“Liquid Retina,” as far as Apple has ever told us, refers to the Apple-specific method of making round corners on an LCD.)

The funny thing about the 12.9-inch iPad is that it is very easy to miss the benefits of Mini LED in normal day-to-day use. At first you don’t see it.

Sure, there’s great contrast when you’re browsing the web, texting, playing games, and so on, but really it’s not very different from any other iPad. Apple still limits the max brightness in most scenarios to 600 nits, which is bright enough but not eye-popping (the iPad and iPad Air max out at 500 nits).

The magic kicks in when you are viewing videos or photos in full-screen. When you do that, the iPad Pro kicks into a different HDR mode (or in Apple’s parlance, XDR, for “Extreme Dynamic Range”) that really is stunning. The overall max brightness of the screen jumps up to a powerful 1,000 nits and peak brightness for certain lighting can hit 1,600 nits.

You don’t see it until you see it — but then you see it.

The iPad Pro with the Liquid Retina XDR display
The iPad Pro with the Liquid Retina XDR display
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

The joke I’ve been telling people is that the display is so good that Tenet actually makes sense when you watch it on this iPad Pro. HDR content is incredible on this screen. I am not a display quality enthusiast, but this screen is functionally equivalent to a high-end OLED TV to my eyes, especially in a dark room.

If you are also not a display quality enthusiast, you might be left unimpressed with descriptions of nits and contrast ratios. I get it, but there are intangibles to the screen that I struggle to describe and have struggled even harder to capture in photos and video. For example, some colors just look better and more accurate to me, especially textured yellows. It just does a better job showing fine detail in situations where dark and light elements get mixed together, like with hair or a building reflecting sunlight.

Both Kindle and Apple Books in dark mode, in a very dark room, have a weird gray halo around text not due to normal blooming (Click to enlarge. Photo edited to best replicate what I saw with my eyes)
Both Kindle and Apple Books in dark mode, in a very dark room, have a weird gray halo around text not due to normal blooming (Photo edited to best replicate what I saw with my eyes)
Dieter Bohn / The Verge

The display isn’t perfect, of course. If you run a local dimming test you will see blooming on brightly lit pixels against a black background. I only noticed this when running tests that are specifically designed to surface blooming, though. In regular use, everything looked great, sharp, and evenly lit across the entire screen.

There was one odd bug I experienced. Putting either the Kindle app or Apple Books into dark mode and viewing them in a near-pitch black room, I noticed a strange gray haze around all of the text blocks. It’s too big to be blooming; it’s more like the local dimming algorithms got a little confused. It’s a minor thing that I hope gets fixed.

For me, the quality of the display when watching video on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is impressive, but it’s also not at the top of my list of priorities when picking a computer. I care a little more about portability, weight, and — yes — functionality.

So let’s talk about that M1 chip.

The iPad Pro is great for video editing
The iPad Pro is great for video editing
Photo by Kayla Murkison / The Verge

What does it really mean that the iPad Pro now has the same chip that powers Apple’s latest Mac computers?

It does not mean that iPads will be able to run Mac apps now. While Apple is happy to let the Mac run iPad apps and generally let you do whatever you want on it (except touch the screen), the iPad Pro continues to be a more, shall we say, curated experience.

One interesting consequence of the M1 is that for the first time in the history of iOS devices, Apple is publicly disclosing how much RAM these devices have. It’s 8GB on models with 512GB or fewer of storage and 16GB on models with 1TB or more. Whether or not that’s actionable information is another matter.

The M1 is obviously fast, and in benchmarks it’s faster than the last A12Z Bionic that Apple put in the previous iPad Pro models. But in my usage, I didn’t actually perceive any speed improvements in any of the apps that I use — because everything was already very fast on the iPad Pro. I got the exact same export speeds in Premiere Rush on the brand new 12.9-inch iPad Pro with the M1 as on my 2018 iPad Pro.

Both iPad Pro models have great cameras plus a LiDAR sensor
Both iPad Pro models have great cameras plus a LiDAR sensor
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge
The Apple Magic Keyboard, in white. It is still great but expensive.
The Apple Magic Keyboard, in white. It is still great but expensive.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge
The 2021 11-inch iPad Pro. This review has focused a lot on the 12.9, but other than the screen and size the 11-inch is the same.
The 2021 11-inch iPad Pro. This review has focused a lot on the 12.9, but other than the screen and size the 11-inch is the same.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Both the RAM and the M1 processor are specs that won’t make an appreciable difference to the vast majority of iPad users. They’re specs that will matter to certain “pro” users who have found specific apps and workflows that push the limit of what an iPad can do.

Apple touts soon-to-be released capabilities in apps like LumaFusion and AR effects, and I have no doubt that there are benefits for power users of those apps. For the rest of us, the reasons to get an iPad Pro are less about speeds and feeds and more about the overall experience.

Another consequence of the M1 is that the USB-C port now supports Thunderbolt accessories. In theory, that’s great. I plugged my iPad into my very fancy CalDigit TS3 Plus Thunderbolt dock and was gratified to see my monitor light up right away. From there, though, I ran into the same old iPad problems.

I have a USB microphone interface hooked into the dock, and for whatever reason I was unable to get any audio out of it on the iPad, just silence. I also tested out some admittedly old LaCie Thunderbolt 2 drives with an adapter and couldn’t get them to show up in the Files app. Oh and just to remind you: the monitor still can only mirror the iPad Pro — it can’t serve as a second display.

Similarly, the dock has an audio-out so it shows up as a speaker. On the Mac, I can easily change settings to let my computer know to play audio out of its own speakers since I don’t have anything hooked up to the dock for sound. Nothing doing on the iPad Pro — if there’s a setting that would let me move the audio back to the iPad’s own excellent speakers, I couldn’t find it. (Long pressing on the AirPlay icon in Control Center only listed the dock as an option.)

Seemingly every new iPad Pro inspires an admittedly exhausting but also necessary discussion about whether or not iPadOS is actually capable enough to justify the price of the hardware that runs it.

The M1 processor sharpens that discussion. To me, the biggest difference between the Mac and the iPad at this point isn’t the touchscreen, it’s Apple’s approach to the operating system. On the iPad, Apple would rather not offer a feature than have it work in a non-iPad way. That’s noble, but it means the company has committed itself to reinventing a lot of wheels in computing: files, peripheral support, multi-window interfaces, and all the rest have to be re-thought and re-done.

Sometimes that reinvention results in some genuinely great features. The iPad’s “windowing” system takes some getting used to and has its limitations, but it can be a joy to use and makes organizing your digital stuff a bit easier. The problem is that all that reinvention is taking a very long time — it’s been six years since the original iPad Pro.

Center Stage works very well to keep you in frame. And as a bonus, the camera doesn’t blank out when you multitask in Zoom calls anymore.
Center Stage works very well to keep you in frame. And as a bonus, the camera doesn’t blank out when you multitask in Zoom calls anymore.
GIF: Dieter Bohn

One new invention I love is the Center Stage feature. It zooms and follows human faces to keep them centered in the frame of the iPad’s wide-angle front facing camera. It works in any video conferencing app without the need for setup and it performs very well, better than similar features on smart displays like the Echo Show or Facebook Portal.

I’d love it even more if the front-facing cameras on the iPad Pro weren’t still in the wrong spot when attached to a keyboard — off to the side instead of centered on top. It’s great that the camera can keep my face centered in frame, it’s not so great that I am literally giving my coworkers the side-eye because I’m looking off to the right of where the cameras are to see their faces.

One more note: Apple has said that the original 12.9-inch Magic Keyboard “may not precisely fit when closed” as the new iPad Pro is slightly thicker. But when I tested it, I couldn’t discern any difference between the fit on the original and the new, white Magic Keyboard. Both worked — and closed — fine.

In any case, set aside the “What’s a computer” argument and let’s be more pragmatic. A 256GB 12.9-inch iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard costs $1,548. A 256GB MacBook Air with the same processor costs $999. And just to be realistic: most people can get more done on the Mac than on the iPad. Taken strictly as a work machine, the Mac wins out on both price and functionality.

That includes battery life, by the way. Both iPad Pros have good battery life, but it’s not significantly improved over previous iPads. And as many people have discovered during the pandemic, if you actually use the iPad for work all day (especially if you do a lot of Zoom calls), the iPad Pro can conk out in eight hours or less. The MacBook Air edges it out.

Last and certainly not least, Apple’s refusal to offer multi-user support on the iPad has gone from being mystifying to obstinate. The company clearly intends this to be a single-user device, despite the fact that it would theoretically make for an even more compelling family computer than the pastel-colored iMacs that share the same processor.

Typing on the iPad Pro
Typing on the iPad Pro
Photo by Kayla Murkison / The Verge

But to give Apple the benefit of the doubt here, if you’re looking strictly at the iPad Pro as a work machine, you’re probably missing the point. The iPad Pro is simply a more beautiful, more premium object than even Apple’s own laptops.

It’s easy to take for granted, but the hardware in this tablet really is amazing: Face ID, dual rear cameras that are quite good and paired with LiDAR, quad speakers with superb sound and decent volume, excellent microphones, support for the Apple Pencil, the best screen you can get on a portable device, and on and on.

The reason to get the iPad Pro 12.9 (or even the 11) is simply to get the best, nicest iPad. Unless you can specifically answer right now which app in your workflow is slowed down by the specs on a lesser iPad, the $599 iPad Air or even the $329 base iPad offer the same core features that most people really use.

Except for a slim minority of people, the justification for getting an iPad Pro isn’t its feature set, it’s the experience of using a well-made, high-end object. Until I hit the limits of iPadOS (which I hit regularly), I enjoy using an iPad Pro more than I do any other computer.

The wonderful Mini LED display on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro doesn’t change any of those equations, it just makes the nicest iPad Pro even nicer. And so my yearly refrain about the iPad Pro remains. If you want the very best iPad, this is the very best iPad.

Just remember, it’s an iPad.

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