It’s impossible to not start this review with a spoiler. Yes, the new iPad Pro in our test configuration is ridiculously good, but also outrageously expensive, so if you want to make sense of the 4 stars, you ought to give us four minutes of your life. Starting now….
Sure, it’s the same old annual ritualistic update, but with a twist. A couple actually. First is the much-touted and easy to fall in love with Apple M1 chip. It makes its debut on the iPad range with this Pro model and complements the MacOS family, hinting that Apple is making a serious push for iPad Pro becoming a real substitute for a laptop, even for hardcore professionals. Seen and heard that before, so let’s skim over the other big new feature - the display.
While the 11in iPad Pro gets the still brilliant Liquid Retina (LCD) screen, this souped-up 12.9in model gets the Liquid Retina XDR display where XDR stands for Extended Dynamic Range. It demands more words from my end and a bit more attention from yours, so bear with me here…
Screen of the Gods
Unless you’ve worked in a video mastering room, it’s unlikely you’ve seen anything that is remotely close to true-HDR, at least in terms of whitepaper spec requirements. Dolby Vision and other HDR standards have been developed keeping in mind a standard of up to 4,000nits of peak brightness and no consumer monitor can deliver that. At best, our HDR televisions and displays output 500-1000nits, so the fact that this new iPad Pro can reach up to 1,600nits of peak brightness is a pretty big deal.
It’s the first time most of us will experience what REAL HDR can look like, and what it does to your images and video is breathtaking. Apple had to reinvent processes that would make this possible and shoehorn an already cutting-edge tech to fit into the dimensions (and thickness) of the iPad Pro. Mini-LED is the tech that comes to the rescue here and it’s an in-between solution to OLED and conventional LED.
Most of us may have experienced OLED and while it has stunning contrast and inky blacks, brightness is not its strongest suit. LEDs, on the other hand, can go plenty bright but that brightness also tends to make the blacks look...less black and more dark grey. Mini-LED changes that by grouping the 10,000 mini-LEDs into 2,500 local dimming zones, allowing them to be controlled in a far more precise manner over the length and breadth of the display. This basically means that the iPad Pro has immense control over which parts of the screen should be pitch black (mini-LEDs off) and which parts need maximum illumination (mini-LEDs on), without bleeding into each other.
Compare this to about 800 to 1,000 dimming zones even in the best of consumer LED TVs, and you may start understanding why this is such a big deal. On the 12.9in iPad Pro, holding the device in your hand and watching an HDR image is like being transported in the moment, no kidding. Images can’t do justice to the profound effect it has on HDR content.
Take our sample image (shot on iPhone 12 Pro Max with HDR) for example. The chrome lining around the window frame almost makes you squint, like in real life, because the sunlight reflecting off it is just so bright! The stone chips that make up the surface have a shimmering quality to them that is just lacking in the 2020 iPad Pro and the contrast and highlights in the sky and in the details of the car are just so much more defined and realistic. It doesn’t sacrifice detail, accuracy and nuance for just an overwhelmingly bright screen, it’s the delicate balance of perfect colours made even more punchier with the power of precisely controlled intensity that makes it so compelling. Mind you, the peak brightness of 1,600nits is reserved for portions of the screen that need it, managing efficiency too.
Watching HDR movies is similarly epic where the contrast levels are simply staggering and the black is as good as OLED. But when juxtaposed with an explosion in the night, for example, the brightness and colour accuracy of the flames just blows you away, heightening your senses in a way you never thought a portable device could.
Combine this visual treat with an AirPods Max for content in Spatial Audio and I swear I could be tempted to use this more often than my Dolby Atmos home-theatre system! Alternatively, with a gamepad, it also serves as a fantastic gaming device now, especially with games like Divinity Original Sin that also make use of the adaptive triggers on the PS5 Dualsense controller. With the ProMotion screen ensuring buttery smooth gameplay, and the M1 promising 40% faster graphics, Arcade games are a riot and the perfect excuse for mini breaks during long WFH hours.
Apple has always made great displays for all its devices and while the 2020 iPad Pro LCD display was great, once you experience the Liquid Retina XDR, you can’t unsee it. That’s what makes a lot of us suckers for Apple right? They make one change with every iteration, but that one change revolutionises the game, and if you’re a geek, you just can’t resist. The XDR display is just that...makes you want to buy the product just because of that one change.
Of course, it also uses the ProMotion 120Hz refresh rate, covers the entire P3 colour gamut and lets you cut down on the blue light if you use the True Tone / Night Mode, so it’s good for creators, gamers or readers alike.
Power per paisa
Enough has been said about the M1’s superiority over the competition and how it runs circles around them, but in real world terms, the amount of time it takes to process a RAW image in Photoshop or open CoD makes for a marginally better performance over the 2020 iPad Pro with the A12Z SoC. Sure, the new USB-C port also accepts Thunderbolt peripherals now letting you blitz your way through file dumps from an external SSD or connect to a larger display, but in terms of sheer horsepower it doesn’t make a day and night difference like the M1 chip made on the Mac. That’s not to say that the M1 is an underperformer on the iPad Pro. It just means that Apple’s own A-series silicon is so well optimised for iPadOS anyway.
Apple, for the first time ever, is openly stating the memory figures for iPad Pros, and the 1TB and above models get a ginormous 16GB RAM which will undoubtedly make it the fastest machine in benchmark scores. The story regarding performance really writes itself, again and again. As always the hardware here is limited by software and until iPadOS allows a more complete file access system, more familiar multitasking support, wider peripheral inclusion and native app support for some big name apps (including Instagram), it still makes you go back to your iPhone or Mac for the occasional task.
The release of iPadOS 15 will alleviate some of the multitasking gripes, but Apple has a vision for the future of computing and currently, it is a bit out of sync with real-world needs. If you really want to, you could find ways to make the iPad Pro your one and only machine, but you will need to invest in more peripherals and learn alternate apps until your preferred MacOS app is able to work on iPadOS.
For me personally, I find myself reverting to the iPad Pro for most of my workflow (except some Adobe CC apps like InDesign) due to the lack of heating issues with this form factor. Not that the MacBook Air doesn’t run cool, but the physically levitated state of the iPad Pro when using it with the Magic Keyboard serves well to type, have a late night binge-on-bed session or just get the perfect angle while working on a desk, all without ever toasting your thighs.
Factor in the cameras that allow for some really cool AR effects, scanning documents, annotating with the Pencil, refined photo editing…the list of “what can it do that a laptop can’t” is long. It really has created a niche for itself that no laptop can fill, and maybe Apple wants to keep it that way, so both the Mac and iPad portfolios continue to thrive without cannibalising each other. So, the M1 on the iPad will inherently be used differently to the M1 on a Mac.
Battery life is claimed to be 10 hours like all iPads, but with so much power and pixels on board, this claim seems tall with modern workflows. At best, I could summon about 6.5hrs with video watching, video recording, social media editing, PS Express, typing out this review while playing light background music to create the correct ambience. It’s still on par with the best of the laptops, so there’s no love lost.
Not camera shy
As a daily driver though, the iPad Pro is more than just a pretty screen and sharp brains. The FaceTime camera gets a major update both in terms of resolution and tech. It now gets a fantastic 12MP ultra-wide front facing camera that takes the noise and grain out of FaceTime calls and Centre Stage motion tracking uses AI to always keep your face in the centre, even if you move about a little bit. Well, within a 122-degree field of view, that is. It’s smooth and accurate and zooms in slowly to give a cinematic effect to your calls. In a rare case of Apple generosity, it also works with third-party video calling apps!
The only sore point is Apple’s stubbornness to still have the camera on the wrong side of the iPad if it’s propped up on the Magic Keyboard. It always gives the impression to the caller that you’re doing something else. Considering how the iPad Pro is targeted at professionals, creators or just wealthy consumers, the keyboard is an accessory every owner would have. No one wants to hold a 680gm device in their hands for a 1 hour Zoom call, so it will be propped up against something if not on the Magic Keyboard. Then why not just put the front camera and Face ID module along the horizontal axis?
The LiDAR Scanner and dual-lens rear camera setup does 4K/60fps too and again, anyone shooting at that resolution would rather shoot in landscape mode than portrait, more reason to put the front facing camera along the longer side.
Speaking of the rear cameras, I was never an advocate of using the chopping board as a photographic device but the 12.9in iPad Pro does take some crisp video with brilliant colours, coercing me into shooting videos and editing them directly in 4K HDR. Although, you might miss the OIS of the iPhones.
The elephant in the room is the price factor. Assuming that you’re ponying up for the 12.9in iPad Pro, you obviously want the best of the best and you’re more likely than not to add the Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard to the cart. For the 2TB top-spec model with Wi-Fi and 5G, along with the aforementioned accessories, it will set you back by a frightening ₹2,55,000 and a Starbucks snack.
Again, like every year, it boils down to how badly you want the latest and greatest iPad. The Mini-LED alone is worth the upgrade if you keep your bonfire alive by burning cash. It’s the perfect in-flight gaming machine, in-bed Netflix machine, and in-home video call machine. But for the Aam-Aadmi, if you own any iPad Pro from the 3rd-gen onwards, performance wise, it won’t justify the outlay.
The M1 upgrade from Apple's own A12 series of processors just isn’t as dramatic as an M1 upgrade from Intel, highlighting nothing but the fact that Apple’s tight knit product team has been doing their job well for years now. By all means, if you’re upgrading from a 5-year old iPad Air and want the best, there simply is no other portable computing device in the world that can do so much, so well and look this good while doing it!