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iPad Pro (2021) review: Apple’s hardware may have outpaced its software | Engadget

Image Credit: Chris Velazco/Engadget

In use

If there’s one thing that makes this iPad Pro so unusual, it’s Apple’s choice of chipset. Like I mentioned earlier, it uses the exact same M1 chip you’ll find in most of Apple’s new computers, with either 8GB or 16GB of RAM.

Quick side note: The reason I know our review unit has 16GB of RAM is that Apple just says so, and if you’ve been following the company for a while, you’ll probably know just how strange that is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked Apple to confirm how much RAM is in whatever iPhone or iPad I’m reviewing, and they always just smile and shake their heads and say “we don’t really talk about that kind of thing.” The fact that they are now is a sign that Apple is thinking about differently about iPads.

Gallery: Apple iPad Pro (2021) review photos | 16 Photos

Now, because Apple is using the same silicon across different kinds of devices, I’m not coming into this review as blind as I usually do — we’ve already tested the M1 in two MacBooks, and we were already impressed by how well Apple Silicon stacks up to rival processors from companies like Intel.

Just about every positive thing our PC reviewer Devindra Hardawar has said in his reviews applies here too — the M1 is remarkably fast, and it’s handled basically everything I’ve thrown at it without a hiccup. Games like Genshin Impact, the AAA port Divinity: Original Sin and the hyper-realistic GRID AutoSport ran beautifully. Piecing together long, meandering 4K videos was a breeze, even with loads of transitions and effects. Even manipulating individual layers in a 4GB Photoshop file was mostly painless, which was a pleasant surprise considering the very act of creating the file in the first place slowed my entry-level M1 MacBook Pro to a crawl. Needless to say, there isn’t a whole lot in the App Store — if anything at all — that the iPad Pro probably couldn’t shrug off. Synthetic benchmarks don’t always tell the whole story, which is why I don’t rely on them as heavily as I used to, but I think these are particularly telling.

iPad Pro 2021

iPad Pro 2020

iPad Pro 2018

Mid-2018 MacBook Pro

Ryzen 7 3700X Gaming PC

GeekBench 5 CPU (single-core)

1720

1124

1117

1089

1261

GeekBench 5 CPU (multi-core)

7291

4710

4674

3960

8105

GeekBench 5 Compute (Metal and OpenCL)

21445

9745

9180

7181

59993

Premiere Rush 4K-to-1080p export (in minutes)

5:37

6:07

6:58

18:27

4:56

Clearly, there’s a lot of power here. In fact, if you were thinking of buying one just to use it as a tablet, it would be a big waste. (Seriously, that’s what the iPad Air is for.) This might be the first iPad Pro ever that you’d have to be some sort of creative professional to make the most of. And even then, I’m still not convinced you’d see a huge difference across the board

To try and get a sense of the iPad Pro’s creative chops, I stitched together multiple 4K video clips from old reviews when I had hair in LumaFusion and exported it. The 2020 iPad Pro finished in 14 minutes and 20 seconds. Meanwhile, the new M1 in the 2021 iPad Pro completed the test in… 14 minutes and 12 seconds. Not exactly a huge leap. Then, I tried a similar test in Adobe’s Premiere Rush, but with a twist: Instead of outputting the footage in its native 4K, I exported to 1080p at 30fps. The difference was a little more noticeable this time, but still not dramatic. It took just over six minutes for last year’s iPad Pro, while the new one pulled it off in 5 minutes and 37 seconds. (For what it’s worth, Apple said “the previous iPad Pro was already optimized to encode and decode video in real-time” and that the same is true of the video engine in the M1.)

So, yes, the M1 makes this iPad Pro the most powerful tablet has ever made, but the extra horsepower may not always feel like a game-changer. And part of that boils down to software — developers haven’t had the time to optimize their iPad apps for the M1 yet, so it’ll probably be a little while before we really get a sense of what Apple’s new chipset can do for a high-end tablet.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

That goes for Apple’s developers, too. It took them years, but iPads have finally become more than just giant iPhones — multitasking has gotten a lot better, mouse and trackpad support is now standard, Safari acts like a desktop-grade browser. That’s a lot of progress, but a machine this powerful demands even more progress from Apple’s software.

A lot of people are talking about how a tablet like this needs some version of macOS, and I guess that would be nice, but I also can’t really see Apple doing that any time soon. The underlying architecture might make it possible, but none of my conversations with Apple have indicated that’s what the company wants. That’s fine by me; there’s plenty of room to make iPadOS shine on its own terms. True, multi-window multitasking would be a great start, and wider support for professional video formats would be a huge deal for the creative professionals Apple caters to.

This is a good moment to mention that this iPad Pro supports Thunderbolt, so you can connect it to really nice external displays and transfer data more quickly between compatible devices. But again, Apple’s software sort of gets in the way. I’d love to extend the display with a second monitor, but right now it just mirrors what’s already on the iPad. And faster data transfers are great, but working with the iPad’s extremely limited Files app can be a real pain sometimes. 

Apple iPad Pro (2021) review

Chris Velazco/Engadget

If you’re watching this video close to when we publish it, Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference is still a few weeks away. It’s entirely possible the company will show off new software to take better advantage of the new iPad Pro’s muscle.

There’s just one more thing we need to talk about: battery life. As usual, Apple says you can expect 10 hours of use from a single charge, and I managed that a few times without issue. But — and you knew there was a “but coming — it’s possible to drain the iPad Pro’s battery significantly faster without too much effort. In fact, I did it a few times without even really thinking about it. 

This past weekend, I spent an afternoon reading articles in Safari, watching YouTube videos, poking through some old photos, and doing my taxes. Apart from blitzing through TurboTax, that’s about as standard as tablet use gets. Still, that was somehow enough to drain the iPad Pro’s battery to 10 percent in less than five hours. A few factors probably contributed to this: I usually restore review iPads from backups to quickly load my suite of test apps, and that process sometimes leads to iffy battery life in the first few days of use. (That fact that I cleared Apple’s 10-hour battery estimate a few times leads me to believe this wasn’t the issue, but it’s worth talking about.) I was also manually setting the screen’s brightness to between 50 100 percent for most of that time, and that probably had a more direct effect, but hey — it’s not like that’s totally unheard of. 

Apple iPad Pro (2021) review photos

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Wrap-up

There’s no question that this is the best, most impressive iPad Apple has ever built, and that there’s enough horsepower here to future-proof this thing for at least a few generations. If you want a front-row seat to the future of the iPad experience, or if you just don’t mind shelling out beaucoup bucks for nice things, go for it! And if that’s that not you, don’t sweat it — the iPad Air is still the best iPad for most people. No matter where your tastes lie, though, do me a favor: wait until Apple shows off everything it has at WWDC and then make your decision.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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