For the last week, I’ve been living with Apple’s new iPad Pro, and there are two thoughts I haven’t been able to shake. The first is that this might be the best portable computer Apple has ever made. I mean, think about it: This iPad uses the exact same chipset you’ll find in the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro, and even the new iMac. That’s unheard of for a tablet, especially one with 5G and a screen that puts Apple’s laptops to shame. Tim Cook once said the iPad was the company’s vision of the future of computing, and it’s actually starting to feel like it’s coming to fruition.
Which leads me to my second unshakeable thought: Because this thing is so powerful, it’s begging for more robust software. The new iPad Pro very much feels a portent of dramatic changes to come, but in this moment, it’s — for better or worse — just an obscenely powerful tablet.
Apple iPad Pro (2021)
- Incredibly powerful
- Gorgeous new screen
- Center Stage works like a charm
- Heavier than earlier models
- It’s begging for an iPadOS update
- Awkward front camera placement
Apple’s iPad Pro comes in two sizes — 11 or 12.9 inches — with a slew of storage options, including a new 2TB storage tier that’s frankly insane for a tablet. Rather than describe all of these models individually, here’s a handy table breaking down how much each variant costs.
11-inch iPad Pro (Wi-Fi)
11-inch iPad Pro (Wi-Fi + Cellular)
12.9-inch iPad Pro (Wi-Fi)
12.9-inch iPad Pro (Wi-Fi + Cellular)
As usual, Apple sent us one of its tricked-out models to test — this is the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 1TB of storage and a 5G radio. That will cost you a cool $2,000 before you factor in accessories like the Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard. You don’t need me to tell you that you could buy a really nice laptop for less than that, but it’s worth noting that a similarly specced 13-inch MacBook Pro costs $100 less than our review unit does.
Design and hardware
This year’s iPad Pro looks pretty much identical to the models Apple released in 2018 and 2020, and you won’t hear me complaining about that. Really, the clearest physical distinction between this Pro and the ones that came before it is the way it feels.
The new model is a little thicker and a little heavier, which makes it considerably less comfortable to hold onto for long periods. I could hold earlier 12.9-inch iPad Pros in one hand if I wanted to, and I just can’t do that for very long with this year’s model. In fact, if you strap this thing into one of Apple’s Magic Keyboards, it weighs more than a comparable MacBook Pro. Not by a lot, mind you, but enough to make me really think about what one computing device I want to carry with me every day.
That might not sound great for a machine that’s meant to be as portable as an iPad is, but things aren’t as bad as one might fear. For one, the fact the chassis is thicker means the dual-camera hump around back doesn’t stick out nearly as much, so the iPad Pro no longer wobbles when you lay it flat on a table. And despite the outcry that arose when Apple said this year’s iPad Pro wouldn’t fit into its expensive, first-generation Magic Keyboard, it actually seems to fit quite well. It’s certainly not ideal — the keyboard layer presses into the display’s glass when closed, which means the fit could be affected by a screen protector — but I also don’t think you’d have to rush out and buy a new Magic Keyboard if you already own one.
To hear Apple tell it, there was no way to avoid making this iPad Pro thicker — it’s mostly because the newly designed Liquid Retina XDR display takes up more space than Apple’s traditional LCDs. Still, the iPad Pro’s extra girth is generally worth it because of all the stuff Apple squeezed into this package.
For one, our review unit has a 5G radio, which did a lovely job keeping me connected when an electrical fire outside my apartment building knocked out my power and internet service for a weekend. (Brooklyn, am I right?) On the whole, my 5G experience hasn’t been dramatically faster than on LTE, but the fleeting moments I spent plopped in a chair in Bryant Park goofing off on a super-fast mmWave network were pretty lovely. (Note: The 5G iPad Pro almost certainly won’t work on mmWave networks outside the US.)
Apple also swapped out a traditional front-facing camera for a 12-megapixel ultra-wide sensor that has made for some of the best-looking — and weirdest — FaceTime calls I’ve ever been on. That’s all thanks to a new feature called Center Stage, which leans on machine learning and that expansive field of view to keep your face close to the center of the screen at all times. Honestly, it’s a little weird at first, and I still can’t say I’m used to it, but it does a great job panning and zooming to make sure other people can see you clearly.
It even works when you try to trick it by sneaking in at an angle, or when you’re nowhere near the iPad itself. While shooting our review video, I backed up about four or five feet from a live FaceTime call to play with my producer’s dog, and the camera continued to follow my face even as bobbed and weaved to get her attention. What can I say? It works likes a charm.
Still, it has its quirks. When you launch FaceTime, for instance, the camera slowly pushes in on your face like it’s filming some sort of slow-motion reaction GIF. At least one person I’ve called with the iPad Pro has said Center Stage makes me look kinda shifty, but that might be more of a “me” problem. More importantly, Apple's camera placement continues to feel a little silly in an age of near-constant Zoom and FaceTime calls. As always, that front-facing sensor is wedged into the tablet's shorter top edge, which in fairness wasn't always a bad thing. Considering how much this new iPad weighs and how many video conversations are held with landscape-oriented cameras these days, though, you're going to want to use that camera while the iPad is propped up horizontally at least sometimes, which means it's likely looking at you from a weird angle. The end result: some of your video calls will look pretty awkward!