M1 iPad Pro Review: More Powerful, More Functional, Still Frustrating

M1 iPad Pro Review: More Powerful, More Functional, Still Frustrating

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The last few generations of iPad Pro were already powerful enough for serious photo editing, but the benefits of such a small and versatile device have never quite outweighed the cons of a tablet-based workflow. The 2021 iPad Pro — with its M1 SOC, up to 16GB of RAM, Thunderbolt support, and mind-blowing miniLED display — makes the best case yet for ditching your laptop. But even with all this power under the hood, it’s clear the iPad is still an accessory, not a laptop replacement.

We’ve never reviewed an iPad on PetaPixel, but with the release of the 2021 iPad Pro it seemed like Apple was sending a message. The latest iPad Pro has the guts of a powerful ultra book, so surely iPadOS would follow suit with a major update that would unleash all this power. Right?

Not quite. Apple has indeed created the most powerful iPad ever — by a lot. Even compared to last year’s blazing fast model with A12Z Bionic, the 2021 iPad Pro is 30 to 40 percent faster across the board and more capable than ever. But after watching this year’s WWDC to see what Apple had in store for iPadOS, and using the iPad Pro to write, edit, and illustrate the review you’re reading, it’s clear to me that the iPad is now, and will continue to be, an add-on.

But oh my, what an add-on.

Tech Specs

On the surface, the 2021 iPad Pro looks no different than the 2020 model. It’s imperceptibly thicker and can now be paired with a white version of the magic keyboard but, otherwise, it looks unchanged.

But looks can be deceiving.

Apple has given the guts of this iPad Pro a huge overhaul, making an already powerful device downright ridiculous for a tablet. Both the 11-inch and 12.9-inch versions now come with Apple’s M1 SOC—the same chip that powers the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro and 24-inch iMac. They also allow for up to 16GB of RAM, 2TB of storage, and support for proper USB-4/Thunderbolt devices. If you opt for the 12.9-inch model, you get the other major update: one of the most beautiful LCD displays we’ve ever used.

These two changes, along with a few other tangible updates coming in iPadOS 15, make this a more compelling product for photographers than any other iPad that came before it.

The Display

The new miniLED display — or as Apple calls it, “Liquid Retina XDR” — in the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a showstopper, with 10,000 miniLEDs arranged into 2,596 individually controlled local dimming zones. To put this in perspective, the 32-inch Pro Display XDR that costs $5,000 (without a stand) has a total of just 576 zones.

In every other way, the iPad Pro’s display equals the Pro Display XDR. Color gamut is a full 100% coverage of Display P3, it can hit the same peak (1600 nits) and sustained (1000 nits) brightness as the Pro Display XDR, and thanks to local dimming, blacks are truly black. This performance is obvious the moment you watch or edit HDR content—the display is truly stunning.

There is still a little bit of blooming — which is somewhat unavoidable unless and until Apple makes the jump to OLED — but thanks to the 2,500-plus local dimming zones, it’s very minimal and not remotely noticeable in real-world use. Set the new iPad Pro next to last year’s model, and the difference is kind of shocking:

This hasn’t affected color accuracy either. We tested the color gamut of the display manually, using an i1Display Pro Plus to analyze two different test charts patch-by-patch and found the gamut coverage was ever-so-slightly improved over the 2020 iPad Pro, with blacks that did indeed hit true black: 0, 0, 0 in the CIE L*a*b color space according to our colorimeter.

There’s no denying it: this is the nicest display in the Apple ecosystem.

That doesn’t mean it will stay this way. It’s rumored Apple will bring miniLED technology to the Mac with the release of the anticipated 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros later this year, but honestly, I feel like this display makes more sense on the iPad — first and foremost a media consumption device — than on a laptop computer meant for productivity.

Most photographers will rarely use the HDR capabilities as part of their editing workflow, but anybody can appreciate this incredible screen by using it to watch Dolby Vision content. I just wish Apple had put a similar display in the 11-inch model.

Finally, it’s also worth mentioning that you can hook up the iPad Pro to an external display, just like last year’s model. But sadly, you’re limited to mirroring your iPad’s screen, making this feature (in my mind) totally useless for most applications. There are a few apps that will let you take advantage of the full secondary display to make some part of the app full screen — Filmic Pro lets you view the video preview window this way — but for the most part, you’re limited to a weird, letterboxed mirror of your 4:3 aspect ratio iPad screen.

The M1 Chip

The other major change from 2020 is the upgrade to the M1 chip, which is definitely overkill for a tablet that isn’t able to — and probably never will — run a desktop operating system. Still, power is power, and the 2021 iPad Pro comes with plenty of that.

Thanks to the M1, the iPad Pro can now be configured with up to 2TB of storage and 16GB of RAM, and it also allowed Apple to equip this iPad with a proper Thunderbolt/USB-4 port. That means no more frustration when you try to connect a Thunderbolt SSD or add more ports with a Thunderbolt dock. This is particularly relevant for creatives, who may be uploading thousands of photos using an SD card reader or backing up high-res footage to an SSD.

In terms of performance, Geekbench 5 scores prove that this is exactly the same chip you get in the M1 Macs, with the same single-core and multi-core performance. Apple isn’t under-volting it or otherwise hobbling the CPU in any way. But as we found out in testing, that doesn’t mean the iPad Pro will perform on par with a proper M1 Mac.

Our review unit came with 1TB of storage and 16GB of RAM — same as the Mac mini and MacBook Pro we already reviewed. But when we ran our usual Lightroom tests, the iPad Pro performed noticeably slower.

When importing and exporting 100 Sony a7R IV and 150 PhaseOne XF RAW files in the Lightroom mobile app, the 2021 iPad Pro is a few minutes slower than the M1 iMac across the board, and it wasn’t able to match my 2020 Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro either:

Of course, the tablet was using the iPad version of Lightroom CC while the Macs were using the desktop variant, but the two programs look and act very similarly and I don’t think this affected overall performance very much. The decrease in import/export speed is likely due to two factors:

  1. The iPad Pro has no active cooling
  2. Apps on iPadOS are limited to using 5GB of RAM max

That second note is the most likely culprit, and one reason why this new iPad confuses me. The “entry-level” version comes with 8GB of RAM, and the 1TB and 2TB versions come with 16GB of RAM. And yet, for whatever reason, Apple released this iPad before getting rid of that 5GB limitation. It’s a waste, and something that I hope will be fixed in iPadOS 15, but none of the developer previews thus far have mentioned it, so I’m not holding my breath.

Moving on from Lightroom, one of the biggest limitations on my ability to use the iPad Pro in my workflow was actually Photoshop. Lightroom CC is pretty fleshed-out at this point, but the Photoshop app is woefully under-featured. I wasn’t even able to benchmark performance, since heavy-duty tasks like Panorama Merge and most Adobe Sensei features haven’t yet been ported over.

Worse yet, basic features are missing. There’s still no Pen tool, no smart sharpening, no RAW file support, most filters are AWOL, magnetic guides are missing, and you can’t even scale or crop images by choosing the size or aspect ratio.

There’s no question that the 2021 iPad Pro is equipped for serious photo and video editing, now more than ever. You just can’t take full advantage of that hardware. This makes it a no-go for serious retouching, even if Lightroom is just about there for standard photo editing.

For now, using the M1 iPad Pro to edit the photos for this review felt like being given the keys a Porsche and then being told you couldn’t shift out of second gear. Whether it’s Adobe’s apps, Apple’s operating system, or some combination of the above, I couldn’t help but feel cheated, and more than a little frustrated, by the whole experience.

iPadOS 15

Ever since the 2021 iPad Pro was announced, the tech world has been buzzing with hope for a “total overhaul” of iPadOS that would allow the new tablet to take full advantage of the new SOC. Last week, Apple quelled those rumors (and angered many) when it revealed a relatively meager update with no professional apps, few professional workflow enhancements, and no indication that MacOS will ever be allowed to run on this machine.

Still, there are three updates coming to iPadOS 15 that are worth pointing out.

Universal Control

Announced during the MacOS Monterey portion of this year’s WWDC keynote, Universal Control will allow you to use your Mac to control a nearby iPad or even drag-and-drop files between the two operating systems without any sort of setup or secondary app. This is not Sidecar, it’s seamless. As long as both devices are on the same iCloud account, they will use Apple’s handoff technology to “sense” that another device is nearby and begin sharing the trackpad and keyboard.

You can see it in action in this demo:

That’s really cool, and a game-changer for creatives who want to use the iPad Pro as a portable add-on to a beefier iMac or MacBook Pro. You could start editing a photo on the iPad using the Apple Pencil and then drag it directly to your computer to finish it up or take advantage of a feature in Photoshop that the iPad app is still missing. With Universal Control, there will be no need to upload it to the cloud or plug in a thumb drive — you can just drag-and-drop.

Improved Multi-Tasking

Multi-tasking on the iPad itself is also being improved, which is a huge relief. Currently, if you’re using one app and you want to use another either in split-view or by having it “float” over your current app in slide-over mode, it needs to be accessible in the dock. The controls are also not intuitive to newcomers, and there are no buttons for quickly switching between modes — you just have to learn by trial-and-error or look up a tutorial.

The updated version fixes most of this and makes multitasking on the iPad much more intuitive. There are really four major updates.

First, there is now a set of three buttons at the top of the screen that allows you to toggle between full screen, split-view, and slide-over mode for any given app. Second, if you select split-view, the app will automatically move out of the way so that you can pick any other app—not just an app from your dock—to open up alongside it. Third, you can actually drag-and-drop apps onto one another in the app switcher view, creating multiple split-view configurations on the fly. And fourth, if you’ve opened up multiple instances of a single app like Files or Safari, they’re all accessible via an intuitive App Shelf that pops up at the bottom of your screen.

This is one of those situations where showing is much easier than telling, so check out this video from MacRumors for a great, speedy overview of the new multitasking features:

The whole system feels much more like opening up virtual desktops in Mission Control on the Mac, and should make switching between apps or using them alongside one another a lot easier once iPadOS 15 is released. This is especially relevant for M1 iPad users because the additional RAM makes it possible to run many apps at the same time without ever pushing anything out of memory.

Updated Files App

Finally, one of the smaller, but still important, updates coming in iPadOS 15 involves the Files app. In its current state, Files includes a few little annoyances that are particularly painful if you’re moving around large folders or switching between multiple machines. For instance, there’s no progress bar when you’re transferring files onto the iPad, file grouping is missing entirely, and NTFS format drives are not supported at all.

The progress bar thing is particularly annoying. Instead, you get the app update animation which only updated once when I transferred 30GB worth of photos from an iCloud folder, and disappeared after I switched apps. It turns out the transfer was still going, but I had no way of knowing that.

All of this (and more) will change with iPadOS 15.

In the new Files app, you can now track the progress of large file transfers with a proper progress bar, the “Get Info” menu for a photograph includes more EXIF data, NTFS drives are finally supported (read-only), and you can group files by kind, date, and size. It’s not a proper update to a full-blown “Finder” or “File Explorer,” but it should make life a little easier for professional workflows.

The World’s Fastest Tablet is Still a Tablet

There is an old New Yorker cartoon by Charles Barsotti that reminds me of this iPad. A cowboy is sitting at a bar wearing an absurdly large Stetson, and one of the other patrons says to a third: “All hat and no cattle but, my god, what a hat.”

I couldn’t put it better if I tried: My god… what a hat.

Pros

  • M1 SOC is incredibly powerful
  • Up to 16GB of RAM means nothing ever drops out of memory
  • Up to 2TB of storage
  • Incredible miniLED “XDR” display (12.9-inch only)
  • USB-4/Thunderbolt support
  • Phenomenal design and build quality
  • Apple pencil is one of the best pressure sensitive stylus you can buy

Cons

  • iPadOS limitations are frustrating for professionals
  • M1 gives this iPad more power than it can use
  • Individual apps can only access 5GB of RAM (fixable through software update)
  • 11-inch version is missing the new miniLED display
  • As expensive as a really nice laptop
  • NOT a laptop replacement

When I started this review, I set myself the challenge of creating the entire thing on the iPad itself. Research, writing, editing photos in Lightroom, creating the header image in Photoshop, formatting the post inside our CMS—I tried to do it all on the iPad to see if it could replace my laptop in a pinch.

I was able to do it (with a few workarounds) but the process was frustrating. The mobile version of Photoshop is missing basic features I rely on, the file management system needs a little work before it can be used for serious photo and video file management, and if the tasks get really heavy, there’s the frustrating limitation that no app is ever allowed to use more than 5GB of RAM, even though the 1TB and 2TB models put a whopping 16GB at your fingertips.

And yet, if you can afford to purchase this product as an add-on to your current laptop or desktop computer, especially if you use a Mac, you will love using it.

There’s no question that this is the most powerful tablet on the market, and a joy to use alongside my MacBook Pro. It has the nicest display in the entire Apple ecosystem, Apple Pencil support makes many photo editing tasks more enjoyable, and the thing never stuttered or froze, even when I was exporting 150 heavily edited 100MP PhaseOne files. It’s still “just” an iPad, and suffers from the same “I wish it could run MacOS” syndrome that plagued last year’s iPad Pro, but thanks to the sheer power of this latest upgrade, and the gorgeous miniLED display, I found the trade-offs a lot easier to swallow.

If you don’t like Apple and/or iOS, this isn’t going to magically convince you otherwise. And the number of people who can afford to drop two grand on an accessory is probably limited. But if you’re going to do any kind of creative work on a tablet, there is no competition. Not even close. With this update, Apple made the best tablet on the market even better… but it’s still a tablet.

Are There Alternatives

In terms of Android alternatives, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7+ is probably your best bet, but there’s really no competition when it comes to performance. The last generation iPad Pro was already more powerful than anything else out there, and the upgrade to an M1 chip only lengthens that lead.

Another obvious alternative is a Windows 2-in-1 like the Microsoft Surface Pro 7+. This will give you a full Windows 10 operating system to work with, which is a huge plus, but even the most powerful Core i7 model falls short of the M1 in classic benchmarks, and the fanless version of the Surface Pro 7+ uses an even slower Core i5 or Core i3 processor. Plus, it simply can’t compete with the iPad’s miniLED display.

Finally, the most obvious alternative is an M1 MacBook Air. The Retina display in the MBA can’t compete with the Liquid Retina XDR, but it uses the same M1 processor, is actually lighter than the iPad Pro, comes with a proper keyboard and trackpad, and, most importantly, it runs MacOS. In many ways, the M1 iPad Pro is just an M1 MacBook Air with a nicer screen, a touch-based operating system, and a bunch of limitations.

Should You Buy It

Yes, but there are a few caveats. If you are in the market for a tablet and you don’t own last year’s iPad Pro, the jump to the M1 processor is worth it. It earns you a ton of performance, Thunderbolt support, more RAM (see above for limitations), and — if you go with the bigger screen — an incredible HDR display.

If you do own last year’s model, I would only upgrade if you’re using your current iPad for lots of heavy-duty photo editing and even then, I don’t think it’s worth it unless you get the 12.9-inch with the Liquid Retina XDR display. M1 plus Liquid Retina XDR is worth the upgrade, but only if you actually use your iPad regularly for something other than Minecraft and watching YouTube.

Finally, if you’re deciding between an iPad Pro and one of the M1-powered MacBooks, go with the laptop. A 12.9-inch iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil, Magic Keyboard, and 1TB of storage will cost you almost $2,300. An equivalent M1 MacBook Air is $1,650. Unless you really need the touchscreen functionality or HDR editing capabilities, there’s no reason to spend more money on a heavier setup that’s lacking basic functionality.



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