12.9" iPad Pro (2021) & iPadOS 15 Review: Incremental, Not Revolutionary

Updated: Aug 21


It’s been a while since the iPad Pro 2021 came out, and now that the public beta for iPadOS 15 is out, we’ll be doing a combined review of both the hardware and the new software that we can come to expect when the full release drops later this Fall.


Let’s talk about the hardware first. The iPad Pro 2021 comes in two sizes, the smaller 11-inch size as well as the 12.9-inch model that we have here. Both sizes have Wi-Fi only models as well as a Wi-Fi and Cellular model that supports 5G. The amount of RAM on the device is dependent on the amount of storage you choose. The models with 128GB, 256GB and 512GB of storage all come with 8GB of RAM while the 1TB and 2TB storage models come with 16GB.


The major difference is that the 12.9-inch model comes with a new Mini-LED display, which has 10,000 mini LEDs split in to just slightly over 2,500 local dimming zones. This essentially means that the blacks are really black, not that greyish colour you can sometimes get, and the contrast ratio is excellent. Apple is calling it the Liquid Retina XDR display, and it’s exclusive to the 12.9-inch model right now, although there have been rumours that it will be on the smaller iPad in 2022.


It’s honestly pretty great. You get a beautiful viewing experience when watching videos and movies, and because the blacks are truly black, the black bars you might get when watching movies no longer distracts you if you’re in a dark room. It kind of just blends into the background. The iPad Pro does still have a max brightness of 600 nits, but when viewing HDR content, it can get up to as bright as 1,600 nits if necessary.

That being said, there is a bit of noticeable blooming around white text and the likes if you have the screen brightness turned up all the way and you’re using it in a really dark room, but it’s an inherent flaw with Mini-LED displays and really, you shouldn’t be using a super bright screen in a really dark room either since it’s not great for your eyes.


Inside, you get the incredible M1 chip, that is also in the MacBook Air M1, MacBook Pro 13-inch M1 and iMac 2021. It’s a blazing fast chip and really, you’ll notice it in everyday usage. Apps open fast, there’s never any sort of bottleneck or stuttering and paired with the 8GB or 16GB of RAM, you’ll notice that if you open a lot of tabs in Safari, pages don’t need to be reloaded all the time because there’s so much memory now. We have the 16GB of RAM, 2TB storage model with us, and it works like a dream.


There was some hoo-ha about apps being limited to 5GB of RAM in iPadOS, even with the 16GB of RAM in the new model, but in the iPadOS 15 betas, developers can actually request for their apps to be able to use more RAM for better performance. It’s likely we’ll see this kick-off when the full update is launched later this year, so users of intensive apps like Procreate or Lumafusion will really benefit from this.


Because of that new M1 chip, you get Thunderbolt 3 compatibility in the USB-C port, which is great for people who use docks, or even if you just want to use Thunderbolt 3 hard drives to transfer files. That being said, you still run into the same problem where external monitors can only be used to mirror the iPad Pro’s screen, not serve as an extended display.

You get four speakers all around the chassis of the iPad Pro, and they sound really great. There’s impactful bass, vocals are clear and distinct and the speakers do get quite loud.


There’s also a couple of rear cameras and a front-facing camera that’s really cool when paired with Apple’s Centre Stage feature. In FaceTime calls and Zoom calls, the front camera will actually pan and zoom in and out to keep the subject’s face in the middle of the frame. I tested this out, and it was spot on most of the time. The frame zoomed out when a new person entered and zoomed in when it was just me. It kept track whenever I was moving around and it’s just a really handy feature to have, especially when a lot of people nowadays are keeping in touch with friends and family through video calls. My one quibble with the cameras on the iPad is that the front camera is still on the side edge when the tablet is in landscape mode. Aside from that though, Centre Stage is great, and I’ve found myself really quite happy with the feature when on calls.


When the iPad Pro M1 was announced, people were speculating that the addition of the M1 chip would mean that Apple was finally going to announce support for macOS apps on iPad, all that kind of stuff. And well, when WWDC came and went, we had a lot of disappointed people. I can’t say Apple’s decision is surprising. They make laptops, great ones, and while they have cannibalised their own product lines before in the past, they seem to be making a clearer distinction now. The iPad is a portable device with a touchscreen that you can draw on and do plenty of great tasks on, but it is currently unable to be a true laptop replacement for a lot of creatives, no matter how Apple wants to spin it.


There’s no Final Cut Pro, apps on the App Store are mobile versions with stripped-down functionality, and if most of your work consists of just emails, working on documents and the likes, sure, you might be able to convert fully to just using an iPad. I tried to use the iPad Pro exclusively for a week for work, but I just ran into so many problems, and it’s not even Apple’s fault at that.


But if you’re using this as a complement to an existing laptop or desktop, it’s great, and that’s kind of what I think Apple is viewing the iPad Pro as, as well. You want to get your sketches and creative work done on the iPad Pro? No problem. You have the touchscreen element there, you have the Apple Pencil, get it done, then transfer it over to your computer and continue from there.


It really clicked for me when I started using the iPad Pro as an accessory to my desktop. I would upload videos and stuff on my desktop, and then I can edit titles, upload thumbnails, make edits to the description and captions all from the iPad Pro, whether I’m at home or on the go. In fact, I could write articles on the iPad Pro, throw in photos and publish, all from the tablet. I didn’t need a desktop for maybe 60 or 70% of my work, and the iPad Pro helped me realise that, but it also helped me realise how essential my computer is to getting the other 30% done.


And iPadOS 15? Well, there are so many cool features in there, but at the heart of it, it’s incremental, not revolutionary. iPadOS 15 is all about making the iPad experience better with small changes here and there to make things flow just that bit smoother. It’s not introducing a brand new way to interact with iPads or completely overhauling the iPad experience like some people were hoping for.


Widgets now on the screen directly? Yeah, it’s a nice feature to have, and clearly, the iPad I have is very set up for work, with my email and work calendar occupying most of the screen real estate.


There’s also the new Focus feature, which helps you to really tune out distractions and choose what you want to see on the screen at certain points in the day. Time to work? Turn on the Work Focus and make sure you don’t get disturbed by notifications from TikTok, or Instagram or whatever else. Want to disconnect? Turn on the personal focus and well, you won’t have to worry about getting messages from your colleagues on Slack or whatever. You can even choose different Focus modes to automatically activate depending on the day, time, or even when you get into the office or back home.


Of course, one of the biggest updates for iPadOS 15 is the new multitasking mode and shelves. It’s easier than ever to put apps into split-screen view, and the addition of shelves is basically a drawer that appears on the bottom that shows every instance of the app you have open. Maybe I have two different Safari instances, one for work and one for personal use. I can tap on the Safari app and the shelf is open at the bottom. Once I select the one I want and interact with the page, the shelf closes and can be reopened by tapping on the three dots on the top, which opens the multitasking menu. The menu also has options at the top for fullscreen view, split-screen view as well as slideover. You can now choose any app from your home screen or even from the new app library at the end of the dock instead of only being able to choose from the latest apps you opened. It’s a small change, but an improvement nonetheless.


There’s a bunch of smaller stuff too. Quick note, for example, draw up from the bottom right corner with an Apple Pencil and you get a new note opened. There’s also Universal Control, which allows you to use a single mouse and keyboard across iMacs, Macbooks and iPads. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s kind of what Apple is going for; a piece to complete the puzzle. Dragging and dropping files from the iPad to a Mac computer is basically making it easier than ever to get something started on the iPad, then finished off on a computer, or the other way around.


Expectations lead to disappointment, and I think the iPad Pro M1 is the perfect example. We have so many incidents of people expecting that because of the new fancy processor, Apple must be planning to bring mac apps onto the iPad, or Apple must be planning to introduce some sort of macOS to the iPad. Then when WWDC ended, we had people saying stuff like I’m returning my new iPad Pro 2021, I’m cancelling my order, what a disappointment. Well, yeah. Don’t buy products because you think features might come in the future. Buy them because they fit your needs now.


And to me, this iPad Pro ticks the boxes if the apps you want are available in the App Store, if you do plenty of drawing or Procreate, if you want a portable tablet that can tackle day to day emails, document creation, basic computing needs as well as double up as a really good and big screen for personal entertainment that you can bring around the house and out on the go and more. Just don’t expect it to do things that it can’t, and you’re good.


It’s not wrong for consumers to expect more from Apple, seeing as these are really expensive devices that have incredible hardware. They start at S$1,199 or US$799 without the Keyboard Folio and without the Apple pencil. Personally, I’d still love to see macOS on an iPad Pro. There are ways of implementation, maybe only allowing it to use macOS when a keyboard and mouse is connected, stuff like that, but I know this is probably never going to happen, because like I said before, it would cannibalise sales from the MacBook Air and maybe even MacBook Pro line. So I’m crossing my fingers, but not getting my hopes up too high.

Content by Cheryl Tan