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(Pocket-lint) - A lot has happened in the world since the launch of the iPad Pro 12.9-inch in 2020, yet the need for us to work on the go is still an key factor for many people.

Apple's 2021 iPad Pro looks to up the ante once again, bringing a new processor, a new screen, 5G connectivity, as well as improvements to the camera and elsewhere.

So, is this the year that the Apple iPad Pro will finally - yes finally - let you ditch the laptop altogether? We've been using the iPad Pro 2021 with M1 processor to find out.

Design gets heavier

  • Same design as 2020 model
  • Finishes: Silver or Space Grey
  • Dimensions: 281 x 215 x 6.4mm
  • Weight: 682g (Wi-Fi), 685g (5G)

Having launched previously with a much squarer design, which has since been adopted by the iPhone, the iPad Pro keeps an almost identical design to its previous offering.

For 2021 the 12.9-inch model is ever so slightly thicker than previous versions, thanks to new Mini LED screen technology, but it will still fit your previous cases (albeit snugly), including the Apple Magic Keyboard that launched in 2020.

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That extra thickness also means it's a bit heavier, with around 40g extra. While that's not hugely noticeable over the previous version, it does mean that the Pro is getting heavier and heavier - which is something to bear in mind.

To put it in perspective, though, the 2021 Pro is actually the same weight as the original iPad from way back in 2010. And while no one will begrudge that this iPad is considerably more powerful, it's interesting that all that tech, and batteries to power it, means that the days of a thin-and-light iPad have come to an end - well, certainly at the top-end of this market.

Why's that important? Because it is no longer a slip-in-your-bag-and-not-notice-it device any more. Add in the Magic Keyboard - which is another 710g - and you've got a device that's 1.395kg. That's roughly the same as the company's M1 13-inch MacBook Pro or many other Windows-based laptops - indeed it's actually not too difficult to find sub-1kg laptops.

Display gets brighter

  • 12.9-inch 'Liquid Retina XDR' Mini LED display
  • 2732 x 2048 resolution (264ppi)
  • 1600-nit peak brightness
  • 120Hz refresh rate

The 2021 iPad Pro gets an updated display technology - called Mini LED - which makes it considerably brighter than older models. It's a relatively new panel technology that's only just making its way into the latest TVs.

In the case of this 12.9-inch model that means over 10,000 LEDs are positioned behind the screen to create, at times, a much brighter display that is also more nuanced to what is happening on the screen.

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The enhanced technology is instantly noticeable. The screen is physically brighter for starters, and has the ability to increase that brightness further depending on what is required. Previously the peak brightness was 600 nits, now that can go up to 1600 nits for those high dynamic range (HDR) moments.

While the average user will benefit from watching high-resolution content from their favourite streaming service - even the end credits of a movie look stunning - creatives will certainly enjoy the ability to see all that extra detail in their images or video, especially if they are working within the realms of HDR or Dolby Vision.

Combine that with the Pro's usual array of screen tech - such as P3 wide colour gamut, ProMotion (120Hz refresh rate), and True Tone - and you won't find much to complain about when it comes to the screen.

Front-facing camera gets more intelligent

  • Improved front-facing camera: 12-megapixel, 122-degree field of view
  • New 'Center Stage' technology (for subject tracking)

If you're like us, you'll have spent a lot of time in 2020 on video calls talking to colleagues, friends, and family. So for 2021, the iPad Pro celebrates video calling by adding a new front-facing TrueDepth Camera.

It's unique to the iPad (at launch anyway - we suspect that will change in the future) and for the most part you won't notice that it's ultra-wide. That's because of a new feature Apple has introduced specifically for the iPad Pro: Center Stage.

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No doubt inspired by devices like the Facebook Portal and Amazon Echo Show 10, the idea is that the front-facing camera can now follow you as you move about so you're always "centre stage".

By cropping into the captured image to deliver the same image crop iPad users are used to, nothing physically moves within the iPad itself. Instead Applehas opted to emulate that movement by digitally cropping in on the image as it follows you.

The feature, which works just as well in Apple FaceTime as it does in Zoom and other video calling apps, can be fun, but it can become jarring.

Anything with a head and shoulders is automatically picked up and the frame will resize to fit them in. Add more people and the feature zooms out to make sure everyone is in the frame. That's fantastic for a family catch-ups with the kids trying to jostle around the iPad Pro screen, or for ensuring you're fully in the shot.

The 122-degree viewpoint is wide enough to catch most of you, wide enough to track you around the room, and wide enough to still move if you've stepped some distance from the camera (we got to around 5 metres away). 

Where things get tricky is if you move around when using it and the iPad Pro is stationary on the desk. Not because it doesn't follow you, but because of the fluidity to the follow. You move and the camera slowly moves with you.

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The resulting affect is as if Apple has applied a Ken Burns effect to dramatise your video call. Or, as we found when being fairly close to the camera, it looks a bit like being on a boat and bobbing up and down with the tide. It can, at times, be very nauseating.

However, go hands-free and the technology helps stabilise your movement - making it a much better experience as the tracking is kept to a minimum and less pronounced.

It's probably why business calls from our desk garnered plenty of complaints, but family calls resulted in much more positive feedback with the grandparents in awe of the technology in action, and a chance to see everyone for the first time without us having to stand miles away from the screen.

Performance: Everything is faster

  • Apple M1 processor, 8GB/16GB RAM
  • Options for 128GB to 2TB storage
  • Apple Pencil support (2nd Gen)
  • LiDAR sensor on back
  • Thunderbolt / USB4

With every iteration the iPad Pro gets a faster processor, normally on par with the iPhone. This year, rather than trying to keep pace with the iPhone, the iPad keeps pace with the Mac.

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Because now you'll find Apple's new M1 processor instead of an upgraded iPhone processor powering the pro tablet. Yes, the same chip that powers the MacBook Air or iMac or MacBook Pro now powers the 2021 iPad Pro. We'll let that sink in for a moment.

According to Apple that results in a 50 per cent boost in performance without compromising the battery - so you'll still get around 10 hours per charge. Although, just like a Mac, the battery life widely varies in performance depending on what you do and how bright that screen is.

Also just like a Mac, there are now RAM options for the first time on the iPad Pro, all the way up to 16GB - although that option is restricted to the 1TB or 2TB storage options (you guessed it, that means pricey pricey), whereas it's 8GB RAM for the 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB storage capacities (and more reasonable price points).

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The M1 processing power means the iPad Pro whizzes along with any various tasks that you'll throw at it, just in the same way we find apps on the M1 MacBook Pro perform.

Whether that's photo editing in Adobe Lightroom, drawing in Procreate, or designing in Affinity Designer, we had no problem loading, importing, editing, or saving large files on any of the 'pro' apps we use.

Working with large sound and video files proved little stress to the new 2021 iPad Pro either, while power hungry games like Asphalt 9, Call of Duty, or NBA2K21 loaded almost instantly - and, yes, noticeably faster than on previous iPad Pro models.

And if the M1 isn't enough to keep that workflow process happy, the iPad Pro 12.9-inch now also comes in a 5G flavour for those who want speedy connectivity on the go. An afternoon hot-spotting via an EE SIM proved just as productive as being on the Wi-Fi in the home office.

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Elsewhere there's an improved Thunderbolt / USB4 port for transferring files to and from the device even faster - it's up to 40Gbps, whereas previously it was USB-C and therefore 10Gbps.

You still get the dual camera and LiDAR sensor setup on the back for taking pictures, video, or playing with AR too. It's the same 12-megapixel main and 10-megapixel wider-angle as on the previous generation. 

iPadOS needs to offer more

  • Software: iPadOS 14.5

Given that the iPad Pro has the same technical power of a MacBook Air but running iPadOS, it can at times feel a little underwhelming in terms of what you can do - especially given the sheer power under the hood.

Apple broke iPadOS away from iOS a number of years ago to be able to offer things like file transfer and track support. But now with the more powerful innards it feels like it needs to do more than just offer a series of app icons on the Home Screen.

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Of course Apple watchers will know that we're due an announcement for iPadOS 15 at WWDC in June 2021, so we're hoping that a greater emphasis on multi-tasking, a more useful Home Screen option, and other features will come to the experience later this year. That could be a game-changer.

It's not that the iPad Pro 2021 isn't capable - far from it - it's just at we can feel that there's something much bigger coming that's just around the corner to help capitalise on that new found power within.

Verdict

When Steve Jobs first revealed the iPad back in 2010 it was all about casual reading and surfing from the sofa, about access to apps to empower, entertain, and educate us.

More than a decade on and the 2021 iPad Pro still embraces those principles. But for today's creative types who want more than just basic typing and surfing it's a more empowering experience - largely thanks to the M1 processor - bringing greater opportunity for both work and play.

For all intents and purposes the 2021 iPad Pro 12.9-inch is like a touchscreen-enabled MacBook Pro with 5G connectivity that runs iPadOS instead of macOS. It's the closest to a laptop-replacement that Apple has ever taken the iPad.

Yet the iPad Pro is still in transition. It doesn't completely replace the laptop just yet, because Apple hasn't quite cracked the software. So if that's what you're after then let's hope iPadOS 15 changes that later in 2021.

Also consider

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iPad Air (2020)

The 'non-pro' iPad will be good enough for many. So unless you want the higher storage, ProMotion higher refresh rate, or dual cameras, you're just as well getting the iPad Air as the iPad Pro 11.

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Writing by Stuart Miles. Editing by Mike Lowe.