Jacob Krol/CNN
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If you were to judge by its cover, this year’s iPad Pro might seem like a small upgrade. But as you begin to dig into the 11-inch iPad Pro ($799.99) and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro ($1,099), you’ll quickly see there is more to the story.

The big change for 2021 is an expansive one on paper — the arrival of Apple’s M1 chip on an iPad. As expected, it makes the iPad experience feel even more instant than in years past. You won’t need to worry about closing apps in the background to make sure you have enough power, making it a compelling choice as a laptop replacement. For a week, we traded our 15-inch MacBook Pro for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the 11-inch model to see how they held up to our daily workflow.

The who, what and how

Who this is for: The 2021 iPad Pro is for anyone who wants the most powerful iPad (looking at you, iPad power users) or for those who want something more versatile than a MacBook that allows for new workflows — and are set on making the investment. If you’ve been holding onto a 2018 iPad Pro, now is the time to upgrade. Those with a 2020 model can likely sit tight for now, unless you’ve been itching for a better display.

What you need to know: To get a device that feels and acts brand new, you’ll want to opt for the 12.9-inch with the impressive Liquid Retina XDR display — it makes images pop and adds vibrancy to even dull visuals. The 11-inch sticks with a classic Retina display, which is on par with the previous model. The M1 chip inside both makes everything fast, and iPadOS glides no matter how many apps are open. You’ll want to pair either the 11-inch or 12.9-inch with the Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil or an experience that mixes tablet with laptop on a unique OS.

How it compares: Both the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro best any other tablet (including Android and other iPads) on the market, including the Galaxy Tab S7 and S7+. While the latter of those features a Super AMOLED display, the 12.9-inch Liquid Retina XDR display performed better with details and contrast abilities. The latest iPad Pro is also much faster and more efficient with intense tasks, thanks to the M1 chip inside. For most everyday folks who just want an entertainment-focused tablet, your best bet is still the entry-level iPad or iPad Air. The latter is kind of a step below the 11-inch iPad Pro with a similar build but less of a runway for high-powered tasks. Those looking for a laptop or MacBook replacement will want to opt for the 12.9-inch both for the screen’s added real estate and quality.

The M1 chip makes the iPad Pro ready for prime time

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After five generations of refinements, design changes and hardware upgrades, the iPad Pro has grown into itself. Yes, it can outrace any other iPad on the market, but it can also go head-to-head with high-end laptops. This is all thanks to the M1 chip, which delivers speed boosts and lets you use different workflows with ease on the iPad.

By itself, the 11-inch or 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a tablet that delivers instantaneous performance directly out of the box. Waking the iPad from sleep, unlocking with Face ID, cruising through apps, playing games and browsing the web happens in the blink of an eye. More intense tasks like starting an image edit in Lightroom and then moving it into Photoshop were just as fast. 4K movie renders happened in an instant, as did bulk exports on Photos. The M1 chip complete with an 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU with 8GB or 16GB of RAM is powering all of this. Additionally, it has a 16-core Neural Engine to deliver speed boosts and give developers an extra zip with AI or Machine Learning tasks.

The iPad Pro turns into a transformer of sorts when paired with an accessory or two. The Magic Keyboard gives you keys and a trackpad for a computer-like experience. It’s still a touch-first experience, though. The Apple Pencil lets you use the iPad for art, for note-taking or even as a simple stylus.

With these, the iPad Pro can be your productivity machine for work-related tasks, but it can also scale for play and creative ones. And for the first time, that answer for many is likely a yes, albeit at a premium price point. With more speed and an interface that continues to improve, the iPad Pro could be the best choice for your workflow — even with the added cost of tablet plus stylus and keyboard case.

We switched entirely to the new iPad Pro from a MacBook Pro. Idea generation, writing, editing, photo work, meetings, Slack messages and so much more was done on the iPad Pro. In our cases, we had one-to-one matches for the apps we regularly used daily. It was as simple as downloading them from the App Store, and we especially liked authenticating those with Face ID.

The real appeal of the iPad Pro is the freedom to move between tasks and not have to worry about power. Even with upward of 30 applications open on the device, all with some sort of background task being rendered, it didn’t miss a beat. You can’t say the same about the 2018 iPad Pro, with the standard A12 chip inside, or even last fall’s iPad Air with the A14 inside, which led more power-hungry tasks and a high number of apps open to cause some hiccups and slowdowns.

The Magic Keyboard — while pricey at $399 for the 12.9-inch or $299 for the 11-inch — creates a closer-to-computer-like experience when using the iPad. You get a keyboard and a decently sized trackpad, the latter of which is customized for iPadOS. The most significant difference between the Mac is that it’s an adaptive experience. Yes, the cursor is a translucent gray circle, but as you hover around UX elements (an app icon or menu), it forms to that shape. The Magic Keyboard is still a very punchy experience that doesn’t cause extra stress on our fingers.

Apple Pencil is yet another conduit of interaction with the iPad, great for taking notes or for creative tasks. With Scribble, you can also write out messages or searches since iPadOS will auto convert that into text. It’s also quite natural to write on iPad with no noticeable latency, thanks to the high-refresh displays.

If you’re going all in on iPad Pro and using it as your primary device, it makes sense to pair it with a Magic Keyboard and an Apple Pencil. That also ups the cost to $1,577, which moves this past tablet territory and really into the cost of a laptop. You can save a bit by opting for the Logitech ComboTouch, which is cheaper at $199.99 and just as reliable as the Magic Keyboard. The latest 12.9-inch with M1 and the better display make the core price worth it, and the accessories add in versatility that Mac laptops or desktops cannot provide.

Let’s talk about iPadOS

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The other half of iPad Pro is iPadOS, and we have a hunch that something big is coming. Right now it’s a custom version of iOS fit for the bigger screen with multitasking capabilities and a plethora of apps for you to pick from. Files makes it feel more like a computer with the ability to quickly see what’s on-device, in the cloud or on a connected drive. And all of iPadOS integrates within the Apple ecosystem — texts and messages, phone calls and all of your services can be found right on the iPad.

With an M1 chip inside you get a tremendous amount of raw potential. And there are many apps in the App Store that take advantage of the new power made available through M1. LumaFusion allowed us to edit full movies on the device; games like Real Flight Simulator Pro, Pascal’s Wager or Mini Metro ran with ease; and more console-level titles are on the horizon.

With iPadOS 15 on the horizon, we’re confident that the iPad Pro will get that update and many others down the line.

That remains to be seen, though. The difference between the 2018/2020 iPad Pro and the 2021 is the growth of software and the performance inside. Thanks to an increase of apps and more support for iPadOS, the platform feels ready, and M1 ensures your device can blaze through tasks.

A detail-filled display that shines on the 12.9-inch model

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Looks can be deceiving, especially when technology doesn’t get a fresh paint job or a radical new design. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro makes it apparent from the first boot that something is different. Rather than sticking with a standard Retina display, the new iPad Pro introduces Apple’s Liquid Retina XDR display.

It’s still a large 12.9-inch display, but it gets super vibrant up to a full 1,000 nits of brightness. It’s significantly brighter over the 2018 and 2020 iPad Pro, which aids in presenting more details in images and videos. Compared to the previous two models, the new iPad Pro pushes more light through. Colors have more of a pop to them, and when working outside in direct sunlight, we didn’t have any issues making changes to a large spreadsheet or editing a photo.

The new iPad Pro features 10,000 Mini LEDs behind the glass; the 2020 model features only 72 LEDs — a huge difference evident in the much crisper display across the board. It also features a 1,000,000-to-1 contrast ratio. The display can handle bright spots immediately next to high-contrast areas sans any streaks or blurs, thanks to the Mini LEDs. It not only provides more immersion with content, but also presents it in a form closer to its intent. The same goes for video editing in LumaFusion or iMovie; you can make out details at a very intricate level, such as identifying grain or noticing a spot that didn’t fully complete a render.

With drawing or taking notes, we noticed more details with the stroke that the Apple Pencil created. Since the stylus is capable of measuring depth, it was a good test for how iPadOS and the display could show user input.

The expected Apple features are still here — TrueTone uses the onboard Ambient Light Sensor to match the color temperature of the screen to wherever the iPad is. It makes the iPad Pro easier on your eyes and aims to reduce strain. It’s also a ProMotion screen, which means it has a variable refresh rate. Depending on what you’re using it for, the iPad Pro can refresh the screen faster or slower to fit the task. For instance, when taking notes with an Apple Pencil it increases the refresh rate to ensure a zero-latency experience.

The 11-inch iPad Pro didn’t get the same upgraded display — and it’s a disappointment. Text looks sharp, and you can still get away with plenty of creative endeavors (it’s just as fast also). In truth, though, besides the ProMotion refresh rate and M1 chip, it performs very closely to that of the iPad Air. So Apple missed an opportunity here to provide a real upgrade to the smaller iPad Pro.

Center Stage is ridiculously cool

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Throughout testing, our co-workers gazed in spectacle or sometimes confusion at us on video calls. Whether it was a quick Slack check-in, a FaceTime or a teamwide Webex, something was going on. And that is Center Stage, the iPad Pro’s new trick of always keeping you in the shot with the front-facing camera.

This feature is available on both the 11-inch and 12.9-inch models, thanks to an upgraded lens that’s built into the TrueDepth array, which powers Face ID. It’s a 12-megapixel ultrawide lens that recognizes who is speaking and works to keep you in the frame. Walk a few paces to the left and the view shifts that way. Eventually, it ends up with a tighter shot on the face. Same if you walk to the right or even walk farther back away from the iPad. It’s elegant and honestly just ridiculously cool.

Better yet, developers don’t need to do much in terms of updating here. It’s built into the foundation of iPadOS and will work with most video calling apps out of the box. That includes FaceTime, Zoom, Webex, Slack and Google Meet. You won’t find controls for Center Stage in-app just yet; for now head to Settings if you need to toggle it on or off.

While this feature does keep you in the frame, it doesn’t fix the camera placement. As it has been for years, it’s hard to make natural eye contact with the camera on the left-hand side when used horizontally. Center Stage make calls a bit more dynamic but doesn’t entirely fix the issue.

The main cameras on the iPad Pro are a 12-megapixel wide and a 10-megapixel ultrawide lens. They work quite well and you can use them to capture some nice shots. But rather than capturing memories, you’ll likely be using them within applications.

The integrated LiDAR sensor, which first premiered on the 2020 iPad Pro and is now on the iPhone 12 Pro, aids with augmented reality (AR) experiences. You can use the built-in Measure app to take measurements of really anything in your space. It’s also quite accurate, thanks to the LiDAR sensor for accurately figuring out depth. In an app like JigSpace, you can see common gadgets and gizmos expanded out — it’s really neat.

As portable as ever

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Let’s be clear: If you have a 2018 iPad Pro or even a 2020 model, the 2021 iPad Pro will not look any different. The 12.9-inch version is slightly thicker, thanks to the Liquid Retina XDR display. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination — Apple’s iPad Pro is incredibly portable.

Both the 11-inch and 12.9-inch come in under 1.5 pounds, lighter than most laptops, including the MacBook Air and Pro. They’re also quite thin and take up no more room than a packed manila folder when stuffed in a bag.

Apple still offers the top-tier iPad in two colors: silver or Space Gray. And yes, we wish Apple would have taken some inspiration from the iMac, iPad Air or even AirPods Max when it comes to colors. While “Pro” products generally go monochromatic, a little spice of color would be welcomed.

When holding the iPad Pro vertically, you’ll find the power and sleep button up top, with the volume rocker on the left. The second-generation Apple Pencil still magnetically attaches to the side below the volume controls, and it even wirelessly charges. You likely won’t need to engage much with the physical power button, though. You can double-tap the screen and it will automatically unlock through Face ID. The bottom features the single port on the iPad Pro: a USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port.

On the design front, Apple still opts for a minimalistic look here. The rear houses the camera bump, which has two cameras and the LiDAR sensor. Placing the iPad Pro in a case, like the Smart Keyboard or Magic Keyboard, makes it easier to lay down, as the back becomes flat. Without a case, the camera bump can be a bit of an annoyance — especially when taking notes. It’s all clean, and if you’ve used an iPad Pro before, it will look similar.

5G arrives on the iPad and battery life is strong

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Just like it has on the iPhone 12, 5G has arrived on the iPad, and Apple is playing the long game here. The cellular variants of the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro both support low-band and ultra-wideband 5G. This way you can access the networks that deliver wild speeds (ultra-wideband or mmWave) and the ones that deliver more bandwidth (low-band, aka Sub-6 GHz).

While we saw high speeds on Verizon’s 5G ultra-wideband network on the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, we were unable to replicate that with the iPad Pro. This remained the case even when we were directly across from a 5G mmWave (ultra-wideband) cell site in New York City. As we’ve reported before, mmWave is the tougher of the two. Not only do you need line of sight to the cell towers, but you also need to be close to get those high speeds. It’s also not available everywhere, with AT&T’s and Verizon’s network only in select areas of NYC right now, along with other scattered spots across the US.

You’re ultimately getting a 5G iPad Pro for future-proofing at this point, as these networks may not be in your backyard yet. And if they were, trees would block them. Low-band, on the other hand, delivers similar speeds to 4G LTE and gives you more bandwidth. This way if multiple 5G devices are connected, there’s more room for everyone to use the network. We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention that 4G LTE networks are still supported here. And network connectivity wherever you go is a big appeal for this over a laptop. Yes, you can tether to those devices with a hot spot, but having it built in increases the usability.

On the subject of battery, the 11-inch and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro deliver similar runtimes to years past. Even while docked in the Magic Keyboard, we were able to work for a full 11 to 12 hours with both devices. It’s quite impressive and goes back to the efficiency of the M1 chip, as we saw in the MacBook Air and Pro. You’ll still charge with a USB-C port, and Apple does include a 20-watt brick in the box.

Bottom line

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The 2021 iPad Pro is the most capable iPad yet and one that shines when you use it in different modes. This, of course, raises the price point when you factor in a Magic Keyboard and an Apple Pencil, but those all make for an experience that can best your MacBook.

Apple’s M1 chip is pushing the iPad Pro further than before, and if you’ve been sticking with a 2018 model, this will deliver a serious speed boost that makes this the ideal tablet for work and play. Those coming from the 2020 model will see some improvements, but it won’t be as evident in everyday tasks. The new iPad Pro’s powerful processor also sets up iPadOS for something big, and we expect this tablet to hold up well in the long run.

The 12.9-inch model’s Liquid Retina XDR display is the best we’ve ever used on a tablet, with vibrancy and details that are unmatched by other devices. It’s not just a joy to use for watching content or gaming, but it’s also terrific for productivity use cases. Think video editing or photo adjustments while on set after they were freshly shot and imported to the iPad.

We wish it were on the 11-inch as well, but that standard Retina display isn’t a slouch. But those interested in the 11-inch size might want to take a look at the iPad Air. It has a similar build that supports Apple Pencil and the Magic Keyboard, but with an A14 Bionic chip inside, it isn’t far off from the iPad Pro, at least for everyday use. And it’s cheaper at a starting price of $599.

If you’re looking for a computer replacement that offers portability, speed and multiple modes for control, the iPad Pro is for you. With the M1 chip, a refined design, iPadOS improvements and a mighty fine display on the 12.9-inch version, it’s a device ideal for working from home — with fun tossed in.

Just know that you will pay a premium for it, with the 11-inch starting at $799.99 and the 12.9-inch at $1,099. The cost of going Pro isn’t cheap.