If you’re looking for a review to help justify your upgrade, this is not that review.
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However if you’re getting an iPad for the first time, or upgrading from a really old iPad, then yes, you’ll get more value for your money.
iPad Pro 2021 was released in May 2021. These are the upgrades:
- Liquid Retina XDR with mini LED
- 2,500 dimming zones
- M1 processor
- Faster storage
- Thunderbolt 4
- All iPad Pros now have 8GB ram, up to 16GB
- Base model now has 128GB storage
- Centre Stage
You can find the whole list of features on Apple’s website.
My review is from the perspective of a visual content creator, someone who’s into graphic design, digital art, editing photos and videos. I’ll just talk about the features that affect my work.
Look and design
Design of the new iPad Pro 2021 looks very similar to the 2020 model from the front and back. It’s still a good looking design.
Due to the new mini LED display Apple is using, the tablet is now 6.4mm thick compared to 5.9mm of the previous two models. It’s no big deal since it’s still considered thin.
The increase in weight is noticeable though, from 642g (2020) and 631g (2018) to 682g.
This M1 iPad Pro 2021 is heavier than the iPad Pro 2017 with home button that weights 677g.
This M1 iPad Pro 2021 is around 40g heavier than the iPad Pro 2020, and around 50g heavier than the iPad Pro 2018.
40g or 50g on its own is nothing. But when you add that weight to previous model, and then include a case, it feels even heavier. I always set my 12.9″ iPad Pro 2018 on the table when working. Occasionally, I may hold it in one hand to draw while standing, or use it with one hand on my sofa. With the heavier 12.9″, you can still do that but you can expect more strain on your hands.
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a tablet you will need to set down on a table if you want to use it for long periods of time. Your hands will feel tired even if you’re propping it up while drawing on your sofa. If you want the portability and less strain on your hands, get the 11-inch model which weighs 466g but that model doesn’t come with the mini LED display. Bummer, maybe not. It’s slightly lighter than the 2020 model.
But even when you’re drawing with the tablet on the table, you will need a stand to prop up the tablet. Otherwise, it’s just impossible to hold and draw on the tablet for long periods of time. I’m using the Parblo PR100 stand.
Battery life is around 10 hours normal usage and auto-brightness. That’s similar to previous models.
Battery life will drain much faster to around 7 hours if you’re using it under bright conditions outdoor. When the brightness is up and the tablet is doing work, it can get warm but not unbearably so.
Liquid Retina XDR display and HDR
Colours and contrast on the new XDR (Extreme Dynamic Range) display look great. Viewing angles are good too.
The new display on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has over 10,000 mini LEDs as backlight. The max brightness is up to 600 nits, full-screen max brightness is 1,000 nits and HDR brightness is 1,600 nits. You can get a theoretical 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio.
I’m not sure why Apple separated max vs full-screen max brightness though. Anyway, in the real world, you’re not going to get anywhere near the advertised brightness. 600 nits is so bright it will make your eyes uncomfortable. My desktop monitors are running at 200 nits brightness.
The extra brightness however makes the display much easier to see even under strong sunlight.
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2021 model (right) does seem brighter with a side by side comparison with the 2018. But I’m not sure if it’s because my 2018 model has degraded brightness over the 2.5 years of usage. The impressive thing about the 2018 display is after two years of intensive use, there’s no yellowing of the whites.
You have to stream to see true HDR with movies bought on iTunes. The same movies when downloaded will be playing at SDR instead of HDR. For some reason, the streaming and downloaded movies both play in true HDR on the iPhones with OLED displays.
On the iPad Pro 2018 and 2020, that area is just white. On the iPhone 12 Pro Max, I could see the ball of white which is the sun, basically I can see extra details thanks to the increase dynamic range and contrast.
What is true HDR effect? For the screenshot from the movie Life of Pi, the sun’s reflection is on the water. With true HDR, you should see a bright ball of just white, and extreme bright glow (but not white) around the sun.
HDR should have wider dynamic range and better contrast. The HDR on the iPad Pro seem to have better dynamic range in highlights rather than the shadow or dark areas. I was able to see more details in highlight areas than in shadow areas compared to other HDR monitors I’ve tested. But overall, you can consider HDR quality on the iPad Pro to be good, noticeable.
HDR works properly with HDR videos from Youtube though. When you look at light bulbs for example, you can really get the impression, believe, the light bulbs are glowing.
Blooming effect and the 2,500 dimming zones
The 10,000 mini LEDs and 2,500 local dimming zones are supposed to achieve extreme contrast, high dynamic range and high brightness. They do so but there are downsides. Blooming can happen beside back-lit pixels against areas of black, and is most obvious at maximum brightness when using tablet under low or no light..
This photo has been enhanced to show the blooming more clearly. It’s exaggerated.
For areas that are not just black, there will be blooming beside the pixels. Blooming is very clearly seen when you’re using the tablet in total darkness or extreme low light.
The blooming may or may not be an issue depending on your usage and workflow. How often do you use the tablet in total darkness, and work against a background that’s predominantly black with small areas of high contrast?
If you’re using the tablet under normal conditions, with auto-brightness, blooming is not obvious.
You won’t see blooming when surfing web pages in dark mode. That’s because all the dimming zones are lit. It’s only with areas that have localised blooming will you then see the effect.
There are no blooming issues, or non-noticeable, when watching movies, thankfully. Black bars at the top and bottom are still black. Actually, the blacks are pure black without any form of IPS glow which is noticeable on the 2018 and 2020 model. By the way, IPS glow is not as distracting compared to the localised blooming. I think the reason why there’s no blooming when watching movies is because the dimming zones actually are working effectively, killing the brightness only at the right areas. That and when our eyes look at high contrast areas, our eyes will adjust our dynamic range too. E.g. Looking at a backlit subject, the back will just be black.
Note that the Apple’s Pro Display XDR does not use mini LED even though it also can produce 1,600 nits HDR brightness.
Laminated display and shadow effect around the edges (applies to 12.9-inch model)
There’s this shadow effect around the edges of the display. I’m not sure if it’s because the glass is thicker or if the surface of the glass is further away from the LCD.
The shadow effect at the edge is not obvious in this photo but it is noticeable in real life. This is more noticeable than the blooming effect because you can see this in any lighting conditions.
The shadow effect probably cannot be fixed with software updates. The display can be at full brightness and the shadows are still there.
One thing about Apple customers is, they feel good when they buy Apple products. The shadow effect and blooming are obviously not good since the previous models don’t have such issues. You can certainly get used to them with time. When Apple customers know this, they don’t feel good and they will defend the company to make themselves feel better for their purchase. Look, the screen issues are there. It is what it is. There are people who accept it, and there are people who can’t and returned the tablet.
There’s no difference to the parallax when using the Apple Pencil. There’s no misalignment. The lines still look as if they appear directly beneath the pen tip. I tried to compare the distance between the pen tip and line for the 2018 and 2021 models and I can’t tell the difference. So the only giveaway is the shadow effect at the edges. Apple giveth and taketh away.
Drawing, graphic design
The drawing experience with Apple Pencil is fantastic, always have been. The iPad (all models) is one of the best portable drawing tablets.
There are many high quality drawing and graphic design apps from the Apple App Store.
Apple Pencil has good palm rejection. With apps that allow you to choose only pen input, you can get perfect palm rejection.
Apple Pencil supports tilt and and pressure sensitivity. It’s also very accurate. When drawing on the 120Hz display, the lines appear almost instantly and is always directly beneath the pen tip.
That’s the Apple Pencil I bought in 2018. Battery life isn’t as good now but it still works. Battery life isn’t a problem because you can charge it for 15s to get 30 minutes of use. Apple Pencil is sold separately for US$129.
In terms of value for money, the cheaper iPads are the ones that are more worth the money especially if you’re into creating digital art or graphic design. If you can find the older iPad Pro 2018 (4GB RAM) or 2020 (6GB RAM) at good prices.
These are the number of layers you get with an 300DPI A4 file in Procreate compared to other iPads
|Model||RAM||No of layers|
|iPad Air 3 (2019)||3GB||26 (19 before update)|
|iPad Air 4 (2020)||4GB||57 (19 before update)|
|iPad mini 5 (2019)||3GB||19|
|iPad Pro 2018||4GB||57|
|iPad Pro 2020||6GB||73 (56 before update)|
|iPad Pro 2021||8GB and 16GB||92 (26 before update)|
Many Youtube creators talk about video editing on the iPad. Editing videos is probably the only way (I know) that can push the M1 chip to its limits.
Geekbench benchmarks puts it at 30-50% faster for single and multi-core performance compared to iPad Pro 2020. I don’t see significant improvement with Lumafusion (v2.4.4). Based on my experience with Lumafusion, it takes just 5 minutes to export a 10 minute cut-and-paste-together video with H265 code. That’s about 5-10% faster than my 2018 model. There’s benchmarks, and then there’s the real world.
And here are some more real world stories.
I made over 2,000 Youtube videos with my old cylindrical Mac Pro 2013 that export videos several times slower than the iPad Pro. I was still able to make that many videos because I could leave the Mac Pro overnight to export videos.
By the way, when you’re exporting videos with Lumafusion, you have to keep the app in front. If you switch to other apps while exporting videos, the export process will stop. In other words, you can’t do other work while exporting videos which can take a few minutes. To put it simply, let’s just say that multi-tasking is not great.
I believe people may want to use the iPad Pro for video editing because they like the tablet form factor. It’s not because tablet apps have more functionality, or touchscreen and Apple Pencil are more intuitive, or it can save time and improve productivity. It has nothing to do with work, and that’s fine because… personal preference.
There are also better backup solutions on desktops. When I copy my videos from the SD card over, the videos will be uploaded automatically to Microsoft OneDrive as backup, and also to Google Drive as a second backup. If my computer crashes, I can buy a new Mac, install Final Cut Pro, download all the video files I’ve lost and get back to work under 2 hours.
iCloud is a good backup but it’s slow to restore. Not a problem because at least you still have a backup. Your life is not over if your iPad crashes. If your video editing workflow involves pulling videos from older projects, you’ll have to copy the videos from the SD card two times, once to your iPad, another to your other drive or cloud storage. Or you can just upload the videos to the cloud, then download them back into Lumafusion. Just make sure to budget for the cloud storage for your large video files.
Study your workflow and see if the iPad can fit into your workflow. You don’t want it the other way round where you fit into the iPad’s workflow.
Look at your workflow before you buy
My advice when it comes to buying has always been this: Choose the device based on the software or app you want to use.
If you use Microsoft products, Word, Excel, you can already use those apps on a laptop, and you get the apps with ALL the features.
The main selling point of the iPad Pro is so that you can use it with the Apple Pencil. it makes the drawing process very smooth. Just power on, open the app and you can draw something really quickly. It’s also very intuitive too to be drawing on the screen directly.
You can certainly use Apple Pencil to edit photos and videos. But you can do those things on a computer with keyboard and mouse too, maybe several times faster. You’ll save more time when it comes to sharing your work on various website online, managing your files and backups.
The main use case for my iPad Pro is to use it as a digital drawing tablet. It serves that purpose well. Apple has made the 2018 model so good that it’s really difficult to justify selling it, then spend hundreds of dollars to upgrade to something else.
iPadOS still has limitations
With the use of M1 and up to 16GB RAM, hopefully Apple will update iPadOS to better take advantage of whatever the hardware has to offer.
Right now iPadOS has many limitations. Multitasking is oftentimes not an option because some apps don’t open in split screen. An external monitor will just show a mirror image with most apps. Many features and bugs still there with the Files app, e.g. can’t open a MP4 video but MOV is alright, transfer many or huge files can have corruption issues, files can’t be selected, renamed or deleted if something goes wrong, and many more. Keyboard control is good but not for mouse. All these things I’ve just mentioned can be done easily with Samsung Dex desktop mode found in selected Samsung tablets and phones.
iPad Air 4 (2020) vs M1 iPad Pro 2021
The base model iPad Air 4 (2020) with 64GB cost US $599. After installing apps, you’re probably left with 30-40GB storage. If you draw frequently (look at your current workflow and habits), 30-40GB is fast to fill up. A typical 4K resolution Procreate file is around 100MB (depends on complexity) and you can save 10 – 20 files with 1GB storage after you delete the Procreate timelapse videos.
If you upgrade the iPad Air 4 to 256GB, that’s US $749. If you have the budget, you can top up $50 to get the based model 11-inch M1 IPad Pro 2021 with 128GB. You’ll get a faster processor, double the RAM from 4 to 8GB, four way speakers and 120Hz ProMotion. Yeah you’ll have half the storage now but 128GB after installing apps will still leave you with 100GB+ storage. So if you have a $800 budget, the 11-inch M1 iPad Pro 2021 is a much better deal. If you do need additional storage, you can get cloud storage at a later date.
11-inch vs 12.9 inch iPad Pro 2021?
It comes down to portability. 11-inch is significantly more portable. Hold it with one hand is just easier.
The screen is smaller for drawing, but it’s still a good size for drawing. The screen is still noticeable bigger than A5 sketchbook (above).
Not having the Mini LED display is not a downside.
Should you get a matte screen protector
All matte screen protectors will affect image quality.
Artists may prefer to use matte screen protectors because they enjoy the tactile experience of drawing on a textured surface compared to drawing on glass.
Shown above is how the matte screen protector looks (on iPad Air 4) when there’s reflection on the display. The matte screen protector will diffuse the light source to create a white haze that can sometimes make it difficult for you to see visuals. If your workflow involves using the tablet outdoors often, that white haze is incredibly frustrating because it affects contrast and creates glare that shines into your eyes.
The Apple Pencil is not slippery on the glass, and it doesn’t squeak. But if you want to use a screen protector, I recommend getting a clear one instead.
Matte screen protectors don’t attract fingerprints as easily. However the image quality degradation outweighs the issue with fingerprints.
Technology to me is about saving time and money, improving productivity. The new features are nice but they don’t help me save more time or be more productive because I’ve reached the stage where I’m the bottleneck and not the hardware or even the software or iPadOS. As capable as the new tablet is, it will not help me draw faster, edit more photos or videos.
The iPad Pro 2021 is a solid performer with the M1 processor and 8GB RAM. If you’re thinking of getting your first iPad, the iPad Pro 2021 is great and worth the money. However, I would probably recommend the iPad Pro 2020 (6GB RAM) model if you can find that at good prices or refurbished prices (usually 15% off from Apple). When it comes to creating digital art, you’re not going to experience anything different between all those models. The entry level iPad is good too but it doesn’t have a laminated display so the drawing experience is not as satisfying, but it’s still a perfectly capable iPad. All iPads do the same thing.
The main reason why Apple has so many iPad models is because they want to have an iPad at every price tier, for everyone. Apple wants to earn from those who can spend $349, $2199 and everything in between.
The mini LED display to me is a mixed bag though but thankfully blooming effect is not really noticeable under normal usage and auto-brightness.
iPadOS continues have its limitations.
If you’re thinking of upgrading from the 2018 or 2020 iPad Pro, I don’t recommend it. It’s a definite nounless Apple announces something groundbreaking with iPadOS 15 during WWDC 2021 in June. I’m not sure I’ll be interested to edit videos on the iPad Pro for reasons mentioned earlier even if Apple can get Final Cut Pro over to iPadOS. Why edit videos on a 12.9-inch display when you can do it on a larger external monitor or a laptop?
If you’re into digital, graphic design and video editing, iPad is good because there are many good drawing, graphic design, creative apps from Apple App Store.
if you want to do more than just drawing, or you’re just into casual drawing, perhaps check out the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 or S7+. Android OS can do a lot more, and the Samsung tablets have many good features, especially Samsung Dex which gives you the desktop experience and you can connect to an external monitor. If you want to use your tablet as your computer, the Samsung Tab S7 is the one I’ll recommend.
Pros and cons at a glance
+ Beautiful design
+ 10 hours battery life
+ Many drawing, graphic design, creative apps
+ Thunderbolt 4
+ Beautiful designs with good brightness and colours
+ HDR display but note the issues
+ Apple Pencil have great drawing and writing experience
+ Increased storage for base models at 128GB
+ Increased RAM to base 8GB and up to 16Gb
+ Faster internal storage
– 12.9-inch model noticeably heavier than 2018 and 2020 models
– Blooming effect from the dimming zones under certain conditions
– Shadow effect at the edges
– Stream iTunes movies have HDR, but downloaded ones don’t