That a tablet with an 11-inch screen could be considered both a perfect digital art tool and a ‘throw in any bag and go’ laptop replacement seems incredible, but this year’s smaller iPad Pro is just that – as long as you buy the Pencil and/or Magic Keyboard.
However, few apps can as-yet take advantage of this year’s big performance boost – and there’s one key feature that we expect from laptops that most of us won’t want to live without.
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As with many Apple devices, the key question about the smaller of the new iPad Pro range isn’t ‘is it any good’, it’s ‘who’s it for’? It’s not the iPad for most iPad buyers – that’s arguably the
iPad Air – nor is it the money’s-no-object, ultimate powerhouse of its
Instead, the 11-inch iPad Pro is for those who can’t sit still. It’s what you throw in your bag as you travel around, writing, drawing, creating and/or working – an existence we lost for a long time and are only starting to get back. Normally to get this level of performance you’d need a 15-inch laptop, but here it is in a form you can forget you’ve got with you, a form you don’t question about whether you should take with you – it’s just there in your day, tote or handbag ready for when you need it.
As the name and price imply, this is aimed at professionals – or at least financially enthusiastic amateurs – who want to use it for more than just playing games and watching Netflix. It’s for pro artists, creatives or business users – and for those users, the iPad Pro alone won’t be enough. You’ll either want to couple it with the Apple Pencil for creating or the Magic Keyboard for working (or both), so you’ll need to factor that into the price.
Without these, the iPad Pro is like a car engine without a chassis – it’s obviously powerful but you can’t actually go anywhere with it.
Design and Build
On its own, the iPad Pro is as sleek and stylish as you’d expect. The camera sticks out the back, but you can still happily type or draw with it flat on a desk. The silver industrial design of the sides isn’t as cool as it once was, but it is practical with well-place buttons, USB-C for charging and connecting accessories and a magnetic strip at the top to hold your Pencil while it wireless charges.
The Pencil is a perfectly balanced and weighted stylus – light enough to use for long periods but heavily enough to make marks precisely. It’s level of pressure and tilt sensitivity is practically as good as anything Wacom tablets can deliver. There’s also a tapable button on the top that works well to quickly change tools in apps from Photoshop to Notes.
The Magic Keyboard is equally well designed: the iPad Pro clips magnetically to it, with a degree of tilt adjustment. From the front, the iPad screen appears to levitate in front of you, while under your fingers is the best keyboard I’ve ever used outside of a 15-inch laptop or standalone desktop unit. It’s responsive and there’s a good amount of travel, with the touchscreen easily in reach to quickly tap and pull and push. Many of Apple’s apps – and others – put controls and menus at the bottom of the screen, where you can quickly tap to make contextual selections where mere keyboard shortcuts won’t suffice (such as which word you meant when you went on spelling safari, writing saffoce instead of suffice).
The touchpad is titchy, but I rarely use it – favouring the tablet screen instead. The other oddly unuseful feature is the keyboard’s own USB-C port. Yes, plugging your power lead into it is sleeker as your cable runs along your desk/table rather than hanging off the right edge of the landscape iPad – but it charges more slowly that way.
Maybe Apple has some idea that I’ll be working away on my iPad-as-a-laptop on a desk most of the time, briefly pulling it off the Magic Keyboard when inspiration strikes and I need to lie down on the sofa and sketch my Spring/Summer 2022 collection – but I’m more of a ‘when I plug it in, I need it to charge ASAP’ kinda person. And I suspect we all are.
This is all very lovely – but is pretty much exactly what I wrote about
the previous model. What’s new in the 2021 model is what’s sandwiched between screen and backplate.
This year’s iPad Pro is the first to feature Apple’s M1 chip, as found in the company’s MacBook 13.3-inch Air and Pro laptops. Using synthetic benchmarks, the 2021 iPad Pro was up to 56% faster than last year’s 12.9-inch model and 73% faster than the current iPad Air.
But what does that translate to in real apps. Sadly, very little – for now. You’ll see much faster processing as you render video projects, but that aside you don’t notice much difference between this year’s iPad 11 Pro and the previous model.
The twin-lens rear camera is perfectly acceptable for the things you should use a rear camera on an iPad for: capturing things to use in roughs, notes and sketches, or showing people what your cats are up to during FaceTime calls.
The front camera is much improved – both in terms of image quality and functionality. Images during FaceTime, Zoom and Teams calls are much improved. Apple has also borrowed a feature from Facebook’s Portal devices, automatically framing shots around people – zooming out or in as people leave or move into its field of view. It’s a bit of a gimmick, but there is something nicely intimate about it zooming into to one person when others leave, like a friend at a raucous party turning round to focus their attention just on you.
The best way to describe this iPad’s battery life is ‘more than long enough’, which is what you want from a product designed for the grab-and-go lifestyle. We managed to stream video continuously over wifi for 12 hours and 12 minutes and in my day-to-day testing for both artistic creation and business work I never found the power percentage dropping low enough that I got nervous I was going to run out of juice.
Day-to-day battery life was also much longer than any laptop I’ve tested – which might surprise you considering the iPad Pro 11’s 28.75Wh battery has around half the capacity of even the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s. But then battery life is about efficiency as much as capacity.
The iPad’s operating system is both one of its best and worst features. It’s focussed – working best if you work in one application at a time, with all your assets inside that app. Whether you’re drawing and painting in Procreate or writing documents in Word, the mixture of touch and Pencil/Keyboard makes creating and manipulating media effortless – until you want to bring things together.
The limited nature of the iPad’s support for a key element of desktop OS’s – drag-&-drop, something that defined MacOS’s appeal in the early days of desktop computing – means that pulling together disparate elements from text and image you received by Teams and email into apps like PowerPoint is much more painful than on desktop.
Now talking about drag-&-drop for a device with an 11-inch screen may sound ridiculous – but this is about purpose. For the iPad Pro to replace a laptop, it’s got to help you work – and if drag-&-drop doesn’t fit then some other workflow has to replace it. And the iPad Pro just doesn’t have it.
This may change in iPad OS 15, which is due in next month or so – which introduces a multi-tasking view with proper split screen layouts. But we’ll reserve judgement on whether this is enough until we’ve tried it.
There are other places where the iPad Pro is lacking as a daily business device. You can technically connect an iPad to an external display, but that just mirrors your screen. And as the iPad has a 3:2 aspect ratio and your monitor is likely 16:9 or 16:10, you have black bars of wasted space down each side of the screen.
This is frustratingly awkward – especially so as the Sidecar feature lets you plug the iPad Pro into a Mac and use it as a second, touchscreen display.
The lack of true external monitor support may just be the one feature that stops the 11-inch iPad Pro being the laptop replacement it could so easily be – but if that doesn’t matter to you or you value the iPad Pro’s just-get-up-and-go portability. Just don’t feel you need to upgrade from last year’s model quite yet.
iPad Pro 11in (2021, M1): Specs
8GB of RAM (with 128GB/256GB/512GB models) or 16GB (1TB and 2TB models)
12MP/10MP (f/1.8 and f/2.4) rear-facing cameras, SmartHDR, 2x optical zoom, True Tone Flash, 4K video at 60fps, Slo-mo 1080p at 240fps, Continuous autofocus, Cinematic video stabilisation
12MP (f/2.4) TrueDepth front-facing camera, 2x optical zoom, Centre Stage, Retina flash, Smart HDR 3 for photos, Portrait modes, Cinematic stabilisation for video, 1080p HD video at 25/30 or 60fps, Animoji & Memoji