Apple’s latest iPad Pro models were shown off at its Spring Loaded event, and while they look physically the same as last year’s models, a number of under-the-hood improvements make the 2021 iPad Pro a definite option for professionals considering a tablet upgrade. Spring Loaded brought a number of product announcements, including the long-awaited Air Tags, but for on-the-go professionals, none of the announcements are likely as exciting as the new iPad Pro models—the first Apple tablets to include Apple’s own M1 chipset, which was well-received on release last year.

A number of other improvements were made to the latest generation of iPad Pros that make both the 12.9″ and 11″ a considerable upgrade despite being mid-generation devices, which usually include only minor upgrades.

SEE: Apple iPad Pro 2020: Cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What’s new in the latest iPad Pro models?

From the outside, there’s not a whole lot new about the latest generation of iPad Pro models. Both have the same flat bevels, come in the same two size configurations, and reflect Apple’s “magic piece of glass” design aesthetic that has come to define the iPad Pro. What’s changed is under the hood, and the list of improvements is quite extensive.

For starters, Apple has added the Apple Silicon M1 chip to the iPad Pro, making it the first non-Mac device to get the Apple Silicon treatment. The M1 in the iPad Pro contains an 8-core CPU that Apple said performs 50% faster than the previous iPad Pro model, and an 8-core GPU that Apple said boosts graphics performance by 40% over the last iPad Pro.

SEE: 31 Mac keyboard shortcuts business users need to know (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The 2021 iPad Pro models are also getting USB-C ports with Thunderbolt support, which Apple said will have four times the bandwidth for wired connections, up to 40 Gbps, enabling full support for external monitors at up to 6K.

The true depth camera on the front of the iPad Pro also got a boost to 12 MP and a widescreen 120-degree field of view. The widescreen aspect of the front-facing camera enables a new feature that Apple calls Center Stage, which uses machine learning to zoom in and out, pan and center on the user during a video call. It’s also capable of detecting a second person and adjusting to best fit both of them on screen as well.

For those wishing for a better display on the iPad Pro, Apple’s answer is the new Liquid Retina XDR display on the 12.9″ iPad Pro, which Apple said mimics the high-contrast colors of the full-sized Apple Pro Display XDR. Apple said that it developed new mini-LEDs to achieve the same performance on the iPad Pro as its Pro Display XRD, and the 12.9″ is packed with more than 10,000 of them. The 11″ iPad Pro isn’t receiving the XDR treatment this time around, unfortunately.

Lastly, both iPad Pro models now support 5G and mmWave, and Apple also added a new option for up to 2TB of internal storage. In short, for a mid-year update the latest iPad Pros are a huge improvement.

Specs for the new iPad Pros

12.9″ iPad Pro 11″ iPad Pro
Display Liquid Retina XDR Liquid Retina
Storage Capacity 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
Chipset Apple M1 w/8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine Apple M1 w/8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine
Memory 8GB RAM; 16GB RAM on 1TB and 2TB models 8GB RAM; 16GB RAM on 1TB and 2TB models
Cameras Rear: 12 MP wide, 10 MP ultra-wide

Front: 12 MP 122° FoV TrueDepth front-facing camera with Center Stage

Rear: 12 MP wide, 10 MP ultra-wide

Front: 12 MP 122° FoV TrueDepth front-facing camera with Center Stage

Networking 5G, mmWave, Wi-Fi 6 5G, mmWave, Wi-Fi 6
Communications Bluetooth 5.0, iBeacon microlocation Bluetooth 5.0, iBeacon microlocation
Ports Thunderbolt/USB 4, Smart Connector, magnetic connector Thunderbolt/USB 4, Smart Connector, magnetic connector
Security Face ID Face ID
Battery Life 40.88 Watt-hour, up to 10 hours on Wi-fi, 9 hours cellular 28.65 Watt-hour, up to 10 hours on Wi-fi, 9 hours cellular

For additional hardware information, see Apple’s iPad Pro specs website.

Should I buy the new iPad Pro to use for work?

Apple typically makes its big product reveals in September, so for a mid-cycle upgrade the 2021 iPad Pros are a big step, and with this large an upgrade, it’s iffy that a more tempting offer will materialize six months from now. Professionals who are looking for an upgrade—especially those that skipped last year’s somewhat disappointing update that only added LiDAR and a small processor upgrade—don’t have much of a reason to hold off.

The reveal of the new iPad models definitely showed that Apple had professionals in mind: Apple made several direct references to how new features could be used, illustrating that it sees the iPad Pro as a product designed for work.

Creative professionals, Apple said, will benefit from the M1 chip because of faster graphics performance. The 8-core GPU that Apple said will improve performance by 40% was advertised as ideal for faster design work and improved AR capabilities for things such as product demos and 3D design.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

The 12.9″ iPad Pro, with its Liquid Retina XDR display, was shown being used by photographers and video editors in various locations with less-than-ideal lighting, which Apple said the XDR display will make up for, allowing professionals to see important details in various environments.

Center Stage has the potential to be an excellent tool for those who do a lot of online meetings, especially those that move around a lot or are taking notes or demonstrating on a whiteboard. This could also be an interesting feature for teachers leading classes virtually due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The addition of 5G is sure to pique the interest of on-the-go professionals as well; Apple is ever-increasingly positioning the iPad Pro as a laptop alternative, making a 5G option even more tempting for those that want to work without being tethered to Wi-Fi.

SEE: Apple iPadOS: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What products are competing with the new iPad?

With its desktop-tier M1 chipset, the new iPad Pro is more like a full-fledged computer than ever before. This makes comparing it to other devices somewhat difficult: iPadOS is still a mobile operating system, but its hardware puts it in a category separate from other higher-tier tablets like the Galaxy Tab 7.

There is one big competitor looming, and it’s the same one that the iPad Pro has been competing with since its inception: the Microsoft Surface line. Competition between the two has been a dividing line for many creative professionals, who have reportedly been jumping ship since 2016.

TechRepublic sister site CNET describes the iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface as opposite ends of the hybrid spectrum—the Surface is a laptop that can also be a tablet, and the iPad Pro is a tablet first, laptop second. The choice of which to go with can come down to that difference, along with which ecosystem one has invested more time into, the types of products an employer uses or any number of other factors.

If the iPad Pro’s biggest competition is the Microsoft Surface, then all of the potential reasons to choose one or the other fall to the wayside when considering the number one difference: is iPadOS actually capable of replacing a full-fledged desktop OS? CNET doesn’t think so; “With iPadOS you’ll still be limited to what’s available in Apple’s App Store. While that app catalog is in the millions, you might not find mobile equivalents for the full desktop software or legacy applications you need,” CNET’s Joshua Goldman said.

Do you want a device that is a tablet, but with the hardware capabilities to rival a laptop? If so, the iPad Pro is a good choice. Do you need a full desktop operating system, and are unsure if iPadOS is enough? In that case, you’re better off going with a Surface device.

When and where will the new iPad Pro be available?

Orders for both new iPad Pro models will open on April 30, and while it didn’t give a specific release date, Apple said the devices will be generally available in the second half of May. Pricing for the 12.9″ iPad Pro starts at $1,099, and the 11″ starts at $799.

Be sure to read this TechRepublic article by Teena Maddox: The best Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile deals for the purple Apple iPhone 12 and iPad Pro with 5G.

Apple’s M1 iPad Pro
Image: Apple