Apple iPad Pro 12.9 5th Generation Review: Say Hello to the Laptop Killer
As Apple’s homegrown M1 CPU slowly subsumes iOS, iPadOS, and macOS products, the hard line that once separated iPhone from iPad and desktop from tablet is slowly crumbling, and I’m here for it.
The introduction of the original iPad Pro was the first tear in that thick fabric separating platforms and product lines. Built around the A9X, Apple’s then most powerful mobile processor (one built for it by another company), the first iPad Pro (circa 2015) was the slab that left playtime behind. Okay, not behind, but real work and creativity shifted to the driver’s seat.
Floating over the optional ($349) Magic Keyboard and topped with also optional ($129) second-generation Apple Pencil, Apple’s new iPad Pro 12.9 5th generation completes the journey. This powerful tablet is ready to handle any tough job (like writing this review), while still leaving room for eye- (and ear-) popping entertainment.
Same yet different
From a design perspective, this new iPad Pro is virtually indistinguishable from the last model. It has the same aluminum chassis and sharp lines. The rear camera array, which includes the impressive LiDAR scanner, looks unchanged, as do the quad audio grills, and USB-C power and data port.
Even though the iPad Air and this iPad Pro now share a design aesthetic, they do diverge on the security front. While the Air now uses a Touch ID/Power button, the iPad Pro 12.9 still uses its TrueDepth module (hidden in the black bezel) for Face ID. It worked well in my tests.
Inside is another story. Along with Apple’s aforementioned M1 chip is new thunderbolt support (for faster connectivity to, for instance, thunderbolt storage drives). In addition, this is Apple’s first mini-LED screen (2732x2048 resolution), which Apple dubbed a Liquid Retina XDR display.
Unlike traditional LED backlighting, mini-LEDs give Apple local dimming control (there are 2596 zones) for a stunning 1 million-to-1 contrast ratio. The 11-inch iPad Pro, which I did not test, still has the more traditional LED backlit Liquid Retina Display. The 12.9-inch model’s screen is a wonder to look at, though you might not immediately notice the remarkable image quality and depth of blacks until you put it alongside another, standard LED display. Then the differences are stark.
Pairing what may be Apple’s best mobile screen with its best silicon is an obvious choice for Apple.
Introduced last year, Apple Silicon in the form of M1 has taken the Mac world by storm. The initial systems — a Mac mini, MacBook Air, and 13-inch MacBook Pro — were just table settings for the iPad Pro (and the stunning new iMac).
There is nothing boutique, small, or ill-fitting about the M1. That it gives cross-platform capability (mobile and desktop) to whatever system hosts it is only a small part of what makes the M1 so remarkable.
To be clear, Apple didn’t touch the silicon before popping it into iPad Pro 12.9 (and 11-inch model). It’s the same processor we met last fall. Benchmark numbers were almost identical to those of the M1 MacBook Air.
Normally, I might decry the lack of a tweak or GHz bump for this new hardware, but here I have zero complaints. Inside the iPad Pro, the M1 has power to burn. I did what I could to slow it down but was essentially unsuccessful. It’s silicon that’s as at home with productivity tasks as it is with heavy-duty graphics work and gaming.
Take a shot
The iPads cameras are good, though slightly unremarkable. The array includes 12 MP wide and 10 MP ultra-wide cameras. They take excellent photos and up to 4K video rich in color and detail. I wish Apple would switch out one of these lenses for a 2X optical zoom.
There’s also the powerful LiDAR sensor that lets you do things like 3D scan objects and spaces with apps like 3D Scanner, play powerful ARKit-based games, and can assist in focusing in low light. What none of the hardware on the back of the iPad Pro does, though, is support Portrait Mode photography. For that, you need to turn to the front of the tablet.
Apple’s impressive, 12 MP ultra-wide front-facing camera (part of the TruDepth module) not only adroitly handles the Portrait Mode duties, but it introduces a new, game-changing video chat feature: Center Stage.
When used with FaceTime (or the videoconferencing app of your choice), Center Stage will follow you around the room. You can start your call seated, then get up and pace and the camera will keep you in frame. Center Stage does this not by physically moving the tablet or camera, but by algorithmically shifting the frame around the full 12 MP image (yes, this is exactly what Facebook’s Portal camera system does). It worked perfectly for me. I found I couldn’t easily escape Center Stage’s roving eye.
Doing it all
I spent a lot of time working through multiple projects on this iPad Pro. I edited the video review, played games like Warp Drive and NBA 2K (using a Bluetooth-connected Xbox One controller). I also edited photos in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom for iPad. I watched videos on Amazon Prime Video while I surfed the web and took notes. I used Apple Pencil to scribble words into text fields. Even with my horrible writing, the iPad Pro figures it out 95% of the time.
I love using the iPad Pro for all of these tasks, but my favorite activity will always be drawing. I love the way the Apple Pencil 2 feels in my hand and how it glides across the screen. Through all the iterations of the iPad Pro and its various A-series CPUs, my go-to-drawing app Procreate has never failed to keep pace with my sketching hand. The M1-based iPad Pro is no different.
The new silicon will help support some upcoming Procreate features which, sadly, weren’t available to test for this review. Chief among them is support for 3D objects. I saw a remarkable demo in which someone drew and painted on top of the contours of a 3D bicycle helmet.
In addition to pressing the iPad Pro with a wide range of activities, I kept the brightness to 100% and left the 5G cellular radio on even though 5G coverage in my area is near nonexistent. As a result, I saw battery life ranging from eight to 10 hours. That’s a workday, though not necessarily “all-day battery life.”
Even though the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro is a pricey accessory, it’s worth the investment if you’re serious about making the iPad Pro your primary productivity system.
As with the original Magic Keyboard, the iPad Pro snaps smartly onto the magnetized face and won’t flop off even if you shake the whole thing around. The roughly 11-inch-wide keyboard feels spacious, and the key travel is satisfying. I could type all day on it (wait, that’s exactly what I’ve done).
In addition to keeping the tablet angle adjustable and floating above the keyboard, the Magic Keyboard has the added benefit of adding another USB-C port, which leaves the iPad Pro main port open for things like file transfers. I have a nice SD-Card adapter I use to pour in all my photos and videos.
Finally, the trackpad is, while not MacBook size, spacious enough. Even though the iPadOS supports mice and trackpads, I don’t often use the trackpad, still preferring to tap the touch screen instead.
A worthy investment
Apple’s iPad Pro 12.9 5th Generation starts at $1,099 for a 128 GB model. My 1TB 5G model runs $1,999. Add the keyboard and pencil and you’re into laptop range. Still, that’s more or less what the 1.5-pound iPad Pro 12.9 is, a touch screen, mobile productivity beast. And yet it’s more than that: The M1 chip pushes the boundaries in not just performance but in untapped image processing and machine learning potential. I’m fairly certain app developers have only just begun to tap the depths of this silicon’s capabilities.
Plus, with the remarkable mini-LED screen and still iconic design, the iPad is inspiring to use and look at. It’s an excellent hybrid device that will attract equal shares of artists and worker bees.