The 2021 M1 iPad Pros

The new M1 iPad Pros mark a moment in the history of Apple silicon. I use a lowercase “s” there deliberately — I’m talking about the post-iPhone history of the chips in Apple’s Macs and iOS devices.

When the original iPhone dropped in 2007, it was an instant sensation. Famously, executives at BlackBerry-maker RIM thought Apple was grossly exaggerating its capabilities — that it couldn’t do what Apple said it could do. But it could! And it was amazing. It seemed too good to be true that a phone-sized device with an enormous display (for a phone circa 2007) could run the software the iPhone ran as well as it did. It had Wi-Fi!

But: the iPhone was no Mac. The lowest-end Mac of the era was way faster and more powerful as a computing device than the iPhone. Of course it was, right? The iPhone was just a phone, the Mac was a big ass computer. Of course the iPhone — fun and fluid and useful though it was — was slower than a “real” computer. Duh.

This was still true when the first iPad was introduced in 2010. But Steve Jobs took particular pride in talking about its system-on-a-chip, which, for the first time, Apple gave a name to: the A4. Two years after their acquisition of chip maker PA Semi — which in hindsight was clearly one of the best acquisitions in the history of business1 — the A4 was the first chip Apple was willing to take credit for and brag about.

But, fun and fluid and useful though the original iPad was, of course it was still way slower than an Intel-based “real” computer. How could it not be slower? The original 2010 iPad was only 0.5 inches thick, weighed only 1.5 pounds, and started at just $499. The then-current MacBook was 1.08 inches thick, weighed 4.7 pounds (!), and started at $999. The MacBook was more than twice as thick, three times heavier, and twice the price — of course the MacBook was much faster.

The iPad was just a different sort of thing. The pitch for using an iPad instead of a MacBook was basically, Hey, for a lot of the stuff you do, you don’t need the speed of a MacBook. Why not trade that power for a device that’s one-third the weight, meant to be held comfortably in one hand, and half the price? It was a decided trade-off: iPads were lightweight and less expensive, but slow; MacBooks were fast, but heavy and more expensive. It all made intuitive sense.

But then a funny thing happened.

Each successive year, Apple’s A-series chips got faster at a remarkable clip. Yet iPads (and iPhones) weren’t getting thicker and heavier — in fact they were getting thinner and lighter. Intel’s chips improved year-over-year too, but not nearly at the pace A-series chips were.

Within just a few years, it became clear that Apple’s A-series chips were on a trajectory to soon surpass Intel’s chips — at least the chips used in laptops — in performance. And then it happened; they did surpass Intel’s portable chips in performance. Some folks went into denial when that happened, arguing that it wasn’t so, that benchmarks couldn’t tell the whole story when Apple’s chips were only running a “phone OS” and Intel’s chips were running “real OSes”. But if you had your eyes open you could see it.

From the conclusion of my review of the first iPad Pro model in November 2015:

For me, the iPad Pro marks the turning point where iPads are no longer merely lightweight (both physically and conceptually) alternatives to MacBooks for use in simple scenarios, to where MacBooks will now start being seen as heavyweight alternatives to iPads for complex scenarios.

Is it a MacBook replacement for me, personally? No. For you? Maybe. For many people? Yes.

It brings me no joy to observe this, but the future of mass market portable computing involves neither a mouse pointer nor an x86 processor.

I was wrong about the mouse pointer thing — Apple brought that to iPads last year, in splendid fashion. But the x86 thing? Nailed it. And that was 2015. In the next few years, iOS devices kept getting faster and faster. By 2017 the iPad Pro absolutely embarrassed the one-port MacBook (comparable in size to iPads, yet more expensive) in performance, and according to benchmarks, held its own against the then-current MacBook Pro in single-core performance. When iPads subsequently surpassed even MacBook Pros in performance, it was a real WTF moment. They were still lightweight and ran cool despite having no fans, and Intel clearly had no answers.

The tradeoffs between iPads and MacBooks were no longer intuitive — in fact they no longer made sense. iPads and even iPhones were faster than Macs, despite the fact that the Macs were the devices running the conceptually heavy OS.

The M1 MacBooks and Mac Mini that debuted last November — marking the beginning of the uppercase “s” Apple Silicon era for MacOS — completely reset the dynamics. The Macs, once again, were the fastest devices.

With the new M1 iPad Pros, Apple has achieved equilibrium. It’s literally the exact same chip. The iPad Pro has the speed of the Mac and the Mac has the incredible power efficiency and thermal characteristics of the iPad Pro. I saw this coming years ago, yet it’s still hard for me to believe.

I’ve been testing a silver 12.9-inch M1 iPad Pro for the last week, along with the new white Magic Keyboard. I don’t have a lot to say about it compared to the previous A12X (2018) and A12Z (2020) models. It’s largely the same, just faster. But there are three things worth mentioning:

  • The XDR Display — This is what makes the new iPad Pro, pound for pound and dollar for dollar, the best computing hardware on the planet. They both use the same M1 chips, but the iPad Pro is a better machine than the MacBook Pro because it has a far better display. Forget about nits and backlight zones and any other technical details — you can just see it. Play the same movie side-by-side on an M1 MacBook Pro and the new iPad Pro and it doesn’t seem like a fair comparison. I don’t have a desktop Pro Display XDR — which, mind you, costs $5,000 — but this iPad Pro display is the single best display, desktop or portable, I’ve ever used.

    And you don’t have to do anything to enjoy it to its fullest capabilities, like putting it into a power-saving mode if you’re going to be watching movies on a long flight to extend battery life. There’s no “Well, it’s good for this, but not good for that.” You just use it like any other iPad ever and you get the best display, by far, ever in a portable device. The only downside is that it’s only in the 12.9-inch models; the new 11-inch iPad Pros (which I have yet to see in person) still have the “old” iPad Pro display tech. But I put “old” in quotes there because it’s still a noticeably better display than those in the M1 MacBooks. Only iPads have ProMotion, Apple’s name for dynamic refresh rates up to 120Hz. ProMotion makes anything moving on screen more fluid. The XDR display on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro extends the lead over MacBook displays even further. (Me: Looking forward to the 16-inch Apple Silicon MacBook Pro.)

  • Center Stage — This is Apple’s new feature where the front-facing FaceTime camera dynamically pans and zooms in and out based on how many people are in front of it, and where they are. It works exactly as promised — so fluid that it’s hard to believe it’s being driven algorithmically. It looks very natural — and thus makes every other FaceTime camera seem stilted. It won’t take long for this to make it into every Apple device with a front-facing camera, I think. It’s neat. (I’ll leave it to the YouTubers to show it in action.)

  • Updated Magic Keyboards — When announced, there was a bit of a kerfuffle over the fact that Apple said the previous 12.9-inch2 Magic Keyboards — announced just last year — wouldn’t fit the new 12.9-inch models because the XDR displays make them 0.5mm thicker. It didn’t make sense — half a millimeter is not nothing, but it’s not much. Then Apple backtracked and said last year’s Magic Keyboards would work, but “may not precisely fit when closed.” I’ve got them all here, and in my testing, the new iPad Pro fits last year’s Magic Keyboard and last year’s iPad Pro fits the new Magic Keyboard. I do not think I could tell which year’s iPad Pro was in which year’s Magic Keyboard cover if you just handed them to me and asked me to guess if they were mismatched. In fact, I’m glad Apple sent me the new one in white because otherwise I don’t know how I’d tell them apart.

    I do wonder whether these white Magic Keyboards will hold up well in real-life use, stain-wise. The box for the white Magic Keyboard has a small-print warning that states, “The surface of Magic Keyboard is designed to be wiped clean. Avoid prolonged contact with other materials, as color transfer may occur.” My review unit already has a subtle mark on it that doesn’t seem to wash off. It is a very cool-looking keyboard, with a bit of a Stormtrooper vibe to it. But like Stormtroopers who’ve seen some shit in action, it almost certainly will show wear and tear more than the charcoal one. It does pair better with the silver iPad Pro than the charcoal Magic Keyboard does, to my eyes.

The elephant in the room is iPadOS. It’s just not good enough. In the same way that Intel’s chips were holding back Macs, iPadOS has been holding back iPad Pros. With Intel chips, the hardware was holding back the Mac platform. With iPads, it’s the software holding the platform back. This hardware is indisputably amazing, and iPadOS is fine for casual use. But it still feels like I’m trying to do fine detail work while wearing oven mitts for my day-to-day work.

If you already love iPadOS, well, you’re in luck — go out and buy a new iPad Pro and I assure you, you’ll be delighted. For the rest of us, I have a feeling we need to see iPadOS 15 before we experience the true potential of these new (or any recent) iPad Pros.

Three weeks until WWDC.

  1. Although only the second-best acquisition in Apple’s own history, of course. ↩︎

  2. Why doesn’t Apple label these big iPad Pros as “13-inch” instead of “12.9-inch”? It makes no sense to me, and irritates me every single time I type “12.9”. They call the new M1 iMacs “24-inch” even though their actual display diagonal is 23.5 inches. If they round up from 23.5, why not round up from 12.9? It’s an ungainly description for a truly elegant device. ↩︎︎