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Apple’s new iPad Pro in 2021: What to expect



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The new iPad Air (center) arrived last fall. How will a new iPad Pro (right) increase the game?

Scott Stein / CNET

2020 iPad Pro arrived at the beginning of a year (and counts) pandemic, back in mid-March 2020. An upgrade is likely to be forthcoming. But what can it add to make a difference this year? Think processors and accessories, based on recent reports that the hardware can get one new chip and a Thunderbolt port.

The 2020 model did not have as much processor shock, and looked almost like the model from 2018. It introduced some new technologies and accessories, though: It was the first Apple product to have a depth-sensitive lidar sensor, and Apple introduced a trackpad-enabled Magic keyboard case (which costs as much as an entry-level iPad).

Apple’s recent Macs received huge performance improvements from Apple’s M1 processors, which already feel like advanced versions of the chips already in the iPad Pro.

2021 seems like a perfect time to boost the Pro line processor, and that’s exactly what recent reports have indicated. But it is unclear whether the iPad Pro will get the M1 that the latest Macs have used, or another custom processor, such as an A14X. The next iPads could also improve how accessories connect, moving from USB-C to an identical but better-performing Thunderbolt port. Screen upgrades also work too late. Here’s what we expect.

A better screen

The iPad Pro screen is great, and the refresh rate of 120Hz is still not available on any other iPhone or iPad. But a switch to OLED (or meanwhile Mini LED) feels too late. Especially since iPad Pro is aimed at graphic designers, photo editors and people looking for perfect screens.

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Will the iPad Pro and MacBook Air have the same M1 processor? If so, how similar will they be?

Scott Stein / CNET

An M1 processor (or something almost as good)

The A12Z processor on the iPad Pro 2020 is, to be clear, still fast. But it was not much faster in references than the 2018 A12X processor, which points to a delayed chip upgrade. It could be an A14Z or A14X processor, which adds extra graphics cores and other boosts over the chip on Apple’s recent iPhones and iPad Air. Or maybe Apple is using the M1 which is already in the MacBook Air. The M1 seems like the obvious choice, but it is possible that Apple chooses to customize a chip that is more targeted at tablets, and omits unnecessary M1 features aimed at Macs.

Either way, the results may end up giving an extra boost. But for what? I want the already fast iPad Pro to start being capable of more advanced multitasking. Or maybe real other screen support.

Sanho HyperDrive USB-C Hub for iPad Pro

iPad Pro USB-C hubs already exist, like Sanho’s HyperDrive. Thunderbolt can expand accessory options.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

An extended Thunderbolt port

The USB-C port on the iPad Pro and iPad Air is a big improvement over the Lightning: It works with standard USB charging adapters, and can be connected to multiport adapters to get SD cards, or add a monitor or Ethernet.

Still, there are limits to what the iPad Pro can do compared to a Mac. Thunderbolt will allow extended and fast external storage, improved screen connectivity and more advanced docks.

It may suggest new Apple accessories.

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Kensington StudioDock turns iPad Pro into a desktop computer. Could Apple make its own accessories?

Scott Stein / CNET

Will it be an Apple-made dock?

Apple’s transformative keyboard case for iPad Pro used new support for track surfaces in last year’s iPadOS update. If the new iPads get Thunderbolt, Apple may decide to make its own iPad Pro dock. I envisioned a make-your-iPad-to-a-desktop computer accessory some years ago. The Kensington StudioDock for iPad Pro and Air shows how USB-C iPads can already transform into just the desktop device with many extra ports. Would Apple try its own spin, but with Thunderbolt?

5G

The iPad does not have 5G … yet. Since iPhones introduced 5G in 2020, the iPad Pro would make sense as the next one on deck. Apple does not even have LTE on any of its laptops, but iPads have had that option almost from the start. That said, I have found that my local 5G is missing, and mobile data is an additional option I do not usually use.

A better pencil

Recent reports have suggested that Apple may have a newer version of the pencil, perhaps one that is more compact or has extra touch-based controls (or a new tip?). The second generation Apple Pencil debuted back in 2018, and there is already fragmentation of the iPad stylus, with different levels of support in different iPads for first and second generation pencils.

Can Apple change the location of the front camera? (We hope so)

IPad is not good for landscape-based video conferencingbecause the forward-facing camera ends up sitting on one side and making conversations look like I’m staring somewhere else. It would make sense for Apple to change where the forward-facing camera is this year. We work and school from home more than ever, and when we do, we usually do it with the iPad held sideways. Even the Magic Keyboard assumes you use the iPad that way.

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IPad Pro and Mac already feel like they overlap. Will this year’s iPad continue to blur the lines?

Scott Stein / CNET

Why not make iPadOS even more expansive (and Mac-like)?

If Apple were to place the M1 in the iPad Pro, it also raises the question of whether Apple would release the iPad software even further. Living with an M1 MacBook Air with an iPad Pro reminded me of the iPad’s OS limitations, and how a more multitasking-focused, screen-enabled iPad could feel even more like a full-fledged computer. Now that the iPad already supports trackpads, mice and many peripherals, why not?

My biggest wish for the next wave of iPads is not about hardware. It’s about unleashing the software to make it as versatile as Macs already are. We may not get any closer to the bridge between iPad and Mac this spring, but I still want to see that happen.


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