The 11-inch iPad Pro 2021 doesn’t seem 'Pro' anymore

iPad Pro 2021
(Image credit: Apple)

The 11-inch iPad Pro 2021 breaks from Apple's trend of trying to make devices as similar as possible across sizes — and the result is not great for anyone who wants a smaller tablet (or spend less cash). Yes, while the iPhone 12 line is the same except for rear camera feature or two and the 2020 iPad Pros were identical save for size, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro 2021 can tout a huge feature over its smaller sibling: a much better screen.

And the result is that we now have three iPads that share a design — the iPad Air 2020, the 11-inch iPad Pro and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro — and they're all different in ways beyond their footprint. And while the 11-inch iPad Pro has some neat new tricks, I wonder if it will feel more like the iPad Air than its bigger brother.

How the 11-inch iPad Pro compares

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Row 0 - Cell 0 iPad Air 202011-inch iPad Pro 202112.9-inch iPad Pro 2021
Starting price$599$799$1,099
Display10.9 inches (2360 x 1640)11 inches (2388 x 1668 pixels)12.9 inches (2732 x 2048 pixels) mini-LED
ProcessorA14 BionicM1 (16-core)M1 (16-core)
Storage64GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
Rear Cameras12MP (f/1.8)12MP wide (f/1.8), 10-MP ultra-wide (f/2.4)12MP wide (f/1.8), 10-MP ultra-wide (f/2.4)
Front Cameras7MP TrueDepth12MP TrueDepth12MP TrueDepth
Dimensions9.74 vs 7 x 0.24 inches9.74 x 7.02 x 0.23 inches11.04 x 8.46 x 0.25 inches
Weight1 pound1.04 pounds1.51 pounds
PortUSB-CUSB-C with Thunderbolt, USB-4USB-C with Thunderbolt, USB-4
AccessoriesMagic Keyboard, Apple Pencil (gen 1 & 2)Magic Keyboard, Apple Pencil (gen 1 & 2)Magic Keyboard, Apple Pencil (gen 1 & 2)
ConnectivityWi-Fi 6, optional 4G LTEWi-Fi 6, optional 5GWi-Fi 6, optional 5G

What the 11-inch iPad Pro 2021 lacks

The one big omission from the 11-inch iPad Pro 2021 is found in its screen, arguably the most important component of the tablet. While the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a Liquid Retina XDR display (more on what that means in a second), the 11-inch iPad Pro has a traditional LED backlit display. That's practically the same display as the iPad Air, just 0.1 inches shorter in its diagonal measurement.

And as long as you never see the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro for yourself, you might be OK buying the 11-inch iPad Pro. But we already know enough to think that it will probably be worth it to spend the extra $300 on the 12.9-inch model. The reasons to go big start with mini-LEDs, which are key in hitting the brightness ratings Apple's claiming: 1,000 nits for the full screen, with 1,600 nits of peak brightness in HDR mode. This is possible because the increased density of the mini-LEDs, which are 120x smaller than those in the 11-inch iPad Pro and iPad Air.

The 11-inch iPad Pro 2021 won't make your videos look as great as you edit.

(Image credit: Apple)

Those mini-LEDs enable Extreme Dynamic Range (XDR), giving Apple the right to claim a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. And because the mini-LEDs are grouped into 2,500 local dimming zones, you can dim the darker corners of an image while keeping the brighter sections especially bright, for overall accuracy and visual quality. 

Apple speaks of this technology as giving filmmakers the abilities to see their "dailies" in exquisite quality no matter where they are, and for image editors to see their photos look perfectly. And the inexplicable absence of an XDR/mini-LED panel from the 11-inch iPad Pro means that anyone who cares about picture or image quality will definitely be wary about their purchase. 

Heck, it even makes the current MacBook Pros seem a little less-than-pro as well. That said, we do expect the MacBook Pro 2021 to pack a mini-LED display.

The 11-inch iPad Pro 2021's big Pro feature

That said, we can't omit mention of the Apple M1 chip replacing the A12Z Bionic chip in both the 11-inch iPad Pro 2021 and its 12.9-inch big brother. This is the big Pro-level differentiator that puts the 11-inch model above. 

The M1 chip, as we've seen in the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini, is a speedy little piece of Apple silicon. Apple claims that its 8-core CPU will improve general performance by up to 50%, and that its 8-core GPU will up graphics performance by 40%.

The 11-inch iPad Pro 2021 gets the M1, which ensures that it's as fast as the 12.9-inch iPad Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

Those gains are no joke, especially when the iPad Pro was pretty fast to begin with. Apple's even promising that games with "console-quality graphics at high frame rates" will be possible, though they didn't call out the high-performing Xbox Series X or PS5 by name, so we're not sure.

So, video and image editors will all get the performance boosts they want from the 2021 iPad Pro, no matter what size they choose. 

Oh, and the 11-inch iPad Pro also packs the improved Thunderbolt/USB-4 port, and speedier storage access. On top of that, you also get the Center Stage webcam trick for keeping you at the center of your call. I'm not writing these feature off or scoffing at them. They're just likely not as important as the M1 chip.

11-inch iPad Pro 2021 outlook

When image quality matters so much to film and photo, it's hard to envision anyone not going with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro 2021 ... if their budget supports it. And that's why it's so frustrating that the iPad Pro that feels truly professional is $300 more, an increase of 38% from the new 11-inch iPad Pro's price.

In fact, the XDR/mini-LED screen of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro 2021 seems like something that everyone will want, if they see it for themselves. We don't know why it's limited to just the bigger iPad (a design limitation?), but I bet everyone would want their images in the Photos app to look better, for Ted Lasso season 2 and all the other perks. To limit this huge upgrade to only those with the biggest budgets isn't exactly surprising, but the 11-inch iPad Pro's $799 price, before a Magic Keyboard or Apple Pencil, is already pretty high on its own. 

And so I wonder if people who want a smaller tablet, or are concerned with spending, will opt for the $599 iPad Air over the 11-inch iPad Pro. For $200 less, you get a pretty similar tablet that supports all the same accessories, and it has the same screen as the 11-inch iPad Pro. Is that a good trade off when you give up the M1 chip and Face ID? Hopefully, Apple's 2022 iPad Pro lineup won't push people to think about these trade-offs.

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.

  • Bane_is_my_name
    Really? The ipad air 4 and the smaller ipad pro have the same screens? Did you forget about the 120hz display?

    Lets be honest, no professional is going to be scrubbing timelines on their ipad no matter how crazy the spec. Insufficient color accuracy was not what was stopping professionals before.

    Your standard youtuber might, but most aspiring creators are probably still shooting 4:2:0 8-bit. Do you really need local dimming and all that crap? I'd wager pro-motion display is more useful because everyone seems to shove in slow motion b-roll every chance they get.

    Can't even read the entire spec-sheet smh...