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Apple's new 2021 iPad Pro: What to expect from Apple's April 20 event

Commentary: A new version of Apple's most expensive iPad could be around the corner. Here's what it needs to keep up with M1 Macs.

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The new iPad Air (middle) arrived last fall. How will a new iPad Pro (right) step up the game?

Scott Stein/CNET

The 2020 iPad Pro arrived at the beginning of a year-long (and counting) pandemic, back in mid-March 2020. It's likely due for an upgrade soon, maybe at next week's Apple event. But what can it add to make a difference this year? Think processors and accessories, based on recent reports that the hardware could get a new chip and a Thunderbolt port, and possibly a display boost too. But, what will be possible in the middle of a chip and display shortage?

That 2020 model didn't have much of a processor bump, and looked nearly the same as the model from 2018. It did introduce some new tech and accessories, though: It was the first Apple product to have a depth-sensing lidar sensor, and Apple introduced a trackpad-enabled Magic Keyboard case (that costs as much as an entry-level iPad).

Apple's recent Macs got massive performance boosts from Apple's M1 processors, which already feel like advanced versions of the chips that were already in the iPad Pro. 

2021 seems like a perfect time to give the Pro line processor boosts, and that's exactly what recent reports have indicated. But it's unclear whether the iPad Pro will get the M1 that recent Macs have used, or a different custom processor, like an A14X. The next iPads could also improve how accessories connect, possibly evolving the USB-C port to add Thunderbolt speed and connectivity. Display upgrades also seem overdue, and Mini LED seems like a lock for at least the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, according to the latest report from Bloomberg... if supplies aren't limited. Here's what we expect.

A better display

The iPad Pro display is great, and its 120Hz refresh rate still isn't available on any other iPhone or iPad. But a shift to OLED (or in the meantime, Mini LED) feels overdue. Especially since the iPad Pro is aimed at graphic designers, photo editors and people looking for perfect displays.

If the iPad Pro gets a Mini LED display, which should offer deeper black levels similar to OLED, it may only arrive on the 12.9-inch model, and could be in shorter supply for a while. But, while a nicer display would be appreciated, the existing iPad Pro display is still really, really good.

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

Scott Stein/CNET

An M1 processor (or, something nearly as good)

The A12Z processor on the 2020 iPad Pro is, to be clear, still fast. But it wasn't much faster in benchmarks than the A12X processor from 2018, which points to an overdue chip upgrade. There could be an A14Z or A14X processor, that adds extra graphics cores and other boosts over the chip on Apple's recent iPhones and iPad Air. Or, maybe, Apple uses the M1 that's already in the MacBook Air. The M1 seems like the obvious choice, but it's possible Apple will choose to customize a chip more targeted at tablets, leaving out unnecessary M1 features geared towards Macs.

All indications suggest the iPad Pro will have its own A14X chip that will effectively be as fast as the M1 on Macs.

Either way, the results could end up offering an extra boost. But for what? I'd like the already-fast iPad Pro to start being capable of more advanced multitasking. Or, maybe, true second monitor support. 

Sanho HyperDrive USB-C Hub for iPad Pro

iPad Pro USB-C hubs already exist, like Sanho's HyperDrive. Thunderbolt could expand options for accessories.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

An expanded Thunderbolt port

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

Yet there are limits to what the iPad Pro can do compared to a Mac. Thunderbolt would allow expanded and higher-speed external storage, improved monitor connection and more advanced docks.

That could suggest new Apple accessories. 

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

Scott Stein/CNET

Will there be an Apple-made dock?

Apple's transformative keyboard case for the iPad Pro took advantage of new support for trackpads in last year's iPadOS update. If the new iPads gain Thunderbolt, maybe Apple will decide to make its own iPad Pro dock. I imagined some sort of turn-your-iPad-into-a-desktop-computer accessory a few years ago. The Kensington StudioDock for iPad Pro and Air shows how the USB-C iPads can already transform into exactly that desktop device with lots of extra ports. Would Apple try its own spin, but with Thunderbolt?

5G

The iPad doesn't have 5G... yet. Since the 2020 iPhones introduced 5G, the iPad Pro would make sense as the next on deck. Apple doesn't even have LTE on any of its laptops, but iPads have had that option almost from the start. That being said, I've found my local 5G to be lacking, and mobile data is an add-on option I don't tend to use. 

A better pencil, maybe

Recent reports claimed that Apple may have a newer version of the Pencil stylus, maybe one that's more compact or have additional touch-based controls (or a new tip?). The second-gen Apple Pencil debuted back in 2018 and there's already iPad stylus fragmentation, with differing levels of support in different iPads for the first- and second-gen Pencils. 

Apple's event invite does seem very squiggly, as if drawn by a Pencil...who knows?

Could Apple shift the front camera placement? (We hope so)

The iPad isn't great for landscape-based video conferencing, because the front-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 front-facing camera is this year. We're all working and schooling from home more than ever, and when we do, we usually do it with the iPad held sideways. Even the Magic Keyboard assumes you're using the iPad that way.

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The iPad Pro and Mac already feel like they're overlapping. 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 put the M1 in the iPad Pro, it also raises the question of whether Apple would unleash the iPad's software even further. Living with an M1 MacBook Air alongside an iPad Pro reminded me of the iPad's OS limitations, and how a more multitasking-focused, monitor-enabled iPad could feel even more like a full-fledged computer. Now that the iPad already supports trackpads, mice and plenty of peripherals, why not?

My biggest desire for the next wave of iPads isn't about hardware. It's about unleashing the software to make it as versatile as Macs already are. We might not get any closer to bridging iPad and Mac this spring, but I'd still like to see it happen. And we'll probably find out on April 20.