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iPad Pro update: Apple's tablet gets an M1 chip, 5G and Liquid Retina XDR display in 2021

Apple gives its high-end tablet a much-anticipated speed bump and screen overhaul.

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Apple's 2021 "Spring Loaded" event included a major iPad Pro overhaul.

Apple/Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET
This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.

Apple has finally announced the upgrade to its iPad Pro that we've all been waiting for, as part of its 2021 Spring Forward on Tuesday. The iPad Pro has been due for a processor refresh, as well as some more advanced camera and screen technology, and now Apple has delivered -- primarily with the addition of its homegrown M1 chip.

Last year, Apple's 2020 iPad Pro refresh saw little that excited us in the way of design improvements and new additions -- a small processor bump and a depth-sensing lidar sensor aside. That means we've had our hopes pinned on 2021 as the year the iPad Pro gets a more significant overhaul.

"iPad is a magical sheet of glass that can become anything you want it to be," said iPad product marketing manager Raja Bose while introducing the upgraded tablet during Apple's event.

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The new iPad Pro will be available in two different sizes: 12.9 inches and 11 inches. The devices will come with up to 16GB of memory and up to 2TB of storage. The 12.9-inch model price begins at $1,099 (£999, AU$1,649), with the 11-inch model starting at $799 (£749, AU$1,199). Preorders will open on April 30, and Apple expects devices to start shipping in the second half of May.

Key among the 2021 upgrades is the addition of Apple's M1 chip, first announced last November and "by far the highest performance" processor the company has ever created. The addition of the eight-core chip to the iPad Pro could mean a huge speed boost and better battery performance, with Apple promising a 50% performance improvement over the previous version.

The existing iPad Pro with its A12Z processor offers a zippy experience as is. But more speed is always appreciated, and will hopefully mean the iPad becomes even more of a multitasking monster and can also offer true second monitor support. The M1 chip will also bring a boost in graphics performance, which is over 1,500 times better than the first-generation iPad, according to Apple.

The 2021 iPad Pro is also the first Apple tablet to offer 5G connectivity. With 5G rollouts speeding up around the globe, users who rely on high-speed connectivity on the go will likely appreciate the option to take advantage of the fastest data speeds available.

Another first for iPads (and tablets everywhere) is the introduction of a high-speed Thunderbolt port on the iPad Pro. Until now, Thunderbolt has only been available on Macs and Windows PCs. It uses the same connector as USB-C, but allows for expanded and higher-speed external storage, improved monitor connection and more advanced docks.

As part of the iPad Pro's screen overhaul, Apple is introducing a Liquid Retina XDR display to its top 12.9-inch tablet. With 5.59 million pixels, this technology is the same as the tech that can be seen on Apple's top-end XDR pro display. It offers brilliant brightness peaking at 1,600 nits, along with a wider-than-ever spectrum of color and extreme high contrast.

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Perhaps in recognition of the fact that we're all spending a lot of time on Zoom calls these days, Apple has moved its forward-facing camera from a portrait position on the top of the iPad Pro down to the landscape position on the side. The TrueDepth, 12-megapixel, wide-angle camera should still enable you to unlock your device with Face ID no matter what rotation you're using it in. A new "center stage" feature means that if you're on a video call, the iPad will pan to keep you in the center of the camera's field of vision even if you're moving around the room. If other people join you in the room, it will also zoom out to ensure everyone appears on screen.

The new M1-powered iPad Pro will work with Apple's Magic Keyboard, which now comes in a new white color. From next week iOS 14.5 will be available for all iPads, including the new iPad Pro when it's available, which will offer expanded language support for Apple Pencil and support for the latest games controllers.

As was to be expected due to current circumstances, Apple's spring event on Tuesday was fully virtual. Though Apple hasn't been able to lean on its typical stage format due to the pandemic, it has been able to replicate much of the slick presentation through livestreaming videos instead. 

We're also only weeks away now from the second all-virtual WWDC, Apple's annual developer conference, where we're sure to learn about software updates coming to the new iPad Pros, along with other iPad models, later this year. So for all that we got with the new iPad lineup, there's sure to be more to come soon.