2021 12.9” iPad Pro M1: A User Review

From someone who isn’t a YouTuber or tech blogger

by Robert May on Afternoon Robot

To start, I’m not like most reviewers of this iPad: I don’t want an iPad running OS X. I really don’t like OS X and I have a bad history of Macs failing on me, so what I was actually looking for was a powerful iPad, and the new M1 model delivers that effectively. I haven’t used a laptop full time in a number of years and they tend to give me RSI, so my goals with this were not the same as those of many other reviewers of the device:

  1. Decent battery life
  2. Available with a Japanese keyboard layout (I’ll extrapolate on this)
  3. Good for a “proper” photography workflow, e.g. taking photos from a DSLR, editing them, backing them up
  4. Good for writing prose
  5. Usable for programming
  6. Still usable as a general-use tablet, as it’ll be replacing a base model iPad

iPad OS has improved to where this is viable

There were two major gaps in iPad OS for me which prevented me doing this quite so soon:

  1. No network/external file system support
  2. Lackluster keyboard/trackpad/mouse support

Thankfully both of these have been resolved. The filesystem support on the iPad is now actually rather good, featuring support for network shares and external drives, and can even download photos direct from my camera.

Keyboard support is basically perfect, with one really weird issue that probably affects nobody but me: if you have a bluetooth Japanese layout keyboard, iPad OS will not detect or allow you to set the layout to be Japanese. However the OS does detect a Japanese layout Magic Keyboard case correctly and use the right layout then. Just Apple Things.

The M1 iPad

Unlike pro reviewers, I’m not reviewing a 2TB, 16GB of RAM model which few people in real-life can justify buying. I’m sporting the 12.9” 512GB model, which has 8GB of RAM, and I would consider it over-priced. The best deal is likely the 256GB model. However I wanted some degree of “future-proofing”, which for me came down to “what size memory card will I need to accommodate 3 years from now if I upgrade my camera?”

8GB of RAM is more than enough, seeing as how the previous model only had 6GB and could already happily handle 4K video workflows. Basically no software expects 8GB of RAM yet, let alone 16GB, so the only justification I can see for it is to handle extremely large files in memory, which might be why it’s only an option on the 1TB/2TB models.

As a Photographer

Stonechat catching some rays

I have used it to edit a full day of wildlife photos, and found it very able. I’ve only had it a week so I’ll have to report back on how I find it longer-term. My current workflow is the following:

  1. Connect camera directly to the iPad
  2. Use PhotoSync to import all the photos in the photo reel
  3. Use Darkroom to cull duds and then do the majority of processing
  4. Use Affinity Photo to do localised/final edits that can’t be done in Darkroom
  5. Use PhotoSync again to back up the photos to my home server and remove non-favourites from the iPad

This way I have a collection of my best photos on the iPad for sharing later, keep a bunch more on my home server in case I want to use them later, and don’t store the duds at all. PhotoSync is especially excellent at this, and is one of the reasons why I believed this workflow could work for me, as somebody who doesn’t use iCloud or Adobe products. I specifically avoid Adobe products as I have no interest in being locked into their ecosystem - I instead chose software that works with the built-in iPad OS photo reel so that I can use different tools for each aspect of the workflow.

As a Writer

It was a bit of a faff getting my preferred keyboard layout - a Japanese (JIS) layout Magic Keyboard case. Apple make them. Apple sell them in Japan. Apple sell them in the USA. Apple do not sell them in Europe and it is impossible to purchase one. So I ordered this from Amazon.co.jp, which thankfully worked out to be the same (expensive) price as the UK model.

As for the layout choice; I’m just used to it after buying a JP layout RealForce topre keyboard, and I actually prefer it to the UK layout now. It works well on the iPad.

The Magic Keyboard is surprisingly excellent and I like typing on it. It was horribly expensive, but it can be used on your lap effectively, even if a bit top-heavy, unlike kickstand models. The extra charging port on the other side is nice and the trackpad is really pleasant to use. It is rather annoying that you can’t use the tablet as a “tablet” with this case on, so I actually have a cheapo wrap-around case that I swap it into if I’m doing some drawing/lazing on the sofa. The ergonomics of the keyboard case are actually rather nice, with my wrists slightly out past the edge of the case and with no pressure being applied to them.

Writing software on iPad OS is a bit hit-and-miss. I’m using iA Writer as I already owned it, and it works with the standard Files app for storage. Any software that doesn’t support that is an immediate write-off for me.

As a Programmer

“Surely you should just buy a Macbook,” is a likely question. My last MBP was corroded by my wrists and had the entire case, mainboard, and HD replaced. My previous work laptop crippled me with RSI. My current work laptop has a battery life of 3 hours. So I’m not a laptop guy.

I don’t like using multiple machines for programming. Maintaining my environment setup is annoying enough on one machine, and I’d prefer to just use that for everything. So I use Blink.sh to operate my desktop remotely, and it works great. Surprisingly so. I have a Wireguard VPN into my home and then use mosh over that, and it works far better than I ever thought it would. I also have Jump if I need a VNC connection, but I only really use that with my work laptop.

Blink into a tmux session over mosh

Overall I’m very happy with how it works for this use-case.

As a Casual User

The 12.9” is a bit big to hold in one hand and read books/manga, but it is doable, and the numerous reviews online would lead you to believe it was totally impossible. I can only assume most reviewers have pipe-cleaners for wrists.

But I really do love using the 12.9” model. I honestly can’t really comment on the XDR screen - it looks very nice, and it’s great for photo editing or watching video, but I have nothing to really compare it to. Using it horizontally with split windows is comfortable due to the extra size, and it is comfortable enough to keep on your lap where a small model might be a bit awkward.

Other Assorted Good Things

  1. Battery life is solid and I think Apple’s estimates are pretty accurate. It’s fairly obvious to see where the M1 processor has targeted efficiency improvements: watching video uses comparatively little battery compared to importing 300 RAW photos.
  2. The Centre Stage camera is surprisingly excellent and useful. It’s a killer feature I never expected to care about. No doubt it’ll spread around the other Apple devices over the next few years.
  3. It seems to be fast. I have experienced no slowdowns in any software I’ve used so far, and I tried out Genshin Impact to test the graphical performance, where it also seems to be very comfortable.
  4. The speakers are great. They might actually be better than my TV.
  5. Siri has improved a lot for my purposes - the Shortcuts application and Home Assistant work well together.
  6. Face ID is really good for a laptop replacement.

Bad Things

I’m very happy with this purchase, but there are always compromises. Here are a few minor ones of note:

  1. It would have been nice to have a second USB-C port. Especially as USB-C docks tend to have a weird array of ports. The keyboard somewhat alleviates this by allowing charging through its extra port.
  2. Multi-display support is pants. It’s sorta supported by some software, but not universally, and it’s a bit weird. Smooth, though, for what it can do, so if Apple do improve this area it will be quite effective.
  3. It comes with a USB-C charging cable barely longer than the iPad itself.

Summary

I really like it, and I’m very happy with my choice. I’ll follow up on this review in say, a year, with how it functions over a longer period. As someone who is somewhat allergic to cloud services, it’s really nice to finally be at a point where it feels like iPad OS functions equally well without iCloud. And the device itself is a pleasure to use.