iPad vs iPad Pro: Which is Right for You? [January 2021]
The iPad celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2020, and although it might seem like an iPad is still an iPad, a lot has changed over the last ten years. Improved display technology, better cameras, and some of the fastest processors you can buy in any computer today have brought the iPad from “just a big iPhone” to a full laptop replacement for a lot of people. Meanwhile, Apple has also split the iPad into multiple tiers, so no matter what you’re looking to use an iPad for, there’s something for you here.
Apple’s cheapest tablet, simply called the iPad, starts at just $329, while the newest iPad Pro will more than double the cost, starting at $799 for the 11″ model. That’s a big increase in price—enough, in fact, to purchase another iPad and still have some cash leftover for apps. So, is the iPad Pro worth the increase in price, or should you stick to the cheaper iPad? Like most of Apple’s lineup of products, it really depends on your needs, your budget, and your personal preference. Let’s take a deep dive into which you should buy.
Design and Display
Both the iPad and the 11″ iPad Pro have plenty of differences when it comes to their specs, features, and software, but the design of each product shouldn’t be overlooked. Despite the similarities between the two models, there are some pretty major design differences that might make you consider the iPad Pro over the regular iPad.
Apple refreshed both the iPad and the iPad Pro for 2020, but neither received major redesigns this year. That means that the 8th-gen iPad is still rocking the 10.2″ display from 2019’s refresh, while the iPad Pro is still using the same design from 2018. Both models are pretty unique from each other, so it’s worth diving deeper into both designs.
Outside of the larger display included in the 2019 refresh, the design of the iPad hasn’t changed much from the original 2017 low-cost iPad. It’s still a large display surrounded by a sea of either black or white bezels, depending on the color of your device. The sleek aluminum body is available in silver, gold, or space gray. The home button is still here, even in a Face ID world, found on the bottom of the device when held in standard portrait mode. The device is good, thin, and light, weighing 1.07lbs for the WiFi-only model and 1.09 pounds for the cellular model. That’s just a bit heavier than the 11″ iPad Pro, but the difference is so slight, you aren’t likely to notice. It’s also a bit heavier than Apple’s sixth-gen iPad from 2018.
Speaking of which, the biggest difference between this year’s entry-level iPad and its premium older brother is the display. It isn’t just the size—though obviously, the 11″ display on the iPad Pro is larger than the 10.2″ screen on the $329 model—but the quality. The screen on this year’s iPad still lacks the anti-reflective coating and the laminated display on both the iPad Pro and the 2019 iPad Air. While most consumers won’t notice the lack of an anti-reflection film across their device, the continued lack of lamination is notable.
Laminated displays bond the screen to the front of the glass, allowing a unique pixels-on-glass appearance that you won’t get on the $329 model. If you head to an Apple Store or a Best Buy, it’s easy to compare the difference between the two devices. Hold both at an angle, and you’ll see that the display on the 2020 iPad looks recessed, almost like you’re looking through a window. It’s something you’ll notice if you’ve used a tablet with a laminated display before, though if you’re buying an iPad for the very first time, it’s less likely to be an issue unless you’re specifically looking for it.
At the end of the day, it’s a modern revision of the classic iPad design that began ten years ago. The release of the 2020 iPad Air leaves this iPad (along with the Mini) as the last remnants of the original vision from 2020, and while that may seem disappointing to some, Apple is simply meeting the high standards they’ve already met for themselves. We’d like to see the iPad be reworked for 2021, but at $329—and often at $299 at retailers like Amazon—it’s hard to complain about the 2020 iPad.
iPad Pro (11″, 2nd Generation)
The newest iPad Pro was released this spring, and compared to the previous upgrade in 2018, it’s a fairly minor change. It keeps the design of last year’s unit, which ditched the classic “big iPhone” look for something closer to a laptop display that has had its keyboard removed. The iPad Pro is all screen, surrounded by a thin layer of bezel that makes it possible to hold the device without constantly registering accidental screen presses. The curves of the iPad match the curves of the screen, ditching the classic rectangle for something a bit more fun and friendly to use.
The iPad Pro isn’t larger or smaller than the entry-level iPad; it’s about the same size, just in a slightly different shape. However, it is definitely thinner. At 5.9mm, it’s more than a millimeter and a half thinner than the 7.5mm iPad, and you can really feel that difference when holding it in your hands. Aluminum on the back of the device makes everything feel premium, but unfortunately, you can only pick up the iPad Pro in space gray or silver. The new iPad Air may not feature the same high-refresh rate as the Pro—more on that below—but the Air does get new colors exclusive to the mid-range iPad, including blue and green.
The iPad Pro’s display is in a whole other league than the cheaper model. It’s brighter and offers a wider color gamut. Lamination and anti-reflection coatings both return from earlier models, and the screen is once again bonded to the front glass, giving it a premium look that’s stunning in your hand. The Pro also adds TrueTone technology, which helps adjust the color temperature of the display based on the lighting conditions of your surroundings.
Most importantly, the iPad Pro continues to offer a 120Hz refresh rate, or what Apple calls “ProMotion.” Some consumers won’t be able to tell the difference but trust us: higher refresh rates make a big difference in how you use the device. This thing feels fast and fluid when scrolling around the home screen or skipping through a bunch of photos. It looks absolutely fantastic, and it’s easily the best display you can get on an iPad today.
Obviously, the lack of a home button means you’ll have to rely on gestures to get around iPadOS, but if you’ve gotten used to the iPhone X or 11, you’ll be comfortable here in no time. Apple has really refined the hardware in this device, and it continues to be the most premium-feeling tablet on the market today.
Winner: iPad Pro
Hardware and Specs
Prior to launching the first iPad Pro, Apple’s tablet lineup never quite focused on specs. Sure, Apple made it clear that each new generation of device was more powerful than the previous model, both in terms of CPU performance and in graphics capabilities for games. With the Pro line, however, Apple finally started to treat the iPad as a computer, and for obvious reasons: the newest iPad Pro is more or less as powerful as some laptops on the market today.
Because the major changes to both of these tablets for 2020 boils down to the processor, their performance is closer than you might think.
When Apple refreshed 2019’s iPad with a larger display, they left the specs unchanged from the model launched way back in March of 2018. In 2020, they did the complete opposite, leaving the screen and design unchanged but finally upgrading the aging A10 Fusion chip to something more modern. Apple has skipped the A11 Bionic entirely, instead opting to include the A12 processor that first appeared in the iPhone XS lineup in 2018, as well as Apple’s 2019 iPad Air.
It’s a powerful processor, and it’ll do basically anything you need to do with iPadOS, including split-screen and picture-in-picture. It also should guarantee updates for at least four years, which is fantastic compared to any Android tablet, regardless of price. The eighth-gen iPad also keeps 3GB of RAM, identical to the seventh-gen.
Unfortunately, the cameras haven’t been touched since the release of the fifth-gen iPad way back in 2017. These mediocre lenses may have been fine in a world where in-person meetings were the norm, in 2020, the quality of your webcam is more important than ever. The 1.2MP lens on the front of this iPad just doesn’t hold up to what a solid webcam with a Windows laptop can get you, and with Apple expecting these iPads to be used for school, the company should’ve placed a priority on the front-facing camera.
As far as storage goes, the choices remain the same as ever. Apple’s iPad ships with either 32 or 128GB, without any options for expandable storage and without an option for 64GB. It’s the fourth model offering this combination of storage, and as our expectations for the camera, it’s time Apple step up to 64GB as the bare minimum for its lowest-end device—especially as the company continues to push services like Apple Arcade.
iPad Pro (11″)
Although the 2020 update to the iPad Pro isn’t much more than a spec bump, even the increase in performance power is surprisingly small. Instead of creating a modified version of the A13 processor, as Apple tends to do for their most powerful devices after releasing a new iPhone chip, they’ve modified the A12X yet again, this time creating the A12Z. After getting torn down, it seems that the A12Z is a re-binned version of the A12X, though thanks to a new integrated circuit, performance is slightly improved over the 2018 model. The good news, of course, is that the Pro now has 6GB of RAM rather than 4GB, helping to futureproof the tablet for years to come.
Once again, the 2020 Pro has upgraded the camera, using a similar layout to what we’ve seen on the iPhone 11 Pro. Photos look good, and the included flash on the back of the device will help you take low-light photos if you’re into that sort of thing. Cameras on tablets are still something that feels a bit odd to use, but at least the quality has improved. Unfortunately, the trade-off for that level of camera quality is the large camera bump. Combined with the slim profile of this device, it does create an uneven profile when using the device on a table.
The tablet keeps the same front-facing camera, holding onto the same sensors and 7MP TrueDepth camera found on last year’s iPhone XS. The iPad Pro allows you to unlock the device with FaceID used in any orientation, which makes it about as easy to use as TouchID on a standard iPad. That’s great because, without a home button, you’re likely to hold the device upside down a whole lot more. As with the previous iPad Pro models, you’ll find a quad-speaker arrangement on the device for watching movies and listening to music in stereo (two speakers on the top of the device, two on the bottom).
We’re happy to see that Apple finally took advantage of increasingly cheaper prices in storage to bump the starting storage up to 128GB. Three additional model models are available as well, offering 256GB, 512GB, and a whopping 1 terabyte of storage, though obviously, all three carry fairly-hefty price increases along the way. For anyone looking for the best content consumption device, 128GB should be more than enough storage to keep track of your files. Those looking to edit videos or create songs in Garageband should at least look into upgrading to 256GB, especially if you’re looking to use the device like a laptop.
Winner: iPad Pro
iOS on the iPad transformed into iPadOS in 2019, forking off of iOS 13 with a number of exclusive features that took better advantage of the larger display to show more information, improve multitasking, and much more. This year, Apple added a number of new features to iOS 14 on the iPhone, but iPadOS remained fairly unchanged. That still makes it the best operating system for tablets, but it’s missing some of the coolest features to come to iOS in a long time.
iPadOS is more complex than ever, and the features added to iPadOS this year are still worth looking at in detail on Apple’s iPadOS website. Still, if you were excited to add widgets to your home screen like on iOS 14, you’ll still be stuck using the widgets panel to the left of your apps. Improved search functionality and some cool handwriting features are cool additions, but unlike last year’s iPadOS unveil, this is a year of small changes—not revolutionary ones.
Since the launch of the original iPad, Apple has used the same 10 hour benchmark for nearly every device, a number the company typically achieves by testing a combination of surfing the web, watching videos, and listening to music while connected to WiFi. Year after year, despite different models having different-sized batteries, Apple seems to come close to meeting this number, occasionally surpassing it and occasionally falling short.
Overall, it’s an estimate, and the actual battery life you’ll see on your device will typically end up depending on what you’re doing with your device. There isn’t a lot to say about both of these devices; overall, they both last for about ten hours, give or take about a single hour depending what you’re doing on each device. We haven’t discussed the cellular models of these devices much throughout this article, but nevertheless, both devices will see reduced battery times when running on LTE. Something to keep in mind when choosing a model to purchase.
One of the strongest reasons to choose iOS as a platform for your device is the lively accessory market supported by dozens of OEMs and manufacturers. Whether you’re looking for cases and screen protectors, adapters and dongles, or any other accessory made inside Apple’s MFi program, there’s an entire library of add-ons for your iPad, no matter which you decide to buy. But, as with most of the categories on this list, the iPad Pro lives up to its name with some additional abilities not included with the standard $329 iPad.
One quick search on Amazon will reveal thousands of accessories for this year’s iPad refresh, from screen protectors and cases to Bluetooth keyboard covers, stands, and protective skins. You’re likely to find exactly what you’re looking for to customize your iPad, so long as you’re willing to give up some of the extra functionality granted by the iPad Pro. For example, you can turn your iPad into a laptop-like device, but you’ll have to rely on Bluetooth to connect your devices. Unfortunately, if you’re upgrading from a 2017 or a 2018 iPad, you’ll need to buy new a new case.
Like the last two generations, last year’s model continues to offer support for the Apple Pencil, though unfortunately, they didn’t extend support for the second-gen Pencil to the $329 device. That means you’ll still need to buy Apple’s stylus that charges through the Lightning port on the bottom of the device. Apple has also kept the Smart Connector from last year’s model, a series of Pogo-style pins along the side of the device for connecting accessories like keyboards. That means that you won’t miss out on any major accessory features between this iPad, the midrange iPad Air, or the iPad Pro.
iPad Pro (11″)
The iPad Pro used to have the benefit of Apple’s Smart Connector over the $329 device, but with the addition of that port on the newest iPad, there are really only two major benefits the iPad Pro offers when it comes to accessories.
First, the improved second-gen Apple Pencil. There’s a lot to love about this revision including wireless charging through a magnetic connection on the iPad itself. The biggest flaw with the original Apple Pencil was its charging method, and the newer method for charging is much, much easier. There’s no metal cap, and the flat side on the Pencil helps to keep it from rolling off a table. Unfortunately, these improvements come with a price hike, and if you want to get the Apple Pencil for your iPad Pro, you’re looking at paying $129, a $30 price increase over the first-gen model.
The second, and arguably more important change, is one that’s been long awaited for years. Apple made the switch to USB-C from Lightning on their newest iPad Pros, and after the launch of iPadOS, we’re finally seeing some real benefits to this change. In addition to USB-C being a universal standard, it also makes it easy to use almost any USB accessory with no adapters. Wired mice and keyboards, USB drives, SD card readers, external monitors, headphones, ethernet cable—they all work with your iPad now. You can even charge your iPhone off your iPad as if it was any other computer.
In addition to those Pro-specific accessories, there’s also the standard Apple third-party experience. Cases, stands, skins—they’re all here, as you’d expect. Apple’s devices are always well-supported, and the iPad Pro is no exception.
Winner: Mostly a draw, but USB-C is a great addition.
Despite everything we described above, pricing is absolutely the most important section of this review for a majority of consumers. While there are plenty of differences between the two devices, it’s difficult to even compare the two tablets without first glancing at the price tag next to each unit. So, let’s take a look at how each unit is priced, and whether the Pro model is really worth the upcharge considering everything we just reviewed.
For nearly four years now, the iPad’s low cost has been the best feature of Apple’s entry-level tablet. At $329 for the base 32GB model, it’s never been easier or cheaper to dive into the iPad lineup. It’s even cheaper than the smaller iPad Mini, despite the two tablets sharing a processor. Aside from some qualms about the display, an iPad at $329 is a great buy, even with the aging A10 processor. As it was last year, the iPad is nearly an impulse buy at this price, especially considering how advanced of a computer it has become.
More than ever, though, the 2020 version of the iPad has become the cheapest tablet really worth owning. Yes, the Amazon Fire tablets, even at their highest end, are far cheaper, but if you’re looking to use a tablet for all sorts of content consumption and creation, the Fire tablets won’t do you much good. Likewise, Android tablets seem to be as good as dead unless you pick up one of Samsung’s high-end Tabs. Even then, despite some attempts to improve software, Android apps still don’t work well on larger displays.
It’s also worth noting that, if you know where to look, you can probably save some cash on your iPad purchase. The 2020 iPad sells for $329, but students can save $30 and grab the device through Apple’s education store for just $299. 2019 models can be found on eBay at reduced prices as well, so if you don’t mind settling for an older processor, you can save up to an additional $100 at checkout.
Of course, Apple sells a 128GB model for an additional $100, and a cellular version through the carrier of your choice (or unlocked) sells for an additional $120 on top of whichever version of the iPad you choose (meaning a 32GB cellular iPad will run you $459). Most people will probably choose the basic 32GB model for $329, but if you’re truly concerned about storage, you’ll need to bump up to that 128GB version.
iPad Pro (11″)
While the iPad stands as the best value choice for tablet buyers in general, everyone needs something different in a device. Despite their similarities, the iPad Pro is really meant for people who want the very best out of their technology, who want the highest-end product money can buy. The iPad Pro currently represents Apple’s idea of the future of computing, especially if you look at their controversial “What’s a Computer?” ad for the last-gen Pro. This tablet is meant to replace your laptop, not supplement it, and you can see that in the specs. It’s got a beefier processor, improved speakers, a larger screen with lamination and Pro Motion, and an all-new design to emphasize the display.
But those additions don’t come cheap, starting at a whopping $799 for the 128GB model and quickly raising in price when looking at storage options. If you do plan on replacing your laptop with the iPad Pro, you might want to upgrade to the 256GB version, which costs $949. The 512GB model, meanwhile, runs you $1149, and the terabyte model costs a whopping $1349. Like with the classic iPad model, if you want to add cellular connectivity to any of these options, you’ll need to drop an additional $130. You’re deep into traditional laptop territory at these prices, especially once you move to the 256GB model.
And of course, all of those prices are without considering accessories. While the Apple Pencil certainly isn’t a must-buy, anyone looking to replace a laptop with an iPad Pro will need to pick up either a Smart Keyboard cover or the new Magic Keyboard with it, since it isn’t included in the box. The Smart Keyboard will run you an additional $179, while the new Magic Keyboard—complete with backlighting and a trackpad—will run you $299. There’s no doubt that the iPad Pro offers some real advancements over the standard $329 iPad, but those enhancements come at a real cost.
In the interest of fairness, we should mention that students can grab an iPad Pro for $749, and you can also pick up a refurbished iPad Pro from Apple starting at $679. It’s still a ton of cash, but saving something is better than saving nothing.
Winner: iPad (2020)
Which Should You Buy?
If money’s no object, the verdict is obvious: the better tablet between the two devices is the iPad Pro. It’s improved over the typical iPad in nearly every way possible: a better display, complete with TrueTone, ProMotion, and lamination; the A12X processor and 4GB of RAM; a 12MP camera, along with a 7MP front-facing camera for FaceTime and FaceID; quad speakers for stereo sound; and better battery life.
Anyone who is serious about looking for a tablet that can replace your laptop should look long and hard at the iPad Pro. It’s an excellent device and, so long as you know what you’re getting into, you won’t regret your decision. It’s better for both media consumption and creation, and it’s easily our pick for the best tablet on the market today.
But that doesn’t mean you should buy it. In fact, above all else, you should consider exactly what you’re going to use an iPad for? Are you buying it to watch Netflix or YouTube and browse the web in the morning? Sure, an improved display and better speakers will enhance the experience, but the display on the standard iPad is by no means bad, and a set of Bluetooth speakers for less than $50 from Amazon can replace the need for stereo sound in your tablet.
There’s also the matter of the elephant in the room. As we update this guide, the 2020 iPad Air has yet to ship, but it promises to bring most of the iPad Pro enhancements to a lower price point than ever before. While the new iPad Air does lack the 120Hz display, tri-camera layout with flash, and FaceID, its design is much cleaner than the entry-level iPad, and it brings USB-C and stereo sound for just $599.
Comparing the iPad to the new iPad Air is a much tougher conversation than the one we’re focusing on here. The truth is, despite a number of enhancements, the iPad Pro is a difficult purchase for most people shopping for a new tablet. Unless you’re looking to give up your laptop for an iPad Pro, the eighth-gen iPad is still the correct choice for anyone who still has a laptop or desktop computer for doing real work in their life. At $329 it’s the perfect device for reading, studying, taking notes, watching videos, browsing the web, and so much more.
Though it may not be the most exciting choice on the market, if you need an iPad right now, you should drop the $329 on the standard iPad. Most users will find it reliable, fun, and a good value for what they get in return. Even those who want to upgrade to something a bit flashier will be well served by the iPad Air—not the Pro.
Overall Winner: iPad (2020)