Now the iPad Pro has to live up to the MacBook Air

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Today, we’re expecting a grab bag of new products from Apple, headlined by new iPad Pros. Given the relatively minor spec bumps that we got on last year’s iPad Pros, this time around we’re hoping for a more substantial update. In some ways, it seems likely that Apple will deliver, at least with the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

I’m sure the specs will be impressive. But after the release of the first MacBooks with Apple’s own M1 ARM-based silicon, there’s a strange inversion happening. Before, we’d look at a MacBook and wonder why it can’t have the power and battery life of an iPad. Now, I think more and more people are going to join me in looking at the iPad and wondering why it can’t have the flexibility and power of a Mac.

In short, Apple’s silicon didn’t just catch the Mac up to the iPad, it catapulted the Mac beyond the iPad. The M1 MacBook Air is fast, responsive, has no fan, runs any Mac app I throw at it (including Intel apps) very quickly, and even can run some iPad apps (though that experiment isn’t going super well). It is easily the best general-purpose laptop I’ve used in half a decade.

That big of a leap can’t help but recast the iPad’s development over the years. As just one data point, I’ve used both iPad Pros and M1-based MacBooks as my daily work computer and the MacBook Air has better battery life. An iPad can last for days and days if you just use it for tablet tasks, but log in to all your stuff and run it all day like you do your laptop and it’ll conk out a few hours short of the MacBook Air.

From one perspective, I get that it’s silly to just one-to-one compare the iPad and Mac. The iPad is more flexible in its hardware: you can sit on the couch with it, you can use a stylus with it, attach a keyboard, and — get this — touch the screen. When I speak to Apple executives, they express little of the Mac vs iPad angst I see online (and feel myself). Nobody’s actually confused between these two devices, they argue, and I believe it. One of my core beliefs about consumer technology is that consumers are savvier and smarter than they usually get credit for.

That savvy cuts both ways, though. Because from the other perspective, everybody is capable of just looking at each computer’s capabilities and seeing that the Mac can just do more. It’s not quite true that the iPad’s functionality is merely a subset of the Mac’s, but in the Venn diagram of the two the iPad-only part of the circle isn’t very big.

Another way of looking at it is this: it used to be that you would go for the iPad because the MacBook was just fundamentally worse at a few things like speed and battery life. Now that we have MacBooks with Apple Silicon, that list is significantly shorter.

Can the iPad Pro jump back ahead through purely hardware specs? It’d be tough. According to Mark Gurman at Bloomberg, the iPad Pro is supposed to get an “updated processor that is on par with the faster M1 chip in the latest MacBook Air.” There are significant differences between how Apple puts together iOS chips and MacBook chips, but let’s just assume it’s easy to compare and the iPad gets faster. So what? Apple has the enviable problem right now of having computers that are more than fast enough for the vast majority of people. I don’t know anybody who’s actually complaining about the iPad Pro’s speed or graphical capabilities.

New cameras? Sure. LIDAR? I remain unconvinced it’s a must-have feature for anybody. The one thing that might matter is the rumored fancy, new Mini LED screen technology on the larger iPad Pro. That will make it look more like a high-end TV, with brighter brights and blacker-blacks. One of the best things to do on an iPad is watch video, and so it might convince some people to upgrade just for the screen.

In my review of the M1 MacBook Air, I called it a “triumph” and was seriously considering giving it a perfect score until I saw how dumpy the webcam still is. That’s one place where the iPad has a much better spec: the iPad Pro’s front facing camera is excellent. It’s also in the wrong place, on the side when you use it horizontally instead of on the top. That’s the iPad Pro in a microcosm: stupefyingly good hardware with some stupid limitations in how Apple expects it to be used.

The story with the iPad — and especially the iPad Pro — since before Apple’s 2018 “What’s a computer” TV ad has been the same. Can its iOS-based software be opened up and extended enough to allow both developers and users to get it to do the things they want. Apple made a huge step in that direction with iPadOS in 2019, but there’s still a long way to go.

Today’s iPad Pros are likely to be amazing feats of technology, but the really important iPad announcement will come this summer at WWDC, when Apple will unveil its plans for iPadOS. Right now I use the iPad Pro every day, but mostly as a Sidecar display for my MacBook. It’s just much more useful as a Mac screen than it is as an iPad screen.

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