The simplistic view of tablets versus laptops has always been that the former are for consumption and the latter are for creation. Traditionally, laptops are more powerful, they offer greater storage, they have better keyboards, they run more capable software, they are better suited to multi-tasking … there have been plenty of reasons to choose one over a tablet. In the Apple world, to choose some kind of MacBook over an iPad.
But those reasons, like the Apple tech in question, grow slimmer each year. Sure, MacBooks are more powerful, but today’s iPads are no slouches – I’ve even done a little video editing on my iPad Air 2 – and the iPad Pro is almost twice as powerful. MacBooks do still offer more storage, but that’s less important in a world of cloud-based document storage and streaming media. The best add-on keyboards for iPads may not be quite up there with MacBook ones, but they are close – and most of the difference that does remain is due to size. OS X does offer more capable software than iOS, but there’s some pretty serious software on iOS these days. iOS 9 makes side-by-side multitasking something we can now do on an iPad as well as a MacBook. And with each release, Apple gets closer to parity between mobile and desktop as it integrates technologies from both operating systems across platforms.
So the gap between the two is far smaller than it used to be – and the iPad Pro is about the narrow the gap even more. Will the iPad Pro be the point at which an iPad becomes a viable alternative to a MacBook … ?
The answer, of course, is the same one I give when non-techy friends ask me which laptop they should buy: it depends on what you want to do with it.
But once I’ve heard what they want to use it for, my answer to the question ‘Which laptop should I buy?’ has often been ‘You shouldn’t: buy an iPad plus Bluetooth keyboard instead.’ So far, at least, everyone who has taken this advice has been happy with the result.
Screen and keyboard size are a consideration, of course. For some people, a standard iPad and matching keyboard is just too small and fiddly. But the iPad Pro will remove that objection.
With existing iPads, there’s a difference between what they can do in theory and what a professional would use them for in practice. In theory, you can do pretty much anything on an iPad. Video editing, audio mixing, photo-editing and design all have competent iOS apps.
In practice, however, the small screen and limited processing power of a standard iPad means that, while you can do any of these things, and a professional might use one to do a little of each in the field, any serious work is going to be done on a Mac. The iPad is a companion device, there to help out when needed.
But the A9X in the iPad Pro appears to be a serious laptop-equivalent processor. Apple says that “the 64‑bit desktop‑class architecture [giving the] iPad Pro the power to easily take on tasks that were once reserved for workstations and PCs.” That’s just marketing copy, of course, but the company backs it by stating explicitly that users will be able to edit up to three 4K movies simultaneously and that AutoCAD 360 will run at 60 frames per second.
Any way you look at it, that is serious processing power. We’ll need to wait for benchmarks and hands-on use to be sure, but on paper at least, the iPad Pro does seem to be infringing on MacBook territory. So could it be a viable alternative? Let’s look at some potential buyers …
The enterprise world – a huge yes
This is, of course, the primary market Apple was targeting with the iPad Pro, and the corporate applications will be many and varied – especially with all the apps coming out of Apple’s partnership with IBM.
It’s ideal for those who need to make corporate presentations on a one-to-one or small group basis. The large screen makes it easy for a small group to see, and the form factor means it can easily be passed around. AirPlay when you need to present to a larger audience. Sales people and trainers will love it.
As will anyone who currently has to cart around large volumes of paper – manuals for site engineers, for example. An iPad is a much more convenient way to consult a PDF in the field than a MacBook, and the size means it’s reasonably close to the size of a US letter piece of paper, so less scrolling and zooming than with a standard iPad.
Those who need to fill in forms on-site, especially where tick boxes are concerned, will also love it. It can be comfortably held in one hand while using it with the other, just like clipboard and paper. You can again see a full sheet of paper’s worth of info at once, and it’s easy to hand over if the person you are visiting needs to fill in a form. This looks like a perfect market research tool, for example.
I could go on, but it would be superfluous. This is the market it was made for, and I think it’s going to be hugely popular within enterprise – and for many, definitely will replace a laptop, be it their MacBook or Windows machine.
Video, audio, photography – a companion, not a replacement
While an iPad Pro may be able to handle video, audio and photo-editing, it falls down big-time when it comes to storage. Being technically able to edit three 4K videos is one thing; being able to store the uncut footage on an iPad is another. Depending on codec, 4K video runs to around 5Gb per minute. Let’s be generous and imagine that of the 128GB the iPad Pro offers, you get to use 100Gb of it for your video files – that’s 20 minutes of raw footage. Ask any video pro about the relationship between original footage and final, edited work and it quickly becomes apparent that they are never going to be using an iPad Pro as a primary device.
So for video work, a Mac Pro with multiple 4K screens is the ideal, while a maxed-out MacBook Pro is the serious portable alternative. That’s not to say there’s no room in the toolbox for an iPad Pro too. If you’re using a Mac Pro as your workstation, an iPad Pro might well prove to be the perfect companion device – but it’s not going to replace a MacBook.
The same arguments apply to audio pros, albeit to a somewhat lesser degree. Again, an iPad Pro might make a useful additional tool at the recording stage, but isn’t going to cut it for the serious post-production work.
Photographers, too, want more than just CPU and GPU power – they also want plenty of storage space and enough screen size to see their work at a good size whilst still leaving room for tool palettes, thumbnails and so on. With a typical wedding shot in RAW format easily able to approach 10Gb, you’re also not going to be able to store many of them on an iPad. Granted you can offload them, but most photographers are going to want to have immediate access to more than just their last few shoots. So once more, an iPad Pro could be a fantastic tool for showing portfolios, and for quick-and-dirty editing in the field, but is never going to replace a Mac.
Designers & artists – I’m guessing yes
I have to confess here to having the drawing ability of a four-year-old. A not very talented 4yo, at that. So it isn’t something I can write about with any authority, but having talked to a few artistic friends, there does seem to be a marked preference for drawing directly on the screen, rather than relying on the indirectness of a graphics tablet.
A big objection to digital drawing on an iPad has been the lag between stylus contact and line. The increased refresh rate of the iPad Pro when used with the Pencil does, from the demo and explanation at least, appear to have addressed this.
We need to see whether the Apple Pencil is as impressive in real-life use as the keynote demonstration made it appear, but certainly for anyone who needs to draw or paint electronically, the iPad Pro with Apple Pencil looks impressive. I’d love to hear some comments from artists and designers about how you think it likely to stack up against a Mac with drawing tablet.
Writers – mostly yep
For writers, even a standard iPad is still a pretty good tool. Keyboard size aside, I’ve mostly pointed writers to a MacBook for the fact that it runs Scrivener. Frankly, if you’re writing novels (gratuitous plugs for mine here and here), I wouldn’t use anything else – so until the long-overdue iOS version arrives, that rules out the iPad. The same would be true of complex non-fiction books, where you need to flick back and forth between sections as you write.
But for pretty much any other type of writing – poetry, short stories, newspaper articles, magazine features, copywriting and almost all web work – an iPad makes an extremely convincing writing machine. It offers genuine all-day battery-life, rather than the ‘almost but not quite in real-life use’ offered by MacBooks, so is ideal for those who do the coffee-shop thing. Most iPad writing apps are auto-save, with many doing automatic cloud backups, so it’s a very safe way to write. And if you need to write online, or upload your work when complete, the cellular connectivity of an LTE iPad is more convenient than replying solely on WiFi or taking the battery-life hit to both devices when tethering.
Consumers who like the form-factor – yep
Finally, while Apple isn’t yet presenting it as a consumer product, I can see it finding a market here. For those who want a general-purpose laptop for undemanding use, but find existing iPad screens and keyboards too small, an iPad Pro is going to be an appealing option.
The main barrier here, of course, is cost. If your needs are simple but you want decent battery-life, a Chromebook is going to do much the same job at a far lower price than even the entry-level iPad Pro – and that’s before you add a keyboard. But Apple has never worried about cost: there is always a market for premium products, and the comparison most potential customers will be making is with other Apple products, not Chromebooks.
A 12-inch MacBook ranges from $1299 to $1599. No contest there: if you don’t have a reason to want OS X, and you don’t greatly prefer the form-factor of the MacBook, you’re going to buy the iPad Pro.
An 11-inch MacBook Air starts at $899. Sure, you can spec it up to spend $1649, but we’re talking here about basic use: web, email, writing. This is a straight head-to-head between the $899 entry-level MacBook Air and the $799 + $169 Smart Keyboard. The difference between $899 and $968 is close enough that I’d call it a wash – most people are going to translate either price into “close to a thousand bucks.”
If you’re knowledgeable, you’ll make the call on OS X versus iOS; if you’re not, you’ll decide based on design and form-factor preferences. Which, in my mind, sees a fair number of buyers opting for the iPad Pro thanks to the detachable keyboard and even sleeker appearance.
So, my answer ends where it started: it depends. But factor in the corporate users for whom it was designed, add in those professional users for whom the iPad Pro is a realistic alternative, and then supplement with consumers who will make the decision based on form-factor – and I think the device has a big future.