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

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Today we expect a grab bag with new products from Apple, with new iPad Pros as headlines. Given the relatively minor flaws in the specs we got on the iPad Pros last year, we’re hoping for a more substantial update this time around. 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, a strange reversal is taking place. We used to 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 taking a look at the iPad with me and wondering why it can’t have the flexibility and power of a Mac.

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

That big leap cannot help but rearrange the development of the iPad 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 a longer battery life. An iPad can last for days and days if you only use it for tablet tasks, but log on to all your gear and let it run all day like you do on your laptop, and it will be a few hours short of the MacBook Air.

From one perspective, I understand it’s silly to compare the iPad and Mac just one to one. 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 versus iPad fear I see online (and feel myself). No one is really confused between these two devices, they claim, and I believe it. One of my core beliefs about consumer technology is that consumers are smarter and smarter than they normally get.

That clever one, however, cuts both ways. Because from the other perspective, everyone is able to just look at the capabilities of any computer and see that the Mac can do it. moreIt’s not entirely true that the functionality of the iPad is only a subset of that of the Mac, but in the Venn diagram of the two, the iPad portion of the circle is not very large.

Another way to look at it is this: You used to go for the iPad because the MacBook was just fundamentally worse in a few things like speed and battery life. Now that we have MacBooks with Apple Silicon, that list is noticeably shorter.

Can the iPad Pro make a leap forward by purely hardware specifications? It would be difficult. According to Mark Gurman at BloombergThe iPad Pro is believed to have an “updated processor comparable to the faster M1 chip in the latest MacBook Air.” There are significant differences between the way Apple assembles iOS chips and MacBook chips, but let’s assume it’s easy to compare and the iPad gets faster. So what? Apple currently has the enviable problem of having computers that are more than fast enough for the vast majority of people. I don’t know anyone who actually complains about the speed or graphics capabilities of the iPad Pro.

New cameras? Certainly. LIDAR? I am still not convinced that it is a must have for everyone. All that matters is the rumored nice, new Mini LED screen technology on the larger iPad Pro. This will make it look more like a high-end TV, with brighter, clearer and blacker blacks. One of the best things you can do on an iPad is watch video, which is why it might convince some people to upgrade for the screen only.

In my review of the M1 MacBook Air, I called it a “triumph” and seriously considered giving it a perfect score, until I saw how dull the webcam still is. That’s one place where the iPad has a much better specification: the iPad Pro’s front camera is excellent. It is also in the wrong place, on the side if you use it horizontally instead of at the top. That’s the iPad Pro in a microcosm: astonishingly 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 TV ad “What’s a Computer” was the same. Can the iOS-based software be opened and expanded enough to allow developers and users alike to do the things they want? Apple took a huge step in that direction in 2019 with iPadOS, but there is still a long way to go.

Today’s iPad Pros are likely to be astonishing technological feats, but the really important iPad announcement will come this summer at WWDC, when Apple will unveil its plans for iPadOS. At the moment I use the iPad Pro every day, but mainly as a Sidecar display for my MacBook. It’s just much more useful as a Mac screen than an iPad screen.