Last week, on April 20th, 2021, Apple announced a range of new products. The Apple April event this year was one of the most eagerly anticipated in recent memory. Usually, the tech community has a good idea of what to expect from Apple at their events, but this time was different.
Apple has been aggressively stamping out leaks of their forthcoming products, so there were still a few unexpected items last week, including the branding of the new iPad Pro. Using the M1 chip in an iPad Pro asks a lot of questions on Apple's future plans for iPad.
Personally, I wasn’t particularly interested in AirTags or the new M1 iMac; these are cool products, just not for me. While the M1-powered Apple products to date have been interesting, I’m very excited about the future direction of consumer technology now that Apple is using ARM-based processors in laptops and desktop computers, but I haven’t wanted to buy any of them. I’m a big believer in avoiding early adoption of new technology; it’s all too commonplace now for companies to push out new tech products and use the public as beta testers. In my opinion, this is bad practice, as not all issues can be fixed with software patches. I am currently in the market for a new iPad, though.
During lockdown in 2020 and early 2021, I took home the late 2017 iPad, which I usually keep at work. Over this time, I found myself using the iPad every day, whether it be for watching YouTube, browsing social media, or replying to emails. The iPad really is a great product for those tasks at home where a phone is a bit too small and it’s not worth the effort of getting the laptop out. Fast-forward to early April 2021, and I’ve sadly had to return the iPad to work, as we’re no longer required to work from home. There’s now a distinctly iPad-shaped hole in my home; time to reach for the credit card.
I did a little research and settled on the 11” iPad Pro. It was a similar size to the iPad I have been using, but if I’m going to be buying a new toy, I want it to have as much functionality as possible. With the iPad Pro, I can comfortably use Lightroom CC as well as all the other sofa-centric tasks an iPad is great for.
It would be silly for me to buy an expensive piece of tech a few weeks before an Apple event that was expected to announce a new refresh of the iPad Pro, so I waited for the announcement. My thinking was that I’d either pick up a refurbished 2020 model if the new ones weren’t significantly better, or I’d pick up a new one if it was worth it for my use case.
April 20th, 2021 came and I watched the Apple event live, much to the annoyance of my girlfriend, who wanted to go grocery shopping together at that time. I was simply expecting the new iPad Pro to use an A14X processor and the larger model to have a better screen. What they announced was much more exciting than somewhat confusing, which is why I’ve waited over a week to write this piece.
I don’t want to get into a long list of specs and comparisons; that’s all anyone seems to have talked about this week. I do have to mention the 12.9” iPad Pro and the stunning new Liquid Retina XDR display, which uses the same mini-LED technology as the $6,000 Apple XDR Pro Display. This looks to be a major upgrade in screen technology, which may eventually make its way to the MacBook Pro line-up. But, as I’m shopping for the 11-inch version, I’ll carry on with the features that concern my purchase.
The headline which I keep seeing is that Apple is now using an M1 processor in the iPad. This isn’t really news, as the M1 chip has the same architecture as the A14X would have. They’re essentially the same thing; the surprise was how Apple branded it rather than the actual technology they used. Claims that Apple is putting “desktop processors” in the iPad are somewhat incorrect. The news was that Apple already put mobile processors in laptops and now into desktop computers, which is arguably more impressive.
When Apple stated last year that they were starting to transition to Apple silicon, they weren’t messing around!
The new iPad Pro also has a Thunderbolt 4 port. This is a huge upgrade from the old USB-C port, as we’ll now see data transfer speeds up to 10x faster plus stronger support for Thunderbolt hubs and external monitor support.
The real surprise to me was that Apple told us how much RAM is in the new iPad Pro and that it was available with either 8 GB or 16 GB. Apple has never made a fuss about how much RAM was in the iPhone or the iPad, as they have never seemed to deem it important for the way their devices perform. For reference, the old iPad Pro had 6 GB of RAM and performed exceptionally well at demanding tasks such as photo- or video-editing. Now, we have significantly more RAM in iPad Pro, and the higher-storage models with 1 TB or 2 TB of storage will come with 16 GB of RAM, while the smaller variants having 8GB of RAM. That’s almost three times the amount of RAM in one generation. So, I started to wonder why?
Apple has always suggested that the iPad could be a laptop replacement. In my opinion, it never has been. The iPad, to me, has always been a big iPhone, which is certainly a device I have a use for, but it absolutely isn’t a laptop replacement. Are they now positioning the iPad Pro to be a legitimate alternative to a MacBook Pro?
As of the last week of April 2021, the new iPad Pro and the M1 MacBook Pro laptops are very close in price. You could say this is unsurprising, as they have almost identical internal components. The big difference is that you get a keyboard and trackpad with the MacBook Pro, whereas it’s a $349 optional extra on the iPad Pro. This makes the iPad Pro with a keyboard a more expensive proposition than the M1 MacBook Pro.
The new 11" iPad Pro starts at $799, plus $300 for the Magic Keyboard, and the new 12.9" iPad Pro starts at $1099, plus $350 for the Magic Keyboard. By comparison, the M1 MacBook Air with the same internals starts at just $999. So, why would a creator buy a new iPad Pro over a MacBook?
Apple has a history of making expensive products, but they very rarely make massive mistakes; removing SD card readers from MacBooks is one notable mistake in my opinion. It raises the question: why is Apple listing the iPad Pro range with prices up to $2,400? Over two thousand dollars without a keyboard, trackpad, or Apple Pencil?
I know the iPad is primarily a touch-based device, but the MacBook Pro is, in my opinion, a better device simply because it has more ports and runs a functional desktop operating system with more professional applications readily available, and the equivalent MacBook Pro is significantly cheaper when adding the cost of the Magic Keyboard to the iPad Pro.
When the hardware is the same on both devices, we can now clearly see the biggest thing holding the iPad Pro back is the software. For iPad OS to be a workable alternative, it would at least need a better file management system, a less cluttered desktop, and an app drawer, to begin with. Another major factor holding back iPad OS is the lack of support for professional software; we’d need to see a full version of Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, Logic Pro, and DaVinci Resolve, to name a few.
For years, I’ve heard people asking for a MacBook with a touchscreen, but Mac OS isn’t made for touch input. Now, we’re seeing iPad Pro with a lot more power than it needs, and people are starting to ask if we will see MacOS on the iPad. I don’t think this will happen anytime soon. Apple has spent so much time and money developing iPad OS that they aren’t going to scrap it yet.
What I think we’ll see in the near future is a significant update to iPad OS, starting with an announcement at WWDC 2021 in June this year, with more professional functionality coming to iPad OS as the iPad Pro starts to become a legitimate laptop alternative. I do believe that Apple will continue to strongly differentiate the MacBook and iPad products as very different products that can ultimately achieve the same results in different ways.
As much as it pains me to admit, especially as someone who is likely to buy a new iPad Pro this year, I don’t think this transition will happen quickly. Look at how long it took iOS to get widgets!
I do think we’ll start to see significant software steps towards a truly professional use case for the iPad Pro this year, but I think it will take a few more years before the iPad OS has anywhere near the functionality and support of a MacBook.
I’ll probably be picking up an 11-inch, 1 TB, 16GB iPad Pro this year, and I look forward to seeing the software develop over time. What I’d really like to see is the ability to shoot tethered to the iPad Pro as efficiently as I can shoot tethered to Lightroom or Capture One, a more user-friendly file management system and folder system for images, and an app drawer for a less cluttered desktop.
What do you think about the new iPad Pro? What changes do you think iPad OS needs to be a usable MacOS alternative? Let me know in the comments.