What Has Apple Got Planned for the iPad Pro?

What Has Apple Got Planned for the iPad Pro?

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.

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10 Comments

Andrew Eaton's picture

Capture one for iPad is what I'm hoping for...

Brad Wendes's picture

That’s the dream! I wonder which third party developers will announce iPadOS versions of their software at WWDC 2021. I’m also prepared for much higher cost applications coming to the App Store 🤷‍♂️

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Please wait till it works natively (and properly) on M1. Then your dream will come closer :)

Brad Wendes's picture

I was impressed at how quickly Adobe got their software working natively on M1 macs. I think we’ll see a lot more pro apps working on M1 machines before the end of the year.
I wonder if we’ll see ports of software that are the same as desktop versions or whether we’ll see touch-optimised pro apps?

I guess Apple requiring that all apps come from the App Store May be an issue when it comes to developers making software for iPadOS

Adventure Photo's picture

Needs to have the option to boot into iOS or regular MacOS, then the iPad Pro would be a more practical tool IMO.

Brad Wendes's picture

I don’t think Apple will allow the iPad to run MacOS any time in the near future.
A functional file management system, or Finder, and multi-user support in iPadOS would help a lot.
I wonder how much of a hindrance it will be to third party developers that consumers can only install apps from the App Store.

Studio 403's picture

but on the other side, I have a 2019 - 21 in I Mac, 32 gigs for ram, solid state SS drive. So got on my knees to pay my homage to Apple, called sales. I said, I want the new M1 24 inch, blah blah, with 16gigs or ram.....Apples dumb me down. I want fast and nice for my Photoshop, and On1. Apple sales , don't buy, not that big a difference . I went and removed Apple from its throne. Apple telling me "no big deal" to buy new.....I thought this M1 chip would send me to the moon, Nah she said, wait for the M2 in the fall. I said, I would need to rob my local bank to afford. Apple is off my throne. Would somebody help me put it back up?? What a goofy sales person at Apple.

Brad Wendes's picture

You’re right about the M1 not being “all-powerful”. The only machines currently using M1 are the entry level iMac and MacBook models. The fact that the M1 machines are blowing away their direct competition suggests that M1X or M2 or multiple M1 chips - whatever Apple do for pro machines - could be ridiculous.
As for now, we’re only seeing the low power, entry level Apple silicon

Andrew Eaton's picture

I think the world silicon fabrication issues going on at the moment are going to hold back the M2 etc chips. They are big lumps of silicon having all the ram built into the SOC, this is likely to make production issues more likely.

Brad Wendes's picture

I think you’re right that Apple will delay the rollout of M2 or M1X or whatever they call their next chip. I would think that with the volumes of stock that Apple ship every year, they will be a preferred customer of the chip manufacturer, so they might not have any many issues as smaller companies. The fact that Apple are downplaying the shortage makes me think they have been hit though