A video published recently by Mark Gurman (opens in new tab) discussed the new brains inside this year's rumored iPad Pro, describing it as "on par" with the M1 chip inside Apple's latest MacBooks.
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While the iPad Pro does have a professional whiff to it, there are people who buy it just to have the nicest iPad they can afford rather than a true laptop replacement.
A significant performance increase should secure the iPad Pro 2021 a place on our best tablets list. All this is good right?
Well if it's true, then I believe it'll firmly establish the iPad Pro as a device for power users, and not tablet buyers who simply want the best iPad they can afford. And a 'pro-only' tablet doesn't really appeal to me.
Too much power?
In case you're not up to speed on laptops, at the end of 2020 Apple swapped from Intel-made chips to its own Apple Silicon design for the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro (13-inch) and Mac mini. These chips offer surprising amounts of performance, often beating Intel CPUs, and they deliver class-leading battery life. Plus, the M1 chip has given Apple the opportunity to tie its Mac and iOS devices even more closely together with cross-compatible apps.
Alongside the widely rumored mini-LED display, we'd expected the next iPad Pro to introduce a new version of the A14 chip from the iPhone 12. However, Gurman's claim suggests that Apple may instead use a chip based on the M1, if it's offering comparable performance.
More power is good, but let's put this in context with how tablets tend to be used.
I use my 7th-gen iPad almost exclusively as a device for web browsing and streaming. As much as I envy Face ID, the LiDAR sensor and the larger display on the iPad Pro, I accept that I would have wasted my money on features I would barely find a use for had I picked up a Pro.
Apple pitches the iPad Pro as a device for more work than play. Last year the company took a step closer to making the iPad a pseudo-laptop by offering a new Magic Keyboard accessory. The keyboard acts both as a floating stand for the iPad and a way to give it a full keyboard and trackpad combo.
At the time, we noted that the Magic Keyboard lacked support in third-party apps, and its weight reduces the overall portability of the tablet. Plus, its $300 starting price means it's not something you should really buy on a whim. But it makes the tablet more suitable for in-depth and precise tasks that on-screen controls just can't match.
Adding the Magic Keyboard means the total iPad Pro package costs not much less than an M1 MacBook Air. For work purposes, it's hard for a tablet to properly compete with a laptop. It's much harder to balance an iPad on your knees, angle the display correctly, and have the keyboard in a suitable spot than it is to work off of a laptop. So there's the argument that you're better off with a MacBook Air and then a cheaper iPad.
And it's important to note that the M1 MacBook Air, Pro and Mac mini all have more space for thermal management than an iPad Pro; the latter two have dedicated fans. So using an M1 chip delivering MacBook Air-like power could create a rather toasty tablet unless Apple does something very clever with passive cooling or down clocks an M1 variant, which then might render the use of such a chip a little moot.
Furthermore, more powerful chips designed for laptop use might be too much for a tablet-grade battery to cope with. Sure, the M1 chip is impressively efficient, but it has a laptop battery and thermal system to use; Apple could need some clever engineering to make the M1 effective in a slim tablet chassis.
Power versus practical
Software is important to consider too. There are iPad versions of Apple's flagship creative software like Garageband, as well as of popular third-party apps like Photoshop. But the variety of apps on macOS still vastly outweighs those found on the iOS App Store.
You can put as much power as you like into an iPad, but without the software to take advantage of that grunt, it's going to be wasted even in the hands of the kind of super-user who'd really benefit from a more muscular iPad.
If Apple builds out iPadOS to have better mouse/cursor support and software that's more dekstop-like in use when it needs to be, then there's a more compelling argument for supercharged iPad Pro. But if not you've got a powerhouse machine that can't stretch its legs; think of it like having a supercar just for visiting the local shops.
Comparing the iPad Pro to Apple's MacBooks may reveal what exactly it plans to do with the tablet. Although there's nothing explicitly saying the MacBook Air is for general users and the MacBook Pro is for professionals, the specs and pricing suggest otherwise. This seems similar to what Apple's just done with the iPad Air.
The fourth-gen iPad Air is a big overhaul from the previous one. It offers an A14 chip, gen-2 Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard compatibility, plus it even offers the same thin bezel design as the iPad Pro. It lacks Face ID and a LIDAR sensor but, as a result, costs about $300 less.
Based on the rumors, it feels like Apple's about to realign the upper half of its iPad family to mirror the MacBook range. It may mean some of us have to accept Apple's best tablet isn't right for us, but it'll be great news to those who want the ultimate in performance and portability. Let's just hope Apple and iOS developers give them some suitable apps to really make the most of that power with.