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Put macOS on the iPad, you cowards

macOS, not a brighter screen, is the update the iPad Pro really needs

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iPad Pro 2021 Image: Apple

Okay, hear me out on this. I really would just like Apple’s next iPad Pro to be a laptop. Not a clamshell, but a Surface Pro type of deal: a tablet with laptop hardware and a laptop OS. I think there must be people at Apple who want this, too, so I’m now respectfully requesting that the company stop dilly-dallying and make it happen.

Here’s my reasoning: at Tuesday’s Spring Loaded event, Apple finally unveiled a long-rumored update to its iPad Pro. While the device doesn’t look too different from iPad Pro models of years past, it’s a huge leap forward on the inside because it’s powered by Apple’s eight-core M1 processor. That’s the same processor that powers its MacBook Air and MacBook Pro (as well as the Mac mini), and it’s exceptional. To repeat, the new iPad Pro isn’t using a Macbook-adjacent or MacBook-equivalent processor. It’s using the same processor that’s in those laptops.

Let’s review what else the iPad Pro can do. It now supports Thunderbolt 3 and can power additional displays at up to 6K resolution. It supports 5G. It can come with up to 2TB of storage and 16GB of RAM. You can connect a keyboard and touchpad. On paper, that’s a laptop. (Or it’s a Surface Pro, whatever you want to call that.)

Image: Apple

But that’s before you actually use the thing. Personally, I just can’t use iPadOS for my daily multitasking workload. On a MacBook, I can duck in and out of Zoom calls to mess around in Chrome and keep several tabs and applications open on my screen at once. Doing that on the iPad is, comparatively, a mess — I can reasonably look at one or two apps max, resizing is a pain, and it doesn’t take full advantage of my external display.

Furthermore, iOS apps still have less functionality than their macOS counterparts across the board. A MacBook can just do more. And until the iPad Pro gains the ability to run macOS apps (or, dare I suggest, macOS), I don’t see that calculus changing. I’m far from a creative professional, but I still need my daily driver to be able to run the full version of Photoshop.

But now that the iPad Pro is an M1 system, I don’t see why it can’t run macOS apps. Because it has the same hardware as the MacBook Air (including the fanless form factor). So the iPad really should be able to run whatever the MacBook Air can run. (And the MacBook Air can run just about whatever you want. Take a look at our review for a deep dive there.)

Battery is a potential pitfall: the larger iPad has a nearly 20 percent smaller battery than the Air (40.88Whr to the Air’s 49.9Whr). But both M1 MacBooks have excellent battery life, and the larger iPad’s battery is still similar in size to that of Lenovo’s ThinkPad X12 Detachable and bigger than that of the Surface Pro X — neither of which have been a disaster in our testing. So I’d be surprised if it can’t get the job done.

Apple has also shown that it’s not afraid to bring consumers into a messy software transition. After all, the new M1 MacBooks can run iPhone and iPad apps natively. Many of them, upon the machines’ release, weren’t available or didn’t work well. The sky did not fall.

And of course, Apple has been working to make its ecosystem more cohesive for quite a while. Catalyst makes it more convenient for developers to port their apps between iPadOS and macOS. And many of the tweaks the company made to macOS Big Sur seem specifically designed to bring the operating system closer to the look and feel of iOS — from the rounded window corners and iOS-ified dock icons to the newly translucent layers — and some of its new features (like the new Control Center and the native iOS apps) are iPad staples that don’t make a ton of sense to have on a non-touch device.

The result of all this is that we’re moving toward a weird point in the evolution of these two devices where the MacBook can do everything the iPad can do (but it doesn’t have the touchscreen hardware to take advantage of all of it), while the iPad can still only do iPad things (even though features of macOS would take good advantage of its touchscreen capability). It seems like a point where Apple’s goals of “creating a seamless ecosystem” and “selling you many different products” are starting to butt heads.

So putting macOS apps on the iPad seems like a natural next step in Apple’s process. And from a consumer perspective, I think it could only be a good thing.

Here’s what video calls on the iPad are supposed to look like.
Video: Apple

In addition to the touch capability and stylus support, the new iPad Pro makes up for the MacBook’s greatest weakness: its grainy garbage webcam. The iPad Pro has been upgraded with a new 12MP TrueDepth ultrawide camera and a feature called Center Stage, which will follow you around and keep your face centered during video chats. This is a great feature for students and professionals who have to take a lot of conference calls from home (myself included) and don’t want to deal with an external device. That said: video calls are kind of a pain on iPadOS (in part because the camera is still on the side, in landscape mode), and, as I noted above, multitasking during them is a lot harder than it is on a MacBook. macOS and the iPad’s camera hardware seem like a good fit.

There’s also the larger iPad’s new Liquid Retina XDR display, which looks like it’s going to be a game-changer. Incorporating over 10,000 Mini LEDs, it’s said to reach 1,000 nits of brightness (which is brighter than many 4K HDR TVs on the market). And 1,000-nit Windows laptops exist (as do Mini LED laptops), but it’s uncommon to see them under the $2,000 price point. This isn’t hardware that the average office user needs — but in a laptop, it would be one of the best screens you can get at its price point, hands down.

Now, would an iPad Pro running macOS be the right purchase for everyone? Of course not. Not everyone wants to work on a 12.9-inch screen all day. I’ll admit that I’d probably find it cramped. I also know people who use the 12.3-inch Surface Pro 7 as their primary driver with no complaints. Many folks care more about having a full-featured PC in a convertible and super versatile form factor than they do about having a big screen.

That’s why I’m convinced there would be an audience for a convertible iPad Pro — especially if its performance and battery life are finally up to par with that of a MacBook. (The iPad Pro also has one fewer USB port, but that’s easily resolved with a dongle. Come on, people.)