Opinion: iPad Pro can’t replace my Retina MacBook, but it’s the best entertainment iPad yet

iPad Pro MacBook 12

When I reviewed the 12-inch MacBook with Retina display earlier this year, my one question was this: could I possibly use such a low power machine reliably for work? For blog posting and editing, switching between chat apps and email, and keeping up with a few Twitter accounts, the single-port MacBook is totally fine, and the Retina display was an upgrade over the dated one on my old MacBook Air.

While I’d like to apply that same question to the iPad Pro, which has a slightly larger display and effectively twice the battery life of my MacBook, the difference in how iOS and OS X handle multitasking and window management currently limit my ability to apply my same workflows from the Mac to the iPad. That didn’t stop me from lusting after the iPad Pro when it hit stores last week. Despite the Pro in its name, I think the new iPad is the best content consumption tablet on the planet. 

iPad Pro Split View PIP

iOS 9 on the iPad added new multitasking features that let you use two apps at the same time. Slide Over lets you peek into new apps without leaving your current app: open Messages to send a quick message while browsing in Safari then dismiss it. Split View lets you actively use two apps side-by-side: parse your inbox on Mail on the left and view your Calendar on the right. And Picture in Picture, which I find completely brilliant, lets you overlay video from supported apps like Safari and Hulu over the Home screen and other apps including during Split View: browse online in Safari on the left, keep up with Tweetbot streaming on the right, and watch a TV show from HBO in any of the corners.

MacBook 12

Here’s that same setup on my Retina MacBook. The Mac also gained Split View this year with OS X El Capitan, although Tweetbot doesn’t yet support it. Still, the Mac offers window management that lets you recreate similar arrangements as the iPad. The two displays both show about the same amount of content and I could hide both the dock and menu bar to gain a little more real estate if I wanted, but out of the box the Mac has no Picture in Picture feature and I’m not aware of any third-party software to emulate it without researching. While I could try resizing a window to fit below Tweetbot on the right, the convenience of real PIP just isn’t there yet. One more important thing to note in this example: when I view HBO NOW on my Retina MacBook, the site offers a ‘playbackTechError’ and warns that Flash Player version 17 or high is required. No thanks.

iPad Pro MacBook 12

Battery life between the two devices is also a huge deal. Apple rather generously rates the Retina MacBook for up to 9 hours of wireless web usage, up to 10 hours of iTunes movie playback, and up to 30 days of standby time, but I never do any of those single tasks to achieve those numbers. Switching between at least Safari, Mail, Tweetbot, TweetDeck, Byword, iTunes, Reeder, Wunderlist, and Preview lasts for about 4.5 hours, then recharging in full during work takes another 2.5 hours. Not quite all day battery life, and that’s using the lowest-powered configuration.

It’s a totally different story on the iPad. Like every iPad since the original model introduced in 2010, Apple promises up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music, or up to 9 hours of surfing the web using cellular data on cellular models. I’ve owned the iPad 2, iPad mini, fourth-gen iPad, iPad Air, iPad Air 2, and now iPad Pro (these get sold or passed down to family, I’m not hoarding, I swear) and I’ve always found that Apple’s battery claims for iPad are accurate. When using any iPad on Wi-Fi, every 10% of battery remaining is roughly an hour of usage.

That’s not a totally fair comparison between the Retina MacBook and iPad Pro, though, because I’m not recreating my Mac workflow on the iPad yet. Another point to note: the iPad Pro takes roughly twice as long to recharge from empty to full at about 5 hours. iPad Pro uses a 12 watt power adapter with Lightning compared to the Retina MacBook’s 29 watt power adapter with USB-C. (This might have been dangerous and/or a bad idea, but using a USB-C adapter to try recharging the iPad Pro with the 29 watt adapter made no difference.

iPad Pro MacBook 12

Storage is also a big difference. iPad Pro tops out at 128GB and the Retina MacBook starts at 256GB. I haven’t thought much about why, but I can live with a 32GB iPad Pro (the entry-level $800 model) and wouldn’t seriously consider a Mac with twice that storage. RAM is the same story, 4GB versus 8GB, although the difference here is less obvious considering iOS limits how many apps iPad Pro can run in the foreground.

Then there’s benchmark scores. These speak more to what the devices could possibly ever do rather than describe what they’re able to do today. Running Geekbench on both the entry-level Retina MacBook OS X 10.11.2 beta and iPad Pro running iOS 9.2 beta, the iPad outscored the Mac on both single- and multi-core scores. On paper, the iPad Pro is better with its 3234 single-core score and 5483 multi-core score compared to the Retina MacBook’s 2381 single-core score and 4495 multi-core score, but in practice the two platforms are too different for that to be fair.

iPad Pro MacBook 12

The bottom line here for me is that I’m hiring the Retina MacBook and iPad Pro for totally different jobs. There may be some cross-over for which workflows I can have on both devices, especially if iOS 10 continues what iOS 9 started and focuses heavily on catching the iPad’s software up with its hardware capabilities, but for now their roles are distinctly defined for me and there’s no temptation to replace one with the other.

I would love to see the Mac learn how to do Picture in Picture just like the iPad does. But I’d really be impressed if the iPad had free floating windows and an improved iCloud Drive app for moving files around. iOS has made a lot of progress in the last two or three years in this area, but there’s still some work to be done before the iPad Pro (or any iPad) become viable laptop alternatives for me.

iPad Pro MacBook 12

Tempted to replace a MacBook with an iPad Pro today? Here’s an easy test: could an iPad Air 2 also replace a MacBook for you? If so, you’ll be fine and the larger display will make using side-by-side apps a better experience. If not, the iPad Pro isn’t different enough yet from an iPad Air 2 in terms of what software can do to tempt that challenge and that’s okay.

For me, the Retina MacBook is like a sleek motorcycle that gets me to and from work in style without sacrificing my ability to use the same roads as someone driving a MacBook Pro and iMac. iPad Pro for me isn’t in the same category; it’s more like a portable home theater with a big screen and killer sound system where I can lounge and be entertained. Everyone will use these devices differently, but that’s where I’m at with the Retina MacBook and iPad Pro in their current form.

FullSizeRender 3

I’ll wrap this up with a couple of observations about the iPad Pro with the Retina MacBook in mind. First, the Retina MacBook feels way more portable. It’s physically smaller, only slightly thicker than the iPad Pro, and includes a physical keyboard and trackpad. iPad Pro takes up noticeably more space, but there’s something just plain cool about a really big touch screen to me.

Next is the Apple logo on the back of the iPad Pro and Protective Case. It’s the same position and orientation as the iPad mini and iPad Pro, positioned correctly when holding the iPad in portrait orientation. There’s really not a lot of times when portrait feels like the right orientation for a 12.9-inch tablet in my opinion. Add that the promoted Smart Keyboard puts the Apple logo totally sideways when used and it starts to feel a lot like when Apple notebooks had upside-down logos when in use.

So for me the iPad Pro isn’t a laptop replacement even though I had no problem using a single-port MacBook for work, but I’m still really glad the iPad Pro exists. The massive Retina touch screen takes some getting used to if you’ve spent a lot of time with smaller iPads, but it’s an awesome portable home theater.

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  1. Urkel (@Urkel) - 7 years ago

    The title photo of a MacBook 12″ + iPad 13″ = $3000 of gear that does roughly the same thing.

    This is exactly why Tim Cook will try to convince people that Two OS’s are better than one.

    Crippled ultra cool laptop = $1600
    Overpowered Tablet with accessories = $1400


    Hybrid Apple Convergence Device = $1500

    Sure, Apple could re-imagine the laptop and evolve it to the next level. But why make an awesome $1500 super product when you can sell TWO compromised $1500 devices.

    • A convergence device could never replace both a laptop and a tablet.

      There would be compromises on both ends, and you end up with a product that does nothing exceptionally well.

      • taoprophet420 - 7 years ago

        The MacBook itself makes compromises. Low power chip and one io port. It’s way over priced for its performance and even with the pretty screen isn’t a better machine then a MacBook Air. Apple should put an ARM chip in the MacBook, make OS X run on ARM and then lower the price by $200-$250

      • triankar - 7 years ago

        Microsoft seems to be getting there. Sure, it’s not perfect, but Windows 10 is admittedly a lot closer than Win8 was. Although I own a rMBP, an iPad and an iPhone, I envy the newest Surface Pros more and more day by day.

        For Apple, we only can hope they make iOS more business-savvy and that’s the end of it.

    • justincirello - 7 years ago

      This among other reasons of course…

    • ctyrider (@ctyrider) - 7 years ago

      There is nothing “crippled” about MacBook 12″.. unless you’re one of those people who can’t live without 6x USB-A ports. MacBook 12″ is my daily workhorse laptop, which I use for both work and pleasure. It handles everything I throw at it, and I have no desire for an iPad (of any size).

      • Exactly, it is a new MacBook which basically takes over from the MacBook white/black series. Those also weren’t really suitable for more than just simple applications and also didn’t have many ports. If you wanted more you usually also needed more CPU/MEM/GPU and thus choose a Pro.

        This has not changed except for the format of the base model laptop.

        The CEO at work (i work for an international company with 85000 employees) uses a MacBook and is also utterly happy with it. He doesn’t need more power or ports, he just hops from meeting to meeting with his trusty and lightweight laptop.

      • triankar - 7 years ago

        I don’t need 6x USB-A ports but being able to use TWO of them while charging my laptop is something that can happen quite frequently (like, copying files between usb drives or keeping a drive connected while I upload files to my iOS device).

        Oh, and good luck sending that 20GB (to be conservative) 4K video file you edited on your iPad Pro to a client over wifi or anything similar. AirDrop??? Nice one :)

      • Asparukh Akanayev - 7 years ago

        You’re exaggerating the issue. Clearly not a lot of people need 6 USB ports, but two would be nice.

    • triankar - 7 years ago

      A little cynical but very very VERY true. You couldn’t say it better!

  2. rogifan - 7 years ago

    Great write up. I’m guessing the logo being positioned that way has something to do with the antennas and if it was positioned the other way the plastic strip would need to be on the long end of the device? Just a guess.

    It will be interesting to see what Apple does with iOS on iPad. On the one hand I think there are improvements needed. On the other hand whenever Apple makes changes these days it seems someone complains about increased complexity. So it will be interesting to see how Apple balances that.

    • taoprophet420 - 7 years ago

      I wish Apole would go to padOS and phoneOS, so Apple is forced to stop neglecting the software on iPads. Apple preaches about hardware and software being developed for each other, this isn’t true for iPads like it is on iPhones or most Mac’s.

      iPads needs an iOS specific update at least once a year. Keep releasing iOS in the fall with iPhone improvements and new api’s and spring or late winter update for iPads.

  3. The iPad Pro is the ULTIMATE PERSONAL consumption device.

    IMO, that’s enough reason to buy it.

    Email, Web browsing, Netflix, Youtube, Games, Music, Video editing, Photo’s, drawing. You can’t beat it.

    For people who have $$$ to spare this is the ultimate ‘treat yourself’ gift.

    I bought one for my wife and she ABSOLUTELY LOVES IT. If a product can be measure by smiles it generates the iPad Pro is boss. I might even buy one for myself (already own 6+ and iPad Air) if AAPL stock goes up a bit before the end of the year.

  4. Jimmy Hauser - 7 years ago

    It’s just an ipad with a huge screen. That’s exactly why I bought one. No keyboard or pencil needed.

    • Exactly. For many it will only be an iPad on steroids. Which is enough for many to buy.

      For $250 more than the 128GB Air2 you get:

      1. Much nicer and bigger screen
      2. Much better speakers
      3. More input options
      4. Much faster CPU/GPU and double the RAM

      That is a TON of value for $250. Who would not pay an additional $250 to get a computer with a better screen, speakers, CPU, GPU, RAM? Or who would not pay an additional $250 for a TV that has 80% more viewing area, much better sound, and faster processing?

      The tech reviewers are over thinking this one.

      • taoprophet420 - 7 years ago

        Always can opt for the LTE model and pay $54 a month an installment plant or pay $979 with a 2 year contract.

        I’m torn on my AT&T next plan. Do I pay off the $292 left and upgrade to the iPad Pro from my Air 2 or wait for iPad Air 3 in the spring or wait until next fall and get the 2nd gen iPad Pro.

      • ag80911 - 7 years ago

        Thank you…sold my iPAD Air2 and got this baby. This iPAD will be supported for 5-8 years easily. Apple will need to retired the A5->A9x before this machine is decommissioned.

  5. Nice read! The statement “civilization is a process of diversification” comes to mind. But that can go many ways.
    For picture in picture on OS X you can try “Helium”… It´s not the real deal, but fair enough (drag and drop links on it).

  6. xprmntr - 7 years ago

    Hey Zac, here’s how to get PIP on your Mac, for free


  7. alfredprunesquallor - 7 years ago

    You lost credibility after the first paragraph. You know, when you said the Retina MacBook is only good for blogging, email and chat apps? I swear you guys have no idea how to use computers.

    Remember that scene from “The Martian” where the nerdy astrodynamicist plug his laptop into a NASA supercomputer to solve a problem. In the year 2035?

    My Retina MacBook can run that kind of NASA software just fine. Now. On a Windows 10 partition.

  8. John Kalathas - 7 years ago

    iPad ? No, not before it shows up with USB (not likely). The 12″ is the most flexible choice, laptop and desktop with a 22-24″ monitor (it will replace my 11″ Air shortly).

  9. cubsnlinux - 7 years ago

    Great post. If you are seriously looking to buy a iPad Pro and don’t need a touch UI for work then you should rather look at a MacBook which provides a lot more cleaner experience than the Pro. If you are looking for value then you should be looking at MacBook Air and the retina MacBook Pros.

  10. I regularly use my MacBook Pro to write code in C/C++ / MPI / OpenMP, Python and R. Until the day comes where these compilers will work on an iPad, the iPad Pro will NEVER be able to replace my MacBook Pro. I can’t do a full sync of an iPhone to an iPad with iTunes running on it. The day of a 100% MacBook Pro replacement is still years away.

  11. jimgramze - 7 years ago

    These iPad Pro reviews from all publishers seem to always present as a decision, an either/or. Can I use it instead of that?

    I either want an iPad Pro as an iPad Pro or I don’t want it. If it is best at what it does, providing one or more use cases that are better on it than anything else then I’ll want it. I don’t care about anything else, about certain niggly features are better on that other thing. The iPad Pro is probably best for PDF music on a music stand or on a piano. There. Now I want it because it can display a full-sized sheet of music in a better and more convenient form factor than anything else. For me, that is a compelling use case that nothing else will provide nearly as well. So I want one. It is best at something I actually need.

  12. Eric Tatsumi - 7 years ago

    For many casual users an iPad Pro would be enough.
    To me, the iPad Pro is one of the best additions to me MacBook Retina 15″. It even fits in my super sexy man-hand-bag.
    For the main work I am going with my rMBP. For the creative process, project planning and everything around the actual work, I am using the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil.
    Also after work at evening I am basically only playing around with my iPad Pro instead of my MacBook. It is just much more comfortable. And the iPad Pro together with the Duet app is a perfect portable second-screen. I am super happy to have switched from iPad Air to iPad Pro. But I would never replace my MacBook with the iPad Pro.
    Don’t forget, that for the majority of casual users, the iPad Pro alone is more than enough. I know quite some people who don’t even have a computer at all and who would rather buy an iPad instead of a laptop. Reasons are just simplicity and comfort, that only an iPad can provide at this level.

    • freediverx - 7 years ago

      “I know quite some people who don’t even have a computer at all and who would rather buy an iPad instead of a laptop. Reasons are just simplicity and comfort, that only an iPad can provide at this level.”

      I am the happy owner of an iPad Air, but for my needs at least I don’t see an iPad replacing my Macbook Pro in the foreseeable future.

      The iPad’s “simplicity” is great, provided you are doing simple things. When you try to do more complex things on iOS, it quickly becomes many times more complex than doing so on iOS. This is certainly the case with workflows that require juggling various apps and sharing bits of data between them. it’s also the case when you need to organize and access lots of files, given iOS’s anemic file management capabilities.

      I find “comfort” to be an interesting adjective that applies only in certain cases to the iPad. For instance, the iPad is a great “on the go” note taking device that is smaller and lighter than a Macbook and can be used in portrait mode while handheld. It’s size, weight, and battery life also make it ideal for watching content while on a flight. But for watching video while in bed, for example, the iPad lacks the Macbook’s stability and adjustable screen angle, making it a decidedly less comfortable device for that purpose.

      It’s great that we have all these choices today, but I worry that an increasingly consumer-focused Apple may prematurely abandon the Macbook Pro market and everyone who relies on it.

  13. PhilBoogie - 7 years ago

    quote: “I’ve owned the iPad 2, iPad mini, fourth-gen iPad, iPad Air, iPad Air 2, and now iPad Pro”

    – What? You didn’t get the first gen iPad? This is ludicrous! What’s the next revelation; you never bought the original iPhone¿

    All kidding aside, you make a good comparison. And for some, the iPP may very well be the ‘desktop replacement’ people talk about. Personally I agree with Apple; don’t merge the two devices / OS’s as they indeed have their own purpose. I wouldn’t do without OSX, and my next iPad will be a MacBook.

    Oh yeh, not really PiP, but you can have a video float on top of other windows in OSX, may it be playing from QT or iTunes.

  14. triankar - 7 years ago

    I do agree with the author. I passed through exactly the same arguments when the MacBook 12 came out, and then when the iPad Pro was announced. If I could hand-draw diagrams on the MacBook (which I do very often), I’d get one immediately. So I carry my iPad mini (*) to meetings more often than my rMBP, and I store all my business files in my Google Drive (which works BEAUTIFULLY in iOS).

    In my (technical) opinion, iOS also needs to allow a different file access model. It’s unacceptable that when I want to view (let alone edit) a Pages document from my Google Drive, it first has to be copied across and THEN viewed/edited. Then I need to export back to GD any changes I’ve made and delete the copy back in Pages. Cumbersome, to say the least. I don’t use iCloud Drive (unless I have to) because the file management in there is a JOKE. It’s severely lacking, it’s frustrating, it’s far below any decent standards.

    If they fix that, they make a very big step in making iOS business-ready. Right now the “Pro” labelling in the iPad is only a(nother) joke.

    Technically, that could be accommodated if a “file-space provider” registry was created in iOS. Google Drive, iCloud Drive, Dropbox and such apps register themselves as file-providers in there and everything is managed through a fully-fledged Finder-equivalent app in iOS. Business-savvy apps can then (request) access (to) files through the “Finder”, if they want to. Or they stay with the old model of their own little islands.

    (* why iPad mini? It’s about the size of an A5 pad and I can hold it comfortably with one hand (size+weight). I used to own an iPad Air and it was just too cumbersome for that. If I were Tim, I’d produce an 8.5-8.7 inch iPad (still one-hand holdable and almost the size of many books) with Pencil support, ditch the iPad Air and keep only this and the iPad Pro)

  15. Jonathan Brusco - 7 years ago

    The single most limiting factor on this is ios. They need to allow us to run OS X on the iPad pro. That, with the keyboard and pencil makes it a killer machine.

  16. BeKrell - 7 years ago

    My MacBook lasts 10 hours. I’ll take it off the charger 7:30 am, go to the office and work all day apart from 1 hour or so for lunch and maybe half hour coffee break. At 5pm I still have usually between 30-40% battery left.
    I use Outlook, Word, Excel, Todoist, Evernote, Dropbox, Slack, Skype, Calendar, Safari and Filemaker Pro. All running at the same time. When I bought it I was much concerned about battery life. And I read that some Users stated as well it only last around 5 hours.
    So I am extremely pleased with it to a point that I would instantly buy it again. I carry it every where I go, it’s so light you barely feel it in your back.
    And compared to an iPad Pro, I can work on my MacBook like a Pro :)

  17. Antonio Faoro - 7 years ago

    What about a tablet running a VM operating system, with iOS and MacOS running on top of it? That will allow for the best of the two worlds and a modern way to interact (tablet hardware). In Parallels, it is possible to use a special interface mode that runs Windows application under MacOS integrating them with the Mac UI. The challenge here is to have a VM that would run natively on the iPad hardware.

  18. Adam (@Turbojacket) - 7 years ago

    I really, really wish it would pair to a mouse. Other than that I absolutely love it. Hopefully we will see that in iOS 10.

  19. Karma Tshering - 6 years ago

    I got the new macbook pro 2017 13 512 with i7 and 12.9 ipad pro. i used heavily the mac book pro for work and during my vacation to European countries, i take the ipad pro for capturing picture and checking emails. pretty versatile computer.. waiting for the ipad 2 and iphone 8 now. Surface pro 4 or 5 may be better but they over heat too much.. Apple products are great


Avatar for Zac Hall Zac Hall

Zac covers Apple news for 9to5Mac and hosts the 9to5Mac Happy Hour and 9to5Mac Watch Time podcasts.