An iPad Pro is not a Mac

Last year, Christopher Mims wrote about how Apple should kill off the Mac. Just this week, Apple alumnus Michael Gartenberg wrote that the iPad Pro is the new Mac.

It’s human nature to try and match things up… to simplify, organize, and categorize data points. To say a thing is like another thing, or a thing can replace another thing. But I think doing so today only confuses normal users.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how you shouldn’t cross-shop the iPad Pro and Surface Pro (or Surface, for that matter) because people kept pondering the two as alternatives of each other.

Someday, we will arrive at the point that an iOS device will be able to meet the requirements of many, perhaps even most, macOS (nee OS X) users. This day is not that day, and this year is not that year.

I travel a fair amount. Almost every other month, I have to fly for work. While my old 15″ Retina MacBook Pro had served me well for some time, I was growing frustrated with three issues (in order):

  1. Battery life
  2. Heat
  3. Screen size.

My Mac’s battery was to the point where no matter what I did, unless I dialed every possible thing back that I could, it was less than 3 hours of battery life. I write a lot… and I like to write remote. Having to find AC power all the time gets really frustrating, and AC also isn’t always available.

I use my laptop as a… laptop. The i5 in my old MBP got hot. Not as bad as the i7 in my old ThinkPad, but toasty – limiting when and where I could <ahem/> comfortably use it.

Finally, with the great unbundling, coach class seating is now hostile to machines over 13″. I found that on Alaska’s planes, if the seat in front reclined on me, I wasn’t going to be working.

So I needed something smaller. Lighter. More efficient.

I’m not a developer. So I don’t need Xcode. I don’t work with Mac versions of most legacy multimedia software from Apple, Adobe, or others. I don’t even play games on my computers. But I work in Microsoft Office every single day. And there are things that I need there. There is the mobile version of the Office applications, and I have an E3 subscription that entitles me to using them.

So as I winnowed down my device options, I was seriously looking at the large iPad Pro. While I’m all thumbs when it comes to drawing (or hand-writing), the Smart Keyboard and iPad Pro make an acceptable (although compromising) combination.

In particular, as I pondered life with the iPad Pro, several caveats came up with the hardware, before I’d even considered the software capabilities.

  1. Not “lappable”
  2. Keyboard of great compromise
  3. Fixed position screen
  4. No secondary pointing device.

Lappability. I hate the term. But it is a thing. “Lappability”. The iPad Pro, like the Surface line (outside of the Surface Book, which is arguably somewhat lappable) is not lappable. It isn’t. If you have to care about where the device sits on your lap before it falls (or how long you can leave it on your lap before the kickstand feels like it is cutting into your flesh), it is not “lappable”.

Compromising keyboard. As I said earlier, I write a lot. I’ve really fallen in love with the keyboard on my old MBP. It is really pleasant to use. The iPad Pro’s keyboard, like Microsoft’s original Touch Covers for the Surface devices, is squishy and has strange key travel. For a writer, I just find the contraption too compromising to work well. I would imagine most developers would as well. Frankly, I’d love to see Apple try a Surface Book like approach for keyboard (sans the wacky GPU in the base).

Fixed screen. In terms of the screen, sure – the position is probably positioned pretty well. But the inflexibility drives me nuts. Sometimes you’re in a plane or conference center, and the sun is hitting the screen just right so you can’t work. Or your neck hurts, so you want to subtly reposition it. Good luck fixing that.

Touch only. Finally, the lack of a pointing device, and the requirement to smear your screen to navigate the device, while standard operating procedure with iOS, and acceptable with certain device use cases, makes me stabby on my daily use work device. I’m staring at Word, PowerPoint, the Web, and a handful of other things throughout the day. I don’t want to be cleaning my screen all day.

So if I’d been willing to compromise on those 4 (I wasn’t), the iPad Pro might’ve been capable of becoming my primary device. But then we hit the software caveats.

  1. Word on iOS is far from full-featured
  2. Working with files in iOS is still a bear
  3. Collaboration through SMB shares is unworkable
  4. Tools I use regularly for workflow are absent.

Word limits. Word on the iPad is very limited compared to Word on the desktop (even just comparing Word on the Mac, let alone Windows. I don’t even use VBA, so don’t care that that is missing. As I mentioned, I have Office 365 for work, so don’t need additional licensing. But the editing tools on iOS are very… constrained. Tables and outlining, for example, are things I use all the time in Word on the Mac and Windows. No go on iOS. I also find the document reviewing tools on iOS excruciatingly frustrating to use vs. desktop equivalents.

File handling. Much has been made of the lack of a Finder equivalent in iOS. iOS doesn’t need  a finder per se. But it does need the ability to share certain “universal” files in one location and have any other app be able to open them. Trying to open a PPTX file with rich content in PowerPoint on iOS is ugly. Basically have to copy the file. Need to make edits and save the file back for a colleague to read? Good luck. You’re gonna hurt yourself by the time you finish.

Legacy collaboration. Collaboration through old Windows shares is not workable on iOS. If your org has moved completely to Dropbox or OneDrive (which would be impressive), then you can make this work. Otherwise, you’re using kludgy apps that try to make SMB fit within the parameters of iOS, and create similar problems to the ones I just outlined. (Even Microsoft’s own Work Folders technology seems basically dead on the vine in favor of OneDrive for Business. iOS was designed to be standalone and not need file shares. Which is all well and good if you’re a sole proprietor, Web-only or your whole org is all-in on SaaS-based collaboration software. But most orgs aren’t.

Specialty software. I have several tools that I use regularly – notably BetterTouchTool, and Paw, for work. These don’t have equivalents. I could perhaps get used to not having them, or perhaps find alternatives, but I’d rather not.

Contrary to what you might think, I wouldn’t describe myself as a power user. I run terminal on OS X about as often as I ran regedit on Windows (and for the same duct tapey reasons). But in the end, I found that the iPad Pro and iOS would not, in terms of either hardware or software, meet my needs, without me needing a Mac in addition for certain things.

In the end, I wound up getting the new MacBook, consciously choosing the low end model with the Intel m3 processor. It feels like I see beachballs a little more than with my old MBP, but it isn’t that frequent. More importantly, I have a screen that works great on flights, it runs cool almost all the time (plus it has no fan!), and I can go an insane amount of time without needing my charger.

Apple will surely come out with more iPad Pro hardware/peripherals over time, which will enable new scenarios and flexibility. And iOS and macOS will continue to harmonize, while iOS moves upmarket, to enable more and more software scenarios that were previously exclusive to the Mac. It’s a delicate dance. Building a walled garden around macOS, while expanding the walled garden of iOS.

But the reality is also that there are certain scenarios people should not ever expect iOS to support, like SMB file shares in-box, or replacing built-in apps with third-party equivalents. I just believe that’s not the kind of things that you should expect Apple to do.

In several years, perhaps as few as 2, maybe as many as 5, iOS devices will likely be able to meet the needs of most people who use Macs or Windows PCs today. Some users will compromise their behavior or requirements early and go to iOS. Some will find that iOS just meets their needs, and switch. Some will continue to use Windows and macOS for the foreseeable future. Some scenarios, like developing fully-featured OS X and macOS apps (or developing for Windows clients or Linux server on Macs), will continue to require a Mac, even as Swift development tools likely gain capabilities on iOS.

In the meantime, I think that saying the Mac should go away, or that the iPad is workable for most normals who are knowledge workers, is a real stretch. Probably in time. It’s the direction. But we’re not there yet… not for some time.

Comments are closed.