Apple’s iPad Pro is making its own laptops obsolete

Daniel Howley
·Technology Editor
·6-min read

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

This article was first featured in Yahoo Finance Tech, a weekly newsletter highlighting our original content on the industry. Get it sent directly to your inbox every Wednesday by 4 p.m. ET. Subscribe

Apple's iPad Pros are every bit as powerful as the MacBook Air. That could be a problem.

Apple (AAPL) has positioned the iPad Pro as a computer replacement since its 2015 launch when CEO Tim Cook said the iPads would make notebooks or desktops unnecessary for “many, many people.”

And the latest models, which debuted on Tuesday, have seemingly done just that — but the problem for Apple is they’re replacing its own MacBook Air. In an ideal world, Apple would want consumers to buy an iPad in addition to its laptop, not instead of the MacBook.

The catalyst for iPad’s new position as a MacBook Air competitor? Apple’s new M1 chip. Until last year, Apple used pumped up versions of the chips from its iPhones in its iPad Pros. That changed with Tuesday’s announcements, when Apple said its latest Pros will feature the exact same M1 chip found in the MacBook Air. That, coupled with the fact that Apple is working to ensure that iOS and iPadOS apps can run on MacOS, means the gap between the iPad Pro and MacBook Air is quickly closing.

To be sure, a few differences distinguish the two products for now, like the fact that the iPad Pro can’t run all MacOS apps. “The positioning of the iPad and the Mac is a little different right now,” Gartner research director Mikako Kitagawa told Yahoo Finance. “But in the future, I don't know how it's going to go, especially using the same CPUs [central processing units].”

The iPad Pro with the M1 chip is every bit as powerful as the MacBook Air. (Image: Apple)
The iPad Pro with the M1 chip is every bit as powerful as the MacBook Air. (Image: Apple)

Your next laptop could be an iPad

Apple’s new iPads could become game changers for one tiny reason — they’re packed with M1 chips, the tech giant’s replacement for the Intel (INTC) and AMD (AMD) processors it has used in Mac products for years. Apple produced its own ARM-based M1 processors, it says, because Intel’s chips just couldn’t handle the kind of performance and design changes its devices required.

The first M1 device I tried, the MacBook Pro, blew me away in terms of power and battery life, a rarity for a first-generation device. But unlike Apple’s gorgeous new iMacs, which were built around the M1, the MacBook Pro didn’t change much on the outside. It was almost as if Apple was using it as a testbed for the new processor.

“For the industry at whole, [Apple is] saying ‘Hey, we are moving aggressively forward on custom silicon. This is our way to differentiate’,” Bob O’Donnell, president and chief analyst at TECHnalysis Research, told Yahoo Finance. “And that’s a serious gauntlet that they threw down and I think is going to make it very challenging for other vendors to compete with them.”

With a Magic Keyboard attached, the iPad Pro is just as much as a laptop as it is a tablet. (Image: Apple)
With a Magic Keyboard attached, the iPad Pro is just as much as a laptop as it is a tablet. (Image: Apple)

Sure, the iPad Pro didn’t get any outside design changes, either, but it’s not as though Apple could make the product any thinner than it already is.

With the M1, the iPad Pro gets the same 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, and 16-core neural engine as the MacBook Air. Like the Air, the iPad Pro gets up to 2TB of storage. It also gets a USB-C Thunderbolt port that allows you to connect the tablet to a secondary monitor with resolutions up to 6K and transfer data at far faster rates than standard USB-C connections. There’s also WiFi 6 for improved connectivity, and, unlike the MacBook Air, the iPad Pro gets optional built-in 5G.

Oh, and did I mention the iPad Pros also get wide-angle and ultra-wide angle cameras? These tablets are clearly meant to push beyond even the capabilities of the MacBook Air.

“Over the past two years iPad Pro has slowly taken share from MacBook Air,” Loup Ventures’ Gene Munster told Yahoo Finance. “We expect that trend to continue with the latest iPad Pro changes. In the end it’s slightly more expensive than the Air and more versatile.”

The MacBook Air with Apple's M1 chip is a fantastic laptop, but the iPad Pro offers more versatility. (Image: Apple)
The MacBook Air with Apple's M1 chip is a fantastic laptop, but the iPad Pro offers more versatility. (Image: Apple)

Yes, there are still some key differences between the iPad Pro and MacBook Air. Both the 11-inch model and 12.9-inch model of the Pro require separate keyboards and mice to function as true laptops. And with the 11-inch iPad Pro starting at $799 and a Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse priced at $159 and $79, respectively, the total price to make the 11-inch model into a full laptop is $1,037.

The 12.9-inch model, meanwhile, starts at $1,099, while its Magic Keyboard with built-in trackpad costs $349, pushing its price to $1,448. That’s a good deal more than the $999 a base MacBook Air will cost you.

But the Pros boast features the MacBook Air doesn’t have including touch screens that you can write and draw on, and new FaceTime cameras that follow you as you move during video calls.

Then there’s the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s new Liquid Retina XDR display. Packing 10,000 mini LEDs, far more than the prior generation iPad Pro’s 72 full-sized LEDs, and 2,500 dimming zones, the 12.9-inch Pro’s screen is the kind of display you’d find on a high-end TV. Those features alone are worth the price difference between the iPad Pro and MacBook Air.

What’s more, the iPad Pro can be used as more than a laptop. Without a keyboard or mouse, it’s still an incredibly capable tablet that you can use lying in bed or sitting on the couch.

There’s one roadblock in the way

One big factor keeps the iPad Pro and MacBook Air from being direct competitors: Apple’s macOS. The operating system that powers Apple’s Mac line of laptops and desktops doesn’t work on iOS or iPadOS, so while you can use iPadOS and iOS apps on Apple’s Mac, you can’t use MacOS apps on the iPad Pro.

That, however, could change since the new iPad Pros run on the same chips as current generation MacBook Airs, MacBook Pros, Mac minis, and, now, iMacs. In other words, it wouldn’t be a huge leap for Apple to run MacOS on an iPad Pro.

Even if Apple doesn’t put MacOS apps on iPad Pro, the majority of the programs people run, such as Slack, Microsoft Office, Google Drive apps, Spotify, and others are already available on iPadOS. The M1 chip will simply improve overall performance.

Of course, it behooves Apple to keep its product lines separate. The company makes more money selling both the Mac and iPad than either product segment alone. In Q1 2021, for instance, Apple sold $8.6 billion worth of Macs and $8.4 billion worth of iPads.

“They don't want to combine Mac and iPad together to just sell one device,” Kitagawa said. “Because by doing it, you're going to lose the opportunity to sell hardware.”

And that would hurt Apple’s bottom line.

By Daniel Howley, tech editor. Follow him at @DanielHowley