How Apple's M1 MacBook changed my mind about the next iPad
The future of the Mac-iPad merger is here. It's just not evenly distributed.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
It's been nearly five years since I wrote an impassioned story about how Macs and iPads need to merge. I've been thinking thoughts like that since... well, since the iPad emerged in 2010. It's 2021 now, and iPads and Macs are still two totally distinct Apple product lines. But the merge is well underway. It's just a series of very slow steps.
I've always thought of the iPad as the more likely path to the computer I'd prefer in an ideal future universe. But I've been using Apple's most recent M1 MacBook Air and it's changed my mind. The laptop, while unexciting in design, is utterly smooth and instant in function. It feels very near perfect. And even the entry-level model with 8GB of RAM I've tried seems like more than enough to handle just about anything I'd need.
The M1 Macs, using Apple's own chips, point to a future where the line between Macs and iPads gets very fuzzy indeed. It's likely that Apple will announce new versions of its iPad Pro sometime this spring, a year after the relatively minor changes in the 2020 version. What would I expect? What would I want? In a post-MacBook-M1 world, I've started thinking about the iPad very differently.
As we head towards a new iPad, here's how the MacBook M1 has already shifted my perspective. To distort that famous quote attributed to William Gibson -- the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed -- I see the same regarding Apple's future computers.
What is an iPad now that the Mac is also instant?
I use the MacBook more now, first of all. It's quick to start, doesn't slog down or blast any fans and its battery life wins over anything. The iPads had this advantage over Macs before, but now I start thinking... what else could an iPad do for me?
The MacBook is easier for Zoom meetings. I can prop it up without a case and the camera's in the right orientation. Also, I can run anything from Zoom theater performances to writing classes more easily. The iPad needs to acknowledge our new Zoom life and address both camera placement and the ease that browsers and programs can run side by side and not feel as walled off. On iPads, experiences still end up feeling too single-tasked for my needs. On a MacBook, I can connect a monitor and double my screens.
The iPad wins on portability -- narrowly. With a keyboard case, the iPad Pro isn't nearly as light or thin as you'd think. The 12.9-inch iPad ends up feeling the same as a MacBook Air, but even more dense.
The iPad's natural strengths on display and touchscreen... how much further could they go?
The iPad does have a better display, a better camera and better-sounding speakers. It has Face ID, which I like more on a home tablet than on a phone. I prefer watching movies on it, even with its more squared-off aspect ratio. I also prefer games on an iPad. Touch and Pencil support on iPads is excellent. There are plenty of apps, documents I need to e-sign and photo editing projects I'd prefer to do on an iPad. MacBooks, without touchscreen or Pencil input, sometimes make me feel distanced from the experiences on my screen. Using a mouse or touchpad isn't always enough.
New iPad models are expected to use Mini LED technology for a possibly improved display. The iPad Pro display already looks great, but the OLED displays on iPhones still look better (if smaller).
iPadOS needs to morph into something similar to MacOS
Last year, the iPad added touchpad and mouse support which ended up making a big difference in how I use the iPad with a keyboard case. With a Magic Keyboard attached (or a Logitech case), everything finally starts feeling more laptop-like -- if I want it to.
iPadOS may never resemble the Mac, but it should keep evolving to meet Macs halfway. I want (and expect) better ways to flex out apps for multitasking and eventually true monitor support for second screens. iPads mostly mirror right now, unless a particular app takes advantage of it.
iPads present apps more instantly and easily than Macs, meaning my kids can use them quickly. But iPads still don't have multiple modes or accounts so that kids can launch their own space -- or so I can customize my own workspace when I pop on to the same iPad.
But most of all, I want better ways to access saved files. The Files app is a start, but I still feel super limited in how easily I can download and organize documents and videos and photos, bundling them and sharing them with others as needed.
If the next iPad Pro gets an M1 chip, why can't these things happen?
It seems likely that the next iPad Pro will have a processor that's the same as the recent MacBooks, or it'll get a new A-series chip that's so spiritually close it'll feel effectively the same. The iPad's processor has been extremely powerful for years. Now that the new Macs have shown off what M1 chips are really capable of, why not have the iPad do more -- and handle more multitasking, too?
There's no reason why an iPad couldn't be my everyday computer. Apple just needs to take the rest of the training wheels off.