The iPad's gentle creep into laptop-land

Commentary: The closer iPads and Macs become, the more I wonder if they'll ever meet at all.

Scott Stein Editor 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.
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  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
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James Martin/CNET

Apple already has three portable 12- to 13-inch laptop computers in its lineup.

Now, the iPad Pro makes four.

I write these thoughts on an iPad Air 2 -- which, until the big-screen iPad Pro is released in November, is the current top-of-the-line tablet from Apple -- on a plane. I'm using it instead of a laptop. I'm typing on the screen.

Why am I not using the 11-inch MacBook Air I have in the overhead bin, 10 feet from me? Because the iPad slides in my seat pocket. It's my book; my movies; my games. And if I need it to be, my quick writing tool.

It's not perfect. It's not perfect for writing on, or for editing. But it's always felt more evolutionary. Apple's taken things forward another step with the iPad Pro, in ways that seem to have grown with the processing power. Now it's as powerful as a laptop. And, it's gotten bigger -- a 12.9-inch screen -- because it can. I'd been looking forward to a more laptop-like iPad for years.

2015's 12-inch MacBook. Sarah Tew/CNET

So why am I uncertain that the iPad Pro is the answer I've been looking for?

What do we do with the existing MacBooks? Apple has created a weird set of parallel universes here. MacBooks are for work -- the "trucks" of the computing world, as Steve Jobs said years ago. In that metaphor, the then-new iPads were the cars -- smaller, sexier and more consumer-friendly. But now iPads are turning into trucks. Trucks which are sitting next to the other trucks.

Which truck do you buy? That's the problem. With the specs I'd want (128GB, Wi-Fi-only) and the accessories I'd like (yes on the Smart Keyboard, no the Apple Pencil for now), the iPad Pro will cost $1,118 (UK and Australian pricing has not yet been announced, but directly converted it would be about £725 and AU$1,578.).

The new 256GB 12-inch MacBook is $1,299, £1,049, AU$1,799. The MacBook Air I'd buy would be the 13-inch, 256GB model: $1,199, £899, AU$1,549. And the 256GB 13-inch Retina Pro I like? $1,499, £1,199 or AU$2,099.

This is no rhetorical exercise, either. I actually went through this process while buying a laptop a few months ago. It was a surprisingly hard process, even though we actually review these laptops; especially since each model has its tradeoffs. I picked the 512GB 13-inch Retina Pro. I paid up for the storage because I'm consolidating lots of photo libraries. I wanted the better screen. I needed a new home computer that could handle whatever I needed.

The new iPad Pro. James Martin/CNET

If I was buying a second computer, I'd choose differently -- maybe something light. Would it be a 12-inch MacBook, or an iPad Pro? I'm still not sure.

The iPad Pro is large enough, and light enough, to make itself your main portable/secondary computer. But that's exactly what the new MacBook wants to be, too. And is that even a problem? There's a whole wide zoo of Windows computers, after all, and they start at prices as low as $199.

But in the case of iPad vs. MacBook, these devices don't share exactly the same apps. Or the same app store. They're increasingly similar, with Apple's pre-installed apps and iCloud forming a connective bond. But they still live on different planes. iPads and Macs can connect and work together better than ever before, but continue to be different enough to demand different use cases.

I don't want to have to choose which side to live on. I'd prefer one clear path. I've wanted iOS and OS X to merge for years, but I've started to think it may never happen.

For now, the iPad Pro seems like a bigger step into iPad as serious computer than anything we've ever seen. But I want to do everything I need on it. I want my Web tools to work; I want to be able to cover events seamlessly while using the software I need and never feel a problem pop up.

Are we there? Not yet, not entirely. But maybe when the iPad Pro arrives in November, we will be, just a bit closer.

And iOS can and will continue to evolve. It will blossom into the future PC, in all its power. And the MacBook, as that happens, will follow alongside. Getting less important over the years. Shrinking, like the iPod, until one day it's no longer there -- 10 years from now, maybe. When the last stragglers are few, and less significant.

Microsoft has already forced its evolution by putting Windows 10 on everything, while Apple's Macs and iOS devices continue to lead parallel lives, nearly touching but not quite there.

I don't necessarily want an iPad or a MacBook, I want both. And Apple seems to be happy to take things one year at a time.