​The iPad of the future is Apple's biggest missing link

Commentary: Honestly, iPads are already pretty great. But they're not for everyone. They could be, though.

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.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
4 min read
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The 9.7-inch iPad Pro was my favorite Apple product of last year. It stayed in my bag and near me constantly. It's super-polished. It's the best example of a product that just checks off the extras you're looking for, and delivers. Is it a new-feeling thing? No. But it's very, very functional. It might even be, for all purposes as we know an iPad, "perfected."

But even so, the iPad isn't a laptop. I know: maybe you're saying "st-o-o-o-o-p!" Or, "it's already good for what it does." Or, "who cares about the iPad?" That dichotomy is reflected in the tablet's current sales numbers, too. The iPad is still the top-selling tablet brand by far, but it was a major sore point in Apple's latest earnings reports. iPhones, Macs and Apple Watch sales were all on the upswing, while the iPad saw its twelfth consecutive quarterly year over year drop in unit sales. (The last new iPads arrived March 2016, but that's part of the problem.)

The problem, I think, is that the iPad isn't yet a product for everyone. But it really could be.


Macs: Some touch, but not all touch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Mac has some issues

The MacBook Air was a perfect laptop. And if Apple had just added a Retina screen to that model, it would still be perfect -- that was the model most people were begging for. Instead, Apple bifurcated its line, with the 12-inch MacBook on one end and the new MacBook Pro at the other. Instead of one go-to choice for nearly everyone, you have compromise options -- ultraportable but underpowered versus a pricey, bells-and-whistles, top-end model -- for niche users.

I don't use a Mac because I want to. I do it because I need to. I've said this many times before, and I'll say it again. The iPad Pro can fill in amazingly as a laptop replacement for a lot of my needs. Snap on the keyboard, and I'm writing full stories. I can quickly get into Google Drive and work on a draft while I'm checking email. I can watch a movie on a long trip. It's a security blanket.

But it's not something I can leave a MacBook for, completely. I've given reasons explaining what I'd like to see next and what I think is missing. I'm mentioning this again because the Mac lacks touch, and I could use touch -- a real, full touchscreen, not just the TouchBar tease of the new MacBook Pros, and a trackpad: combining the two equals flexibility. The Mac also lacks my great collection of iPad apps. I can't stream videos on it as easily, or play the same games. The Mac is harder to navigate, honestly. But I need it for my files, my photos, and for editing.


There are some great keyboards for the iPad Pro. But they still lack trackpads (yes, that matters).

Sarah Tew/CNET

The iPad won't win big until it becomes the Mac-eater... or something new

The iPad's sales dropped last quarter, selling 13.1 million versus 16.1 million compared to the same time the year before. Meanwhile, in that same three-month timespan, Apple sold 5.4 million Macs. So, the iPad is already far outnumbering Macs. But it still feels like future growth needs to come from those potential Mac customers. But Apple CEO Tim Cook has been against the idea of mixing iPads and Macs since at least 2012.

But the iPad, as good as it is, just isn't advancing in bold new directions -- or going anywhere new very quickly. Last year's iPad product lineup was sparse. The 12.9-inch Pro came out November of 2015. After the March 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro, there hasn't been another. The years-old iPad Air 2 is still, probably, the best iPad pick for most people -- you now get more storage for less money than ever. The Pro's support of Pencil is great, and the Smart Connector is full of potential (but still only works with keyboards and charging docks, at least for now).

Polishing a great product till it sparkles is always a great formula to make a product, and it's what makes the 9.7-inch iPad Pro feel like a superb tool to me, even a year later. But the iPad still needs more. Real keyboard accessory options, like optional mice or trackpads. Expanded ways to organize app windows beyond split-screen. And maybe most importantly, some sort of Chrome-like ability to work in web interfaces the same way you can on a Mac or Windows PC.

Or on a Chromebook. Google 's addition of Android apps to the latest Chromebooks mixes the best of two worlds: stand-alone apps, and work-friendly browser. If the iPad just added that (and ways to interface with that browser that felt more Mac-like... like, oh, an optional keyboard with trackpad), I'd be just about where I'd need to be. The iPad already shares more crossover elements from Macs, including cloud-synced document and desktop files. Just go a bit further.

Depending upon which rumors you believe, we could see new iPads hit as early as March, or as late as October. Whenever it is, I hope it's a new direction for the product line: one that lets me leave my MacBook behind.

That's the iPad that I want to buy.

iPad Pro review

12-inch MacBook review

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