iPad Pro In-Depth Review: Is It the Laptop Replacement Apple Promised?

The iPad is a difficult product to review, because in order to assess its effectiveness you have to first understand what the product is supposed to accomplish. Defining the purpose of Apple’s new iPad Pro is surprisingly complicated. I’ve been using mine for longer than a month now, and while it’s undeniably an amazing device, whether it lives up to all the hype depends on whose standards you’re looking at. Based on the late Steve Jobs’ original intent of what an iPad should be, the iPad Pro is an incredible device that is the fruition of the last eight years of development. But based on Apple CEO Tim Cook’s description at last October’s keynote of what the iPad Pro should be, the tablet is a flawed device that doesn’t live up to expectations. Allow me to explain.

Related: Everything You Need to Know Before You Buy the New iPad Pro

When Steve Jobs introduced the original iPad back in 2010, he started out by saying, “Everybody uses a laptop and/or a smartphone, and the question has arisen lately, ‘Is there room for a third category of device in the middle?’ Something that is between a laptop and a smartphone . . . The bar is pretty high. In order to really create a new category of devices, those devices are going to have to be far better at doing some key tasks.” Jobs went on to define what kind of tasks he thought the iPad was better at: browsing the web, emailing, sharing photos, watching videos, enjoying your music collection, playing games, and reading e-books.” The rest of Jobs’ keynote was spent with him lounging in a chair, demonstrating each of these tasks while saying Jobsian things, such as, “It is the best [web] browsing experience you have ever had.”

Jobs chose to present his keynote while sitting in a recliner in order to convey that what makes the iPad magical is the intimacy of the device. Throughout the keynote he kept coming back to the phrase, “Right in the palm of your hand.” The portability of an iPad makes it comfortable to use in a home setting or on the go in a way that feels clunky and awkward with a computer. Conversely, the iPad’s large screen makes doing things like browsing the web or checking email feel natural in a way that it doesn't on an iPhone.

The other important detail from the 2010 announcement was that the price of the original iPad started at $499. The 2018 iPad Pro costs $300 more than the original. As the price of the iPad has increased, Apple’s marketing has subtly shifted. Throughout the 2018 iPad Pro keynote, Apple went to great lengths to frame the iPad as a computer replacement.

You’ll find the same messaging on Apple’s website, with claims such as: “With the new iPad Pro, you get what you need from a computer, along with many incredible things you’d never expect from one.” The shift in marketing makes sense from Apple’s perspective. At $499, it’s a whole lot easier to justify buying an iPad using Jobs’ logic of, “You already own a smartphone and a computer, but the iPad does some tasks better than both.” At $799, the iPad is priced comparably to a lot of Window PCs. The problem with this is that it’s still easier to accomplish a lot of tasks on a computer than on an iPad.

Listening to the 2010 announcement eight years later, I was surprised by how closely Jobs’ description of the iPad’s best uses matched how I used my new iPad Pro. It’s the perfect device for browsing the web, checking email, and watching videos. But it’s not great at doing the more advanced tasks which I rely on my computer for. To claim that the iPad should replace a computer is not only inaccurate but runs contrary to the reason Jobs created the device in the first place.

The discrepancy between Jobs’ vision for the iPad and Cook’s is not limited to marketing tactics but can be found in the product design as well.

Jobs chose to use iOS for the iPad because it perfectly matched his vision for what the device should be. Apple’s mobile operating system takes full advantage of the iPad’s touchscreen display and is quicker and easier to navigate for the types of tasks Jobs has in mind. However, if you were designing a tablet to be a computer replacement, then Apple’s desktop operating system (macOS) makes a lot more sense.

Desktop software better handles the type of complex tasks that most people use computers for. Microsoft understood this and created a Surface tablet that runs a full Windows desktop operating system complete with a mouse and folders. While running a full computer operating system comes with its own set of disadvantages, it makes the Surface much more viable as a legitimate laptop replacement.

Over the years, Apple has added a lot of features to the iPad, but all of their efforts cannot overcome the limitations of iOS as an operating system. Apple now offers a companion keyboard and an Apple Pencil. While both of these accessories are excellent, the lack of a trackpad or mouse makes it difficult to work as efficiently as you would on a computer.

With iOS 11, Apple added multitasking features to the iPad, but they’re nowhere near as functional as what you’ll find on a computer. The new iPad Pro has an A12X chip, which Apple claims is faster than most PCs. The processor truly is lightning fast; however, all of that processing power feels like overkill based on the types of activities most people will be doing with their iPads. Finally, Apple added a USB-C cable to the Pro instead of a Lightning cable in the hopes of allowing the iPad to connect to various accessories. While in some ways this is a nice step forward, the iPad still can’t support an external hard drive.

All of that being said, if, like me, you didn’t buy the iPad to replace your computer, you are going to love it. Given that the new display is not an OLED like my iPhone X, I didn’t expect much, but I’ve been thoroughly impressed by the quality of the Retina display. Losing the Home button for the extra screen real estate is more than a worthwhile tradeoff. While a few gestures are a little unintuitive (I keep accidentally summoning the dock when I’m trying to return to the Home screen), for the most part, I don’t miss the Home button.

My biggest complaint is in Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack. When Apple removed the jack from the iPhone, I was one of the few analysts who thought it was the right move, but it’s hard to argue that the iPad didn’t have enough space for it. I travel with my iPhone and iPad and used to carry a set of headphones that worked with a Lightning cable. Now I can use Bluetooth headphones, but switching from connecting my iPhone and iPad can get a little tricky, and I always like to have a wired option in case I run out of battery.

If I want a wired solution, I now have to carry at least one dongle with me if not two because the iPhone has a Lightning port and the iPad has a USB-C port. I hate dongles and always lose them!

For the most part, I’m enjoying Face ID. I appreciate that it works both in portrait and landscape orientation and have found it to be pretty accurate. My one complaint is that when I’m in landscape mode, the Face ID camera is often blocked by my hand that’s holding the device. Apple thought ahead and added a queue to move your hand, but I find this happens almost every time I open my iPad. All of these complaints are far from a deal breaker but are still a nuisance.

The iPad is a strange product in that no one needs one yet most people who own one love it. The iPad can’t replace an iPhone or a computer, which means you likely already own the first two devices. This puts the iPad squarely in the luxury device camp, especially considering the new price points of the 2018 iPad Pros. That being said, iPads are a luxury not only in that they’re inessential, but also in that they feel luxurious to use. Computers can feel cold and impersonal, and the small screens of iPhones can be frustrating. Steve Jobs was correct in saying the iPad offers the best web browsing experience you’ll ever have. This is especially true with the new iPads, which are a huge step forward in almost every way from their predecessors. If you buy an iPad knowing that you’re buying a luxury product, odds are you’ll fall in love with it. If you buy one as a computer replacement, odds are you’ll be disappointed.

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    David Averbach's picture

    David Averbach is the CEO and Publisher of iPhone Life and Android Life magazine and winner of FOLIO magazine's 2014 media industry's innovators 20 in Their 20's. David has an obsession with all things Apple. He grew up on Macs and now has a MacBook Pro, iPhone, iPad, and an Apple TV. David enjoys traveling and Ultimate Frisbee. He has been to over 20 countries.

    To contact David, email him at david@iphonelife.com.