Can iPad Pro running iPad OS finally replace your laptop?

When I first reviewed the latest iPad Pro last November, I focused on the seriously amped up hardware design. I figured the iOS 12 software story hadn't changed so there was no point revisiting it. Many of you all, of course, allowed yourselves to retort. And you were right. So, two weeks later, I redid my review, went over why I felt the iPad Pro was less a laptop replacement and more a laptop alternative, and then went through a few of the ways I was hoping Apple would improve the software in the future to take better advantage of all the new hardware.

Well, that future is now. Ish. iOS 13 and iPadOS — yes, the iPad still runs iOS 13 just with the beginnings of some iPadOS differentiation — offer some major enhancements to the iPad's capabilities.

I'm not going to review it or re-re-review it now. All the new software is still all up in beta, so it wouldn't just be premature, it would be downright silly. Everything from performance to stability to implementations can and will change. This fall, once Apple ships all the new bits though, game on.

Instead, What I am going to do here is go down my list from that previous column, everything I said I needed to make the iPad Pro in specific but any modern iPad, in general, my main machine, and see, at least in theory, how far we've come.

1. File Access

Apple solved photo and video access in the early days of iOS with the ImagePicker and Photos app. It took them years to solve it for anything else with DocumentPicker and the Files app. Likewise, we've had the ability to import photos and videos over USB and SD card for a while but now, likewise, we can do it for any file.

It's safer and more secure than how a Mac or PC works, because iOS ignores executables — yeah, sorry, still no side-loading — and focuses only on data, and that means there's way less surface area for a malware attack.

Plug USB-C straight in, or break out your favorite dongle for USB-A, SD, or Lightning, and your files will just show up… in files. You can even mount SMB file servers to get your networking on.

Apple created an entirely new, security-first USB stack to support it. It's sandboxed, supports only files, no executables, and should be hardened against any current juice-jack or other malware attacks.

It works on every iPad, USB-C Pros and traditional Lightning alike, and on iPhone and iPod touch as well. Literally anything that runs iOS 13.

And, because Photos still has to win, you can now pipe images and videos directly into editing apps as well, no preloading necessary.

Everything I hoped for and more.

2. Non-touch navigation

Because humans are terrible at context switching, I wanted Apple to make it so I didn't have to take my hands off the keyboard to interact with the iPad. Yes, it was born with this giant multitouch screen, just begging for you to multi-touch it, but sometimes it's just not ergonomic, convenient, or optimal.

iOS 13 offers much better keyboard support, both for shortcuts and for navigation. While I'm going to have to play around with it some more, Apple says we should be able to navigate completely just with the keyboard, which is honestly more than I ever hoped for.

Likewise, instead of building off something like the Apple TV's FocusUI, Apple built off the Assistive Touch feature to provide a form of mouse and trackpad support as well. It's not really a pointer system, since iOS was never built with that GUI concept in mind, but it's kind of like a targeting system. You put the crosshairs where you want them and then hit any interactive element you want.

Apple sees it as an Accessibility feature and that's where you'll find it in Settings, but as Apple and many of us have said repeatedly, Accessibility really is for everyone.

Like I said in my iPadOS video last week, Apple has made it so you can control your iPad using whatever interaction method is better for you in the moment. Not by grafting it to Mac or PC paradigms but by making it more capable unto itself.

This is all also available to iPhone and iPod touch, any iOS 13 device, and again, way more than I expected.

3. Desktop-class Safari

Load Reddit or YouTube on your iPad and, prior to last week, what did you get? The iPhone-optimized version of the page stretched out, mockingly, across your big iPad screen.

It was part legacy, with iPad presenting as mobile Safari and supporting more mobile than desktop browser features, part laziness, with even big companies failing to do the media calls necessary to distinguish the tablet from a phone, or putting any extra work into supporting the iPad at all.

While all I was hoping for was the ability to set Get Desktop Version on a per-site basis, like Apple added a while back for Reader Mode, what we got was so much better — Full on, Mac-class Safari for iPad.

Now, as far as I know, those websites didn't do anything to help here, but Apple did a ton of heavy lifting including adding support for specific web application programming interfaces like Visual Viewport that would make even G Suite just work.

Apple also added support for Pointer Events, which abstracts away the differences between mouse or trackpad interactions and touch interactions for web sites that have adopted them. And, hopefully, this will encourage a lot more websites, especially the deeper and more complex web app sites, to do just that.

Balancing showing a full desktop site with making everything legible on a sometimes much smaller iPad screen was also considered, especially when it comes to iPad mini and side-by-side or slide-over Safari views. There, it'll still call the mobile version if it makes more sense.

All of this is also available in the Safari Web View Controller, so any iOS app that embeds a web browser will get all of this new goodness for quote unquote free.

There's also a download manager, 30 of your favorite keyboard shortcuts, the ability to save tab sets, control text size, adjust settings per site, and more.

I wish Apple had done this years ago, back when the original iPad Pro shipped, but I'm really glad they put the time and polish in to do it now.

4. Complex workflows like Podcasting

One of the things I asked for but didn't get was the ability to handle more complex workflows, specifically in my case, podcasting. On the Mac, I can fire up communication software like FaceTime or Skype, recording software like Audio Hijack, Call Recorder, even Quicktime, record my end, record all ends, and end up with all the tracks I need to edit together a show.

On the iPad, even running iOS 13, it still doesn't look like you can do that locally on a single device.

Even an audio recorder the way we got a screen recorder would be great, providing Apple could push a warning to other iOS devices that the audio was being recorded.

Now, Apple did kinda sorta give me a couple of things I asked for in my future of iOS video, linked below, including at least the potential for a ThemeKit with semantic dynamic colors. And, while we didn't get FontKit, we did get fonts as apps, which could end up being worse, better, or just different, but solves a whole bunch of other problems. But…

Anything that could make that work would go a long way to making iPad just work for a growing swathe of audio professionals.

5. Pro Apps on iPad

Apple surprised a lot of people, including and especially developers, by announcing SwiftUI, their new, declarative interface builder for the Mac. It's part of Apple's ongoing efforts, from APFS to the Swift Language, to reinvent their foundational technologies without having to rip and replace the entire stack at once, like they almost two decades ago with NeXT.

What Apple didn't do, though, was bring any of that to the iPad. No Xcode for iPad. No SwiftUI Design Tools for iPad. No nothing. At least not yet.

When Apple launched the iPad, it launched amazingly creative and productive tools with it and following it, like GarageBand, iMovie, and the iWork suite. Since then, other companies have made amazing apps like Ferrite for podcast editing, Affinity for photo editing, Luma Fusion for video editing, Pythonista for development.

But Adobe still hasn't been able to ship Photoshop, and Apple still hasn't said anything about Logic Pro X, Final Cut Pro X, or, yeah, Xcode.

It's possible, like Adobe, Apple is still wrestling not just with the memory and screen size constraints of the iPad — no 8 or 16GB, much less 1.5 TB RAM options, or 16, 27, or 32 inch display options here, though you can now plug an iPad Pro into a UBS-C display, but with the nature of the iPad versions themselves.

Adobe is careful to say they're bringing real but not full Photoshop to the iPad. That means it's built using real Adobe Photoshop code but it's not providing the full set of features Photoshop has grown, maybe bloated, to support over the decades.

That means, for some workflows, it may be nearly full. For others, not nearly at all.

What should be brought over and what can be brought over needs to be figured out before the iPad can take its next big step forward.

Multi-user and guests

We've finally gotten multi-user on iOS… but only for Apple TV and HomePod. Depending on your needs and point of view, that either makes perfect sense because of the more family-oriented nature of those living room devices, or it's just another roshambo in your wishlist hopes and dreams.

I'm leaning towards the latter because Apple does provide a form of multiuser for iPad already, one that predates both Apple TV and HomePod… but only for schools.

I realize it's way easier to implement on streaming boxes and managed devices, which is why those are probably the ones that have already been implemented. But everything from a GuestBoard so I can just lend my device to someone at a conference who wants to check something on the web, or a SchoolBoard so kids can be locked to a pre-approved set of apps and capabilities — like Guided Access but for more than just one thing – to the ability to switch accounts if the iPad is the family computer would still be great.


Of course, my big ask, going back almost 5 years, was for iPadOS, and wow did I, did all of us get that this year. Including not just all the quote unquote if you can drag it you can drop it into its own window multi-instance multi-tasking, but a new, denser Home screen that even lets you do something else I asked for — have the minus-one Home screen widgets available on Home screen prime.

(And, yeah, it's all shades of ironic iPad got Today on the Home screen the same year Dash Board was finally killed off completely from the Mac. Live on in spirit, little widgets.)

Apple has even melded 3D Touch with long-press, not just significantly reducing interactive complexity and collision, but it's made things like Home screen Shortcuts work on the iPad now as well.

It might just be mostly a name for now, but as I said in my last column, the name is exactly the power iPadOS has always needed.

Conclusion... for now

So, with iOS 13 and iPadOS, can the iPad Pro finally replace your laptop? Trick question. It always could for some people and still can't for others. Just like asking if a MacBook can replace your iMac, it depends entirely on what you need to do with it. It's why Apple still makes both, still announces new versions of both at the very same events, and why some people, like me, still use both.

With iOS 13 and iPadOS, though, the slider has definitely moved far closer to yes for far more people. It's becoming less about what you want to do and more about how you want to do it.

I'll dive deeper into all of this in my iOS 13 and iPadOS previews in a couple of weeks and in my full-on review this fall.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.