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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.

  • Fantastic pre-review! Following you now.
  • Thanks Rene - great review and analysis, but I do disagree in one respect - Apple KNOWS that everyone hoping to use the iPad (especially Pro) as a laptop replacement needs real mouse/trackpad support, so the half-measure of scabbing it on to an Accessibility feature. I know I sound like a windows flunky, and maybe that's my problem, but the weakness of the mouse support is still the Achilles heel to making this a MacBook 12 replacement.
  • "everyone needs" is not the same as "I need", which in turn is not the same as "I want." Whenever people can't make the first distinction, one wonders if they also failing to make the second. Not everyone hoping to use the iPad as a laptop replacement actually needs a mouse (Federico Viticci, as a very well known example). And it's definitely not what stops me. I get along just fine without a mouse. With an attached keyboard, I move the cursor just fine. Without an attached keyboard, I move the cursor differently but also just fine. If you can't learn a different way, maybe you need a mouse. But please stop trying to speak for everybody. It's distasteful. From my own standpoint, what holds me back has been a couple of things, and Apple has just addressed some of them. The ability to have more than one document open simultaneously is something my own workflow can't really do without, and the new trick where apps can exist in multiple spaces. Rene is right. Whether or not it's here yet for me, it's a lot closer. Once we've got a public beta, I'll definitely evaluate it. But if it's not there yet FOR ME, it won't be for lack of mouse support. And I won't be so arrogant as to pretend that the thing that kills the deal for me is what "everybody needs".
  • In addition, until iOS 13 enters the public beta stage late June, early July, we won’t know, for ourselves, just how well the support for trackpads and mice are. I’ve read conflicting reports, with one saying that no, you can’t select text, because that person apparently couldn’t. But right after, someone else said that they could. And possibly the full support hasn’t been supplied in the early betas. In fact, we might not find out until iOS 13 is released in September, and possibly even after in a point update, though I hope it doesn’t take that long.
  • It could also be to do with app support. If it worked in Apple's apps but not an app from the App Store, it's more likely that the developer hasn't updated their app for proper iOS 13 support
  • I think the problem is that they dont want to make their mac pros obsolete. If An iPad can run independently and do all the things a mac can do, then whats the point in buying a mac? And why sell something that is cheaper? My point is that Apple always intended for the iPad to be a compliment to the mac laptops, not a replacement. When the mactops start selling badly... then they may allow for the iPad to be fully unleashed.
  • The thing is, the intended audience for mac pros is going to need more than an ipad, even with what IOS 13 offers. For the casual user, an ipad and IpadOS13 will be fine. The mac (pro) and ipad line will continue to work together.
  • That’s not a valid argument. It reads like you’re just trying to come up with a way to troll.
  • Does anyone know if capture one will run on ipad os? For editing pictures while travelling this would be great
  • Nope. Only Capture Pilot. Capture One Pro isn't available (yet?) for iPad.
  • You pretty much said it all when you concluded “It’s becoming less about what you want to do and more about how you want to do it.” My only complaint is that Brydge finished work on the 2018 iPad Pro keyboard before iOS 13 —there’s a huge blank space where the trackpad should be!
  • Yes KingofKats. I was thinking the same thing. I am wondering now if there will be keyboards with the touchpad included when ipadOS is released? I was all in to buy a keyboard for my ipad, but I am going to hold off, and wait. See what the fall provides. As I mentioned in the brydge article, if ipadOS does not do it for me, I am moving to a surface go for my small computing devices, as I dont use apps alot on my ipad. Mainly just office 365 and edge browser.
  • I’ve been writing for several months that people should wait to buy a keyboard. Now, waiting is imperative. It’s very possible we’ll see something with a trackpad.
  • I hope so, and not just for the new pros either. Hopfully the air, and ipad 2018 will get some love too.
  • I think for a lot of people it already has Rene. My mom uses an iPad exclusively for things like email, Facebook, reading, Instagram and other things. For her a laptop would be overkill and I assume that there are many in her situation.
  • It certainly has. It all depends on the use-case, for the basics like you said, the iPad is an easy replacement. The iPad now has a lot of image-editing software including Affinity and Adobe products, so some graphics designers are using them exclusively or mostly as well. Apple should really work on getting Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro on the iPad now, that would be great to see
  • My iPads have already replaced my Windows laptops. Personally, my feeling is if you have an iPhone, you need an iPad. The new Mini 5 or Air 3 are fine, you don't need a Pro model. I gave my wife my 10.5" iPad Pro when I got the new 11" (and 13") models last year. She asked me "what will I do with it?" I said "Everything you do on your iPhone, just on a larger screen". She now uses the iPad constantly. Her Windows laptop is collecting dust. As are mine.
  • How can you get your own music on the iPad without iTunes. I do have Spotify. Wish you could drag and drop your own music files
  • iOS 13 will allow you to download files through Safari, but there are other apps which will allow you to do it on iOS 12. Some cloud providers link in with the Files app which lets you store them locally
  • I have an ipad, and use it very regularly, but my windows notebooks are far from collecting dust. I need / want my 24" touchscreen for when I am doing editing work on photos/videos/websites. When I am creating, I want my 24" monitor, not a 9.7" screen. small devices have a place, however it's not to replace anything, only to complement them. I sit at my 2 in 1 every morning. The screen is larger, and more comfortable to read and type on. In the evening when I am having a beer or 3, I sit on my couch with my ipad, do some shopping etc. They all complement each other. There is no such thing as one do it all device.
  • I have an iPhone, but have no need for an iPad. Sure, I'd love to be using an iPad Pro instead of my laptop, simply for the superior battery life, but the applications I need just aren't there yet. I'm plenty happy with my current Linux laptop in any case.
  • Wow, Linux. I tried every version of Linux out there, the only ones I could really take to were mint and elementaryOS. Both of which are fairly basic. If I could not use windows I would have to be forced to use MacOS. that would be bad.
  • I have different needs. For my Adobe CC and Sketch needs, I use the company iMac. For everything else, even the simplest tasks like web browsing, I simply prefer a Linux or BSD based environment, because of the control (UI, privacy settings, security, etc) it gives me. Heck, even when I want to browse the web on the iMac, I fire up a VMware session with a Linux distribution as the client. Scripting/programming, deploying VPS instances, managing my VPN server, etc, everything is easier for me on Linux, because it's what I'm used to. Mind you, it's nothing line Mint, Ubuntu, Elementary, etc. My setup's more CLI oriented and heavily keyboard driven.
  • I agree different people different needs. That's why we have choice. No system is perfect. Only perfect for the person who buys it. EVERY platform has room for improvement, features etc. If anyone thinks that ONE platform is great for everyone and that there is no faults in that platform, they are truly mistaken.
  • I wish more software developers supported Linux, that's Linux's biggest weakness really. I would love to see Affinity Photo/Designer on Linux but the developers said they have no plans, and sadly it won't run through WINE (yet!).
  • Agreed. Affinity on Linux would be great.
  • I am currently using a Chromebook as my daily laptop. It suits all I need to do of document creating, websurfing, etc. Do you think an iPad Pro with iPad OS could completely replace the Chromebook as my or anyone's daily device?
  • You really have to check what you do, and what software you do it with. If you use Google Docs, it wasn’t supported very well before, but will be with iOS 13. We can’t honestly answer that question.
  • No. My laptop is open source, the iPad isn't. My laptop lets me install whatever I want, even if the developer of the OS doesn't like it, iOS does not. Not until Apple respects people's privacy/freedoms. They don't respect privacy/freedom in that they don't let ME decide what apps I want to install. If I want an app that respects free speech, Apple labels it as a hate app because it can have speech Apple hates, so they block it. Basically, it's my part of my privacy/freedom to use any app, as long as it's not doing anything against US law, but Apple bans it.
  • Your point is?
  • I think his point is that he wants to have more control over the OS, however you can actually sideload apps outside of the App Store onto iOS, but Apple don't tell you how to do that and you're generally expected to get all your apps from the App Store, which is governed by Apple. E.g. Apple doesn't allow emulators onto the store, or pornographic material
  • You can actually sideload apps onto iOS that are not available in the App Store. In iOS 13, you can use the Shortcuts app to effectively change the default app (it's a bit of a hack, but better than nothing).
  • I'd love to replace my laptop with an iPad Pro. Sure, Apple's iPad keyboard isn't the most tactile thing in the world (though imho better than the garbage on current-gen Mac laptops) and the removal of the headphone jack is simply an insult to any music pro working on the go (no, bluetooth 5.0 and Apple H chips haven't brought latency down to acceptable levels for music production), but superb battery life and that gorgeous screen alone are reasons enough for me on the hardware front. Problem is the software available. There's aren't equivalent alternatives of what I use on the desktop. When that happens, I'll take another look at the iPad. Simple as that. If your needs are currently met by the iPad (or will be when iPadOS is released), then more power to you.
  • The software availability is the biggest problem at the moment, and it's not helped by the fact that Apple haven't even provided their own Pro software onto the iPad (Logic, Final Cut, Xcode). iPadOS is looking to make the OS finally more at a desktop level, we're just missing the software
  • Looking at everything, I think this is a stop gap until they release a full touch mac computer. Using their own chipsets in the computer. Then, the ipad and mac will run the same software, just in two different form factors. I see where this is going. give it two more years, imac will be full touch/pencil supported devices like the surface studio. macbooks will be full touch, and ipad will run all software like Logic/FC etc.
  • Hey Rene? why no article on the "HOT macbook pro 15s"? I think your readers would like to know about the recall on them because of fire risks! I know you are not allowed to say anything negative about apple at anytime, but this is a safety concern!