The story of the M1 iPad Pro (and all iPads for that matter) is one of increasing frustration for many people. Apple has once again created the most powerful tablet on the planet, but iPadOS 14 (and the upcoming 15) seem to squander the M1’s incredible performance.
The three requests I hear most often:
- Port the full version of macOS to iPad Pro.
- Bring some macOS features like windowing and file systems to iPad Pro.
- Give us Apple pro apps on iPad Pro.
They’re reasonable demands considering the M1 iPad Pro shares the same silicon with the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and 24-inch iMac. The general consensus seems to be: what’s the point of putting the M1 chip in the iPad Pro if it doesn’t do “real” desktop/laptop-class things?
Designing for the 'middle'
While it’s true that the M1 iPad Pro has evolved significantly since the original release in 2010 — it’s thinner, the display is sharper and brighter, and the CPU and GPU performance just astound — Apple’s vision for the iPad really hasn’t changed in 11 years. The M1 iPad Pro does not run macOS because it’s not a Mac. Get a Mac if you want macOS. To Apple, the M1 iPad Pro (and again, all iPads) are devices for the “middle.” More than an iPhone, less than a Mac. Capable of tasks from both, but with tricks of its own like Apple Pencil support, Center Stage for video calling, and adaptations of existing human-computer interaction like the circle-based pointer for mouse and trackpad added in iPadOS 14 and the new visual multitasking menu in iPadOS 15.
To Apple, the M1 iPad Pro (and all iPads) are devices for the “middle.”
Here’s how Steve Jobs described the original iPad and its existence in the middle:
All of us use laptops and smartphones now. Everybody uses a laptop/smartphone. A question has arisen lately: Is there room for a third category of device in the middle? Something that’s between a laptop and a smartphone. 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. They’re going to have to be far better at doing some really important things. Better than the laptop. Better than the smartphone. What kind of tasks? Things like browsing the web. That’s a pretty tall order. Something that’s better at browsing the web than a laptop? Okay. Doing email. Enjoying and sharing photographs. Video — watching videos. Enjoying your music collection. Playing games. Reading ebooks. If there’s gonna be a third category of device, it’s gonna have to be better at these kinds of tasks than a laptop or smartphone. Otherwise, it has no reason for being.
It’s remarkable how cogent Jobs’ description of the original iPad was and even more impressive how closely Apple has stuck to it. Sure, iPads have gained new features over the years, especially when it comes to being better for content creation and productivity. But the iPad’s raison d’être as a computing device that fits between a smartphone and laptop has not changed at all in over a decade. There’s no reason to believe Apple wants iPads to be anything more, either.
Convergence of hardware and/or software doesn’t equal a superior experience. iPads — regardless of performance — have always been a balancing act between device modes. Everyone keeps forgetting that there are three levels of usability that iPadOS must be designed for:
- Touch-only: Most people only ever use iPads with their fingers, iPadOS must be first designed around multitouch. Users must be able to tap, swipe, and gesture their way across the system software sans any accessories.
- Apple Pencil: iPadOS is undoubtedly better with an Apple Pencil. Its tip is more precise than our chubby fingers. Like any stylus, the precision of Apple Pencil suggests that iPadOS could be designed for this accuracy. For example, UI and UX — smaller iconography, windowing, and menu bars — normally befitting of desktop OSes such as Windows or macOS should, in theory, be more usable versus fingers. There's no dispute that the 2020 A12Z Bionic- and M1-powered iPad Pros could handle macOS, like any M1-powered Mac, but M1 Macs all require a mouse and keyboard to function. Apple Pencil is optional. Apple wouldn't design an OS for iPads that's fundamentally better with an optional input accessory that also makes it simultaneously worse for basic touch-only iPad users.
- Magic Keyboard: Lastly, iPadOS must consider input for mouse and keyboards such as Apple's own Magic Keyboard. The addition of cursor support in iPadOS 14 was seen as a first step towards macOS (or some kind of mouse-based OS) coming to iPad. But that wishful thinking is misguided. While the cursor from a trackpad or mouse adds precision like Apple Pencil, the way Apple has designed it as a circle-based pointer and not an arrow, tells you everything you need to know about how the company views iPadOS: touch-based input (from either a finger or a mouse/trackpad) is the core method for iPad interaction and everything else is secondary, tertiary, and so forth. As they are currently implemented on iPadOS, mouse and trackpad are just a slightly more precise version of finger-based touch input. But just like Apple Pencil, accessories like the Magic Keyboard are optional; Apple can't rely on every iPad user buying it (or accessories like it).
These three levels would suggest that the iPad's core input — basic touch — is holding the platform back. And maybe touch is iPadOS's crutch. But it's not like iOS and its "mobile" software has prevented the iPhone from being a device for "pros" and power users. The people complaining about Apple wasting the M1 iPad's performance are the same ones still crying about how the iPhone doesn't run two apps at once, or how it doesn't support Apple Pencil like some Palm Pilot or Windows Mobile phone (lulz to both dead platforms), or how it doesn't do this or that from a computer, tablet, or Android device.
I hear all the time about how poorly designed technology is technology that forces users to adapt to it; how iPadOS is "terrible" because it works differently and not the same as a desktop OS. As if dragging windows around a desktop with a mouse is so intuitive in 2021. We’d still be stuck in the stone age of command-line computers if we resisted GUI-based interfaces just because it was a different way to do things. Give an iPad to any person who's not very tech-savvy (children and the elderly are great test subjects) and I'm positive they can figure out how to navigate around iPadOS faster than it takes to teach them how to use a mouse to drag windows around and left- and right-click on things.
iPadOS is only less functional if you waste your energy on what it doesn't do or how it does a task differently compared to macOS. iPads running iPadOS function differently — software and input — than Macs running macOS by design. The whole point is to fit in as a middle device between a phone and laptop, not to replace either (especially the latter).
This design for the "middle" philosophy is undoubtedly upsetting many iPad users (iPad Pro users in particular). It feels like Apple is intentionally crippling the iPad Pro from its true potential as a bonafide laptop replacement and a proper Surface Pro competitor/killer. The iPad should embrace the Surface Pro's winning formula as a laptop replacement. But that's the thing… the Surface Pro is only a good laptop replacement if you buy a Type Cover keyboard/trackpad accessory for it. Otherwise, as a standalone tablet, it sucks compared to an iPad. What good is having a Surface Pro with the entirety of Windows — with full apps like Adobe Premiere Pro that are almost unusable with touch-only input — if you can't use it without an optional keyboard and mouse accessory?
At least on iPad, iPadOS and all of its apps are 100 percent usable without a Magic Keyboard because the OS and the apps are designed for touch input first; Surface Pro is designed for mouse and keyboard input first, not touch. iPadOS becomes more versatile when you throw in an Apple Pencil or Magic Keyboard — you get that extra precision — but they are not required for a functional experience. If iPads ran macOS and full-blown Mac desktop apps, it’d have the same usability problems as the Surface Pro. Apple should just bundle a Magic Keyboard with iPads then, right? It could. But why force an accessory on everyone? Not everyone needs it. If you want an included keyboard/trackpad, you can get one... on a MacBook. Oh look, Apple sells them!
Double down on iPadOS
The "fix" to iPadOS's system software and app deficiencies isn't to replace it with macOS and Mac apps. As a "middle" device, Apple needs to double down on making iPadOS a more robust platform of its own designed around the iPad's strengths and weaknesses. And Apple is doing this. Apple has been doing this for years.
- iPadOS 9 (formerly iOS 9 before getting the iPadOS nomenclature) added Split View.
- iPadOS 11 brought a slew of more computer-y features like a macOS-like app dock, Split View, the Files app, drag and drop, and improvements to the App Switcher.
- iPadOS 12 came with the Shortcuts app and more Apple Pencil markup capabilities.
- iPadOS 13 enabled pinned widgets (albeit in a column) to the home screen, multiple apps in Slide Over, Sidecar connectivity with Macs, and new gestures for editing text.
- iPadOS 14 added Universal Search, scribbling recognition, the ability to set third-party apps as default in place of some of Apple's own.
- iPadOS 15 adds full support for widget pinning anywhere on the home screen grid, a new multitasking menu to make Split View and Slide Over easier to use, Quick Note, a system-wide Translate app, and more.
To say Apple has not made meaningful strides with iPadOS is bullshit. Compared to the original iPad running what was essentially a blown-up version of iOS, the M1 iPad Pro's list of "real" computer features with iPadOS is significantly greater. The features in iPadOS (14 and 15) still pale in comparison to macOS. But let's be real: we're talking about tablet software that didn't really start to come into its own until 2015 with the release of iPadOS 9 and Split View versus a 20-year-old desktop OS (longer if you count the original GUI-based "Classic Mac OS"). There's still tons of improvement Apple can make to iPadOS that'll make iPad's better work devices. But don’t tell me all of these efforts aren’t good enough. If we just stick with what exists and provides comfort, innovation dies.
To say Apple has not made meaningful strides with iPadOS is bullshit.
So why the slow burn? Apart from the challenges of designing UI/UX for touch input, why is Apple taking its sweet time developing new ways to do existing computer things that laptops/desktops running desktop OSes have seemingly already solved? The simple reason is: it's really hard to design for the "middle" and create a new way of computing. People hate change and it's even harder to convince them change is worth it. The unsatisfying reality is Apple is figuring things out as it goes — slowly, changing how iPad works as opposed to rushing out sweeping changes that are more likely to confuse people.
I don't think, in 2010, Apple ever thought the iPad would have to be more laptop-like; the iPad was presented mostly as a content consumption device — kick back on a sofa and enjoy web browsing, video, and ebooks — not as a content creation machine. Definitely not one that was meant to replace laptops. Competition and the explosion in content creation and social media (and the business of it all) forced Apple to reconsider the iPad's software and featureset. New hardware inputs were slowly bolted on over the years and new features added to iOS to warrant spinning off the software into iPadOS.
But more than just solving difficult (and perhaps limited) UX and input, I can think of two other reasons why Apple hasn't caved into user demands and scuttled iPadOS for macOS: the definition of "work" is constantly changing and the iPad mini. I'll get to the iPad mini in a minute. To the first point: for many of the iPad's early years, most people couldn't use the tablet for proper work things because the apps didn’t exist or services hadn’t moved to the cloud. Today in July 2021, I can use the M1 iPad Pro to do 95 percent of my job; in 2010 and even in 2015, the opposite was true and I could not do 95 percent of my job on an iPad. The moving of a lot of work and services into the cloud and the growth of apps around that shift has made using an iPad far more possible. The next decade will likely bring about even greater change in productivity and entertainment; the cloud is playing a vital role in filling in the iPad's inadequacies (for example, working in Google Docs or Office 365 or playing Xbox games via xCloud in Safari).
Why then would the iPad, even one with Apple's most powerful chip, need the weight of a desktop OS if more apps and services migrate to the cloud, accessible via a web browser? It wouldn't. I could see Apple envisioning a future where streaming apps (hey, 10 years ago the idea of paying subscription fees for apps as opposed to a one-time price was considered crazy) and OSes is the solution for those who want the iPad to be more laptop-like. The slow streaming revolution is already happening from services like Shadow that stream Windows PCs to whatever device you want. Want to work in Windows 10 on your M1 iPad Pro? Go right ahead. Your iPad Pro can act as a competent client portal.
As for the iPad mini... the 7.9-inch screen, even with Retina resolution, is too small to handle macOS windowing. Split View and Slide Over already are cramped on an iPad mini's small display; I'd need a magnifying glass to see what's inside of multiple smaller windows if an iPad mini ran macOS. Unless Apple plans to drop the iPad mini or fragment the iPadOS — something I can't see happening — between different iPad display sizes or models (iPad and iPad mini with one version and iPad Air and iPad Pro with something else), any software for iPad needs to scale and work well on displays with 7.9 inches up to 12.9 inches. macOS is barely legible and usable on my 12-inch MacBook; it'd be horrible on an iPad mini's small screen.
Even if the rumors are true and Apple is planning to revamp the iPad mini with a 8.5- or 9-inch display, the screen would be smaller than netbooks (remember those?) and who wants to squint at it all day long? Hell, it'd still be smaller than the cheapest iPad that has a 10.2-inch display. Shipping macOS on iPad mini would mean Apple really would have to include sandpaper with it "so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one quarter of the present size" as Steve Jobs once said about 7-inch Android tablets.
If Apple was planning to move the iPad to macOS, it’d have to leave the iPad mini behind. The outrage would be outsized.
With a family of different iPad screen sizes to consider and changing ways of working, Apple's only move for iPad is to double down on iPadOS. Keep adding new features that make iPads more powerful and useful and — maybe more importantly —make features like multitasking more visible and intuitive so that there's less user confusion. Keep inventing new ways of doing established computer things on iPad. Why? Because "clunky old PC software" (as Steve Jobs put it) can't be the only way to design for computer hardware. People like to say Apple's forgotten how to "Think Different." I'd argue not putting macOS on iPad and figuring out iPadOS — even if it's not as versatile (yet)— is thinking different. It's examining and questioning established conventions of human-computer interaction and designing new (and hopefully better) methods. Do I want Final Cut Pro on iPad Pro? As much as any diehard Final Cut user, but only if Apple can design a UI and UX that feels native to iPad. I’m not concerned about performance — the M1 can handle — but Final Cut should allow you to do things that you can’t on the Mac version, like write and draw right on top of clips.
By no means am I saying iPadOS is perfect. But as an avid iPad user (with and without a Magic Keyboard) who switches between it, macOS, and Windows 10 daily, I think the complaints about its computer-ness are greatly exaggerated. I agree there are still times when I hit a wall on iPad Pro and curse it for not being a Mac. But those moments aren't as frequent as they used to be. If you watched this year's WWDC, Apple was quite clear on the iPad's messaging: complementary or adjacent to Macs. Craig Federighi's demo of Universal Control, where he dragged a file from an iPad through an M1 MacBook Pro over to an M1 iMac and dropped it into Final Cut Pro said it all; Apple is invested in making iPads connect and work alongside Macs, not replace them. If you don't subscribe to this multi-device lifestyle, nothing's stopping you from getting a Surface Pro.
Oh yeah, this is supposed to be a review of the 12.9-inch M1 iPad Pro and I spent all of it defending iPadOS. For a more standard gadget review of the M1 iPad Pro, read my thoughts here. But if you just want the TL;DR... surprise (or probably not)... it's the best iPad ever; the most powerful tablet you can get. Even at 0.5mm thicker, it's still a remarkably thin tablet. There's a 5G model — it's terrific when you can get the speeds. The mini-LED display is arguably the best screen for watching HDR movies outside of getting a 4K HDR TV or Apple's $5,000 Pro Display XDR. You will not find a better non-OLED tablet or laptop display that outputs such deep blacks with such brightness. The mini-LED Retina display is truly a feast for your eyes. The quad speakers are equally as spectacular; they sound terrific and get very loud. As always, the M1 iPad Pro's battery life is best in class. The upgraded camera with Center Stage is neat. And the white Magic Keyboard is so much prettier than in black.
You'll appreciate all the performance when, in five years, you download iPadOS 20 (or whatever it's called) and there's nary a slowdown.
Do you need the 12.9-inch M1 iPad Pro if you already own any of the two previous versions from 2018 and 2020, respectively? Not at all unless you really must have the display and M1 chip. But if you do spring for it, I can assure you, you won't need to replace it for many, many years. Apple has built the M1 iPad Pro to last. And don't worry: the M1's power isn't wasted on iPadOS. Think of all that untapped power as runway for where things are headed in the future via software updates. You'll appreciate all the performance when, in five years, you download iPadOS 20 (or whatever it's called) and there's nary a slowdown.