Can the MacBook Pro Replace Your iPad?

There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about the MacBook Pro and, in particular, whether it can replace an iPad Pro for getting real work done.

Firstly, consider the hardware. The huge issue with the MacBook Pro is its form factor. The fact that the keyboard and screen are limited to being held in an L-shaped configuration seriously limits its flexibility. It is basically impossible to use a MacBook pro while standing up and downright dangerous to use when walking around. Your computing is limited to times when you are able to find somewhere to sit down.

Not that you would want to use a MacBook Pro while standing anyway. The sheer weight of these devices means that your shoulder is going to take a beating if you switch from iOS to OS X. The current 15" MacBook Pro tips the scales at 4.49 pounds - or three iPad Pros - despite having a lower-resolution screen and one less hour of battery life.

Only those with very specific workflows could realistically switch from iPad Pro to a MacBook Pro.

The MacBook Pro continues to be hobbled by its lack of touch input. Yes, the trackpads on Apple's laptops attempt to crudely imitate the rich touch support on iOS but without the ability to touch the thing you see, it will always be a poor imitation of the real thing.

If you're an artist, note-taker or teacher, you're going to really struggle without the native ability to use an Apple Pencil on the screen. The MacBook Pro is limited to some very basic pressure-sensitive input on the trackpad. This is obviously a very convoluted way to do pressure-based input; little better than a FedEx driver's hand-held terminal. At least the FedEx terminal shows you the effects of your writing on the same surface! Of course you could haul along a Wacom tablet to make up for the lack of pen input on your MacBook Pro, but suddenly you're hauling a whole lot more cables and looking for a substantial desk space when out and about.

If you're, well, anybody, you'll surely find the lack of a rear camera on the MacBook Pro a limitation. We have all grown used to the ability to shoot a photograph and immediately use it in a document or share it online without the need for messy cables or jumping through convoluted hoops to get your photograph from your smartphone or camera onto your computer.

Mac software is a limitation here too. Mac OS X only recently got a version of the Photos app from iOS and while there is a photo picker available in some Mac apps like Keynote and Pages, it is far less broadly supported than the photo picker on iOS. This makes importing photos into a document on the Mac a tricky game of drag-and-drop if you can fit both windows on the screen at once.

If you speak multiple languages - and who among us is not at least passably familiar with that other great world language Emoji? - the MacBook Pro has one serious, glaring flaw. You have to commit to a specific keyboard layout and language from the factory that can never be changed. Yes, you can remap some of the keys in software but then you're using a keyboard where the key caps don't match the keystrokes. Crazy!

Despite their far greater size, and consequently weight, there is no MacBook Pro model that gets better battery life than the iPad Pro. You have to wonder about the efficiency of the Intel platform. The MacBook Pro line also requires device-specific chargers. Although most recent models use the MagSafe 2 connector, each model comes with its own rating of charger. Compared to the iPad Pro's use of the widely-available Lightning connector and its ability to charge from small battery packs, this significantly reduces your chances of being able to just borrow a charger for a quick top-up when out and about. Not to mention the fact that none of those increasingly-common public charging lockers support MagSafe 2.

While we are on the subject, let's talk about ports. The designers of the MacBook Pro seem to have gone port-crazy. The MacBook Pro takes up a lot of space on the sides of the device for ports that most people will likely not use very often: SD Card readers, HDMI connectors and even dual thunderbolt ports. Having multiple ports that do the same thing is probably confusing for many users, which is likely why you see newer designs like the 2015 MacBook moving closer to the iPad approach to connectivity with a single port for power and peripherals.

The MacBook Pro isn't even really good for content consumption. No MacBook Pro offers a similar four-speaker configuration to that built into the body of the iPad Pro. This can put a bit of a dampener on your enjoyment of movies and TV shows as the sound is far thinner with less bass and richness than the iPad Pro can deliver. You are also limited to landscape orientation of the screen, which makes reading books and browsing longer websites an exercise in frustrated scrolling.

Again, Mac OS X lacks some of the more advanced media consumption features of iOS. There is no system-wide support for Picture-in-Picture on OS X, for example. This means that watching a video on the side while working requires you to manually arrange your workspace just so. That is, if you even can. Few websites support resizing the video player inside the page, so you are limited to the fixed dimensions of that video and you get whatever is left over to do your work in. Compare that to the flexibility of size and placement you get with the iOS PiP window, which can even be placed off-screen.

Mac OS X also suffers from a much smaller range of available apps. Instead of the native apps you get on iOS for services like Netflix, Airbnb, Google Docs, YouTube and the like, Mac users have to make do with accessing these services through a web browser. That's quite a hoop to jump through to get your work done: forcing such a huge proportion of your work through one app.

The Mac App Store, by contrast with its iOS counterpart, lacks many of the key tools that Mac users' workflows typically depend on. This often requires users to go and source their own software from the open web, with all the risks that entails. These Mac apps also often cost far, far more than their more modern and easier-to-use iOS competitors.

So what are you really getting with a MacBook Pro? Yes, you're getting more performance, but not that much more for the money. On Geekbench tests, the 2015 13" MacBook Pro clocks in at 3209 in Single-core and 6741 on Multi-core. The iPad Pro measures up with 3225 in Single-core and 5475 in Multi-core. You have to ask yourself if it's worth all these trade-offs in size, weight, flexibility and input methods just to gain a small performance advantage.

Certainly, the MacBook Pro can be specified with far more storage than an iPad Pro. You can get up to 1TB of single-point-of-failure storage that requires to be backed up frequently - at even more cost in peripherals or online subscriptions, never mind your time and attention. Compare that to the cloud-based world of iOS where companies like Google, Dropbox, Microsoft and Amazon are queueing up to throw professionally-managed enterprise-class cloud storage at you for pennies.

If you are a road warrior, the MacBook's total lack of cellular connectivity options would be a serious hinderance to a cloud-based storage lifestyle in any case. You would think, for a device that costs up to twice as much as the most expensive cellular iPad, that Apple could afford to offer LTE radios in these devices. Sadly, MacBook Pro owners are stuck with tethering to their iPhones and burning through data plans. While tethering Macs to iPhones has improved in recent years, it will never be as good as a built-in LTE radio.

Finally, let's talk about price. The MacBook Pro is not a cheap computer. Your entry-level 13" MacBook Pro comes in at £999 and in standard configurations alone runs up to nearly £2,000. When you factor in the other things you need to buy to get it up to the abilities of an iPad Pro, you're looking at some serious coin.

If you have certain very specifically-defined workflows, and a work environment where you can guarantee yourself a chair and desk, you can probably get your work done on a MacBook Pro. For the rest of the world, there's iPad.

[Editor's note: The original title for this piece was "If journalists reviewed Macs like iPads".]

Out of School Episode 159: Ask Out of School

This week on the show, Bradley talks about his digital detox and we discuss some listener feedback and questions about:

  • Donating used computer equipment to schools
  • Google Classroom
  • Detecting students hacking infrastructure
  • Apps for cloning Git repositories on iOS (try Working Copy)
  • Features still missing from classroom apps in 2015
  • Keyboards on the iPad Pro
  • Whether Bradley and I get free stuff from Apple (we don't).

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