iPad Pro 2021: The Most Portable Mac Ever
Apple is practically erasing the lines between tablet and computer, lets people decide now
Proving that it can still keep a secret in a world of factory-level information leaks and social media frenzy, Apple took everyone by surprise — and a whole industry by storm — announcing something totally unexpected: a tablet with a desktop processor. That’s right: the new iPad Pro models, which would supposedly be based on the latest Axx chip (maybe with more graphics cores or slightly higher clocked but nothing groundbreaking), sport the very same M1 system-on-a-chip found in the new iMacs M1 or last year’s Mac Mini M1 and MacBook Pro M1. This is not just the first time that a desktop-class Apple processor is put inside an iPad. It’s the first time that this kind of power is offered in tablet form by anyone, ever.
The Cupertino giant claims that the iPad Pros of 2021 are 50% faster in processor performance and 40% faster in graphics performance than the 2020 models, which were already the most powerful tablets in the market by some margin. These new models can also be maxed out to 16 GB of memory — starting from 8 GB, still double the amount of RAM of the 2020 iPad Pros— and up to 2 TB of fast storage. The Mac Mini M1 and MacBook Pro M1 were found to be impressively fast last year running macOS Big Sur, so one can imagine just how insanely fast these iPad Pros can be on an operating system far less demanding on resources, as iPadOS is.
This is probably the subject around which some interesting conversations around the new iPad Pros will be had in the next few days: with these tablets sharing the exact same hardware with desktops and laptops, what is a “computer” in 2021? The term has been drifting away from its “traditional” meaning for years because, well, even tablets as limited by their operating system as iPads intentionally are, can be used a lot like computers by employing a couple of peripherals. But OS and apps remained a differentiating factor. A common hardware platform between Apple desktops, laptops and tablets changes things irrevocably: the “tablet” and “computer” distinction is just a matter of software choice now. These new iPad Pros could be just as easily running macOS Big Sur and desktop-class apps (only needing a mouse and keyboard) instead of iOS and mobile-class apps.
So it seems that Apple may be at crossroads pretty soon. The company has already offered users of computer M1 systems the option to run iPhone and iPad apps natively as programs on their desktop. What if a significant number of users asked to have the option of installing macOS Big Sur on these M1 iPad Pros? Yours truly would certainly like to be able to carry around a modern Mac with full productivity applications in a form factor as convenient as that of a tablet. What if these new tablet models are jailbroken and made to run macOS anyway? Wouldn’t Apple be forced, in a way, to offer an official, legitimate way of dual-booting iOS and macOS on the iPad Pro 2021? But what if the upcoming iOS 15 gives consumers the option to use macOS apps natively anyway? Would it be necessary to actually install macOS then?
These are all open possibilities — but even if none of the above happens, Apple is effectively asking consumers to make a choice now: “You can have the same desktop-level performance on a desktop, laptop or tablet. Do you prefer a keyboard and mouse or a touchscreen and stylus? Or maybe both, depending on the use case?” For many people this choice is clear, for others it might not be, especially when native M1 apps for macOS and iOS will begin to look the same, work in the same way and perform on the same level. This is not just blurring the lines between “tablet” and “computer”. It is practically erasing those lines through software evolution. This makes perfect sense, in a way, but it still asks of consumers to think somewhat differently about the way they use their devices for work and fun.
The iPad Pro announcement unveiled a few more appealing features of these new models, sure. The new Liquid Retina XDR Display (Apple’s fancy term for Mini-LED backlighting) on the 12.9 version seems very nice and, although a step up in resolution would not go amiss, it should offer professionals a better experience overall. A 5G connectivity option is now there for people who need it, the Thunderbolt/USB4 support over USB-C is welcome, the much-improved camera systems front and back can come in handy in certain situations.
But it’s the M1 architecture on a tablet that’s the true game-changer. It will be interesting to see where Apple plans to go with its devices now that everything is a matter of software, as it will be equally interesting to see what people ask of the Cupertino giant to do with this software (both short-term and long-term). How one will affect the other might very well set the context of “using computers” for everyone in a few years’ time.