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MacBook Pro vs. iPad Pro

If you’re looking for portable power in the Apple ecosystem, the MacBook Pro immediately leaps out. But the iPad Pro is also a very capable contender for your attention, especially now that it’s been updated — its compact frame, beefy processor, Apple Pencil support, and new Magic Keyboard case all make it a very strong choice if you want to work on the go.

Apple often touts its iPads as computer replacements, but how true is that when the iPad Pro comes up against the MacBook Pro? That’s the score we aim to settle today.

Design

iPad Pro (2018) review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that the MacBook Pro and iPad Pro have hugely different designs, each with their own considerations. Let’s start with the iPad Pro.

Apple’s top-of-the-line iPad comes in 11-inch and 12.9-inch sizes, and space gray and silver colours. In October 2018 Apple completely redesigned the iPad Pro to feature much thinner bezels and a flat-edged chassis, and that was refined further in March 2020 with the addition of a dual-lens camera, complemented by a LiDAR sensor. On the back is a 10-megapixel ultra-wide camera and a 12-megapixel wide-angle camera. There’s also the aforementioned LiDAR sensor, and Apple’s Smart Connector for hooking up accessories like external keyboards.

Its flat edge allows you to magnetically attach the second-generation Apple Pencil, thereby wirelessly charging it up without needing to have it awkwardly sticking out of the Lightning port, as in older iPad models.

The iPad Pro is 0.23 inches thick, making it Apple’s thinnest iPad on offer. Weighing between 1.04 pounds and 1.42 pounds (depending on size and configuration), it’s light enough to throw in a backpack and take wherever you go. But the MacBook Pro is a very different beast. It comes in 13.3-inch and 16-inch sizes, and those larger dimensions compared to the iPad Pro mean the weight is increased too, tipping the scales at 3.02 pounds and 4.3 pounds respectively.

Like the iPad Pro, the MacBook Pro has an all-metal chassis construction. Both devices are extremely well-made and feel truly premium — no flimsy plastic casings here. There are other similarities, such as how both use USB-C ports (you get one on the iPad Pro and either two or four on the MacBook, depending on display size and configuration). Note, though, that the MacBook Pro’s ports support Thunderbolt 3’s super speedy transfer speeds of up to 40Gbps and support for external graphics; the iPad Pro’s port only supports USB-C speeds of up to 10Gbps.

Neither device allows much in the way of modularity or component changes after purchase. While that may be unsurprising for a tablet, it’s slightly more unusual for a laptop. Changing any component in a MacBook Pro, from the memory to the SSD, is a pretty involved task requiring various tools and plenty of patience. Whichever device you go for, make sure you’re happy with the configuration before you buy.

Features

iPad Pro (2018) review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The iPad Pro’s key feature is, unsurprisingly, its display. Apple has not skimped here, equipping its top-tier tablet with a superb screen that’ll make working on the go a joy. We called it “breathtaking” in our review, and it’s easy to see why.

For one thing, its True Tone feature automatically adjusts the display’s white balance according to your surroundings, making it easier on the eyes and more natural feeling. It doesn’t sound like much, but really makes a difference in use.

The iPad Pro also uses the same Liquid Retina tech that you’ll find in the iPhone XR, and clocks in with a resolution of 2,732 x 2,048 in the 12.9-inch model and 2,388 x 1,668 in the 11-inch device. Each display uses Apple’s ProMotion tech, which automatically adjusts the refresh rate up to 120Hz. That’s faster than the MacBook Pro’s 60Hz screen and results in a super-smooth experience, both when you’re scrolling through web pages or, importantly, using the Apple Pencil. The smoothness of the latter is what helps it feel incredibly natural in use.

Now let’s talk Apple Pencil. This lets you use the iPad Pro as a digital notebook of sorts, and was totally redesigned alongside the iPad Pro in 2018. It has a flat edge so it can magnetically clip to the tablet in order to charge, and lets you quickly double-tap it on the screen to change tools (say, from a pencil to an eraser). It’s great for when you need to get hands-on with a drawing or writing task.

As for the MacBook Pro, you also get the same True Tone tech as you’ll find in the iPad Pro. Both sizes of MacBook Pro come with IPS Retina displays; the 13-inch model features a 2,560 x 1,600 resolution, while you’ll find a 3,072 x 1,920 resolution in the 16-inch device.

While the 13-inch MacBook Pro comes with Apple’s old Butterfly keyboard, the 16-inch version has Apple’s new Magic Keyboard, which we found was “the best Mac keyboard ever released” in our review. Both models have an oversized trackpad that works with a huge range of gestures in MacOS. It doesn’t actually move when you press it, but rather uses haptic feedback to simulate movement. It really is superb; we called it “the best, and largest, you can find on a laptop”, comfortably beating its Windows rivals.

There’s also the Touch Bar to consider. This replaces the function keys with an OLED strip that gives you quick shortcuts to various common tasks. The shortcuts available change depending on the app you’re using, and you can customize the Touch Bar to add or remove buttons as you please. To its right is a Touch ID button, letting you quickly log in or verify purchases with just your finger.

Finally, a quick note on software. The MacBook Pro runs Apple’s MacOS operating system, which is a mature system with plenty of heavy-duty apps like Adobe Premiere available to do your pro work. The iPad Pro runs iPadOS, which Apple has recently spun out from iOS. It’s far less established than MacOS and, while a very good operating system in its own right, doesn’t have the same range of powerful apps that you’ll find on a Mac. That said, Apple has been giving developers the opportunity to port their iPad apps to the Mac thanks to Mac Catalyst, so things may change. Both platforms have app advantages — the iPad Pro has the benefit of the robust iOS app ecosystem, while the MacBook Pro has the professional native desktop apps the iPad Pro lacks.

Performance

The “Pro” in iPad Pro isn’t just there for show — this really is a powerful device. Apple has been making its own mobile chips for a few years now, and each one gets better and beefier than the last. In the last-generation iPad Pro, the A12X Bionic system on chip (SoC) absolutely destroyed the competition. Its single-core and multi-core scores of 5,029 and 18,042 in Geekbench 4 blow everything out of the water. For comparison, Samsung’s iPad Pro rival, the Galaxy Tab S4, scored a measly 1,891 and 6,423 in our tests.

While we haven’t had a chance to test the latest iPad Pro, with its A12Z Bionic SoC, we expect performance to have improved once again. Especially when it comes to graphics, where the A12Z sports a new, seven core GPU design (versus a six core design on the A12X). Considering the last-generation iPad Pro’s Geekbench 4 scores put even 2018’s MacBook Air to shame, we could expect performance in the new iPad Pro to rival more capable laptops like the MacBook Pro — at least before its next refresh.

That said, over the past few years, the MacBook Pro’s real strength lay in its multi-core performance and that’s likely to remain the case, even with a new-generation iPad Pro. Things like video rendering will really benefit from that extra power — not to mention the fact that most high-end apps will be limited to the MacBook Pro due to its operating system.

The new iPad Pro could close that performance gap though, potentially opening up new uses for the 2-in-1.

The MacBook Pro’s power and flexibility win out

MacOS Catalina Hands-on | Macbook Pro
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Ultimately, any decision you make is going to be influenced in some way by price. In July 2019 Apple updated its entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro to come with the Touch Bar and a quad-core processor without increasing the price. That makes the $1,299 low-end MacBook Pro very tempting. However, you can get a powerful 12.9-inch iPad Pro with more storage for $1,099 — so which should you choose? Well, the MacBook Pro’s performance really does scale well with its price, and the high-end model blows the iPad Pro out of the water. If pure power is what you need, it’s worth spending more on a MacBook Pro.

As our review showed, the iPad Pro is an incredibly powerful machine that’s undoubtedly the best tablet money can buy. Its display is superb, the Apple Pencil is an excellent drawing and writing tool, and its processor can chew up any task you throw at it. Its lightweight, portable nature also makes it ideal for working on the go; pair it with an Apple Pencil and you’ll have a tool that’s perfect for digital painting, photo editing or note-taking.

That said, we have to give the crown to the MacBook Pro for its pure power and flexibility. You get a much larger range of options to customize it how you like, and its faster ports let you hook up high-speed devices (including external graphics cards) to expand its capabilities. We feel it’s the best option for most people.

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