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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 after its most recent update. The new compact frame, beefy processor, Apple Pencil support, and Magic Keyboard case all make it a very strong choice for working on the go.

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

Design

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.

The top-of-the-line iPad comes in 11-inch and 12.9-inch sizes, along with space gray and silver color options. The company completely redesigned the iPad Pro in October 2018 to feature much thinner bezels and a flat-edged chassis. Apple refined that new design even further in March 2020, bringing Magic Keyboard and trackpad support to its top-end tablet.

Currently on the back is a 10-megapixel ultra-wide camera, a 12-megapixel wide-angle camera, and a LiDAR sensor. Along the flat edge is Apple’s magnetic Smart Connector for connecting accessories like external keyboards. This flat edge allows you to magnetically attach the second-generation Apple Pencil, thereby wirelessly recharging it. In older models, the Apple Pencil awkwardly stuck out of the Lightning port like a sword.

The iPad Pro is 0.23 inches thick, making it Apple’s thinnest iPad. 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.

The MacBook Pro is a very different beast.

The MacOS-based laptop comes in 13.3-inch and 16-inch sizes. Compared to the iPad Pro, those larger dimensions mean the weight increases too, tipping the scales at 3.1 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 too, such as how both use USB-C ports. For instance, you get one on the iPad Pro and either two or four on the MacBook, depending on display size and configuration. However, the MacBook Pro’s ports support Thunderbolt 3’s super fast transfer speeds of up to 40Gbps along with external graphics. The iPad Pro’s port only supports USB-C speeds of up to 10Gbps.

Unfortunately, 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 choose, make sure you’re happy with the configuration before making a purchase.

Features

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 “utterly wonderful” in our review, and it’s easy to see why.

For starters, the display’s True Tone feature automatically adjusts its white balance according to your surroundings, making viewing 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 seen in the iPhone XR. The display has a 2,732 x 2,048 resolution in the 12.9-inch model and 2,388 x 1,668 in the 11-inch device. It even includes 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 webpages or, importantly, using the Apple Pencil. The smoothness of the latter is what helps the peripheral feel incredibly natural.

Apple overhauled the Apple Pencil alongside the iPad Pro in 2018. It now features a flat edge so it magnetically clips to the tablet’s flat edge to receive a charge. It essentially lets you use the iPad Pro as a digital notebook of sorts —  just 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.

On the MacBook Pro, you get the same True Tone tech installed in the iPad Pro. Both MacBook Pro sizes feature IPS Retina displays: A 2,560 x 1,600 screen on the 13-inch model and a 3,072 x 1,920 screen on the larger 16-inch model.

In May 2020, Apple updated the MacBook Pro 13. Gone is the failure-prone butterfly keyboard, replaced by Apple’s far-superior Magic Keyboard. That means it has the same keyboard as every other MacBook, and it no longer lags behind in this regard. We found the Magic Keyboard to be “the best Mac keyboard ever released” in our review of the MacBook Pro 16.

Both MacBook models have an oversized trackpad that works with a huge range of gestures in MacOS. While the trackpad feels “clicky,” it doesn’t physically move when you press down — it simply uses haptic feedback to simulate that “clicky” movement. It really is superb, as 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 to quickly log in or verify purchases with just your finger.

Finally, a quick note on software: The MacBook Pro’s MacOS is a mature system with plenty of heavy-duty apps, like Adobe Premiere. It’s built for a computer, allowing you to install traditional desktop software similar to that of Windows and Linux. Your default input is through a keyboard and mouse (or tracked on laptops).

The iPad Pro runs iPadOS, which Apple recently spun from iOS. It’s far less established than MacOS and, while a very good OS in its own right, doesn’t have the same range of powerful apps that you’ll find on a Mac. It’s built for mobile, meaning it relies on touch-based input and doesn’t support traditional desktop software. It does, however, now support trackpad gestures, which bring it a little closer to MacOS.

That said, Apple currently provides developers with the opportunity to port their iPad apps to the Mac thanks to Mac Catalyst, so things may change.

Overall, 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

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

The “Pro” in iPad Pro isn’t just there for show — this really is a powerful device. Apple produces its own mobile chips, and each one gets better and beefier than the last.

In the last-generation iPad Pro, the A12Z Bionic system on chip (SoC) absolutely destroyed the competition. Its AnTuTu 3D score of 717,717 blows everything out of the water. For comparison, Samsung’s iPad Pro rival, the Galaxy S6, scored a measly 352,209 in our tests. As we said in our iPad Pro review, it “indisputably beats every other tablet, and it’s not even close. If you need a device quicker than an iPad Pro, you need something that’s not a tablet.”

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 that most high-end apps will be limited to the MacBook Pro due to its operating system and hardware.

However, with the latest MacBook Pro 13 from 2020, there is something extra to consider. While the two more expensive models run Intel’s 10th-generation Ice Lake processors, the two cheaper models are stuck on older eighth-generation chips. That could result in a noticeable performance hit if you opt for one of the lower-cost models, as the more recent processors increase performance by around 15%. Make sure you choose carefully if the MacBook Pro 13 is on your radar.

The MacBook Pro’s power and flexibility win

Apple MacBook Pro 13 2020

Ultimately, any decision you make when choosing between devices like these will be influenced by two factors: Price and software.

Apple’s May 2020 update to the MacBook Pro 13 leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth due to the company selling old parts for $1,299. That’s compounded by the fact that you can get a powerful 12.9-inch iPad Pro with the same storage for $1,099.

So, which should you choose? Despite the entry-level quibbles, the MacBook Pro’s performance really does scale well with its price, and the high-end 16-inch 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. Plus, the recent release of the Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro makes it an even more compelling purchase. Aside from the floating design, the Magic Keyboard is backlit and sports a multitouch trackpad, too. It allows the use of gestures so you can skim through open apps and the rest of the OS without your hands leaving the keyboard. And because it’s natively supported, all the standard Apple apps will work with the trackpad, and Apple has previously said many other apps will also work without an update needed from their respective developers. Greater support will also likely be added to third-party apps once developers get their hands on one and can update their apps.

Even if you can afford either product, how you will use that product is what’s really important. If you need to run desktop software, then the iPad Pro will be a waste of money. However, if you’re content with everything provided under the App Store banner and want a portable, touch-based device, then the iPad Pro may be ideal for your needs.

That said, we 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 connect 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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