All the ways a 2018 iPad Pro is better than a MacBook [Review]

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Is the 2018 iPad Pro or a MacBook a better option for you?
Is the 2018 iPad Pro or a MacBook a better option for you?
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

The dividing line between MacBook and iPad Pro gets narrower every year. The new iPad Pro models added a USB-C port, further reducing the differences. This is a good opportunity to consider which is the right choice for your next computer.

There’s a tremendous amount of overlap in what tablets and notebooks do. But each is better than the other at some things. For many people, a MacBook is still the best option. But for others, an iPad Pro is a better way to go. Read on for suggestions on how to decide.

2018 iPad Pro review

MacBook alternative, not MacBook replacement

For decades, a notebook was simply the best mobile computer available. But times have changed and tablets have become more powerful. The 2018 iPad Pro is a shining example: it’s reached the point where it can do just about everything most people need.

Which isn’t saying this iOS device can do all that a MacBook Pro can. Apple’s notebooks still offer features its tablets don’t. But no everyone needs every feature. And any feature that you don’t need just adds unwanted complexity to your computer.

Power versus software

Much has already been made of this, so let’s get it out of the way: the Apple AX12 Bionic processor gives the 2018 iPad Pro better benchmark scores than all but the most recent and most expensive MacBook Pro models. We ran Primate Labs GeekBench 4 on our test iPad and it scored 18,015 on the multi-core test. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with a Core i7 processor scores 17,601. Hopefully that puts aside any discussion that the iPad is just a toy.

An iPad Pro and a MacBook even look a lot alike.
An iPad Pro and a MacBook even look a lot alike.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

But sheer processing power is only half the equation. Available software is at least as important. While it’s commonly thought that this is an area where’s the MacBook has a commanding lead, the situation isn’t as cut-and-dried as some think.

An iPad Pro is absolutely not the computer for someone who needs to do pivot tables in Microsoft Excel. And a MacBook Pro is the only option for working in Photoshop on a huge screen … at least for now. But if you’re not planning on doing either of those, or something similarly demanding, then a MacBook might not be the best device for you.

iPad Pro is good for writers

Take people whose jobs revolve around writing. About half of Cult of Mac‘s writers use an Apple tablet is their primary computer. The devices do everything we need. (There are plenty of MacBooks and Macs in use, too.)

… and great for artists

Artists who want to draw or paint directly on their work have no better option than an iPad and Apple Pencil.

And work is only half the reason people use computers. When it comes to entertainment, the iPad Pro has some distinct advantages. It’s definitely the better option for social networking. The iOS apps for the various services have features not available from the websites that macOS devices have to use. (Anyone who prefers the website can go to that on their iPad.) We’ll discuss why a tablet is always better for watching video or reading ebooks in the hardware section.

iPad Pro: Better work/life balance

The new iPad Pro is almost entirely screen.
The new iPad Pro is both fun and useful.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

A MacBook is a great computer for work, where you’re sitting somewhere typing and/or mousing. And it’s fine for some personal computing tasks too. But having a keyboard always sticking out of the front is an irritating distraction when watching video. And the permanently attached keyboard makes any notebook ludicrous as an ebook reader.

The displays in the earliest iPads maxed out at 9.7 inches, a decent size for personal use but cramped for getting work done. The later 12.9-inch iPad Pro was much better for work, but bulky for some personal tasks, like ebook reading. The 2018 version keeps the 12.9-inch display but shrinks the bezels. We went into depth about the improvements to the design in our full review of this new tablet, so there’s no point in repeating ourselves. Let’s just say this is Apple’s best tablet yet for a business/private computer balance.

Add a keyboard to the iPad Pro and it’s as easy to type on as any MacBook. This can be the Apple Smart Keyboard Folio or a Bluetooth one. And it doesn’t stop there because you can plug any USB keyboard into this iPad and just start typing.

And when the workday is over you pull the tablet off the keyboard and settle back on the couch with a lightweight computer that’s ideal for social networking, watching video, playing casual games, and reading ebooks.

USB-C port a huge step in the right direction

Current MacBooks have at least one USB-C port, with the Pro versions including multiple ones. Even legacy models have USB-A. These lets users hook up a myriad of accessories, from external displays to terabyte hard drives.

Older iPad models depended on the Lightning connector. It could do more than many people realized, but only with the help of multiple expensive adapters. The 2018 iPad Pro is the first iOS computer to switch from Lightning to USB-C.

With this latest tablet, an off-the-shelf USB hub lets you add multiple accessories Some of these work exactly like you think they they should, others not so much. We already mentioned that USB-A keyboards work normally. And all it takes to use Ethernet is any hub with the hardware.

The days when a MacBook was vastly better than an iPad are over.
The days when a MacBook was vastly better than an iPad are over.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Video-out works at up to 5K HDMI. This is great for entertainment when you have a large TV handy. You can watch Prime Video or another streaming service on the bigger screen. But for most business applications the only option is screen mirroring. An exception is Apple Keynote, which puts the presentation on the TV and your notes and controls an the tablet screen. This is likely a model of the future. With video-out so easily available now, expect more applications to support it in the coming months.

No mouse for iPad Pro

We couldn’t resist checking to see what happens when a mouse is plugged in. Sadly, nothing. But applications running on non-touch external monitors raise the possibility that this might change some day.

Full support for external storage media is still not part of iOS. So while you can plug a hard drive into your iPad Pro, all you can do is import images and video into the Photos app. The same is true of thumb drives and memory cards.

For business users, this can be dealbreaker. Full access to external hard drives is one of the most common reasons reasons why some people just have to have a MacBook.

But a typical consumer doesn’t have an external hard drive, and when they plug a memory card into their computer all they want to do is import images and video into the Photos app. Their files are stored locally, or perhaps on iCloud.

There’s going to be a lot of pressure on Apple to bring full-featured support for external media to the iPad Pro line now that it has USB-C. But for right now, these computers already do all that many people need.

iPad Pro vs. MacBook: Final thoughts

When buying a computer, some people use the strategy that they should get one with every possible feature. They don’t need many of them, but they might someday. If we bought our vehicles the same way, everyone would drive an 18-wheeler big rig truck. (“I don’t ever haul 20 tons of cargo, but I might later.”)

A MacBook has capabilities a 2018 iPad Pro does not.
A MacBook has capabilities a 2018 iPad Pro does not.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

This isn’t to imply that Apple notebooks are big and clumsy. Even a MacBook Pro is surprisingly slender — just not a svelte as an iPad. And there’s no doubt that a Mac takes more upkeep than an iOS device. On top of that, any macOS features that someone doesn’t use are just in the way and potentially confusing for the average consumer.

Think of an iPad Pro as a car. If it does everything you need then it’s the right choice for you. And the newest models do more than their predecessors, while also being far more portable. And let’s not forget how much lighter they are than even the MacBook Air … and that’s including the additional weight from an Apple Smart Keyboard Folio.

But some people need all the features of a MacBook, just as some people need a truck. For this group, an iPad Pro would be a mistake.

But not as big a mistake as assuming the only “real” computers run macOS. Because the iPad Pro is a real computer. And a really good one, too.