Apple's got a brand-new iPad Pro with a mini-LED display and all the power of M1... but how does it compare to the M1 MacBook Pro? Here's how to pick the perfect ultra-portable pro for YOU!
The modern MacBook Pro is like a un-wedged Air. Full-on unibody clamshell, with an ultra-thin display perma-hinged to the keyboard, under which are stuffed just all its computer guts. It’s the laptop that’s defined pro laptops for a decade.
Unlike the MacBook, the iPad Pro got its big redesign a couple and a half years ago. Bezels Thanos-snapped, Home button blipped, the computer is still entirely behind the display, which means it can fly solo as a tablet or snap onto a keyboard for more traditional fun.
So, with the MacBook Pro, you have a solid base and, because the display is so light and can’t become dislodged or detached, the ability to angle it and use it on pretty much any surface and from pretty much any position. You can open it wide without tipping it back, and it’ll stay totally stable on your lap. Of course, you can’t take that display off and walk away with it whenever you want either.
The iPad Pro has a fairly strong, but only magnetic connection to the Magic Keyboard dock. That allows for a good but limited amount of angulation from closed to upright. Because otherwise the weight of the iPad Pro would cause it to topple over backwards. It still totally works on the lap, but the very different weight distribution makes it a little less… lappable. Yes, I just said lappable! But, when you don’t need the keyboard, you can just tear the iPad Pro off and use it like the full-on, ultralight tablet it is, the way nature and Jobs intended. Something you can’t do with any MacBook.
So, if you prefer the traditional computer clamshell, with heavy base locked to super light lid, you’ll prefer the MacBook Pro.
If you prefer the tablet but occasionally want to do traditional typing in a mostly traditional way, you’ll prefer the iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard.
The M1 MacBook Pro has a 13.3-inch LCD panel. You can get a 16-inch version as well but it’s currently still Intel inside. And yeah, we’re so very impatiently waiting on Apple to fix that.
The display is Retina density, which in general means an average person from an average viewing distance shouldn’t be able to see individual pixels. In this case, it also specifically means 2560‑by‑1600 pixels at 227 pixels per inch at up to 60Hz. It’s bright, at 400 nits, and digital cinema P3 gamut, which means the color space is wide enough for richer reds and deeper greens. It also has TrueTone, so it adjusts to the color temperature of your environment for whites that don’t look too blue or too yellow but proper paper white.
The iPad Pro comes in 11 and 12.9 inch versions. I’m focusing on the 12.9-inch for this because it’s the closest in size, but if you’re interested in the 11-inch just shave some inches, contrast ratio, and hundreds off the top and you’ll be all set.
The iPad Pro is beyond retina 2732-by-2048 resolution at 264 ppi at up to 120Hz. Way brighter, 600 nits normal, and 1600 peak for HDR, thanks to its new-fangled mini-LED display. Also P3 and TrueTone. It’s also multitouch and works with the Apple Pencil.
And if you’re thinking all this means the iPad Pro kicks the current MacBook Pro’s ass when it comes to display, oh hells yeah. If display tech or HDR content is your thing, you’re going to want to make the 12.9-inch iPad Pro your thing.
The M1 MacBook Pro doesn’t have the masterpiece that is the 16-inch MacBook Pro speakers or mics. But the iPad Pro is close, and has four speakers so you can turn it any which way you like and get a full spatial audio sound stage no matter which way it’s turned. Thanks to the sensors in the iPad Pro, that goes if you’re wearing AirPods Pro or AirPods Max as well. It’s a personal cinematic experience.
The M1 MacBook Pro also has a good mic system… but the iPad Pro has what Apple’s calling studio quality mics — basically the equivalent of plugging in a USB mic.
The MacBook Pro still has a tiny 720p potato of a camera but with the M1 image signal processor — equivalent to the ISP in the iPhone 12 — that potato is just… baked and fully loaded.
The iPad Pro has a much better 1080p camera, with the same ISP, Portrait Mode and Portrait Lighting, and the new Center Stage feature that pan and scans and zooms in and out to keep you and yours… center stage in video calls. The only downside is that it’s still, tragically, mounted on the side when used in landscape. Yes… that is the sound of the MacBook laughing.
So, basically, if A/V is of the utmost importance to you, you’re going to want the iPad Pro. Unless… unlesss… you absolutely, positively need a headphone jack without a dongle, only then should M1 MacBook should get your go.
The MacBook Pro has two full power, full speed USB 4 ports, which are basically USB-C with the Thunderbolt 3 spec just built right in. So, not only can you plug almost anything in, you can power and run it as fast as… Thunder.
The iPad Pro has the exact same USB 4, thanks to the exact same Thunderbolt controllers on the M1… but only uses one of them. So, yeah, just one port for you.
I’d love an iPad Pro with 2 ports and I’m waiting on a MacBook Pro with 4 ports, but for now, one on the iPad and two on the MacBook, plus whatever docks or dongles you plug in to them, are the only options.
Beyond the FaceTime camera on the front, the MacBook Pro has… nothing and more nothing on the back. The iPad Pro, though, has an iPhone 12 jr. level camera system, with a 12 megapixel, 4K wide angle, and all that Smart HDR3 image signal processing behind it. It’s even got LiDAR like the iPhones Pro. Just no Dolby Vision. I’m not bitter.
So, if you want or need cameras beyond your phone or dedicated camera, you’ll want or need to go with the iPad Pro.
Trackpad and Keyboard
Both the new MacBook Pro and the new keyboard for the iPad Pro are… magic. That’s Apple’s brand-name for the all new, all better, return-of-the-blessed-scissor-switch keyboard for existing Macs and the new iPad dock.
On the MacBook Pro, the Magic keyboard is built right in. I’ll explain why I’m pointing that out in a scalding hot minute. And it has a few things the iPad version doesn’t. Like an escape key, a Touch ID-enabled power key, and new-fangled media keys for things like Spotlight Search and Do Not Disturb.
The iPad Pro version attaches magnetically and has no escape and no media keys, but has a dedicated emoji key, so there that. It’s also sold separately… for $350. Yeah.
The MacBook Pro trackpad is also much, much, much bigger. Which some people dislike, because of accidental touch events, but others love because of all the room for touch gestures. It’s also force-touch, which like the late, lamented 3D Touch on iPhones, means you can not only long press but deep press… Not that it’s instinctive or broadly used in any way any more.
The iPad Pro trackpad isn’t as big, and is mechanical rather than Taptic and virtual, like on the Mac. Of course, the iPad Pro has that huge, totally touchable display anyway.
Also, the iPad Pro has an optional Apple Pencil that attaches magnetically to the casing, charges inductively, and lets you do pretty much any drawing and handwriting you want to, right on the display.
The MacBook Pro doesn’t support the Pencil, but can copy over markup from the iPad Pro… even if just doing it directly on the iPad is easier, simpler, and makes way more sense almost every time.
So, if you want a traditional computer experience, with a big trackpad and cursor that’s precise because it needs to be, go with the MacBook Pro.
If you want more of an optional keyboard that extends the touch-first nature of the iPad only when you need it to, by all means go with the MacBook Pro and Magic Keyboard.
Both the MacBook Pro and the iPad Pro come with Apple’s M1 system-on-chip. It’s based on the same architecture as the A14 in the iPhone 12, and essentially replaces what would have been an A14X in the iPad Pro, and more importantly, what previously would have been an Intel U-Series in the MacBook Pro.
They both also have options for 8GB or 16GB, which is the low-end for the Mac but more and way more than any iPad has ever had… ever before.
You can get the MacBook Pro with 256, 512, 1TB or 2TB of storage, and the iPad Pro with the same, but also a smaller, 128GB option.
Both have WiFi 6, but only the iPad Pro offers the option for 5G data built-in. For the MacBook Pro, you’ll have to tether if you want cellular.
So… they’re remarkably similar on the inside. But if you want cellular built-in, you’ll want the iPad Pro
The MacBook Pro has Touch ID, which is Apple’s biometric fingerprint identity scanner. It’s located on the power button at the top right of the keyboard.
The iPad Pro has Face ID, which is Apple’s biometric facial geometry scanner. It’s located in the TrueDepth camera system on the front.
Touch ID requires… a touch and doesn’t work with gloves or if your finger is wet. Face ID requires a look and doesn’t work with masks or IR blocking sunglasses.
I wish Face ID was on the Mac, but right now, those are our choices.
The MacBook Pro runs macOS Big Sur, which is a fully mature, traditional, mouse and pointer, graphical user interface-based operating system. Albeit on at the very beginning of a transition from Intel to Apple chipsets.
It can run all the native M1 versions of Mac Apps, and can translate the older, Intel versions to run under Rosetta2. The M1 apps run much, much faster and better. The Rosetta2 apps run… pretty much the same as they do on Intel. Better if they lean on Apple’s Metal graphics engine.
That includes Xcode, Final Cut, Logic, and host of high-end and high-bit pro apps.
The MacBook can also run virtual machines and even iPad and iPhone apps, though it’s up to developers to allow and optimize for it, and not enough have really done that yet. So treat this as potential frosting one day, not anything nearly like cake yet.
The iPad Pro runs iPadOS 14, based on iOS 14, Apple’s more modern multitouch operating system.
And it can run all the hundreds of thousands of iPadOS apps in the iPad App Store. Well.
Which, in some ways, is far wider, but in others, isn’t quite as deep. Like it’s still struggling with Photoshop and doesn’t have the type of production software used by major studios or in science labs, for example. Though now that the iPad Pro has more RAM, maybe that’ll change? Maybe even soon?
For now, though, if you want that traditional computer experience and you need to run specific, Mac-only software, you’re going to want and need a Mac.
But, if you prefer the direct manipulation of an iPad, all the iPad apps, and the ability to use software designed not just for a typing computer but a real tablet computer, you’re going to prefer the iPad Pro.
The MacBook Pro starts at $1299 for for 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD and goes up to $2299 for for 16GB of RAM 2 TB of SSD.
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro starts at $1099 for 8GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD and goes up to $2399 for 16GB of RAM and 2TB of SSD, with 5G. Add $350 for the Magic Keyboard and $129 for the Apple Pencil
So, you have to ask yourself a some questions now:
Do you want or really need a traditional computer that runs traditional computer software, including things like Xcode and Final Cut Pro, Adobe Audition and Illustrator, in a very traditional way, but without a touch screen or the ability to detach that screen from the keyboard?
Or, do you want a multitouch display that offers all the portability and flexibility of a tablet, including full on camera systems and the optional Pencil, but can also dock with the Magic Keyboard for those times where you want a more traditional-style computing experiences.
Also, do you already have an iPad or Mac? If there’s an iMac on your desk, maybe you’re better off with an iPad Pro in your hands. Or, if you have an iPad mini or even an iPhone Pro Max, maybe a MacBook Pro will let you get different things done better.
End of the day, you can get more bang for your buck with the iPad Pro, but only if it’s the kind of bang you really need to get done.