iPadOS vs a MacBook Pro in All the Tasks That Really Matter

Photo: dhe haivan (Unsplash)

For years now, Apple has been pushing the iPad as a laptop replacement; with the arrival of iPadOS, it might just have a serious shot at getting you to ditch your computer for good (or at least leaving it behind on trips). To test the current state of play, we put an iPad Pro up against a MacBook Pro in five key computing workflows.

In this case we haven’t added a mouse to our iPad setup, just a keyboard: Mouse support remains an Accessibility option in iPadOS, so Apple doesn’t yet appear to consider it ready for prime time. Essentially, mouse support on iPadOS as it currently stands is designed to let you use a mouse instead of your fingers, rather than providing a proper desktop-level pointing-and-clicking experience—which, if that ever arrives, would change some of the observations we’ve made below.

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Writing and researching

This is something an iPad can do well: Slot in a keyboard at the bottom, prop it up like a laptop, and you’ve got a very capable writing machine in front of you. Get a bit of dust on your keyboard, and it doesn’t even matter—you carry on. Even better, all the keyboard shortcuts you know and love are carried over, only you have to work your fingers in a slightly smaller space.

Writing on the iPad—very good.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

We were able to write this post in Google Docs on the web thanks to the enhanced support that Safari on iPadOS now has for desktop versions of sites (more on this below). Google will keep pushing you to use the iPadOS app for Google Docs, because it has support for offline editing and better integration with features like Split View and Slide Over, but you get a fuller suite of editing and formatting features in the web app.

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As for other apps—there’s Microsoft Word for iPadOS, but you have to live without the most advanced and sophisticated features found on Windows or macOS. For most users, that’ll be fine: If your word processing needs don’t extend to the level of an academic or a professional publisher, you’ll be okay (and plenty of minimal writing apps are available to help).

Obviously you’re on a smaller screen and a smaller keyboard with an iPad, but in terms of the software differences between iPadOS and macOS, there’s not a huge amount of differences anymore. It’s here that an iPad makes most sense as a laptop replacement—writing reports, replying to emails, composing letters, and so on.

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If all you’re doing is writing, you may well be tempted to leave the MacBook at home.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

As for the new cut, copy and paste three-finger gestures, we don’t find them all that useful—using an attached keyboard is much more straightforward, and app support is spotty anyway. In fact, any kind of text selection with your fingers remains occasionally annoying: It’s better than it used to be, for sure, but it’s not yet the kind of super-intuitive, super-magical experience that Apple seems to think it is.

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Image editing

This is when the rubber hits the road for a lot of people on iPadOS: Editing images. That might be why Apple has been so eager to trumpet the arrival of Photoshop on the iPad, something that up to this point has been a crushing disappointment. Typing out words on iPadOS is fine, manipulating images less so.

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Photoshop on the iPad is certainly a work in progress.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

On a MacBook Pro running macOS, you have two clear advantages when it comes to handling images: More sophisticated software, and finer control over the pixels in front of you, whether you’re trying to select the bottom half of a leaf or carefully smudge along the top of someone’s eyebrow.

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A select number of broad brush functions transfer over to the iPad and iPadOS, but without the precision of a two-button mouse or a trackpad, and without the depth of desktop-level software, you’re always going to be limited. There are some fine image editors on iOS and iPadOS, but they only excel in certain areas (filters, brushes, tweaking colors and brightness).

Plowing through bunches of images to resize and crop them—to specific dimensions and aspect ratios—is something we’re constantly doing on macOS every single day and which just isn’t possible on iPadOS at the moment. For this article, all the images were taken on an iPad, then tweaked and resized on a MacBook Pro.

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Photoshop on macOS: Precise, powerful, packed with features.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

Our experience here has been the same as everyone else: You can fudge together certain image editing workflows on iPadOS, but it lacks some of the nuts and bolts essentials that power users need to get pictures ready for production. Unless you’re sketching with the Apple Pencil or just doing the simplest of tweaks, you’re going to go back to your laptop for image editing.

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Web browsing

The main difference with browsing the web on iPadOS to browsing the web on macOS is using your big fat finger (or slightly more svelte Apple Pencil) instead of a mouse. That can make selecting individual links and menus a little more tricky, but on the whole we weren’t bothered by it—most of the time you’re going to be able to get around just fine.

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Safari for iPadOS can now simulate a desktop browser pretty well.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

We’re pretty impressed with the “desktop-class” browsing that Apple now says it’s been able to engineer inside Safari (so not 100 percent desktop browsing, but a close enough emulation). Most of the sites we tried, from ancient Content Management Systems to places like Feedly and Gizmodo, looked and functioned exactly the same as on a MacBook Pro. Even the desktop version of the Gmail web interface works fine, though it’s a bit crowded on the smaller display.

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What you don’t get, even if you hook up a mouse or a trackpad, is right-click support, or clicking-and-dragging. In some cases—like opening new tabs in the background—a long press does the job instead, but once you get beyond the basics then support is more limited. It does slow you down a little when it comes to getting around the web, and when you’re dealing with complex web apps.

Keyboard shortcuts are supported on iPadOS however, so if you’ve got your trusty Smart Keyboard Folio attached (or a suitable third-party variation), then you can Tab between fields, and navigate through lists with J and K, and close tabs with Cmd+W, and use all the shortcuts you rely on on your laptop.

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The seriously tab addicted will still prefer a desktop experience.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

There were occasional problems—like something oddly positioned on a page, or pop-ups that open in entire tabs—but on the whole the web browsing experience is already a good one. Like a lot of our experience using iPadOS instead of macOS, it’s not a complete replacement, but you’re going to be fine for most of the time.

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File management

Both iOS and now iPadOS have been growing as fully mature file management systems in recent years, and the Files app was added back in 2017 with iOS 11. At the same time iCloud Drive has been getting more powerful, and easier to access for end-users, and all those improvements come together in Files for iPadOS.

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File management on the iPad: You wouldn’t have believed it five years ago.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

It’s a lot better than it was then—you can actually save files to your iPad—but it’s nowhere near the experience you get on the desktop with macOS yet. Selecting multiple files takes longer than it should, drag and drop operations are limited, and you don’t get the fine control you do with a keyboard and mouse.

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Files is one of the apps you can now run two instances of in iPadOS, so that means copying files between folders is fairly straightforward. Another plus is the long press option: A mass of options will now show up if you long press on a file or folder, from duplication to markup, showing the versatility of the Files app these days.

There’s no doubt that being able to plug in external drives and USB sticks really moves the iPad forward as a device that you might take out instead of your laptop more often than not. You can do just about everything you need to in terms of file management, it just takes longer and is less intuitive than on macOS.

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Managing masses of files still needs to be done on a Mac.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

Ultimately if you’ve got some serious digital filing to do then you’re going to choose your MacBook Pro if you’ve got the choice, if only for the ability to select 300 files and move them to the Trash in the time it takes your mouse to move an inch.

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General multitasking

Finally, we’ve been revisiting the Slide Over and Split View options in iPadOS, and the other multitasking features (like the Dock) that make it a bit easier to jump from app to app. As we’ve said, you can now run multiple instances of the same app on iPadOS—but this is limited to a certain number of Apple apps for now.

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Switching apps, iPadOS-style.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

Split View undoubtedly makes a huge difference: Two apps! Side by side! Of course it does make the screen rather cramped, but if you’re writing up notes, or referring to an email, or checking Twitter and Facebook at the same time, then it’s very handy (maybe even more so than on macOS, because the windows just lock into position).

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Slide Over—which floats a little iPhone-style window on top of your main display—seems less useful to us, but your mileage may vary. Admittedly it is good for checking apps like Mail, Slack, Twitter, Messages or whatever while you’re busy working on something else. Most of the time though it just feels like it’s getting in the way.

You can actually Cmd+Tab between apps if you’ve got a keyboard attached to your iPad, which definitely helps from a productivity perspective, and the app switcher than appears when you swipe up and hold from the bottom of the display is well thought out too. In fact we’d say the iPad wins in terms of jumping easily from app to app.

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Switching apps, macOS-style.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

At times it feels like Apple wants to present the iPad as the future of computing or whatever’s after computing, but it’s not going to want to ditch its MacBooks any time soon—and the way that iPadOS is right now, it’s in no danger of having to do that. The OS makes iPads better than ever at doing a variety of jobs on the go, but that extra screen real estate, the sophistication of top-end desktop software, and the precision of a mouse (or trackpad) and keyboard mean professional users are only going to make one choice.

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