Ars Technica’s 2020 iPad Pro review: ‘Great tablet, OK computer’

“The new iPad Pro is a great tablet and an OK computer,” Ars Technica’s Samuel Axon writes in his review of Apple’s 2020 iPad Pro:

Sure, Apple’s marketing tagline for the new iPad Pro says, “Your next computer is not a computer.” But this year’s update comes with full mouse and trackpad support, and that moves this device into completely new territory. It was always computer, of course, but there’s no room for ambiguity now…

As a tablet, it’s still the best in the world; nothing else is even close. As a computer for professional productivity in the laptop and desktop sense, it’s OK. But that’s much better than it was a year ago before iPadOS, and thanks to nascent-but-strong trackpad support, it’s markedly better than it was only a few weeks ago…

2020 iPad Pro review. The Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro with trackpad delivers the best typing experience ever on iPad.
The Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro with trackpad delivers the best typing experience ever on iPad.

You can get real work done on this machine. It’s no competition for a MacBook Pro for heavy-duty creators, developers, or the like, though, if for no other reason than a comparative lack of third-party software support by companies like Adobe (though that is very slowly progressing in the right direction).

But if you’re weighing it against a MacBook Air? It offers better performance, a number of compelling modern features, and more that the Air doesn’t match. I’m not saying it’s better than the Air for everyone, because it’s not. But when you’re looking to buy a primary computing device in the Apple ecosystem for say, $1,500… there are reasons to pick either the MacBook Air or the iPad Pro, depending on your circumstances.

MacDailyNews Take: Radiohead will be pleased.
Look, it depends, as always, on what you do. If you write (blog), you need a good keyboard, you need precise cursor control, and you need to be able to cut/copy/paste accurately and quickly. As all written reviews are from writers, and the iPad is inferior to a MacBook for writing, what you’ll read is heavier on the criticism than from say, an artist. For an artist, an iPad is a total revolution. Ditto for musicians. But artists and musicians write far fewer reviews than writers (duh), so all we end up hearing about is an endless stream of how the iPad keyboard “sucks,” how iPad needs circa-1984 mouse support, and “where’s my trackpad?”

We use MacBook Pros to write. If iPad had a keyboard anywhere near as good as our 16-inch MacBook Pros and allowed us to quickly and accurately select and move text snippets, we’d use it more for writing. If iPad had coherent, intuitive multi-tasking and we could use it to quickly assemble images and insert them into our articles, we’d use it more. But, right now, it cannot come close to working as well and as quickly on both counts as our MacBook Pros.

If an artist or musician or someone from any number of other disciplines (almost every high-level exec we know today uses an iPad Pro far more than a laptop, if they still even have a laptop) were to write about the iPad, the story would be completely the opposite. iPad works far better for what they’re doing than a MacBook Pro. For many, Apple’s iPad transformed computing long ago.

“We find that there are many older users longing to make iPad work like a laptop, because that’s what they know. Take a look at a twelve-year-old who’s only really ever used an iPad for personal computing. It’s an eyeopener. It’s like looking into the future. The answer isn’t to try to make the iPad into a MacBook. The answer is to provide all the tools possible in iOS for developers to make robust apps that can take advantage of the multi-touch paradigm.” — MacDailyNews, May 16, 2017

Our main gripe about iPad is about iPadOS, not the brilliant hardware, and that we feel Apple should be further along that they are now because what they’re offering currently significantly lacks intuitiveness and discovery. This is because the company lost their sole judge of user-friendliness and have not yet been able to construct a reliable system of replacing that singular point of judgement. This is why nobody can just pick up an iPad and figure out how to multitask with it today. If you have to read the manual, that’s not the Apple way; Steve would have repeatedly sent them back to get it right and make it discoverable before he’d ship it.MacDailyNews, January 31, 2020

iPad’s multitasking certainly screams for a rethink. But it, along with add-on keyboards and rudimentary mouse support, signals Apple’s confusion as to what to do with iPad, what iPad is for, how iPad is supposed to work, and what iPad’s supposed to be. Steve Jobs had an idea of what iPad was meant to become, we’re fairly certain, but it seems to have gotten muddled since he passed too soon after iPad’s birth.

If we could boil down iPad’s problem, it comes down to an overall problem Apple has had seemingly since Steve Jobs’ death: Discoverability. Used to be, you could grab an Apple product and intuitively figure it out. That interesting, but half-baked ideas like 3D Touch and Touch Bars and iPad split-view multitasking whatever somehow made it to the public (we all know why: the final arbiter, the guy who’d send his engineers and designers back to their drawing boards the minute something wasn’t user-friendly enough was gone). These things, especially iPad multitasking, are simply not discoverable or intuitive or consistent and it’s in those very things where Apple misses Steve Jobs the most today.MacDailyNews, January 28, 2020

A team of people – talented people who actually get it and who are all on the same page – is an absolute necessity for Apple’s success, but it creates a problem: Jobs was a single filter. A unified mind. The founder. A group of people simply cannot replicate that. This is not to say that they cannot do great work (we believe Apple does, and will continue, to do great work) just that Apple is fundamentally affected by the loss of Steve Jobs and has to figure out a new way to work. — MacDailyNews, April 8, 2014

The absence of Steve Jobs grows ever more apparent with the introduction of each new Apple product, service, and app. At today’s Apple, the lack of an omnipotent arbiter of taste glares like a klieg light.MacDailyNews, October 1, 2017


  1. MDN and their constant quoting of themselves and the neverending saga of this topic. THE IPAD IS NOT A “DESKTOP” REPLACEMENT.

    Just like a semi-truck is not a sportscar replacement. Just like a hockey stick is not a replacement or a watch, etc. The iPad is a tablet. It’s limited by its design on purpose. It’s not meant to be something it’s not and cannot be something it’s not, just like you can’t be a tree. It’s impossible.

    -Limitation 1: The iPad is locked into having a relatively small screen. Period. Full stop. Right away this puts huge limitations on what can be done with it productivity wise, including enforcing a certain design pattern of applications making them having to be more simple. Yes, the 12.9″ starts pushing into decent screen territory, but it pales in comparison to my 16″ MacBook Pro, and even still, the iPad comes in much smaller variants that Apple must design into.
    -Limitation 2: The iPad, in-spite of what basic benchmarks and pro-Apple blogs say, does not outperform MacBook Pros with i7/i9 chips in real world applications.
    -Limitation 3: The iPad’s software… all of it… from top to bottom… is designed for touch and small screens and low power. All of it. No exceptions. Therefore, the software itself is not designed for point and click and cannot be, no matter what. None of the software in iOS will be as feature-rich and powerful and efficient to use as MacOS based ones, and particularly multi-tasking which is terrible in iOS for obvious reasons. All this means that interfaces are overly simplified in iOS with other features hidden and buried, causing inefficiencies where larger screen devices with more space and designs for point and click can have more buttons and options persistent on the screen, making them much more efficient to use. See: FITTS Principle. Apple is well aware of this.
    -Limitation 4: multi-touch. Multi-touch is inefficient for productivity. Large, meaty hands and arms need to constantly lift themselves and touch the screen elements. Way less efficient than a mouse.

    I really like what Apple is doing here, but it needs to be in context and expectations tempered. None of this magic keyboard and iOS 14 eliminates or really mitigates much of any of the main limitations of the iOS/iPad solution. It can do the job to turn the iPad into something that you can get more productivity out of, and that’s great. But the iPad and iOS will, without question, never be a “Desktop” replacement just like you will never be a replacement for a tree.

    1. Hmm. After reading your comment – which I don’t disagree with for the most part – IMO, it almost seems to have been written prior to the release of iPadOS 13.4

      For example, regarding your Limitation 3, you opine, “…Therefore, the software itself is not designed for point and click and cannot be, no matter what.”

      IMO, this point has has addressed quite well with the release of iPadOS 13.4 and I have been using it with both mouse and Magic Trackpad 2 cursor control devices. I actually prefer the multi-touch gestures of the Magic Trackpad when paired with the iPad Pro. Plus, it provides precise cursor control for typical Office application. If one wishes pixel level cursor control, there is always the option of using a mouse or an Apple’s Pencil 2 stylus.

      Re: Limitation 4 – well – meaty fingers have used multi-touch gestures on Apple laptop trackpads for years without too much complaint. At any rate, iPad Pro tablets can now use – simultaneously – a trackpad and a mouse AND an active stylus together or separately, depending upon the requirements of the task at hand.

      A minor point but iPads are not limited by screen size since they now support mirroring their display to a separate display monitor. (I know what your original point was – a stock iPad display (either a mini or an iPad Pro) will NEVER equal the 27″ iMac desktop display in size comparisons – but that point might be lost if one chooses different display characteristics for evaluating productivity potentials. For example, the iPad Pro display is simply the BEST display Apple mates with their computers – outside of the new Mac Pro and its optional Pro Display XDR monitor.

      Personally, I have been using a 2018 MBA (maxed out with an external eGPU) and a 12.9″ 2018 iPad Pro computers side-by-side on my desktop for almost two years now. I have always believed in Apple’s synergy productivity advantages using those two devices together over even the best single mainstream desktop computer systems. And, quite frankly, a desktop system remains on a desktop. With my MBA and iPad Pro pair, I simply have one of the best mobile dual monitor display systems available.

      1. iOS 14 is effectively exactly the same as iOS 13. I get the mouse and point support now in iOS. But here’s the thing:

        Point and click to the most precise level to the degree of 1 pixel and can ONLY BE achieved in MacOS and point and click devices with a mouse arrow tip. I cannot understate this point enough because this is what people who produce content (the people who drive trucks) need and require. Within multi-touch and iOS, it is not designed for that. Fingers are several pixels or hundreds of pixels so very imprecise on screen. You can see that Apple sort of mimicked a finger touching a screen with the default mouse “arrow” on the Magic keyboard in iOS.

        The software within iOS is not designed for point and click. What Apple has done is to glue this feature on years after the fact of having a device that is only multi-touch. Take Apple Pages for example. Look at Pages on the iPad and then look at it on an iPad. It will take you longer to achieve many of the same tasks on the iPad using a point and click magic keyboard compared to within MacOS. This is because the entire interface needs to accommodate small screens and meaty fingers, so hit targets are big. Features are buried and take more clicks to get to sometimes. Etc.

        There is no point for anyone to take such a productivity hit, and they won’t.

        For a device to make sense, it has to be really good at a set of things to have a reason to live. It has to be better than other categories of product. The iPad is a great tablet. But it’s not a great computer when compared to a desktop computer for specific use cases. And MacOS devices are great desktop computers, but terrible tablets.

        People forget that multi-touch exists within MacOS with multi-touch trackpads. But it also provides for precise 1 pixel input with the mouse arrow and bitmap screen that simply does not exist in iOS. And then the software in MacOS is also designed for precise input, where it is not, and cannot be, in iOS. This is because iOS must, must, always service meaty fingers and multi-touch on screen as a primary input mode. And it is for this reason that software will stay relatively the same in iOS.

    2. I read your comment thinking I was reading the review, excellent points that succinctly sum up the limitations of the iPad that are essentially baked in.

      The only disagreement I have is that the iPad and Macbook aren’t apples and oranges. They could make an iPad run Mac OS if they wanted to though it would be less than ideal. More likely they’ll keep working towards a fusion of the two, maybe as MDN has suggested with the iPad being the “head” that attaches to a meatier base unit.

      With mouse support what’s stopping anyone from attaching their iPad to an external monitor and just using it with a keyboard and mouse as a desktop if they want to?

      1. Doesn’t the constant need to address the iPad’s productivity issue speak directly to the inherent reality? Nick’s last question sums up up again in different words.

        Though I love my not-Pro-iPad, it seems there’s a constant wish the iPad was more and it almost always involves making it more like a portable Mac. It’s a tool with limitations that “needs” add-ons to satisfy. What’s the point if that means it’s a laptop morph?

        It’s a great device, but clearly resides in the “expendable budget device” realm…that adds another flavor to one’s tech stable. 1st world.

  2. My iPad and iPhone are currently the Coronavirus MVP in terms of use, to get thru the hell of the last 2 weeks by staying contact with people. No other devices come close. Other than my car.

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.