How to use iPad as a Mac replacement and why you'd want to

Posted:
in iPad edited May 16

There's no question that it is possible to get work done on iPad, but there are tradeoffs. Here's what you need to know about replacing your Mac with iPad.

13-inch iPad Pro in a Magic Keyboard next to 14-inch MacBook Pro on a desk
iPad Pro can replace the MacBook Pro for some users



Apple set off quite the debate when it asked users a simple conceptual question, "What's a computer?" The answer seemed obvious, but the tech-devout couldn't agree.

People try to define computers based on their personal needs, so if the iPad won't work for them, they believe it won't work for anyone. That's obviously not true, but the iPad can't support every workflow -- not yet. And, the iPad is better at some things than the Mac.

If you're iPad-curious, here's what you need to know about shifting some work away from Mac, or ditching it for iPad entirely. This piece will focus on the costs, exclusive functionality differences, and a brief overview of iPadOS limitations to help you better understand how and why you might decide to go iPad-only.

The key is figuring out what you need to do, and using the hardware how it's intended to be used.

13-inch iPad Pro versus 14-inch MacBook Pro



The closest direct comparison between the iPad lineup and Mac lineup is the 13-inch iPad Pro and 14-inch MacBook Pro. If you have about $2,500 (or $3,000 depending on iPad configuration), these are the machines you can afford.

iPad Pro and MacBook Pro next to each other in clamshell mode
Choosing between iPad and Mac will depend on your workflows and finances



The 13-inch iPad Pro with 1TB of storage and a Magic Keyboard comes out to $2,248 (check M4 iPad Pro 13-inch prices). The 14-inch MacBook Pro with M3, 16GB of RAM, and 1TB of storage is $1,999 (compare 14-inch MacBook Pro prices).

Add an Apple Pencil Pro for $129, $200 for cellular, and $100 for Nano Texture glass, and your cart will reach $2,677 for the iPad Pro. There's nothing else to add to the MacBook Pro, so the price stays at $1,999 unless you add more RAM or storage.

So, going iPad-only at this tier already requires a significant financial investment versus a similarly priced MacBook Pro. Of course, you don't have to buy the latest and greatest iPad and accessories to get an iPad-only setup, but you'll know based on your needs.

Even after buying the iPad Pro you want and the accessories you need, there is still a pile of money that can be spent on building the perfect modular computer setup. The most significant challenge of going iPad-only isn't necessarily about software constraints -- it's the financial investment.

The naked robotic core realized



There is a concept in computing called the naked robotic core. I'm not sure where the concept originated, but it is the idea that, eventually, a portable unit will contain everything about a user and can offer different interaction paradigms based on what it connects to.

An iPad Pro with a colorful wallpaper featuring many Apple gadgets surrounding the letters 'ai'
iPad Pro can become whatever you need it to be based on paired accessories



A MacBook Pro is a complete unit. No matter what you do to it, it is still a laptop. Even if it is connected to a desktop via a hub, its form factor is a laptop.

The iPad Pro, however, can be a touch tablet, drawing tablet, laptop, desktop, or gaming machine. It all depends on what's paired with it at the time.

Yes, you can connect a game controller to a MacBook or plug in a Wacom drawing tablet, but in those cases, it's still a laptop. The MacBook never loses its keyboard because you don't need it, but an iPad does.

That's the essence of the naked robotic core. That concept generally makes the iPad more exciting as a paradigm, so some might choose it over a traditional Mac.

iPad as a Mac replacement: hardware



For this discussion, I will stick with the 13-inch iPad Pro and 14-inch MacBook Pro we specced above. Regardless of if you're coming from a Mac Studio or MacBook Air, the same principles apply.

iPad Pro next to MacBook Pro on a desk
Try removing the MacBook Pro from its keyboard and you will have a problem



13-inch iPad Pro has an Ultra Retina XDR display with ProMotion, P3 color, and 1,000 nits SDR/HDR brightness. As of May 2024, when this was written, it was the best display you can buy in an Apple product and likely in a consumer product, period.

Inevitably, Apple will eventually introduce tandem OLED to a Mac or external display. But at least for now, you have to get an iPad Pro to access Apple's best display.

The iPad Pro is also the thinnest product Apple sells and the 13-inch model only weighs 2.75 pounds with the Magic Keyboard attached, 1.28 pounds without. The 14-inch MacBook Pro with M3 weighs 3.4 pounds, and the 13-inch MacBook Air is 2.7 pounds for comparison.

We're not going to dive into processor specs, but the M4 is much faster than M3. Apple will inevitably upgrade the MacBook Pro with the latest chipsets, so these performance distinctions aren't entirely relevant to the discussion.

If you purchase an iPad Pro with M4 and 1TB of storage, you'll get 16GB of RAM and a 10-core CPU with the option of adding Nano Texture. Nothing in the iPad App Store will tax the processor.

iPad as a Mac replacement: Accessories



iPad Pro's design is a significant part of what makes it a possible Mac replacement. Its ability to attach different accessories to perform various functions makes it unique as a platform.

iPad Pro in a Magic Keyboard case next to an Apple Pencil
Pair iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil Pro



Magnets in the back of the iPad Pro allow it to align with accessories like keyboards, cases, and stands without needing a clamp or shelf. These magnets are part of what makes iPad so modular since it is as easy as moving the iPad Pro from one form factor to another using only the magnets.

There is a single Thunderbolt/USB-4 port that allows users to attach a variety of accessories. A single cable connected to a Thunderbolt dock will effortlessly attach any connected storage, keyboard, trackpad, monitor, and power supply.

Pull the iPad off a desktop stand, unplug the Thunderbolt cable, and then grab an Apple Pencil to draw or edit photos. It is an excellent workflow for artists.

Attach iPad Pro to a magnetic stand and grab a game controller, and it becomes a portable game console with a 13-inch display. Between emulators, Apple Arcade, the App Store, and game streaming, iPad Pro is one of the most versatile gaming machines available.

iPad as a Mac replacement: software



There is a lot to discuss about the iPad and its operating system, but we won't get too deep in the weeds here. The basic overview is this -- because iPadOS is built with iOS at its foundation, it is limited in what it can do versus macOS.

An iPadOS screenshot of the Home Screen shown in an iPad frame.
iPadOS 17 introduced interactive widgets for the Home Screen



That said, most of the work that can be performed on macOS can be done on iPadOS. There are some significant exceptions, and many have to do with the lack of access to the underlying file system or terminal.

Sure, there's Swift Playgrounds and you can technically build and publish an app on an iPad, but only for very specific and limited implementations. Serious app development is still only possible on the Mac with Xcode.

Web development, IT management, and anything with server-based tools will fall flat on iPadOS due to how the system is built. Podcasters can't reliably record on an iPad, and there isn't a real backup solution beyond iCloud.

Many niche jobs require specialized software only available on Mac or Windows. I'm not here to tell you the iPad can replace the Mac for everyone, but the number of people it can replace the Mac for is getting bigger every year.

Only you know your workflow and specific needs. There are many excellent apps and tools available in the iPad App Store, so you'll have to determine if you're able to go iPad-only.

An expensive path to the future of computing



You've got $3,000 burning a hole in your pocket and are curious about a potential futuristic computing device. Sure, you could buy a MacBook and be secure in the fact that it'll do any task without question except work as a drawing tablet.

13-inch iPad Pro in a Magic Keyboard, shut on a desk with Apple Pencil Pro attached
Buying into a 13-inch iPad Pro will likely cost more than a 14-inch MacBook Pro



However, you're here because you want something more modular. Rather than own multiple products that are purpose-built for different tasks, the iPad represents a single product that can fit various paradigms.

If you've determined that iPadOS won't be a limitation for your workflows and you've got the money for it, you're ready to jump to an iPad-only setup. If you have more cash available, then perhaps you may consider jumping to Apple Vision Pro as a computing alternative -- but that's an even bigger leap.

Buying into the hardware is only the start. My ideal iPad Pro setup involves having multiple areas in the home available to take over as an iPad access point.

My office desk setup has an iPad Pro magnetic mount that keeps the display floating level next to a Studio Display. A single cable connects it to a Thunderbolt dock and accessories.

An iPad Pro connected to a Studio Display with a keyboard and trackpad below. Apple Vision Pro is on the desk.
Stage Manager allows iPad Pro to connect to an external display and fill the 16:9 screen



I keep the Magic Keyboard nearby so I can move the iPad Pro there and carry it out in laptop mode. In the living room, I keep a magnetic stand available so it can be propped up on the coffee table.

My bedroom has another magnetic stand with a keyboard on a small table. It is a good spot to wind down and write in Drafts to paste the text into Apple's Journal app.

The modular nature of this setup is pricey, but once you've got all the components in place, it feels seamless and futuristic. Carrying this naked robotic core through my home and setting it in place to fit whatever need I have at the time is excellent, and you can't do that with a Mac.

Buy what you need



This piece isn't meant to convince you to abandon your Mac and all of your comfortable workflows. It exists to answer the simple question of whether it is possible to go iPad-only and what that actually entails versus using a Mac.

There's also the hybrid approach. You can own multiple computers and use them for whatever needs they best serve.

Whatever the case, there is no wrong answer. Buy what you need and use what gets your work done. If that's a 13-inch iPad Pro, then that's great -- welcome to Steve Jobs' vision of a post-PC future.



Read on AppleInsider

watto_cobra
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 45
    bloggerblogbloggerblog Posts: 2,475member
    Here I was, hoping to find compelling reasons to use an iPad as a Mac replacement and why I'd want to, but all I found were specs and fluff.
    The only part that tackled the question was "The iPad Pro, however, can be a touch tablet, drawing tablet, laptop, desktop, or gaming machine." So the only difference between it and a Mac is the "touch tablet, drawing tablet"
    Cesar Battistini Mazierosflagelentropys
  • Reply 2 of 45
    nodtmfnodtmf Posts: 9member
    I keep my important data as encrypted DMG files on iCloud. Sadly I can’t open them on an iPad. That’s a problem.
    Cesar Battistini Mazierojas99elijahgsflagelwatto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 45
    netroxnetrox Posts: 1,449member
    iPadOS is nowhere as powerful as MacOS. 

    VS Code cannot run. 

    You cannot open DMG.

    You cannot run virtual machines. 

    You cannot use a terminal. 

    I mean, come on, iPadOS is very limited. It's more optimized for content consumption than creation although it has include some apps for creation, it's still limited. 




    jdwCesar Battistini Mazierojas99muthuk_vanalingamelijahgwilliamlondonVictorMortimerlibertyandfreeMplsP
  • Reply 4 of 45
    I can't do basic office work on an iPad.

    A lot of software is not supported, the apps available are more complicated to use, and yet lack features. 
    There is no proper printing system. 
    If this hardware could run MacOS it would be the best Mac in the lineup.

    Just treat the pencil like a cursor, but they just want to sell everyone both devices.

    The M1 Pro is enough, and will be enough for a long time!
    muthuk_vanalingamelijahgmacpluspluswilliamlondonsflagelVictorMortimer
  • Reply 5 of 45
    dutchlorddutchlord Posts: 231member
    Apple has the wrong priorities when focussing on speed/performance. I never had a slow Apple device, even after years of usage. Ipad hardware is not the problem. iPadOS is the limiting factor. Multitasking and the file system is a joke. Adding a calculator and presenting it as a big thing is pathetic. Should be there years ago. I came to a point to prefer to have a MBP with touchscreen running MacOS as the better option. Apple is not serious about iPad as a daily worktool. Its more like a fancy consumer device. Not for business workflows or content creation.
    jas99williamlondonentropysVictorMortimerMplsP
  • Reply 6 of 45
    danoxdanox Posts: 3,043member
    nodtmf said:
    I keep my important data as encrypted DMG files on iCloud. Sadly I can’t open them on an iPad. That’s a problem.
    You keep your important information on someone else's computer? Dumb......
    williamlondonVictorMortimer
  • Reply 7 of 45
    danoxdanox Posts: 3,043member

    I can't do basic office work on an iPad.

    A lot of software is not supported, the apps available are more complicated to use, and yet lack features. 
    There is no proper printing system. 
    If this hardware could run MacOS it would be the best Mac in the lineup.

    Just treat the pencil like a cursor, but they just want to sell everyone both devices.

    The M1 Pro is enough, and will be enough for a long time!
    The iPad not a Mac the form factor is a very big clue....... :smile: 
    edited May 16 jas99
  • Reply 8 of 45
    JamesCudeJamesCude Posts: 52member
    Tried and failed many times- window management is the hangup. I need to be able to arrange multiple apps into custom configurations- not be shoehorned into the iPad OS multitasking rules. 
    jas99williamlondonsflagel
  • Reply 9 of 45
    Appleinsider said:
    "People try to define computers based on their personal needs, so if the iPad won't work for them, they believe it won't work for anyone. "


    Then you proceed to a 1 TB iPad Pro Pencil,Keyboard setup because it compares to a 14 inch MacBook Pro. Only addressing the 'Pro' level of the marketplace ignores the hundreds of millions of computer users that use subPro spec hardware. You may think you are writing to the pro audience but you just scared off not only many potential iPad users but also Mac users by positing that the
     Apple market place starts at $2000. Appleinsider provides the a disservice to the nonPro demographic that could provide your site clicks and views if they were able to find reasonable advice not Pro puffery.
    williamlondon
  • Reply 10 of 45
    danoxdanox Posts: 3,043member
    Appleinsider said:
    "People try to define computers based on their personal needs, so if the iPad won't work for them, they believe it won't work for anyone. "


    Then you proceed to a 1 TB iPad Pro Pencil,Keyboard setup because it compares to a 14 inch MacBook Pro. Only addressing the 'Pro' level of the marketplace ignores the hundreds of millions of computer users that use subPro spec hardware. You may think you are writing to the pro audience but you just scared off not only many potential iPad users but also Mac users by positing that the Apple market place starts at $2000. Appleinsider provides the a disservice to the nonPro demographic that could provide your site clicks and views if they were able to find reasonable advice not Pro puffery.
    Don't buy there is a choice Samsung currently has a sell going......
    williamlondon
  • Reply 11 of 45
    temperortemperor Posts: 68member
    Funny to read all the comments of users that sum up facts why the iPad cannot work for them, just a proof of the statement made 🤷‍♂️
    I do everything on my iPad Pro, now the M4 one. Mail/Calendar/Keynotes (also making them)/Notes/Webex/Teams/Excel/Expense App/Slack/ slew of internal web based Apps … + a slew of other apps for media consumption, my car app … So easy, every time I use a mac it feels cluttered / limited … I use my iPad with Magic Pro keyboard and external screen when at the office or at home (for work)  
    jas99williamlondonAlex_Vwatto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 45
    Just purchased the 13" iPad Pro w/ keyboard case.  As everyone else pointing out.. so much you cannot yet do.  I would be OK docking.. but really not getting the many windowed workflow I am used to.

    I wish Apple would follow Microsoft Windows (was it 8).. where it would present a Touch interface undocked, and a Desktop Interface docked.  That would be awesome and I would definitely keep.

    That all said, I will be returning the 13" and going back to 11".  (I had the first 2 versions of the 12.9).  For those of you who care and didn't ask.  My 11" vs 13"

    13" iPad
      Pros:
        Big screen
        Great for drawing
        Stage Manager is decent - which is the only place I've found it useful
        Many if not most apps don't take advantage of extra  screen real estate.
        Get a keyboard WITH numbers.
      Cons:
        It's really big
        It's even more expensive

    11" iPad
      Pros:
        Perfect size for a digital companion
        Fill a void between iPhone and MacBook
        Decent size for use as DJI Drone screen
      Cons:
        Still very expensive
        Keyboard without numbers always annoys me
     
    muthuk_vanalingamwilliamlondonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 45
    Wesley HilliardWesley Hilliard Posts: 213member, administrator, moderator, editor
    Appleinsider said:
    "People try to define computers based on their personal needs, so if the iPad won't work for them, they believe it won't work for anyone. "

    Appleinsider provides the a disservice to the nonPro demographic that could provide your site clicks and views if they were able to find reasonable advice not Pro puffery.
    I understand where you're coming from but if you're buying any iPad other than pro with the intention of using it as a Mac replacement, you didn't need a story to tell you that you could. It's actually quite straightforward, if you're buying the $350 iPad, you never needed a Mac in the first place. iPad Air is more ambiguous, but the real question being asked by this article is, "if I have $3,000, do I buy and iPad Pro or a MacBook Pro." And I detail why you'd choose either.
    williamlondonjellybellyAlex_Vmmatzwatto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 45
    AppleZuluAppleZulu Posts: 2,067member
    Just purchased the 13" iPad Pro w/ keyboard case.  As everyone else pointing out.. so much you cannot yet do.  I would be OK docking.. but really not getting the many windowed workflow I am used to.

    I wish Apple would follow Microsoft Windows (was it 8).. where it would present a Touch interface undocked, and a Desktop Interface docked.  That would be awesome and I would definitely keep.

    That all said, I will be returning the 13" and going back to 11".  (I had the first 2 versions of the 12.9).  For those of you who care and didn't ask.  My 11" vs 13"

    13" iPad
      Pros:
        Big screen
        Great for drawing
        Stage Manager is decent - which is the only place I've found it useful
        Many if not most apps don't take advantage of extra  screen real estate.
        Get a keyboard WITH numbers.
      Cons:
        It's really big
        It's even more expensive

    11" iPad
      Pros:
        Perfect size for a digital companion
        Fill a void between iPhone and MacBook
        Decent size for use as DJI Drone screen
      Cons:
        Still very expensive
        Keyboard without numbers always annoys me
     
    Apple is not going to follow Windows. Doing so would create a bloated OS like Windows that tries to be all things to all people at all times. It is a jack of all trades and master of none.

    The iPad Pro and MacBook Pro have some overlapping features, but they are not devices on the same spectrum, nor should they be, nor will they be. An OS designed to operate a tablet and also designed to operate a high-end, multiscreen powerhouse workstation is an OS full of code that will be useless (at best) on either device. 
    macpluspluswilliamlondonAlex_Vwatto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 45
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 3,210member
    I sure as heck wish Apple would give the iPad a first class command line, with access to SSD storage, ability to install CLI apps, gcc, Homebrew, etc.
    edited May 16 williamlondon
  • Reply 16 of 45
    charlesncharlesn Posts: 906member
    Wow. I jumped on this article when I saw it, especially with Wesley's name attached, since I've found him to reliably interrogate thoroughly any topic or piece of gear he chooses to write about. And the headline subject of this article is of extreme interest to me. Sigh. That thorough interrogation I had hoped for was not the case here. This was more of a spec sheet comparison than digging into the nitty gritty of working with each on a daily basis. How do they compare in terms of file management, window management, multitasking, printing, etc. What are the major differences to note between MacOS and iPadOS versions of widely used workhorse apps? Well, I'm hoping Wesley will write a Part 2. 
    williamlondonmuthuk_vanalingamMplsPHedware
  • Reply 17 of 45
    iOS needs multiple user accounts, macros that actually work, AppleScript, and a plethora of other features that Apple long ago got bored with and abandoned.
    williamlondon
  • Reply 18 of 45
    AniMillAniMill Posts: 168member
    I’ve been using my iPad Pro 11” Gen1 as a MBP replacement for years - for most writing, calculation, and illustration processes. I wish the new M4 version would run After Effects and C4D, but that’s really not going to happen… unless Apple surprises us with a MacMode when attached to the MagicKeyboard. Hey, it could happen.
    williamlondonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 45
    I was hoping for an Air to Air comparison. That’s likely to have better parity than a Pro to Pro comparison, and by extension, better adoption. Pros have more specific needs whereas Air users have more general workflows that iPads would have solutions for. My daughter is doing her Masters and her MacBook Air is getting long in the tooth. If it dies, she’ll try to have a go at it with just her iPad Air. She has a monitor keyboard and trackpad for the MacBook,  she’ll just use that when she’s working from home. She thinks library work will be her Achilles heel. 
    williamlondonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 45
    rundhvidrundhvid Posts: 126member
    Nothing in the iPad App Store will tax the processor.
    —please elaborate on this interesting statement, @"Wesley Hilliard" 🙏🏼

    watto_cobra
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