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The iPad Pro is a killer machine but its software is killing me

Nobody needed to convince me that Apple’s at the top of its game when it comes to designing iPad hardware. The 2018 iPad Pro was so fast that more than two years later, it can handle more or less anything that you can throw at it. The 2020 iPad Pro was essentially the same speed—and it didn’t matter.

So here comes the 2021 iPad Pro, which is an even more extreme dunk in terms of features. Adding an M1 processor isn’t going to add the same boost as it did on the Mac side, because the iPad Pro was always powered by an energy-efficient Apple processor. But it’s still an upgrade of two processor generations, and that matters. A new display on the larger model allows Apple to set a new standard for brightness and dynamic range. Thunderbolt accelerates the iPad’s connectivity with other devices.

And yet, in 2021, it feels like the same story: Apple killed it on the hardware side, and the software…well, the software lags behind, to put it nicely. Apple built a spectacular sports car, but where are the roads to drive it on?

A Pro display for what?

The new 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a Liquid Retina XDR display powered by new mini LED technology. Adding this tech has a physical cost (the iPad has gone from 5.9mm to 6.4mm thick, and increased from 1.4 to 1.5 pounds) as well as a monetary one (starting at $1,099, it’s $100 more expensive).

The result, though, is a display that is bright and offers extreme dynamic range, a great boon to pro-level photographers and videographers alike. (It’s probably also going to be great to watch movies on.)

But more than five years after Apple introduced the iPad Pro, it’s telling that Apple is still demonstrating its gorgeous pro-level displays by using third-party apps. As impressed and enthusiastic as I am about the Affinity Designer apps and the video-editing power of LumaFusion, it’s still perplexing to see Apple show off yet another iPad Pro, with yet another impressive hardware upgrade, and Final Cut Pro is nowhere to be seen. 

How are we supposed to interpret this? That Apple’s hardware team thinks the iPad is a vehicle into which incredible, cutting-edge features should be built, but that the teams responsible for Apple’s own professional-focused apps don’t think the iPad is worth the effort? 

Thunderbolt support for what?

With the announcement of USB 4/Thunderbolt support on these new iPad Pro models, I’m thrown back to the past. In 2018, when Apple released the first iPad Pro with a USB-C port on the bottom, it didn’t update the software to read the entire contents of a thumb drive when you plugged it in. The hardware was willing, but the software was weak.

And here we are again. Thunderbolt adds even speedier connectivity, but for what? Faster photo and video imports? Okay, though once again, I’m reminded that Apple’s bread-and-butter pro media apps won’t run on these iPads. 

iPad Pro Thunderbolt 2021

Thunderbolt is great, but it’s difficult to take full advantage of it.

Apple

How about external display support? The new iPad Pros can drive even larger external displays, including Apple’s Pro Display XDR. Third-party video apps can take advantage of this to display high-resolution video and even some analytical displays. Which is great, but if you want to display the iPad interface itself, it’ll just be a pillarboxed mirror of what’s on the iPad’s own screen.

That’s because, despite Apple adding support for external pointing devices and an on-screen pointer to the iPad a year ago, iPadOS doesn’t actually support moving apps off to a larger external display. The device itself clearly supports it—after all, macOS devices with the same hardware can do it–but the software just can’t do it. All that power, and nowhere to go.

An M1 for what?

This is the crux of the issue: Apple’s decision to market the iPad Pro as being powered by an M1 processor. As a marketing move, it’s solid. There’s been so much positive press about the M1 that wrapping the iPad Pro in its halo makes sense. (In truth, the M1 is an evolution of the processors Apple has been building for the iPad Pro for years, so the real story is that the Mac has adopted the iPad Pro’s processor, not the reverse.)

Here’s the problem with this clever marketing, though: it draws a direct parallel between the iPad and the Mac. And while the Mac definitely lacks in some areas (no touchscreen or Apple Pencil support, for instance) you can basically do anything on your Mac, including run a bunch of apps that originated on the iPad.

The iPad Pro, in contrast, can’t do all sorts of “pro” things that a professional-level user buying a device starting at $1,099 might want to do. They can’t run Mac apps (though if you connect a keyboard and trackpad, you certainly could!), and Apple has failed to build iPad-optimized versions of its own professional apps.

M1 iPad Pro

The switch from the “A” naming conventions to “M” for Apple’s iPad Pro SoC makes sense from a marketing perspective, but it creates an association with the Mac.

Apple

What makes the iPad Pro great is that while its core is a simple touch tablet, its users can transform it into whatever they want it to be. They can add just a keyboard, or just a mouse, or a combination keyboard and trackpad, or an Apple Pencil. With each combination, the iPad changes. Unless they want to use a Mac app, or Logic Pro, or Final Cut Pro, or Xcode.

Should Apple add some sort of macOS virtual machine that can run on an M1 iPad Pro when it’s attached to the Magic Keyboard or an external display? I don’t know, that’s a complicated question and things could get weird, fast. But now that I know the iPad Pro has an M1 inside, it seems like a natural question. And if the right answer is to build iPad apps that obviate the need for features that exist on the Mac and not the iPad, great—let’s see them.

We know what the M1 and Thunderbolt are capable of. Now that the new iPad Pro has been announced, the spotlight is firmly on the next version of iPadOS, due to be announced in June at Apple’s developer conference. Maybe iPadOS 15 will finally fulfill the promise of the iPad Pro’s hardware. As someone who uses an iPad Pro every day, I sure hope it does.

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