iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard vs. MacBook: A hypothetical smackdown

Today as Dave Caolo and I were doing our Blab broadcast of the Apple event, I was using my 27-inch iMac as the streaming machine and a conduit to social media. For the actual livestream of the event, I was using the beautiful Retina screen on a 12-inch MacBook. My iPad Air 2 was sitting downstairs, sucking down energy. After the event I began to do a thought experiment about whether an iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard could hypothetically kick the petite rear end of the 12-inch MacBook or any other MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. Here are my thoughts, which I'd love for you to tear apart.


There are a lot of people for whom the display on the 12-inch Retina MacBook is just too small; that's why Apple makes a 13-inch MacBook Air and 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros. Now the 12-inch Retina MacBook does have a beautiful display at 2304 x 1440 resolution. The 13-inch MacBook Air has a 13.3-inch diagonal display, but it's not Retina quality - maximum resolution is just 1440 x 900 pixels. Let's bump up to the MacBook Pro line. The 13-inch model uses a 13.3-inch display at Retina resolution of 2560 x 1600 pixels, and the 15-inch model a 15.4-inch display at a 2880 x 1800 pixel resolution (5,184,000 pixels on a 15.4-inch display).

The iPad Pro display pumps out pixels on a 12.9-inch display. That's .9 inches diagonally bigger than the Retina MacBook, and the resolution is impressive at 2732 x 2048 (5,595,136 pixels on a 12.9-inch display). Hands down, the iPad Pro should be much sharper and clearer with over 400,000 more pixels on a slightly larger screen.

Winner: iPad Pro

Touch Screen

Ummm, none of those MacBooks have a touch screen. Now I want to ask a simple question: how many of you have sat down at a MacBook of some sort and touched the screen? When I ask this question among friends, relatives, and co-workers past and present, the answer is: "Yeah!"

I know Tim Cook made the comment during an earnings call a few years ago that Apple would never do a hybrid laptop/tablet machne. But that's exactly what the iPad Pro equipped with a Smart Keyboard or the new Logitech keyboard announced today will be. Use it as an amazing tablet or use it with a keyboard as a productivity machine. Tim's got a short memory.

Winner: iPad Pro


This is one place where I think the iPad is a bit weak. Sure, there are millions of iOS apps out there, but when it comes to the type of productivity apps that people like to use on laptops, OS X still rules. This may change now that the iPad Pro is available -- one of our patrons made the comment that "maybe this will kickstart iPad development".  

When it comes to hardcore office apps like Microsoft Office, well, they're available. But I know that my spouse, Bionic Barb, Queen of Power Excel Users, would hate Microsoft Excel for iPad. It simply lacks many of the power features that are available in the laptop version. Will Microsoft eventually add those features? We can only hope. They've done a very good job of porting many Microsoft apps to iOS, and as the iPad platform becomes more "pro", Microsoft may find that the iPad Pro is the best possible platform for Office. 

For artists and photographers, it appears that laptop vs. iPad may be a wash. The arrival of the Apple Pencil for artists and the upcoming Adobe workflows for iPad may tip the balance in the iPad's favor. I was certainly impressed by the demo of Adobe Comp, which reminded me in a good way of page layout back in the days of Aldus Pagemaker -- in other words, easy to use! The new Photoshop was amazing to watch as well, turning a neutral expression into a smile with a tap. 

Another factor in the favor of the iPad Pro would be the strategic alliances Apple has with IBM and Cisco. IBM has already created an amazing array of enterprise apps for iPad, and they're just getting started. 

So here's the question for those who are thinking of ditching a MacBook of any variety for an iPad: are there any apps that you absolutely cannot live without on that MacBook? Are those apps available in a fully-functioning version for iPad? If there's even one critical app that doesn't work on iPad, then you're probably going to stay with that MacBook for a while longer. 

Winner: MacBook/MacBook Air/MacBook Pro


Back when the first MacBook Air arrived, I was a road warrior with a bad shoulder. I jumped on the chance to have a much lighter computer immediately, ordering a MBA the minute I got back to my Macworld Expo hotel. 

At this point, the least weighty MacBook is my beloved 12-inch Retina MacBook at 2.03 pounds. The iPad Pro weighs in (cellular + Wi-Fi) at 1.59 pounds. Use the on-screen virtual keyboard and you have a really, really light "laptop". Sadly, Apple hasn't said how much the Smart Keyboard will weigh. Likewise, Logitech is mum about what their CREATE keyboard will weigh. But if they're able to squeeze decent battery life into something that weighs anywhere from 12 to 15 ounces (about the weight of the various Logitech keyboard covers), that still puts the iPad Pro on the heavy side of the scale at about 2.34 pounds.

Winner: MacBook


The best MacBook is stymied by the lack of cellular data capabilities built-in. Sure, you can use wireless tethering with your iPhone, but do you really want to drag down the battery on that lifeline? The high-end iPad Pro comes with built-in cellular. It bugs the heck out of me that Apple still hasn't added that to any of the MacBook line. 

As for Wi-Fi, we've got a wash -- 802.11ac is the fastest Wi-Fi on both the MacBook and the iPad Pro. Both devices also have Bluetooth 4 for fast connectivity to your other accessories.  

Winner: iPad Pro


The 12-inch MacBook has a single USB-C port for which Apple and third-party accessories are just starting to come out. The iPad Pro has a single Lightning port, for which accessories have been made for the past several years. USB-C has just a handful of third-party external drives and adapters. Lightning? It's Apple proprietary, but there are adapters for connecting iPhones and iPads to USB, HDMI, VGA, SD cards and a number of other storage and video standards. 

I'm quite surprised that Apple didn't put USB-C into the iPad Pro, but considering that its main selling point seems to be connectivity to a handful of external drives and hubs, I can see why. I wonder if anyone at Apple is kicking themself for insisting that the 12-inch MacBook have USB-C?  

The other MacBooks come with a variety of ports, includng Thunderbolt-2, USB 3.0, and HDMI. Taking the 12-inch MacBook -- which is an oddity -- out of the picture, this one has to go to the MacBooks.

Winner: MacBooks 

Pure Processing Power

This is a tough area to do a comparison, since we're comparing apples (the A9X system-on-a-chip in the iPad Pro) with oranges (the Intel processors used in Apple's laptops). Apple doesn't say much about the CPU of the iPad Pro other than to say that "it's faster than 80% of the PC laptops shipped last year." 

Does that mean that the A9X is more powerful than the 2.8Ghz quad-core Intel i7 Core that can be configured to order in the 15-inch MacBook Pro? I don't know. But it's certainly got to be more powerful than the anemic (yet quite adequate) 1.3Ghz dual-core Intel M processor in the 12-inch MacBook. This is one place where real-world, side-by-side benchmarks of two devices doing similar functions is going to be very helpful. Until we know better, the much more expensive MacBook Pro is going to win this competition.

Winner: MacBook Pro 


Here we're also looking at a tough comparison. but let's compare the two similarly-sized devices: the 12-inch Retina MacBook and the iPad Pro with a Smart Keyboard. Since the Retina MacBook doesn't come with a built-to-order cellular capability, I'll assume that both of the devices are Wi-Fi only.

  • 12-inch Retina MacBook: $1,299 with 256GB of storage
  • iPad Pro + Smart Keyboard: $949 + $160 = $1,109 with 128GB of storage

Could Apple slap another 128GB of storage into the iPad Pro for less than $190? Probably so, although it's not a current option. Sorry to say, I'm going to give this one to the iPad Pro. 

Winner: iPad Pro

Operating System 

By the time the iPad Pro hits stores in November, the MacBooks will all be running OS X El Capitan and the iPad Pro will be running iOS 9. Both offer a side-by-side split screen capability that makes using two of your favorite apps simultaneously a piece of cake. iOS 9 offers picture-in-picture for video, El Cap does not. OS X El Capitan can run virtual machine environments like Parallels Desktop and VMware, so getting Windows or Linux to run on the MacBooks is not an issue. Someone is really missing out by not offering a VM environment for iPad Pro (are you listening, Parallels and VMware?). 

OS X has a true file system; iOS 9 has a somewhat less-than-perfect file system that works only when you're storing documents in iCloud. OS X has a command-line interface for fine control over the OS; iOS 9 has nothing.  

Winner: MacBooks 

Battery Life 

The best battery life offered of any MacBook is that of the 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Air at 12 hours of "wireless web". The iPad Pro is rated at 10 hours of "wireless web". 

Winner: MacBook Air


I have to admit that the sound from the speakers on the 12-inch MacBook is not bad. But I don't think it's going to hold a candle to the iPad Pro. With four speakers and channels machined right into the body of the device, it "sounds" like the sound output and quality from the iPad Pro will be outstanding. Without a hands-on test we can't know for sure, but I'm giving this one to the iPad Pro.

Winner: iPad Pro 


OK, this is an unfair comparison, since MacBooks really don't include decent cameras and nobody in their right mind (meaning a lot of people) is going to use an iPad Pro as a camera. But if you were considering photography or videography with one of these two Apple devices, you'd choose the iPad Pro and then look like a total fool holding it up to take a pano. Then again, I have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of people using iPads as cameras...  

The iPad Pro has a "meh" 8 MP iSight camera. The best camera you're going to see on a MacBook is the 720p FaceTime (about 1 MP) camera on the MacBook Pro.  

I swear, the first time I see somebody holding up an iPad Pro as a camera I may punch them in the junk. 

Winner: iPad Pro

And the winner is... 

Are you kidding? There is no winner or loser here. Every person and every device has a "sweet spot" where the person's requirements and the device just happen to come into sync. For a surprising number of people, that device may no longer be a MacBook of some sort, while for others an iPad Pro will always be an underpowered toy.

Really think about the apps you use, the devices you connect to, the amount of time you spend working on a keyboard, and how much you need a very high resolution Retina display. Then do a hands-on -- yeah, I know that's going to be hard when the iPad Pro isn't coming out for another three months, but seriously, I think a bit of time with the Smart Keyboard and iPad Pro with the apps you use the most is going to be a must before you decide to forgo one of the many models of MacBooks. 

I have to admit that I think the days of the MacBook line are now numbered. I just wonder when iOS and OS X will merge into an operating system that melds the best of both into one. I wonder if Apple will add touchscreens to the MacBook line, further blurring the distinction between the iPad Pro and MacBook.  

It's a confusing time right now, but at least there's a good resale market out there if you buy a device and realize that you've made a poor decision. Try what you think is your best mobile computing choice, and if it doesn't work, you can always jump to the other platform.