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Millions of people have recently transitioned from working at offices to “work from home” lifestyles, radically changing their daily paradigms in the process. Daily video conferences and collaborative chat rooms have suddenly become the new normal, and with them came an unprecedented demand for network bandwidth, software, and computers that make remote group discussions possible. Many users without business laptops had to lug their office desktop machines home, or purchase new computers for their home offices.
Interestingly, this unexpected rush of demand for new computers led Apple executives to predict gains this quarter for both the Mac and iPad — platforms that seemingly peaked in demand years ago. After releasing the 2020 iPad Pro in March and a laptop-esque Magic Keyboard accessory in April, Apple this week began delivering new 2020 MacBook Pro notebook computers. I purchased all three and have been using them since their respective releases, so I wanted to offer some guidance on how Apple’s “Pro” portable computers compare as work from home solutions.
My big takeaway: Even if you drop laptop-like dollars on the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard combination, you’re not going to get a premium Apple laptop-caliber experience for work purposes. Though the iPad excels in versatility, it still struggles with various ergonomic unforced errors and OS-level limitations that will make it a problematic work machine for many users, regardless of how heavily Apple markets it to the contrary. The 2020 MacBook Pro is a far more competent work machine, and should probably be your top choice if you’re considering an Apple business laptop purchase today.
1. Making sense of Apple’s laptop lineup
Superficially, Apple’s laptop lineup looks simpler than it has in many years: You can choose between a 13-inch MacBook Air, a 13-inch MacBook Pro, or a 16-inch MacBook Pro. Dig deeper and you’ll see that there’s a seriously underpowered dual-core MacBook Air for $999 alongside a 1.1GHz quad-core model for $1,299, a classic Apple trick to get forward-thinking users to spend more. For the same $1,299 price, the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro includes a faster 1.4GHz quad-core processor, and there are multiple upgrade tiers: $1,599 for a 1.7GHz version, $1,799 for a 2.0GHz model, or $1,999 for a faster 2.3GHz CPU, generally with benefits beyond the faster clock speed. The larger 16-inch MacBook Pros start at $2,399 for a 2.6GHz six-core CPU and only become more expensive from there.
After many years of using Mac laptops, I see two sweet spots in this lineup, and they’re both 13-inch MacBook Pros: the $1,299 entry-level model and the $1,799 midrange version. Sure, you can buy the ever-so-slightly thinner MacBook Air, but the cheaper model is as slow as a four-year-old MacBook Pro, and the more expensive one has a Pro price with sub-Pro performance. At 3.1 pounds, the 13-inch Pro is barely heavier than the 2.8-pound “Air,” fits in the same backpacks and bags, and offers a handful of screen and processor performance benefits that justify its price. You could also pay more for the 16-inch Pro if you need desktop-class horsepower and are willing to haul around a 4.3-pound laptop everywhere you go; unless you’re a video professional or need a high-end GPU, though, you’ll almost certainly find the 16-inch Pro to be overkill.
The 2020 MacBook Pro I bought this week looks almost identical to the 2016 version it replaced in my work from home setup, but inside, the new 2.0GHz quad-core machine is much faster across the board than its 2.9GHz dual-core predecessor thanks to generational CPU, GPU, and RAM improvements. After just under four years of ownership, my 2016 Pro scored 629 (single-core), 1595 (multi-core), and 6923 (Metal compute) on Geekbench 5.1.1 tests, while the 2020 Pro scored 1086 (single-core), 4178 (multi-core), and 10206 (Metal compute). That’s a nearly 73% improvement in single-core, 162% jump in multi-core, and 47% jump in Metal graphics performance. You can spend less for less performance or more for even higher speeds, but I’m generally very satisfied with these gains.
2. A note on MacBook reliability and longevity
As of this week, all of Apple’s laptops now feature the “Magic Keyboard,” a well-tested design that uses scissor switches rather than the “butterfly” key design that plagued nearly every MacBook model during the latter half of the 2010s. After an initial period of acceptable performance, I and many other professional users found Apple’s butterfly keyboards to be highly failure prone and hard to recommend — an issue Apple attempted to remedy with warranty extensions and free repairs before just going back to scissor switch keys. There’s nothing worse than giving up your work laptop for a multi-day repair, so for most people, I wouldn’t advise buying one of the older models even if it’s being discounted on a close-out sale.
Above: The 2018 MacBook Pro had silicone covers inside the butterfly keys — they still had problems.
It bears mention that apart from its multiple butterfly keyboard repairs, my aluminum-bodied 2016 MacBook Pro is still in nearly pristine shape — good enough to hand down to my daughter, with performance roughly equivalent to an entry-level 2020 MacBook Air. Instead of spending $999 for a new laptop for her, I put the same dollars towards a higher-end machine, and we both get to enjoy the benefits.
While I still remember the first time (many years ago) I had to be convinced to spend a little more on an Apple “Pro” laptop, there’s now no question in my mind that these machines are well built, and continue to be usable by second owners or as secondary computers well after the date of purchase. Understand these machines as work investments, and you’ll find that they pay dividends for years.
3. How does an iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard compare?
At this point, I’ve been actively using the 2020 iPad Pro with its new Magic Keyboard accessory for more than two weeks, and although the combination is akin to a baby business laptop in some ways, it’s still not up to MacBook Pro standards — a real issue given that the tablet and Keyboard collectively cost as much as an Apple notebook. For $1,098, you can get an entry-level 11-inch iPad Pro and plasticky Magic Keyboard that weigh 2.36 pounds, with a smaller screen than any current Mac laptop; $1,348 buys you an entry-level 12.9-inch Pro and matching Magic Keyboard, nearly rivaling the MacBook Pro’s display size with a slightly lower 2.98-pound total weight.
These iPads aren’t short on MacBook-class horsepower: The 12.9-inch iPad Pro clocked 1115 (single-core), 4701 (multi-core), and 10012 (compute) on Geekbench 5, which is to say roughly the same as my new $1,799 MacBook Pro, though the Mac includes nearly three times the RAM, twice the SSD storage, and other advantages. If raw speed was all that mattered, the iPad Pro would be a great choice for work, especially if you didn’t need the keyboard/trackpad accessory.
Similarly, the iPad Pros have one major advantage over MacBooks: way better cameras. While the latest MacBook Pros are stuck with grainy 720p resolution cameras for FaceTime, Zoom, and other purposes, the iPad Pro has a 7-megapixel front facing camera, front Face ID depth-sensing capabilities, two rear cameras (10 and 12 megapixel), and a rear lidar depth sensor. If you’re buying a work from home computer primarily for video chats or taking photos/videos, and don’t care as much about multitasking, the latest iPad Pro will run circles around any MacBook.
I’ve said before that the iPad’s problem is iPadOS and its apps, but after the last two weeks, I’m going to streamline that: The iPad’s problem is iPadOS. Trying to use an iPad for work isn’t a problem because there still isn’t an iPad-specific WhatsApp or Instagram app in 2020, but rather because Apple has spent 10 years forcing well-liked and fully working iPhone apps to take over the entire iPad screen in portrait orientation (and forcing users to turn the device 90 degrees from landscape mode to use them). Moreover, none of iPadOS’ various multitasking paradigms — split-screen, float over, or interactive pop up notifications — works better than user-controllable windows. Compared with what can be done with the smallest MacBook screen, even the largest iPad display is a sad waste of space.
Night after night for the past two weeks, I’ve tried to use the iPad Pro as an alt-work machine, and it just doesn’t compare with the MacBook Pro I use during the day, largely for user experience reasons. Dividing the screen into only two panes is never enough for the multitasking I need for work. It’s a problem even when I try to juggle a Messages conversation in one window with a Slack chat in another, and accessing a web page (say, VentureBeat’s publishing interface) in a third. Similarly, I use Pixelmator Pro for photo editing on the Mac, but I don’t want to regress to the stripped-down Pixelmator version that’s available on the iPad.
There are rare occasions where the iPad’s direct touchscreen interface is a valuable asset compared with the MacBook Pro. I can pull the iPad off the magnetic Magic Keyboard and draw or write on the screen, but the ergonomics of the transition are always awkward — even more so than opening and closing the Magic Keyboard when the iPad’s inside. If I’m doing something where precise keyboard input doesn’t matter — just talking with a friend — I can switch over to the virtual keyboard and cut the iPad’s weight and footprint in half, which is nice. But these situations only happen once in a while compared with the many times the iPad feels comparatively inadequate as a work machine. After years of waiting for Apple to bridge the gap, my iPad’s still there mostly for fun, and my MacBook’s there for work.
4. What’s going to change?
The next two months are going to be pivotal for the iPad and Mac families, as Apple’s late June WWDC20 event will include beta releases of the next iPadOS and macOS operating systems — most likely on or around June 22. Thanks to Apple’s Catalyst initiative, there’s no question that the platforms are going to come even closer together this year; the only ambiguity is “how close?”
Apple is already pushing developers to merge their Mac apps into universal Mac-iOS-iPadOS-tvOS files that users can purchase once and use across multiple supported platforms. It has also told developers to build iPad apps that support any tablet screen size — a precursor to arbitrarily resizable windows? — and there have been hints that iPhone apps might follow iPad apps in coming to Macs in some way. We’ll have to see whether Apple lets an iPhone app run in a window like its own Calculator, or forces a new Mac-specific UI. Being able to run iPhone apps on a Mac like this would be great, and iPads should be able to do the same thing.
Developers are going to keep pushing their iPad apps forward, as well. Reports this week suggest that Microsoft is planning full mouse/trackpad support for its iPad Office apps “later this year,” and hopefully image editing experts such as Adobe and Pixelmator will have more fully featured options for professionals as well. Being able to share codebases between the Mac and iPad should benefit both platforms over time, though it’s by no means guaranteed that certain large and sluggish developers will make use of the cross-platform development tools Apple has given them.
It’s also worth a brief note that the Mac family is expected to transition from Intel chips to Apple-designed ARM processors at some point in 2021, but the impact here is a question mark. Will ARM Macs be able to run prior Intel Mac apps or Windows (via Boot Camp/Parallels) as they do today? No one’s quite sure. But Intel Macs won’t just stop working when the hardware transition starts to take place, or even after it ends; they’ll be viable for years to come.
Since the future of these platforms is at this point so speculative, the safest work from home bet is to go with the solution that does what you need today. For most people, my recommendation is to lean heavily in the direction of a new MacBook Pro for work purposes. But if you know your workflow is compatible with one of the latest iPad Pros, you’ll find it to be at least as strong for entertainment as it is for productivity. And thanks to its better cameras, you may wind up looking way better in video chats than your laptop-toting colleagues.