First impressions last a lifetime, goes the adage. You’re going to have to forget your first impressions of the iPad to understand the iPad Pro.
When Apple introduced the original iPad in 2010, it was explicitly positioned in a new role for a device — somewhere between an iPhone and a MacBook. That seems obvious, but the problem, for the iPad, is that people loved their iPhones and MacBooks. The only way iPad would succeed, Steve Jobs said, was if it were “far better at doing some key things” than either an iPhone or MacBook.
Apple succeeded. Simply by nature of having a bigger display, the iPad was better than the iPhone for numerous tasks — watching videos or reading long-form text, to name just two. No one would dispute that bigger displays are better for certain tasks — you can prove the productivity gains.
What made the iPad better than a MacBook, in at least some ways, was more subjective than objective. Objectively, a MacBook was faster, by a large factor, could multitask, and offered a rich library of serious productivity apps. A Mac was, simply put, more powerful than an iPad — both in terms of hardware and software. The iPad had some objective advantages — battery life and the pixel density of its display are two that come to mind.1
The trade-offs were obvious. The iPad offered the same conceptual simplicity and intimacy of the iPhone, with the “lean-back” ergonomics of a tablet, at the cost of power — hardware performance and software complexity.
It was, in short, _just a big iPhone_. To the eyes of many in the tech industry, “just a big iPhone” was damning. They wanted the iPad to impress in terms of power. To the eyes of tens of millions of users, however, “just a big iPhone” was strong praise — music to their ears. An iPhone with a 10-inch display sounded just great.
The intervening five years have turned all of this upside down. The iPad Pro now impresses solely by dint of its engineering. Anyone who doesn’t see this is blinded by their established impressions of the first few iPads.
For the moment, put aside the form factor differences (tablet with optional keyboard vs. hinged clamshell), conceptual differences in iOS and OS X (direct touchscreen manipulation of full-screen apps vs. a mouse pointer and tiled windows) and software differences (simpler iOS apps vs. more complex OS X apps). All those points are worth consideration, but for now, put them aside. Right now, today, the iPad Pro is a peer to the current lineup of MacBooks in terms of computational hardware performance.
The iPad Pro is without question faster than the new one-port MacBook or the latest MacBook Airs. I’ve looked at several of my favorite benchmarks — Geekbench 3, Mozilla’s Kraken, and Google’s Octane 2 — and the iPad Pro is a race car. It’s only a hair slower than my year-old 13-inch MacBook Pro in single-core measurements. Graphics-wise, testing with GFXBench, it blows my MacBook Pro away. A one-year-old maxed-out MacBook Pro, rivaled by an iPad in performance benchmarks. Just think about that. According to Geekbench’s online results, the iPad Pro is faster in single-core testing than Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 4 with a Core-i5 processor. The Core-i7 version of the Surface Pro 4 isn’t shipping until December — that model will almost certainly test faster than the iPad Pro. But that’s a $1599 machine with an Intel x86 CPU. The iPad Pro starts at $799 and runs an ARM CPU — Apple’s A9X. There is no more trade-off. You don’t have to choose between the performance of x86 and the battery life of ARM.
We’ve now reached an inflection point. The new MacBook is slower, gets worse battery life, and even its cheapest configuration costs $200 more than the top-of-the-line iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is more powerful, cheaper, has a better display, and gets better battery life. It’s not a clear cut-and-dry win — MacBooks still have more RAM (the iPad Pro, in all configurations, has 4 GB of RAM, although Apple still isn’t publishing this information — MacBook Pros have either 8 or 16 GB), are expandable, and offer far more storage. But at a fundamental level — CPU speed, GPU speed, quality of the display, quality of the sound output, and overall responsiveness of interface — the iPad Pro is a better computer than a MacBook or MacBook Air, and a worthy rival to the far more expensive MacBook Pros.
The entire x86 computer architecture is living on borrowed time. It’s a dead platform walking. The future belongs to ARM, and Apple’s A-series SoC’s are leading the way.
The A9X didn’t come out of nowhere. Watching Apple’s A-series chips gain on x86 over the past five years, we’ve all been speculating about whether Apple might someday start using ARM chips in MacBooks. As of now, it’s only a question of whether they want to.
If you only read one iPad Pro review this week, make sure you read Gruber's take on the iPad Pro which went on sale today.