Apple fans in need of a new computer now have a real choice: Apple MacBook or Apple iPad Pro? Or to put it another way, which is the better option: a traditional OS X (macOS) laptop, or a 2-in-1 running iOS? To answer it, we pitted the 12.9-inch iPad Pro head-to-head against the 2016 version of the MacBook to see which is the best Apple computer.
Build and Design
The new MacBook is very slim and light, measuring 11.0 x 7.7 x 0.5 inches at its thickest point, and weighing 2 pounds. The iPad Pro measures 12.0 x 8.7 x 0.25 inches, and weighs 1.6 pounds. The Apple Smart Keyboard pushes the total to .5 inches thick, and the weight to 2.1 pounds. The tablet with its keyboard is slightly bulkier than Apple’s laptop, but the iPad has a larger screen.
The iPad Pro comes in silver, gold, and space grey, while the MacBook is also available in these colors, plus rose gold. The casing and color is prominent with the MacBook, thanks to the traditional laptop design. With the tablet, color is not as prominent, given that half the device is a black glass display, which is often covered by a Smart Cover. And that is available only in an unattractive dark grey plastic.
Build quality for both devices is excellent, as one would expect from Apple.
The laptop has the traditional clamshell design, and can even be opened with one finger. Configuring the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard into a laptop-like shape is a more cumbersome process, but is still something that can be done in a couple of seconds.
One of the real advantages of the iPad is that its keyboard can be removed when it’s not needed. General web access, watching video, playing games and reading eBooks are all things where a keyboard is just in the way, and Apple’s tablet excels at all of them. With a laptop, the keyboard is inescapable.
The MacBook 2016 is easier to carry around and somewhat better looking, but the iPad has the advantage of being both a laptop and a tablet.
The iPad Pro has a 12.9-inch IPS screen with a 2732 x 1248 resolution, giving it a density of 264 pixels per inch and a 4:3 aspect ratio. The Apple MacBook 2016 has a 12-inch IPS display with a 2304 x 1440 resolution, which results in 226 pixels per inch and a cinematic 16:10 aspect ratio.
The actual area can give a better comparison. The iPad’s display area is 80.2 square inches, while the MacBook’s is 65.2 square inches. So the iPad’s display is more than 20% bigger.
Both screens look great. Our sister site NotebookReview described the MacBook’s offering with: “The colors tend toward the warmer end of the spectrum, and the display has wide viewing angles with an impressive contrast and sharp details.”
Our review of the iPad Pro stated: “Text on the screen looks like it’s printed on paper and images are crystal clear. Colors are vivid and strong.”
We tested each outside, and found them to be quite usable with overhead sun shining down. Though this requires turning the backlight all the way up, which is hard on the battery.
When it comes to displays, bigger is better. And the same goes for higher pixel densities, so the iPad comes out ahead.
Just as significant, Apple has so far refused to put touchscreens on its OS X models, so the only way to interact with the screen is with a touchpad, mouse, or similar indirect tool. With an iPad Pro, the user can tap the screen with their finger, or invest in an Apple Pencil to do some drawing.
The tablet comes out ahead in every area of this category.
Keyboard and Trackpad
With its tried-and-true clamshell design, the MacBook has an integrated keyboard that’s 10.75 inches wide and 4.5 inches tall, not counting the row of function keys across the top. Each key is 0.7 x 0.7 inches, with about 0.05 inches of space between them.
The Apple Smart Keyboard has a key area that’s the same size, but its keys are 0.6 x 0.6 inches, with 0.15 inches of space between each one. Unfortunately, this accessory lacks a row a function keys.
As discussed previously, the iPad allows the keyboard to be removed when it’s not needed. On the other side of that coin, the Smart Keyboard, or one of its rivals like the ZAGG slim book, is an additional purchase. There are also millions of iPad users who forgo a physical keyboard completely. However, we recommend anyone looking for a real laptop alternative have a physical keyboard.
Another standard feature on a laptop is touchpad, and the latest MacBook’s is very good. At about 4.4 x 2.7 inches, it’s fairly large for what’s otherwise a small laptop, and NotebookReview described it as “fluid and responsive, and the preferred way for navigating OS X” in its review.
We found the MacBook’s and iPad’s keyboards to be equal for daily typing, but the MacBook’s row of function keys makes it a bit easier to use. That said, a benefit of the tablet is that users can leave the keyboard behind when it’s not necessary.
Because it considers a touchscreen to be a better solution, Apple has so far shown no interest in bring support for trackpads or mice to iOS. Many people who are long accustomed to laptops will find this to be a drawback. Still, after an adjustment period, the entire tablet’s display essentially becomes the trackpad.
Ports, Buttons, and Speakers
When it comes to ports, Apple used the same design philosophy for both these computers. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro depends primarily on its Lightning Connector, through which it gets its power and it can communicate with external monitors, flash drives, and microSD card readers. In addition, this tablet has a Smart Connector to hook up external keyboards and other accessories.
Similarly, the MacBook depends almost entirely on a single USB-C port for power and for connecting to monitors, flash drives, and card readers.
Both these still have a headset port, and both devices also support Bluetooth keyboards. In addition, the MacBook can use a wireless mouse.
The iPad has the Home button on its front that’s critical to navigating iOS, and it also functions as a fingerprint scanner. This makes unlocking the tablet much easier, and can also take a lot of the hassle out of online shopping. The OS X device doesn’t have an equivalent biometric security system.
Apple put four speakers in the iPad Pro, while the MacBook 2016 has a just single large speaker above the keyboard. Even so, the laptop sounds noticeably louder, quite possibly because its speaker is pointed toward the user, while the tablet’s speakers point toward the sides.
Our test MacBook 2016 is powered by a sixth-gen 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core m3 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.2GHz). Apple also offers a version with a 1.2GHz dual-core Core m5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz).
The days when tablets lagged way behind laptops in power are over. As evidence: the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is built around a 2.26 GHz dual-core Apple A9X processor, with 4GB of RAM.
We benchmarked our two devices with Geekbench 3 and found that the m3 version of the MacBook scored fairly well on the multicore portion, but the iPad Pro performed better. That said, the m5 version of the MacBook did the best of these three.
Although the iPad has half as much RAM, this is something of an apples-to-oranges comparison: 8GB of RAM is a decent amount for an OS X device but 4GB is an immense quantity for one running iOS because its operating system and software are less demanding.
Apple offers the newest MacBook in two configurations: the Core m3 version has 256GB of internal storage and the m5 one comes with 512GB. The iPad Pro is offered in 32GB, 128GB, and 256GB versions. This is situation somewhat like comparing the RAM of these two devices: 512GB of storage is a reasonable amount for an OS X computer but 256GB is a really huge amount for an iOS tablet.
Even taking into account that one of these computers is a laptop and the other a 2-in-1, the biggest difference between them is OS X vs. iOS. For many people, this is going to be the deciding factor.
Apple’s operating system for tablets has grown much more capable in recent years, and iPads aren’t just overgrown smartphones. Apple iOS is just about as functional as its rival for web browsing, email, and watching video. This platform received a big boost when Microsoft Office for iPad was introduced, and Apple has its own suite of professional and personal productivity applications that it makes available for free. Apple tablet users can work with two applications on-screen at the same time, and there’s also picture-in-picture for video. Maintaining an iOS device is also a breeze when compared to any desktop operating system, OS X or Windows.
All that said, there’s no doubt that OS X (soon to be renamed macOS) is hands-down more powerful than iOS. Those who genuinely need access to OS X software tools definitely should go for a MacBook.
The question anyone deciding between these two should ask themselves: What do I really need my mobile computer to do, and can iOS do all of it? Anyone who has all their requirements met by the software available for iPad would be wasting money and time getting dealing with OS X.
When it comes to Wi-Fi, the MacBook includes 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, and the iPad Pro includes 802.11a/b/g/n/ac as well. In addition, the tablet supports dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz), plus HT80 with MIMO.
Apple’s latest laptop uses Bluetooth 4.0 to connect to wireless accessories, while the iPad has Bluetooth 4.2.
Tablet buyers have the option for built-in 4G LTE cellular wireless for accessing the internet when Wi-Fi isn’t available. This adds $130 to the price, plus the cost of LTE service. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro can connect to a very wide array of wireless carriers, including all of the Big Four in the U.S. Integrated cellular-wireless networking is not available to MacBook users. They must depend on external mobile hotspots instead.
This is another category where the tablet comes out ahead.
The iPad has an 8 megapixel rear-facing camera and a 1.2 MP front facing one that’s capable of 720p video recording. The 2016 version of the MacBook has no rear-facing camera and its front one is only up to 480p.
The iPad Pro has the advantage in this area.
We did a torture test of both these computers to get a sense of their battery lives. Streaming video over a Wi-Fi, the Apple MacBook lasted 5 hours and 40 minutes on a single charge. In an equivalent test, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro went for over 8 hours.
There’s no doubt that Apple’s flagship tablet came out ahead in this category.
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a more flexible design, a noticeably nicer screen, longer battery life, additional wireless options, the convenience of a fingerprint scanner, and better cameras. On the other hand, the 2016 MacBook is a bit more portable, OS X is definitely more powerful than iOS, and the speakers are louder.
The iPad Pro outperformed the Core m3 version of the MacBook, but the Core m5 version was the faster still.
The laptop has a very nice touchpad, but the tablet’s entire display is a touchpad. The MacBook’s single USB-C port is functionally quite similar to the iPad’s single Lightning port. Adding the Apple Smart Keyboard to the iPad Pro makes these two roughly equivalent for typing.
In a fairly direct cost comparison, a 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 256GB of storage and an Apple Smart Keyboard is $1268. A 12-inch MacBook 2016 with the same amount of storage and the Core m3 processor is $1299.
That is the most affordable laptop model, but people who can get by with less built-in storage can get an iPad Pro with 32GB of capacity for considerably less money: $799.
On the opposite end of the scale, the MacBook with a Core m5 chip and 512GB of storage is $1599. A fully-loaded iPad Pro with 256GB of storage, 4G, Smart Keyboard, and Apple Pencil is $1497.
Clearly, those who don’t need or want OS X can save money by going with the iPad Pro.