For seven years, I worked as an Expert, Store Trainer, and Worldwide Instructional Designer for Apple. So as you can imagine, I’ve had an innumerable amount of questions and conversations with customers and team members all over the world about tech. And one of the ones I heard most was, “Can an iPad really replace my laptop?” Most people you ask that question of, provide definitive, knee-jerk responses, like “absolutely” or “no way.” But the actual answer, like with most tech, is usually: “It depends.”
iPad has struggled to differentiate itself from iPhone from day one. It’s focused more on convenience and mobility instead of productivity and extensive functionality. And that, combined with a lack of desktop-like features, makes iPad feel more like an iPhone rather than a unique product somewhere between an iPhone and a Mac. It’s why the objection, “It’s just a big iPhone” was common among customers for years. And when the iPhone/laptop combo works so well for people, where does iPad fit?
Enter iOS 11. With new, desktop-like features (laptops run a desktop OS), Apple has transformed the iPad and made the strongest argument yet for it to replace your laptop. But is it enough, and will it work for your needs?
In this post, we’ll have a look at the biggest changes to iPad with iOS 11, when an iPad is most suitable as a laptop replacement, and when a laptop is still the best choice. We’ll even look at a THIRD OPTION you’re probably not aware of that gives you the best of both worlds. But let’s start with taking a look at what you should think about (but aren’t) before making any purchase.
What to consider before buying a new computer
When looking for a new computer, many (I’d even argue, most) people claim they “need a laptop”—usually because that’s what they’ve always had. And so they naturally think that’s what they still need because they haven’t done these two things:
1. Assess what they actually do on a computer
2. Learn about the changes in technology since they last made a laptop purchase
Habits change over time. And what you did or were looking to do with your laptop when you bought it, may be different from what you do now on a computer. This is why salespeople (in theory) exist: to discover how you use your device and make you aware of all relevant options so that you can make an informed decision. Unfortunately, many salespeople aren’t great at doing this. It’s why when you’re looking at a new device, you’ll almost always hear them ask, “What do you want to do with it?”
The problem with that question is that if you’ve never used it before (like an iPad), then you may not know what you can do with it (which is why you’re asking for help). So here’s a few things you should think about before making a decision:
• How have my habits changed since I last bought a computer?
• What apps/applications/programs do I use most?
• Where do I use my computer most (couch, patio, bed, etc.)?
• Who else uses my computer other than me, like a spouse or kids (I’ll touch on this later)?
• What’s my budget? Or better yet, what’s the most I want to spend out the door (we’ll address this one later on)?
When you bought your last computer, you may have needed it more for work or school—but that may not apply anymore. Maybe you needed Microsoft Office—but don’t realize that Word is now available on iPad. Or that you don’t “need” Word anymore—instead, you want an easy way to create documents that you can share with others (there are lots of free options for that). And maybe you used to sit at a desk when working on your computer, but now prefer sitting on the couch.
There’s always going to be some things you won’t know until you try them in your day-to-day routine—like your patience level in touching with your finger to navigate instead of pointing and clicking with a mouse (and that’s why return policies exist). But until you assess how your habits have changed, you could be (over) spending on something that doesn’t give you the best experience.
Biggest changes for iPad in iOS 11
Like previous versions of iOS, iOS 11 has hundreds of new features—many of which you may never notice or even directly use. But the ones that are relevant to the iPad/laptop debate—and the features Apple’s pushing most—focus primarily on multitasking and file management.
Multitasking is one of the biggest hurdles iPad users struggle with compared to a laptop. The inability to see and manage multiple apps at the same time and easily work in-between them is where laptops have had a significant advantage. But the new multitasking features in iOS 11 help bring it much closer to a desktop OS-like experience.
A new Mac-like Dock gives you quick access to a lot more apps or folders (which can contain even more apps)—and suggested apps based on how you work—from any screen or app. So no more leaving the app you’re in just to see another app. And the Dock makes working with Slide Over and Split View (features continued over from iOS 10) even easier, too.
Now when you want to bring an app side-by-side with another app, you can swipe up on the screen with one finger to bring up your Dock, then just drag the app you want right onto the screen next to the app you’re currently using. And with the new App Switcher, you’re presented with spaces—windows of opened apps or grouped apps—instead of just a list of cards. So it’s easier to see, access, and manage all of your open apps. But arguably the most useful new feature that takes advantage of this is Drag and Drop.
With Drag and Drop, you can easily move things like text, photos, files, webpage links (URL), and more from one app to another—either when side-by-side in Split View, or between apps using multitasking. And because iPad supports multitouch, you can even select and move multiple items at the same time—which makes grouping apps into folders much (much) easier. For now, Drag and Drop only works within Apple-based apps. But they’ve opened it up to developers to include it in their apps, as well.
Other than multitasking, file management is another issue that fuels the iPad/laptop debate. The inability to have a single place to see and access files is the heart of a desktop-OS experience. And while that still isn’t fully realized in iOS 11, the new Files app makes it pretty darn close.
The Files app brings a dedicated (and sorely needed) data management system to iPad. You can browse, search, organize, and manage all your files in one place. And best of all, it’s not just Apple-based files. It also works with files in other apps across cloud services, like Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and more. So now downloading, moving, and sharing files is (finally) much easier and comparable to a desktop-OS for most people’s needs.
When an iPad is (possibly) better for you than a laptop
In talking with thousands of customers, I’ve discovered that most people do three things on a computer: check mail, browse the web, and engage in social media. And you can throw in the occasional document creation, but email, texting, or social media may take the place of that now. If that sounds like the bulk of what you do on a computer, then yes, an iPad can absolutely replace a laptop. And because those things don’t require a lot of processing power, you don’t have to buy a top of the line iPad Pro—you can get any iPad model. So you can have a similar experience for much less money.
But there’s more to this debate than just a comparative checklist of what an iPad can do versus a laptop. What people tend to forget about are the more intangible things that can affect your long-term ownership. And these could also help make you lean more towards an iPad.
For example: while it’s still not as rampant as Windows PCs, malware for Mac has started to grow. iPad, however, has been immune. That’s because there’s no way for files to get direct access to your system, since all the apps you download come from one, single, managed place: the App Store. So even if malware isn’t a huge issue on Mac, on iPad, it’s non-existent—giving you one less worry. And speaking of apps… while laptops certainly can run any app, the most thriving app market right now on any device is arguably the App Store for iPhone and iPad. So it’s highly unlikely you won’t find an app (or several) to help you do the things you need to do.
Ongoing maintenance for iPad is much cheaper, too. AppleCare+ for iPad is only $99. And if you’re a klutz and give your iPad an unsuspected boo-boo, the service adds up to two incidents of accidental damage coverage for a service fee of $49 each. Compare that to AppleCare+ for Mac which starts at $249 for laptops, with accidental damage coverage that ranges from $99-$299 per incident.
And if you find (after assessing your needs) that you do like sitting on your couch or your bed when using a computer, iPad not only offers you more ways of interacting with it but more ways to configure it, too. With the available variety of cases, some with built-in physical keyboards, you can set it up and use it in ways you can’t do with a laptop. So it’s more comfortable to use in the places you’re most comfortable.
Apple has made the strongest argument yet for replacing your laptop with an iPad. So if it can do nearly as much as a laptop, in more ways, with (possibly) less expensive long-term costs, why would you want a laptop, instead?
When a laptop is (possibly) better for you than an iPad
Yes, you can do nearly everything on an iPad that you can do on a laptop (it is a computer, after all). But the fluidity, depth, and even sometimes ease or speed in which you can do them isn’t as good as it is on something that runs a full desktop-OS. So three questions you should ask yourself are: do you need to do more than basic things in your most used apps? What degree of control do you want to have while working with them? And how much patience do you have?
For example: if you work with spreadsheets, chances are you work a lot in Microsoft Excel. While Excel is available in the App Store, there’s a lot of key features you may use that aren’t supported on iPad—such as workbooks (.xls), templates (.xltx), and macros. And there are similar limitations when using Word or PowerPoint.
Or if you need to edit videos in any (semi) professional way, the apps available for iPad aren’t as powerful as desktop-based apps, like Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro, or Avid. The same goes for graphic editing with apps like Photoshop, Illustrator, or Sketch. And people who use all of those apps still rely heavily on specific keyboard shortcuts and a mouse for speed and accuracy—both of which don’t fully work (or work at all) on iPad. But that granular control doesn’t just apply to working in apps.
iOS 11 makes some great strides with multitasking, but there are still restrictions when it comes to resizing, moving, and managing windows. If you’re someone who likes or needs to have more than a few windows open while working on things (I currently have nine open: four browser windows, one document app, a graphic design app, and three different messaging apps), you can’t beat a desktop-OS.
And finally, it’s good to understand your level of patience. Habits don’t just mean what apps you use, but how you use the computer, as a whole. The reality of moving from a desktop-based OS to a mobile OS can be slightly infuriating, at times. And that’s not to say iOS is complicated (on the contrary). But by its nature, it’s limited in what it can do compared to macOS. And whenever you use something you’re unfamiliar with, there’s a natural level of frustration that inevitably kicks in. So a significant benefit to a laptop is that—outside of some new features—there’s nearly no learning curve because it’s something you already know. And for many people, that’s a big enough reason to stay with what they have.
But what if you’re not using apps to do complicated things? Or you don’t have a ton of apps open at the same time? There’s still one big thing you need to consider that I mentioned near the top of this post: and that’s how many people other than you are using this device?
Currently, there’s still no consumer support for multiple users on iPad (the feature exists, but only for educational institutes, as pictured above). So if you and your kids or your spouse all want to use the same device but keep your information separate, a laptop is still your only option.
A THIRD OPTION you probably haven’t thought about
What ultimately makes the decision for a lot of people when it comes to the iPad/laptop debate is the price. The entry-level 10.7-inch iPad Pro starts at $649. And if you want a keyboard case or even an Apple Pencil, that’s another $159 and $99 respectively—bringing the total to nearly $1,000 after tax. If you opt for the 12.9-inch, it can cost as much as $1,229 (depending on the configuration)—and that’s without the Apple Pencil or keyboard case. Comparatively, the entry-level Mac laptop is the MacBook Air, which starts at $999. And the popular 12-inch MacBook starts at the same price as the top end 12.9-inch iPad Pro at $1,299.
No matter which option you go for, you can expect to spend between $1,000 and $1,500 (or more). So for many people, it’s a decision of one or the other. But what if you could have both an iPad and a Mac for a similar price?
We’ve discussed how your habits may have changed. So instead of thinking about “needing a laptop” or “needing an iPad,” think about it like:
You want a computer that’s easy to use on-the-go or around the house. But you also want one that’s powerful enough for bigger tasks.
Enter an iPad and a Mac mini.
If you’re unfamiliar with Mac mini, you’re not alone. Apple doesn’t talk about it too much. But it’s a great option for people looking at getting a Mac. And at a starting price of $499, it’s the least expensive way to get a Mac. So you can get a computer that runs the same, full desktop-OS as the laptops, at a fraction of the cost. You can connect it to any screen, like your HDTV or a standalone monitor, if you’d prefer to sit at a desk. The wireless keyboard (Apple’s Magic Keyboard or any third-party Bluetooth keyboard) you can use with the Mac mini also works with the iPad. And because you’re pairing it with an iPad, you don’t need your Mac to be portable. You can get the Mac mini and a wireless keyboard and mouse for under $680… for a Mac!
As for iPad, remember that iOS 11 doesn’t just run on iPad Pro—it also runs on the new iPad (which was the iPad Air 2). And the iPad starts at $329—half the price of the iPad Pro. So you can get all the latest features for less money. Granted it has less storage space, but surfing the web, checking email, using social media, streaming Netflix, and lots of other basic things you’re most likely doing takes up very little space.
So you can get an iPad Pro with a couple of accessories, or a MacBook Air for around $1,000. Or you can get an iPad and a Mac for around the same price. And if you were expecting to spend between $1,000-$2,000 on either of these options, then you can either step up to a beefier iPad or Mac mini—or add accessories, like AirPods, AppleCare+, an Apple TV, or more, for nearly the same amount!
However, if you really want an iPad Pro, but don’t want to pay that much, remember that Apple sells refurbished devices that are fully tested and certified, and include the same one-year warranty as brand new ones. Currently, you can get a 9.7-inch iPad Pro for $469. And if you add an Apple Pencil (which you can also get refurbished) and a keyboard case—plus the Mac mini—you’re still only around $1,200.
There are many more combinations with these two devices and accessories that run around a similar price range. It’s a great combination that I’ve recommended to many customers—all who’ve said they never thought of it, but ultimately ended up very happy with their solution.
In conclusion (finally)…
This is by no means an exhaustive list of reasons for why you should get an iPad or a laptop (if it was, it could be a doctoral dissertation). Hell, I could do an entire post just on hard drive versus cloud storage as it relates to iPad and laptops (maybe something you should think about, too). But hopefully, it’s helped challenge your thinking about what your current needs are when it comes to buying a new computer—as well as which option might be best for you. You can’t make an informed and confident decision without knowing all of your options. And after all, it’s your money… make sure you’re spending it on the right thing, not just something.