Tech Guide

I tested the new iPad Pro and it still can't replace my laptop like Apple says it can

The iPad Pro is the best tablet you can buy, but you'll still need a laptop
The iPad Pro is the best tablet you can buy, but you'll still need a laptop
Key Points
  • CNBC's Todd Haselton reviews Apple's new 11-inch iPad Pro.
  • It's probably the best tablet you can buy in terms of premium features like a good display and nice design.
  • But it doesn't fully replace a laptop like Apple has promised, largely because iOS doesn't feel like it offers as much power as macOS. So, most people should just buy a laptop, or Apple's cheaper $329 iPad.

When Apple announced the new iPad Pro last month, it tried yet again to drive one point home: the iPad can replace your computer. The company even said that iPads are outselling laptops from all the top traditional computer makers.

Here's the problem: I've never seen the iPad as much more than a machine that's good for watching movies on airplanes and getting light work done here and there.

Does the new iPad Pro change that? No, it doesn't.

I've been testing the iPad for the past several days, and while it's a very nice tablet, it's still not capable of replacing my regular laptop. In fact, most people should probably just buy a Mac, or Apple's cheaper $329 regular iPad.

What's good

The new 11-inch iPad Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There's a lot to like about the iPad Pro. (There are 11-inch and 12.9-inch models. I tested the former.)

Both models ditch the home button and use Face ID. That means, like Apple's newest iPhones, it'll unlock in a split second right when you look at it. The home button is gone and there's more screen in its place. I love how easy it is, and it meant I could just pick up the iPad and start doing things quicker.

Apple also switched to a USB-C port on the bottom of the iPad, instead of the Lightning port found on iPhones and other iPads. The switch to USB-C has its ups and downs. It means you can finally attach a monitor or a camera to offload pictures.

I tried this with a phone to see if I could move pictures off of an Android device, but it didn't work. Maybe it works better with regular digital cameras. I liked that the iPad was also able to charge one of my Android phones, which uses USB-C, however. Sadly, it didn't charge my iPhone, which still uses a Lightning cable. You need to buy a separate Lighting-to-USB-C cable from Apple if you want to charge your iPhone with the iPad Pro.

USB-C replaces Lightning on the bottom of the new iPad Pro.
Magdalena Petrova | CNBC

The new iPad Pro is also really fast. I never noticed it slow down at all, even when I was using complex AR apps, like one that let me zoom in and around a 3D version of the human skull, but you can do that with last year's model, too. Eventually, Adobe will launch a full version of Photoshop, which should really take advantage of the extra power. It's not available yet, however, so I couldn't try it.

The battery life is still really solid. I've always been able to easily fly across the country and watch movies on my 10.5-inch iPad Pro without hitting the battery too hard. My iPad Pro lasted from Friday evening until Monday morning, and still had 39 percent charge remaining. I used it for writing, light gaming, watching some movies and chatting with friends.

The new 11-inch iPad Pro
Magdalena Petrova | CNBC

If you want to really use the iPad as a laptop, however, you need to buy a keyboard. Apple sells one for $179, so I bought one for the review.

I'm impressed that I was able to type pretty efficiently on it. While the keys felt good for typing, the rest of the case felt and looked really cheap. That's a bummer considering the price. I'd skip it altogether look for a third-party option from a company like Logitech.

Likewise, there's a new Apple Pencil 2 stylus that attaches with magnets to the side of the iPad where it can charge. That's much better than having to plug the pencil in to a Lightning port, which was Apple's solution on previous iPad Pro models. The Pencil 2 performed awfully similar to the original Apple Pencil, but I liked that I could automatically switch between tools, like the eraser and a writing pen, by tapping the side of the Apple Pencil.

What's bad

The new 11-inch iPad Pro with keyboard accessory.
Magdalena Petrova | CNBC

Despite what Apple has said time and time again, I can't actually do work on the iPad Pro, which means it didn't replace my work laptop at all.

Part of this is because iOS has barely changed over the past couple of years, and it doesn't support apps that I need to use for work. Apple likes to suggest the iPad Pro is good at multitasking, but it's not close to what you can do on a traditional computer.

Even when I'm writing outside of our work system on the iPad, I hate that I have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to open another app. I appreciate that I can run two apps side by side, but I liked windowed applications such as on a Mac or Windows computer, where I can quickly move between apps without having to swipe around on a display.

The new 11-inch iPad Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I need to be able to write and chat in my corporate Slack chat app, draft up a story in the web browser, pop open the email app and edit photos, often all at once, or quickly switch between them without thinking. I can do all of this and switch between each app in seconds on a Mac or a Windows 10 computer mostly thanks to a mouse. But the lack of a mouse and a true multitasking environment makes all of this much more cumbersome on an iPad.

This is just my workflow, so if yours involves sending emails and working in Excel, then maybe it's a good replacement.

Part of me wishes the iPad had two different user interfaces: one for tablet mode when you don't need to work and just want to tap around to open apps and kick back to watch a movie. And then another user interface for when you need to work, maybe one that's similar or just like macOS on a Mac computer. Then, maybe, I'd be able to do a lot more with an iPad.

Should you buy it?

The new 11-inch iPad Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The iPad Pro is great, but it isn't for most people. Let me explain why.

If you buy the entry-level $799 iPad Pro with 64 GB of storage, the $179 keyboard (and just forget the Pencil), you're going to spend $979. That puts you right in the range of a $1,000 laptop.

So, it's reasonable to assume if you're going to spend this much for a computer, you should buy one that is capable of doing a lot. It makes more sense to buy the new MacBook Air (which starts at $1,200 with 128 GB of storage.) Then, you're pretty much guaranteed to be able to do what you want without trade-offs, and you cover all of your bases.

If you want an iPad for fun stuff, like apps and games and movies on the go, then buy the $329 iPad.

The screen is finally nice and sharp on the new MacBook Air
Todd Haselton | CNBC