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How to use iPad as a Mac replacement and why you'd want to

iPad Pro can replace the MacBook Pro for some users

There's no question that it is possible to get work done on iPad, but there are tradeoffs. Here's what you need to know about replacing your Mac with iPad.

Apple set off quite the debate when it asked users a simple conceptual question, "What's a computer?" The answer seemed obvious, but the tech-devout couldn't agree.

People try to define computers based on their personal needs, so if the iPad won't work for them, they believe it won't work for anyone. That's obviously not true, but the iPad can't support every workflow — not yet. And, the iPad is better at some things than the Mac.

If you're iPad-curious, here's what you need to know about shifting some work away from Mac, or ditching it for iPad entirely. This piece will focus on the costs, exclusive functionality differences, and a brief overview of iPadOS limitations to help you better understand how and why you might decide to go iPad-only.

The key is figuring out what you need to do, and using the hardware how it's intended to be used.

13-inch iPad Pro versus 14-inch MacBook Pro

The closest direct comparison between the iPad lineup and Mac lineup is the 13-inch iPad Pro and 14-inch MacBook Pro. If you have about $2,500 (or $3,000 depending on iPad configuration), these are the machines you can afford.

iPad Pro and MacBook Pro next to each other in clamshell mode
Choosing between iPad and Mac will depend on your workflows and finances

The 13-inch iPad Pro with 1TB of storage and a Magic Keyboard comes out to $2,248 (check M4 iPad Pro 13-inch prices). The 14-inch MacBook Pro with M3, 16GB of RAM, and 1TB of storage is $1,999 (compare 14-inch MacBook Pro prices).

Add an Apple Pencil Pro for $129, $200 for cellular, and $100 for Nano Texture glass, and your cart will reach $2,677 for the iPad Pro. There's nothing else to add to the MacBook Pro, so the price stays at $1,999 unless you add more RAM or storage.

So, going iPad-only at this tier already requires a significant financial investment versus a similarly priced MacBook Pro. Of course, you don't have to buy the latest and greatest iPad and accessories to get an iPad-only setup, but you'll know based on your needs.

Even after buying the iPad Pro you want and the accessories you need, there is still a pile of money that can be spent on building the perfect modular computer setup. The most significant challenge of going iPad-only isn't necessarily about software constraints — it's the financial investment.

The naked robotic core realized

There is a concept in computing called the naked robotic core. I'm not sure where the concept originated, but it is the idea that, eventually, a portable unit will contain everything about a user and can offer different interaction paradigms based on what it connects to.

An iPad Pro with a colorful wallpaper featuring many Apple gadgets surrounding the letters 'ai'
iPad Pro can become whatever you need it to be based on paired accessories

A MacBook Pro is a complete unit. No matter what you do to it, it is still a laptop. Even if it is connected to a desktop via a hub, its form factor is a laptop.

The iPad Pro, however, can be a touch tablet, drawing tablet, laptop, desktop, or gaming machine. It all depends on what's paired with it at the time.

Yes, you can connect a game controller to a MacBook or plug in a Wacom drawing tablet, but in those cases, it's still a laptop. The MacBook never loses its keyboard because you don't need it, but an iPad does.

That's the essence of the naked robotic core. That concept generally makes the iPad more exciting as a paradigm, so some might choose it over a traditional Mac.

iPad as a Mac replacement: hardware

For this discussion, I will stick with the 13-inch iPad Pro and 14-inch MacBook Pro we specced above. Regardless of if you're coming from a Mac Studio or MacBook Air, the same principles apply.

iPad Pro next to MacBook Pro on a desk
Try removing the MacBook Pro from its keyboard and you will have a problem

13-inch iPad Pro has an Ultra Retina XDR display with ProMotion, P3 color, and 1,000 nits SDR/HDR brightness. As of May 2024, when this was written, it was the best display you can buy in an Apple product and likely in a consumer product, period.

Inevitably, Apple will eventually introduce tandem OLED to a Mac or external display. But at least for now, you have to get an iPad Pro to access Apple's best display.

The iPad Pro is also the thinnest product Apple sells and the 13-inch model only weighs 2.75 pounds with the Magic Keyboard attached, 1.28 pounds without. The 14-inch MacBook Pro with M3 weighs 3.4 pounds, and the 13-inch MacBook Air is 2.7 pounds for comparison.

We're not going to dive into processor specs, but the M4 is much faster than M3. Apple will inevitably upgrade the MacBook Pro with the latest chipsets, so these performance distinctions aren't entirely relevant to the discussion.

If you purchase an iPad Pro with M4 and 1TB of storage, you'll get 16GB of RAM and a 10-core CPU with the option of adding Nano Texture. Nothing in the iPad App Store will tax the processor.

iPad as a Mac replacement: Accessories

iPad Pro's design is a significant part of what makes it a possible Mac replacement. Its ability to attach different accessories to perform various functions makes it unique as a platform.

iPad Pro in a Magic Keyboard case next to an Apple Pencil
Pair iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil Pro

Magnets in the back of the iPad Pro allow it to align with accessories like keyboards, cases, and stands without needing a clamp or shelf. These magnets are part of what makes iPad so modular since it is as easy as moving the iPad Pro from one form factor to another using only the magnets.

There is a single Thunderbolt/USB-4 port that allows users to attach a variety of accessories. A single cable connected to a Thunderbolt dock will effortlessly attach any connected storage, keyboard, trackpad, monitor, and power supply.

Pull the iPad off a desktop stand, unplug the Thunderbolt cable, and then grab an Apple Pencil to draw or edit photos. It is an excellent workflow for artists.

Attach iPad Pro to a magnetic stand and grab a game controller, and it becomes a portable game console with a 13-inch display. Between emulators, Apple Arcade, the App Store, and game streaming, iPad Pro is one of the most versatile gaming machines available.

iPad Pro M4 in 11-inch and 13-inch

M4 iPad Pro

Apple's M4 iPad Pro comes in two sizes -- the 11-inch and 13-inch -- and is the thinnest Apple product to exist upon its release.
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iPad as a Mac replacement: software

There is a lot to discuss about the iPad and its operating system, but we won't get too deep in the weeds here. The basic overview is this — because iPadOS is built with iOS at its foundation, it is limited in what it can do versus macOS.

An iPadOS screenshot of the Home Screen shown in an iPad frame.
iPadOS 17 introduced interactive widgets for the Home Screen

That said, most of the work that can be performed on macOS can be done on iPadOS. There are some significant exceptions, and many have to do with the lack of access to the underlying file system or terminal.

Sure, there's Swift Playgrounds and you can technically build and publish an app on an iPad, but only for very specific and limited implementations. Serious app development is still only possible on the Mac with Xcode.

Web development, IT management, and anything with server-based tools will fall flat on iPadOS due to how the system is built. Podcasters can't reliably record on an iPad, and there isn't a real backup solution beyond iCloud.

Many niche jobs require specialized software only available on Mac or Windows. I'm not here to tell you the iPad can replace the Mac for everyone, but the number of people it can replace the Mac for is getting bigger every year.

Only you know your workflow and specific needs. There are many excellent apps and tools available in the iPad App Store, so you'll have to determine if you're able to go iPad-only.

An expensive path to the future of computing

You've got $3,000 burning a hole in your pocket and are curious about a potential futuristic computing device. Sure, you could buy a MacBook and be secure in the fact that it'll do any task without question except work as a drawing tablet.

13-inch iPad Pro in a Magic Keyboard, shut on a desk with Apple Pencil Pro attached
Buying into a 13-inch iPad Pro will likely cost more than a 14-inch MacBook Pro

However, you're here because you want something more modular. Rather than own multiple products that are purpose-built for different tasks, the iPad represents a single product that can fit various paradigms.

If you've determined that iPadOS won't be a limitation for your workflows and you've got the money for it, you're ready to jump to an iPad-only setup. If you have more cash available, then perhaps you may consider jumping to Apple Vision Pro as a computing alternative — but that's an even bigger leap.

Buying into the hardware is only the start. My ideal iPad Pro setup involves having multiple areas in the home available to take over as an iPad access point.

My office desk setup has an iPad Pro magnetic mount that keeps the display floating level next to a Studio Display. A single cable connects it to a Thunderbolt dock and accessories.

An iPad Pro connected to a Studio Display with a keyboard and trackpad below. Apple Vision Pro is on the desk.
Stage Manager allows iPad Pro to connect to an external display and fill the 16:9 screen

I keep the Magic Keyboard nearby so I can move the iPad Pro there and carry it out in laptop mode. In the living room, I keep a magnetic stand available so it can be propped up on the coffee table.

My bedroom has another magnetic stand with a keyboard on a small table. It is a good spot to wind down and write in Drafts to paste the text into Apple's Journal app.

The modular nature of this setup is pricey, but once you've got all the components in place, it feels seamless and futuristic. Carrying this naked robotic core through my home and setting it in place to fit whatever need I have at the time is excellent, and you can't do that with a Mac.

Buy what you need

This piece isn't meant to convince you to abandon your Mac and all of your comfortable workflows. It exists to answer the simple question of whether it is possible to go iPad-only and what that actually entails versus using a Mac.

There's also the hybrid approach. You can own multiple computers and use them for whatever needs they best serve.

Whatever the case, there is no wrong answer. Buy what you need and use what gets your work done. If that's a 13-inch iPad Pro, then that's great — welcome to Steve Jobs' vision of a post-PC future.