The perennial question for anyone in need of mobile computing: Should you buy a full laptop, or should you buy a tablet and try to use it like a laptop? The second option is very feasible with the latest iPad models.
The iPad isn’t a laptop, but it’s creeping ever-closer. Apple’s latest tablets work with keyboards and mice and have USB-C ports, and some even share the same system-on-chip as the latest MacBooks. In many use cases, an iPad can now replace a laptop entirely.
Which iPad Is the Closest to a Laptop?
The iPad Pro is the most laptop-like tablet that Apple produces. It’s available in 11-inch (from $799) and 12.9-inch (from $1,099) screen sizes, has Apple’s new M1 chip inside, and charges over a single USB-C port like most new laptops.
The 10.9-inch iPad Air (from $599) comes in at a close second but doesn’t quite offer the same level of performance. The Air has USB-C charging but is powered by the slightly older A14 Bionic system-on-chip. Both the Pro and Air range are compatible with the new Magic Keyboard accessory, which does a lot to make the iPad feel more laptop-like.
In 2020, Apple began transitioning its Mac range to Apple Silicon ARM-based chips, starting with the M1. The M1 is effectively a successor to the A14 system-on-chip that Apple was already using in its iPad and iPhone range. So, while the iPad Pro wasn’t the first to get the M1 chip in name, the lines between it and the A14 are blurry.
Even though the iPad Pro shares the same chip as Apple’s Mac range, the performance is limited by the iPad’s lack of cooling and form factor. The 24-inch iMac and 13-inch MacBook Pro have fans inside that allow them to remain under load for longer before clock speeds are reduced. However, the iPad Pro relies on the aluminum chassis alone to disperse heat.
Another way that M1 iPad performance doesn’t quite match up with M1 MacBooks is in the way that iPadOS manages RAM. The 2021 iPad Pro has 8GB of RAM or 16GB on the 1TB and 2TB models. At present, processes can only use 5GB of RAM, regardless of which iPad Pro you have. This means that a single app cannot use all of the iPad Pro’s power, although more RAM means better multitasking performance.
Which screen size you opt for can also make a big impact. The larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro provides more screen real estate for better multitasking and is also ideal for artists who appreciate a larger canvas. The smaller 11-inch Pro and 10.9-inch Air feel more tablet-like since they suit handheld use a lot better, but they sacrifice pixels to do so.
Add a Keyboard or Mouse to Any iPad
Even if you have a regular old iPad, you can make it more laptop-like by adding a keyboard and mouse. You can do this with both wired and wireless peripherals that use Bluetooth, provided that you have the right adapters for the job.
If you have a USB-C iPad like the Pro or Air, you can attach a USB-C mouse or keyboard or use a standard USB-A to USB-C to adapt peripherals with the older connector type. There’s nothing to enable or install, most keyboards should “just work” wherever you can input text.
Connecting a Bluetooth keyboard or mouse is also possible. Simply head to Settings > Bluetooth on your iPad, and then put your keyboard or mouse into pairing mode. When you see it appear in the list, tap on it to pair. In addition to regular Bluetooth mice and keyboards, Apple’s Magic Trackpad 2 can also be used with iPadOS.
There’s a number of handy iPad keyboard shortcuts that you can use to get around iPadOS faster than ever, including the usual copy and paste (Command+C and Command+V, respectively) and app switching (Command+Tab).
To customize your mouse pointer’s appearance, head to Settings > Accessibility > Pointer Control, where you can change the pointer size, color, shape, and more. Apple has a list of mouse gestures that you can use with your iPad.
Get Some iPad-Specific Peripherals
If you have an iPad Pro or iPad Air, Apple’s Magic Keyboard (from $299) is one of the best accessories that you can buy. In addition to being a fully fledged keyboard with an integrated trackpad, it’s a great stand that makes using your tablet on a desk or another flat surface far more pleasant.
Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro
The Magic Keyboard is comfortable to type on and uses a hinged design that allows you to adjust the viewing angle. It sits a little higher than the average laptop screen, and it folds flat to protect your tablet in transit. You also get a conveniently placed USB-C port for expansion or charging.
Unfortunately, the Magic Keyboard is an expensive accessory that might be hard to justify. If you’re on a tighter budget, look at Logitech’s Combo Touch for 11-inch and 12.9-inch Pro models. It features a Surface-style keyboard and trackpad, with an integrated stand in a folio design that also protects your iPad.
Cheaper Magic Keyboard Alternative
iPad docks are also available, which allow you to connect many more devices to your iPad Pro. For example, the Anker PowerExpand 6-in-1 for iPad Pro includes a media card reader, a 3.5mm stereo jack, a USB 3.0 Type-A, an HDMI out, and a USB-C passthrough for charging or other accessories. It’s small enough to carry around with you or even leave permanently attached to your tablet.
Using Your iPad with a Monitor
Laptops are prized for their portability, but they can become just as useful as desktops when paired with an external monitor. iPads can also be used with external displays, although their usefulness in this regard often depends on what you’re trying to do or which app you’re using.
For example, connecting an iPad to an external display mirrors the iPad’s screen for the most part. Apps like iMovie allow you to choose whether to have the timeline on the display or just use it as a monitor for the project output. Photos will push images and videos to the monitor, which is a handy feature to have available when editing.
Unfortunately, the iPad will only display in a 4:3 aspect ratio while connected to an external display. This can look a little odd on a standard widescreen monitor, with black bars appearing on either side of the screen.
If you’re determined to use your iPad with an external display, there are three ways to go about it:
- USB-C to USB-C: If both your iPad and monitor have USB-C connectors, use the USB-C cable that came with your monitor to connect it. If your monitor has USB-PD, it will charge your iPad.
- USB-C to an appropriate connector: You can take a cable from your iPad’s USB-C port to an adapter that’s appropriate for your monitor (like the Anker PowerExpand 6-in-1).
- Lightning Digital AV Adapter to HDMI: If your iPad has a Lightning port, Apple’s own Lightning Digital AV Adapter allows you to connect to an HDMI-capable display.
iPad Pro Expansion Dongle
These iPadOS Features Help, Too
iPadOS has strayed from the iOS mold, with Apple migrating features like the Mac dock to the iPad to make it a more productive workspace. These features make it much easier to use your iPad as a laptop, particularly when it comes to multitasking.
You can use up to three apps at once on your iPad: two open side by side with Split View, and a third floating on top via Slide Over. To do this, open an app, and then swipe up to reveal the iPad dock again. Tap and drag your second app to the side of the screen that you’d like it to occupy.
While in this mode, you can grab the central divider to decide how much screen space each app gets. You can then add a third app by swiping up to reveal the dock, and then tapping and dragging the app onto the central divider between the other apps.
While you have two apps open side by side, you can drag and drop between them. This allows you to do things like drag an image from Photos into a new message in Mail or upload a file from Files to a cloud storage service like Google Drive.
The dock is also really handy for getting things done. You can remove items by tapping and dragging or add apps by grabbing the app icon and moving it into the dock. The portion of the dock to the right of your pinned items will display recently used apps for quick recall.
App Substitutes and Other Shortcomings
iPadOS has become considerably more laptop-like over the years, but you might find yourself turning to app substitutes for some tasks. While Safari on iOS is a fully fledged web browser, not all websites play nicely. One example of this is using a content-management system like WordPress, where navigation can be a chore.
Web apps that are designed for traditional browsers (rather than touch ones) can also exhibit erratic behavior. There are app versions of most common web apps that do the job just fine, but this requires juggling a lot of apps rather than simply using a browser, as is preferable on a laptop.
Apple’s approach to the iPhone and iPad limits the operating system in ways that macOS doesn’t. Common system tasks, like formatting a USB stick, can’t be completed on an iPad, nor is it easy to sideload apps from sources other than the App Store.
The app selection available to you in the App Store might determine what you can use your iPad for. Things are a lot better than they once were, with Adobe bringing a proper version of Photoshop to the iPad at last, but the range of software that you’d find on macOS or Windows simply isn’t there.
Not Quite a Laptop Yet
The iPad isn’t quite there in terms of being a true laptop replacement, and it might never quite get there due to the restrictive approach that Apple has taken with iPadOS.
But if you only use your laptop for browsing the web, taking notes, word processing, and other light tasks, then an iPad can likely replace your laptop 99% of the time. Figure out which iPad is right for you with our iPad buying guide.