Does the iPad lineup make sense now? Yes and no – Six Colors

The iPad lineup, May 2024.

Ever since Steve Jobs’s famous two-by-two grid of Apple devices, Apple aficionados have tried to cram the company’s product lines into neat little boxes.

In recent years, the iPad line has seemed exceptionally complex and difficult to delineate. Should you buy an iPad Air or an iPad Pro? What about the multiple low-end iPads? How does the mini fit into the equation?

With this week’s refreshes to the iPad Air and the iPad Pro, it seems as though some clarity might be returning to the tablet lineup…but it may have also introduced some new uncomfortable questions.

At what price iPad?

From a price perspective, Apple’s recent changes come in two extremes: the top and bottom of the lineup. The demise of the ninth-generation iPad and the price cut on the tenth-generation has clearly staked out the low end; on the high end, the iPad Pro has become even more expensive.

Here’s a chart of the available storage configurations. (I’m not including options like nano-texture screens and cellular connectivity.)

iPad storage configurations and prices, May 2024

Purely looking at price, I’d argue the iPad lineup actually makes much more sense now. The base-level “for most people” iPad is available in small and large capacities with a $150 markup for four times the storage. (Should it probably have 128GB on the low-end? Sure, but when it comes to margins, Apple’s gonna Apple.) Likewise, if a small screen is what you value above all else, the iPad mini remains a product in the lineup.

Where Apple has de-muddied the lineup, though, is in the mid-range. Previously, once you went higher than the paltry base of 64GB storage on the iPad Air, you quickly got into entry-level iPad Pro territory, then forcing you to make a more complex decision between more capacity and more capability at around the same price point. Rather than the simplicity of a decision based around more storage for more money, customers instead had to weight the ability to store more photos vs. Face ID which…how do you even?

In the new lineup, that’s not really a problem. The base-level iPad Airs now boast an acceptable 128GB of storage and are still priced well below an iPad Pro. You’ve go to go up to the top-tier iPad Airs before you really start competing with base level iPad Pros—which is as it should be.

From a feature standpoint, Apple’s made that delineation clear too. With powerful (and, thus, pricey) features like OLED displays, M4 chips, Face ID, and Thunderbolt, it’s clear that the iPad Pro really is being targeted at those who want the most power that an iPad can deliver.

Back in 2022, when trying to decide between the iPad Air and Pro I ultimately bought an 11-inch iPad Pro with an M1 chip and 128GB of storage for $799; a 256GB iPad Air would have cost only $50 less, and I got a lot for that extra $50. But today, the $999 starting point for the iPad Pro would definitely make me think twice, and I believe I’d probably end up with a cheaper (if less capable) iPad Air.

And you know what? That’s fine. I generally opt for the MacBook Air over the MacBook Pro too, and the iPad Air and Pro lines are now positioned more closely to the differences between the Mac laptop lines.

Though, speaking of which, let’s change gears here.

Putting on (Pro) Airs

The most expensive iPad Pros have always trodden on the toes of low-end Macs, but with these recent revision, that’s even more the case. As Jason wrote the other day, the iPad is no longer the future of computing; instead, it’s more of an alternative to the Mac, for those who want a touch interface with the flexibility to add a keyboard and trackpad.

Still, purely from a price perspective, things do get more confusing now. Consider the comparison between the iPad Pro and the MacBook Air. (All quoted prices are for the base level 13-inch (8-core CPU/8-core GPU) and 15-inch MacBook Air (8-core CPU/10-core GPU) models with 8GB of RAM.)

iPad Pro storage configurations vs. MacBook Air storage configurations, May 2024

Of course, some of the iPad Pro models have different amounts of cores and RAM, making this all a bit fraught. Not to mention that if you want a true comparison, you are probably adding at least a $349 Magic Keyboard into the mix.

Look, I get that it’s apples and oranges. People who prefer the iPad are going to get an iPad, and people who prefer the Mac are going to get the Mac. Some people might get both!

But zooming out, there are certain broader assumptions that become clear: the iPad Pro commands a price that is comparable to a Mac laptop, meaning that Apple kind of slots them into the same market.

Which is fine, as far as the hardware goes; the problem remains the software. Is a 13-inch iPad Pro with specs that are equivalent to—and in some cases, better—than a comparably-priced MacBook Air as capable as that MacBook Air? There are trade-offs, which would be perfectly reasonable…if the tradeoffs were really just about whether you want a detachable tablet or the ability to use an Apple Pencil.

But so many of the tradeoffs are about what has been hampered by Apple’s decision to have iPadOS spend years trying to reinvent the wheel. In the iPad’s earliest days, Apple was determined to obfuscate all those computer annoyances like file management and multitasking, only to eventually have to backtrack because it turned out people needed those abilities, annoying as they were.

So an iPad is comparable to a Mac laptop…except where it isn’t.

It’s raining shoes

All of this leaves me with a feeling I know well: of waiting for a shoe to drop. We’re about a month away from WWDC, when Apple will reveal the latest updates to its software platforms, including iPadOS.

Will the company unveil something major that makes us all sit up and think “Aha! This is the missing piece of the iPad puzzle!”? I’d like to say yes, but I worry I’d be Charlie Brown lining up to kick a football, only to end up once again with a head injury explaining why I don’t remember this next year.

Because even if the iPad does get something to deliver on that promise, it’s not as if the Mac is standing still. And I’m forced to ask myself: were Apple’s laptops to some day get touchscreens and Apple Pencil support and perhaps even a detachable screen…would there still be a need for an iPad Pro?

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @dmoren@zeppelin.flights or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is out now.]

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