Apple’s New IPad Pro Desperately Wants To Beat The AI PC

By Anshel Sag, Patrick Moorhead - June 14, 2024
The Apple iPad Pro with M4 chip
Anshel Sag

At Apple’s recent iPad event, the company announced two new iPad models, each in 11-inch and 13-inch sizes. This was the biggest announcement from Apple since the original launch of the iPad in 2010 in terms of new models and upgraded capabilities, and I believe these improvements are considerable across the board. However, there are clearly some holes in what Apple announced for the new iPad lineup and places where the company has exposed some of its vulnerabilities. As I’ll explore further in this piece, the company also wanted this event—along with its new M4 chip—to counter-message against the growing buzz coming from the Windows ecosystem about what will become Microsoft Copilot+ PCs.

iPad Air

With this refresh, the iPad Air gets an upgrade to the M2 processor from the M1 after two years, while maintaining the same $599 price point for the 10.9-inch model. It also introduces for the first time a 13-inch model of the iPad Air with the same specs, except that both models now start with 128GB default storage capacity, up from 64GB. Apple also did away with the pink colorway, going down to four colors for the new generation.

Probably one of the most confusing parts of the entire launch is that the new iPad Air is heavier (at 617g) than the absurdly thin and light new iPad Pro (579g), which was announced at the same event. I call it absurd because this iPad Pro likely sacrifices battery life for the sake of being so thin and light. One good thing that Apple did on both the new iPad Air and iPad Pro models was to move the front-facing camera to a landscape location, making it more friendly for traditional video calling apps. Apple also upgraded the iPad Air to Wi-Fi 6E, even though Wi-Fi 7 is now the standard for most devices (although nowhere near as ubiquitous in routers as Wi-Fi 6).

iPad Pro

The iPad Pro was really the star of the new iPad event, with a bevy of new features and, of course, the introduction of the Apple M4 processor with improved AI performance. It seems that Apple really tried to make the iPad Pro seem like an all-around device capable of productivity, creativity, gaming and content production. The only problem is that Apple has designed iPadOS to prevent the iPad Pro from ever truly competing with MacOS-based MacBooks. This is a problem because most people don’t consider iPadOS to be functional for multitasking. Furthermore, Apple continues to tell consumers that if they want a touch screen and 5G connectivity, they should get an iPad rather than a MacBook—which is also absurd. People should not be expected to buy two devices to gain the features that should inherently be available in one device to begin with.

Oddly, Apple mentioned that the M4 is a 10-core CPU with four performance cores and six efficiency cores, but during the launch it neglected to mention that the 10-core variant will be available only for the 1TB and 2TB versions of the iPad Pro. The “entry-level” iPad Pro 13, starting at $1,299, will have just three performance and six efficiency cores. Apple is also tying 16GB RAM to the 1TB and 2TB models, which means it’s offering only 8GB of RAM with the 256GB and 512GB models. Apple also limited its new optional $100 nano-texture antiglare feature to the 1TB and 2TB models.

Getting back to the M4, Apple claims that it is up to 50% faster than the M2 from the previous iPad Pro. Apple uses the M3 in its MacBook and MacBook Air, but it has skipped the M3 generation entirely for the iPad Pro. The new M4 also brings ray tracing to the iPad for the first time, which should be welcome for gaming titles and certain video rendering apps like Octane because it delivers 4x faster performance than M2. Apple also claims that M4 can deliver the same amount of performance as M2 at half the power and that M4 can deliver the same performance as the “latest PC chip in a thin-and-light laptop” at one-quarter the power.

Other than the M4 processor, the new iPad Pro sports a brand-new tandem-stacked OLED display. This tandem stacking allows for a 30% brighter display while also consuming 40% less power. Apple claims that it has 1000 nits of full-screen brightness and a peak brightness in small areas of 1600 nits. Samsung has been using OLED panels in its tablets since the Galaxy Tab 7.7 in 2011, so it’s nice to see Apple finally competing on this front. This display, paired with thin-film encapsulation, is one of the reasons Apple was able to deliver a 5.1mm thick iPad Pro, the thinnest device that Apple has ever created. In fact, it’s a level of thinness the rationale of which I’m not sure Apple has really explained; it definitely hasn’t explained what other sacrifices it made to achieve that thinness.

Moving on from the display, the iPad Pro also offers 5G connectivity for $199, $50 more than every other iPad that Apple has ever offered. As expected, Apple also includes Thunderbolt 4 wired connectivity over the USB-C port for super-fast wired data transfers with external drives or cameras. Mimicking its decision for the iPad Air, Apple has also opted to upgrade the iPad Pro to Wi-Fi 6E but not the latest Wi-Fi 7, which is readily available from all the major suppliers, including Apple’s preferred vendor Broadcom. I think this is a colossal miss, mostly because iPad Pro users are the ones most likely to benefit from the faster connectivity available over Wi-Fi 7.

Apple opted to downgrade the camera on the iPad Pro, taking away the ultra-wide-angle camera, which means that the device is not capable of using spatial video. Some people speculate that Apple did this to preserve the absurdly thin form factor. Regardless, I’m a little disappointed because I see the iPad as a great opportunity for capturing spatial video. While the iPhone 15 Pro Max is still great for that purpose, it’s in Apple’s best interest to have more devices supporting spatial video for the Vision Pro. Apple did upgrade the Pencil to a pro model complete with haptics, pressure sensing, proximity and even tilt controls, which I’m sure will be very popular with people who sketch and draw on the iPad. Personally, I’m more interested in the new backlit Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro, although it costs a ridiculous $350.

Speaking of pricing, if you get an iPad Pro 13 with 5G and a Magic Keyboard, you’re looking at $2,000 after taxes; if you want the 1TB version with 5G and a Magic Keyboard to get the top CPU performance and 16GB of RAM, you’re looking at $2,500, and that’s still without the $129 Apple Pencil Pro. The 2TB model with everything included is more than $3,100. And remember, this isn’t even a laptop—it’s a tablet.

Apple’s Relationship To The AI PC

During the event, Apple made many comparisons to the PC, reinforcing my assessment that the purpose of this launch was to counter-message against the AI PC announcements from Microsoft and Qualcomm at BUILD (earlier this week) and Computex 2024 (coming up shortly). Indeed, it explains why Apple is choosing to launch the M4 so early in the year rather than with the next-generation MacBooks, which is a more natural time to do it.

Apple’s own page about the M4 even mentions the AI PC twice, both times when comparing the M4’s 38 TOPS of AI performance to other products. Apple is adamant that its AI performance is better than that of any available PC today, which, thanks to the timing of the M4 launch, is technically accurate at this moment—but won’t be by June 18 when the Snapdragon X Elite debuts. Apple also stated that it has been including an NPU in its chips for years, while others (read: Intel) are only starting to integrate an NPU in the current generation.

Based on the presentations at the Apple event and the messaging on the M4 page, it is quite clear that Apple’s intention was to counter Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon X Elite launch and render many of Qualcomm’s M2 and M3 benchmark comparisons irrelevant. However, when the Snapdragon X Elite launches in the next few weeks—complete with Qualcomm’s ninth-generation neural engine—it will have 45 TOPS of AI performance and will likely be the most competitive processor to date for the Windows ecosystem. As I noted in my recent assessment of NPUs across the industry, we can also expect processors from AMD and Intel in the second half of this year at something close to parity with the Snapdragon X Elite in terms of TOPS. To be fair, Apple’s M4 is the first chip with the N3E process node from TSMC, which gives it a temporary—repeat, temporary—power and clock speed advantage.

While the iPad Pro and M4 messaging is squarely aimed at diminishing whatever announcements come from Microsoft, Qualcomm, Intel et al. in the next month, it also demonstrates how far behind Apple truly is with its AI approach. Most of what Apple is demonstrating today using its NPU are features within apps. Sure, Apple will likely talk in more depth about AI at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June, but right now the operating system still doesn’t embrace AI at a platform level and hasn’t really showcased developers leveraging that performance. In fact, Apple has shown off many different GPU capabilities to developers but hasn’t really done that for AI. I suspect that WWDC will be a big moment to correct this, but that’s nearly a month from now, and Apple hasn’t teased much in this vein even though it has had plenty of opportunity.

Apple has kept its attacks on the AI PC somewhat vague. The big question is what the M4’s real-world performance will be on the iPad Pro and how that will stack up to the Snapdragon X Elite. Because even if Qualcomm is at parity with the M4, that will still be an accomplishment that has not yet been achieved by any x86 or Arm chip vendor. The M4 in the iPad Pro might not even be a great comparison since it will likely be more thermally limited than the Snapdragon X Elite, and an M4 MacBook later in the year might be a more appropriate comparison.

Wrapping Up

In the new iPad lineup, it is clearly Apple’s goal to target consumers with the iPad Air for content consumption and the iPad Pro for content creation and editing. The iPad Pro is also now Apple’s tip of the spear for new Apple silicon with the M4 and cutting-edge display technologies with the introduction of the tandem OLED technology that it has dubbed Ultra Retina XDR. Apple accomplished this while also shipping an absurdly thin 5.1mm form factor and pricing it accordingly, starting at $1,299 for the 13-inch model. I believe that iPad Pro customers are a very specific audience and that they will be happy with what Apple has built.

That said, Apple is also using the M4 in the iPad Pro to counteract the momentum of the (Windows) AI PC that started late last year—a wave of momentum that might affect Apple’s sales for the rest of the year. The AI PC continues to evolve with Copilot+, and once the other relevant chipmakers launch their new designs that compete with the M4, we will finally get a proper apples-to-Apples comparison.

Anshel Sag
VP & Principal Analyst | Website

Anshel Sag is Moor Insights & Strategy’s in-house millennial with over 15 years of experience in the IT industry. Anshel has had extensive experience working with consumers and enterprises while interfacing with both B2B and B2C relationships, gaining empathy and understanding of what users really want. Some of his earliest experience goes back as far as his childhood when he started PC gaming at the ripe of old age of 5 while building his first PC at 11 and learning his first programming languages at 13.

Patrick Moorhead

Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.