What is a "real computer"? That ubiquitous question animates the tech world. You hear it all the time, mostly because the various experiments in new forms of computing — from Chromebooks to Surfaces to iPads — all hinge on changing the definition of what a real computer actually is.
For consumers, it's great: There are more choices, not just between devices, but between ways of working. Want to use touch, do everything online, or take notes with a stylus? There's a device for you.
For people who review tech, however, this presents a problem. As people change how they work, offering advice on what to buy can depend on your definition of a computer. Take the reviews of Apple's new iPad Pro this week, which were both critical and, to my mind, mostly wrong. The consensus from most tech outlets: The iPad Pro was theoretically great but is too limited and too expensive. In short, it's not a laptop, and therefore it's bad.
But what if the iPad Pro's very limitations make it both good and prophetic? In adhering to an overly traditional idea of a "real" computer, tech reviewers are missing where computing is headed.
Now, in fairness, Apple set themselves for an unfavorable comparison. By stating that the iPad Pro is faster than 92 percent of Windows laptops and by hyping its power and speed, Apple is clearly suggesting the new model is a "real computer" and thus a possible laptop replacement. So that's exactly how most tech reviewers evaluated the iPad Pro. The Wall Street Journal said it still can't replace a laptop, while The Washington Post said that users would still long for a mouse and trackpad. Meanwhile, The Verge's Nilay Patel sharply criticized the iPad Pro for how it interrupted or simply prevented his usual workflow, making it hard to import photos from a professional camera or impossible to connect external storage.
Patel, who has always been a thoughtful, insightful commentator on tech, was particularly bothered by these limitations because of the price of the device: The model he tested costs over $2,000. For that money, you can get not just a full laptop, but a high-end model like a MacBook Pro or Surface Book. That the iPad Pro couldn't do simple things made the value proposition seem off.
Apple did itself no favors by sending Patel the top-end 12.9" model with a full terabyte of storage for review, but his conclusion is still a bit misleading when you think about the type of iPad Pro most users would buy. As I argued when the device was announced, the pricing of the entry-level model — which is about a thousand bucks with a keyboard — suggests that, rather than being a competitor to high-end laptops, it was instead meant to occupy the spot of the average laptop, the thing that people with pretty mainstream needs gravitated towards.
Many users will never need to connect a camera or printer or external storage. Cloud services have obviated the latter need in particular, and this is especially true for many students, writers, academics, and more. What users want is a device that's portable, has great battery life, and lets you interact with it in different ways: via typing, touch, even a pen. In short, what a lot of people want is an iPad.
What the iPad represents is that many people simply don't need laptops. The reviews that criticized the iPad Pro because it couldn't replace the workflows of people who use high-end cameras or do video editing were misguided, substituting a traditional model of computing for one that eschews how we used to work. Perhaps the iPad Pro's inability to do basic laptop tasks is less a strict flaw than a sign that the idea of a "real computer" is changing.
It's not that the criticisms are entirely unwarranted. As Verge writer Dan Seifert suggested, Apple's claim that the iPad Pro can replace a laptop means journalists were right to challenge the idea. After all, the job of tech reviewing is certainly not to blindly accept a company's marketing; it is instead to interrogate and advocate for regular consumers.
But regular consumers were not the ones whose needs were evaluated by most iPad Pro reviews. Though the critics' instinct to challenge Apple is admirable and necessary, we also need to challenge the biases of reviewers themselves — and think about how a new idea of a "real computer" may change how we think about tech itself.