Last Week on My Mac: Similar hardware but different by design

Although my long-suffering wife dutifully listens to my internal debates about Rosetta and the ageing of SSDs, she much prefers using an iPad to a Mac. Thanks to Santa Apple, her Christmas present arrived early and she’s now enjoying her new iPad Pro 11-inch (4th Generation) with its M2 chip. Given how often people assert that Apple is hell-bent on fusing macOS, iOS and iPadOS, early experience with this new model makes an interesting comparison.

Setup and migration from her old non-pro iPad was far more slick than anything equivalent on a Mac, but so it should be, given the relative constraints and simplicity of an iPad. After just a few minutes with both held close together, the iPad Pro had synced completely, and even her idiosyncratic email service carried across perfectly.

While not quite as good as that on its larger sibling, the iPad Pro 11-inch display is gorgeous, and a match for those in my Macs, even the Studio, allowing for the huge difference in size. Coupled with an iPad Magic Keyboard, which even includes a small trackpad, my wife’s new iPad Pro is impressive hardware.

As I’ve negotiated occasional access to it, the first thing I wanted to try was using a capacious external SSD to extend its 512 GB of storage, and exchange files with my Macs. I was surprised to discover that these are simply connected and disconnected at will, without having to eject or unmount them, there being no irritating warnings that a disk was removed without being properly ejected; here iPadOS is definitely more accommodating.

But when I came to use Files, my new-found enthusiasm for the iPad waned quickly when I discovered that in this respect it more closely resembles an iPhone than a Mac. First, iPadOS can only see a single volume on any disk. For my external bootable disks, it made the sensible choice of the Data volume from those in the boot volume group. But when I presented it all four terabytes of my OWC Envoy Pro FX, that one chosen volume left an awful lot of disk space inaccessible.

Copying files from the iPad to the SSD, or the reverse, seems an extraordinarily awkward process. With its hardware calling for direct manipulation, and both the touch-screen and trackpad, selecting and copying files is as indirect as possible. What is a smooth sequence of linked gestures in the Finder becomes a series of hunt and tap in iPadOS. If someone showed me Files and tried to tell me that’s what macOS is heading towards, I’d burst into laughter: it’s just as cumbersome as were early PC windowing environments like IBM’s TopView in 1985.

I don’t believe for a moment that this is immaturity on the part of iPadOS. The Finder has been central to every Mac since their introduction. Although its lurch in the direction of a browser with Mac OS X remains controversial, if there’s anything that is unequivocally and characteristically Mac, it’s the Finder. Whatever else might be going on inside, macOS and iPadOS remain as different now as ever. The fact that an iPad, even a Pro model with an external SSD costing almost as much as the iPad, is still so fundamentally different tells you a great deal about what Apple intends them to be.

The same applies to the cries over System Settings in Ventura. Superficially there are similarities in appearance, of course, but you only have to use each for a few minutes before their differences become obvious. Interacting with System Settings a still a bit alien to many Mac users, but it’s still nothing like Settings in iPadOS.

My wife’s iPad Pro has the same chip as Apple’s latest MacBook Air, a keyboard and trackpad not dissimilar to it, and a single Thunderbolt/USB4 port, but there the similarities end. They both use APFS, but the way the iPad handles external storage is quite different from macOS. There’s no Disk Utility in iPadOS not because Apple’s engineers haven’t got round to it, but that isn’t what iPads are for, even an iPad Pro. I don’t think my wife would want it any other way, after all it’s an iPad and not a Mac.