After the launch of the original iPad, tablets were expected to replace PCs in the hands of most users before too long, and there was seemingly no limit to the growth of this new market segment. However, reality set in some time ago and for the past couple of years tablet sales have actually been declining. Undoubtedly, the improvements in laptop computers are playing a huge part in that. The latest generation of laptops are lighter, thinner and more portable than ever before, and with their fast SSD drives just as quick to power up as a tablet. 

Most imaging professionals and serious photographers have used iPads and other tablets for image presentation rather than as editing tools

Considering those advances in laptop design and technology, can Apple’s iPad Pro become a serious laptop alternative for professional level image editing in the field? Up until now, most imaging professionals and serious photographers have used iPads and other tablets for image presentation rather than as editing tools. A lack of processing power has meant more complex editing tasks and working with Raw files could not be done easily, relegating most tablets to light editing of JPEG files and image review.

With the iPad Pro those power limitations have finally been lifted. Apple’s latest tablet comes with a high-resolution 12.9-inch screen, 4GB of RAM and a processor that, according to first reports, is as powerful as those in this year’s MacBook models.

The hardware for serious editing tasks appears to be all in place

Additionally there's the new Apple Pencil pressure-sensitive stylus that allows you to work on the iPad Pro like you would with a dedicated graphics tablet. An optional keyboard that attaches magnetically is available as well. There is still no memory card slot nor can you attach an external hard drive but, at least for those who are willing to transfer part of their work flow to the cloud, the hardware for serious editing tasks appears to be all in place. What about the software then? Well, this is where things get more difficult. 

Apple’s new iOS 9 operating system comes with a split view function, allowing for working in two windows at the same time and at the iPad Pro’s launch presentation Adobe demonstrated its new suite of Creative Cloud mobile apps including Photoshop Fix. However, the latter isn’t as powerful as Adobe’s desktop application and for maximum efficiency is meant to be used in combination with Photoshop CC running on a Mac or PC. Despite being a much more powerful device than other models in the iPad line-up, with the software that is currently available the iPad Pro remains an additional tool for specific tasks in your editing workflow, but not the centerpiece.

For this to change, software makers like Adobe would have to make their image editing desktop applications available for the iPad Pro and iOS 9. We've already heard rumors that this may be on the way, but the task is complicated by the fact that, due to hardware requirements, these full software versions would likely only work with the iPad Pro but not the other iPad models, seriously limiting the sales potential for such apps. Alternatively, software makers could offer apps that provide a basic feature set on standard iPads and unlock additional functionality on the iPad Pro. This is not a tried-and-tested app sales model though, and is therefore not without its risks either. 

For now we’ll have to stick to our MacBook Air

Apple has delivered the hardware, but ultimately it’s down to whether the software makers are willing to take the risk and help turn the iPad Pro into an ultra-portable, full-scale image editing tool. For now we’ll have to stick to our MacBook Air, Windows laptop or even Microsoft Surface Pro device, which is currently the only tablet that allows for installation of a full Adobe Photoshop version.