Apple's floating screens: From 2002's iMac G4 to 2020's iPad Pro

Nearly two decades after the iMac G4 featured a "floating" display, the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard enable a modern version of that computer's design philosophy.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

After starting its gravity-defying comeback with the first bulbous iMac and facing pressure to start integrating then-novel flat-panel display technology, Apple took the next step in 2002 with the iMac G4, the most unusually shaped desktop computer it ever created. Its weighty base encased in a white dome contained the logic board, hard drive, and optical drive connected to a 15-inch LCD via a polished chrome cantilevered arm.

By separating the computer from the display, the latter's slimness would not be sacrificed by having to accommodate the other components. Rather, the display could be configured to any number of angles, almost as if it floated in midair. In a rare public explanation of design rationale, the company said it designed the form factor to have each part be true to itself. Ultimately, as the displays on the iMac grew, the Luxo lamp-like design became untenable and the company switched gears again. Years later, Lenovo's Yoga Home and HP's Envy Rove all-in-one "tabletops" would include hinges that allowed their large touchscreens to be used for such horizontally oriented tasks as playing digital versions of board games. Such designs faded, although Microsoft offers such capability in its Surface Studio designed for creative professionals.


Now, Apple has brought back the ideal of a floating display -- not via a new computer but an accessory: Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro. For many of those who rely upon the iPad as a business tool, the magical power-up of the $300 to $350 input device is the addition of a trackpad, which swipes away another difference between the iPad and the Mac. But we have come much further than that in 18 years. The iPad Pro, which is about as thin as the LCD on the old iMac G4, contains all the modern equivalents to the electronics that were once relegated to the domed base, plus multiple cameras, a LIDAR sensor, and a dramatically faster processor.

Those features help the iPad Pro compete not against an ancient desktop, but Microsoft's Surface Pro, the advantages of which have long included trackpad support for precision work and the granularity with which its kickstand can be adjusted. And so, Apple has been working to narrow gaps created by Surface's Windows ecosystem. As with Apple's Files app, it has taken the company years to deliver iPadOS trackpad support, which first appeared as an assistive technology option. However, both the circular default pointer and the morphing to activate on-screen controls show how Apple is trying to bridge the desktop and mobile worlds on its own terms.

Of course, the iPad Pro/Magic Keyboard combination is not just about answering the PC agenda but pushing Apple's own. When Apple introduced the sixth-generation iPad at its education event in Chicago in 2018, it distinguished the device against low-cost Windows laptops and Chromebooks by emphasizing the dual importance of having a device for not only banging out reports but also going into the field for capturing photos, videos, and experimenting with augmented reality. Apple has since driven home that message in its advertising, including its recent "Your next computer is not a computer" campaign.

What's true for the baseline, though, is true for the flagship. With that in mind, the ability to easily pop the iPad Pro on and off the Magic Keyboard's elevated posture may be the accessory's most underrated feature. With unmatched ease, it allows users to take the touchscreen on the go and return it to a base when it's time for desktop work. When compared to 2002's avant-garde, the component locations have been scrambled and the capabilities multiplied. But the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard again let each part of the combination be true to itself.


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