Is the 11-inch MacBook Air a perfect compromise between laptop power and iPad portability?

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For me, computers are primarily writing and communications tools. When I bought my iPad 2 in June, 2011, I hoped that it would prove to be a usable substitute for a laptop, at least for relatively light-duty computing tasks. I was more curious than under any illusion. The boilerplate on iPad was that it’s an excellent content consumption device, but content creation tool? Not so much.

Now, with two and a half years’ iPadding under my belt, I’ve determined that the preponderance of critical opinion was correct. The iPad is great for Web surfing and media consumption, it’s tolerable for email (except for account management), but it’s mediocre to miserable for the sort of production work I do with computers. It’s definitely not a comprehensive, standalone laptop substitute answer for me. On the other hand, I’ve been seduced by the easy tote-ability enabling me to do stuff virtually anywhere in the house (or, for that matter, out of the house where there’s WiFi access). I would now find that tough to give up.

So in spite of myself, I’ve ended up doing a lot of production work on the iPad anyway. The tablet is superior for Web browsing, but frustrating and inefficient for text related tasks. Its inability to display multiple windows simultaneously and its lack of access to a file directory are constant irritants, rendering some tasks—such as uploading images to ftp servers and posting engines—impractical.

Some folks profess to like the iPad’s restrictive quality of forcing you to focus on one app at a time, but I don’t. Aside from the ergonomics, it’s always a treat to get back on the MacBook as a workstation with an external keyboard and mouse.

So, with hardware upgrades for both my iPad and anchor Mac needed, I’ve been pondering whether to try an 11-inch MacBook Air as a potential one-machine-to-do-it-all replacement for both devices.

MacBook Air

The new iPad Air is now “desktop powerful” with its 64-bit A7 system on chip, but it shares most of its predecessors’ deficiencies as a production platform, which iOS 7 did little or nothing to address. My old iPad was slicker and quicker with iOS 6, and I would probably downgrade if that was an option.

The new MacBook Air, on the other hand, is an omnicapable workhorse that matches its larger 13-inch sibling in power and most features (less the SDCArd slot) and lets users like me keep multiple projects and tasks on the go simultaneously, switching back and forth among them while they’re in dynamic progress. That’s the way I prefer to roll, especially when working from notes and collected research materials. It also comes close to matching the iPad in nominal battery charge life claimed by Apple (or exceeds it with the 13-inch Haswell MacBook Air).

Normally, on the Mac, I’ll have the document or documents containing project notes and research resources open in one window, and my working draft in another, switching back and forth frequently, and multiple projects on the go in separate desktop Spaces. Windows don’t even have to be in the same application. This is not possible on the iPad, where everything is full–screen, and you can only have one app running at a time (the notion of iPad “multitasking” being a myth for the most part). I’m obliged to keep switching back and forth between at least a couple of open documents in two different text apps, plus a browser, as well as contending with the miserable iOS text selection, cut, copy, and paste modalities. There is just no way that a touch-based menu can ever be as slick, precise, and efficient as a mouse, touchpad, or my personal fave for speed and comfort: a rollerbar.

On the other hand, a MacBook, even a diminutive MacBook Air, is still more bulky and clumsy as a portable device than any laptop with a clamshell lid, so I’m wondering if I might not find it a compromise less appealing than sticking with a laptop + tablet strategy. And if I ended up using the MacBook Air with external input devices, which I inevitably would, I’d might as well go with a larger laptop and a new iPad Air, using both machines for the things they do best. Maybe sometime the iPad really will become a viable laptop surrogate, but it’s not there yet.

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  • Alan Zisman

    It’s a mistake to think that any single device will do everything well… Every form factor implies compromises.I have an 11″ Haswell Macbook Air and a couple of tablets. The Air is better for anything involving typing, web browsing where I want to have multiple tabs open, and lots more.

    The tablet is better for eBook reading, casual web browsing, working with while lying on the sofa, and lots more.

  • Mel Snyder

    I have been waiting for an 11inch Retina Air. Until then I am using my iPad 3 with a Zaggfolio illuminated keyboard. Makes switching between apps very convenient.

    For exceptional raw and jpeg image editing and FTP uploading, try Photogene, far and away best iPad photo editor.

    Keynote for iOS7 is much closer to PowerPoint than predecessors but the word processor in DocsToGo – closest I’ve found to Word without wi-fi, has slowed badly under iOS7. Carbonite gives me access to all my MacBook Pro files on the road.

    But I dump that all for an 11 inch MacBook Retina Air with 10 hrs battery life. The retina screen is too addictive to go Air (for me) earlier.

  • Don Chen

    The glass on the new iPad Air is so easy to get cracked with a face down falling. I got that only 5 days after buying it upon release. The apple store guys refuse to replace that for me and asked me about Apple Care instead, which does not cover the damage either. He finally asked me to pay $299 to replace the iPad and I surely rejected that. Do not buy this stuff! it is almost as expensive as the iPhone (with cellular service included). The Case from apple also did not give me any protection against the damage. They need to stop and recall the product.

  • Paul Williamson

    Completely agree – I will be interested to see how you go with the 11″ Macbook Air experiment. I have an iPad and a 13″ Macbook Air – very frustrated with the iPad for work purposes, fine for recreation. I am wondering if next time round I will just go for the 11″ Macbook Air and a big screen at work.

  • Bob Forsberg

    Nothing beats a desktop iMac if you have the room. A MacBook Pro is for those who need portability and productivity. The MacBook Air finds a home with those who need more than an iPhone & iPad. iPads are for people who don’t want the MacBook bulk and usually are productive on larger devices. Everyone needs an iPhone.

  • Bob Forsberg

    Same problem with me. Too late now to know iPads and iPhones don’t travel well without a third party protective cover.

  • Peter Ottman

    My wife recently bought an 11 inch air. She was thinking about upgrading her old iPad to a newer one but played around with the Air and went with that. She was skeptical about using it instead of a newer, full-sized Macbook Pro. You couldn’t pry it from her hands even if you wanted to. She loves the lightness and the speed. As a teacher she uses if for presenting (Keynotes), showing videos from the external DVD or the Web, playing audio files, tracking grades, writing assignments, etc. I don’t see how one would be disappointing for everyday use.

  • James

    Just got a new ipad. I agree it is not a laptop replacement. I actually returned the 64+LTE for a more basic Wi-fi one as I found it to be a perfect “living room” computer. For that I love it. When heavy lifting is required I use my imac or work windows PC.

  • Yacko

    I look on it a bit differently than one is for work and the other consumption. They are capable of both though each has a stronger emphasis in one domain and not the other. Rather, I look on it as immediacy.

    Do I need to take a note, schedule an appointment, dictate a voice recording, shoot a 30 second video, ship a photo somewhere. If that’s yes, then I use the thing I have around me 90+% of the time, the iPad. If I have some longer purpose, like write an article, do deep research, save web pages, edit a photo or video, then I know I will do that with a laptop in a quiet corner somewhere, when I can give it my full attention. iCloud and Dropbox allow me to use the proper tool to access and add to the content I will need to push something out.

    I consider this a good process and not a hindrance for the following reason. Many notes, observations, pics, appointments when I review them 5 hours, or 10 hours later, you know, they are not very good, no longer relevant or get consolidated. I think the tablet-laptop physical dichotomy is an excellent pre-editing mechanism that helps cull frivolous material. So I do not see these devices as mutually exclusive but partners in how I shape my life.