The most interesting thing about Apple’s mild update of its MacBook Air models late last month is the $100 price cut for base models across the board, which drops the 11.6-inch Air to an almost inexpensive-sounding (at least in an Apple context, considering you still get a unibody aluminum enclosure and a first-rank Intel Core i processor) $899—just $100 more than the high-end Wi-Fi iPad Air with the same 128 GB of storage memory.
So, is the new base Air a potential alternative to an iPad as a mobile computing platform? And, for that matter, vice-versa?
Last fall, I thought a lot about the concept of replacing both my iPad and my long-in-the-tooth MacBook with an 11.6-inch MacBook Air. It would be great to be able to have one computer serve as a do-all platform—sort of the 1990s Mac-as-digital-hub concept. However, after much careful deliberation, I determined that attempting to do that using the smallest MacBook Air exclusively would ultimately be an exercise in frustration, and switching completely to the iPad even more so.
The current low end MacBook Air has an 11.6-inch display (1,368 x 768 resolution) 4GB of RAM, 128GB of flash storage, claimed 9 hours of battery life, and both keyboard and trackpad input, but no touchscreen.
The top of the line iPad Air has a 9.7-inch touchscreen with 2,048 x 1,536 resolution, 1GB of RAM, 128GB of flash storage, claimed 10 hours of battery life, but a keyboard case will set you back another $100 dollars or so (essentially price parity with the MacBook Air) if mechanical keys (and full use of the display when typing and editing) are a priority, and there is no trackpad support or provision for using a mouse—either wireless or hard-wired.
The iPad Air has only the one, lonely, non-standard Lightning docking connector, while the MacBook Air user luxuriates in having two USB 3 ports, a Thunderbolt port, and an SDXC card slot.
Both devices have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless connectivity (which should make mouse driver support pretty easy if Apple wasn’t so dogged about excluding it), earphone jacks and loudspeakers, but the iPad Air also has two cameras: a rear-facing 5 megapixel unit with 1080p HD for video resolution, and a 720p HD front-facing FaceTime camera. The MacBook Air has only a 720p HD camera for FaceTime.
Another fairly radical divergence between the two devices is that the MacBook Air weighs in at just over 2.3-pounds, while the iPad Air weighs less than half a pound. Consequently, in order to go mobile with the MacBook Air, you have to be satisfied with carrying around more than twice the iPad’s weight and cope with somewhat more bulk and complexity. On the other hand, the iPad for virtually the same money is a far less capable computer, but has its own set of virtues—mostly pertaining to portability, ease of carriage, lack of complexity, and relative ruggedness.
In the end, I opted for a 13.3-inch MacBook Air and put off upgrading my iPad to this year, and I’m serenely satisfied that I made the correct call.
The 11.6-inch MacBook Air—which has to be regarded as a rip-roaring bargain at $899 in terms of power and capability for the money—would be a good general purpose fit for productivity-oriented mobile users who need laptop power and features, but it would have imposed a lot of compromise on my needs, while at the same time being an unsatisfactory stand-in for what the iPad does well. On the other hand, the 128GB iPad is still too limited and imposes too many constraints on user productivity, by comparison, to be taken seriously as a comprehensive work tool. I’m also skeptical there can be very many users who really need 128GB of storage capacity on an iPad, so in terms of relative value for money spent, it’s overpriced at $799.
Maybe someday Apple will offer a machine that can adequately serve as a multi-role device, but For now, I need both a MacBook and an iPad. How about you?