MacBook Air vs. iPad: Why I still need both a laptop and a tablet

Sections: iPad, iPad Air, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, Laptops, MacBook Air, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Originals

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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?

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  • John Young

    I abandoned laptops years ago. It was always getting knocked on the floor, people would touch the delicate screen, it was big and clunky to lug around…and expensive. I was skeptical about the utility of the iPad. It looked like just a big iPhone, so I bought the basic iPad 1. I was sold. I quickly upgraded to the iPad 2 and 32GB memory and the cellular radio. For a journalist and PR consultant its a great portable computing device. Combined with the Belkin keyboard cover, I can write anywhere and it’s highly portable. It’s far more comfortable to handle the iPad for eBooks, magazines, and news reading. I set it beside my desktop Mac while I work at home and use it as a video player. Mostly Netflix but I can also play content from my iTunes library or log into YouTube. I haven’t upgraded from the 2 because the current models really don’t offer anything worth the upgrade cost. But if the next rev offers a 16:9 screen, I’m in, because I do a lot of video viewing on the iPad. I’ll probably go for the max RAM next time too. The cellular radio is a no-brainer for an extra $100 (assuming you’ll keep the device 3 years). I’d give up my iPhone before giving up the iPad.

  • Joe

    And apple would improve things and sell you one device vs. doing a poorer job and selling you two because? If you don’t think this is deliberate, you are naive.

  • http://Www.caminopalacios.Com JM Palacios

    The 11″ Air has no SD card slot.

  • Marie Haines

    I agree with John. I have a Mac Pro desktop that I use at the office, a PC desktop at home and an ipad2. I use the iPad in meetings, for email and web surfing and video viewing when I am away from a TV or other computer. I use Dropbox to transfer files and photos. Since the ipad2 has such a lousy camera I use my phone and email the picture to myself if I want to load it to Facebook or save it to Photos. I can even use the ipad as a Roku remote with my 20 year old TV. Since I am deskbound at work I don’t need a keyboard for the ipad but would love to see the day when I could use the ipad as a laptop for my personal use.

  • AC

    I agree and wonder if Apple knows this…that many people will pop for both an iPad and an Macbook Air or Pro for serious work so they are careful to keep real advantages both ways to maximize their revenue. I currently use a Macbook Pro for work and rely on my iPad Air for email, browsing and watching movies or listening to music while traveling. If the Macbook Air had a Retina quality display I would likely ditch the iPad and Macbook Pro and move to a single device that does everything I need well with a great display and a real keyboard. Here’s to hoping the 12″ Macbook Air with a Retina display really is in the works. I can’t do real work on my iPad, the Macbook Pro is too heavy for frequent travel and the Macbook Air screen is not Retina quality…too which I have become accustomed.

  • Bhaskar

    Moving over to iPad Air from iPad 2, and doing things similar to what you wrote, I would recommend an upgrade, I was a bit skeptical thinking about my ipad2 doing everything I wanted but believe me beside being only a pound in weight iPad Air is way more than that, I hold it with my thumb and pointing finger for hours while lying comfortably on the bed and it’s no tiring at all. And the screen, retina aside is way more comfortable and easy on the eyes, you just don’t feel any strain, it’s been a pleasure using iPad since I’ve bought it,

    P.s. I’m not a paid apple commentator and would pass viewing a comment like yours but thought just to put forth my experiences of an upgrade

  • MikeW

    I had a 16GB iPad2 and I was continually needing to delete on-line magazine copies etc. in order to free memory. In other words even though I don’t run videos on it (or game apart from Ticket To Ride) I was continually annoyed about having gone for the 16GB model. I couldn’t even upgrade it to iOS7 without spending days removing stuff.
    So – and yes the writer is correct as no one *needs* a 128GB model – when I upgraded I did so to a 128GB model of the iPad Air. Pricey indeed but oh the joys of no longer weekly needing to find things to delete.

  • Bill

    I purchased a Microsoft surface and got the best of both worlds. Plus, I take all of my meeting notes – hand write them! On the surface. You can’t do that with either apple device.