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iPad Q&A - Updated May 27, 2014

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What are the main differences between the iPad and the MacBook Air? Which makes the most sense for my needs?

There are a number of different iPad and MacBook Air models. In fact, as carefully documented by EveryMac.com, there actually are dozens of distinct models released over the course of several years.

EveryMac.com has many detailed technical comparisons -- between the current MacBook Air models and the current iPad Air and iPad mini 2nd Gen models -- for example.

However, based on e-mail received, readers who want to know the difference between the iPad and the MacBook Air are most interested in usability and functional differences rather than technical differences, per se.

This Q&A does cover a number of general technical differences -- and some of these differences are critical -- but the primary focus is of general comparison to help one determine whether an iPad or a MacBook Air is best for their needs rather than an exhaustive technical evaluation.

11-Inch MacBook Air & iPad
Photo Credit: Apple, Inc. (11-Inch MacBook Air - Left, iPad with Keyboard Dock - Right)

Target Market Differences

Apple initially positioned the iPad between the Mac and the iPod touch/iPhone and intended for it to essentially compete with netbooks, tablet computers, and e-readers, rather than with more full featured notebook computers.

However, practically immediately, users viewed the iPad as a potential notebook competitor, as well. Additionally, since the first iPad was released in 2010, the device has become more capable, a great deal of unique software has been released that takes full advantage of the touch screen interface, a variety of external keyboards have become available, and it no longer is required to be "tethered" to a Mac or PC for software updates, either.

Consequently, for many users, the iPad is quite viable as a standalone computer, particularly when compared to the also light and portable 11-Inch MacBook Air. For some users, the iPad might even be a better computer than the MacBook Air.

For others, though, the iPad is best suited as a complementary purchase to a more powerful notebook or desktop Mac for "heavy lifting" work with the iPad relegated to less performance hungry tasks, or perhaps "less serious" tasks, depending on perspective.

Naturally, Apple would be quite happy for you to purchase an iPad as well as a MacBook Air, but budget constraints may require you to choose one or the other.

Usage Differences

In general, if you primarily use a computer to browse the web, type a modest amount of text, play music, present photos, and watch non-Flash video content, the iPad could be ideal for your needs.

If you spend much of your time creating "fun" content that does not require a great deal of typing or a substantial amount of computing power -- like fairly simple photo manipulation, video editing, and music creation, the iPad could be as good or even better than the MacBook Air for you.

On the other hand, if you type extensive documents, use spreadsheets, and prepare complicated presentations that are text heavy, in addition to performing photo, video, and music-related tasks, the MacBook Air is a much better choice.

Of course, you can add an external keyboard to the iPad, but based on hands-on use, EveryMac.com finds these keyboard solutions to be an improvement for text entry on the iPad, but nowhere close to as fast or as pleasant as typing on a MacBook Air.

Although the MacBook Air is not an extremely high performance computer, it is more powerful than the iPad models. The exact performance difference varies between devices and years, but MacBook Air models tend to be in the neighborhood of 50%-150% faster than iPad models from the same year of release.

User History

Another important aspect to consider is your own computing history. If you are an "old school" Mac user who has invested time and money on OS X software over the years and who has a great deal of work saved in OS X file formats (or even Mac OS 9 file formats) or a "switcher" from Windows to the Mac, it is unlikely to make sense to go to the trouble to migrate exclusively to an iPad for mobile use.

No doubt, you still can find an iPad helpful as a secondary device, but it is highly likely that you would feel most comfortable doing the majority of your "real work" on a MacBook Air.

On the other hand, if you are a Freshman university student and your past work consists of a few school papers and science fair reports and the like, which you may never even look at again, the iPad very well could meet all of your "fun" computing needs and even be sufficient for research and writing courses as well when paired with an external keyboard.

Although some entire books have been written only with the onscreen iPad keyboard (albeit imported onto a Mac for the final editing process), it is unlikely that you would really want to type even a five page paper entirely using a glass screen.

Furthermore, even as a student unburdened by much "legacy" work, if you plan to store a lot of music, photos, and movies on the device itself (rather than within Apple's own iCloud or on another cloud storage service like site sponsor MacMate), the higher capacity iPad configurations can cost nearly as much as or even more than the entry-level 11-Inch MacBook Air (particularly when also paired with a quality external keyboard).

Consequenty, depending on your exact desired usage, the extra power and functionality of the MacBook Air may be preferable to you and make more sense when budgetary constraints require only a single purchase.

Battery Life Differences

Older iPad models have much better battery life than older MacBook Air models released at the same time or otherwise. For example, the original iPad provides up to ten hours of battery life, whereas the 11-Inch MacBook Air from the same year (2010), only provides half the battery life.

However, recent MacBook Air models -- such as the "Mid-2013" and "Early 2014" lines powered by Intel's efficient "Haswell" architecture -- compare quite favorably with recent iPad models -- such as the iPad Air and iPad mini lines. Unlike earlier MacBook Air systems, these models provide around 10-12 hours of battery life whereas the iPad Air and iPad mini provide around 9-10 hours.

Major Design & Hardware Differences

With even a casual glance at the iPad and the MacBook Air, it is obvious there are many differences.

The iPad models have a touchscreen, dual cameras (with the exception of the original iPad line, which does not have cameras at all) and high-end models from each year include cellular networking support as well as GPS capabilities.

The iPad models do not have an attached keyboard and are essentially "sealed" devices. It is not possible to upgrade the storage after purchase, substantially augment their capabilities with third-party peripherals, or easily replace the batteries, which are unfortunately glued in place.

The MacBook Air models, on the other hand, have 11-Inch or 13-Inch displays that do not support touch, a single webcam optimized for video chat, and an attached keyboard and touch-sensitive trackpad. Ports vary between models, but all include industry-standard USB ports as well as other connectivity options. They do not have cellular networking support or GPS, though.

The MacBook Air models also are a largely "sealed" design, but they do have storage that can be upgraded after purchase (and support extensive and inexpensive external storage) and the batteries are easy to replace, also (at least for now).

Both lines are lightweight, but the iPad models are roughly half the weight of the MacBook Air. The lightest iPad models are around two thirds of a pound whereas heaviest iPad models are around a pound and a half. By contrast, the lightest MacBook Air models are less than two and a half pounds whereas the heaviest are over three pounds.

Naturally, for travel in particular, lighter is better, but keep in mind that if you add an external keyboard to the iPad, many models are similar in weight to the 11-Inch MacBook Air.

Furthermore, in the United States, adding an external keyboard to the iPad also typically will require you to take it out of your bag in airport security lines, as well, just as if it were a notebook computer. On the other hand, if the iPad is not paired with a keyboard (or at least the iPad and keyboard are stored separately from one another), you generally do not have the added hassle of removing it from your bag.

Major Software Differences

The iPad models all run a version of the iOS, which also powers the iPod touch and iPhone, whereas the MacBook Air models run a version of OS X. Apps for the iOS and OS X are not compatible with one another.

iPad apps are getting more-and-more sophisticated, but in basic terms, OS X has more high-end applications for professional use whereas the iPad has many more games. OS X also can run Windows in a virtualized environment (or by booting into Windows directly on the MacBook Air courtesy of BootCamp), whereas the iPad cannot run Windows at all.

In addition to simple software compatibility, there also is a great deal of difference in the philosophy behind these two different operating systems. The iOS is quite "closed" (without hacks or jailbreaks) and all software has to be installed through Apple's own App Store, which means some applications that might be quite valuable to you never are released to the public.

OS X, on the other hand, is a much more "open" operating system that supports a variety of third-party software, including software that interacts directly with the hardware, more thoroughly integrated cloud services, and software that Apple may not particularly approve of (like Adobe Flash). For recent versions of OS X, Apple offers an App Store, but its usage is optional rather than required.

Depending on your perspective, the iOS may be advantageous because it is safer and easier or disadvantageous because it is stifled and limiting. Alternately, OS X may be advantageous because it is more powerful and flexible or disadvantageous because it is more complicated and dangerous. Either of these perspectives very well may be valid and are subject to debate. Ultimately, though, only your opinion matters. It is your purchase, after all.

Comparison Chart

The major differences between the iPad and MacBook Air models are summarized below:

 
iPad

MacBook Air
Key Advantages: Ease-of-Use
2G/3G/4G Networking
Tiny Size & Weight
Powerful OS & Software
Better Performance
Integrated Keyboard
Key Disadvantages: Limited Pro Software
No Integrated Keyboard
No Flash Support
Relative Complexity
No 2G/3G/4G Support
No GPS Capability
Approx. Weight: ~0.7-1.5 Pounds ~2.3-3 Pounds
Design: Sealed Limited Upgrades
Display Sizes: 7.9" & 9.7" 11.6" & 13.3"
Current Storage: 16, 32, 64, 128 GB 128 GB, 256 GB
Storage Type: Integrated Upgradable
Current Battery Life: 9-10 Hours 9-12 Hours
Battery Type: Glued In Removable
Processor Type: ARM-Based Intel
Optical Drive: None Optional (External)
Keyboard: Onscreen/External Integrated
Trackpad: No Yes
Camera: Front & Rear (Except Orig.) Webcam
Wireless: Wi-Fi & 3G/4G Wi-Fi Only
GPS: High-End Models No
Digital Compass: Yes No
USB Ports: No Yes
Ethernet: No Yes (With Adapter)
Ext. Disp. Support: Mirroring Dual Display
Operating System: iOS OS X
Windows Support: No Yes
Flash Support: No Yes
Current Price (US): US$329-US$929 US$899-US$1199
Current Price (UK): £269-£739 £749-£999
Current Price (CA): C$329-C$949 C$999-C$1299
Current Price (AU): A$369-A$1049 A$1099-A$1399


For pricing details in dozens of other countries, please refer to the iPad or MacBook Air specs page for the model of interest as well as EveryMac.com's extensive Global Original Prices section.

So, which makes the most sense for me?

Ultimately, the iPad and MacBook Air both are capable portable computers.

EveryMac.com's preferred setup is to have one of each. Specifically, a iPad mini -- mostly for reading, movie watching, casual games and the occasional two thumb typed e-mail -- and an 11-Inch MacBook Air for proper writing and code crunching along with modest graphic design and video production work paired with a large external display much of the time. If you have a sufficient budget for both and you do not mind carrying two devices, you also may like to have one of each.

Instead, if you only want one -- either an iPad or a MacBook Air -- whether due to budget or logistical convenience, an iPad is the best choice if you put a great deal of importance on (1) simplicity, (2) the option of cellular networking capability, and (3) the ultimate in portability. Likewise, the iPad is best for you if are not bothered by (1) limited professional software and a general lack of compatibility with many "legacy" applications, (2) the lack of an integrated physical keyboard, and (3) no formal support for Flash video.

Alternately, a MacBook Air is a better choice if you place more importance on (1) powerful software and a flexible operating system (not to mention support to run Windows), (2) performance, and (3) a quality integrated keyboard. Likewise, the MacBook Air is your best option if you are not bothered by (1) the relative complexity of the operating system and professional software, (2) the lack of integrated cellular networking capability, and (3) the lack of integrated GPS.

It also would be wise to carefully review all of the points enumerated in the comparison above, as your decision very well could come down to a single feature. You might choose an iPad for a specific app that simply cannot be replicated by a non-touch interface or a MacBook Air for the true dual display support, for example.

Site sponsor PowerMax sells new and used iPad and MacBook Air models alike.


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