MacBook Air or iPad: Which Should You Buy?

by Bakari Chavanu Jan 24, 2011

In my last article about the MacBook Air and the iPad, I discussed why it would be a good idea if Apple could merge the two mobile devices into one. Well, we all know that probably will not happen anytime soon, but there are no doubt readers out there who are wondering which device to buy for portable computing.

I alluded to the advantages and disadvantages of both in last article, but after spending some time in a forum about the MacBook Air, a few of us members came up with a list of advantages and disadvantages for each device.

Both the Air and iPad are very similar, but of course the biggest difference is that the Air runs off the traditional Mac OS X system, whereas the Air runs on iOS. As an operating system, the latter is sort of a limited version of OS X. However, other users may beg to differ on that point.

So building off the input of one member, Cristobal Huet, the following is a list of the practical advantages of both devices. Notice I don’t go into computer specs, because I think that in the end, for the average user, the speed of the devices is not as important as their practical use.

Advantages of the iPad

  • Reading: The iPad is absolutely the best mobile device for reading e-books, blogs, essays, and and for browsing the internet. I use applications like iBooks, Kindle for the iPad, Pulse News and Flipboard for reading RSS feeds and other online content. Similarly, the iPad is also great for doing lightweight research (e.g., Wikipedia, IMDB, Urbanspoon, NHL GameCenter)
  • PDFs: Storing and reading PDFs and other documents on the iPad is also a huge plus. Since getting the iPad, I have not printed one PDF document. I use iAnnotate and Dropbox for managing, reading, and annotating PDFs. 
  • Entertainment: Watching movies and TV shows on the iPad is also very easy. You can of course do the same on the MBA, but the attached keyboard of the latter device gets in the way of good viewing experience.
  • Writing: Lightweight emailing and note-taking is okay on the iPad, but when the writing gets beyond a paragraph or two, it becomes a chore, in my experience. Posting tweets and Facebook updates can also be done on the iPad, but if you do a lot posting on a regular basis, you might find the iPad limiting in this regards.
  • Photo Editing: I’m not a big fan of editing photos on the iPad, but if it were the only device I had, it could certainly do an adequate job using one or more of the photo processing apps in the iTunes App Store.
  • Portability: In addition, the iPad is more portable than the MBA, thanks to the lack of a keyboard. You can view and read content on the device from nearly any angle.
  • Secondary Screen: The iPad can actually be used as a secondary screen for any Mac. The iPad Air Display app can be used for setting this up.

Advantages of the MacBook Air

  • Writing: Writing extended documents and notes and doing research on the MBA is much better than on the iPad. I‘ve tried researching and writing full articles on the iPad and it just doesn't work for me. The Air gives you much more flexibility in typing and multitasking.
  • Multitasking: Multitasking (being able to open and access multiple windows and applications) is a major advantage for getting the MacBook Air. Even though the 11” and 13” screens are comparatively smaller than the large screens of the MacBook Pro models, you can multitask on the device in ways that you simply can’t using the iPad.
  • File Management: Because the MacBook Air is running on the Mac OS X system, you can manage and process files in ways that can’t be done on the iPad. Notice the iPad doesn’t have a traditional desktop or a folder structure. You must rely on iTunes or DropBox as a file management system.
  • Multimedia Projects: In my experience, the MacBook Air is great for editing Keynote/Powerpoint and Excel/Numbers projects. I prefer to start such projects on my larger desktop Mac Pro because of the larger screen real estate. But if I only had the MacBook Air, I would much rather do such projects on the Air than on the iPad.  
  • Photo Editing: Batch photo editing and processing using iPhoto, Aperture/Lightroom, and Photoshop, to a certain extent, are definitely possible using the MBA. Depending on the number and size of your photos, the Air might not have the speed of say the MacBook Pro for this type of work, but it’s certainly easier to do photo processing on the Air than on the iPad.
  • Flash: Of course, unlike with the iPad, you can download Flash files on the MBA, even though Apple does not include the Flash application in the computer. You have to download it yourself.

I think you can run iTunes almost equally as well on both the iPad and MacBook Air. You of course can’t maintain large 50+ gigabytes of music and other media files on these portable devices, because that would eat up space very quickly. But using smart playlists to keep fresh music on your device can make iTunes very usable on both the iPad and MacBook Air.

So that’s my take on the advantages and disadvantages of the MacBook Air and the iPad. Which one you choose depends on the type of computing you mostly do. If you can afford both, then you get the best of both worlds, but you will see there’s lots of overlap for both devices.

Oh, and finally, I can’t speak to the advantages of gaming on either device, so gamers out there, let us know which device you recommend.


  • Very timely article, Bakari!

    I’ve just spent a week away and took both my iPad and my MacBook Pro.

    I wasn’t intending to use the MBP, as it was meant to be a holiday. However, I had to do some important updates to a plugin I’d developed and, even though I have an external keyboard for the iPad, it is no match for the MBP when it comes to that type of use. Cutting and pasting, switching apps… too much effort on an iPad compared to the MBP.

    So I came home thinking *for me* it’s time to retire the iPad.

    I’d then get a freakin huge iMac (27” etc) and a MacBook Air or a netbook (with Linux on it probably) for when I’m away from the desk. My iPhoen will still be there to satisfy my need for DiceMatch and some other games.

    So, for my usage, I’ve made the decision the Air would be better for me. Altho I’ve still then got to decide if I can justify it over a netbook, given it really will just light duties.

    Look forward though to what other folks’ thoughts on our question.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jan 24, 2011 Posts: 1209
  • Thanks, Chris, for your feedback. I’m not sure if you saw my previous article on the Air and iPad, but I can say you will experience some overlap between both devices. I’ve actually laid in bed and switched back and forth between the two—using the iPad for reading and browsing, and the Air for writing.

    My PowerBook finally died out on me over a year ago. I thought I’d be able to use the iPad as a laptop replacement, though I knew of its limitations. But it just wasn’t happening. Writing on the iPad sucks. 

    So at first I started to get a bottom line MBP which is about the same price as the 11” Air, but boy am I glad I didn’t. The form factor of the Air is just amazing. Though I think the Air should be a few hundred dollars cheaper, I seriously enjoy using it and taking it with me. When you get used to the iPad, carrying around and using a netbook like the Air only makes sense. I would hate carrying around a heavier MBP.

    But like I said, you will feel some overlap, to the point of thinking, why can’t Apple just somehow combine the two into one machine, incorporating both the iOS and OS X systems. That is what my previous article is about.

    Bakari Chavanu had this to say on Jan 24, 2011 Posts: 47
  • Oh, and to add: I‘m not sure you should retire yous iPad. The reading and browsing experience of the iPad can’t be duplicated in the Air. The Air’s keyboard gets in the way.

    Bakari Chavanu had this to say on Jan 24, 2011 Posts: 47
  • I agree with almost all of your points. Multitasking is great on the Air, however I find the iPad to be great in the field for writing. Battery life is almost endless and it squeezes into a commuter crush way better than any computer.  On a tube journey for example I can write and amend manuscripts easily even with one hand: the keyboard is fine unless you are formatting great wadges of text. Also the focus on a single app - often aids my productivity as does not having 3G and being connected to the net wink

    It’s a device I would use in public in far more situations than a computer, which I would reserve for static locations: cafés etc. When I do find Wi-fi at either end,  a quick sync with Dropbox and I can tidy up and reorder my words in Scrivener on the Air. My only gripes with it are the questionable vertical viewing angle and the paultry (when compared with the iPad’s) battery life. If I need to cross reference my information it beats the iPad hands down.

    bk2k had this to say on Jan 25, 2011 Posts: 1
  • I have the 13” new Macbook Air and an iPad. So appreciate your thoughts on this. I have a daily routine which includes walking to a cafe about 1.5 miles away and back and spending time their over coffee writing and reading. The iPad serves me pretty well as it is 1/2 the weight and every pound counts when you are exercise walking at some distance. I do sometimes bring my Apple keyboard (11 oz) which negates most of the weight advantage though and find it awesome when I need to write a 1/2 page or more like a blog post. The reading and fun of the iPad can’t be beat and fun is not games as it is using touch without the keyboard distancing the experience. However, I agree with the multitasking, organization and file management items especially. One major advantage of the iPad right now is the apps. There are so many useful ones for specific purposes that I don’t really want to be without my iPad anymore. But usually I choose between when out and about and the iPad mostly wins that battle. Also, I do carry an iPhone 4 that can serve as an adjunct in the apps department when I’m iPadless.

    Janet Tokerud had this to say on Jan 28, 2011 Posts: 1
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    waqashbfm had this to say on Jun 22, 2011 Posts: 4
  • I should by iPad to solve my needs.

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    mahfuzul had this to say on Jul 27, 2011 Posts: 4
  • Air might not have the speed of say the MacBook Pro for this type of work, but it’s certainly easier to do photo processing on the Air than on the iPad.


    jerry had this to say on Jul 30, 2011 Posts: 34
  • I always Preferred Mac Ipad.  it’s speed and good for fun and entertainment.. Mac Brand is famous whole over the world.
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    cherrymac had this to say on Aug 01, 2011 Posts: 52
  • The MacBook Air boasts a full-size physical keyboard with 78 keys, 12 function keys and four directional arrows. The iPad relies on a touchscreen keyboard, although it can be paired with a portable keyboard. I would also have loved to see a registry cleaner application included, but maybe with time, that will become possible.

    As for portability, both are relatively light. The iPad weighs in at 1.5 pounds for the Wi-Fi version and 1.6 pounds for 3G. The Air comes in a little heavier at 2.3 pounds. Both devices feature 802.11n Wi-Fi that is backward compatible with slower versions of Wi-Fi including 802.11a/b/g, and both have Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. One thing the 11-inch Air doesn’t have is a built-in 3G data connection, which is an option with the iPad. However, you could pair the Air with a MiFi mobile hotspot if you needed to.

    As for pricing, the Air starts at $999 and there’s an $1,199 option as well. The iPad ranges in price from $499 to $829, depending on the storage and 3G options you choose.

    Apple’s addition of what is essentially a netbook with the 11-inch MacBook Air is an interesting new device for the Mac lineup. But it will be interesting to see if the smaller laptop bites into iPad sales, or whether users completely ignore the new laptop in favor of a tablet device.

    IBMdude had this to say on Aug 02, 2011 Posts: 50
  • As an operating system, the latter is sort of a limited version of OS X. However, other users may beg to differ on that point.
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    cherrymac had this to say on Aug 08, 2011 Posts: 52
  • Mac OS X system, whereas the Air runs on iOS. As an operating system, the latter is sort of a limited version of OS X. However, other users may beg to differ on that point.

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  • Notice I don’t go into computer specs, because I think that in the end, for the average user, the speed of the devices is not as important as their practical use.
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