Battle of the ultraportables: iPad versus MacBook Air

Xavier Verhoeven
2 December, 2010
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When the iPad launched earlier this year, there was practically nothing else like it on the market. And after more than six months of being available, that’s essentially still the case. You’d think after its phenomenal success there would be competitors lining the shelves of computer stores everywhere, right? Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty popping up. But they’re just not contenders for the tablet crown. (In fact, in typing that sentence, I inadvertently wrote iPad crown – such is the association in my mind between the iPad and the tablet ‘category’.)

Looking at these few competitors, there are clear reasons why Apple is reigning supreme: Telstra’s T-Touch Tab has gotten poor reviews for its short battery life and resistive touchscreen, and Optus’ My Tab is likely to see similar issues given it boasts a similar size and screen. The Samsung Galaxy Tab is faring better than these locally badged options, but reviews for it have also been mixed, with Android apparently not adapting well to the increased screen size (albeit a smaller screen than the iPad). The Galaxy Tab is also more expensive than the iPad, despite its smaller screen. That just doesn’t make sense.

The Blackberry Playbook is due for release next year (which begs the question, what’s taking so long, RIM?) and the HP Slate has even seen a release in the US (though sales haven’t been stellar). The ViewSonic ViewPad released this week is yet another 7in model that I just can’t see taking off at an RRP of $699 – only $100 less than the base iPad Wi-Fi + 3G.

Except for a few nerds opposed to the ‘closed’ Apple ecosystem, the iPad has fast become the default option for anyone considering a tablet computer.

So much so has the iPad asserted this dominance that its biggest competitor isn’t even a tablet. No, when Apple announced the MacBook Air in October, the iPad got its strongest opposition yet.

Enter 11in MacBook Air

After the iPad was first announced, I wrote a blog asking what the iPad meant for the MacBook Air. In that article, I outlined a number of reasons why the iPad would take away sales from Apple’s ultrathin laptop. With the introduction of an 11 inch Air, it’s even harder to decide between the two, and I think the sales could be affected in the other direction.

As much as I love the iPad, (after all, I edit an Apple-focused site, and I have on occasion referred to myself as a fanboy), it has plenty of shortcomings, and at least a few of these can be avoided by getting a MacBook Air. (Or perhaps waiting for a new iPad, but we’ll stick to the current models for now.)

But which one is best for you? While many would argue that comparing a Mac and an iPad is a ridiculous notion (‘apples and oranges’ and all that), I think there are compelling reasons to consider each option before getting yourself a portable computer.

Let’s look at some of the factors (in no particular order):

Size

The MacBook Air is bigger than the iPad, but not in any way that actually makes it feel much bigger. It’s a bit thicker at the back, but its razor-thin front edge gives it the illusion of being thinner than it is, and while it weighs a bit more, when you’re carrying it in a bag or working on your lap, the difference is negligible. The only real difference is that the MacBook Air is wider, or taller, than the iPad. But even then, it’s only by a few centimetres. Chances are that your bag can accommodate either gadget.

Screen

In terms of screen real estate, the iPad and MacBook Air aren’t vastly different either. The MBA’s screen is wider (1366 pixels to the iPad’s 1024), but the same height (768 pixels). The MBA’s pixel density is 135 ppi compared to the iPad’s 132, so they’re remarkably similar to look at. The MacBook Air looks slightly sharper, but I’d guess that’s a result of the fact that you’re generally looking at the MBA from a few extra centimetres away, rather than the tiny increase in pixel density.

Beyond the actual differences in screen size though, there is a huge difference in what the devices show on screen. All iPad apps are either designed specifically for its screen size, or upscaled from iPhone apps, so the screen feels like it’s just the right size, if not too big. The MacBook Air, however, just feels a bit cramped – even when compared to a 1200×800 MacBook Pro.

I worked around this by moving OS X’s Dock to the left-hand side of the screen, rather than the bottom, as the increased width of its 16:9 screen was being wasted. But I prefer my Dock in the default position, so this wasn’t ideal. I think the sweet spot is likely to be the 13in MacBook Air (1440×900), but I’m yet to try it out.

One thing to note: the MacBook Air is actually – somewhat surprisingly – better for use in bright environments. The display is slightly less glossy than the iPad, meaning when you’re outside, you’re not constantly staring at your own reflection. That’s a bonus for all the glossy-screen haters out there (though the MacBook Air screen is still glossy).

Operating system

All other comparisons aside, the operating system is surely the biggest differentiating factor between the two. And really, will also be the deciding factor for most people. Everyone knows that iOS is great for consumption – watching videos, surfing the web, or catching up on Twitter feeds.

And it’s also good for quick work – typing short emails, quick photo touch ups, and a whole slew of other uses depending on what apps you have installed and what sort of things you like to create.

But it’s not great for typing lengthy emails or stories, and it’s not very good at doing multiple things at once – though multitasking in iOS 4.2 is making it feel a whole lot better at this.

While the MacBook Air’s processor might not be up to running Photoshop, InDesign, Final Cut and a few Flash-heavy pages in Safari all at once, it will let you write something in Word, whilst tinkering with an image in Photoshop (something I necessarily do regularly). It also gives you access to the file system to easily use those images and documents.

An example: I could have written this whole article using Pages on my iPad. It wouldn’t be the most enjoyable experience, and there would be plenty of typos, but I could do it. I could possibly even put together an image for posting it online. But I have very few options for actually uploading an image to the site’s content management system. So instead, I’m writing it in TextEdit on the MacBook Air (I don’t yet have Word installed), and using Photoshop for my image. That way, when I’m done, I can upload it to AMW, along with an image or two, and it’s ready to go live.

The fact is that some computing tasks are just easier with an old-fashioned operating system. However, there are plenty of people who would never need this level of ability from their device.

Software

Given that the OS is the major difference, it also means software is a huge factor for most people. The fact alone that a MacBook Air can run Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite makes it a far better option for users who need that kind of software. It’s the so-called ‘pro’ users that I can see benefiting the most from an Air over an iPad.

We all know that there are plenty of Mac apps and software suites available that you can’t get on an iOS device. But the opposite is equally true – at least, until the Mac App Store launches, and then I’m sure we’ll see a deluge of iOS apps adapted for OS X, as well as a whole bunch of new ones.

Looking at the current range of apps, though, the iPad excels for some tasks where the MacBook Air would simply fall flat. I often take my iPad to bed to play a game of Angry Birds, read a few pages of a Kindle book, check my email and Twitter, before I go to sleep. The MacBook Air would achieve exactly two of those tasks well – assuming I have a Wi-Fi connection. And laptops aren’t really the most comfortable things to use in bed.

The internet

And then there’s the internet. The ubiquitous, increasingly necessary for day-to-day activity, internet – from social media to cloud storage, and keeping-up-to-date with the latest news, I rely on an internet connection.

With the MacBook Air, there’s the option to run any browser you want: Safari, Chrome, Firefox, whatever. But there’s one thing that it’s missing: always-on internet.

The iPad trumps the MacBook Air easily here – 3G data (in the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G models) means it’s always connected. Emails are pushed to the device wherever I am, I can quickly Google a product or get directions to a restaurant. As a portable device, the iPad’s internet makes it a clear winner. Had the MacBook Air been released with a 3G option (rather than carrying around a dongle), it would have been an even more formidable foe.

Of course, the MacBook Air will also play Flash content (if you install Flash player), but there’s so little good Flash content that I want to see that I rarely miss it on the iPad. Plus, the more people I convince to buy an iPad for browsing, the more sites will gradually adapt to the Flash-less audience.

Keyboard

Different users will obviously have varying opinions on the keyboard. For short input, the iPad is fine. Not great, but usable. For longer slabs of text, however, it’s impossible to go past the MacBook Air with its full size keyboard (granted, the function keys are a bit stumpier than normal).

It’s simply a joy to type on, and it doesn’t take up two thirds of the screen at the same time – which usually makes typing on the iPad feel a bit too claustrophobic for my liking.

The new MacBook Air drops the backlit keyboard of the previous generation – making typing in the dark a bit more difficult for anyone who’s not a master touch-typer. This could actually make the iPad a viable option if you expect to be typing in darkness particularly often.

Speed

Probably the hardest thing to compare the MacBook Air and iPad on is speed. While the iPad’s 1GHz processor and 256MB of RAM doesn’t sound like much to the 11in Air’s 1.4GHz processor (which in itself doesn’t sound amazing), and 2GB RAM, the difference is all in the software. Thanks to the fact that all iPad apps are built with this limitation in mind, they’re pretty snappy (undoubtedly at the cost of features), whereas some Mac software struggles on the Air’s limited specs.

But either way, these ain’t no Mac Pros – the beauty is in being able to use them near-on anywhere, rather than having a speedy machine to churn through everything you throw at it.

For simple day-to-day tasks like checking email, writing short documents, editing files, and web browsing, the two are pretty equal. The iPad’s browser is a bit slower than on the Mac, but being able to touch the internet makes up for that.

The verdict

I really wanted an 11in MacBook Air when they were first announced – but then again, I tend to want most things Apple announces. After comparing it to the iPad, I’m just not so sure any more. But I’ve got a 13in MacBook Pro and iPad already, as well as a Mac mini sitting at home. If I didn’t have the MBP and iPad, the MacBook Air would be a good catch-all solution – albeit with a few compromises (and no Angry Birds).

If money’s no object, for the same weight as a 13in MacBook Pro, you could carry around both an iPad and MacBook Air, which would be a great solution to keep the best of both worlds.

But most importantly, if you’re looking for a tablet or ultraportable, and you’re not considering either the iPad or MacBook Air, then you really should be. They might be more expensive than some of the tablets and netbooks available, but they’re both incredibly useable. It just depends what you want to use it for.

Only time will tell whether the 11in MacBook Air takes on the iPad in massive sales, but one thing’s for sure: Apple’s laughing all the way to the bank. No other competitor even comes close.

[If this blog has swayed you towards the MacBook Air, make sure you check out the January issue of Australian Macworld magazine for a full review of the 11in and 13in models.]

11 Comments

11 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. michael bacon says:

    A great comparison and review. I was thinking of changing my 15″ MacBook Pro to an Air but I think I will stick with my 15″ + iPad. I seem to use my iPad 80% of the time now anyway. (I hate those pigs)

  2. Anthony | iPhone Auctions Australia says:

    Hi Xavier,

    It sure is an interesting debate. As you’ve touched on, i’ve come to believe that people will still go for the iPad or the 11″ Macbook depending on their needs.

    Sure both are portable, but really that’s where the comparison ends. iOS is a snappy interface, but it won’t run Applications designed for OSX. Vice / Versa – A Macbook ain’t gonna run iPhone / iPad Apps.

    IMHO : At the end of the day, if a person is looking for a ultra portable notebook, the 11″ Macbook is a clear winner. However, if they’re after a ultra large iPod Touch, they should go for the iPad.

    Personally, i bought a iPad and sold it a few months later due to lack of use. Tablets don’t quite make sense yet. I expect once we see more of a hybrid between the Macbook and the iPad, more people will become interested.

    Cheers!

    Anthony.

  3. Jude says:

    OUTSTANDING article! I write this to you from a MBA 11″ 1.6Ghz, 4GB/128GB. I originally bought the MBA to run Google Chrome OS. The Apple hardware is bullet proof. Running Nexxeh’s Google Chrome build makes for the perfect package. With multiple MiFi cards (Verizon, AT&T and Sprint) in my case, I’m always connected. With the open up and instant on feature the MacBook Air beats out the iPad for me. I’ve ditched my Dell Streak since I used Google Voice & Google Talk for all my communications. My wife, who always has her iPad or iPhone 4 struck to her hand would not agree, but she has a different style of usage. My 8 year old daughter has used perfect logic and asked Santa for an 11″ MacBook Air, like her Poppa has. Keep up the great work you do! We enjoy your articles.

  4. Peter T. says:

    I’ve put my iPad into a PADACS Rubata case. This is a case with an integrated, Bluetooth keyboard. It perfectly suits my business and personal needs and is a much better solution for me than a netbook.

  5. Paul Scott says:

    The iPad is a great tool and I pre-ordered the Pad when they became available, and have used it extensively for study. A great reading tool,many books/resources and only 10mm thick.
    Prior to release, I thought the pad may have been the 11inch MBA.
    If the MBA and iPad came out at the same time I think I would have gone for the MBA 11″ A few thing functionality wise differentiate the two but for travel, ‘Flash’ for hotel booking is a great advantage as is ethernet capability
    I think in a year or two the MBA will make it into our living room, and on our trip to Europe

  6. John Wilkins says:

    I have just ported my business (Medical .. I do exclusively home-visits .. 3,500 clients) to an 11″ MacBook Air. I have had about 15 Macs over the years and this little beauty has just passed through a critical size/weight/speed barrier which made my other laptops a pain when working on-the-run… seconds and kilos really count .
    It slips into my bag alongside my stethoscope like it belongs there. It opens from sleep in an instant. I can access a patient file in less than 15 seconds from the time I grab it out of my bag. I have bought a lovely neoprene sleeve which it snuggles in like a wallet. I have ported my records to Bento which works like a dream. I don’t mind using a dongle for the internet.
    The only drawback is the lack of a backlit keyboard.. in dim rooms I am finding typing (one finger & watching the keyboard) a challenge.
    But for a long term small-business Mac user, the new air is a ground breaking, life-changing breakthrough.
    I had a good look at the iPad.. definitely cool to use but not anywhere near a robust business computer. Go the air.

  7. pugwombat says:

    I’m glad not to be the only one with this dilemma. I bought the iPad to use in the kitchen for all those questions that come up around the dinner table (not to mention that recipe for spicy lamb). I didn’t want a laptop sitting on the benchtop and being cooked by liquid dropped into the keyboard. I also wanted to take it overseas, to upload photos and get emails. I didn’t opt for the 3G iPad, because I already have an iPhone 4 and hate having to pay Telstra any more than I already do.

    Angry Birds has been a distraction, as have those books (even though I hate reading any more on a screen than I already do). I like the iPad, but I’m still not sure if I will keep it. A lot of what I do with it, I can also do on the iPhone, even if it means hunting around for my glasses to read it.

    I also couldn’t resist the 11″ Air. We’ll be taking this overseas with us now, as it means that I can properly deal with emails when they arrive, watch films (converted before we leave home), edit reports and store photos. I’ve just picked up a 2nd hand 160gb iPhone Classic from eBay for extra, compact storage.

    I thought the Air might replace one of the MacBook Pros I travel with (one booting directly into Windows for unavoidable GIS solutions), but now I don’t think it will take its place as my main computer (not enough storage, need to duplicate software purchases and the screen isn’t big enough). I don’t want to travel with three laptops though. That would be a bit excessive. Stuff it, I’ll keep the lot.

  8. Dimitrios Klonaris says:

    I too have been using macs for medical record keeping (home visits) since my old G4 12inch macbook. Loved the size and portability. Eventually had to upgrade to a 13 inch macbook then a 15 inch macbook pro (only metallic portable available at the time). Quickly upgraded to a 13 inch mac book pro when available- the 15 inch was too big compared to the original 12 inch.

    The ipad arrived- unfortunately I could not honestly find a reason to buy it. Then apple released the 11inch MBA. I snapped up two upgraded spec machines (one for my wife – one for me) Perfection. The lack of backlit keyboard I have dealt with by purchasing a Logiix USB 10 red light from Amazon. All I need now is a purpose built protective bag for my 11inch MBA. Portability- enough grunt to run bootcamp and Parallels.

    Wonderful useful product. Thanks Apple.

  9. Pablom says:

    I find the iPad does all I want t to do for (away from home jobs). I use a Zagg aluminium case with built in Bluetooth keyboard. This both protects my iPad and is much easier than using the onscreen keyboard.

    Great job Apple.

  10. Rhiannon says:

    I’m currently trying to decide whether to buy an ipad or 11″ mac book air too… i start studying in a couple of weeks, and would like to have my own device rather than using our home laptop, then i won’t be stopping everyone else using it. After reading all the comments, i think i am now leaning towards the mac book air, as i don’t really need the games etc, (though will be typing a large amount, and sounds like this could be difficult on the ipad).. as i am upgrading my phone to an iphone 4 in the next couple of weeks, this will give me access to what i would probably do on the ipad anyway!!

  11. Kate says:

    Great article, thanks. In your view which is the best option for the creation of ePubs. Can you actually use Pages on an iPad? Would a MBA do the trick or would it be better to go for the MacBook Pro? Appreciate your advice, thanks
    Kate

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