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):
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]