What does the iPad mean for the MacBook Air?

Xavier Verhoeven
3 May, 2010
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Now that the MacBook Pro line has received a full refresh, there’s one model in Apple’s portable line up that just doesn’t seem quite up-to-date. It’s been almost a year since the MacBook Air was given any love from Apple. Hell, it’s even still rocking the old-style touchpad with a separate button.

Ever since the announcement of the iPad in January, I’ve been pondering what lies ahead for Apple’s ageing ultrathin notebook. While I’m not sure whether Apple is likely to cull the MacBook Air in the near future, the new-kid-on-the-block iPad is sure going to be stepping on its older, yet still very svelte, sibling’s toes.

When Apple launched the MacBook Air in 2008, it was aimed at filling a niche among travelling businesspeople who needed access to their documents but didn’t want to lug around their primary machine, or image-conscious hipsters who wanted the coolest new gadget in town. To many of these people, the relatively large price tag of $1999 and over may not be an issue.

However, the MacBook Air was, and remains, an underpowered notebook stuffed into an incredibly thin (but otherwise similarly sized to a 13in MacBook) aluminium case.

With the entry-level iPad coming in at a third of the cost of the base MacBook Air in the US (US$499 versus US$1499 – local pricing is not yet available for the iPad), it could be harder for businesspeople to justify the need for the latter – especially for anyone who also has access to a Mac desktop or higher-powered notebook. And it’s no longer the coolest-gadget-around for the early-adopting technophiles.

So, what’s the iPad got that the MacBook Air doesn’t? Or what’s the Air got that that the iPad couldn’t possibly fit in?

Size matters

Anyone who truly needs an ultraportable computer is going to be most interested in two key questions: “How big is it?” and “How much will it weigh me down?”

At a mere 680g (or 730g for the 3G model), the iPad is exactly half the weight of the comparatively bulky MacBook Air’s 1.36kg. At 243 x 190 x 13mm it’s also a fair bit smaller than the “thinnovative” notebook (325 x 227 x 19mm).

While the MacBook Air is the most portable notebook made by Apple, the iPad is just in another league of portability – überportable, perhaps?

I’ve been carrying one in the side-pocket of a bag with a MacBook Pro. While it adds some bulk to the bag, it barely adds any weight to my 15in machine. In a bag by itself, the iPad is easy to take anywhere. The only drawback is that it’s so light that you might accidentally leave it somewhere without noticing.

Image is everything

The MacBook Air was one of the first Apple laptops to include a LED-backlit LCD display. It was, and still is a beautiful screen. At 13in with 1280 x 800 pixels, it’s a smallish screen for doing any serious work, but will cover the basics.

The iPad has a 9.7in screen with almost the same resolution (1024 x 768) as the MBA, albeit in a 4:3 ratio screen. Of course, it achieves this through a higher pixel density (132 pixels per inch in the iPad versus the Air’s 113). I’m a fan of smaller pixels – the extra clarity offered by a high-density display is unbeatable.

But most importantly, the iPad also has a LED-backlit LCD display, and it looks amazing from almost any angle thanks to its IPS technology.

But the beautiful display also has a few drawbacks. Any time you need to type on the iPad, the onscreen keyboard substantially diminishes the viewable screen area. Likewise, be aware that if you have particularly grubby fingers, you’ll be stuck with residue all over the high-gloss finish. Especially as Apple decided not to include a micro-fibre cloth in the box (despite including it with every other product I can remember purchasing).

The MacBook Air probably wins on this one – but it’s entirely dependent on the sort of work you do. Safari on the iPad makes the net feel like it should have always been touch-controlled.

The 9-to-5 grind

The iPad has a 10-hour battery. And that’s not even exaggerating. Many reviewers have been able to get longer out of the device, whether watching movies, surfing the web, or typing a novella. I don’t know about you, but I find it staggering.

It makes the MacBook Air’s five-hour battery seem positively archaic.

Anyone who’s relying on access to email, the internet, and basic productivity applications should think seriously about this choice. The iPad offers more than a full working day of life without the need for a bulky charger, whereas the MacBook Air will undoubtedly conk out some time after lunch. And if you’re really going for the ultraportable option, chances are you’ll never have the charger on you when you need it.

There’s an app for that

Of course, this is the doozy. The iPad doesn’t run OS X, so it won’t suit graphic designers needing access to Photoshop, nor will it work for architects and their CAD programs. Oh, hang on… the MacBook Air probably won’t suit them either.

It’s true that the iPhone OS that the iPad runs is severely limited in its abilities. Though the update expected towards the end of the year (via iPhone OS 4.0, which is coming mid-year to iPhones) will bring multitasking and a few other goodies that will definitely help to silence some of the naysayers.

But as it stands, there are a lot of things that a traditional notebook (which we’ll class the MacBook Air as) can do better than the iPad. For any kind of serious work, be it writing, working on spreadsheets or databases, or any number of tasks that people undertake on a daily basis, the MacBook Air is probably a better option.

But then again, for the added bulk of the MBA, a new MacBook Pro can add a bit more grunt for not a lot more weight.

So if you’re really trying to cut back on what you carry, we’re back to the iPad for its size.

But a tiny computer is useless if it can’t do anything, I hear you say. Well, along with Apple’s iWork suite for iPad – Pages, Numbers and Keynote – there are already a multitude of work-friendly apps available, and surely more to come. I’m constantly jotting things in Synotes Slate and adding to-dos to Things for iPad. Plus I can play a quick game of Flight Control HD when I tire of being too productive.

The iPad platform will likely grow beyond what it is today to include mobile versions of most Mac apps – and even a whole plethora that never existed on the platform. (Note to the ATO: forget eTax for OS X, I’d be happy with an iPad version.)

Touch typing, for real

Another drawback of the iPad versus the MBA is the former’s onscreen keyboard. You can’t rest your fingers on the keys while you mull over your next paragraph without inputting a few lines of gibberish. Sure, the iPad will require some rethinking for ardent touch-typers, but many people I know can rival touch-typing speeds without resting their fingers on the ‘home keys’ or needing the little bump on F and J to find their place.

I think that anyone used to typing on the iPhone will quickly adapt to the new method. And for anyone who never actually learnt to touch type properly – myself included – we’ve lost nothing in figuring out a new way.

Of course, there is a benefit to the iPad’s onscreen keyboard: the device can be held with one hand, while the other navigates and types. So anyone truly working on the go can send out a quick email standing in line waiting for a coffee.

Handle with care

One benefit of the MacBook Air is its strong aluminium shell – which can withstand all kinds of ill-treatment. There’s no denying it’s a strong computer to take on the road. It might get the occasional dint, but when it’s closed up, the screen is relatively safe from disasters.

This isn’t quite the case for the iPad. Its glass screen is unprotected from the dangers of the big-bad world. And now that Apple is apparently not selling screen protectors in its stores, the options to keep it pristine are limited (though for the record, I hate screen protectors – I’ve never managed to put one on without it bubbling). At the same time, the likelihood of dropping it is somewhat increased by its ease-of-use while standing.

It’s difficult to gauge this one just yet – there haven’t been many reports of broken iPad screens, and mine feels pretty damn solid. But it is early days. If you plan on being heavy-handed, maybe the Air will be a better option. After all, an iPad without a screen becomes very limited in its useability.

Internet, to go

I have a Wi-Fi-only iPad, so its internet connectivity is about the same as a MacBook Air (little-to-none away from home or the office unless you’re a big Starbucks or McDonalds fan). And after having used an iPhone for a couple of years, the iPad without 3G feels incomplete; like a cake without icing, a car without wheels, or a British romantic comedy without Hugh Grant. With 3G, the iPad will truly be magical. Unless you live out in the bush.

The point is, when the iPad is given mobile broadband, it will offer the real internet – beyond what the iPhone admirably tries to provide – in your hands.

Given that Apple’s had the opportunity to add 3G to its notebooks for years, I wouldn’t expect this functionality added to the MBA any time soon.

Oh, and while I’m looking at the mobile internet, it would be remiss of me not to mention Flash. Of course, Flash isn’t supported on the iPad. But then again, it wouldn’t run all that well on the MacBook Air anyway. And Flash is mostly just annoying ads and crappy games. The internet’s better without it, right? Steve Jobs sure thinks so.

Powerful processors, petite packages

Both the iPad and MacBook Air were designed with custom chips. The first MBA was released with a shrunk-down Intel processor, designed specifically to fit in the limited space of the ultrathin case. It has sported an underpowered miniature version of Intel’s mobile processors ever since. The iPad boasts a chip that Apple designed – the A4. It’s based on the ARM architecture, but has been rebuilt from the ground up specifically for the iPad.

Why does that matter? Well, one can only assume Apple has tweaked the A4 to do exactly what it wants it to do. It was purpose-built for iPhone OS – a far cry from big ol’ OS X running on a chip that isn’t quite up to scratch. Anyone who has used an iPad can attest to the fact that it flies – sure, it’s running a leaner OS, but it’s still full of eye-candy and stunning features. Pinching to zoom photos, swiping between home screens, and scrolling in Safari all happen as your finger moves, without any lag.

There’s a big difference between a chip that’s squeezed into a tiny space and one that’s designed from the ground up to be small, but perform select tasks brilliantly.

So, what’s the verdict?

Only time will tell whether Apple discontinues the MacBook Air in light of the iPad. One thing is for sure: the MacBook Air is a traditional computer that offers a compromise between form and power; the iPad, on the other hand, really is a new category of device that stands to change the way most people (but perhaps not nerds) use computers. It feels fast, is fun to touch, and will impress your mates (even if it doesn’t do quite everything you want it to yet).

I know which one I’d prefer to lug around on business trips. And for that reason, I’d be willing to bet that the MacBook Air’s days are numbered.

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