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.


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