When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad, he didn't pitch it as a laptop killer. Instead he framed it as a device that sits somewhere in between phone and laptop. Four years later, has the iPad matured enough to compete with a laptop? Let's touch on that, as Gizmag compares the features and specs of the 11-in MacBook Air and the iPad Air.
Update: if you're looking for the newest iPad, you can check out our newer version of this comparison, featuring the iPad Air 2.
Just in case you've been living in a cave for the last few years, let's start with a quick look at the essential nature of each device. The MacBook Air is a traditional laptop, with an integrated keyboard and trackpad (both of which are quite excellent). The iPad is a tablet through and through, with the only "built-in" keyboard coming courtesy of its touchscreen. You can, however, buy some third-party keyboard covers and cases that can turn the iPad into a faux laptop.
The 11-in MacBook Air is very portable for a laptop, but it's still quite a bit bigger than the iPad Air. Just know that if you add a keyboard cover to the iPad, its thickness is going to creep a lot closer to the MacBook's.
Tablets are very personal devices. You hold them in your hands, you touch them all over, and you might even take them with you when you hop from room to room. So weight is going to play a big role there. The feathery iPad Air earns the "Air" moniker better than its MacBook counterpart, coming in at 57 percent lighter than the MacBook Air.
If you're buying an Apple device, then chances are you're going to be looking at an aluminum exterior. Neither of these devices is an exception to that rule.
Apple has never offered the MacBook Air in any color other than a standard metallic silver. The latest iPads are available in both space gray & black and silver & white options.
The iPad Air's screen is a lot bigger than the iPad mini's, but its display is still only 79 percent as big as the 11-in MacBook Air's.
Display (resolution and pixel density)
Apple hasn't yet given the MacBook Air a high-resolution (or "Retina," in Apple's marketing language) display. The iPad Air's screen is going to look much sharper than the MBA's.
Apple has also yet to make a touchscreen MacBook, so you'll need to head in the Windows direction if you want a laptop with touch. The iPad is, of course, a touch-based device.
Since we're comparing mobile and desktop processors here, you'll want to take this comparison with a few grains of salt. But both chips drive their respective operating systems with zippy and smooth performance.
If you pay Apple a little extra, you can configure the 11-in MBA with up to a 1.7 GHz Intel Core i7 (with turbo boost up to 3.3 GHz)
The MacBook has a desktop-like 4 GB of RAM, while the iPad Air has a more tablet-like 1 GB. You can also configure the MacBook Air with up to 8 GB of RAM.
Storage is obviously more of a priority on a full-fledged laptop like the MacBook Air. The only common ground between these two is the 128 GB option.
This looks like a slight victory for the iPad, and it probably is. But battery life between these two is much closer now than it was in years past. Intel's Haswell processors have laptops like the MacBook now potentially serving as all-day machines.
LTE (cellular data) option
Apple has never made a MacBook with cellular data capabilities. You can buy an iPad that's LTE-ready, as long as you don't mind throwing down an extra US$130. Though if you live in the US, T-Mobile recently started a new program that lets you buy LTE iPads at Wi-Fi only prices.
There's no reason to put a rear camera in a traditional laptop, so the MacBook only has a front-facing webcam. The iPad's rear camera is pretty solid, but it won't be on par with the cameras in recent high-end smartphones.
The MacBook Air runs the latest version of OS X, dubbed Mavericks. The iPad Air runs iOS 7. We should hear more about iOS 8 and the next installment of Mac OS X at Apple's WWDC next month. Both of them should be free updates when they launch to the public later this year.
Apple now gives away its iWork office suite for free with both MacBook and iPad purchases.
If you prefer Microsoft's industry standard productivity suite, then you're in luck. Office has been available for Mac for a long time, and Microsoft just launched a mobile version for the iPad as well. You'll just need to pony up for an Office 365 subscription (starting at $7 per month).
If you like to use Apple's voice assistant, Siri, then you might want to look at the iPad. Though OS X has built-in voice dictation that uses the same (Nuance-powered) engine, we still haven't seen Siri show up on the Mac.
Apple just updated the MacBook Air last week with slightly faster processors. The iPad Air launched last November, so we're probably about halfway through its initial life cycle.
When Apple updated the MBA last week, it also dropped its prices by $100 across the board. That moves it a little closer to the iPad's price, but the tablet still starts at $400 cheaper than Apple's laptop. If you don't need the Mac's desktop software, then you can save a lot of money – and get a high-resolution screen – by opting for the iPad.
Four years after the iPad launched, it's a much more powerful and productivity-oriented machine than it was at first. If you can imagine an app that would work well on a tablet, then chances are you'll find it in the iPad's App Store. Whether or not you agree that we're in a post-PC era, you can't deny that the iPad is the new definition of personal computer in countless households all the world over.
But that isn't to say that full-fledged laptops like the MacBook Air don't still have a place. For example, if you need to use Photoshop, the touch-based version for the iPad looks primitive next to Photoshop CC on Mac and Windows. The feature sets are getting more and more overlap, but full-fledged PCs are still the more powerful and versatile machines ... at least when it comes to work.
We'll have more on the laptop vs. tablet dilemma in some future posts, but if you're on the fence between MacBook Air and iPad Air, hopefully this will give you a clearer sense of what you're looking at with both devices. You can also check out our full iPad Air review and our review of the mid-2013 MacBook Air for more on these two.