When introducing the new MacBook Air (13-inch: , 11-inch: ) in October 2010, Steve Jobs asked, “What would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up?” It’s one of the stranger things Jobs has ever said on stage, but it got the point across: With its small size, light weight, and flash storage, the new MacBook Air is the most iPad-like Mac that Apple has ever made.
But how comparable are they, really? More specifically, which one is the better device for getting work done, the 11-inch MacBook Air or the iPad? The answer depends on how you define work and what compromises you’re willing to make.
Sporting the same aluminum casing and the famous Apple logo, the 11-inch Air and the iPad are definitely cousins. The Air is about seven-tenths of a pound lighter than the iPad. In two dimensions (thickness and depth), it’s of comparable size. If you lay the iPad atop the MacBook Air, you’ll see that the Air is a little more than two inches wider than the iPad.
But that comparison skips over one important point: the iPad is always open, ready for use at the push of a button. The MacBook Air works only when you open its clamshell and put it on a surface where you can type, use the trackpad, and see its screen. The iPad, by contrast, can be used in a lot of places where a traditional laptop really can’t.
But that very disadvantage is also the Air’s biggest physical advantage over the iPad: It needs more room because it’s got a physical keyboard. The iPad has that virtual on-screen keyboard, but if you want to use a wired or wireless keyboard, it won’t form an integrated unit that will rest on your lap. (A few iPad cases, such as the ZaggMate and the ClamCase try to solve that problem.)
For the past couple of months, I’ve alternated between carrying an iPad and a MacBook Air on my commute. I tend to choose one or the other based on whether or not I’m planning on typing a lot. Back in November, for example, as part of National Novel Writing Month, I wrote 2000 words a day, every day; to maintain that pace, I needed to work on the bus to and from work. I used the MacBook Air the entire month. That’s not to say I can’t write on the iPad, but it’s much slower than on the MacBook, and there’s absolutely no way to use an iPad plus keyboard comfortably on the bus.
I suspect that for many people, the decisive factor in choosing the MacBook or iPad for work will be the keyboard. If you need to do a lot of typing in spaces that don’t give you room to prop up your iPad and break out your wireless keyboard, the iPad simply isn’t up to the job.
The other big difference between the two devices is the software they run.
Mac OS X is a mature computer operating system. It requires a mouse and a keyboard. Software abounds, from Microsoft Office to the smallest utility; none need be approved by Apple to be used on a Mac. The file system is also exposed, so you can see and manipulate all the files on your MacBook Air.
Apple’s iOS, by comparison, is not yet four years old. Though it supports external keyboards, it’s primarily based on touch input. Plenty of apps have been created for it, but most are still a bit bare-bones. For example, while there are lots of apps out there for editing plain text, precious few let you edit styled text. (For more on that, see Kirk McElhearn’s roundup of iPad text editors, page 43.) You can’t manipulate files directly as you can on the Mac; different apps have different ways of opening, saving, and sharing files, which can be awkward. Clearly this is an operating system with some growing to do.
All that said, I’ve found that there are some good iPad apps for doing much of my work. The Mail and Safari applications that come with the iPad are both excellent. In general, Apple’s iWork suite does a good job of letting you open, edit, and save files in Microsoft Office–compatible formats, though file management and version control are still a mess. Keynote, in particular, is excellent—and you can even use it to give presentations on external monitors via a video adapter.
The addition of multitasking support in iOS 4.2 makes the iPad a better work machine. Quickly switching among multiple apps provides a huge productivity boost: I can read something in an e-mail, look it up on the Web, and then paste the results into a chat window. The fact that only one app at a time is visible on the iPad can also be a good thing: While I can have a text editor, IM app, and Twitter client all on screen and vying for my attention on my MacBook, on the iPad I have to focus solely on the app that I’m using—a boon for the easily distracted.
What Makes Sense When
The iPad is obviously a fantastic consumption device: I’ve read books, watched movies and baseball games, read RSS feeds, and played untold numbers of games on mine. And in terms of getting work done, the iPad has replaced both my iPhone and my MacBook Air as the device I check when I’m at home and need to check what’s going on at the office. I take it to meetings as a note-taker and e-mail checker. I love its size and the fact that using it feels more casual than opening up a laptop.
For serious work, I bring along an Apple Wireless Keyboard and a case that lets me set the iPad on a flat surface such as a desk or table. I once wrote a 2000-word Macworld article at my in-laws’ kitchen table using that setup, and it worked just fine. I can connect to our VPN with it, giving me access to our servers. Because I have the 3G iPad, I can get online with AT&T’s 3G cellular data network without a separate device—something no Mac can do. And the iPad’s battery lasts roughly twice as long as the MacBook’s.
The iPad’s main disadvantage is that, while you can do almost anything with it, sometimes a given task takes a lot more effort than it would on a MacBook Air. But if your work doesn’t require a lot of keyboarding or apps that aren’t available on the iPad (Adobe’s Creative Suite, say), the iPad starts to make a lot of sense.
With an 11-inch MacBook Air at my disposal, I no longer feel that taking a laptop on a business trip is such a hardship. In fact, the 11-inch MacBook Air is smaller and lighter than the iPad and Apple Wireless Keyboard combination.
Just as importantly, the MacBook Air is a Mac. It can run Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Coda, BBEdit, Firefox, Parallels, and VMware—you name it. If your work requires one of these real Mac apps, or if you do technical or creative work that requires lots of horsepower, only a Mac will do. And if your job requires Web- or Flash-based apps, again the choice is clear. And if you spend the bulk of your day tapping furiously on a keyboard, the MacBook Air has the advantage.
Either or Both?
The truth is, however, that this isn’t an either-or question: If you can afford it, you can—like me—have both an iPad and a Mac. For that matter, you can also have a smartphone. They all overlap in functionality—but each also does something the others can’t. There’s less overlap between an iPad and, say, a MacBook Pro than there is between the tablet and a MacBook Air. Likewise, if you’ve got an iPhone, you’ve essentially got an iPad mini in your pocket all the time, and so you may not need that iPad. You might be better off pairing that phone with an Air.
But if you have to choose between the iPad and MacBook Air, it comes down to where you’re willing to compromise. The iPad wins on size and convenience; I’d rather read PDFs, e-books, Websites, and RSS feeds on the iPad than on the MacBook Air. And I’d rather use an iPad in a briefing room to show off documents to colleagues or clients. And if all I need on a business trip is the Web and e-mail, the iPad will be enough. But for anything more than that, I still need my MacBook Air.
[Jason Snell is Macworld’s editorial director.]