iPad Air vs. MacBook Air: Which Apple ultra-portable should you get?

iPad Air vs. MacBook Air: Which Apple ultra-portable should you get?

2013 iPad buyers guide: How to choose between Apple's new iPad Air and the 2013 11-inch MacBook Air!

Apple now has two products designated as "Air", the MacBook Air, updated last June with the latest generation Intel Haswell processors, and the brand new iPad Air, introduced in October with a custom Apple A7 chipset. Both are ultra light, super thin, and incredibly long lasting, but one has a keyboard and runs OS X and the other a multitouch and iOS 7. Both can be absolutely killer on a plane, in an office, or around the house. But which one is better for you?

Models and price points

The iPad Air starts at $499 for 16GB and goes up in $100 increments for additional storage, maxing out at $799 for 128GB. For an additional $130, you can get cellular networking as well. With that, the most expensive iPad Air tops out at $929 for 128GB with Wi-Fi + cellular.

The 11-inch MacBook Air starts at $999 for a 1.3GHz Core i5, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. All three of those things can be upgraded for an additional cost. At the highest end, the most expensive MacBook Air mixes out at $1749 for 1.7GHz, 8GB, and 512GB.

Screen sizes and display densities

iPad Air vs. MacBook Air: Which Apple portable should you get?

The iPad Air ships with a 4:3 9.7-inch 2048x1536 Retina display at 264ppi. That's the largest iOS display Apple currently ships, though it's not quite as dense as the Retina iPad mini or iPhone 5 series. The panel is LED backlit and boasts in-plane switching (IPS) technology for improved viewing angles.

The 11-inch MacBook Air has a 16:9 11.6-inch 1366x768 standard display at 135ppi. Unlike the MacBook Pro, Apple hasn't (yet) brought Retina display to the MacBook Air line. The panel is LED but not IPS.

While the 11-inch MacBook Air has the bigger display (by almost 2-inches diagonally), the iPad Air has a much better and more advanced display.

Processor power and battery life

Everything you need to know about Apple's all-new 64-bit A7 system-on-a-chip, and the next generation Cyclone processor

The iPad Air has an Apple A7 chipset, which includes both a custom 64-bit ARMv8-based Cyclone CPU, a PowerVR Series 6 "Rogue" GPU, and an Apple M7 motion coprocessor. Apple lists it as having up to 10 hours of wireless web use or video playback.

The 11-inch MacBook Air has an Intel Core i5 "Haswell" processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000. Apple lists it as having up to 9 hours of wireless web use, 8 ours of iTunes video playback, and up to 30 days of standby battery life.

The iPad Air has one hell of a processor for a mobile device - desktop class, even - but it's still a mobile processor. The MacBook Air has a full on desktop processor, though one geared for portability rather than power. Despite the MacBook's battery optimizations, however, the iPad beats it by an hour or more on battery life.

Input methods

The iPad Air has a multitouch display that's used for direct manipulation. You can tap, swipe, pinch, and otherwise gesture your way though the entire operating system, and all of its apps. For text input, it has a virtual keyboard with character prediction and autocorrect. The iPad can also connect to physical keyboards (sold separately) over Bluetooth.

The 11-inch MacBook Air doesn't have a touch screen but does have a full-sized physical keyboard and a large, multitouch trackpad that allows for all sorts of iOS-style gesture manipulations.

With a keyboard, depending on the size of the keyboard, the iPad Air can handle text entry every bit as well as the 11-inch MacBook Air. The MacBook Air multitouch trackpad can do much of what the iPad's screen can do, but doesn't offer the same kind of direct - finger on object - manipulation as the iPad.

Ports and expansion

The iPad mini has a Lightning connector. With it, the iPad can use adapters (sold separately) to interface with non-powered USB devices, principally cameras, and SD cards, principally to retrieve photos. It can also connect to VGA and HDMI displays, and iPad-specific accessories for video, music, and more. The iPad cannot connect to storage expansion peripherals.

The 11-inch MacBook Air has two USB 3 ports and a Thunderbolt port. With them, and the appropriate cables or adapters (sold separately), it can interface with most standard computer accessories and peripherals, including displays and external storage devices.

Although both the iPad Air and the MacBook Air are basically hermetically sealed computing appliances, the MacBook is vastly more extensible than the iPad.

Operating systems

The iPad mini ships with iOS 7, Apple's mobile operating system. It's a single user, full screen operating system with no user-visible file system, and no access to system-level functionality. It is, however, incredibly easy to use, requires little or no maintenance, and can be used to its full potential by almost any mainstream person.

The 11-inch MacBook Air runs Apple's laptop and desktop operating system. It's a multi-user, multi-window operating system the combines all the power of a traditional UNIX 3 environment with a full-on graphical user interface, and even an iOS-like launcher layer. It's not as accessible to the mainstream, but it's more functional for those familiar with computers.

iOS 7 holds to the principle of less is more. You can't do as much with it in theory, but more people can do more with it than they can with more complicated systems like OS X. The different approaches will appeal to decidedly different types of people.

Software and services

Everything you need to know about Apple's fifth-generation iPad Air, with new design and Apple A7 processor

The iPad Air has access to the iOS App Store which boasts over one million apps, almost half of which are now optimized to run on its bigger screen. It includes apps in all categories, from games to productivity, communications to entertainment. Most of them are free or extremely cheap. The iPad can also run HTML5 web apps, but can't download or run apps from internet locations or any app store other than Apple's.

The 11-inch MacBook Air has the Mac App Store, which works similarly to the iOS App Store and provides secure access to all kinds of games, productivity, communications, and entertainment apps. Macs can also run HTML5 web apps, as well as apps downloaded from the web or other app stores. This includes desktop-class apps unavailable to iOS, like Final Cut Pro X, Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Cloud, and many more.

The iPad and iOS have an incredibly quantity and diversity of apps, at incredibly cheap (or even free) prices. The MacBook and OS X, however, have apps simply unavailable on iOS. Both have access to iCloud, Dropbox, SkyDrive, Google, and other popular online services. OS X, however, can typically integrate more deeply and more flexibly with those services.

Who should get the iPad Air?

The iPad Air is best suited for people for whom traditional computers have always been inaccessible, intimidating, or otherwise off-putting. While the MacBook Air is inarguably more powerful, the iPad Air can empower more people to get more out of it, thanks to the directness of its interface and simplicity of its operations. If sitting in front of a keyboard and mouse ever made you feel lost, you should get the iPad Air.

The iPad Air is also ideally suited for people who want the absolute lightest computing experience possible for use around the house or while traveling. For everything from gaming to working (especially with a hardware keyboard accessory) it can accomplish everything but the most intense computing tasks, in the most highly portable form factor yet devised. If any laptop, no matter how small, is too much, the iPad Air is for you.

(If even the iPad Air is too much, consider the lighter, smaller 7.9-inch Retina iPad mini.)

Who should get the 11-inch MacBook Air?

The MacBook Air is best suited for people who are used to and require a traditional computing experience. From advanced keyboard shortcuts to drag-and-drop workflows, to multiple users, to Terminal, to... you get the idea. It's everything you need in a Unix box and modern GUI in the best blend of portability and power currently on the market. If you need to run Photoshop, Pro Tools, Xcode, or other high-end software on the go, you need a MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air is also great for people who want a Mac they can hook up to a big 27-inch Thunderbolt display at work or at home, and still slip into a tiny messenger bag or backpack and take on the road, or into the skies. Thanks to its ports, it can also be hooked into most networks, and most storage, on the market, making it a useable workstation when it needs to be. If you absolutely have to have a laptop, but you want the most minimal laptop possible, look into a MacBook Air.

(If the 11-inch MacBook Air isn't quite enough for you, look into the slightly bigger and more powerful 13-inch MacBook Air, or even the considerably more powerful 13-inch MacBook Pro)

Still undecided?

Some people are mobile first and just want an iPad. Others are computer-first and need a laptop. Still others split the difference and get either an iPad mini and a MacBook, or an iPad Air and an iMac. The great thing about options is that you can find the perfect device, or pair of devices, that best suit your individual needs.

If you're still having trouble choosing between an iPad and a MacBook, jump into our iPad discussion forums or Mac discussion forums and the best community in mobile will happily help you out.

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

iPad Air vs. MacBook Air: Which Apple ultra-portable should you get?


I always considered the hardware to be the Kitchen, OS X the fridge, and iOS the toaster. :D - You get different results, but they can work well together in the Kitchen to make a great sandwich!

Except if you choose iOS you won't have any food. Fridges are essential to the kitchen. Unless you're 75 years old, you'll need a computer.

Nice comparison. It's probably time to do such a comparison of the MacBook air to the MacBook Pro. With such a close price point it's a tough call on which one to choose.

I was thinking the same thing the other evening. It would be fun to see a comparison of the 13" MBA vs. the 13" MBP. I also agree with how close the price points have become so close now.

great. I hope he touches on the trade offs between storage capacity, memory, are their sacrifices if you have 4gbs vs 8gbs? comparisons of the differing processors, what are you sacrificing with one like say video or audio encoding speeds or is it a di minimis difference. Those often get short shrift but to me they are vital concerns. Most reviews i see simply cover "hey you get a clearer screen" which is fine but not that important to me plus i can see that from the spec sheet.

One year on and we faced the same choice and this article helped us decide on getting the 2015 11.6" Macbook Air.

We had a burglary and my wife's old heavy iPad 2nd Gen was stolen, so we looked at the new iPad Air 2 64GB ($540 at Costco) with a Zagg keyboard/cover ($140 at Best Buy) and decided to add a couple of hundred to that total and get the 2015 Macbook Air at B&H for $825

Wow, that is exactly what I have done. I returned a Surface Pro 2 and the new Chromebook 11 caught my eye. I am loving this thing! Sold my Ipad Mini last week, waiting on my Air.

I actually had to make that choice before. In the end I used an iPad with a keyboard because I needed the stylus option for lectures. Notability was my app of choice. My circumstances later changed and I need to use among other things a full office suite, but I needed the ultraportability so I got the MBA 11. I do usually connect to an external monitor.

Maybe so but they have two key similarities, portability. When u connect the ipad air to a key board you actually do have very similar devices.

I would get the air every single time, it can do a lot more then the iPad

Sent from the iMore App

It only makes sense besides the 128Gig iPad is almost the same price as the MBA anyways
why pay close to the same price and get less functionality?

Have to agree here. I would always go for a laptop than a tablet. Alot more functionality and as a practical/professional tool a laptop wins everytime. Tablets are great for surfing the web whilst watching TV.

I own both the macbook air 11 inch and the Ipad air 9.7 inch retina display. I enjoy both of them. I use my ipad air most of the time and my macbook air for typing up essays and doing research work. My ipad air I use for mainly reading and using the apps for checking bank balances too. They're both good companions to have. I say get both if you can afford it.

I know which one I would like to have but it really comes down to money let's face it and i am speaking for myself, With that it is an easy decision and choice. iPad Air!

Nice article. I was thinking about this dilemma just the other day. I still can't replace my Macbook with a tablet though - the iPad just isn't there yet.

But ... but ...I bought iPad 128 GB, MacBook Air 11" and MacBook Pro 15" early 2013 (and the most expensive one!) ... no more $$ to buy iPad Air :( Grrrr.... LOL

Thanks Rene, for another very informative article. :)

I think it comes down to this
Are you replacing your Mac? -> Get another Mac
Are you keeping your Mac and need another portable? -> Get an iPad

I can't live without my MBA. I can live without my iPad. I take my MBA to work everyday while my iPad sits at home. I am on my MBA more than my iPad. Why? I am trying to get real work done. I hook up my MBA to three external monitors. I can be more productive on my MBA. iPad is for relaxing and chilling out. MBA is for real serious work.

No disrespect but the idea that an iPad is not for "real" work is tired and worn out.

"I can be more productive on my MBA"

You mean you can be more productive on your MBA for tasks / apps that require the power and flexibility of OSX. Which is fine but that doesn't mean the iPad can't be used for real work. Go back and watch the Life on iPad video Apple showed off at the iPad event a few days ago;


That entire video is about professionals using it for real work. Tell that surgeon in the video he doesn't use the iPad for real work. I dare you. Here's another article about a developer whose app (Theodolite) is used for real work;


Take extra note of the very end, and I'll quote;

"I often see debates about whether the iPad is a "content-creation" or "content-consumption" device, but I think that's a simplistic way to look at it, likely drummed up by folks with limited focus. The iPad, along with apps from thousands of developers and the ingenuity and creativity of customers, has become a knowledge generation tool across the spectrum. It's being used out in the real world to obtain tangible results with a real impact on the way we live."

Still think an iPad is not for real work? Don't make the mistake of thinking that because the iPad cannot run OSX / OSX apps that you cannot use it for real work. It is designed to do work and go places where a traditional laptop is too cumbersome or not optimal - a true mobile device. There's more to real work than just office productivity apps or Photoshop.

It has it's place in niche roles in certain professions. But largely, it's a poor productivity tool in comparison to a PC.

No I hear you on that one. I use my macbook air for research and college, while my ipad air is used for reading books and magazines electronically. I also use it for the apps like kindle reader and ibooks.

MacBook Air duh. Lol :p

Although I do wonder why iPad Air is retina but not MacBook Air. If MacBook Air was retina I would have one right now.

Only in the fictional universe of Man of Steel, where aliens can come in over RSS and whole cities can be murdered without any consequence other than opening up fancy reporting jobs to drifter-types. (Cautionary tale?)

Windows RT needs to run Windows Phone OS before it becomes interesting, and Microsoft seems unwilling to pull that trigger.

I don't think comparing a third party keyboard that you have to pair with bluetooth and having to lift your fingers off the keys to touch the screen every time is a similar input method. Any laptop is clearly miles ahead here. Different if you were holding both in your hands, tablet style, but referencing the ipad photo with the keyboard dock, who would not prefer a trackpad?

If you are choosing just between the two devices, I would summarize it as follows.

Get an iPad Air if you want...
...Internet connectivity where there is no WiFi
...something to use in places where a keyboard is impractical
...to take photos
...GPS capabilities
...something primarily (but not exclusively) for content consumption (rather than creation)
...something for mobile gaming
...something on which to read digital books and magazines
...something in addition to your notebook computer

Get a MacBook Air if you want...
...something to use as your sole computing device (other than a smartphone)
...a portable computer for use while on travel
...something that runs the same software packages as your iMac, Mac Mini, or Mac Pro
...a device for significant content creation
...something on which to develop software
...to do photo editing, art, or CAD drawings

I realize that the preceding was a rather general checklist and I'm sure that there will be disagreement from people who use their iPads to develop content, edit videos, and paint pictures. Bravo to them for their skill and ingenuity, but, for most of us, it's not going to turn out well if we try that. And I'm sure that there are people with MacBook Airs who think that their use of mobile hotspots, USB cameras, and USB GPS receivers is just the cat's meow. Again, not really the best solution for most of us.

I'm thinking of hanging on to my trusty iPad 3 and getting a new MacBook. My 2008 iMac would become an iTunes server.

I am an apple fanatic and must have everything apple. But the only thing i cant afford is the macbook yet, it would be cool if you guys did a contest to get one, i think you did one before, but i didnt win it :(

in OS, MacBook Air can use the other operating system with BootCamp or VM software.
and, iPad can support the just small part of job which can do with MacBook Air even little bit easier to use.
Basically, it can not be comparable, actually, i have i5, ipad4, MBA.
I am using i5 for phone and while moving, ipad 4 ? mostly at home, MBA at office and working.

Or wait until 2014 and get the iPad Pro 12" with 256GB next year, I know I would :) Up to 12h battery, A8 1.6GHz with 2GB RAM, 560-600g weight, WiFi 802.11ac and (hopefully) easier connectivity/expandibility with some ports. It'll probably start at $699 for the 64GB model (+ additional keyboard cover 150g). Since it's target will be Pro users there's no need to go below 64GB with available storage option, and with iOS 8 it'll be finally time to say bye bye to my trusty Macbook. Don't get me wrong - I love my Mac but with tablets around I won't buy another 'normal display notebook', even if it's great.

I'm still not sure about a larger iPad "Pro." Apple made the iPad Air thinner & lighter than previous full-sized iPads and is going through a lot trouble emphasizing this. Making a bigger, heavier iPad Pro would seem, at least to me, go against the idea of an iPad being highly mobile.

What I definitely can see is a thinner, lighter retina MBA with the following specs;

- custom Apple A8 / A9 ARM-based SoC
- 12.1" to 12.5" retina screen
- 2GB to 4GB of RAM
- running OSX but with all the legacy Carbon code stripped out and capable of running ONLY Mac App Store apps
- 64GB ($799), 128GB ($899), 256GB ($999) of storage

Interesting concept, I think that Macbook Air 11" won't be necessary when we get our hands on a tablet with this size. 11.1"-11.5" is the perfect display for tablets with current tech and prices, it even works better as a tablet than the notebook. That's one of the reasons why netbooks were DOA (the other reasons being specs, performance and lack of portability that you gain with a touch display tablet).

Why do people post these just wait for better tech on a TECH enthusiast's site? Wait 5 years even better.

Great article. Would love to see a similar article comparing the 13" MBA to the new 13" MBP.

I'm torn on which to get (will be my first laptop & Apple product).

There are so many excellent Apple products out that I have decided to get the new MacPro and the iPadAir. No...wait, its the MacPro and the iPad mini...no no thats not right...its the MacPro and the new Mac Air 15"....wait...wait...its the......

iPad Air is the TOP STANDARD of tablets' world.
Macbook Air 11" is the SUB STANDARD of Macbooks' world.

Air 11" is not as delicious as iPad.

A comparison between iPad Air and Macbook Pro 13" Retina would have more sense.

Thanks for the article. This debate has been the subject of many dinner conversations lately for sure.

One thing I would add to the "Who should get the iPad Air" are those professionals with needs to make presentations to clients on a daily basis, including but not limited to real estate agents, doctors (no surprise iPads are huge in the medical world), art students, etc. It's a job that simply cannot be done with an MBA (or any laptops in that regard).

If I could afford a MBA or MBP & an iPad I'd get both, then use Teamviewer http://www.teamviewer.com/en/index.aspx to remote desktop into the MBA or MBP for apps that are only available on OSX, not as good as using it directly on the MBP or MBA but useful say if you are relaxing with the iPad and decide that you need to use PhotoShop or Microsoft Office, just RD into the Mac Laptop and do what you need to do while relaxing instead of putting one device down and picking up the other, especially if the MBA or MBP is in a different room.

Thank you so much for giving me a detailed account of the differences between an iPad and an air Mac. Being a novice, I really appreciate it. It was easy to read and gave me clarity. Thank you.

I already have a desktop computer, an old laptop, and an old iPad. Love all of them, but they are getting out of date, cannot do certain things. So, I am trying to decide between the iPad air and the Macbook air or even the Macbook pro. What I realize is that with a "real computer" I would not be able to access the internet unless wi-fi was available. On the other hand, I really like the one-to-one classes, a year for $99, and they are not available with the iPads. Those classes have been wonderful for my situation because I could not have learned to make movies on my own. I am very interested in photography as a hobby, and want the best screen available which would be the iPad air or the macbook Pro. I use my iPad to entertain my 96 year old mother, so being able to be connected to the internet at her house which does not have wi fi is important to me. I guess I want both, but really it is a huge amount of money, and these devices seem to go out of date so fast.