Technology is key to the success of students in 2023, and while the laptop might be the classic bastion of the studious teenager, an iPad is an equally valid option either as an alternative to a MacBook or PC, or perhaps as a companion.
Apple offers a vast array of tablets with some big advantages over MacBook. While there are some compromises, iPads are generally much cheaper than Macs, they're more portable, and a bit more versatile thanks to their size and touch screens. However, they don't offer all the software that some students might need for graphic work, video editing, photo editing, and rendering, so making the right choice is key.
So can an iPad replace a MacBook for your average student? What are the costs, and what are the compromises? Here's the full rundown.
Does your high school or college student need an iPad?
Best answer: It depends. An iPad, especially the iPad Pro (2022) or the iPad Air 5, is certainly a capable machine for any student, but the real answer will depend on your individual student's needs and specific classes.
Can an iPad replace a MacBook?
It's a valid question; after all, laptops do seem to dominate the education space. I think the reason for that is more out of habit than anything else because an iPad may offer some significant advantages over a laptop for students.
The best iPad is going to be lighter and easier to carry around than a MacBook or other laptop. That portability is increasingly important for a student who is constantly carrying other important school items like textbooks, binders, assignments, teacher's study materials, the course syllabus, and countless other items. Having a device as thin and light as an iPad can really be a big boon to a student's day-to-day life.
Another big advantage to carrying around an iPad for your schoolwork instead of a MacBook is its versatility and flexibility. A laptop is always a laptop, but an iPad can transform when you need it to. Need to type a bunch of notes? Snap it into a keyboard case and suddenly your iPad Pro becomes a laptop-like typing machine. Looking to read your professor's book for the next class? Ditch the keyboard and now you have a beautiful e-book in front of you with a ton of screen real estate to annotate notes in the margins.
This versatility leads to a comfortable experience no matter where you choose to use your iPad. In the classroom, on the couch, on the subway — you can take it anywhere and adapt it to your needs at that moment. Of course, not all iPads are created equal. If you're looking for an iPad to replace a Macbook for your high school or college student's studies, there are only two models you likely need to consider.
Overall best iPad for students
So we've talked about how the best part of using an iPad over a traditional laptop is the flexibility. But what is the best iPad for a student?
The M2 iPad Pro (2022) is likely going to be the best choice for any student, but especially for students starting college. Whether you get the 11-inch or 12.9-inch, its large screen is great if you want to use a tablet instead of a laptop. It offers an excellent canvas for visual artists, with plenty of room for drawing, digital painting, and more. Artists will particularly be interested in the best drawing apps for iPad.
The M2 iPad differs from its predecessor in a couple of ways in addition to the even more powerful chip. Most notably for students, especially in the arts, is the Apple Pencil hover feature. This allows the iPad to sense the Apple Pencil from up to 12 millimeters away, giving you extra precision with your drawing or brush strokes.
Aside from that, the M2 iPad isn't a lot different from the M1 iPad (2021). Like that version, you'll have to go with the larger 12.9-inch model if you want that stunning mini-LED display. The USB-C port on the iPad Pro is a Thunderbolt 3 / USB 4 port. This allows for some seriously high-powered accessories to be used like docks, hubs, and hard drives that will help you use your iPad the way you want. Plus, in your studies, you may find that using a display with your iPad Pro becomes a useful tool to have in your pocket, and the M1 and M2 iPads do support external displays. Stage Manager, first introduced in iPadOS 16, makes the use of multiple screens even more useful.
While the iPad is still a tablet and doesn't have full access to Mac apps (yet), the iPad Pro supports some pretty powerful apps that can cover a wide range of needs. Word processing is no problem with apps like Microsoft Word and Pages, while video editing apps like Premiere Rush can help you make films while keeping you mobile. That's literally the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring the best apps for iPad as there are so many options for virtually every kind of program on the App Store.
Lastly, the iPad Pro can also help make it easier to stay in contact with family or friends across the world as your student moves into their college dorms. The front-facing camera on the iPad Pro is a 12MP ultra-wide-angle lens that can record 1080p video up to 60 FPS. It also comes with a feature known as Center Stage, which allows the camera to follow you and keep you in the center of the frame as you move around on FaceTime or other video calls, making it the perfect device to stay in touch with your intrepid student as they continue their studies away from the nest.
iPad Air 5 is a cheaper option
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Here's the thing, the iPad Pro may be the absolute top dog, but the iPad Air 5 is nearly just as good. Plus, once you consider it's about $200 cheaper (depending on the model), it's worth thinking about if money is in a tight spot.
The iPad Air 5 has the advantage of basically being the same size as the 11-inch iPad Pro, which means lots of the accessories that Apple makes for the iPad Pro line are available for the Air. You'll get the same flexibility that makes the iPad so unique as a platform for cheaper, which is great. Plus, You don't have to skimp out much on power either, as the iPad Air 5 has the M1 chip that powers the previous iPad Pro lineup.
There are a few drawbacks to choosing the iPad Air 5 over the iPad Pro, most notably the screen. The Air has a 10.9-inch screen that sports a 2360‑by‑1640 resolution at 264 PPI, meaning everything is very sharp and clear. Even without the variable refresh rate up to 120Hz that the ProMotion display offers in the iPad Pro, I haven't had too many complaints about the display on the iPad Air 5. Yes, 120Hz does make scrolling smoother, and it's excellent for gaming, but for me, and likely many people, you're not going to miss ProMotion if you didn't have it before.
If I had one real complaint about the iPad Air 5, it's that the max brightness of 500 nits is a little low. So if you're using your iPad Air outside or in any really bright environment, you'll likely have a bit of trouble seeing the screen. It's not terrible by any means, but even a slight bump in the max brightness — like the 600 nits on the 11-inch iPad Pro — would likely help a lot. Still, the display on iPad Air 5 has many other features that you would expect, like TrueTone and P3 wide color gamut. In addition, the screen is fully laminated and has an anti-reflective coating, which helps a lot during heavy everyday use.
The other big consideration when wondering if you could make do with the iPad Air 5 instead of its pricier sibling is storage space. Unfortunately, the iPad Air only offers up to 256GB of storage space instead of the 2TB you can upgrade to on the iPad Pro. That's a stark difference, and if you know you're going to be carrying around large files with you everywhere you go, the Air just might not be enough. Though, it's important to mention that the USB-C port on the iPad Air can easily use some of the best USB-C hard drives, which can help offset the lack of higher-tier storage options.
iPad Air 5
This is the best iPad for most people, offering fantastic performance thanks to the M1 chip but at a great starting price. Whether you use an iPad for work, play, or a combination of the two, the iPad Air 5 will be able to handle anything you throw at it.
Buy from: Amazon
iPads for artists
If you're studying the visual arts, it's likely you're considering an iPad as your primary or secondary computing device. Since the launch of the first Apple Pencil, the iPad has become a tool for artists to create so many different types of digital artwork. Apple improved on the experience when they introduced the Apple Pencil 2, and that's the model that works with the iPad Pro and iPad Air.
It really is the perfect accessory to the iPad and both the Air and Pro have a place on the side of the iPad where the Apple Pencil 2 can magnetically attach and charge, so you never have to be without your Pencil.
I'm not the best artist — far from it — but I've been pleasantly surprised with the Apple Pencil experience. Is it the exact same or as detailed as the best Wacom tablet you can buy for a PC? Likely not. However, the tech inside the Apple Pencil is very neat, as is the pressure-sensitive technology inside it. The Apple Pencil hover feature on the iPad Pro is even cooler. That's right, unlike Apple Watch, iPhone, and the Mac Trackpad, it's the Pencil here that registers both the force and the angle and transmits it all wirelessly to the iPad. It's so smooth and seamless that there's no lag in the input, making it feel like you're directly drawing on the screen.
If you're going into the creative field, an iPad partnered with an Apple Pencil might be one of the best options for you. If it can completely replace a traditional computer or Mac will likely depend on your courses and the software you need to use, but at the very least, the iPad Pro or iPad Air would be a nice secondary device to use in conjunction with others if you're doing any sort of design, drafting, or artwork. Plus, you can use some of the best drawing apps for iPad and Apple Pencil — and there are many of them!
Apple Pencil 2
This is the best Apple Pencil on the market, and it pairs beautifully with both the iPad Air and iPad Pro. Buy it and start drawing today!
Buy from: Amazon
You'll likely require accessories
Now, if you're looking to send your student off to school, the idea of saving money is likely front of mind. Maybe that's why you're even looking at an iPad in the first place, and while it's entirely possible to save money buying an iPad instead of a MacBook, it's not always that simple.
You see, the flexibility of the iPad platform is definitely a strength, but it can be a weakness because those additional accessories you need to get the absolute most out of the iPad can really add up.
If you're doing any sort of note-taking or writing (which is highly likely for students), you'll need a keyboard case. Apple's Magic Keyboard is an absolutely beautiful option but it's an extra $300. For an accessory that is likely necessary for education purposes, you have to account for that cost while you're shopping.
Of course, there are some cheaper options, and some of the best keyboard cases for iPad Pro and iPad Air are much less expensive, but it's not just keyboard cases. Depending on your student's course requirements, extra hard drives or other accessories may be necessary. Make sure you know exactly what your high school or college-bound kid will need to complete all their schoolwork before you settle on buying an iPad.
Will an iPad last?
In short, yes, and the M2 iPad Pro or M1 iPad Air are more than capable of lasting the entire run of high school or college without too many problems. The M1 is powerful enough to ensure that all your work can be done in a snap.
We know that Apple is still planning on supporting the current iPads with new features come the fall with the launch of iPadOS 17. So even if you buy one before the fall semester starts, you don't have to worry about the device being outdated soon after your purchase.
You might be concerned that an iPad is a little less durable than a traditional laptop, mainly because of its design. The screen is obviously unprotected, whereas a MacBook can fold up to protect the screen while you're carrying it around. There are plenty of great-quality cases or sleeves for iPad that are worth purchasing if you want to ensure you can throw your iPad in a backpack between classes or during downtime to ensure it doesn't get damaged.
I would highly recommend getting AppleCare+ for your student's iPad as well. It's an extra cost but well worth the investment if you want to ensure that the iPad lasts as long as you need it to.
The final verdict
Whether your kid is heading off to high school or going to college, an iPad can be a worthy investment to help them finish their school work, especially since you can find some back-to-school deals on the best iPad for students.
The flexibility and portability of an iPad are unmatched by a traditional laptop or MacBook, meaning it can fit better into more lifestyles and study routines than other devices. There is a tradeoff, though. The iPad Pro and iPad Air are both very capable machines; however, you will need some accessories to get the absolute most out of the iPad experience. Be sure to factor in the prices of accessories when comparing costs with other devices. Despite this concern, an iPad will certainly provide more than enough power and flexibility for your student and may even be able to be your student's primary computing device — it's just a matter of considering their individual needs to make the right purchase.
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Luke Filipowicz has been a writer at iMore, covering Apple for nearly a decade now. He writes a lot about Apple Watch and iPad but covers the iPhone and Mac as well. He often describes himself as an "Apple user on a budget" and firmly believes that great technology can be affordable if you know where to look. Luke also heads up the iMore Show — a weekly podcast focusing on Apple news, rumors, and products but likes to have some fun along the way.
Luke knows he spends more time on Twitter than he probably should, so feel free to follow him or give him a shout on social media @LukeFilipowicz.
- Karen S FreemanContributor