Moveable feast: iPad 2 or MacBook Air?

Is the 2010 MacBook Air or an iPad 2 a better value? That's not an easy question to answer and is a topic that goes right to the heart of the definition of personal computing in 2011.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Here's a dilemma whose answer is potentially rife with geeky politics. Should I buy a 2010 MacBook Air or an iPad 2? Both offer a veritable mobile feast of form and function.

To set the stage, you want to make the move to the 11.6-inch, 2.3-pound MacBook Air (MBA), but you have a hankering for the spanking-new 1.3-pound iPad 2, as well. Because money doesn't grow on trees, you have to make a choice. Which ultraportable device will it be?

I would submit that it's not an easy choice. Of course, the iPad 2 is cheaper, but it's hamstrung by its very essence: a glorified smartphone. On the other hand, its finely tuned multitouch interface makes it great for media consumption, and it's instantly usable anywhere because of the built-in 3G and feathery weight.

Here are a few big-picture items to consider. For the record, I have both a MacBook Air and iPad and use both every day.

3G: In this respect, the MBA is not the iPad's equal. The iPad 2 is offered with both Verizon and AT&T 3G. But wait. Apple may be addressing this. A recent patent filing by Apple shows a MacBook with an interesting 3G antenna, akin to the MagSafe connection on MacBooks (see graphic below).

MacBook Air
MacBook Air Apple

iPad 2
iPad 2 Apple

Media consumption: The iPad 2 is, in many user scenarios, superior to the MBA for browsing and media consumption because of the multitouch interface. Moreover, all of that has gotten even better with the iPad 2 owing to, among other things, the dual-core processor and improved graphics silicon.

Productivity: The iPad is not designed to be a productivity tool and does not come with a full-blown Mac OS X or full-blown OS X applications.

I'll offer a few of salient examples. On the 11.6-inch MacBook Air with the full-blown OS X you can run handy little programs like Parallels, which lets you run Microsoft Windows. And, of course, you have the ability to run programs like Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop. (Yes, the larger MacBook Pros are more suitable for Photoshop). On the iPad, you have to settle for less-than-satisfying app store productivity substitutes.

A 3G/4G MacBook may be in the works. A patent granted to Apple appears to be a MagSafe-like antenna.
A 3G/4G MacBook may be in the works. A patent granted to Apple appears to be a MagSafe-like antenna. Patently Apple

Price: The final arbiter is often price (mixed with the allure the iPad 2 now has: it seems to be sold out everywhere and everyone seems to want one).

The least expensive MBA is $999, while the most expensive iPad 2 is only $829. And most consumers, of course, opt for the even cheaper 16GB iPad 3G for $629 or the Wi-Fi only version for $499.

On price alone, it's no contest for many people.

Verdict: The quick-and-dirty verdict... on my bang-for-the-buck index the MacBook Air wins. In short, it's the best of both worlds--about as close as a featherweight clamshell laptop can get to an iPad.

You get both productivity software and great browsing and media consumption all in one device. And, lest we forget, it's a lot faster than the iPad. Intel processors crush the iPad's silicon in any performance benchmark. And this will be even more compelling when Intel's newest Sandy Bridge processors are added to the Air.

Both are great devices, but it comes down to one being more versatile than the other without being a lot more expensive.

(Note: I may be irking some readers by limiting the selection to two Apple products, but that's the scope of this post.)