Air vs. Air: Can the iPad Air be a suitable stand-in for a MacBook Air?

Apple's smallest laptop and lightest large tablet have never been closer in spirit. Yet, they offer pretty different advantages.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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Scott Stein
7 min read
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Apple has two Airs in its family, and they're both closer in spirit than ever before. The 2013 MacBook Air is less expensive than 2012's, and has a better battery life. The new iPad Air is smaller, lighter, and has a processor that's inching closer to the potential of a laptop.

Here's the funny thing: the iPad Air starts at $499, but fully loaded up to the highest configuration, it comes to a little under $1,000 ($929, to be specific). The 11-inch MacBook Air -- which is the most diminutive Apple laptop -- starts at $999.

In a test of apples to apples, I pulled out the 2013 11-inch MacBook Air again and tried it alongside the iPad Air, fitted with a Belkin Qode Ultimate keyboard case. Here's what I found.

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Screen quality
The MacBook Air has a larger 11.6-inch wide-screen display, but the iPad Air's 9.7-inch display has the far higher resolution: 2,048x1,536 pixels versus 1,336x768. Yes, everything's far crisper on the iPad Air.

The MacBook Air has a similar level of screen brightness, based on what I can see.

How does each work with Web browsing? Interestingly enough, the iPad Air and the 11-inch MacBook Air's displays are exactly the same height. The 11-inch Air's got extra width. This means, even though the iPad has a higher resolution, Web pages can fit more across the screen at a higher font size; for reading news stories, it means sitting back a bit farther from the screen.

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It also means wide-screen movies can fill a larger amount of screen, versus the smaller and more letterboxed iPad. See the size difference in "The Avengers," above, and you'll get what I mean.

If you're deep into text editing from a distance, the MacBook has an edge. The iPad, with keyboard connected, cuts a smaller profile, and I feel a need to lean in to see the display's finer details.

But, for any other need, the iPad Air has the better display.

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Nothing beats having a 1-pound iPad tucked away in a side pocket of a bag. The MacBook Air is over double the weight, longer, thicker, and just a bigger overall machine. But, it still is a tiny device in its own right...just not quite as tiny.

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Add a keyboard or keyboard case, of course, and suddenly everything evens out quite a bit. The iPad Air may just weigh a pound, but the iPad Air plus the Belkin Qode keyboard case weighs in at 1.98 pounds. The Air is 2.36 pounds.

The iPad can still ditch the keyboard and be a lot more compact in narrow spaces: airline tray tables, crowded subway cars.

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Ease of typing
The MacBook gets the nod, no question. Not only is the MacBook's keyboard bigger and wider, it's also backlit.

The iPad's own touch screen keyboard isn't terrible, and many Bluetooth keyboards exist to offer full-size typing at a cafe. Keyboard cases are a fun go-between, but even though they offer a lot of use, these keyboards are inevitably a little smaller and more cramped, with key functions compressed to remove keys from the layout. That colon or question mark may not be where your fingers expect it. And backlit keyboards are hard to find (Zagg makes a few, though).

I wrote this section on the Air with the Belkin case, on a cramped train seat. The Qode case's adjustable viewing angles came in handy, and the keyboard was fine, but my fingers were cramped. It didn't feel exactly like a regular laptop, but it did the trick in a pinch. But, again, there's also no trackpad.

If you're looking for pure writing, obviously you should get the MacBook Air. But it's closer than you think.

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Touch screen vs. touch pad
You're going to have to make a lifestyle decision: do you prefer touch pad, or touch screen? The MacBook Air doesn't have a touch screen, but it has a fantastic clickable touch pad. The iPad's touch screen is great for in-app use, but if you connect a keyboard, you might miss not having a touch pad.

Here's what I find when I'm knee-deep in trying to get serious work done: I miss the touch pad more than I miss the touch screen. The MacBook Air works like any other laptop of the past five years: it's reliable, and operates the way you expect it. But, the iPad Air's use of contextual onscreen touch buttons in various apps is getting better as developers anticipate keyboard usage and app usage over time. And, we're gravitating toward a touch-screen world. In that sense, the iPad is the clear future of where computing is going.

Do I sound like I'm hedging? That's because what I really want is a middle ground: touch screen and touch pad. And unfortunately, in Apple's world, I can't. Yet.

Battery life
The iPad Air and MacBook Air are suddenly even when it comes to battery life, something that seemed impossible a year ago. Both get over 10 hours of use without recharging. Yes, the iPad Air ends up having better battery life, but the gap is so narrow now that it doesn't really matter anymore.

Either Air is fine.

The iPad starts more affordable, in theory: you could walk out with one for $499, versus the MacBook's $999 entry price (you can find the 11-inch MacBook Air on sale for as little as $949, or even $899). If you keep accessories to a minimum and can live with less storage, the iPad can be a relative value.

But, at the top end of the spectrum, the MacBook still arguably offers more: more flexibility, more connectivity options, USB ports, and all of that. The 11-inch MacBook Air's 2013 move to 128GB at the entry-level takes care of your basic needs quite well.

It's impossible to compare Mac software with iOS in terms of breadth of apps; each one has tons to offer. But, if I were to look at the operating systems -- Mavericks vs. iOS 7 -- and compare for productivity/laptop-style use, the edge goes to the MacBook Air without question.

Best for consumption is iOS 7, or for dedicated deep-diving into a particular app. It's not ideal for multitasking, or for flexible file sharing and cloud storage. That's not to say iOS 7 can't multitask, or that there aren't cloud-storage options across many apps, but you have a lot more choices and far fewer limitations in traditional Mac OS X -- and, the ability to have multiple windows makes a huge difference.

The software advantages, for professionals, on the Mac goes on and on. Microsoft Office is, right now, Mac-only. Macs can run Flash and Java for complex Web apps. Macs can be used to boot Microsoft Windows applications.

Apple offers iWork, a suite of productivity software, for free with new Macs and iPads. The software varies somewhat between platforms, although files are cross-compatible.


There is no MacBook Air with built-in LTE or cellular, but the iPad can be outfitted with LTE that works across carriers and can swap SIMs. For world travel, that's a big plus.

But, consider that the MacBook Air -- or, any laptop -- can use a USB plug-in stick for wireless broadband, or a separate puck. It works, but it's far less elegant than the iPad's solution, especially now that the iPad Air seamlessly switches between LTE and Wi-Fi with its new antennas.

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Can you replace your computer with an iPad?
The 11-inch MacBook Air has 128GB of storage. The top-end iPad Air has 128GB of storage. But that storage gets used in very different ways. The iPad relies on apps that are easily erased and redownloaded. The Mac has a more-complex ecosystem: apps from the Mac App Store, other software, and a lot of files shared by multiple programs. Your 128GB may go further on an iPad, but it's more usefully employed on a MacBook, which needs the space to manage photo libraries and larger applications.

iPads are getting more adept at using cloud services, and the iPad's raw processing power resembles a laptop's more than ever, but an iPad is not easy to multitask with. Macs can run multiple windows at once, and can drag and drop files with ease. iPads lack a trackpad for deeper keyboard navigation, but obviously touch can do more in some instances. The MacBook Air still doesn't have a touch screen.

I say no, you can't replace a computer with an iPad, yet I know a lot of people who do and don't look back. If I had to choose just one, I'd go with a MacBook Air. But, to tell the truth, I use my iPad far more on a daily basis than my laptop. The computer-as-a-tool is a security blanket and necessary piece of tech, but the iPad is the place where I'd rather be more often.

If you're online and using cloud storage and don't mind not having more-complex access to your files, maybe an iPad would work for you. I still think it's a big compromise as your main computer, but it's a phenomenal secondary computer.

Doorway to the iPad Pro?
The Airs, side by side, show what each device is lacking: the MacBook Air needs a Retina Display (and maybe a touch screen), and the iPad could use peripherals or design, via software or hardware, that pushes it to the next level of pro-level use. Maybe this is where an "iPad Pro" could come in. Or, a fusion product meshing the best of MacBook and iPad Air. Apple's two hot computing products are getting closer together every day, and not just by sharing a name.