Apple has just unleashed the new M1 powered MacBook Air — no Intel, no fan, no new design, but pretty much no competition now when it comes to ultralight laptops. But Apple also recently relaunched the iPad Air, fully redesigned with an A14 chipset, and it’s once again redefining what it means to be an ultralight tablet.
And I’m just getting a ton of questions from people who want to get… something they can… work casual with, easily carry around, use anywhere, but are now conflicted about which one to get.
MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro
Real quick, in before a thousand comments, yes, I’m focusing on the Airs here because the new M1 MacBook Pro Apple also just released is the lowest end, lowest port, lowest memory version… the MacBook Pro Air, so to speak. And the highly anticipated A14X iPad Pro just isn’t out yet. So, if you’re interested in that, just take this and add a few hundred extra bucks at the end for higher workload potentials.
The modern MacBook Air has always sort of been an iPad in MacBook clothing, but it really is in MacBook clothing. Full on classic clamshell, no redesign still in sight, with an ultra-thin display perma-hinged onto unibody keyboard with all the new guts but old laptop computer glory buried underneath it.
The iPad Air, especially with the Magic Keyboard, is pretty much the exact opposite. It’s just had it’s modern redesign, lost its Home button, and about 3/5th of its bezels. It has its highest of tech guts stuffed behind the display, which means it can fly solo or magnetically attach itself to the keyboard, which has nothing buried underneath it but the keys.
So, with the MacBook Air, you have a solid base and, because the display is so light and can’t become dislodged or detached, the ability to angle it and use it on pretty much any surface and from pretty much any position. You can open it wide without tipping it back, and it’ll stay totally stable on your lap. Of course, you can’t take that display off and walk away with it whenever you want either.
The iPad Pro has a fairly strong, but only magnetic connection to the Magic Keyboard dock. That allows for a good but limited amount of angulation from closed to upright. Because otherwise the weight of the iPad Air would cause it to topple over backwards. It still totally works on the lap, but the very different weight distribution makes it a little less… lappable. I said what I said! But, when you don’t need the keyboard, you can just tear the iPad Air off and use it like the full-on, ultralight tablet it is, the way nature and Jobs intended. Something you can’t do with any MacBook.
So, if you prefer the traditional computer clamshell, with heavy base locked to super light lid, you’ll prefer the MacBook Air.
If you prefer the tablet but occasionally want to do traditional typing in a mostly traditional way, you’ll prefer the iPad Air with Magic Keyboard.
The MacBook Pro has a 13.3-inch LCD panel. It’s Retina density, which in general means an average person from an average viewing distance shouldn’t be able to see individual pixels. In this case, it also specifically means 2560‑by‑1600 pixels at 227 pixels per inch at up to 60Hz. It’s bright, at 400 nits, and digital cinema P3 gamut, which means the color space is wide enough for richer reds and deeper greens. It also has TrueTone, so it adjusts to the color temperature of your environment for whites that don’t look too blue or too yellow but proper paper white.
The iPad Air has an 10.9-inch LCD panel. It’s also Retina density, but 2360-by-2640-pixel resolution at 264 pixels per inch, so fewer pixels but even denser. It’s also P3 gamut, but brighter at 500 nits, and TrueTone, and also 60hz.
The MacBook Air display is also square and has about the same amount of bezel as it’s had since 2018. The iPad Air has rounded edges and had a good portion of its bezels taken away this year. They’re actually not that different in terms of ratio, but change elicits excitement so the iPad feels more modern and fresh, especially considering the 16-inch MacBook Pro went even more edge-to-edge last year already.
The biggest difference, though, is that the Mac does not have multitouch or any ability to take touch input, built into the display. All of that is handled through Force Touch Trackpad. The iPad, though… well, it was born of multitouch.
The MacBook Air doesn’t have the masterpiece that is the 16-inch MacBook Pro speakers or mics but then the iPad Air doesn’t have the similar masterpiece that is the iPad Pro speakers and mic.
Instead, the iPad Air has two wide stereo speakers optimized for landscape mode, with double speaker grills on each side so you’re less likely to block them completely while holding them.
The MacBook Air likewise has two speakers, one on each side of the keyboard. And while they do wide stereo, they don’t do the same kind of sound stage as the 16-inch.
Both also have beam forming mic arrays, but not the studio quality systems Apple’s has include in the most recent Pros, iPad and iMac alike.
So, the speakers and mics are a wash, but the MacBook Air still has its 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can plug in whatever you like.
The iPad Air lost its jack with redesign, so it’s USB-C external only for you.
The MacBook Air has two full power, full speed USB 4 ports, which are basically USB-C with the Thunderbolt 3 spec just built right in. So, not only can you plug almost anything in, you can power and run it as fast as… Thunder.
The iPad Air has one full but slower USB-C port, and no Thunderbolt 3 since Apple doesn’t surface Thunderbolt lanes for the interconnect on the iPad. The Magic Keyboard dock has a second USB-C port for power delivery but not for data, since it transits through the smart connector which doesn’t have the same bandwidth, far as I know.
So, if you need more, faster ports, you’ll need the MacBook Air.
The MacBook Pro still has a single, tiny, 720p potato of a FaceTime camera mounted top and center. It’s enhanced by the M1 image signal processor, which is basically the A14 image signal processor the iPhone 12 uses, so it’s pretty much the nicest 720p potato of a FaceTime camera in the world now… but it’s still 720p.
The iPad Air has an exponentially better 7MP, 1080p/60fps FaceTime camera… but… it’s tragically mounted on the side, at least when docked to the Magic Keyboard, which also makes it just way, way more awkward.
On the back… the MacBook Pro has nothing and more nothing.
The iPad Air, on the other hand, has an iPhone 11 jr. camera system, with a 12 megapixel, 4K wide angle, but with iPhone 12 level image signal processing behind it. So it’s pretty damn good, especially for an iPad. Just no ultra wide or LiDAR like the iPad Pro.
So, if you want or need cameras beyond your phone or dedicated camera, you’ll want or need to go with the iPad Air. Even with the goofy angle when docked.
Trackpad and Keyboard
Both the new MacBook Air and the new keyboard for the iPad Air are… magic. That’s Apple’s brand-name for the all new, all better, return-of-the-blessed-scissor-switch keyboard for existing Macs and the new iPad dock.
On the MacBook Air, the Magic keyboard is built right in. I’ll explain why I’m pointing that out in a scalding hot minute. And it has a few things the iPad version doesn’t. Like an escape key, a Touch ID-enabled power key, and new-fangled media keys for things like Spotlight Search and Do Not Disturb.
The iPad Air version attaches magnetically and has no escape and no media keys, but has a dedicated emoji key, so there. It’s also sold separately… for $300. Yeah.
The MacBook Air trackpad is also much, much, much bigger. Which some people dislike, because of accidental touch events, but others love because of all the room for touch gestures. It’s also force-touch, which like the late, lamented 3D Touch on iPhones, means you can not only long press but deep press… Not that it’s instinctive or broadly used in any way any more.
The iPad Air trackpad isn’t as big, and is mechanical rather than Taptic and virtual, like on the Mac. Of course, the iPad Air has that huge, totally touchable display anyway.
Also, the iPad Air has an optional Apple Pencil that attaches magnetically to the casing, charges inductively, and lets you do pretty much any drawing and handwriting you want to, right on the display.
The MacBook Air doesn’t support the Pencil, but can copy over markup from the iPad Air… even if just doing it directly on the iPad is easier, simpler, and makes way more sense almost every time.
So, if you want a traditional computer experience, with a big trackpad and cursor that’s precise because it needs to be, go with the MacBook Air.
If you want more of an optional keyboard that extends the touch-first nature of the iPad only when you need it to, by all means go with the MacBook Air and Magic Keyboard.
Here’s where it gets fun. The MacBook Air just had a chipset transplant. Gone is the old, crappy Intel Y-series CPU with integrated graphics, and in comes the new Apple M1… which is jaw-droopingly fast and efficient even and especially at low power.
It’s basically an A14, like the iPad Air — and iPhone 12! — have, but with two extra CPU performance cores for a total for 8, and up to 4 extra graphics cores for a potential total of 8, and some Mac-specific IP for things like Thunderbolt support, Hypervisor acceleration, and Rosetta2.
The iPad Air, of course, has the A14 with those 6 and 4 CPU and GPU cores respectively.
Both have the same 12-core Apple Neural Engines, ML accelerators, Secure enclaves, and basically just all the silicon amenities.
The only other big difference is capacity. The iPad Air only comes with 4GB of memory. The MacBook Air starts at 8GB and can go up to 16GB. Likewise, you can only get the iPad Air with 64GB or 256GB of SSD. The MacBook Pro starts at 256GB, with options for 512GB, 1TB, and 2TB, though they’ll cost you.
Also, both have WiFi 6, but only the iPad Air offers the option for 4G LTE data built-in. For the MacBook Air, you’ll have to tether if you want cellular.
So, if you’re fine with standard A14 performance, you’ll be fine with the iPad Air.
If you need those extra cores and extra memory and storage to work on slightly bigger or more projects, you’re going to want the MacBook Air.
Both the MacBook Air and iPad Air have Touch ID, which is Apple’s biometric fingerprint identity scanner.
For the MacBook Air, it’s located on the power button at the top right of the keyboard.
For the iPad Air, it’s located on the sleep/wake button on the top right of the casing.
Both work exactly the same, so no game… blouses… or pancakes, sadly. Total draw.
The MacBook Pro runs macOS Big Sur, which is a fully mature, traditional, mouse and pointer, graphical user interface-based operating system. Albeit on at the very beginning of a transition from Intel to Apple chipsets.
It can run all the native M1 versions of Mac Apps, and can translate the older, Intel versions to run under Rosetta2. The M1 apps run much, much faster and better. The Rosetta2 apps run… pretty much the same as they do on Intel. Better if they lean on Apple’s Metal graphics engine.
The MacBook can also run virtual machines and even iPad and iPhone apps, though it’s up to developers to allow and optimize for it, and not enough have really done that yet. So treat this as potential frosting one day, not anything nearly like cake yet.
The iPad Air runs iPadOS 14, based on iOS 14, Apple’s more modern multitouch operating system.
And it can run all the hundreds of thousands of iPadOS apps in the iPad App Store. Well.
Which, in some ways, is far wider, but in others, isn’t quite as deep. Like it’s still struggling with Photoshop and doesn’t have the type of production software used by major studios or in science labs, for example.
So, if you want that traditional computer experience and you need to run specific, Mac-only software, you’re going to want and need a Mac.
But, if you prefer the direct manipulation of an iPad, all the iPad apps, and the ability to use software designed not just for a typing computer but a real tablet computer, you’re going to prefer the iPad Pro.
The MacBook Air starts at $999 for 7 GPU cores, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of SSD and goes up to $2049 for 8 GPU cores, 16GB of RAM, and 2 TB of SSD.
The iPad Air starts at $599 for 64GB of SSD and goes up to $1178 for 256GB, LTE, and with the Magic Keyboard. $1307 with the Apple Pencil.
So, you have to ask yourself a some questions now:
- Do you want or really need a traditional computer that runs traditional computer software, including things like Xcode and Final Cut Pro, Adobe Audition and Illustrator, in a very traditional way, with larger amounts of memory and storage, but without a touch screen or the ability to detach that screen from the keyboard?
- Or, do you want a multitouch display that offers all the portability and flexibility of a tablet, including full on camera systems and the optional Pencil, but can also dock with the Magic Keyboard for those times where you want a more traditional-style computing experiences.
Also, do you already have an iPad or Mac? If there’s an iMac on your desk, maybe you’re better off with an iPad Pro in your hands. Or, if you have an iPad mini or even an iPhone Pro Max, maybe a MacBook Pro will let you get different things done better.
End of the day, you can get more bang for your buck with the iPad Air, but only if it’s the kind of bang you really need to get done.