New MacBook Air vs. iPad Air: Closer than you think

New MacBook Air vs. iPad Air: Closer than you think

Summary: Apple refreshed the MacBook Air, and the slight improvements it made to the thin laptop bring it closer to compete with the iconic iPad Air.


Note: The author owns and uses both the iPad Air and MacBook Air. The latter is not the new model just announced, but last year’s model.

iPad MacBook Air
iPad Air in keyboard case, MacBook Air (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

This week Apple unveiled the newest iteration of the MacBook Air. The ultrathin laptop didn’t get big changes, but the incremental updates have it coming closer to compete with the iPad Air than ever. Shoppers considering the iPad Air, especially for work purposes, may want to take a close look at the new MacBook Air.

Size matters

Comparing the newest iPad Air and MacBook Air is done best by using the smallest laptop from Apple. The 11.6-inch MacBook Air is only slightly bigger than the iPad so it makes sense to compare that with the tablet. Both systems are very portable, making them good choices for the frequent traveller and mobile worker.

Comparing the size and weight of the two devices demonstrates how close they are. In the case of the iPad, the weight is shown of the tablet alone and with a typical keyboard case attached.

  iPad Air MacBook Air (11-inch)
Thickness 0.29 inch (7.5 mm) 0.11-0.68 inch (3-17 mm)
Width 9.4 inches (240 mm) 11.8 inches (300 mm)
Depth 6.6 inches (169.5 mm) 7.56 inches (192 mm)
Weight 1 pound (469 g) (with typical keyboard: ~2 pounds) 2.38 pounds (1.08 kg)

The iPad Air is much lighter than the MacBook Air until you strap on a keyboard. The average case of this type is around a pound, so the tablet and case weigh in around 2 pounds. This is not that much lighter than the 2.38-pound MacBook Air which starts to even the portability of the two. Of course, some of us who use the iPad with keyboard often leave the keyboard behind, leaving us with a svelte 1-pound tablet.

iPad MacBook size
iPad Air in keyboard case, MacBook Air (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Those expecting to always use the iPad Air with a keyboard will do well to think hard about the MacBook Air. It’s only sightly bigger than the tablet, and not much heavier.

Price also matters

The MacBook Air has always been more expensive than the iPad, but with the price drop of the new laptop that margin is closing. The 11-inch MacBook Air is now only $899, which is more expensive than the iPad but closer than it used to be.

The iPad Air with wi-fi and 128GB of storage (same as the MBA) is $799, only $100 cheaper than the entry-level MacBook Air. That’s close enough for prospective buyers to think about it before just going with the tablet. That extra $100 gets you a full laptop that’s not much bigger than the iPad Air, yet can do everything.

You can get 4G/LTE as an option on the iPad Air but not the MacBook Air. If you do, the price of the iPad above goes up to $929, higher than that MacBook Air. Pricing for the two devices is now converging. Add in $60 - $100 for an iPad keyboard case and the MacBook Air looks a lot better when comparing prices of the two.

Battery life not so much

The iPad has long won the battle of the battery against the MacBook, but not so with the latest laptop. Apple claims a nine-hour battery life with the new MacBook Air, and that compares favorably with the iPad Air’s 10 hours.

Interestingly, when announcing the new MacBook Air, Apple mentioned that they have added another two hours of video playback. This implies that for watching video at least, the new MacBook Air can get 11 hours total on a charge. That’s more than the iPad Air.

Tablet or laptop

As always when looking at mobile devices, each buyer must weigh intended use to determine if a laptop or a tablet makes more sense. Both the MacBook Air and the iPad Air are capable devices, and chances are either one will be able to do what is needed. The decision now comes down to whether a tablet or a laptop better fits the expected use. Apple has pretty much made other criteria less of a factor.

Either of the two mobile devices from Apple can do just about everything most users will want. A one-pound tablet is compelling for many, though, as the 210 million iPads sold to date indicate. The MacBook Air is a capable device, especially for a laptop. Apple has complicated the buying process for prospective customers with its refresh of the MacBook Air. If only it would make LTE an option for it. That would really make choosing difficult.

See MacBook Air coverage:

See iPad Air coverage:

Topics: Mobility, Apple, iPad, Laptops, Tablets

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  • When?

    When is the comment going to show up "I have a SP2 and my ipad just collects dust and the Ipad blah blah blah". It must be some kind a family day at Microsoft headquarters.
    • Because the Surface 2 Pro

      Costs more than $900 more than a Macbook Air. Macbook Air for $899.00, or the Microsoft Stupid 2 Pro for $1,799.99? It's not too hard to figure out which is the better deal. You could even install Windows 8.1.x on a WM, and it would still cost less to get the Macbook Air.
      I hate trolls also
      • To be fair and unbiased, you should really use similar spec prices

        So any other readers are NOT mis-informed by your clear bias.

        You can get a Surface Pro 2 with the same specs of the MacBook Air for $999.00. You will have to spend another $130.00 if you want the keyboard/touch pad, but you actually get more flexibility/functionality with the SP2 for that price increase.

        The SP2 is a touch screen tablet PC or UltraBook when you need it.

        Of course you can spend up to $1,799.00 on a SP2, but you get 8gigs of ram and a 512 SSD at that price.

        Full disclosure: I do have an SP2 with 8gigs of ram and a 256SSD. It runs full Office, SQL Server 2008 Management Studio, Oracle Client 11g, and Toad for Oracle.
        • Macbook Air

          I still think the Macbook Air is designed for people who are not interested in IPAD at all. I have an Iphone. The Macbook Air is portable enough that coupled with the fact that I have an Iphone. Who needs an IPAD or the Surface Pro for that matter? I would be interested to know how the drivers work with recording equipment. If it is anything like the MBP which works flawlessly with any equipment i purchase i will be happy.
          • I fully agree. The right tool for your needs.

            I don't think I was putting down the MBA or the IPAD. I simply wanted to correct what I saw as a misleading statement by "I hate trolls also". The SP2 is not the best tool for everyone's needs.

            Every person has specific needs and for you the MBA seems to fit the bill.

            I fully respect everyones freedom to choose for themselves and encourage that kind of individual freedom of choice. I do take issue with those individuals ("I hate trolls also") who think they know what's best for everyone and choose a misleading path to try and support their point.

            Knowledge is power and I wish everyone the power to make choices that best fit their own needs and not be misled by others who really don't have a personal stake in your choices.
        • You get a tablet as thick and heavy as a macbook air

          but with a crappy keyboard. Just pick up an PC ultrabook, you can find many that's just as thick and heavy as the SR2.
          The Surface Pro 2 is the most useless piece of crap to come along in quite some time.
          You want best of both worlds get a Yogo or something.
          new gawker
          • Nonsense new gawker

            Utter rubbish. Where is your high res digitizer? Where is your detachable keyboard? Where is your brain?
        • Sounds like your problem

          For years we got to hear your kind (Microsoft Fanboys) quote the specs of a iMac, then list the Price of a PowerMac/MacPro tower. I listed a price of an Actual Surface 2 Pro, minus the $199.99 keyboard (If I'm buying a keyboard, I'm buying a real keyboard), the cheaper ones (still say overpriced mind you), were known for shoddy build quality. In reality the surface 2 "Pro", is an over priced netbook. For the Price I found, you could get a 13" Macbook Pro, with much better specs, and still put some cash in your pocket. I'm not the Idiot that bought a Surface, to get a Fanboy badge. I didn't buy an iPad, or Macbook Air either.
          I hate trolls also
          • netbooks?

            If the surface pro 2 is an overpriced netbook then the 13" Macbook Pro is also an overpriced netbook.
            Apple just calls every laptop a Macbook Pro if it's not Air.
            Middle spec laptops are all Macbook Pros now.
            The PRO moniker is abused by Apple to fool the sheep.
          • Oh come on

            You quoted the price of the highest end Surface Pro in order to make your point seem salient, which it isn't. Now that someone has pointed out the fallacy of your claims, you are now fabricating some "well known" quality issues of the Surface Pro.

            The fact is Surface Pro 2 competes at the same level as Mac Book Air and that was most likely its intent. Likewise, ever since the release of Surface Pro, the MacBook Air has gone through several rounds of price drops with the most recent being this week.

            Conclude from that what you will.
          • MS out-innovated Apple

            The fanboys just can't bear to admit that Microsoft out-innovated Apple with a form factor and features that makes the Macbook Air lame in comparison.
      • here way go again

        bashing Microsoft yet again? where did you get the $1,799 price for Surface Pro?
        Apple products are over-priced toys! For 99% of users out there, you're just as productive with a $300 laptop and save money at the same time.
        • You know what you are right.

          I use Mac extensively and i have to agree. My Macs are toys. My work Windows 7 Laptop which my company purchased for me is tough as nails. Its been beaten up quite a bit from TSA to everyday falls through out the day. HP elite book 8570. But my Macs are toys it plays well with my other toys. my apple TV,my recording equipment,my guitars,my music,My PS vita......When i get home the last thing i want to see is Windows or MS Outlook honestly.
        • I got the Price from

          And the Retards at Microsoft even compare the $1,799.99 version to a Macbook Air
          "It's the tablet that becomes a touchscreen laptop in a snap, not like a MacBook Air."

          Which should read
          "It's the tablet that becomes a touchscreen Netbook in a snap, not like a MacBook Air."

          4th generation Intel Core i5 Processor
          TPM Chip
          Wireless: Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n)
          Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy technology

          Then add $199.99 for

          So we're looking at a $1,999.98 Netbook, compared to a $1,749, you could even install Windows 7, or that abomination called Windows Phone 8.1 Pro desktop edition (just like the surfaced 2, and still save money.

          1.7GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz
          8GB 1600MHz LPDDR3 SDRAM
          512GB PCIe-based Flash Storage
          Backlit Keyboard (English) & User's Guide
          For $1,749 you can get a higher specced Macbook Air, and not have a need to buy a $199.99 keyboard. Facts point to you being wrong, it's best to just accept you're wrong, and live with it.
          I hate trolls also
          • Yeah a netbook that is in the top 5% of fastest laptops in the world

            You keep saying netbook in order to draw some emotional reaction from devices from years and years ago that were underpowered and performed poorly.

            Surface is one of the fastest devices on the market and has specs comparable to the MBA. Plus it has a touchscreen, more portable options, digitized pen and more.

            They are both good devices that compete against each other. You sound terrified by that prospect.
          • LOL! I'm wrong?

            Thanks for the morning laugh.
      • Let's be fair ...

        The 11" MacBook Air costs $899 w/ 128GB SSD and a 1366x768 screen.

        The Surface Pro 2 costs $999 w/128GB SSD and a 1920x1080 screen. Add a type cover for $130. New price: $1129

        So, is it worth it to pay $230 more for twice the screen resolution? Maybe, maybe not. It depends upon how badly you need the higher screen resolution and if you are dependent upon applications not available for the MacBook Air.

        Pretty much a wash to me.
        M Wagner
        • to be really fair

          you need to look at usable storage space. The SP2 leaves you with a lot less usable storage than OSX - so be careful when you compare specs. I would also note that the MBA SSD is now PCIe which is very fast indeed.

          I do agree about the screen resolution with a major BUT. At the end of the day screen resolution has to be seen in the context of the screen size. The 13" MacBook Pro has 2560x1600 screen res on a 13" screen (the same res as the 27" iMac), but you would need very good eyesight indeed to use the screen at that resolution. Consequently you end up halving the resolution to gain readability. So the "native" 13" and 11" resolution on the high quality Mac LED is very good indeed.
          • and unlike the Macbook Air

            You can expand local storage in the Surface Pro so the argument about storage is trivial.
            And to be fair, lets install windows on the Macbook Air and compare what's left. Or install OSX on the Surface Pro (yes, it works!).
          • Except that

            you can always upgrade the SSD in a MacBook Air. A company called Other World Computing has the SSD upgrades in sizes that you can't even get through Apple.

            So get base-spec on the storage and upgrade either one after the fact. Problem solved, money saved, and the Mac still comes out on top over the Microsoft product if you don't care about touch screen.