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

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.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

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.

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