Today's PC market is one of blurred lines and murky definitions. But, fortunately for us, it's also a world filled with great products. Want a computer that's both portable and powerful? You can snag a lightweight and razor-thin laptop, or you can pick up an ultra-portable and handheld tablet. Both have their pros and cons – and a lot of overlap. Let's see if we can find out just how much, as we compare the specs (and other features) of the 2013 MacBook Air to the iPad.
Update: We now have an updated version of this comparison.
Note that we're only covering the standard configurations of the new MacBook Air. No built-to-order models here, for the sake of simplicity. We're also only focusing on the smaller, 11-inch MacBook Air, as it's closer to being a direct rival of the iPad.
It shouldn't be too surprising that a full-fledged laptop – even a small one like the MacBook Air – is bigger than a tablet. The Air is 24 percent longer, three percent wider, and 81 percent thicker than the iPad (at least when counting the tapered Air's thickest point). In terms of overall surface area, the MacBook is 35 percent bigger.
The Air is also (unsurprisingly) heavier than the iPad. 65 percent heavier, to be exact.
With the iPhone 5's shift to aluminum (from the iPhone 4S' glass), every one of Apple's desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones is now made of aluminum. You can do much worse. Aluminum is fairly lightweight, it's sturdy, and it retains that "premium" allure that Apple's customers covet.
Neither display is huge, but the MacBook Air's is bigger. Forget those misleading diagonal measurements for a moment, and look only at screen area: here the Air gives you 27 percent more screen real estate than the iPad does.
What the iPad lacks in size, though, it makes up for in razor-sharp resolution. The MacBook Air's screen is growing a bit long in the tooth in this respect. It only packs one third of the pixels of the iPad's Retina Display. This despite that larger screen that we already mentioned.
How important is resolution? That might depend on what kind of displays you're used to now. If you already have devices with razor-sharp (or "Retina") resolution, then it's really tough to go back to those lower pixel counts. But if you've never used a super high-res display, then your eyes might be very pleased with the MacBook Air's 135 pixels per inch (PPI) screen.
Okay, technically the iPad can mirror its content on a TV (via Apple TV AirPlay) or through third-party software on a PC, but we're talking about turning your device into a full-fledged desktop PC. Here the MacBook Air is the much better choice. Invest in an external display, have a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard at the helm, and your Air can serve as the brains for a makeshift home office workstation.
If you want a tablet to perform a similar function, you might be better off looking at something like the Surface Pro (provided you're happy using Windows).
Here we're comparing apples and oranges, or, rather, x86 and ARM. But the gap might be shrinking a bit, as mobile processors are growing faster and more powerful, while laptop processors (like Intel's new Haswell Core i5 processors) are delivering better and better battery life.
The MacBook Air's Intel Core i5 is the better, faster chip, by a longshot. But when you take the iPad's simpler, less demanding software into account, the iPad's A6X is as powerful as you'd need a 2012-2013 tablet processor to be.
Good luck finding an ARM-based tablet with 4 GB of RAM. Again, though, we're comparing desktop vs. mobile operating systems, so the iPad's 1 GB of RAM should go plenty far for your tablet needs.
The iPad's maximum storage capacity matches the entry-level model of the MacBook Air. Depending what you use your tablet for, though, you might not need as much storage as you would on a laptop. For example, Photoshop CC for Mac takes up over 1 GB, while the scaled-back Photoshop Touch for iPad only takes up about 60 MB.
This is the new MacBook Air's killer feature. Insane battery life, courtesy of that Intel Haswell chip. Its uptime isn't as impressive as its 13-inch counterpart's, but the 11-incher will still give you around nine hours of web surfing.
Well, scratch that: the MacBook Air's battery life is insane for an x86-based laptop. ARM-based tablets, like the iPad, still have the advantage there (at least compared to the 11-inch Air). Apple estimates up to ten hours web use for the latest iPad.
The new MacBook also gets updated 802.11ac Wi-Fi, though this won't affect most of us anytime soon. You'll need an updated router, along with a fast internet pipeline, in order to see any improvements over your current Wi-Fi.
Apple sells the iPad in both Wi-Fi only and Wi-Fi with LTE models. You can't buy any MacBooks with LTE, or any other kind of mobile data.
You probably won't do too much photography with an iPad, and you'd be insane if you tried to do any with a MacBook. So the iPad gives you a respectable 5-megapixel rear shooter, with a lower-res front camera. The MacBook just gives you a 720p front-facing shooter, perfect for video chat.
If you want a computer mostly for casual use (social media, web, games, email), then the iPad's iOS 6 might be all you need. It also has an improving selection of productivity apps, but, let's be honest, it isn't really designed for getting stuff done. Here the MacBook is the better choice, with its more advanced Mac OS X (not to mention its built-in keyboard).
If the iPad is all you need, then you'll save some big bucks. It starts at half the price of the 11-inch MacBook Air. Of course you're only getting 16 GB of storage, compared to 128 GB for the entry-level Air, but it's a lower admission fee nonetheless.
Of course you could save even more money with the US$330 iPad mini, but its smaller, 7.9-inch screen also makes it less of a potential laptop replacement.
Wrap-upThe lines between x86-based laptops and ARM-based tablets are blurring. But it's still pretty clear where their respective strengths lie:
Laptops like the MacBook Air have built-in keyboards and trackpads, more powerful processors, and more grown-up operating systems. Despite the iPad's selection of productivity apps, laptops still have a big advantage there.
Tablets like the iPad don't have the huge battery life advantage they used to, but they're still more portable, 100 percent touch-centric, and are pitch perfect for casual, butt-on-the-couch entertainment. It also doesn't hurt that you can get one for about half the price of a MacBook.
If you're more inclined to the Windows side of things, you can check out our comparison of the new MacBook Air to Microsoft's Surface Pro.