Want a portable Apple device that packs a punch but doesn’t slug your wallet? Two great contenders enter the ring in a battle for your hard-earned bucks: Apple’s MacBook Air and iPad Pro.
The brawl between these two lightweights may seem like an odd comparison, sure. At first glance, one is a traditional clamshell laptop while the other is a tablet. But the line separating the two steadily diminishes with each new generation.
Let’s see which one comes out as the heavyweight champion.
Let’s start with the MacBook Air. Previously, Apple used its “Air” label to denote its thinnest, lightest products. But the company completely revamped the MacBook Air in 2018, creating a new slot in Apple’s mid-range lineup.
The latest MacBook Air features a 13.3-inch screen complemented by silver, space gray, and gold finishes. Its all-metal chassis retains the classic Air wedge shape.
You can equip the MacBook Air with an 8th-gen Intel Core i5-8210Y processor, up to 1.5 TB of storage, and 16GB of memory. It also includes two Thunderbolt 3 ports (via USB-C) supporting transfer speeds of up to 40Gbps each.
On the portability front, it weighs 2.75 pounds. That’s more than the 12-inch MacBook at 2.03 pounds but less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro at 3.02 pounds. It’s still a great portable PC but no longer the slimmest laptop offered by Apple.
The iPad Pro also underwent a wide-ranging redesign in 2018. It now comes with a flat-edged chassis in 11-inch and 12.9-inch sizes complemented by a silver or space gray finish.
Customization options on the iPad Pro are a little more limited than those on the MacBook Air. Four storage options range from 64GB to 1TB. You can choose to add cellular functionality too in addition to the iPad Pro’s Wi-Fi connectivity.
The iPad Pro’s baked-in ingredients include a USB-C port for charging and data transfer, four microphones, two speakers packing impressive sound, a 12-megapixel camera on the back, and a Smart Connector supporting external accessories, like a keyboard.
Ultimately, both devices are beautifully designed, but there’s no question which is more modern: The iPad Pro. It’s thinner, it sports tiny bezels, and is extremely portable. Meanwhile, the MacBook Air is thicker, it doesn’t feature the same thin-bezel design, and it’s less portable.
The MacBook Air might not be as revolutionary as it once was, but it earns its pedigree in other ways. One such upgrade over its old design is the introduction of a 2,560 × 1,600 resolution Retina display with slim bezels. Before 2018, the MacBook Air was the last Apple laptop without a Retina screen, and it really showed, making it a poor purchase choice.
While we noted its IPS display’s color accuracy was excellent in our review, its brightness was a tad disappointing. It also lacks Apple’s excellent True Tone tech to match white balance to the ambient light of your surroundings.
Aside from the Retina display, the MacBook Air’s redesign introduced a host of new features, such as the butterfly switch keyboard, a larger trackpad, and Touch ID. These are all features that debuted on the MacBook Pro first, but now, the Air feels like a more modern MacBook.
Compared to the hybrid system the iPad Pro has become, however, the MacBook Air feels far more conventional. It’s a clamshell laptop, just like every other one you’ve ever used.
The iPad Pro is a tablet-first device, especially since the Smart Keyboard isn’t sold with the iPad Pro. The attachment doesn’t include a trackpad and its keyboard doesn’t compare well to the MacBook Air. If typing is your primary input, the MacBook Air is probably the way to go.
Where the iPad Pro leaps ahead is its display. As stated in our review, it’s “fantastic for consuming and creating content.” It uses the same Liquid Retina tech used in Apple’s iPhone XR and the 11-inch model ships with a 2,388 × 1,668 resolution. It even has the same True Tone technology as the MacBook Air, making it easy on your eyes in any situation. Meanwhile, the larger 12.9-inch option comes with a higher-resolution 2,732 x 2,048 screen.
We also love the iPad Pro display’s ProMotion feature. This dynamically changes the refresh rate up to 120Hz, meaning you always get a smooth experience, whether you’re scrolling through a document or drawing with the Apple Pencil.
While the MacBook Air does include Touch ID for password-less login, the iPad Pro takes it a step further with Face ID facial recognition.
Pitting the MacBook Air against the iPad Pro makes for some interesting performance comparisons. While the MacBook Air uses Intel’s Core i5 processor, the iPad Pro packs Apple’s own A12X Bionic chip. That in-house chip decision has paid dividends because the iPad Air’s performance is hugely impressive.
When we reviewed the iPad Pro and tested its processor’s capabilities in Geekbench 4, it scored 5,029 for single-core and 18,042 for multi-core performance. In comparison, the MacBook Air’s single-core and multi-core scores were 4,233 and 7,773 respectively.
That the iPad Pro easily beats one of Apple’s newest MacBooks — especially in terms of multi-core performance — is quite incredible. Even if measuring Geekbench across different platforms isn’t quite akin to comparing apples-to-apples, the comparison feels true just when using the two devices anecdotally.
Still, it’s not an open-and-shut case. The MacBook Pro’s Thunderbolt 3 ports mean you can hook up an external graphics card, which will drastically improve its graphics performance. The MacBook Air’s keyboard and trackpad also make it far easier to control in more in-depth applications.
Lastly, there’s also the operating system to consider. The MacBook Air runs on MacOS, which is an established system with plenty of powerful desktop programs like Adobe Premiere. Multitasking is a breeze, whether it’s multiple applications side by side or dozens of tabs in a web browser.
By contrast, the iPad Pro’s iPadOS has only recently been spun out from iOS. While it has a bevy of powerful mobile apps and new gesture support at its disposal, the power and organization of MacOS makes it more suited for heavy-duty tasks.
We also need to note MacOS Catalina. Apple’s latest operating system for Macs now provides better support for developers to bring their iPad apps over to MacOS. That initiative now sees Twitter’s return to the Mac App Store along with new apps from Carrot Weather, GoodNotes, Rosetta Stone, PDF Viewer, Post-It, and many more. These apps will still likely function better on the iPad, but it does lessen the gap between the two systems.
What’s your use case?
Given their similar price points and different form factors, picking a winner between the MacBook Air and iPad Pro seems rather tricky. In this case, however, we feel the MacBook Air just edges it from a practical standpoint.
The iPad Pro is incredibly powerful, though. It’s perfect if you want a superb tablet for drawing, working, and playing on the go. Its new multitasking features make it possible for work too, but replacing a traditional laptop isn’t easy. For most people, working completely without a laptop will feel a bit foreign, especially when it comes to operating within a business that includes coworkers.
Its lack of flexibility can also hold it back. Internally, you can only really customize its storage. The MacBook Air, on the other hand, gives you choices over storage, memory, and processor speed. Its Thunderbolt 3 ports also mean you can greatly expand its capabilities if needed.
The MacBook Air’s more powerful operating system and compatibility with some of the world’s top pro apps is also a strong selling point, as is its superb trackpad. Those tools make it well-suited to detailed work such as video editing, which is easier to do than on a touch screen like that of the iPad Pro.
So, while we love the iPad Pro — it’s the best tablet money can buy — the MacBook Air is the device most people should buy if they’re looking for an Apple product at this price.