Buying decisions: iPad Pro or MacBook Air?

iPadIconXApple’s iPad line is getting bigger and more powerful with every new release, and while tablets have some distinct differences from classic laptops, their capabilities are progressing to overlap with or in some cases extend beyond those of laptops. With the release of Apple’s new iPad Pro and upcoming iOS 9, the distinctions are becoming even less, so if you are in the market for a new system, you might find yourself wondering whether to go for an iPad or a comparably priced OS X system such as a MacBook Air, especially if it will be your only computer.

By including an optional keyboard, the iPad Pro’s approximate $1000 price tag and components arguably put it very close to Apple’s MacBook Air. For each, you will essentially get a slender and highly portable system with a 13-inch display, a keyboard and multi-touch input options, approximately 10 hours of battery life, 4GB RAM, and about 128GB of storage for your files.

Unfortunately there are no applicable benchmarks to compare the performance of the two systems, but even if available, these would not be too useful as these systems are primarily about portability instead of raw power. Therefore, the real difference comes down to the efficiency of the computing environment and experience you will have.

With this in mind, there are four major differences between iOS running on an iPad Pro and OS X running on a MacBook air, that will help you decide:

1. Multi-Window multitasking

Apple is supporting picture-in-picture and split-view multitasking in iOS 9 on the iPad Pro and some more recent iPad models; however, this pales in comparison to the abilities of OS X, where you can keep as many programs and windows open that will fit on your screen (or multiple screens). Even though you chance potential clutter in OS X, you can greatly benefit from simultaneous view of content from multiple applications, without need to flip between full-screen apps all the time.

2. App Store requirement

Your ability to get things done will depend on what apps are available to support your needs. With the App Store’s offerings, you have access to high quality apps; however, to ensure stability and security Apple imposes many restrictions on these apps. Unfortunately this means iOS systems are limited to these restrictions, so if a nuance task may require an old or obscure version of an app, or you need to do any coding or other technical application, then OS X is the option for you.

3. Filesystem access

Perhaps the largest difference between iOS and OS X is the extent of filesystem access. In OS X, you have full access to the file system and can store your files in whatever hierarchical structure you wish, and in practically any location. You also have the flexibility of reading files in many different applications and customizing how they are handled. This is not the case with iOS, where you have no direct filesystem access, and data is instead stored on a per-app basis. Even though you can organize files in iCloud Drive, Dropbox and similar services, you must do so within the context and limitations of those services and manage them in specific programs. This means for relatively simple needs, services like iCloud Drive and Dropbox may suffice; however, for more complex file management you will likely require the access provided by the Finder and launch services in OS X.

4. Multi-touch options

Both OS X and iOS support similar multi-touch inputs, but nuances aside, iOS has the edge with the ability to draw directly on the screen with your finger or a stylus. This allows you to take notes and draw sketches, which cannot be done effectively on a Mac running OS X without the use of special third-party hardware like a Wacom tablet. However, if you do not need to draw or take notes, then you must weigh whether you prefer a classic mouse pointer input, or if relying only on multi-touch is better for your needs.

My bottom line

Despite its advances, iOS is still not mature enough to be a complete computing platform, especially if you might find yourself doing any development, needing at least moderate file management, or performing similar technical tasks. In this respect, OS X is far more flexible than iOS, so unless you have specific drawing or note-taking needs, the iPad Pro will serve to augment a Mac system instead of replace it. This is especially true if you already have an iPhone or even an older and cheaper iPad to give you at least some of iOS’ benefits.

Overall, if you only need to check e-mail, browse the Web, manage photos, and compose a document or two, then either platform will work. If in addition you will benefit from drawing and note-taking, then the iPad will be a solid choice, but if there is even a remote possibility you will require anything more technical, then your best bet is still to stick with OS X.

4 thoughts on “Buying decisions: iPad Pro or MacBook Air?

  1. MaX

    Great article. Thanks! Also, no USB ports on iOS devices to share any kind of items via pendrives (no cloud here). And iOS devices are jailed and files and applications sandboxed as said. No good.

    Other big problem is the lack of true, full and complete compatibility. Files created on Mac are NOT compatible with iOS devices if they contain special formatting, special fonts, backgrounds, colors, tables, figures, transitions, animations, audio and video. And now just think about Flash or Java. Or Track Changes in Word. Actually, there are also incompatibilities between Micrososft Office for Mac versus Windows. And even within Office for Mac versions and within Mac OS X versions, as there are also incompatibilities within Office for Windows versions and within Windows operating system versions. In summary, for best compatibility with Mac, just use a Mac.

    If the key is portability, now it is possible to create such handheld Mac with the new Intel Skylake chips. Apple should make a light (400 to 600 g) Mac, as small as possible and whih whatever form factor (clamshell, slider or tablet). The true compatible device with the desktop Mac (sorry, iOS is not!). Great for Keynote and PowerPoint presentations.

    It seems clear that Apple will not make a Mac tablet because it would cannibalize the iPad sales (the iOS is so inferior than OS X!), but companies like Modbook
    could do it using the tiny MacBook Air motherboards based on Intel Skylake to be released soon. The Mac in your pocket. Always. Because the iPad is for fun; the Mac is for work and for fun.

  2. B. Jefferson Le Blanc

    Thanks for the breakout comparison. Another difference is support for third-party software. Sure, there are iOS versions of apps like Office, Photoshop and Lightroom, but these are not really comparable to the full versions on OS X and, in fact, rely on the Mac versions to function effectively. In other words, they are satellite apps with little independent utility. On the other hand, if you don’t use big apps like these, then you won’t miss them on an iPad.

    Another difference is the quality of the keyboard. Though initial reports say that the iPad Pro keyboard is adequate, it is still inferior to the keyboard on a laptop Mac, not to mention the Apple wireless keyboard. That said, though not yet reported, the iPad Pro should work with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard – if you have a cover or stand to support the iPad in an upright position. In fact, such an arrangement, though slightly less portable, would be better ergonomically.

    One advantage of the iPad Pro you did not mention is the quality of the display. The new iPad has a higher screen resolution than even a Retina display “15 MacBook Pro. This helps support the two-up app arrangement. However, if I recall correctly, El Capitan has the same split-screen capability — though it is unlikely to look as good, or work as well, on a MacBook Air, with significantly less resolution. Of course, you could wait for screen resolution on the MacBook Air to improve, as it probably will, maybe.

    These comparisons relate to the potential consumer appeal of the iPad Pro, which is primarily targeted at the enterprise market with tablet specific software requirements. It’s natural, of course, for Mac enthusiasts to want the latest and greatest, so, like the eMac, which was originally designed for the education market, consumer sales will probably be significant and, indeed, may do as much as the enterprise sector to revive iPad sales.

  3. fustian

    Apple has shown no inclination to merge iOS and MacOS. I assume there are issues with MacOS and mobile. So the plan is to grow iOS until the iPhone is your computer. In the office or at home you’ll stream to a 4k or larger touch screen. Only when walking around will you be limited to your little iPhone screen. They can’t do this yet since the hardware isn’t quite there, but they are deliberately going about this step by step. The whole point of this iPad is to flesh out content creation using multitouch on a larger form factor.

  4. Doug

    Great review and great comments. Thank you all. I am looking to purchase one or the other in the not too distant future. The iOs is nice for simple stuff but it is far too confining and there are too many compromises for my taste. Also, as an older person I find the display on my iPad very hard to read at times – very thing fonts against very bright backgrounds. The OS X screen gives me more options to make things readable, and I am not alone in that concern. Too many young folk designing this stuff lol.

    This has been very helpful to me and I will give careful consideration to all that has been said here in making my choice. Thank you all very much!

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