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iPad 2 or Macbook Air?

May 13, 2011 - Dave Hecei

I have to say – I didn’t think I wanted an iPad. Actually, now that I have one, I love it. It really is an amazing product and Apple really has created a whole new electronic category. Just over one year ago, the Pad was born. We now have the iPad 2, which has more power and better graphics than the original. Now you need to choose between an iPad 2, or something like the MacBook Air. The problem is that the iPad 2 is more than just a tablet, but is not quite a laptop.

I decided to compare a high-end iPad 2 to the MacBook Air, Apple’s lightweight laptop, to see how they compare. The surprising part is that if you configure the iPad 2 with all the extras to make it more like a notebook, the total price is practically the same as the 11-inch Air.

To configure an iPad, I went to the online Apple Store and chose the 64GB 3G iPad 2. Then I added a Magic Cover, the VGA adapter, and the Camera Kit (includes a USB and SD memory card adapter). Along with these Apple accessories I added the Logitech iPad 2 Bluetooth keyboard case. Total cost came to $1025 (not including shipping or taxes).

Then I went back in and chose the low-end MacBook Air laptop. Of course the Air has USB ports and a mini DisplayPort, so nothing has to be added for that functionality. The Air is priced at $999. To be fair, I then added the VGA mini DisplayPort adapter, which got the price up to $1028. As you can see, the price is within three dollars of each other.

So with both of these devices decked out they are now similar in features. So why buy an iPad over a real laptop? Sorry, that is something that I can’t answer for you. But I can at least give you some pros and cons on both systems.

iPad 2

On the PRO side, the iPad is smaller and lighter. The iPad I configured is very modular. When you are out and about, you can take just the iPad 2 or take the whole kit. Either way, the iPad’s weight is less than a laptop, even the Air. The iPad 2 weighs only 1.35 pounds, while the Air is 2.3 pounds. If you add in the Zagg keyboard, add another 12 ounces. Even with the Zagg keyboard, the iPad’s total is only 2.1 pounds.

The iPad with 3G data can connect to the Internet from almost anywhere. Verizon does have more 3G coverage than AT&T, but reports from users lean toward AT&T for speed. With both 3G and WiFi access, you should be able to connect almost anywhere you go in the states.

The best part of the iPad is the touch interface. It is just, and I hate to use this word, magical. (There, I said it.) Interacting with the iPad is the most intuitive computer experience you will likely have. There is nothing out there yet that captures what Apple has done with the iPad operating system. Android and others are coming to the plate, but iPad is still the best. Add to this the variety of Apps that can be found on the iPad App Store, it is nothing but amazing. There really are so many things that an iPad can do that most people will only scratch the surface. The iPad can be used by kids and adults, professionals and non-professionals, computer novice and computer guru, it’s that simple.

On the CON side the iPad limits you. One limit is by Apple’s doing. Most anything you put on the iPad has to be approved by Apple. This is mainly for Apps, and media from Apple. On the App side, this is a good and bad thing. It limits the App Store to only what Apple approves. But since there are over 100,000 Apps in the store, this is probably not going to stop most people. Since all Apps must be approved by Apple, it limits the amount of ‘bad’ things getting into your iPad. This can be just worthless Apps, but mainly this is to keep Malware or viruses out.

To use an iPad you must (ok, change that to should) have a computer running iTunes. This limits the usefulness of the iPad. You don’t have to have a computer to own an iPad, but it does make things much more difficult if you don’t. If you don’t own a computer you must have the iPad activated at the Apple Store before you can use it. By having a computer, it allows you to both back up the iPad software and data, but also allow you to easily move data and media files onto the iPad.

The iPad runs iOS not Mac OS. This is something that will deter the computer professional. The design of iOS is such that you don’t ever see the ‘computer’. There is no desktop or file system that you can get to. For those used to moving files around this will be a barrier. Getting files in and out of the iPad is possible, just more difficult that it probably needs to be. Things like Mobile Me and DropBox are important add-ons.

The iPad is not meant to be a primary computing device. For the computer professional, who creates many documents and has to deal with tons of e-Mail, the iPad is not the ideal choice. The iPad is great for casual users and can handle basic office and home documents and personal e-mail accounts (either with the Mail program or via webmail clients). If you get more than 100 emails in a day, the iPad will slow you down.

The MacBook Air

On the Pro side, the Air is a real computer. It really is a full Macintosh computer, just in a nice small package. It has the slowest processor of any current Mac, but with the use of a solid state hard drive, or an SSD, the Air actually feels very fast in use. It has a full file system and can be easily networked to a server.

The Air still has some touch capabilities, like the iPad. This is limited to gestures on the large glass trackpad, but it is touch. Two-finger scrolling is so nice on the MacBooks that I really can’t stand using a laptop that doesn’t have this feature.

The Air is a full Macintosh so it runs most anything in the Macintosh library. The Air ships with iLife, Apple’s media suite that includes iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, Garage Band, and iWeb. You can also run more professional level software, which the iPad does not have, like Microsoft Office 2011, Adobe Photoshop CS5, Apple Lightroom 3, or QuarkXpress 9.

On the CON side, there is surprisingly little I can add. Maybe I’m biased, but when comparing an Air to an iPad there isn’t much that can be said. If you compared an Air to maybe a MacBook Pro there are a few things, but to an iPad, what can you say. The Air is slightly larger and weighs more. It is more complex than an iPad, which even if you’ve never used a computer before, you can quickly learn to use. The Air does not have the ability to connect to a cellular 3G network without additional hardware. Software for Mac OS is more expensive than for iOS (there are plenty of iPad Apps out there that are either free or less than $2).

Sorry, that’s all I can come up with. For my money, and the configurations I chose, the Air is a better deal. If I had $1000 to spend on a computer I would get an Air without even thinking. To be fair, you don’t have to spend a thousand dollars to get an iPad 2. The base model with 16GB of storage and only WiFi access is $499. If you don’t the extras (case, keyboard, USB, Video out) and the base model will work for what you need to do, then the iPad is half the price of the Air and a much better deal.

If want to be able to get on the Internet, do email, chat, read e-books, watch movies and videos, listen to music, but don’t want to deal with learning a ‘computer’, then the iPad 2 is the perfect choice. It really is a revolutionary product and one that has raised Apple to a whole new level.


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