iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: which should you buy?

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air
(Image credit: Apple)

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air might seem like an easy choice. If you're looking for an Apple laptop in the £1,000/$1,000 region, the MacBook Air looks like your only option… but should it be? For a lot creatives, the iPad Pro could be a better choice.

Though a superficial look at the iPad Pro vs MacBook Air makes them seem incomparable, they're both ultraportable, ultra-thin computers that come in at roughly the same price, which mean they absolutely both should be in contention for the spot in your bag. But they run different operating systems, have different internal hardware, and each has unique features that might tip you one way or the other. And it's not just about running the best iPad apps for designers.

We'll assume that you're buying the iPad Pro with the separate Apple Smart Keyboard Folio, so you can type at full speed when you need to without obscuring the screen, reducing one of the differences between the two.

So let's go through the iPad Pro vs MacBook Air head-to-head, to make sure you get the mobile workstation that helps you work faster and get your creativity onto the screen. ALready got one? You'll be wanting to protect it with either the best MacBook Air cases available or the best iPad Pro cases.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Display

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air

(Image credit: Apple)

The MacBook Air comes with a 13-inch display, with a 2,560 x 1,600 resolution. At 227 pixels per inch, it's lovely and sharp, and the IPS panel technology provides good viewing angles. But beyond that, it's nothing to write home about: there's no support for wider colour gamuts (Apple doesn't give specifics, but it's not rated for P3, unlike the MacBook Pros); the 400-nit reported maximum brightness is more consumer-grade than professional; and though reflectivity isn't bad at all, reducing it hasn't been the biggest focus.

The iPad Pro does a better job of living up to the second part of its name. It comes in two sizes: the 11-inch model has a resolution of 2,338 x 1,668; the 12.9-inch model has a resolution of 2,732 x 2,048. These both come in at 264 pixels per inch, making them marginally sharper than the MacBook Air (though we doubt you'd notice the difference).

Much more useful is the support for the wide P3 colour gamut and 600 nits of brightness – you can really see what you're doing on these screens, though they aren't quite HDR-ready.

On top of that, the iPad Pro models both include 'ProMotion', which is Apple's name for variable frame rates. When you're watching a movie, the tablet can drop the frame rate of the screen to match the film, saving a bit of energy. But when you're drawing using the Apple Pencil, it will raise the frame rate to 120fps (double the usual 60fps supported by most screens, including the MacBook Air). This keeps the latency as small as possible when you're drawing – it means the lines can appear on-screen twice as quickly, effectively, making it feel closer to using physical media.

The fully laminated display and anti-reflective coating also make the iPad Pros excellent at minimising reflections, so it's easier to see what you're focusing on at all times.

The shape of the screens might also be a factor. The 16:10 MacBook Air screen is good for maximising widescreen content, such as video, and having windows side-by-side for multitasking. The iPads have taller aspect ratios (and can be pivoted around to portrait rather than landscape, of course), which can make them more suited to looking at raw photos or documents. It's not the biggest difference in the world, but it's there.

Finally, both the iPad Pros and MacBook Air support Apple's True Tone tech, which adjusts the colour temperature of the screen to match the ambient lighting in the room you're in, so that a white document looks the same to your eyes as a white piece of real paper would. This really helps with eye comfort, and we wouldn't live without it for reading and writing. If you're concerned about it affecting your colour perception of your work, you can turn it off easily.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Performance

MacBook Air

(Image credit: Apple)

Both machines are very fast and slick just for basic use – firing up apps, searching for files and so on. That's thanks to the very speedy storage Apple uses in the MacBook Air, and to the general quickness and light touch of iPadOS on the iPad.

When it comes to potential overall grunt however, you might be surprised to learn than the iPad Pro is, on paper, significantly more powerful than the MacBook Air. Based on benchmarks, the iPad Pro is actually a match for the 13-inch MacBook Pro and its quad-core Intel processor. The MacBook Air only offers around 60% of the maximum multi-core performance of the iPad Pro.

When it comes to single-core performance, the two are essentially on a par, due to Turbo Boost technology that will maximise the power draw of a single processor core when that's all that's needed. Most of the time, single-core performance is actually the important measure – it's only when you get into to really intensive prolonged tasks that multi-core comes into play. But having multi-core power is obviously important for when you get to the stage of exporting video, compiling software or exporting images.

So, the iPad Pro is the better performer? Well… kinda.

Really, it's a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, because the apps and operating system run very differently on the two machines. The iPad Pro has all kinds of hardware optimisations that make things like 4K video editing on it smoother than you'd likely manage on the MacBook Air even ignoring its extra power… but then you can't run After Effects CC on it at all, so even if the MacBook Air is slow, it does things that the iPad Pro simply cannot.

Similarly, the iPad Pro has 4GB of RAM (or 6GB in the version with 1TB of storage), which is half of the base level of RAM the MacBook Air comes with. Generally iPadOS needs less RAM to run, and this is fine, even for intensive tasks – you'd be amazed at the complexity of layered images it can manage… but still, if you're planning to open something with many Photoshop layers of giant uncompressed images, you may simply need more than 6GB of RAM to keep it responding quickly (though, in this case, you might find the MacBook Air's processor starting to struggle).

Here's the rub: anything you do on the iPad Pro will be blisteringly fast, so it comes down to whether the apps themselves are pro-level enough for what you want to do on your thin and light work machine. What you do on the MacBook Air might be a bit slower and less smooth, but you have the full flexibility of macOS.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Features

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air

(Image credit: Apple)

The MacBook Air is pretty light on features – what you see is largely what you get. It's a thin and light laptop, which means bells and whistles would only weight it down. You get certain essentials, such as a mediocre 720p webcam, and a very useful fingerprint sensor for secure logging in (plus Apple's built-in security chip, which keeps your files encrypted without causing you any hassle).

The iPad Pro has slightly more interesting things going on, most important of which is Apple Pencil support. The second-generation

is what you'll use here, which an infinitely better experience than the original version. The drawing experience is actually the same quality – very precise, with excellent low latency, plus great pressure and tile detection – the Apple Pencil v2 has a great matte feel, and it magnetically attaches to the side of the tablet, and charges wirelessly while it's there. Not only is it always to hand, it's always charged and ready to go – it's a brilliant set up.

The Apple Pencil has a button, of sorts: you can tap its flat edge and it acts like you've pressed a button, and you can customise what this does by default (and apps can offer unique extra features for it).

For security, the iPad Pro uses Face ID facial recognition, which works well technically, but we find it overall inferior to the fingerprint sensor iPads used to have – it's far too easy to accidentally cover it while holding the bezel, or to be too far away, or at the wrong angle. It works on phones, but it's too inflexible for tablets.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Design and ports

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air

(Image credit: Apple)

Both of these machines are focused on being thin and light. The iPad Pro would be a very comfortable winner in that regard, if you don't bother with the keyboard case… but you really should, since it's a far superior writing experience to trying to type on the screen.

The MacBook Air is just 156mm (0.61 inches) thick, and weighs 1.25kg (2.75lbs). It has two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left-hand side, which double up as USB-C ports, because these two connection types share a single plug type. These can handle everything: they're the power ports, they transfer data, they're the video outputs… and you can connect them to hubs that house lots of connections over a single cable – great for grabbing the machine and running out the door.

Thunderbolt is a high-end connection, which can be handy – it means you connect to external RAIDs with very fast speeds, or 5K displays, or even external GPUs.

On the right-hand side, there's a 3.5mm headphones jack. That's it – two data ports is plenty in terms of this being a lightweight machine made for the wireless world. If you need more, the MacBook Pro has you covered.

The MacBook Air uses a keyboard with very low travel that's proven quite controversial: partly simply because some people don't like it, but most because it's proven to be not especially reliable long-term. It's a good size, and accuracy is no problem at all, but it's important to be aware that it has a higher failure rate than some other keyboard types.

The iPad Pro is 5.9mm (0.23 inches) thick, and weighs just 468g (1.03lbs) for the 11-inch version, or 633g (1.4lbs) for the 12.9-inch version. However, the Smart Folio Keyboard cases for these devices at least doubles the thickness, and the 12.9-inch keyboard weighs 407g (0.8lbs) on its own, brining the total weight to 875g (1.9lbs). The sum is still more portable than the MacBook Air, but the difference is not all that pronounced in the end. You can, however, just drop the keyboard when you won't need it, which is not an option on the MacBook.

The iPad Pro has a single USB-C port, which is its only physical connection at all – there's no headphone jack here. This can be a limitation for sure: it means that if you want wired latency for audio/video work without latency, you have to use an adapter from the USB-C port. But that one port is also for charging. And connects to external storage. And an external video display (up to 4K). It's great to have the flexibility of the USB-C port in a tablet, but the fact that you can't use it for an accessory while also charging means you may need to look at getting some kind of small hub to do everything you need at once. It's just that much less flexible than the MacBook Air.

The keyboard case is very good for typing – it's comfortable, gives good feedback, it's easy to be accurate on it, and we've seen no reliability problems. However, the design of the overall case annoys us: it's an awful dull grey colour, and it's not very flexible for positioning: there are two different screen angles (which is useful), but if you just want to watch a movie, you have to fold it out fully, so it has a needlessly large footprint. The MacBook Air does too, of course, but that doesn't have a choice – here, the keyboard case is just reducing the natural flexibility of a tablet. Similarly, it doesn't support any kind of low drawing angle.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Battery life

Apple official ratings make the MacBook Air the winner here – it's rated of 12 hours of battery life in typical light usage, while the iPad Pro is rated for 10 hours of life. However, as with any computer, the actual longevity can be all over the place – fire up photo-editing software and you can expect both to come in lower than that.

Really, all you need to know is that both offer all-day longevity for light work, and charge rapidly over USB-C.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Price

(Image credit: Apple)

The MacBook Air starts at $/£1,099, which gives you a 1.6GHz processor, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. The only upgrades available are for the RAM (16GB will cost you £180) and the storage. You can choose to move up to 256GB of storage, 512GB or 1TB – every upgrade costs $/£200, meaning that a MacBook Air with 1TB of storage and 8GB of RAM costs $/£1,699.

The iPad Pro 11-inch costs £769 with 64GB of storage. A version with 256GB of storage costs £919, the 512GB version costs £1,199, and the 1TB version costs $/£1,319 (though comes with 6GB of RAM).

The iPad Pro 12.9-inch costs £969 at 64GB, £1,119 at 256GB, £1,319 at 512GB, and $/£1,519 at 1TB (again, with extra RAM).

However, don't forget that we're assuming you'll need Apple's comedically overpriced keyboard cases for the iPad Pros to turn them into laptop replacements, for when you need a proper typing experience. This, somehow, costs $/£179 for the iPad Pro 11-inch and $/£199 for the iPad Pro 12.9-inch.

This makes the cost of the 11-inch iPad Pro: 64GB £939; 256GB £1,098; 512GB $/£1,298; 1TB $/£1,498.

The cost of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro becomes: 64GB £1,168; 256GB $/£1,318; 512GB £1,518; 1TB $/£1,719.

So, at equivalent capacities, you can slightly save money over the MacBook Air by getting the smaller iPad Pro, but you'll actually pay slightly more than the MacBook Air by going for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

Overall, though, they're so close that price probably won't be the deciding factor.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Conclusion

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air

(Image credit: Apple)

At a similar price, and trying to fill a similar need as a long-lasting mobile workhorse, both of these can be really useful machines. There's no clear winner for everyone – it will absolutely come down to what kind of work you want to do.

For drawing and sketching, obviously the iPad Pro is the better choice – the ability to easily use the Apple Pencil anywhere is a huge boon, and there are loads of fantastic drawing apps. That could include photo editing too – the Pencil works great for that as well, and the iPad has the better screen.

But it comes down to the software you need to use. There are great professional tools for just about anything available for iOS, but do they do what you specifically want, in the right file format, and sync up with your other work in the way you need?

And then there's the flip side: the MacBook Air can do anything you want any computer to do, but would you actually prefer the lighter experience of the iPad for working on the go, bearing in mind that you likely still have your main computer with more power?

Apps for iPad are sometimes stripped back, but this can help keep you focused on the core ideas and creativity of what you're doing, rather than bogging you down in the little details.

Focus on the task you want to achieve, and the tools you want to use to get there – hopefully our guide has helped to point you towards which will be the winner for you.

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Matt Bolton

Matt is Managing Editor at TechRadar.com, and previously worked on T3, MacLife and MacFormat. He's been testing technology for over a decade, working in specialist Apple publications as well general technology and creative journalism, and has charted Apple’s ups and downs since his student days (but still hopes to hear “one more thing”). By day, you can find him covering TV, audio, smart home gear and more at T3.com, as Home Tech Editor. By night, he's probably updating or pairing or installing some new piece of technology in the quest for the perfect setup.