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Laptop vs tablet: which should you buy?

Laptop vs tablet; photos of a MacBook Air and an iPad Pro
(Image credit: Future)

Laptop vs tablet: which is better? Well, for starters, it depends what your budget is. For example, if you don't have more than $100 / £100 to spend, that simply won't be enough to buy a laptop, unless you're lucky enough to find a refurbished one at that price. 

Of course, you could opt for a one of the best Chromebooks as some of these can come in under $100 / £100, such as the small HP Chromebook 11. A larger, more powerful refurbished Chromebook, such as the HP Chromebook 14 can be bought for under $200 / £100. If you want to find out all you need to know more, read our how to buy refurbished tech guide.

However, Windows and MacOS are more popular and it's very unlikely you'll get a good laptop in these price ranges. You will, however, be able to afford a cheap tablet. For example, right now the Amazon Fire HD 8 costs under $50 (opens in new tab) in the US, and under £90 in the UK. With this super-cheap tablet, your computing experience will be quite limited. But you will be able to do light tasks such as surfing the web and social media, checking emails, using Amazon apps (though not iOS or Android apps), reading ebooks, listening to music, and streaming TV and movies.

There are some cheaper tablets on the market with leading-edge tech, for example read our Huawei Matepad 11 review, but again, this comes with caveats – no Google Play support, so it can feel like you're always making compromises. The upshot is, choosing between the best laptop and the top tablet has never been harder. Below I'll take a look at the key questions you need to ask, I'll compare a similarly priced laptop with an equivalent tablet.

Laptop vs tablet: frequent questions

Laptop vs tablet; a photo of an iPad Pro

iPad changed how we viewed tablets, these simple screens have replaced laptops for many people (Image credit: Apple)

What are the advantages of a tablet over a laptop?

These days, higher-end tablets are surprisingly capable, featuring fast processors, premium displays and the ability to run creative software such as Photoshop for iPad and Affinity Designer for iPad.

Why would you want to do so on a tablet, rather than a laptop? In a word, portability. Tablets are generally lighter, easier to hold, less obtrusvie, and much more convenient to work on when you're on the go, whether that's standing in a crowded train carriage or moving from customer to customer in a store.

Along with this lightness and portability, their touchscreens also make them the obvious choice for creating digital art. Drawing on a tablet with a suitable stylus can feel close to the experience of using pen on paper, whereas using a laptop screen would just feel weird. (That said, you'll need a suitable model: see our guide to the best drawing tablets for options.)

Tablets are also nicer to hold when you're reading or watching movies whilst lying in bed, or lounging on the sofa. Plus they generally come with rear cameras, like on smartphone. Laptops, in contrast, usually just have a front-facing webcam; fine for Zoom, but no good for photography or capturing video.

Laptop vs tablet; the MacBook Air laptop in an office on a black desk

MacBook Air is a slim and light laptop that gets close to the flexibility of a tablet with the power of a laptop (Image credit: Future)

What are the advantages of a laptop over a tablet?

Laptops are a better choice than tablets if you need to do work-related tasks, because they come with an integrated keyboard and trackpad. That makes them much more productive and comfortable to use for work and study.

For instance, if you spent a full day writing reports or essays, creating spreadsheets, or filling in forms, you'd find using a tablet's digital keyboard very slow and tiresome by comparison. The same applies to hardcore gaming: while you can run, say, World of Warcraft on an iPad, it's much more enjoyable when you're using a proper laptop keyboard.

Although tablets are generally more portable, laptops are becoming increasingly thin and lightweight, making them easy to carry from place to place

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is the operating system. Most laptops run either Windows, macOS or Linux. This allows them to run a far wider range of powerful software than tablets, which generally only let you run iOS or Android apps. So, for example, most of Adobe's Creative Cloud software won't run on most tablets, and the apps that do, such as Photoshop for iPad and Lightroom for iPad, won't have the full features of the Windows or Mac versions.

Although tablets are generally more portable, laptops are becoming increasingly thin and lightweight, making them easy to carry from place to place. They usually have more ports than tablets, allowing you to connect a greater number of devices to your machine. They often have more powerful hardware and bigger and more high-res screens too.

That said, the lines here are beginning to blur. Some tablets are becoming quite powerful in terms of their hardware, meaning they can match the processing power of equivalently priced laptops. Also, you don't always want a desktop software on a tablet, for example Procreate is high up in our best software for digital artists buying guide, which is designed for iPad. To further muddy the waters, we're also seeing the rise of 'hybrid laptops'.

Laptop vs tablet; a product shot of iPad teamed with Magic Keyboard

Tablets, such as the iPad, now come with excellent keyboards and mice to turn them into small laptops (Image credit: Apple)

What is a hybrid laptop?

A hybrid laptop, aka 2-in-1 laptop, is a tablet that combines with a detachable keyboard to create a laptop-like experience. Popular examples include the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, the HP Spectre x360 and Microsoft's Surface Studio

Because you can attach and detach the keyboard at will, these devices offer the best of both worlds. You can use your tablet as a tablet when that's more convenient (for example, when you want to draw on it), or as a laptop when that's preferable (such as typing up a report).

On the downside, hybrid laptops are generally quite expensive. And in my experience, these tablet-keyboard combinations can be a little wobbly, so I wouldn't generally recommend them as your main work computer. Still, if you want to find out more, read our buying guide to the best 2-in-1 laptops available now.

Laptop vs tablet: MacBook Air vs iPad Pro

These, though, are generalities. So now I'll get specific and compare one of my favourite laptops with one of my favourite tablets, to see how they match up in practice.

In the remainder of this article, I'll compare Apple's MacBook Air (M2, 2022) with the iPad Pro 12.9 (M1, 2021). For a quick overview of the main specs for each, see the table below. Then read on, as I compare the most obvious differences between the two devices.

iPad Pro (12.9 inch) vs MacBook Air comparison
TabletLaptop
DeviceiPad Pro (12.9 inch)MacBook Air (M2, 2022)
Display12.9 inches (2732 x 2048 pixels)13.6-inches (2,560 x 1,664 pixels)
ProcessorApple M1Apple M2
Operating system iPadOS 12.5macOS
RAM8-16GB16GB
Storage128GB-2TB1TB SSD
Weight682g1.24kg
Dimensions280.6 x 214.9 x 6.4mm304.1 x 215 x 11.3mm
Connections1 x USB-C2x Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C), 3.5mm headphone jack, MagSafe 3 charging port
CameraRear: 12MP wide, 10MP ultra-wide; Front: 12MP1080p FaceTime HD webcam
Battery lifeUp to 10 hoursOver 16 hours

 Laptop vs tablet: MacBook Air (M2, 2022)

Laptop vs tablet; a photo of the MacBook Air laptop in an office on a black desk

The new MacBook Air (M2, 2022) is a fantastic slim laptop that combines power and accessibility (Image credit: Future)

The MacBook Air (M2, 2022) is a fantastic laptop. Its design is thin, light and attractive, the M2 processor makes everything run super-fast, and the 13.6-inch, high-quality screen makes it perfect for creative work. 

This new MacBook Air comes with a Full HD webcam for making you look on Zoom calls, the battery life is incredible, and the relatively affordable price means it's great value overall.

Laptop vs tablet: iPad Pro 12.9 inch (M1, 2021)

Laptop vs tablet; a photo of an iPad Pro 2021 with Magic Keyboard

iPad Pro 12.9 inch (M1, 2021) is a powerful and adaptable tablet that can compete with laptops (Image credit: Future)

The iPad Pro 12.9 inch (M1, 2021) is one of the best tablets on the market today. The screen is amazing, with an astonishing 1,600 nits of maximum brightness making it a pleasure to use, even outdoors in sunlight, and a 120Hz refresh rate making games, video and animation super-smooth. 

The inclusion of Apple's own M1 processor means the iPad Pro 12.9 inch (M1, 2021) is fast and reliable, even when running complex software. And up to 2TB of storage should be more than enough for most people. You can now house it with a Magic Keyboard for a laptop feel.

Laptop vs tablet: build and features

Laptop vs tablet: design

To compare the design of the iPad Pro with the MacBook Air, you first have to point out the obvious: one's a tablet, the other a laptop. One is accessible and portable and one is slightly bulkier – I say slightly because, really, the MacBook Air is very slim.

Both devices are sleek, elegant and beautifully designed to fit their primary purpose. However, if you choose to add Apple's Magic Keyboard to your purchase of the iPad Pro, then the comparison becomes a bit more complex. 

The Magic Keyboard is a really nice keyboard, offering satisfying typing action, excellent backlighting, and a decent trackpad. So you really do get an excellent "laptop-like" experience when you team it with the iPad Pro. 

That said, its layout is pretty basic: there's no Esc key or line of function keys, like you get on the MacBook Air. It's also heavy: heavier than the tablet itself. And that means the combined weight of the iPad and keyboard is heavier than the MacBook alone. Plus it's expensive, making the combination pricier than just buying a MacBook Air.

MacBook Air wins for me. Both designs are gorgeous, but if you want to use a keyboard, then the MacBook Air is lighter, sleeker, cheaper and more functional than the iPad + Magic Keyboard combo. Read our Magic Keyboard review for more details of this attachment.

Laptop vs tablet: connectivity

Laptop vs tablet; a photo of a MacBook Air laptop in an office on a black desk

The new MacBook Air now features MagSafe, which is an excellent safety feature (Image credit: Future)

With the latest MacBook Air, Apple has brought back MagSafe charging, so you can connect your laptop to a wall socket and if you trip over the cable, it will pop out neatly and safely. As well as that, you get two Thunderbolt ports and a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The situation with the iPad Pro is more limited, though. Here you just get one USB-C / Thunderbolt port. Note, though, that using the Magic Keyboard means you get an extra charging port.

MacBook Air wins, again, for me. This laptop offers greater connectivity, and the peace of mind that MagSafe charging can bring as well as the ports and connectivity that comes with a laptop over a tablet. 

Laptop vs tablet: screen

Laptop vs tablet; a photo of an iPad Pro 11-inch on cluttered desk paired with a Magic Keyboard

The iPad Pro's screen is smaller than a laptop's but it features Apple's Pro Display XDR, so that's a win (Image credit: Ben Brady)

The M2 MacBook Air's 13.6-inch LED IPS Retina display is truly excellent. It's the larger of the two devices, and offers a 60Hz refresh rate and 500 nits maximum brightness. 

The iPad Pro's 12.9-inch mini LED display is slightly smaller, but in other respects it's vastly superior. Featuring Apple’s Pro Display XDR, it offers incredible colour accuracy and contrast. The refresh rate is double the MacBook's at 120Hz. And the base brightness level is an impressive 1,000 nits, climbing to maximum of 1,600 nits. So however bright or sunny it is outside, you'll still be able to view everything clearly. 

Here, the iPad Pro wins for me. The MacBook Air's display is great, but the iPad Pro's use of Apple's Pro Display XDR tech puts this in a league of its own and even amongst tablets it's one of the best displays on the market right now.

Laptop vs tablet: cameras

Laptop vs tablet; a photo of an iPad showing Photos interface

The iPad Pro comes with Center Stage built-in and this is a game-changer for tablets (Image credit: Apple)

The new MacBook Air has a 1080p FaceTime webcam, which is a big upgrade on the previous version and makes for high-quality video calls. 

The iPad Pro, however, trumps that with its 12MP front camera, with Center Stage built in. Plus it has a rear camera, featuring 12MP wide and 10MP ultra-wide sensors, with LiDAR allowing for faster focus and better image processing thanks to the M1 chip.

iPad Pro wins here for me, as it features a better selfie camera and a dual-camera rear setup as well, which means it's more adaptable and useful for how we use cameras on our tech these days.

Laptop vs tablet: performance and price

Laptop vs tablet; a photo of the macbook air m2 from above

The new M2 chip in this year's MacBook Air makes all the difference in this debate (Image credit: Apple)

The MacBook Air features Apple's very latest M2 processor. That suggests it should be fast, powerful, and capable of running even the most resource-intensive software smoothly. And in our benchmarking, that's just what we found. It aced both our Cinebench and Geekbench tests, and delivered results that rivalled even its more expensive sibling, the MacBook Pro. You can find the detail in our MacBook Air (M2) review.

The iPad Pro contains a slightly older processor, the M1, and so as expected, it didn't reach quite the same dizzy heights in our benchmark tests. That said, it's no slouch, and in terms of general use, most people are not going to notice the difference: this is still one very fast performer. Again, read our full iPad Pro 12.9 review for more details.

MacBook Air edged it in our tests. But if you're not using high-end software, such as 3D modelling or video editing tools, we're not sure this matters all that much. But overall, for raw power and speed, the new M2 MacBook Air is my pick of this aptop vs tablet debate.

Laptop vs tablet: pricing

The MacBook Air (M2, 2022) starts at $1,199 / £1,249. This base model comes with an 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 8GB of memory and 256GB SSD storage.

The new iPad Pro (M1) 12.9-inch, meanwhile, starts at $1,099 / £999 with 128GB of storage. Bringing storage up to 256GB raises the price to $1,399 / £1,099. Adding the Magic Keyboard will cost you a further $349 / £329. And you can add 5G for an extra £150 / $200 / AU$250. 

MacBook Air wins for me. If you just want a Wi-Fi tablet and are happy with 128GB storage, the iPad Pro is slightly cheaper. But if you want the Magic Keyboard as well, then you're paying a lot more overall than you would for a MacBook Air.

Laptop vs tablet: verdict

Laptop vs tablet; a photo of a MacBook Air laptop in an office on a black desk

When pitting laptop vs tablet, the new MacBook Air (M2, 2022) just pips the existing iPad Pro 12.9 inch (Image credit: Future)

So which device comes out on top in our battle between laptop vs tablet? In truth, Apple has done such a good job with both the MacBook Air (M2, 2022) and the iPad Pro 12.9 (M1, 2021) that it's difficult to separate them. While expensive, both are beautifully designed, lightweight and powerful machines with lovely screens. So choosing between them really comes down to your personal priorities. 

If you want to do a lot of creative work using heavy-going software, then the MacBook Air is the obvious choice (you can see it and more in our best MacBook buying guide). As a laptop, it's going to provide a more comfortable and functional typing experience overall, even though the iPad Pro matched with Magic Keyboard is still pretty impressive. 

Running macOS, it's going to support a far larger range of software than the iPad, and all software will run faster thanks to the more powerful M2 processor inside it. You can connect more devices, more easily. And with it being cheaper and lighter than the iPad + Magic Keyboard combo, that's a compelling proposition.

If you're mainly interested in light computing tasks, photography and entertainment, though, the iPad Pro may be a better bet – take a look our it tanks in our best iPad guide. It's far more portable. Its screen offers a higher resolution picture, incredible brightness and a buttery-smooth refresh rate. It's got great cameras on both front and rear. And its M1 processor makes everything run smoothly and efficiently.

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Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity (opens in new tab), published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, T3.com and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects. 

With contributions from