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MacBook Air vs. iPad Pro | Digital Trends

After months of speculation and predictions, the new M1 Macs are finally here, and the M1 MacBook Air is likely going to be the favorite among general consumers. The new M1 chip blows the competition out of the water, the new Air has an impressive battery life, and its fanless design makes it totally silent.

And thanks to Big Sur’s new design language and the M1 chip’s ability to run iPhone apps on MacOS, the MacBook Air is more like the iPad Pro than ever before. Apple’s refresh of the iPad Pro earlier this year also introduced the Magic Keyboard, essentially making it a true laptop alternative.

Which one is right for you? Let’s find out.

Display and design

Ever since its redesign in 2018, the MacBook Air has only been available in a 13-inch size. That’s no different with Apple’s M1 MacBook Air, which uses the same exterior chassis as the previous model. It’s got the same 2,560 x 1,600 resolution (227 ppi), the same 16:10 aspect ratio, and the same thin (but not ultra-slim) bezels. Its Retina display also features True Tone, which dynamically adjusts the white balance to match the ambient light.

The iPad Pro’s display is a little different. There are two sizes of iPad Pro to choose from — 11 inches and 12.9 inches — with the former having a 2,388 x 1,668 resolution and the latter coming with a 2,732 x 2,048 resolution. Both have a 264 ppi pixel density, which should make them a little sharper than the MacBook Air, despite having similar screen sizes.

The iPad Pro also comes with True Tone and has an edge in that its dynamic refresh rate goes all the way up to 120Hz, giving it beautifully smooth scrolling and animations. The MacBook Air is still locked at 60Hz.

Both the MacBook Air and the iPad Pro now come with Magic Keyboards. In both cases, that’s a vast improvement over what was on offer before. Previous models of the MacBook Air were stuck with the shallow, failure-prone butterfly keyboard, while the keys on the iPad Pro’s keyboard case were soft, mushy, and unsatisfying. For both devices, this is a major upgrade.

The Magic Keyboard is very different from both previous keyboard designs. As we said in our MacBook Pro 16 review, it’s “the best Mac keyboard ever released,” with large keys, a snappy mechanism, and even a physical Esc key. We love it.

Performance

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

Let’s start with the iPad Pro. Apple’s tablet processors have always been miles ahead of its rivals’ best offerings, and the A12X Bionic in the 2018 iPad Pro tore through the competition. Interestingly, though, the 2020 iPad Pro has an A12Z Bionic chip rather than a new-generation A13X to match the A13 in the latest iPhones.

The only real difference between the two chips is in GPU performance, where the A12Z gets a noticeable improvement over the A12X. The real difference is in the camera setup. The 2020 iPad Pro comes with a dual-camera setup, compared to the single camera on the 2018 model. It also has a LiDAR scanner for Augmented Reality (AR) applications. For now, it seems a little gimmicky, but it does have some exciting potential down the road as AR becomes more relevant.

On the other hand, the M1 MacBook Air makes a monstrous leap in performance. The previous MacBook Air from earlier this year was stuck with just two cores and four threads in the base model. The M1 MacBook Air has an eight-core CPU, a seven-core GPU, and Apple’s sixteen-core neural engine.

How does that translate to performance? Not only does the M1 MacBook Air beat out the previous model, it essentially beats out most other mobile processors, especially in single-threaded performance. That means if you’re a budding content creator or photographer, the MacBook Air is finally a viable option for complex tasks. It’s far more capable than the iPad Pro.

Portability

Both devices are designed for portability. The MacBook Air is Apple’s thinnest and lightest laptop, while the iPad Pro’s tablet status makes it easy to put in a bag and take wherever you go. The MacBook Air weighs in at 2.8 pounds and measures 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.63 inches. Its all-aluminum construction keeps it lightweight while still making it strong and sturdy, as you’d expect from an Apple laptop.

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is the closest model to the MacBook Air in terms of size. Its Wi-Fi model weighs 1.41 pounds, while the Wi-Fi and cellular version comes in at 1.42 pounds — half the weight of the MacBook Air. It measures 11.04 x 8.46 x  0.23 inches, putting its dimensions close to those of the MacBook Air.

The 11-inch model is a fair amount more portable, though, weighing just 1.04 pounds and measuring 9.74 x 7.02 x 0.23 inches. It’s the one to go for if small size is important to you.

Apple claims the MacBook Air’s battery will last for up to 15 hours of wireless web browsing, up to 18 hours of Apple TV playback, and up to 30 days of standby time thanks to its built-in 49.9-watt-hour battery.

The iPad Pro doesn’t last quite as long, but it’s not far behind. Apple says both models can give you up to 10 hours of Wi-Fi web browsing and video playback, or nine hours of web browsing using a cellular network. The 11-inch model has a 28.65-watt-hour battery compared to the 12.9-inch model’s 36.71-watt-hour battery.

The app ecosystems

iPad Pro (2018) review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Big Sur and the introduction of the M1 chip mark the largest integration of MacOS and iOS’s app stores since Mac Catalyst. Catalyst allowed developers to easily port their iPad apps to Mac.

With Big Sur and M1, many iPhone and iPad apps now run natively in MacOS. However, the experience is mixed, to say the least. The MacBook Air doesn’t have a touch screen, so Apple has implemented touchpad controls, which are confusing at best and frustrating at worst. Developers also have to opt in to allow their apps to appear on Mac, and users will notice many of their favorite iPhone or iPad apps missing because the developers decided not to do it.

So, while there is certainly progress being made, there is still a solid divide between the two app ecosystems.

Configurations and price

Apple MacBook Air 2020

The MacBook Air’s configurations aren’t as robust as they were last time around, but with the M1 chip being the only option, that is to be expected. The base model of the M1 MacBook Air includes the M1 chip, 8GB of unified memory, and a 256GB SSD. Users can configure the 8GB model with 512GB, 1TB, and 2TB SSDs as alternatives. You can also upgrade to 16GB of RAM, with the base model of that starting with a 512GB SSD. That can be upgraded to 1TB or 2TB.

For I/O, users are just as limited as they have been in the past. You get two USB-C ports, the Magic Keyboard, the Force Touch trackpad, and a Touch ID sensor. The MacBook Air also supports Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0. The webcam is the same dismal 720p resolution we’ve all grown accustomed to.

The configurations are even less flexible on the iPad Pro, where users only determine the internal storage. The base model (in both sizes) starts with less storage — just 128GB. This can be increased to 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB. The entry-level 11-inch version with Wi-Fi and 128GB of storage costs $799; max it out with 1TB of storage and cellular connectivity and you’ll need to pay $1,449.

If you prefer the 12-inch version, the entry-level model starts at $999, while the top-end model costs $1,649. That puts the price premium for shifting up from 11 inches to 12.9 inches at $200.

What about that snazzy new Magic Keyboard cover for the iPad Pro? It’ll give you a device that’s even more closely comparable to the MacBook Air, but be warned — it’s extremely expensive. The 11-inch version costs a princely $299, while the larger edition is an eye-watering $349. Even with the 11-inch iPad Pro, you’re looking at paying a minimum of $1,098 for the combination, which is $99 more than the entry-level MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air’s power makes it the clear winner

Before, we gave this to the iPad Pro thanks to its flexibility and powerful A12Z processor. Then M1 came along and changed the tech industry by pushing devices to their limits in the best way possible, so we had to change our thoughts accordingly. 

The MacBook Air isn’t as portable as the iPad Pro, but it is still thin and light and by no means uncomfortable to lug around, but the M1 chip makes the MacBook Air worthwhile. While it used to be a decent laptop, it’s now a very capable platform that can effortlessly handle video and photo editing, effortlessly opening tabs on Chrome, and more to optimize your experience. Plus, while the integration of apps may be buggy now, it offers a lot of potential for the future.

Apple has teased that an iPad Pro upgrade might be hitting the market before too long. That means in regards to price, performance, and longevity, the M1 MacBook Air has the iPad Pro beat, at least for now.

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