Since the last time the iPad versus MacBook Air 11” comparison was brought up, both products have improved and evolved tremendously, the iPad more so than the Air. It’s easy to dismiss even making the connection (because who here actually cross-shops a high-end ARM tablet with a mid-range ultraportable, raise of hands please) but I think there are enough shared attributes to make a discussion worthwhile, especially considering the similarity in terms of form factor and now battery life. If I was looking for an extremely compact, thin, light, and long-lasting companion device to bring on a trip, they’re both completely valid answers. But which would I actually take?

The short answer would almost always be the Air, for a variety of reasons, but I’ll get there. This basically goes back to the tablet versus notebook conversation for various usecases. The iPad is awesome as a travel device, as are most tablets in general, and you can see evidence of this in any airport terminal. Especially after the screen upgrade last year, the iPad is hands down one of the best content consumption devices on the market. It’s also my absolute favorite digital platform for reading. I’ll actually save lengthy articles, like some AnandTech reviews and other long-form content from other websites I enjoy, to read on my iPad. Between the sharpness of text on the Retina display and the physical closeness you have with the words, it’s about the closest you can get to a paper reading experience on an LCD. (This also holds true for any high-DPI tablet, including the Nexus 7.2, Nexus 10, Surface Pro, and others). Also, the ability to use a tablet with only one hand, not needing a platform of some kind, and general versatility of physical handling adds a convenience factor that’s hard to get from a notebook.

But when the tablet doesn’t have an inherent advantage in terms of size or battery life, it’s a lot harder to justify skipping the sheer versatility and power you get out of a real notebook computer, even a small one, for reasons that amount to the tablet being easier to use while standing up. The notebook is basically better at everything other than reading, and there’s far more computing horsepower at your disposal. You have far more control over everything that happens—media, browsing, documents, you name it. And there’s a real, physical keyboard, so in terms of productivity, there’s just not a conversation. To some degree, that’s always been something that held tablets back for me and I suspect the other editors on staff. Admittedly, our usecases typically involve a lot of writing and email, neither of which is easy at all without a hardware keyboard, so we’re probably not the right target demographic to judge tablets by.

The capabilities of a Core i5-based ultraportable are so far beyond that of an iPad or Nexus 10 though, which is part of what makes this on the surface a somewhat odd comparison to be making. Obviously the tablets are cheaper, though it’s worth pointing out that a 128GB iPad (WiFi) is only $200 less than a 128GB Air 11”, and as noted earlier the iPad keyboards typically run $100. I don’t know why anyone would need that much storage on an iPad, maybe if you had a ton of 1080p video content that you really needed to carry with you everywhere. The 16 and 32GB iPads, at $499 and 599, are obviously far more accessible and probably more sensible investments.

I’m not trying to recommend that people buy the Air over the iPad, just that it’s possible to do so with very little compromise. It wasn’t really something you could do until now simply because of battery life, but with Haswell ULT boasting similar or better power efficiency than high-end ARM SoCs in light everyday CPU-driven workloads, it’s certainly something to think about. I think the best of both worlds situation is yet to come, possibly with something that looks like a thinner, Haswell-based Surface Pro with Windows 8.1 and significantly better battery life than we’ve seen out of Ivy Bridge tablets in the last year.

 
Display Quality Final Thoughts and Discussion
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  • newbietech - Monday, August 12, 2013 - link

    I'd like an option to embed a wireless data card in the mac air. Touch feature on screen would be nice but I care more about being able to have an inbuilt wireless data card. Reply
  • androticus - Monday, August 12, 2013 - link

    For both models, topping out at 4GB RAM is just a total non-starter for me. Reply
  • Pneumothorax - Tuesday, August 13, 2013 - link

    Hmmm... Apple does sell 8gb custom order configurations.... Reply
  • darwiniandude - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    I ordered mine with i7 CPU, 8GB, and 512 SSD. It feels way faster than my old 15" retina MacBook Pro (wouldn't be for gaming though) and I have $480 left over after selling the Retina to buy this. Great little machine. Reply
  • MobiusStrip - Tuesday, August 13, 2013 - link

    Apple makes the same two mistakes over and over:
    1. Crap-ass glossy screen
    2. No real Delete key
    Reply
  • KPOM - Tuesday, August 13, 2013 - link

    Glossy screens are commonplace now. The ones on the MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pros do not have the glass layer on top, so they don't reflect as much as the older MacBook Pros. The lack of a delete key is made up for by the functional function keys. Ii.e. I change the brightness or volume a lot more often than I need to front-delete, so I don't mind pressing FN-DEL as much (since I don't need to press FN-F4 or some other combination like I need to do on my Windows notebook). Reply
  • antonio22m - Wednesday, August 14, 2013 - link

    Macbook Air is undoubtedly a very good notebook
    Price and lack of optical drive can affect a large number of users whose decision during the judgment can be negative so that they can decide to choose another manufacturer.
    Air is perfect and the best "second computer" that you can wish for.
    His task was not to be the main and only computer we can possess.
    If you want excellent laptop computer that will be able to carry it with you wherever you go, the Air is an excellent choice for perfectly reasonable size and more pronounced weight that barely exceeds one kilo.
    Take a look at this comparison at http://www.squidoo.com/apple-macbook-air-133 and You will see comparison to the another Apple laptops.Anyone considering purchasing this laptop needs to see the information in this chart.
    Reply
  • SirKronan - Tuesday, October 15, 2013 - link

    So a question I would have REALLY REALLY liked to see answered in this review is this: Is the $150 upgrade to the i7 processor worth it? How much of a gain will you see for your dollars? Reply
  • SirKronan - Tuesday, October 15, 2013 - link

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/7113/2013-macbook-ai...

    Yay!! Found my answer ... finally! Thanks, AnandTech. i7 worth every penny for what I'll be doing with it.
    Reply

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