MacBook Air vs. iPad Pro: How the new models compare

With its March 31 event seemingly dead in the water due to the spread of the coronavirus, officially known as (COVID-19), it appears that Apple has decided announcing products via press release is the safest bet. It did that in style in mid-March, announcing new MacBook Air and iPad Pro products on the same day.

The iPad Pro update brings with it a Magic Keyboard featuring a trackpad, bringing it closer to the MacBook Air than it’s ever been, especially since the MacBook Air also now comes with the Magic Keyboard. That makes it increasingly difficult to pick between the two. If you need to know whether you should buy the MacBook Air or the iPad Pro, our guide will make everything crystal clear.

Display and design

Apple iPad Pro 2020 Keyboard

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 2020 update, which utilizes 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.

As we mentioned earlier, 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 will be 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

Both the MacBook Air and the iPad Pro look to take a notable step up from their predecessors in terms of performance. If you’ve been waiting to upgrade based on their power output, now could be the time to make your move.

Starting with the MacBook Air, Apple says it now offers up to double the performance of the previous model. For the first time, you can now get a quad-core, 10th-generation Intel i7 processor in the Air. That could put it on the same level of performance as the MacBook Pro, though the $999 base model is still stuck at just two cores and four threads.

The iPad Pro is no slouch either. 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.

That suggests to us that the new iPad Pro’s processor is a smaller bump up than one might expect in a new-generation device. Whereas the A12X had eight CPU cores and seven GPU cores, the A12Z adds a graphics core but keeps the CPU core count the same.

Still, given Apple’s astonishing tablet processor lead, the company is under no pressure to massively ramp up performance. Expect market-leading power from the A12Z Bionic. We’ll update this comparison as soon as we’re able to test it out.

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 by 8.36 by 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 by 8.46 vy 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 by 7.02 by 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 11 hours of wireless web browsing, up to 12 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.

We’ll have to see how well these claims hold up when we give both devices a full review.

The app ecosystems

iPad Pro (2018) review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

These days, app availability is an important consideration when buying a device. Thanks to Apple’s Mac Catalyst project, the differences between the MacBook Air and iPad Pro are smaller than they used to be.

Mac Catalyst allows iPad developers to port their apps to the Mac quickly and easily. It means that the Mac app ecosystem, which has long lagged behind the iPhone and the iPad, could now catch up as more apps become available.

Ultimately, the decision you make depends a lot on how you intend to use the device. For example, Adobe’s powerhouse image-editing app Photoshop is available on both the Mac and the iPad; whether you prefer to use it with a mouse or an Apple Pencil will likely impact your decision on which device to get.

Configurations and price

Apple MacBook Air 2020

The MacBook Air now has a more interesting range of configuration options than it did previously, thanks in large part to the addition of 10th-generation Ice Lake chips; it’s the first time the Air has had a quad-core i7 option. You can now make the MacBook Air a legitimately powerful device if you opt for the top-end processor.

The entry-level MacBook Air starts with a 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 256GB SSD (up from the 128GB SSD in the previous entry-level MacBook Air). That configuration costs $999 — $100 less than the base model used to cost.

You can increase the processor to a 1.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor or a 1.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 chip. The RAM can be bumped up to 16GB, and you can increase the SSD size to 512GB, 1TB, or 2TB. A maxed-out MacBook Air will cost you $2,249.

Regardless of what configuration you choose, all models come with two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, a backlit Magic Keyboard, a Touch ID button, and a Force Touch trackpad.

As for the iPad Pro, you get much less control over the internal specs – your only choices cover the storage space and connectivity.

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 iPad Pro’s flexibility makes it a winner

There’s no doubt that the addition of a trackpad and a great keyboard makes the iPad Pro a serious competitor to the MacBook Air. The new direction signaled by Mac Catalyst also cuts down the gap between the two, making your personal circumstances even more important.

If you need the ultimate in portability, get the 11-inch iPad Pro. Its compact size in no way impacts its exceptional performance, and it’s noticeably smaller than both its larger sibling and the MacBook Air.

Many people still have strong reasons to stick with MacOS, whether that’s because of a particular piece of software or a familiarity with the operating system. It’s also the cheaper option, given how expensive the iPad keyboards are.

The addition of a touchpad, though, does make the iPad Pro more of a contender. It’s 2-in-1 form factor makes it a more adaptable device, allowing you to quickly switch between tablet or a laptop to suit your needs. That’s something the MacBook Air, without even a touchscreen, is incapable of doing.

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