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iPad versus MacBook Air: Which is right for you?


Both the iPad and the MacBook Air offer phenomenal hardware solutions, but they occupy distinct niches. A well-accessorized iPad may take you pretty far along the way in getting work done on-the-go, but in no way does it provide the full OS X experience. In cost as well as weight, a low-end MacBook Air is not all that different from an iPad, but it lacks the simple form factor and touch-based interface that makes the iPad a perfect lightweight reading and connectivity solution. Two tools, two form factors -- which one is right for you?

At this time, Apple's computing solutions consist of five families. They include:

  • Pocket solutions: small in form factor and big in music and gaming, these include the iPhone and iPod touch pocket-based devices.
  • Tablets: perfect for on-the-go reading, media watching and lightweight connectivity, this family is represented by the iPad.
  • Laptops: including the sleek MacBook Air as well as the more powerful (but larger) MacBook Pro, laptops provide mobility crossed with full OS X solutions.
  • Desktops: ranging from the consumer-grade Mac mini through the incredibly able iMacs and topping out with the Mac Pro, these computers let you get your work done with as many monitors, hard drives and printers as your work demands.
  • Other: a catch-all family for computers that don't fit into the other categories, this family is currently limited to the non-mobile TV-based Apple TV, which provides an iOS solution with a limited user appliance interface.

The iPad and MacBook Air belong to separate families, and yet they're often put up against each other for purchasing decisions, especially when considering the 11-inch entry MBA. Both provide mobile on-the-go solutions. Both are lightweight. Both are affordable. So why go for one over the other? It all comes down to use case.

When the MacBook Air first debuted, many people called it "Apple's netbook." It wasn't. The Air is a full-featured laptop with a proper keyboard and screen, despite its small size. Netbooks, for all that they looked like laptops, were used in a different way. Their incredibly low cost and mobile form factor was not geared to providing a full OS experience. Instead, they provided a simpler on-the-go way to keep in touch and perform light computing tasks. Netbook computing wasn't about work, it was about connectivity and experiencing media, the same tasks now performed by Apple's iPad.

The iPad is the perfect device for playing games, watching some shows, checking email, surfing the Web and reading books. It may not be the ideal device for any single one of those tasks, but it is excellent at doing all of them. Add in its incredibly slim form factor and amazing portability, and you're looking at what the netbook should have been from the beginning. Instead of shrinking a laptop and using 5 percent of a standard operating system, the iPad offers core netbook functionality with a physical package that beautifully matches those tasks.

What the iPad does not do well is work. Yes, you can get work done when the need arises, but the iPad was not designed for day-to-day business. It is, at its heart, a netbook with the core demands of light computing and connectivity guiding its use. If you want multitasking, multiple windows, professional software suites and so forth, then you want a proper computer running a full-featured OS. You want a laptop or desktop, not a pocket or tablet device, even if you still need mobility.

That's where the MacBook Air excels. It provides the same kind of beautiful form factor and portability that typifies the iPad while adding in the full OS X experience. When your demands are business, deadlines and mobility, the MBA is the solution. Yes, you can find iPad workarounds and viewers, but why settle?

The MBA offers exactly the same UI, the same software and the same power as other desktop installations, but it provides these on a lightweight laptop that travels in the car and to the coffee shop as well as into the boardroom and the classroom. It does this with a full hardware keyboard and trackpad, without iPad compromise.

In the end, it all comes down to you and your needs. The iPad is not a laptop, and laptops are not iPads. Your specific use case and your personal needs should guide you as to whether you want to cuddle up with an iPad or drink mocha with a MacBook. They are both powerful, affordable and usable solutions. Which one is right for you?

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