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Apple iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Which should you buy?

Both have the same performance, but different everything else.

Two laptops showing off brightly colored images on screen Credit: Apple

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Apple’s latest iPad Pro(2021) and MacBook Air (2020) share some of the same specifications: Apple’s impressive M1 chip, up to 16GB of RAM, and 2TB of storage space, so you'll get roughly the same performance out of both devices. Both are also lightweight, portable, and priced very similarly.

But that’s where the similarities end: After all, one is a tablet and the other is a laptop. They run on different operating systems, have different cameras, screen resolutions, cellular connectivity—the list goes on. Both the iPad Pro and MacBook Air are excellent productivity companions, but if you need a new computing device for more complicated tasks than checking emails, one is naturally going to suit your needs over the other.

Buy the Apple iPad Pro

Buy the Apple MacBook Air M1

Form factor and configuration

If you want the iPad Pro to double as a laptop, you’ll need to buy a keyboard—ideally one you fold over your iPad to take it with you wherever you go. Companies like Logitech make a wide array of iPad keyboards, and of course, Apple has its own Magic Keyboard, but depending on the brand you could find yourself spending anywhere between $20 to upwards of $300 for an iPad keyboard.

The iPad Pro's base model with an 11-inch screen, 8GB RAM, 128GB of storage, and no cellular connectivity starts at $799. If you add Apple’s Magic Keyboard, tack on another $299 to the total price—now suddenly you have a lower-specced machine that costs $99 more than a 13-inch MacBook Air. If you go with the Smart Keyboard Folio instead, the total cost comes to $20 less than the MacBook Air, which is better, but still not a great value.

Bump up the iPad Pro screen size to 12.9-inches and now you’ll have to pay $1,099. You’ll get a better display with this screen size, but you get nothing in the way of more storage. Doubling the SSD storage from 128GB to 256GB adds another $100 regardless of whether you opt for the 11-inch or 12.9-inch model.

The MacBook Air has two configurations: a $999 version that nets you an 8-core CPU and 7-core GPU, 8GB RAM, and 256GB SSD storage, and a $1,249 version that adds a core to the GPU and doubles storage. Oh, and either version obviously gets you a keyboard (and it's Apple's Magic Keyboard, to boot). If you opt for the more expensive MacBook Air, it’s still $149 less than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with a Smart Keyboard Folio and the same amount of storage space.

Upgrading the storage space on the MacBook Air costs less than the iPad Pro, but only if you are upgrading the model with an 8-core CPU/GPU. You also have the option to upgrade the RAM to 16GB on the MacBook Air, whereas the iPad Pro sticks you with only 8GB.

There are a lot of ways to configure both devices, but ultimately, the MacBook Air removes the headache of finding a reasonably-priced keyboard and you get more for your money when it comes to memory and storage.

Our pick: MacBook Air

Software compatibility

Close-up: A MacBook laptop has a built-in speaker along the edge of the keyboard, along with a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Credit: Reviewed / Betsey Goldwasser

These two Thunderbolt ports and a headphone jack are all you get with the M1 MacBook Air.

After the form factor, the major difference between the iPad Pro and MacBook Air is the operating systems. The iPad Pro runs on iPadOS and the MacBook Air runs on macOS. The latter is a full-fledged operating system, while the former has more in common with the iPhone. But things get confusing from here. Macs can run iPadOS apps, but iPads can’t run some macOS apps.

Final Cut Pro isn’t available on iPadOS. Logic Pro? That doesn’t exist on the iPad, but a simpler version, Logic Remote, does. Garage Band is available on both platforms, but the iPadOS version is a pared-down version with less nuanced controls and capabilities—same with iMovie.

This sort of cross-platform availability largely depends on where developers decide to make their apps available, but for Apple-made programs like the ones mentioned above, it’s a mystery as to why the same version (or a version at all) doesn’t exist on iPadOS even though the iPad Pro has the same processing power as the MacBook Air (and the 13-inch MacBook Pro M1).
This goes without saying if you need the full version of any of the above programs, the iPad Pro is not the best choice for that.

Our pick: MacBook Air

Connectivity

Both the iPad Pro and MacBook Air don’t have much in the way of physical ports, but the MacBook Air wins over the iPad Pro because it has more by comparison. While the iPad Pro only has one USB Thunderbolt 4 port, the MacBook Air has two USB Thunderbolt 4 ports, plus a 3.5mm audio jack.

This means you can charge your laptop and plug in another device, like a flash drive, at the same time. If you wanted to do the same with the iPad Pro you’d need to buy a separate Thunderbolt dock.

However, the MacBook Air does not have a Cellular connectivity option. Both devices have Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0, but the iPad Pro is the only one you can take with you to the park and play Doom in the cloud over a 4G or 5G connection. Or maybe you take the train to work and you need reliable access to the internet—the iPad Pro has you covered there, too.

Our pick: Tie

Display

Fingers typing on a keyboard attached to a tablet
Credit: Reviewed / Matthew S. Smith

The 12.9-inch version of the 2021 Apple iPad Pro has a bright, vibrant display with mini-LED technology.

This is the one category where the iPad Pro wins outright, but let’s start with the MacBook Air.

Compared to the iPad Pro, the MacBook Air’s display isn’t all that fancy. The Retina LED-backlit display supports up to a 2560 x 1600 resolution with a max 400 nits brightness. Like both iPad Pro models, its display has a wide color gamut (P3) and True Tone technology, but that’s where the similarities end.

Both iPad Pro models have True Tone displays with a wide color gamut (P3) and 600 nits max brightness (non-HDR content), but the 12.9-inch model has a fancier display that supports up to 1000 nits max full-screen brightness and 1600 nits peak brightness for HDR content.

The larger model also has a mini-LED backlit display, which is about 40% smaller than regular LEDs and tends to be both brighter and more dimmable. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro also has a 2D backlighting system with 2596 full-array local dimming zones, so contrast and colors are going to really pop on that display.

And, of course, the iPad Pro displays are touch displays, but the MacBook Air doesn’t have one. (I mean you can touch it, but nothing will happen.)

Our pick: iPad Pro

Battery life

This one is cut and dry—the MacBook Air can get up to 15 hours of battery life, while the iPad Pro can only get up to ten hours. (The cellular models get up to nine hours.) If you were considering getting the iPad Pro as a laptop replacement but were concerned about the battery life, you get more for your money with the MacBook Air.

Our pick: MacBook Air

And the winner is…

An open laptop surrounded by a mug and plants
Credit: Reviewed / Betsey Goldwasser

The M1 Air's premium build, blazing speeds, and reasonable price makes it the obvious choice for most people.

When it comes to which device can be the best laptop, it’s no surprise that Apple’s MacBook Air is the best because it’s, well, a laptop. Along with better battery life, more physical ports, a fully-fledged operating system, and Apple’s Magic Keyboard, the MacBook Air boasts better value than the iPad Pro due to the simple fact that it already has everything you need, whether that’s sending a few work-related emails or editing videos in Final Cut Pro.

The iPad Pro serves a narrower demographic considering its form factor, but if you absolutely must have a touch-screen device from which you can attach and detach a keyboard, the iPad Pro is still a great, reliable machine—just keep in mind that you could end up paying more for it than a MacBook Pro.

Buy the Apple MacBook Air M1

Buy the Apple iPad Pro

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.