iPad Pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1: What should you buy?

iPad Pro 2021 vs. MacBook Air M1
(Image credit: Apple)

Now that the iPad Pro 2021 has been released, the question of whether to go tablet or laptop for your next Apple investment has gotten a lot trickier to answer. You can read our full iPad Pro 2021 (12.9-inch) review for the skinny on what you're getting with Apple's latest Pro tablet, but if you still can't decide, that's where our iPad Pro vs MacBook Pro M1 comparison comes in. 

In our recent Apple MacBook Air M1 review we marveled at what a difference Apple's new M1 chip makes in terms of performance and endurance. The new M1 MacBook Air now has enough power and battery life to compete with (and in many cases, beat) the best PCs on the market, making it one of our top picks for the best laptop you can buy.

So if you're in the market for a new Apple product to help you get things done on the go, the M1 MacBook Air is an easy recommendation; it's now powerful enough to compete with its beefier sibling the MacBook Pro M1.

But now that the new iPad Pro has arrived your buying decision is a bit more complicated, because Apple's most powerful tablet now has its own M1 chip, and the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro also features a new mini-LED display that's packing more pixels than the MacBook Air's excellent Retina display.

ipad pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1

(Image credit: Apple)

If you're willing to plop down a Magic Keyboard and adapt to working on a tablet instead of a laptop, the new iPad Pro might be a better investment for your needs. Read on to find out how these two speedy machines stack up.

iPad Pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1: Price

Apple's new iPad Pro 2021 has a starting price of $799 for the 11-inch model, while the 12.9-inch version has a starting price of $1,099. 

The M1 MacBook Air currently has a starting price of $999 (or $899 if you're a customer in education) for the entry-level model (7-core GPU and 256GB of SSD storage) and $1,299 for the more powerful model with an improved M1 chip (8-core GPU)  and twice as much storage (512GB SSD). Of course, the price can go up if you configure the laptop with extra memory and storage.

So while you'll probably pay a bit more for a new MacBook than a new iPad Pro, you have to consider the fact that the MacBook Air comes with a built-in keyboard. You'll have to pay $349 to get a Magic Keyboard for your new iPad, so if you splurge for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and a matching Magic Keyboard you're already paying roughly $1,500 -- and that's before you decide whether to pay for extra storage to supplement the entry-level iPad Pro's paltry 128GB SSD. 

The Apple Pencil on the iPad Pro will run you another $129. 

iPad Pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1: Specs

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Row 0 - Cell 0 M1 MacBook Air11-inch iPad Pro 202112.9-inch iPad Pro 2021
Starting price$999$799$1,099
Display13.3-inches (2560 x 1600 pixels)11 inches (2388 x 1668 pixels)12.9 inches (2732 x 2048 pixels) mini-LED
Storage256GB to 2TB128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
Rear CamerasNone12MP wide (f/1.8), 10-MP ultra-wide (f/2.4)12MP wide (f/1.8), 10-MP ultra-wide (f/2.4)
Front Cameras720p FaceTime HD camera12MP TrueDepth12MP TrueDepth
Dimensions12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches9.74 x 7.02 x 0.23 inches11.04 x 8.46 x 0.25 inches
Weight2.8 pounds1.04 pounds1.51 pounds
Port2 Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports, headphone jackUSB-C with Thunderbolt, USB-4USB-C with Thunderbolt, USB-4
ConnectivityWi-Fi 6Wi-Fi 6, optional 5GWi-Fi 6, optional 5G

iPad Pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1: Display

In our M1 MacBook Air review we gushed over the laptop's 2,560 x 1600-pixel Retina display, and with good reason: it makes watching movies a pleasure, showcasing vibrant colors and sharp details at a respectable brightness level.

However, as good as this panel is, it's not the best screen we've ever seen on a laptop (that honor rests with the Dell XPS 15), and it's likely to be outclassed by the mini-LED display on Apple's upcoming 12.9-inch iPad Pro. 

ipad pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Branded a Liquid Retina XDR display, the larger iPad Pro's mini-LED screen is a big deal because it's backlit by LEDs a fifth the size of standard LEDs, meaning the screen can brighten and darken specific areas with much finer control. The mini-LED panel on the iPad Pro should also be brighter with 1,000 nits of average brightness while offering a whopping 1 million-to-1 contrast ratio. 

Mini-LED displays are expected to make a big splash in the world of TVs this year (see why we're calling this the year of the mini-LED TV) and we're excited to see what Apple does with the technology. So if screen quality is a high priority for you, you can't go wrong with the M1 MacBook Air, but you may feel better about investing in a new iPad Pro.

ipad pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1

(Image credit: Apple)

Just make sure to go for the 12.9-inch model; the smaller 11-inch 2021 iPad Pro will still be sporting the company's Liquid Retina LED display, capable of displaying just 4 million pixels vs. the 12.9-inch iPad Pro's 5.6 million.

iPad Pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1: Performance

It's hard to say whether you'll get more satisfying performance out of a new iPad Pro vs. a new M1 MacBook Air, but it's pretty safe to say you'll be happy with either. 

When Apple released the M1 version of the MacBook Air last year it claimed the laptop would perform over 3x better than the previous Air, which sported an Intel CPU. That claim was proven out in our lab testing, which revealed that the new M1 MacBook Air is now effectively as powerful as an Intel-equipped MacBook Pro, previously the gold standard for powerful Apple laptops.

ipad pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1

iPad Pro 2021: M1 specs (Image credit: Apple)

Now the M1 chip is coming to the iPad family for the first time in the iPad Pro 2021, and Apple claims the octa-core chip will offer 50% faster CPU performance and 40% better graphics performance over the already-powerful iPad Pro 2020 (which relied on Apple's A12Z Bionic processor). Apple also claims we'll see as much as a 2x improvement in storage access speed over the iPad Pro 2020, which was already plenty fast enough for most tasks.

In short, both the M1 MacBook Air and the M1-equipped iPad Pro 2021 should be more than powerful enough to handle whatever you throw at them. You'll probably have more opportunities to push the MacBook Air to its limits since there's more room in the design to dissipate heat, but both devices should give you top-tier performance for the price.

iPad Pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1: Battery life

Apple claims the efficiency of the M1 chip significantly boosts battery life, and sure enough in our battery tests the new M1 MacBook Air lasted an impressive 14 hours and 41 minutes -- handily beating out competing laptops like the ZenBook 13 (13:47) and XPS 13 (11:07), not to mention the 10 hours and 16 minutes we got out of our 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro review unit.

We'd like to think the M1 chip can do for the iPad Pro's battery life what it did for the MacBook Air (the previous Intel-equipped version of which had a tested battery life of 9 hours and change), but Apple says the new 2021 iPad Pro will only offer up to 10 hours of watching video or surfing the Web on wi-fi. 

We'll have to wait and see what our testing reveals, but right now if battery life is a concern for you, nothing beats the M1 MacBook Air. 

iPad Pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1: Design

The decision of whether to invest in the design of the M1 MacBook Air vs. the new iPad Pro really comes down to personal preference. Neither product's design has changed much over the last few years, and the big shake-ups this year are all internal.

ipad pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1

The M1 MacBook Air is incredibly thin and light (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Size-wise, both versions of the 2021 iPad Pro will be thinner and lighter in your hands than a new M1 MacBook Air, though the Air is hardly a burden: weighing less than 3 pounds with dimensions roughly equivalent to a sheet of paper, it should disappear easily into a backpack or messenger bag.

Really, your buying decision on the design front comes down to which chassis and color you prefer (the iPad Pro comes in Silver or Space Gray, while the MacBook Air is offered in either color plus Gold) and whether you want your keyboard built-in or detachable.

iPad Pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1: Ports

You might not think there's much to say about port availability on an iPad, and for the most part you'd be right: the new iPad Pro 2021 still sports just the single charging port on the bottom of the device. 

However, the iPad Pro 2021's port now supports Thunderbolt 4 / USB 4, which means you can hook it up a variety of high-performance external storage devices and displays. So while you may not want to shell out for a second monitor (like Apple's $5,000 Pro Display XDR) if you did you could hook it up to the iPad Pro 2021 with attached Magic Keyboard and find yourself getting work done on your tablet with a big, beautiful screen. 

By comparison, the M1 MacBook Air offers 2 Thunderbolt 3 USB 4 ports on the left side and a headphone jack on the right. With those older Thunderbolt 3 ports you won't have as many options for hooking up the latest and greatest external devices, but you at least have the choice to use two at once. The headphone jack is also nice to have, especially if you spend a lot of time working in noisy environments and prefer wired headphones over a pair of Bluetooth earbuds. 

iPad Pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1: Cameras

The 720p webcam crowning the M1 MacBook Air's display delivers decent image quality that will make you look just fine on a Zoom call with your relatives, but you won't be using it for anything else.

By comparison, the 12MP cameras on the front and back of the new 2021 iPad Pro seem more than good enough for snapping photos while you're out and about, though some people might look at you funny while you're waving your expensive tablet around.

ipad pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1

Apple advertises the iPad Pro 2021's Center Stage feature (Image credit: Apple)

Just having a 12MP camera sensor on the front of an iPad Pro (which was previously limited to a 7MP sensor) is nice enough, but Apple is including a new front-facing camera feature with the 2021 iPad Pro: Center Stage. This new feature kicks in during video calls, causing the sensor to automatically track whoever is speaking and keep them centered in the frame (within reason; the iPad presumably won't rotate to follow you).

Apple claims it can also recognize new speakers who enter the frame and zoom out to capture them as well, a neat feature we're eager to test out under real-world conditions. So if camera quality matters to you, the 2021 iPad Pro is probably the better choice.

iPad Pro 2021 vs MacBook Air M1: Outlook

The iPad Pro 2021 is shaping up to be one of the most exciting iPad launches in years, thanks in large part to the inclusion of the new M1 chip and the introduction of a mini-LED display in the 12.9-inch model. 

Factor in the fact that you can hook it up to Apple's excellent Magic Keyboard (though you'll pay upwards of $300 for the privilege) and the new iPad Pro 2021 starts to look like the realization of that long-held tech enthusiasts' dream: the great tablet that also doubles as a great laptop.

But to get the absolute most out of that setup you're paying at least $1,500, and if you're investing that much in a productivity device you should probably pay a bit more for extra storage. At that price you could also get the top-line M1 MacBook Air with extra RAM or storage, and you'd have yourself one of the best laptops on the market, with a built-in keyboard and a battery that can outlast the iPad Pro by up to three or four hours. 

So if having a top-of-the-line tablet that also doubles as a work machine matters most to you, your probably best off waiting to buy the 2021 iPad Pro. If you just need a great laptop and don't care about being able to tap the screen, access the iOS app store, or take pictures, a new M1 MacBook Air would be a wise investment.

Alex Wawro
Senior Editor Computing

Alex Wawro is a lifelong tech and games enthusiast with more than a decade of experience covering both for outlets like Game Developer, Black Hat, and PC World magazine. A lifelong PC builder, he currently serves as a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice.