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iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: What should you buy?

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air
(Image credit: Future)

An iPad Pro vs MacBook Pro comparison makes a lot more sense now than it did just a year ago. The new iPad Pro 2020 supports robust cursor control for the first time, and a new Magic Keyboard gives it a trackpad.

Plus, the iPad Pro is now even faster with its A12Z Bionic chip, and it packs a new dual-camera system for capturing content on the go along with a new LiDAR scanner for delivering advanced AR experiences. 

But don't count out the MacBook Air 2020. Apple's updated ultraportable laptop is one of the best laptops and it's now up to two times faster, thanks to Intel's 10th gen Core processor. More important, Apple ditched the dreaded butterfly keyboard on the MacBook Air for a more comfortable and reliable scissor mechanism. So which computer is right for you?

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Specs

iPad Pro (12.9 inch)MacBook Air
Price$999, $1348 with Magic Keyboard $999
OSiPadOS 13.4macOS 10.15
CPUApple A12Z BionicIntel 10th gen Core i3
RAM6GB8GB
Storage128GB256GB
Display12.9 inches (2732 x 2048 pixels)13.3 inches (2560 x 1600 pixels)
PortsUSB-CTwo Thunderbolt 3, headphone
CamerasRear: 12MP wide, 10-MP ultra-wide; Front: 7MP 720p FaceTime HD
Battery Life10:169:31
Size 11.04 x 8.46 x 0.23 inches11.97 x 8.36 x 0.16 - 0.63 inches
Weight1.412.8 pounds

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Price

iPad Pro 12.9 (2020)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Don't let the starting price fool you. The iPad Pro starts at $999 for the tablet itself, but the costs go up dramatically once you start adding accessories. For example, the Magic Keyboard costs a pricey $299 to $349, and the second-generation Apple Pencil costs $129. That's $1,348 for the iPad Pro plus the keyboard and $1,477 if you also include the Pencil.

The iPad Pro also offers a Wi-Fi + Cellular option that adds built-in LTE connectivity, something the MacBook Air doesn't have. In terms of storage, you get 128GB to start but can upgrade to 256GB ($100 more), 512GB ($300) or 1TB ($500).

MacBook Air 2020 back

(Image credit: Future)

The MacBook Air's pricing is more straightforward. It starts at $999 with a Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, twice the storage of the iPad Pro. You also get a keyboard included. The $1,299 configuration of the Air offers a faster Core i5 chip and bumps the storage to 512GB.

Winner: MacBook Air

iPro vs MacBook Air: Display

iPad Pro 12.9 (2020)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The MacBook Air has a slightly bigger display than the iPad Pro at 13.3 inches versus 12.9 inches, but the iPad Pro's screen is superior in pretty much every other way. Plus, only the iPad Pro's panel has a fast refresh rate of 120Hz.

When it comes to resolution, the iPad Pro's display is sharper at 2732 x 2048 pixels, compared to 2560 x 1600 for the MacBook Air.

MacBook Air 2020 display

(Image credit: Future)

In our lab tests, the iPad Pro's screen averaged 559 nits of brightness, which blows away the MacBook Air's 386.4 nits. The iPad Pro also pulled ahead in terms of the sRGB color gamut (122% vs 113%), so you should expect more vivid hues from Apple's tablet.

The only area where these panels are evenly matched is color accuracy. Both the iPad Pro and the MacBook Air turned in a Delta-E score of 0.34, where 0 is perfect.

Winner: iPad Pro

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Keyboard and touchpad

MacBook Air 2020 keyboard

(Image credit: Future)

The MacBook Air offers an improved scissor-switch keyboard that offers a much more comfortable typing experience than the previous MacBook Air with its butterfly keyboard. The layout not only offers more travel (1mm vs 0.5mm) but feels snappier overall. The MacBook Air also features a large 4.75 x 3.2-inch touchpad.

(Image credit: Apple)

The iPad Pro's optional Magic Keyboard uses the same scissor mechanism as the MacBook Air and offers the same 1mm of travel, and provide a similarly pleasant typing experience.

The iPad Pro attaches magnetically to the Magic Keyboard's floating cantilever design, allowing you to adjust the display's angle up to 130 degrees. The iPad Pro Magic Keyboard's touchpad is smaller than that of the MacBook Air, but that didn't prove problematic as I wrote my iPad Pro Magic Keyboard review.

The biggest difference between the keyboards is that you have to pay — a lot — extra for the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard. It starts at $299, which is enough to make you wonder why you're not just buying a laptop.

Winner: MacBook Air

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Ports

MacBook Air 2020 ports

(Image credit: Future)

This round is no contest. The MacBook Air sports two Thunderbolt C ports as well as a headphone jack. The iPad Pro has a lone USB-C port and no headphone jack, though you get an extra USB-port for passtrhough charging if you opt for the Magic Keyboard.

Winner: MacBook Air

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Performance

iPad Pro 2020 performance

(Image credit: Future)

The iPad Pro has arguably one of the most powerful processors in any mobile device, including most laptops. The new A12Z Bionic chip offers an 8-core CPU plus a new 8-core GPU that combines for beastly performance.

The MacBook Air has upped its game, too, as Apple has finally made the move to 10th-gen Intel Core processors. The configuration we tested is a Core i3 chip, though, which isn't that fast.

On Geekbench 5, which measures overall performance, the iPad Pro notched 1,126 on the single-core portion of the test and 4,720 on the multi-core portion. The MacBook Air was well behind, hitting 973 and 2,737, respectively. 

We will be following up with graphics benchmarks and comparisons, but for now the edge goes to the iPad Pro.

Winner: iPad Pro

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: iPadOS vs macOS

MacBook Air 2020

(Image credit: Future)

This is the biggest difference between the iPad Pro and the MacBook Air. The iPad Pro runs iPadOS, which is a touch-first operating system that now supports cursor input across the OS. You can now easily select text using a Bluetooth mouse, external trackpad or Apple's own Magic Keyboard with trackpad, as well as perform various gestures, such as flicking with three fingers up to see all of your open apps. 

iPadOS continues to support multitasking features like Slide Over (running apps on top of others) and Split View (running two apps side by side), and the customizable Today Screen gives you helpful widgets to stay on top of your day. Plus, only iPadOS supports Apple Pencil for drawing, note-taking and marking up documents. 

iPad Pro 12.9 (2020)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

macOS Catalina provides a more traditional desktop experience. The Dock is always visible, and you get more robust desktop applications. For example, the Chrome browser on macOS has a bookmarks bar, something the iPadOS version lacks. You also have a lot more choice in terms of software and what you can download on macOS, whether you choose to go through the Mac App Store or the web.

The latest macOS Catalina doesn't add many compelling features, but Apple has brought some iPad apps over to the platform, including Apple Music, Apple TV and Apple Podcasts. And developers can now more easily port their own apps from iPadOS to macOS. Other highlights include improved Photos, Notes and Reminders Apps. You can even use an iPad as a second display with the Sidecar feature.

Winner: Draw

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Cameras and special features

iPad Pro 12.9 (2020)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

If you want to create content, the iPad Pro is the way to go. Apple's tablet includes a 12MP wide camera and a new 10MP ultra-wide camera that lets you fit in more of the scene when shooting. The iPad Pro can also record 4K video up to 60 frames per second, something the MacBook Air can't do.

The iPad Pro also has a front 7MP TrueDepth camera for selfies and quickly unlocking the devices with face recognition. And, unlike the MacBook Air, the iPad Pro features a LiDAR scanner that dramatically improves the performance in augmented reality apps.

iPad Pro 12.9 (2020)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Another key advantage for the iPad Pro is Apple Pencil support. With the $129 accessory you can take notes, draw and mark up documents with ease. And the Apple Pencil charges when magnetically topped to the top of the iPad Pro.

Unfortunately, the MacBook Air only features a low-res 720p camera for video chats. And you can't use your face to log in; instead, there's a Touch ID button on the keyboard deck.

Winner: iPad Pro

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Battery life

MacBook Air 2020

(Image credit: Future)

This round is pretty close. On our battery test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of screen brightness, the iPad Pro lasted a very good 10 hours and 16 minutes. The MacBook Air was not far behind, turning in a time of 9:31. Still, the iPad Pro delivers more endurance overall.

The one advantage the MacBook Air has here is that it's power cord is pretty long at  2 meters (over 6 feet), while the iPad Pro's power cable is woefully short at only 1 meter (3.2 feet).

Winner: iPad Pro

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Verdict

iPad Pro MacBook Air
Price and Value (20)1118
Display (15)1410
Keyboard and touchpad (10)79
Ports (5)14
Performance (15)1411
Software (10)88
Camera and Special Features (10)96
Battery Life (15)1413
Total7879

When it comes to our iPad Pro vs MacBook Air face-off, there's no winner per se. But after comparing this tablet and laptop in multiple categories it's clear where these devices excel — and where they don't.

The iPad Pro is the better option for those who want to travel light and who want a touch-first experience with a superior display. Apple's slate is also a better choice for shoppers who want to create content, as the built-in cameras and optional Apple Pencil provide a level of versatility the MacBook Air can't match. The iPad Pro also has the edge when it comes to sheer speed and battery life.

On the other hand, those who are simply looking for a solid laptop will find that the MacBook Air is the better choice and the better value. The Air is much more affordable than the iPad Pro when you consider the costs of the iPad's optional keyboard, In addition, the macOS interface is simply better suited for everyday productivity tasks, and the Air also benefits from having more ports.

Bottom line: The iPad Pro is the best tablet you can buy that can double as a laptop for some people, and the MacBook Air is the best laptop for most people. I would personally pick the Air despite some shortcomings, but overall you can't lose.