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MacBook Air vs. iPad Pro: Which is right for you?

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The rise of the iPad has generated an interesting question: "MacBook Air or iPad Pro?" And this question has never been more topical, as Apple's new MacBook Air with M1 chip (which is the best MacBook bar none) sees the Mac revolutionized with more speed and endurance than ever before.

While iPadOS 14 and the Magic Keyboard make the iPad Pro more of a laptop than ever before (and its A12Z chip is pretty speedy too), Apple's redefined the iconic MacBook Air in ways nobody expected. So, we've decided to do what we do best: pit these devices against each other in a MacBook Air vs iPad Pro showdown, to see which should be your next computer. 

Of course, some might say this is like comparing apples and pineapples. The MacBook Air is a full-fledged laptop, while the iPad Pro is a tablet that can be a laptop replacement (provided you pony up some more cash). 

That hasn't stopped plenty of people I know, including a friend who is a video producer and podcaster, from thinking the iPad Pro is their next main computer. But should it be yours?

Let's find out.

MacBook Air vs. iPad Pro: Specs 

MacBook Air (M1, 2020)12.9-inch iPad Pro (2020
Starting price$999 ($899 educational)$999 ($1,348 with Magic Keyboard)
Screen13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)12.9 inches (2732 x 2048)
Battery life14:4110:16
ProcessorM1 chip (8-core, 7/8-core GPU)A12Z Bionic chip with Neural Engine
Storage256GB to 2TB128GB to 1TB
Cameras0.7 MP webcam12MP Wide + 10MP Ultra Wide (rear), 7MP TrueDepth (front)
Video recording1080 x 720 pixelsUp to 4K at 60 fps
SecurityTouch IDFace ID
Apple Keyboard support Magic Keyboard and Smart Keyboard FolioMagic Keyboard and Smart Keyboard Folio
Pencil support Apple Pencil (2nd generation)Apple Pencil (2nd generation)
Dimensions 12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches11 x 8.4 x 0.2 inches | 11 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches with Magic Keyboard
Weight2.8 pounds1.4 pounds | 3 pounds with Magic Keyboard

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro: Design and ports

While the MacBook Air with M1 chip performs like the MacBook of the future, it still looks like the MacBook of the past. That's not exactly a bad thing, as it's still got the wedge-shaped design that's strong and iconic. However, its 0.5 inch and 0.3-inch bezels look outdated, and give it a bigger footprint than we'd like in a laptop. 

Conversely, the iPad Pro's 0.2-inch bezels (on all sides) give it a look that feels more modern, and one we hope the MacBook Airs of the future learn from. The iPad Pro also has that flat-edge design that Apple's brought back into its iPhone 12 lineup, which looks pretty nice.

iPad Pro Magic Keyboard

(Image credit: Future)

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro (11 x 8.4 x 0.2 inches) has a smaller footprint than the 13.3-inch MacBook Air (12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches), but the iPad Pro's thinner chassis will be a plus for many. However, those who get the iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard (a must for making a laptop-like experience), add on 0.4 inches of thickness, making it equal to the Air. 

Similarly, the iPad Pro weighs 1.4 pounds — which is half of the 2.8-pound MacBook Air's weight. Until, that is, you add the Magic Keyboard, which brings it to 3 pounds — making it heavier than the MacBook Air. The MacBook Air rarely wins a ports battle, but its 2 Thunderbolt 3 ports and headphone jack trump the iPad Pro's sole little USB-C port.

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

So, basically, the iPad Pro's design perks only truly come in handy when you're just using it as a tablet. And that's great for those who are able to make an Apple Pencil sing, but those of us who want a typing experience may prefer the Air, since you're still gonna need something of a stand or base to use the iPad Pro. 

Winner: Draw

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro: Display

The iPad Pro may have its drawbacks on design when you dock the Magic Keyboard, but its screen is the superior display in every way.

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

We measured the 12.9-inch iPad Pro 2020 as producing 122.9% of the sRGB gamut and 559 nits of brightness, which make it slightly more colorful and a lot brighter than the MacBook Air (114.3%, 365.8 nits).

The iPad Pro also beats the MacBook Air on display technology. Both offer True Tone white balance, but only the iPad has the 120 Hz ProMotion display refresh rate, which enables everything on your screen to move more smoothly and look that much nicer. The MacBook Air, like all Macs, has a 60Hz refresh rate. That might not matter to you yet, but if you see a 120Hz screen, you'll see the light.

There's one other major perk of the iPad Pro's screen: it allows for touch input. Apple has still yet to give touchscreens to its Macs, even though that's something that macOS Big Sur looks like it should support.

Winner: iPad Pro

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro: Magic Keyboard and Pencil

Hilariously, Apple's given the same name for both the MacBook Air and iPad Pro's typing interface: the Magic Keyboard. And while both are comfortable to type on, with similar feedback they have two giant differences. 

For starters, the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard doesn't come included — it's a $349 optional accessory. Secondly, the iPad Pro's Magic Keyboard can be detached, which is a nice convenience to have.

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

And then there's the Apple Pencil (also an optional accessory, which costs $129), which only works on the iPad Pro and not the MacBook Air. 

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Creatives and hand-writing enthusiasts will love the stylus, but there are WACOM tablets and pens for Macs as well, so it's not like the Mac is shut out here..

Winner: Draw

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro: Performance

The best way to compare the performance of the MacBook Air's M1 chip and the iPad Pro's A12Z Bionic chip is within the one comparable performance benchmark that works on both systems: Geekbench 5. 

On that test, the iPad Pro posted a solid score of 4,635, which the MacBook Air leaps over with its 5,925. Still, the iPad Pro's no slouch, and is still good for video editing in its own applications. 

Apple MacBook Air M1 (late 2020) review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

A more drastic win shows up in the GFXBench Metal Aztec Ruins graphics test, which did not run on the iPad Pro. Meanwhile, the MacBook Air posted a strong 54.332.

Winner: MacBook Air

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro: Battery life

The MacBook Air outlasts the iPad Pro by a lot. On the Tom's Guide battery test (web surfing at 150 nits of brightness) the MacBook Air posted an epic time of 14 hours and 41 minutes, while the iPad Pro hit empty at 10:16.

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Winner: MacBook Air

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro: Software and applications

Inside the new MacBook Air, you have the combination of Apple Silicon processors and macOS Big Sur, which unlock the ability to run iPhone and iPad apps on top of macOS apps. 

It should be said that the macOS apps are currently comprised of native Universal apps that are written to run on the M1 chip, and the converted Intel-based apps which run via Rosetta 2. The latter may have some performance issues in more complicated pro-level applications, such as Adobe Premiere Pro.

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

And while the MacBook Air can run iPhone and iPad apps, they're not all going to be written for the Mac. That means you're getting apps made for a touchscreen phone or tablet, but you're going to interact with them using a touchpad. Also, some video streaming programs cannot run in full-screen, which feels like a mistake made by app makers, that should be corrected soon. 

As for the iPad Pro, it will run iPadOS apps correctly and natively, and we haven't seen any signs of it running macOS apps. However, Universal applications should give an opportunity for that in the future.

Winner: MacBook Air

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro: Cameras

We like the fact that the MacBook Air has a slightly better webcam, thanks to image signal processing, but it's still a 720p, 0.7MP webcam.

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The iPad Pro's got a 7MP front facing camera and a pair of rear cameras (12MP Wide + 10MP Ultra Wide), which are actually great. 

Winner: iPad Pro

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro: Value and price

Both the MacBook Air and iPad Pro start at $999, but that's not the fairest comparison, as it leaves the iPad without its $349 keyboard. Plus, the iPad Pro starts with half the storage. So, that's a point in the Air's favor to start.

And if you want to make them comparable in specs, the Pro's price goes up to $1,099 with 256GB of storage — and $1,448 with the Magic Keyboard. 

If you want an 8-core GPU in your MacBook Air, its price goes up to $1,249 and its storage goes up to 512GB. Then, a comparable iPad Pro is still pricier, at $1,648.

Winner: MacBook Air

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro: Verdict

MacBook AiriPad Pro
Design and ports (10 points)88
Display (20 points)1519
Magic Keyboards and styli (10 points)88
Performance (10 points)108
Battery life (20 points)2013
Software and applications (5 points)53
Cameras (5 points)35
Value and price (20 points)1813
Overall (100 points)8777

And there you have it, Apple Silicon and the M1 chip give the MacBook Air a lot of the performance, endurance and even versatility it needed to keep the iPad Pro at bay.

But for those who want a touchscreen device that truly sings and feels integrated with your work — and not a WACOM tablet you dock to your Mac — Apple's decision to keep touchscreens out of its Macs may push you towards the iPad Pro. And I couldn't blame you. Its screen is brighter and undocking it from the Magic Keyboard unlocks more portability.

MacBook Air vs iPad Pro

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

But when it comes down to value, some folks will cringe at the $349 Magic Keyboard's hefty price. That's more than a third of the price of the entry-level M1 MacBook Air, and money that could be spent upgrading the Air to the 8-core GPU, more RAM or more storage.

Which is why we are very curious about what 2021 has in store for both the Mac and the iPad. Stay tuned, reader.