The MacBook Air and the iPad
October 31, 2010
At the recent Back to the Mac event, Apple unveiled their redone Macbook Air, which now comes in two form factors: a 13” model that is, basically, an updated version of the old Air, and an 11” model that hearkens back to the 12” Powerbook days. This latter model is every bit the “starter” Mac that the basic Macbook is, albeit with a smaller screen, more portability, and some arguably negligible differences in storage capacity, performance, and port availability.
John Gruber argues that the new Air, as far as Apple’s lineup goes, falls under the “secondary Mac” category. And that poses an interesting conundrum for buyers who may already be looking at the iPad as a device to compliment their primary computer.
The new MacBook Airs — particularly the 11-inch model — don’t compete against the other MacBooks so much as they do the iPad. It’s like a “pro” solution for the same “in between a smartphone and a full-size laptop PC” market segment that the iPad sits in.
We disagree with Gruber’s assertion that the Air is targeting consumers who want a secondary Mac. Certainly, for those who need a notebook computer and already have a desktop, the Air is a promising choice. But for those who already have a MacBook? The Air’s role in the lineup seems to better target those who don’t need all the bells and whistles of a “Pro” Macbook, and simply need a lightweight computer, period. (And in this context, we don’t include the iPad.)
Ben Brooks agrees that the 13” Air is a fine primary computer, and is meant for people who don’t need the performance and storage offered by the traditional MacBook Pro line. This is especially true when one considers the actual performance differences between devices is negligible thanks to the Air’s flash drives. So price-wise, the devices are close to a wash.
All of this to say: the 13” MacBook Air is no secondary computer any more than the 13” MacBook Pro is.
So if the Air fills the same role as a Macbook Pro for most people, we still have the 11” Air vs iPad debate. We’ve said numerous times before that for most people’s computing needs, the iPad is sufficient. All the more reason that the Air’s lack of storage, expansion ports, etc are not a huge concern. So is the 11” Air effectively a “Pro” version of the iPad?
Brooks seems to think so, especially for three categories of buyer: students, business travelers, and the niche market.
Brooks is dead-on when it comes to college students; the iPad is simply not fit for university campuses at large because many students need to run applications as-of-yet unavailable on the iPad, be they Windows apps that require emulation or Bootcamp, or applications that run natively on the Mac (IDEs, business apps, etc.) Unfortunately, simply having a web browser and an office suite doesn’t cut it for every college student, and while most can sit in the local computer lab to get around the need for a Windows emulator or very specific app their silly professors want them to use, this is hardly ideal. So while many more students could get away with just using an iPad, it’s not the most practical affair depending on one’s course of study.
Of course, as far as pre-collegiate students go, Brooks’ argument doesn’t hold up. If anything, the iPad is a much more ideal device in a pre-collegiate setting thanks to it being able to record written text, being a less complicated device, cheaper, and a device that can comfortably be synced at home.
Mind you, the iPad is close to meeting most student’s needs, even in university settings: iOS 4.x will bring multitasking and printing to the iPad, which is already a huge deal. But the big elephant in the room isn’t just iTunes syncing, as Brooks mentions, but the mere fact that the iPad remains a tethered device; the iPad still relies on a Mac for OS updates, and as such, it simply can’t be a primary computer for many people. It’s why when we replaced our 17” MacBook Pro with an iPad, we also bought a Mac Mini to act as a server for our files, and to handle our iOS device upgrades.
This remains the biggest problem for the iPad-as-a-home-computer movement. People want to back-up their files, and not always to the cloud. If your iPad gets stolen, or broken, you want to be able to recover your files, and put them back on your replacement device.
The 11” Air is a fantastic computer for those looking to replace a primary computer who also want portability. But let’s be clear, it’s no more a “Pro” version of the iPad than the basic Macbook is.
Yes, we’re factoring in iOS 4.x here, but we’re happy to factor in OS X Lion as far as the Air goes, too. The iPad remains hastle-free, the Air does not. Lion’s app store is a big move in the direction of a better user experience, and while the iPad remains somewhat crippled because it lacks certain “power” apps that Mac users have come to love, that’s already slowly changing. The iPad, meanwhile, remains a more mobile device, and is a more flexible device for content consumption. Furthermore, it’s interface remains more intuitive for the general populace.
Really, just as the Air is one of two paths a customer can take beyond the basic MacBook, the iPad is a similar trade-off in mobility over the 11” Air.
So while the 11” Air remains a great device, it’s not going to replace the iPad for those who know exactly what they want in a mobile device, just as the iPad isn’t going to replace the Air for the same reason; if you’re not sure whether to get an iPad or the Air, then you’re not sure what you need a mobile computer for, and you should figure that out first.