Budget laptop: Roll your own Apple 'laptop' for less than $600 | Cult of Mac

Forget the MacBook Air. Roll your own Apple ‘laptop’ for less than $600.


The Brydge Keyboard on the 10.2 iPad
An iPad with a Brydge keyboard is a pretty good replacement for a Mac!
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

A year ago, when Apple introduced the latest iPad Pro models, I called the tablet the computer for everywhere. To this day, I still think the 2018 iPad Pro, complete with Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard Folio, is an incredible setup for tons of situations. At the same time, it’s anything but cheap, starting at $1,107 for an 11-inch model with keyboard and Pencil.

Then there’s the Mac laptop lineup. Apple’s current cheapest offering is the MacBook Air, also starting at $1,100. Fortunately, you don’t have to drop over a grand to get an incredibly versatile, powerful, and portable budget laptop made by Apple.

An iOS-powered computer

Thanks to improvements in software and a couple small hardware revisions, you can now get an Apple laptop that’s nearly perfect for just about anyone, and pay less than $600. The only catch — it runs iPadOS.

At its September event, Apple debuted the new 10.2-inch, seventh-generation iPad, which starts at just $329. Complete with support for the first-generation Apple Pencil, and a Smart Connector for attaching the Smart Keyboard, you can get the full package starting at just $587.

But there’s something about the Smart Keyboard — the old-style, with the origami folding cover — that feels un-Mac-like. The keys are fabric, it’s not great in your lap, and it just didn’t feel computer-y.

The iPad’s Mac-style keyboard

Thankfully, keyboard-maker Brydge quickly adapted its 10.5-inch iPad keyboard to fit and support the new low-cost iPad. Even better, the company shaved $30 off the overall price. This makes the entire iPad + Apple Pencil + Brydge setup start at just $557.

We’ve covered various offerings from Brydge in the past, so I won’t waste words elaborating on what it is or how it works. The important thing is, this model is just like the other Brydge keyboards, just with differently sized and positioned clips that attach it to the iPad.

Brydge keyboards look like something straight out of Cupertino.
Brydge keyboards look like something straight out of Cupertino.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

The Brydge really makes the setup feel like a Mac, though. The keys are shockingly similar to older MacBook keyboards (the ones that didn’t constantly break after six months).

The overall structure of the Brydge keyboards is also really nice. They feel solid. They don’t add unnecessary bulk or complexity, and can be separated easily from your iPad when you want to go handheld. A Brydge keyboard basically makes your iPad look and feel a bit like a MacBook, but with a detachable screen.

Portable and powerful, like a MacBook Air

Before getting too deep into whether the iPad is the “right kind of computer” for you, it’s worth taking a look at how it stacks up against a Mac. Yes, there’s an argument to be had about the comparison between ARM and Intel processors, and the apps running on each system. But looking at some baseline numbers, it’s pretty impressive what the iPad can do.

Rocking a 3-year-old A10 chip, the entry-level iPad isn’t the powerhouse you see in its more expensive, A12X brothers — but it’s no slouch, either. According to Geekbench 5, the 10.2-inch iPad scores just 2% lower in single-core (758 versus 771) and 10% lower in multi-core (1405 versus 1579) performance than the MacBook Air introduced in late 2018.

What that really means is that in most situations, there’s not much performance to gain by using the MacBook Air over the iPad. Not bad for half the price, right?

Flexibility vs. familiarity

Where the iPad-and-Brydge setup really shines is its versatility. Unlike MacBooks, the iPad is ideal for using in unique scenarios.

For many people, macOS is familiar. Whether it’s knowing how to navigate the OS, a comfort with certain apps, or just a fear of change, some refuse to consider iOS a “computer” operating system. All those points could be valid, but iPadOS and the iPad are also excellent in a ton of ways. Thanks to the form factor of the iPad, you can do so many things on the tablet that just don’t work on the Mac.

With an iPad in hand, you can use it on the couch, in bed or while on the move. Attach the Brydge, and you can use it on your lap, a desk or a table. Grab the Apple Pencil, and you can draw or write directly on the screen.

Try doing that, comfortably, with a Mac.

Your apps, everywhere

Another big benefit to the “iPad as your computer” life is that most apps are easily shared between your iPhone and iPad. This means you’ll be able to spend less on software (theoretically) than buying iOS and macOS versions of everything.

Even with Mac Catalyst apps — iOS apps brought to macOS thanks to Apple’s new developer tools — the Mac App Store versions are still a separate purchase, even for the “same app.”

One of the best parts of using the iPad as your computer is the massive collection of apps on iPadOS
One of the best parts of using the iPad as your computer is the massive collection of apps on iPadOS.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

By using iPad, you also get access to tons of dedicated apps for the things you likely use most. Whether it’s social media productivity or streaming video, the iPad offers individual apps for each. Using an iPad effectively frees you from running your entire life in a browser.

On top of the huge selection of iPad apps in the App Store, you also benefit from the changes that came to iPadOS 13 this year. The ability to run multiple instances of some apps, improvements to multitasking, and huge advances to the Files app make iOS more Mac-like than ever.

A step into the future

For years, Apple has been making the case that the iPad is a perfectly viable computing platform. At first, many people — including me — were skeptical. Now, with iPadOS 13, the gap between things you can only do on a Mac and things you can do on iPad is shrinking.

With the seventh-generation iPad, Apple made the ability to transition even easier. For less than $600, you can pick up an incredibly capable budget laptop. Roll in a touchscreen, Apple Pencil support, a massive library of apps and a reliable keyboard, and you have a recipe for an excellent computer.

Whether you’re a diehard Mac fan or just a casual computer user, it’s hard to deny that the iPad is very much a computer. So while I said last year’s iPad Pro, kitted out with the right fixings, was the computer for everywhere, I think for the price, the seventh-generation iPad with Brydge keyboard and Apple Pencil is a budget laptop for everyone. At least for now.