MacBook vs. iPad: Which one is right for you?

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Ableton on Mac and iPad.
iPad vs. MacBook: Which platform is better for your needs?
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Looking for a portable Apple computer? You have two choices — a MacBook or an iPad. Both excel at different things. The iPad is super-portable, silent and cool. The Mac is more flexible, offers more connections, and can run much more complex software.

It may be that you already know whether you need a Mac or an iPad. If you use apps that only run on the Mac, or if you need to hook up a lot of extra hardware, then a Mac is your only option. But if you desire the ultimate in portability, or you want to use a touchscreen or an awesome Apple Pencil stylus, you need an iPad.

If you’re on the fence, wondering which portable Apple computer best fits your needs, this article will help you decide. The MacBook vs. iPad battle is on …

Fundamental differences

Put an iPad next to a MacBook, and you will immediately see plenty of differences. The Mac comes with a keyboard and a trackpad. The iPad boasts a touchscreen. The MacBook (if it’s modern) comes with USB-C ports. The iPad only offers one Lightning or USB-C port.

While you can easily add a keyboard and mouse to your iPad, you can’t remove them from your MacBook. And you can’t touch the screen of your Mac. Or you can, but it won’t do anything but leave a fingerprint.

Those are the first things to consider, then. The physical size, shape and features. For me, the iPad easily wins here, because it’s so much more flexible. You can add any keyboard you like. And, if you opt for Apple’s Smart Folio, it stays connected to the iPad, mimicking a MacBook. These days, a few clip-on iPad keyboards even offer trackpads.

Likewise, if you need to connect lots of external storage drives or displays, or audio gear, you can just use a USB-C hub. Ever since iOS 13, you can plug pretty much anything into your iPad, and a hub works flawlessly to connect many devices at once.

MacBook vs. iPad: A USB-C hub lets you plug in almost anything to a modern iPad Pro.
A USB-C hub lets you plug in almost anything to a modern iPad Pro.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

On the other hand, mouse support on the iPad remains poor. And there are some peripherals you simply cannot connect — printers, for example.

However,  if you want built-in cellular connectivity, the iPad is your only option. The Mac is Wi-Fi-only.

Price

The MacBook is overpriced compared to the iPad. It runs hot, on olde-worlde Intel chips, and it’s big and heavy. The iPad has an incredible TrueTone touchscreen with Pro Motion. And the iPad battery lasts a lot longer than the one in a Mac. (On paper, the battery life looks similar for the two devices. But in practice, the iPad wins.)

A top-of-the-line iPad Pro, with cellular, a good-size 512GB SSD and a 13-inch screen, comes in at a relatively inexpensive $1,500. Even the cheapest 13-inch MacBook Pro, when built with a 512GB SSD, costs $1,700. Choose the model with the fastest CPU, to match the iPad, and the price tag jumps to $2,000.

Typing and text editing

This is a tricky one. The iPad is great for writing, once you’ve added an external keyboard. But it’s poor for text editing. The mouse cannot insert a cursor between letters in a word with a single click. And it goes downhill from there. If you edit a lot of text, you’ll want a Mac.

Automation

When it comes to automation, the Mac packs AppleScript, shell scripting, Automator and more. But the iPad runs Shortcuts, which is way, way easier to use than anything on the Mac. And, unless you want to do actual programming, Shortcuts prove more powerful than the basic Mac options.

The Apple Pencil

MacBook vs. iPad: You can't use an Apple Pencil with your Mac.
You can’t use one of these with your Mac.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

The Apple Pencil really is a fantastic peripheral, and it works wonders with an iPad. It comes in handy for jotting quick notes (direct from the lock screen, even). And for drawing and painting, it’s absolutely amazing. Instead of buying an expensive and bulky Wacom Cintiq to connect to your computer, the Apple Pencil just draws on your computer. Even if you haven’t used one, you already know how it works, because it works just like a pen or a pencil. And yet it also can become a paintbrush, or a scalpel for cutting audio, or even a bow to play a virtual violin.

Flexibility

The iPad is good in bed. (No, not in that way.) You can read the iPad like you read a magazine. You can watch a movie with it propped up on your knees. The Mac is much less able to fit into your bed or onto your sofa in this way. Then again, the Mac has its keyboard, and so on. The iPad is also more portable, and easier to pull out of your bag on the go.

The Mac needs somewhere to sit, whether that’s a lap, or a table, or a barstool. But, as ever, it’s a trade-off. If you’re editing rushes in Final Cut Pro, and you need to show them to the director, you’ll surely be able to find a box to prop the MacBook up on.

Multitasking and apps

If you want to do anything with your computer that involves using more than one app at a time, then buy a Mac. The iPad can multitask, in the sense that it can use multiple windows at a time, but it’s terrible at it. Manipulating windows on the iPad is like trying to build a wall out of oiled fish. And drag-and-drop on the iPad is a joke. Half the time, the Files app just won’t let me even begin to drag a file.

Which brings us to apps. The iPad benefits from some amazing apps developed for it. Adobe’s Lightroom is great. PixelMator Pro is even more impressive. Ulysses works almost the exact same way on the iPad as it does on the Mac.

However, other iPad apps prove disappointing. GarageBand works fine on iPad, and alternatives exist, but none serve as capably as years-old Mac software.

This situation is unlikely to get any better, thanks to the App Store. Compared to Mac apps, iPad apps are dirt cheap. And that’s the problem. iOS developers have no viable way to earn long-term income off their work. Users hate subscriptions, and there’s no way to charge for app upgrades. And without proper app trials, prices have to stay low enough to basically be impulse purchases. Nobody is going to spend $300 on an app without testing it first.

Mac vs. iPad: Conclusion

If you’ve read this far, you know you have a lot to consider. Obviously I can’t tell you which one is for you, so I’ll tell you about my choice. I own a 13-inch iPad Pro, with cellular. I use it more than any other device. I love it because it is so portable and flexible. I use it for writing and for making music. Plus, it’s how I watch all TV and movies.

But I also own an old iMac, which I use for actually editing that music (using Logic Pro). I can edit music on the iPad, and I have, but it’s a pain. You end up battling your tools, instead of making creative choices. I also prefer to write on the Mac these days, thanks to proper mouse support, and a desktop where you can temporarily drop screenshots and other documents.

I used to think that this old 2010 iMac would be my last Mac, but now I’m not so sure. The iPad showed promise, but it’s not much closer to replacing the Mac than it was five years ago. And I don’t see that changing very soon.