Should you buy a MacBook or iPad?


MacBook VS iPad
Which is the better choice these days?
Image: Apple/D. Griffin Jones/Cult of Mac

Should your next computer be a MacBook or an iPad? Apple is making the iPad more powerful and capable every year — it might be good enough that you don’t need a traditional computer in your life.

While macOS is still more powerful and versatile, the iPad’s hardware offers unique capabilities that no Mac can match. The iPad is easier to pick up and use, more portable and more reliable. It’s worth considering over a laptop if you don’t do a lot of specialized work.

Here are the pros and cons, MacBook vs. iPad: Price, easy of use, portability and more. Keep reading below or watch our video.

MacBook vs. iPad: Pros and cons

The iPad is much easier to pick up and use

The Mac is much easier to use than a Windows PC — but the iPad still beats both of them by a long shot.

The iPhone and iPad act like an app console. The starting point is the Home screen of apps. Tap to open an app. Add new apps from the App Store. Every app is distinct and can be easily deleted.

The file system on the iPad is entirely hidden. You never have to think about it unless you seek it out.

On the Mac, the Finder is the foundation of the whole system. This might sound crazy to long-time computer nerds, but to ordinary people who’ve never spent a lot of time with a Mac or PC, the Finder is confusing to use and the file system is a totally unfamiliar concept.

Since the iPad evolved out of (and in parallel with) the iPhone, everyone already knows how to use it. Apple may call it iPadOS, but it’s the exact same software.

The Mac has more powerful software

Final Cut Pro for iPad and Mac
Even Apple’s own apps like Final Cut Pro have limitations on the iPad version.
Image: Apple

The tale as old as time — or, at least as old as the iPad Pro — is that its hardware is impressive but iPadOS limits what it can do. What exactly do people mean when they say that? In a nutshell:

  1. iPadOS can only play one thing at a time. You can’t play two videos — or a video and a song, or a video and a podcast — simultaneously.
  2. iPad apps aren’t allowed to do any substantial tasks in the background. Exporting a video in Final Cut Pro or using a generative AI tool immediately stops if you switch to a different app.
  3. iPadOS won’t let you take a phone call or video call while you’re recording through a microphone.
  4. Files and Quick Look only offer the bare basics compared to their Mac counterparts of Finder, Preview and Disk Utility.
  5. iPad apps are sandboxed, so you can’t have any system-wide utilities like backup tools, clipboard managers, context-aware note-taking and to-do apps, app launchers, nor keyboard macros.
  6. Without Terminal and Xcode, you can’t build and install open-source software yourself.
  7. You can’t virtualize Windows, Linux or even macOS.

Understandably, not everyone needs to do these things. It’s possible Apple might add some of these features in the next release of iPadOS — pro features from the Mac are being added to the iPad in a very slow drip over time.

But if any of these features are a deal-breaker, you need a Mac instead.

The iPad is more modular

iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard connected to Studio Display running Stage Manager
That’s not a MacBook plugged into that display — that’s an iPad.
Photo: Apple

A MacBook only has two modes. You can use its built-in display, keyboard and trackpad as the laptop it is. On a desk, you can plug it into a display and use it like a desktop Mac.

An iPad is more versatile:

  • Out of the box, it’s a handheld touch-first tablet.
  • With the Apple Pencil, it’s a stylus-driven drawing tablet and a notebook.
  • With the Magic Keyboard, it’s a laptop with a keyboard and mouse.
  • Plug it into a display and turn on Stage Manager — it’s a desktop computer, too.
  • With Sidecar, your iPad can be a portable secondary display to a Mac.

The iPad is a modular computer. It’s whatever you need in the moment. A MacBook has a keyboard and trackpad whether you need it or not — and never has a touch screen.

The iPad is cheaper

John Ternus with iPad lineup.
Apple dropped the starting price of the 10th-gen iPad to just $349.
Photo: Apple

Comparing like-to-like, the iPad has a lower financial barrier to entry:

  • The base model iPad starts at $349 whereas the previous generation MacBook Air starts at $999.
  • The iPad Air starts at $599 whereas the current model of MacBook Air starts at $1,099.
  • The iPad Pro starts at $999 whereas the MacBook Pro starts at $1,599.

That’s a $500 – $650 price gap between iPad and MacBook. The difference disappears if you add in all the accessories and match storage space, but if you don’t need the whole set and you just want a tablet, the iPad is much cheaper.

MacBooks are more fragile

Type on the iPad Pro with the OtterBox Defender
iPad cases come in thicker, more protective varieties.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

A MacBook is completely self-contained in a more fragile design. It has a skinny display attached by a mechanical hinge. It’s a pretty complicated set of parts.

The iPad is a singular tablet with fewer opportunities for things to break or fail. It benefits from offloading its keyboard and trackpad to a separate accessory that can be replaced on its own — which is a costly and delicate repair on a MacBook.

The iPad’s simple design means that the truly accident-prone can stick in a giant bulky case. Plastic shells for MacBooks are a common purchase, but because of the folding design and the thin display, they can’t offer the same degree of protection.

But… the Mac has more apps

Up to this point, when it’s MacBook vs iPad, the iPad wins on most counts: it’s cheaper, easier to use, and more durable. But the Mac has one huge benefit from it being an old, reliable platform: It has a lot more software.

Any productivity app for any niche job or hobby you can imagine probably has an app for the Mac. The Mac has a big market of people who use it for work, no matter what kind of work it is. Publishing a Mac app is as simple as making a Mac app and putting it on your website.

The iPad, on the other hand, has a big market of people who use it casually and a small group of people who use it with a keyboard and mouse like a computer. iPad apps have to be designed around touch input, cursor input and Pencil input.

The iPad is capable of precision and has just as much processing power as a Mac. But because it shares so many technologies with the iPhone, simplistic iPhone apps are usually the starting point for developing an iPad app — they don’t come from the Mac.

iPad apps exist in a sort of liminal space between smartphone and computer.

Which do I use?

For the majority of people, we recommend getting an iPad over a MacBook. The iPad is versatile enough for most people, and does the basics very, very well. It’s cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, cheaper to fix, and the latest models have tons of oomph. Only folks who need to run specialized Mac-only software should get a MacBook.

So, after all the pros and cons, where do I land personally?

Neither, I’m a financially irresponsible weirdo with a Mac mini and a Vision Pro. I don’t have the need to travel or do serious computing anywhere other than my office, so I live the desktop Mac lifestyle.

But if I could do it all over again — if I were attending school in 2024, and if I were majoring in anything other than computer science — I would have an iPad as my primary computer. For the occasional computer things I have to do, I would keep a cheap, second-hand Mac mini.

Our very own Ed Hardy does all his writing and work for Cult of Mac on an iPad, too.

In 2024, the iPad is enough computer for just about everyone.


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