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iPad Versus MacBook Air: Do You Need Both?

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In this article, Jason R. Rich compares the functionality of the new iPad and the latest MacBook Air notebook computers in an effort to help you decide if you need an Apple tablet, notebook computer, or both.
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The latest MacBook Air notebook computer models are ultra-thin, lightweight, and extremely portable. They feature a built-in, Multi-Touch Trackpad that allows you to interact with the computer using a series of finger gestures (or the traditional built-in keyboard). Plus, when you upgrade to OS X Mountain Lion, the Mac computers, including the MacBook Air models, allow you to use the Dictation feature in order to speak to your computer, have what you say translated into text, and then automatically insert that text into almost any app you’re working with.

As you begin using OS X Mountain Lion on the MacBook Air, you’ll also discover that many of the apps that come bundled with the latest edition of Apple’s operating system now look and function very similarly to their Apple iPad counterparts. This includes the Contacts, Calendar, Reminders, Notes, Safari, FaceTime, and Game Center apps.

Just as the MacBook Air notebook computers have evolved to perform more like a tablet in many ways, the iPad tablets have also transformed from being mere technological gadgets, to becoming ultra-thin devices that can serve as powerful communications—organizational and productivity tools with built-in and third-party apps that sometimes rival the functionality of notebook or desktop computers.

The various MacBook Air models, as well as the iPad models, all offer Wi-Fi Internet connectivity, plus the ability to share and sync app-specific data and other files with Apple’s iCloud service, as well as other computers and iOS mobile devices that are linked to the same iCloud account.

So, the question becomes, if you invest in a MacBook Air notebook computer, which start in price at $999.00 for the 11-inch screen model, do you also need an Apple iPad to fulfill your mobile computing needs? Or can you simply purchase an iPad to replace the need for a notebook computer altogether?

The Benefits of a MacBook Air Over an iPad

The MacBook Air offers the same basic functionality as any other iMac or MacBook model, and runs the same OS X operating system. Thus, you can easily run any software/app that’s designed for a Mac, or opt to run Microsoft Windows on the MacBook Air and also run any Windows-specific software.

You can also utilize the many apps that come bundled with the OS X Mountain Lion operating system which are designed to handle a wide range of common tasks, like contact management, scheduling, web surfing, email account management, video conferencing, text editing, and digital photo editing. However, when you install additional but optional software, such as Apple’s own iWork apps, Microsoft Office, or any other third-party apps, the MacBook Air can handle a wide range of other computing tasks from virtually anywhere.

While the MacBook Air models do not have an optical drive built in, they do have a selection of ports that allow you to easily connect a wide range of peripherals to the notebook computer. This includes an optional, external Apple SuperDrive. Plus, you can easily and wirelessly connect a MacBook Air to a network in order to share files, data, content, or peripherals with other computers also on that network.

The iPads, on the other hand, offers only the dock connector port and the ability to connect limited optional peripherals. Although some additional peripherals, such as a printer, can be connected wirelessly via Bluetooth.

Like all notebook computers, the MacBook Air models also have a built-in tactile keyboard, as well as a rechargeable battery that lasts for between five and seven hours, depending on the model and how it’s used. In other words, just about any tasks your iMac desktop computer is capable of handling can also be done efficiently on a MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air models are also significantly thinner and lighter than the MacBook Pro notebook computer models currently available, although the high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display offers a sleek and lightweight design, but a high price tag (starting at $2199.00).

In terms of connecting to the Internet, Wi-Fi capabilities are built in. However, if you want to connect to the Internet or a network via an Ethernet cable connection, an optional adapter and cable (that connects to the router) will be required.

You also have the option to invest in an optional wireless modem for the MacBook Air, which for a monthly fee, gives you Internet access via a 3G/4G wireless data network from anywhere a signal is available. However, just like with a cell phone, in most cases, you’ll need to commit to a one or two year service plan with a wireless data service provider.

The iPad Also Offers Computer Power for People On-the-Go

Even when compared to the thinnest and lightest MacBook Air models, the iPad 2 and new iPad are significantly more portable. The Apple tablets also have a smaller (9.7-inch) screen, but offer a battery life that lasts upwards of 10 hours per charge. They’re also less expensive than even the lowest priced MacBook Air.

Depending on the iPad model and system configuration, an iPad 2 starts at $399.00, and a new iPad’s price range is between $499.00 and $829.00. However, when you calculate in the cost of the optional external keyboard and a case, and the price of any iPad model increases by at least $100.00.

Much of your interaction with the iPad is done through a series of finger gestures, on-screen taps, and finger swipes. However, when it’s needed for data entry, a virtual keyboard appears on the tablet’s screen. Touch-typing with speed and accuracy isn’t too viable using the virtual keyboard.

For an additional fee of between $50.00 and $100.00, you can use an optional, external, tactile keyboard with the iPad. You also have the option to utilize Siri and the tablet’s 0 using your voice.

If you find yourself occasionally needing an external keyboard to be more efficient with data entry on the iPad, this is a viable option. But, if you will be relying on an external keyboard whenever you use the tablet, this detracts from its portability. In this case, consider an 11-inch MacBook Air, as opposed to an iPad.

Unlike the Macs, the iPads use a proprietary operating system, called iOS. There are more than 225,000 iPad-specific apps currently available from the App Store, plus more than 500,000 hybrid or iPhone apps that also work on the iPad. These apps can greatly expand the functionality and versatility of the tablet. Individual apps range in price between free and $9.99 (with select apps priced a bit higher), which is significantly less than most Mac software. Although, few apps offer the full-featured functionality you’d find with software running on a Mac (or MacBook Air).

While these apps are not the same as the software or apps that run on a Mac, you’ll discover that data from many apps you use on your tablet can easily be synced, transferred, or otherwise shared with both Mac and Windows-based computers.

Right now, for example, you can use Apple’s iWork for iOS apps for word processing, spreadsheets, and/or to create and showcase digital slide presentations on your iPad, plus create and share Microsoft Office-compatible or PDF-formatted files that can easily be shared with other computers or iOS mobile devices, including the iPhone. You can also import Microsoft Office files into your iPad to view, edit, and work with.

Plus, it’s rumored that in Fall 2012, Microsoft will be releasing iPad versions of the popular Microsoft Office apps that will be fully compatible with their Mac and Windows-based counterparts, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and potentially Outlook, as well as Microsoft’s own online-based file sharing and syncing service.

When it comes to surfing the web and accessing the Internet, all iPad models have built-in Wi-Fi for connecting to a wireless network or Wi-Fi hotspot. However, you can also invest in an iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G/4G capabilities, and then pay for wireless data service on a month-to-month basis, with no long term contract commitment. This gives you access to the Internet anywhere there’s a wireless data signal, for between $14.99 and $50.00 per month, depending on the service provider and wireless data plan you choose.

Thus, the drawback to using an iPad is the lack of a built-in tactile keyboard, the smaller size screen, and the fact you’ll need to use iOS apps (as opposed to full-featured Mac software) to handle your computing needs. Then, you’ll need to sync or share your data with your computer using email, the iTunes Sync process, Apple’s iCloud service, or another third-party file sharing service.

MacBook Air or iPad: Making the Best Choice

The functionality between the iPad and MacBook Air (running the OS X Mountain Lion operating system) is more similar than ever before. Thus, you don’t need to invest in and then carry around both devices. Either can be used virtually anywhere, can handle a wide range of your mobile computing needs, and can fit easily within the confined space of a tray table associated with an airline seat, for example, even if the person sitting in front of you reclines their seat. This is not something you can do with a larger size notebook computer, such as the MacBook Pros.

When choosing which device to invest in, consider how you’ll be using it and what features are important to you without having to attach external accessories, such as a keyboard on the iPad or a wireless data modem on a MacBook Air (to access the web when a Wi-Fi connection isn’t available). Also consider what software you’ll be using, and how you’ll transfer or sync your app-related data between computers and mobile devices.

For example, if you currently use specialized software on your desktop iMac or Windows-based PC, is there an app for the iPad that will be compatible with the software you’re currently using, or would be it be more efficient to use a MacBook and the same Mac-based software you’re already using to handle a specialized task?

Keep in mind, either device can help you manage, sync, and share your contacts database (using the Contacts app), scheduling data (using the Calendar app), to-do lists (using the Reminders app), take notes (using the Notes app or a word processing app), surf the web (using Safari), and/or manage multiple email accounts (using the Map app). Data created using these apps on a Mac or iPad is fully compatible, and can also be synced with Windows-based software on a PC, such as Outlook.

Both devices allow you to participate in video conferences using FaceTime or Skype, send and receive instant messages using the Messages app, and view and manage photos using the Photos or optional iPhoto app on the iPad or the iPhoto app on the Mac.

Both the MacBook Air and iPad can access content from the iTunes Store and can be used to enjoy music, TV shows, movies, music videos, audiobooks, and podcasts. The iPad, however, can also be used as a feature-packed eBook reader. From Apple’s iBookstore, you can purchase, download, and install eBooks and/or digital editions of newspapers or popular magazines.

Ideally, once you define your needs and determine how you’ll be using the notebook computer or tablet, visit an Apple Store or authorized Apple reseller and spend a few minutes handling and using both devices to see which you’re more comfortable with and which would adhere best to your personal work habits and preferences.

When you do this, take a look at the screen differences between the iPad 2 and the new iPad, as well as the size and weight differences between the 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air models. Whether you choose a MacBook Air that’s running OS X Mountain Lion, or an iPad 2 or new iPad that’s running iOS 5.1 (and that will be upgradable to iOS 6 in Fall 2012), never before has such powerful technology from Apple been so portable and readily accessible from virtually anywhere.

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