Finding the best gadgets to fit a modern business lifestyle
Technology Editor Adrian Weckler pits an 11-inch MacBook Air against an iPad 2 to discover who's king of the tech world
Laptops are old hat, while iPads and tablets are the future: this is the gospel according to today's conventional tech wisdom. But does it hold water for those trying to get work done? When the Netflix, Spotify and Facebook browsing is over, can iPads and tablets match laptops for productivity?
Determined to find out, we pitted an 11-inch MacBook Air against an iPad 2 in eight different tests to find out which suits the modern business lifestyle best.
Ease of typing
With so many keyboard accessories available for the iPad, typing should be an even contest between tablets and laptops, right?
Wrong. While firms such as Logitech and Zagg have impressive keyboards that improve the iPad's typing prowess immeasurably, they still lack the speed and fluency of laptop keyboards. There are two main reasons for this.
First, they are invariably connected to the tablet wirelessly via Bluetooth. This means there is an ever-so-slight delay between the key being pressed and the character appearing on screen. Secondly, there are not quite as many keyboard shortcuts on an iPad keyboard as a PC or MacBook keyboard.
Typical work software
The iPad has significantly narrowed the gap with PCs when it comes to business software. There are very few mainstream software applications that cannot be accessed or replicated from Apple's tablet computer.
Nevertheless, the iPad remains an inferior choice for business software to a laptop. It's not just that there's no version of Microsoft Office yet (you can get around this with substitutes such as QuickOffice Pro or Documents To Go). It's that your laptop can use any software, online or offline. This just isn't the case yet with iPads or tablets.
Can you work efficiently in economy class? Because its screen is only 11 inches across, the MacBook Air just about passes this test. I have been able to use the machine efficiently on Aer Lingus and Ryanair flights.
The iPad, though, not only fits on the tray table but leaves you some room to spare, even if you have a keyboard attached to it.
Switching from application to application is important when you're trying to get something done quickly.
Although the iPad now allows a degree of multitasking, it is still appreciably slower than a laptop. The problem is that the iPad still defaults to single-view applications, partly due to the relative modesty of its chip compared with a PC's chip. Finally, trackpads are simply quicker than fingers-on-screens when working and editing documents.
It's a measure of how spoiled we are that even a half-second delay between applications or commands will have us sighing.
There are two things that are important in relation to speed. The first is the start-up time. Here, the two machines are very similar. Because the MacBook Air uses a solid state drive, it 'wakes up' in a second: there is no whirring that you normally get with a laptop.
The second measure of speed is in its performance efficiency. Because the iPad has limited multifunctional capability, there is no perceptible time lag. The MacBook Air also doesn't dawdle, despite having a relatively modest PC chipset.
Projects & big jobs
This is where the MacBook – or any laptop – pokes its nose ahead of tablet rivals.
While the iPad competed aggressively for short bursts of work, you'll notice a difference when it comes to putting together a presentation (that extends beyond bullet points) or compiling a long report.
Laptops are designed for this sort of stuff. The iPad isn't.
While conventional budget laptops have batteries that give about three hours, Apple's MacBook Air is supposed to offer up to 10 hours. This just isn't true: I have rarely achieved more than five hours, even when I'm simply using it as a typing tool with no wifi, Bluetooth, web activity or video going on. The iPad comfortably hits over seven hours of battery life no matter what I throw at it.
There are many functional laptops priced below €500. But Apple's MacBook Air is not one of them. The entry-level 11-inch model starts at €1,050. But while Apple's iPad starts at just €300, a 10-inch iPad with the same 128GB drive as a MacBook Air actually costs €880. So if you're trying to get as close to like-for-like as possible, the difference narrows considerably.
While iPads and tablets might edge it for those with light work requirements, the MacBook Air – or any good laptop – is the better overall work device. While the iPad is slightly faster and more convenient, many of its functions can now be replicated by a good, large-screen smartphone.