iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: What should you buy?

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air

An iPad Pro 2020 vs MacBook Air 2020 comparison makes a lot of sense, as the iPad Pro is big and beefy enough to double as a decent productivity machine. But while it’s nice to have a tablet that you can get work done on if you have to, the iPad Pro 2020 can’t match the performance of the MacBook Air 2020 with Apple’s M1 chip, which give it a lot of battery life, faster performance and even iPhone and iPad apps. That’s why the 2020 Air holds a spot in our best laptops roundup.

Of course, in 2021 (after this article was first published) Apple rolled out a new iPad Pro with its own M1 chip. Available in two sizes, the iPad Pro 2021 (11-inch) and iPad Pro 2021 (12.9-inch) each offer better performance, brighter screens, and upgraded features over the iPad Pro 2020.

Still, you can get a 2020 iPad Pro for a decent discount now if you shop around, and if you don’t need all the bells and whistles added in the 2021 models, the iPad Pro 2020 paired with a Magic Keyboard offers a decent laptop-like experience — complete with a trackpad. 

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Specs

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Price

Don’t let the starting price fool you. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro (which we’re comparing because its screen is closest to the 13.3-inch MacBook Air display) starts at $999 for the tablet itself, but the costs go up dramatically once you start adding accessories. For example, the Magic Keyboard costs a pricey $299 to $349, and the second-generation Apple Pencil costs $129. That’s $1,348 for the iPad Pro plus the keyboard and $1,477 if you also include the Pencil.

The iPad Pro also offers a Wi-Fi + Cellular option that adds built-in LTE connectivity, something the MacBook Air doesn’t have. In terms of storage, you get 128GB to start but can upgrade to 256GB ($100 more), 512GB ($300) or 1TB ($500).

The MacBook Air’s pricing is more straightforward. It starts at $999 with the M1 CPU processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, twice the storage of the iPad Pro. You also get a keyboard included. The $1,249 configuration of the Air offers the 8-core integrated GPU version of that M1 chip (the $999 model has a 7-core GPU) and bumps the storage to 512GB.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Display

The MacBook Air has a slightly bigger display than the iPad Pro at 13.3 inches versus 12.9 inches, but the iPad Pro’s screen is superior in pretty much every other way. Plus, only the iPad Pro’s panel has a fast refresh rate of 120Hz.

When it comes to resolution, the iPad Pro’s display is sharper at 2732 x 2048 pixels, compared to 2560 x 1600 for the MacBook Air.

In our lab tests, the iPad Pro’s screen averaged 559 nits of brightness, which blows away the MacBook Air’s 365.8 nits. The iPad Pro also pulled ahead in terms of the sRGB color gamut (122% vs 114%), so you should expect more vivid hues from Apple’s tablet.

The only area where the Air got a win is color accuracy. The iPad Pro turned in a Delta-E score of 0.34, a little higher than the Air’s 0.22, where 0 is perfect.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Keyboard and touchpad

The MacBook Air offers an improved scissor-switch keyboard that offers a much more comfortable typing experience than the previous MacBook Air with its butterfly keyboard. The layout not only offers more travel (1mm vs 0.5mm) but feels snappier overall. The MacBook Air also features a large 4.75 x 3.2-inch touchpad.

The iPad Pro’s optional Magic Keyboard uses the same scissor mechanism as the MacBook Air and offers the same 1mm of travel, and provide a similarly pleasant typing experience.

The iPad Pro attaches magnetically to the Magic Keyboard’s floating cantilever design, allowing you to adjust the display’s angle up to 130 degrees. The iPad Pro Magic Keyboard’s touchpad is smaller than that of the MacBook Air, but that didn’t prove problematic in our iPad Pro Magic Keyboard review.

The biggest difference between the keyboards is that you have to pay — a lot — extra for the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard. It starts at $299, which is enough to make you wonder why you’re not just buying a laptop.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Ports

This round is no contest. The MacBook Air sports two Thunderbolt C ports as well as a headphone jack. The iPad Pro has a lone USB-C port and no headphone jack, though you get an extra USB-port for passtrhough charging if you opt for the Magic Keyboard.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Performance

The iPad Pro has arguably one of the most powerful processors in any tablets, and the MacBook Air similarly changed the game when it comes to being much faster than any Air that came before. 

The M1 Apple Silicon chip in the new MacBook Air and the A12Z Bionic chip in the iPad Pro both have 8-core CPUs. The Air is sold with either an 7-core or 8-core GPU, while the iPad Pro only has 8-core GPUs.

On Geekbench 5, which measures overall performance, the iPad Pro used to be faster, when it was compared against the Intel MacBook Pro. The iPad netted a 1,126 on the single-core portion of the test and 4,720 on the multi-core portion. The MacBook Air did even better, hitting 1,303 and 5,925, respectively. 

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: iPadOS vs macOS

This is the biggest difference between the iPad Pro and the MacBook Air. The iPad Pro runs iPadOS, which is a touch-first operating system that now supports cursor input across the OS. You can now easily select text using a Bluetooth mouse, external trackpad or Apple’s own Magic Keyboard with trackpad, as well as perform various gestures, such as flicking with three fingers up to see all of your open apps. 

iPadOS continues to support multitasking features like Slide Over (running apps on top of others) and Split View (running two apps side by side), and the customizable Today Screen gives you helpful widgets to stay on top of your day. Plus, only iPadOS supports Apple Pencil for drawing, note-taking and marking up documents. 

macOS provides a more traditional desktop experience. The Dock is always visible, and you get more robust desktop applications. For example, the Chrome browser on macOS has a bookmarks bar, something the iPadOS version lacks. You also have a lot more choice in terms of software and what you can download on macOS, whether you choose to go through the Mac App Store or the web.

That said, macOS Big Sur added the ability to run iOS and iPadOS apps, provided your computer is running on an Apple Silicon processor.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Cameras and special features

If you want to create content, the iPad Pro is the way to go. Apple’s tablet includes a 12MP wide camera and a new 10MP ultra-wide camera that lets you fit in more of the scene when shooting. The iPad Pro can also record 4K video up to 60 frames per second, something the MacBook Air can’t do.

The iPad Pro also has a front 7MP TrueDepth camera for selfies and quickly unlocking the devices with face recognition. And, unlike the MacBook Air, the iPad Pro features a LiDAR scanner that dramatically improves the performance in augmented reality apps.

Another key advantage for the iPad Pro is Apple Pencil support. With the $129 accessory you can take notes, draw and mark up documents with ease. And the Apple Pencil charges when magnetically topped to the top of the iPad Pro.

Unfortunately, the MacBook Air only features a low-res 720p camera for video chats, though it uses some machine learning smarts to improve the quality of your stream. And you can’t use your face to log in; instead, there’s a Touch ID button on the keyboard deck. Again, though, when talking special features, the ability to run iPhone and iPad apps on the MacBook mean the Air can’t be cast aside easily.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Battery life

This round used to be close. On our battery test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of screen brightness, the iPad Pro lasted a very good 10 hours and 16 minutes. The Intel MacBook Air could not match that, turning in a time of 9:31. 

But once Apple dropped Intel for its own ARM-based Apple Silicon, the MacBook Air lasted a lot longer, with a time of 14:41.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Verdict

This one is close, and while the Air came out ten points ahead, it may not be the best for all. But after comparing this tablet and laptop in multiple categories it’s clear where these devices excel — and where they don’t.

The iPad Pro is the better option for those who want to travel light and who want a touch-first experience with a superior display. Apple’s slate is also a better choice for shoppers who want to create content, as the built-in cameras and optional Apple Pencil provide a level of versatility the MacBook Air can’t match. 

But that being said, the MacBook Air has pulled ahead of the iPad Pro when it comes to sheer speed and battery life. Plus, those who are simply looking for a solid laptop will find that the MacBook Air is the better choice and the better value. The Air is much more affordable than the iPad Pro when you consider the costs of the iPad’s optional keyboard, In addition, the macOS interface is simply better suited for everyday productivity tasks, and the Air also benefits from having more ports.

Bottom line: The iPad Pro is the best tablet you can buy that can double as a laptop for some people, and the MacBook Air is the best laptop for most people. I would personally pick the Air despite some shortcomings, but overall you can’t lose.

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom’s Guide and has covered technology for nearly 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom’s Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.