Apple's 11-inch MacBook Air may create a conundrum for prospective Mac owners: should they buy a petite Apple laptop or an iPad? When Apple launched the Air, it said it was a hybrid device combining the best aspects of the MacBook with the iPad. Just like Apple's tablet device, the Air has flash storage and no optical or hard drive. But like previous versions of the Air, the new computer runs OS X and has a laptop form factor.
So, if you had to pick just one device, and you specifically wanted an Apple device, for traveling or using at home, which one would you choose? For a spec-to-spec comparison see our comparison chart. For feature comparisons here is some guidance:
iOS versus OS X
The first thing to consider is the software and what your needs might be. If you choose an iPad, you will have a range of applications to choose from including Apple's iWork productivity suite. But importing and exporting files between the iPad and your desktop is still a bit of hassle requiring you to use iTunes and each app's Document Manager.
The Air has the full OS X file management system, and you can switch files to your Air using a USB flash drive. You can also install the upcoming Office for Mac 2011 if you want, but you will have to use the Air's optical drive sharing feature with a nearby PC or Mac to access the install discs.
Beyond work, both devices will play your iTunes music, you can access online music services such as Pandora using the Air's Web browser or the Pandora app for iPad. But games are more accessible on the iPad since you have access to a wide range of popular mobile games such as Angry Birds, Bejeweled and Madden NFL.
Apple did not mention whether the new MacBook Airs are high-powered enough to run Mac OS X Lion, which is due out next summer.
The Airplane Test
If you want something to use when you're 30,000 feet in the air, the choice between an iPad and an Air comes down to personal preference. The Air's 11.8-inch width and 7.56-inch depth should be small enough to fit comfortably on most airplane tray tables. When the Air is open, you probably will need about 8 inches of clearance between the base of the tray table and the seat in front of you to use the device comfortably.
The iPad has a width of 7.47 inches. So if you use an iPad with a case that props it up on your tray table in landscape mode, you'll probably need a similar amount of clearance for the iPad as with the Air. The advantage of the iPad, however, is that you can also set it on your lap or lay it flat on your tray table.
Keyboard, Portability and Other Considerations
The MacBook Air boasts a full-size physical keyboard with 78 keys, 12 function keys and four directional arrows. The iPad relies on a touchscreen keyboard, although it can be paired with a portable keyboard.
As for portability, both are relatively light. The iPad weighs in at 1.5 pounds for the Wi-Fi version and 1.6 pounds for 3G. The Air comes in a little heavier at 2.3 pounds. Both devices feature 802.11n Wi-Fi that is backward compatible with slower versions of Wi-Fi including 802.11a/b/g, and both have Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. One thing the 11-inch Air doesn't have is a built-in 3G data connection, which is an option with the iPad. However, you could pair the Air with a MiFi mobile hotspot if you needed to.
As for pricing, the Air starts at $999 and there's an $1,199 option as well. The iPad ranges in price from $499 to $829, depending on the storage and 3G options you choose.
Apple's addition of what is essentially a netbook with the 11-inch MacBook Air is an interesting new device for the Mac lineup. But it will be interesting to see if the smaller laptop bites into iPad sales, or whether users completely ignore the new laptop in favor of a tablet device.