Apple’s 11in MacBook Air may create a conundrum for prospective Mac owners: should they buy the petite 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 travelling or using at home, which one would you choose?

iOS versus OS X
The first thing to consider is the software and what your needs might be. If you choose an iPad, you’ll 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 Mac OS X file management system, and you can move files to your Air using a USB flash drive. You can also install Office for Mac 2011, but you’ll 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 Spotify using the Air’s Web browser or the Spotify 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 Plants vs Zombies.

The aeroplane 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 MacBook Air’s 30cm width and 19.2cm depth should be small enough to fit comfortably on most aeroplane tray tables. When the Air is open, you’ll probably need about eight 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 18.97cm. 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 the 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 0.68kg for the WiFi version and 0.73kg for 3G (plus another 0.35kg for the keyboard). The Air comes in a little heavier at 1.06kg (as long as you don’t plan to carry an iPad keyboard too). Both devices feature 802.11n WiFi that’s backward compatible with slower versions of WiFi including 802.11a/b/g, and both have Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. One thing the 11in Air doesn’t have is a built-in 3G data connection, which is an option with the iPad. However, the Air can be paired with a MiFi mobile hotspot.

As for price, the MacBook Air starts at £849. The iPad costs from £429 to £699, depending on the storage and 3G options you choose.

Apple’s addition of what is essentially a netbook with the 11in MacBook Air is an intriguing new device for the Mac line-up.

But it will be interesting to see if the smaller laptop bites into iPad sales, or whether users completely ignore the new laptop in favour of a tablet device.