Since its introduction, the iPad has prompted many people to ask whether it can replace their laptop. For the most part the answer has been no, but the recent introduction of iPadOS, new hardware, and the migration of people to online services means this may no longer be the case.

In this article we compare Apple's two mobile workstation platforms to see which of the iPad and MacBook can best meet your needs.

What models of iPad are there at the moment?

Apple has four types of iPad in its range at the moment, with a suitably wide range of prices to match. These are the iPad, iPad mini, iPad Air and iPad Pro.

While each group has multiple storage options (and the Pro has both 11in and 12.9in display options), these are the prices for the base models of each category. Of course, higher capacities are available if you're willing to pay more.

  • iPad 10.2in (2019) 32GB: £349/$329
  • iPad mini (2019) 64GB: £399/$399
  • iPad Air (2019) 64GB: £479/$499
  • iPad Pro 11in (2020) 128GB: £769/$799
  • iPad Pro 12.9in (2020) 128GB: £969/$999

You can browse the full selection on Apple's website.

What models of MacBook does Apple offer?

As with the iPads, Apple has several choices for those who prefer a laptop. At the time of writing there are three MacBook variants available, including the following:

  • MacBook Air (13in) 1.1GHz Intel Core i3 256GB: £999/$999
  • MacBook Pro 13in Intel Core i5 128GB: £1,299/$1,299
  • MacBook Pro 16in Intel Core i7 512GB: £2,399/$2,399

Again, there are options for higher capacities of storage as well as different CPUs and made-to-order configurations if you buy from the Apple Store. You can view the full selection on Apple's website.

What do you need your device to do?

Before trying to work out which type of device is the one for you, it's a good idea to think about what you need it to do the majority of the time. While iPads are excellent for watching media or browsing the web, if the primary activity you'll be engaged in is complex editing of Excel documents or needing to manage multiple files in Word then you might find the tablets frustrating.

Conversely, if you only need to write a few reports, keep on top of your email, and play some games then iPads are great, especially when combined with a Bluetooth keyboard. So take some time to break down what your needs are, then it will make it much easier to buy the device that's right for you.

Can I use an iPad for work?

One of the questions we get asked a lot at Macworld is whether an iPad can replace a laptop in terms of work. The appeal of this is obvious, as MacBooks are vastly more expensive than iPads (at least the non-Pro variety) and tablets offer the advantage of being lightweight and usable for a variety of entertainment-based duties once the office closes.

Whether iPads can be used as your only device, though, depends heavily on the job you do. For those in more administrative or clerical roles, Microsoft offers highly functional versions of its Office suite on the tablets, which can allow you to create, edit and share files in Word, Excel and Powerpoint. This means you can be sure your documents are compatible with other colleagues' and should maintain any formatting or macros that you create.

Unless you're using the 12.9in iPad Pro, then you'll have to accept working on a smaller display size, which in the case of Excel can be a bit cramped for some, especially if you opt for the powerful, affordable, but dinky iPad mini (2019) with its 7.9in screen. It should be noted that whereas in the past Microsoft offered its Office apps for free on iPads, this was only to devices with displays 10in or under. When Apple updated the iPad (2019) it moved to a 10.2in display size, the result of which is that you'll now need an Office365 subscription to use the apps. This will set you back £59.99/$69.99 per year or £5.99/$6.99 per month for a single user subscription.

iPad vs MacBook : iPad at work

Another consideration is that your company may use bespoke software for some essential elements of your job, so it's best to check with your IT department to see if there is a version available for iPads. You'll also need to factor in the price of a Bluetooth keyboard if you intend to do any typing beyond just the basic casual replying to emails. We've put together a roundup of the Best iPad keyboards so you can price up the total cost of an iPad for work.

MacBooks are at home in most working environments, due to the fact that they're powerful laptops that can handle pretty much anything you throw at them. If your work involves crunching large numbers (such as animation and video production) then these are definitely preferable to iPads. The software generally has more features and you can't underestimate the power of a full file system until you have to deal with the compromised version used on an iPad. Again, thanks to the larger displays, trackpad and keyboard, MacBooks are ready-made for tasks that require precision and working with a wide array of information on the screen.

iPad vs MacBook: MacBook at work

If you're in any doubt as to whether you need a MacBook or iPad as your main working machine, then check which software is essential and think about how you like to work: at a desk with a big display or on the move with as small a rig as possible.

Read How to use your iPad for work for more details.

Are MacBooks and iPads compatible with accessories?

One important consideration when deciding between a MacBook and iPad is what other devices you intend to use with them. iPads can connect to external displays via adapters, but if you also want to use an external keyboard and mouse then things will get messy very quickly.

Apple has just announced that the latest version of iPadOS (13.4) will introduce mouse and trackpad support for all iPads, making the tablets far more practical as laptop replacements, but you'll still have to check to see whether printers, cameras and other devices are compatible. Many will work via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, but ensure this is the case before making your decision.

This shouldn't be an issue with MacBooks as they generally communicate with pretty much any modern peripheral. Due to the USB-C only ports, though, you'll probably need to invest in some kind of hub or a range of adapters to plug in any of the millions of accessories that most people use everyday, such as external keyboards, mice, displays, external hard drives, cameras, microphones, webcams and others.

See Best USB-C adapters for Mac to work out what you'll need.

Which is the best device for creating content?

Should you be the creative type, you'll find that both devices have their pros and cons.

We know of some industry professionals that use an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil to storyboard movies and develop artwork for set design and the costume department. In fact, iPads (particularly the Pro range) are well suited to artistic pursuits thanks to the natural interface provided by the Apple Pencil, along with some powerful software offerings that allow the device to produce some seriously impressive material.

iPad vs MacBook: iPad art

Those leaning more towards film-making, YouTube content or podcasting may be able to use the iPad (with lots of fiddling with adapters) but would find the MacBook range far better suited to the editing and assembly stages. Software like Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X are incredibly powerful and well above what an iPad can achieve.

iPad vs MacBook: Logic Pro X

If you just want to put together a quick video-blog, then an iPad is an easy option. If you want a podcast with multiple tracks for audio, call-ins on Skype, and any visual effects, a MacBook is perfect.

Writers have the pick of the crop, as they can easily use either. iPads make an excellent choice for novelists, biographers, poets, screenwriters or bloggers as there is a wide range of decent software available, you can take an iPad anywhere, and if you have the keyboard cover then you're ready to start typing the moment inspiration hits.

iPad vs MacBook: Writing on iPad

Which is best for gaming?

This is a tricky one. For AAA titles with cutting-edge graphics, deep gameplay and compatibility with gaming controllers and headsets, the MacBook is the hands-down winner. But developers have often neglected macOS as a serious option for gaming and as such you'll often find that many of the biggest titles simply don't make it to the platform. You can of course install Windows on a Mac and gain access to the huge selection of games on offer, but that requires buying a Windows licence and sacrificing hard-drive space on your Mac.

iPads have come into their own as gaming devices, particularly when combined with an external controller such as those you'll find in our Best iOS controllers roundup, which includes both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 gamepads.

Apple has also enhanced the attraction of the iPad with the launch of Apple Arcade, a frequently updated selection of more than 100 high-quality titles that aren't available on Android. These all work well on the iPad, which is arguably the most Arcade-suitable device; many of them also work on Mac, but not all, and its lack of a touchscreen makes it a lesser experience for many more.

Arcade costs £4.99/$4.99 p/m. To see our pick of what's currently on offer, read Best games on Apple Arcade.

iPad vs MacBook : Apple Arcade

Which is best for my kids to do their homework?

If your children are young, as in pre-school or primary school age, then there's not much that can't be done on an iPad. The only real problem could be with flash-based sites that some teachers recommend, as parents discovered when home-schooling their children as the coronavirus put an early end to the 2020 spring term in the UK.

MacBooks can navigate this issue by using Chrome as a browser, thanks to the built-in flash support. This should become a moot point though by the end of 2020, as Flash itself will no longer be supported by its creators Adobe.

A laptop costing the best part of £1,000/$1,000 seems overkill for children, so we'd definitely recommend an iPad for those not in secondary education.

What if I just want to keep in touch with family and store pictures?

While MacBooks are safe for pretty much everything you need to do, if your needs really are quite modest and all you want is a reliable device that can use social media, video-call your family, easily browse the web for shopping, and play a spot of Netflix while travelling or on the sofa, you shouldn't look past an iPad.

If you have an iPhone then signing up to an iCloud storage subscription will see any photos you take magically appearing on the iPad almost instantly. Alternatively, if you don't want to spend any money there's always Google Photos that will do the same and also works with Android smartphones.

For the majority of people we'd suggest either the 10.2in iPad (2019) 128GB model that costs £449/$449 or iPad Air (2019) 64GB that will set you back £479/$479. Just avoid the entry-level 10.2in iPad (2019) as the 32GB of storage is something that belongs back in 2017.

For more details read our iPad buying guide and MacBook buying guide.