MacBook (12-inch, 2015) full review

Should I buy the new 12-inch MacBook or an iPad Air 2? I want a super-portable computing device for web browsing, email, some light work and a little gaming on the go.

With the launch of the new 12-inch MacBook, Apple has added yet another super-portable computing device to an already impressive line-up: the iPad Air 2 tablet, for example, which launched in October 2014, is similarly slimline and exceptionally portable, as well as fast and beautifully designed. But which of the two is the better option for Apple fans on the go?

In our 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2 comparison article we discuss and compare the specs, design, features and value for money offered by the new 12-inch MacBook and the iPad Air 2, and help Apple fans decide which of the two is right for them - or if some other (Apple or non-Apple) product could be a better option.

Read our comparison review of the MacBook Air and the MacBook, find out which is the best lightweight laptop

See also: our video review of the new 12-inch MacBook:

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2: The basics

Apple's new 12-inch MacBook is a marvel of portability. It's by a distance the slimmest laptop Apple has ever made, and the lightest too; although some compromises have been made to achieve these things - such as, controversially, stripping back its port allocation to a single USB-C point for both data and power (and a headphone port).

But if you like slim and light, Apple's flagship tablet deserves a mention, because it's both of those things and (by the standards of a tablet at any rate) exceptionally fast too.

To get really basic, here's what you need to know about each:

The 12-inch MacBook is a laptop with a standard clamshell design, meaning the keyboard half and the screen half fold together when it's closed. The keyboard is integrated and non-detachable, as is generally the case with laptops.

The (non touchscreen) display measures 12 inches, diagonally from corner to corner, and has a resolution of 2304 x 1440 pixels. The MacBook comes with a dual-core Intel Core M processor - either 1.1GHz or 1.2GHz, depending on how much you want to spend - and 8GB of RAM (but we'll get into tech specs in more detail in a bit).

It runs the Mac OS X operating system (currently it comes with Yosemite preinstalled, but will most likely be able to upgrade to Mac OS X 10.11 for free when it launches later this year) and any of the wide range of software apps that are compatible with OS X. (You can also run Windows on the MacBook using Boot Camp, and this unlocks the even larger range of Windows-compatible software.)

Read: Is it possible to get a free iPad? The truth about free iPad scams

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2 comparison

The iPad Air 2 is a tablet. It doesn't have an integrated hardware keyboard, although you can buy a range of detachable wireless keyboards and keyboard cases to go with the iPad. In most situations a software keyboard will appear on the screen - this is less effective than a hardware keyboard because your fingers don't get any feedback (fast, accurate touch-typing isn't really an option, unless auto-correct is on good form) but it usually does a solid job.

The (touchscreen) display measures 9.7 inches, diagonally from corner to corner, and has a resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels. The iPad Air 2 comes with a mobile processor, the A8X chip. (Apple doesn't release the specs of its mobile chips but it's rumoured that this is a triple-core system-on-a-chip with a clock speed of 1.5GHz.) It has 2GB of RAM.

The iPad runs the iOS operating system (it currently comes with iOS 8 preinstalled but will be able to update to iOS 9 when it comes out later this year) and virtually all of the 1.4 million or so apps available on the Apple App Store. (A little over half of these are officially iPad-compatible, but you can run most iPhone-only apps on an iPad, either blown up artificially to fill the full screen - which may result in pixellated, poor-quality graphics - or in a small window in the centre of the screen.) You can jailbreak an iPad to run unauthorised apps, but if you aren't willing to do this you are restricted to Apple-approved apps only.

Has that helped your decision? If not, we had better move on to more detailed analysis of the two devices.

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2: Portability, dimensions and weight

We're looking at these devices from the perspective of highly mobile users, computing, gaming and entertaining themselves on the go. So portability is a key factor.

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2 comparison

Here are the vital statistics of these two ultra-slim devices.

12-inch MacBook: 280.5mm x 196.5mm x 3.5–13.1mm. Weight: 920g
iPad Air 2: 240 mm x 169.5 mm x 6.1 mm. Weight: 437g (for WiFi-only model) or 444g (for cellular model)

(I've converted the MacBook's figures to mm and grams for ease of comparison, so there may be some minor rounding errors.)

As you can see, the 12-inch MacBook is comparable in terms of height, width and depth: it's about 17 percent longer and 16 percent wider than the iPad Air 2 (laid flat in landscape configuration) and similarly slender. But it's more than twice as heavy. If pure portability is your aim, the iPad Air 2 is the stronger option here.

Part of the reason why the MacBook is so much heavier is down to the integrated keyboard, which we'll discuss next.

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2: Keyboard and touchpad

If you want to use your device for mobile working, consider the importance to you of a hardware keyboard. If this is crucial, then you'll need to factor in the cost, weight and general inconvenience of a separate keyboard when planning an iPad purchase. The Logitech Type+ Keyboard Folio Case for iPad Air 2, for instance, will add £79.95 to the bill and 425g to the weight, almost eliminating the weight advantage.

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2 comparison

But do you need a hardware keyboard? Many people find software keyboards (such as the default system keyboard in iOS) fine for short or even mid-length typing assignments, but almost everyone prefers a hard keyboard for long-form, proper work - they are almost always quicker and more accurate in the long term.

If you'll mainly be typing out emails and iMessages, the software keyboard will do you proud. If you intend to write essays, news articles or frequent lengthy blog posts, you may need to think about a separate keyboard - although the ability to take the keyboard off and leave it behind when you just want to play games on the train is a nice bonus.

The keyboard in the 12-inch MacBook, by the way, is clearly something that Apple is proud of. The company is keen to stress that it's a full-size keyboard, for one thing, even though what it really means is that the keys are full-size - something that's impressive in a laptop that's so petite. Still, in order to squeeze the keyboard into the portable chassis the keys have been placed unusually close together, so typing may not be quite as smooth and flowing (at least as first) as when you're using the giant model that came with your PC.

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2 comparison

And the keys themselves have been redesigned with a new 'butterfly' mechanism instead of the old 'scissor' one. We're not sure that's such a big deal, mind you, and would certainly want to spend some quality time playing with it; it seems mainly designed to allow for accurate key presses in a slimline laptop chassis.

On a related note, the 12-inch MacBook - like the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, but unlike all the other MacBooks that Apple sells - comes with a redesigned touchpad. This is called the Force Touch, and incorporates some minor haptic elements. In essence, you can do hard presses and soft presses, and specify to OS X what each one does. It's fun but again, we're still getting used to it.

In the following video we explain the way Force Touch works and some of the things you can currently do with it:

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2 comparison

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2: Screen

The MacBook has a bigger screen, and that alone may make the decision for some potential buyers. (Funnily enough, the dimensions of the new MacBook's screen pretty much matches what we were expecting from the iPad Pro or iPad Plus; it's possible that sightings of components for the MacBook was what started that rumour in the first place…)

A 12-inch screen might not seem drastically bigger than a 9.7-inch one, but in terms of screen area it's more than 40 percent extra space. That can make all the difference if you like watching films or playing graphically arresting games, or just want to be able to view the whole of a spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation. (The degree to which those latter two activities are possible on the iPad is something we'll discuss in the software section later.)

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2 comparison

The iPad Air 2's screen is a shade sharper than the MacBook's: its pixels are less stretched out, with a pixel density of 264 pixels per inch (ppi) to the MacBook's 226ppi. Mind you, you're likely to use the MacBook with your eyes further from the screen (you should do, certainly), so the general principle is that less visual sharpness is necessary to achieve a similar eye-fooling effect. Both screens are officially rated as Retina.

One other point that will probably stand in the iPad's favour: its display is a touchscreen, which makes general use a little more instant, and a little more intuitive. You just touch the icon with your finger and move it, or swipe the page up and down as if it's a physical object you're moving. Watch a child playing with an iPad and you'll understand how user-friendly its control system really is, and how unnecessarily complicated we've made computing, with our keyboards, touchpads and mice.

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2: Performance

We're going to get to specs in a moment, but first let's pick out one particular aspect: processing power.

Direct comparisons between the processing muscle of the 12-inch MacBook and the iPad Air 2 are pointless as well as tricky, because no single piece of software will run on both devices. What counts is how well each device copes with the range of software available to it. (And how well that range of software accomplishes what you want to do, but we'll address that in the software section.)

The iPad Air 2's A8X chip is according to report clocked only a little faster than the MacBook's Intel Core M (although it is believed to be triple- rather than dual-core) but within its class it's a completely different story. The A8X is class-leading, and the iPad Air 2 is about as fast as any tablet in 2015. It can run any of the software on the App Store with contemptuous ease.

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2 comparison

Above: Here's one fairly demanding 3D game that the iPad Air 2 handles with ease: Deus Ex: The Fall.

By contrast, and by the standards of the laptop market, the 12-inch MacBook is generally felt to be a little underpowered. OS X-compatible software has the potential to be run by a wide range of hardware, from the Mac mini to the Mac Pro, and there's plenty of software out there that the 12-inch MacBook will struggle to handle - such as a fair few recent games.

Best Mac games | Best iPad games

Whether this is a problem for you depends on what you want to do with your device. The really demanding software - the stuff that people run on a Mac Pro - encompasses graphical design suites, video editors, photo editors and the like, as well as high-end games. If that's what you want to run, the 12-inch MacBook is not for you, but then again, with the exception of gaming (which, in the slightly more limited form that iOS games take when compared to desktop ones, the iPad Air 2 excels at) an iPad probably isn't for you either. We would recommend one of Apple's powerful MacBook Pro laptops, most likely, or a Mac desktop (an iMac or a Mac Pro).

If you're going to use your device for surfing the web, email, a little work and a little light gaming, as we discussed at the start, the MacBook will do you fine. As will the iPad Air 2, although its range of available software is more limited. More on that shortly.

We'll update this comparison with some detailed speed testing once we've got the MacBook in our labs. But here's how the iPad Air 2 compares to its fellow Apple tablets. It's a bit of a powerhouse:

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2: Tech specs

Here are a few more tech specs to give you an idea of the respective power and capabilities of the two devices. One thing that may be worth pointing out is the RAM allocation: the 12-inch MacBook has four times as much, which may help to overcome some of the disadvantages of its slower processor (although, as we explain above, direct comparisons in that respect are mostly unhelpful).

12-inch MacBook:

12-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit Retina display with IPS technology
2304x1440 resolution at 226 pixels per inch
16:10 aspect ratio
1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core M processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.4GHz) with 4MB shared L3 cache, or 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core M processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz) with 4MB shared L3 cache; Configurable to 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core M processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz) with 4MB shared L3 cache.
8GB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory
256GB PCIe-based onboard flash storage or 512GB PCIe-based onboard flash storage
Intel HD Graphics 5300
Dual display and video mirroring: simultaneously supports full native resolution on the built-in display and up to 3840x2160 pixels on an external display, both at millions of colours
802.11ac Wi?Fi wireless networking; IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n compatible
Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology
USB-C port with support for:
USB 3.1 Gen 1 (up to 5 Gbps)
Native DisplayPort 1.2 video output
VGA output using USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter (sold separately)
HDMI video output using USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter (sold separately)
480p FaceTime camera
Stereo speakers
Dual microphones
Headphone port
Support for Apple iPhone headset with remote and microphone
Keyboard and Trackpad
Full-size keyboard with 78 (US) or 79 (ISO) individual LED backlit keys, including 12 function keys and 4 arrow keys with ambient light sensor
Force Touch trackpad for precise cursor control and pressure-sensing capabilities; enables force clicks, accelerators, pressure-sensitive drawing and Multi-Touch gestures
Battery: Up to 9 hours wireless web; Up to 10 hours iTunes film playback.
Built-in 39.7-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
29W USB-C Power Adapter; USB-C power port
Height: 0.35–1.31 cm; Width: 28.05cm; Depth: 19.65cm; Weight: 0.92kg

iPad Air 2:

A8X processor chip with 64-bit architecture; M8 motion coprocessor
16GB, 64GB or 128GB storage
9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit widescreen Multi-Touch display with IPS technology; 2048x1536-pixel resolution at 264 ppi; Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating; Fully laminated display; Anti-reflective coating
Rear-facing iSight Camera: 8Mp still photos; Autofocus; ƒ/2.4 aperture; Five-element lens; Hybrid IR filter; Backside illumination; Face detection; Exposure control; Panorama (up to 43Mp); Burst mode; Tap to focus; Photo geotagging; Timer mode; 1080p HD video recording (30 fps); Slo-mo (120 fps); Time-lapse video; Video image stabilisation; 3x video zoom; Video geotagging
Front-facing FaceTime HD Camera: 1.2Mp still photos; ƒ/2.2 aperture; 720p HD video recording; Backside illumination; Auto HDR photos and videos; Face detection; Burst mode; Exposure control; Timer mode
Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac); dual channel (2.4GHz and 5GHz); HT80 with MIMO; Bluetooth 4.0 technology
Audio Playback: Frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz; Audio formats supported: AAC (8 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), HE-AAC, MP3 (8 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX and AAX+), Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV; User-configurable maximum volume limit
Video formats supported: H.264 video up to 1080p, 60 frames per second, High Profile level 5.0 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video up to 2.5 Mbps, 640x480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats; Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280x720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format
Built-in 27.3-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery; Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music (Apple's claimed figures)
Touch ID fingerprint scanner
Three-axis gyro
Ambient light sensor
Lightning connector
Height: 240mm; Width: 169.5mm; Depth: 6.1mm; Weight: 437g (Wi-Fi model), 444g (Wi-Fi plus cellular model)

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2: Software

Other than the hardware keyboard, this is the big differentiator between the MacBook and the iPad. They run completely different and separate libraries of software, as well as a different operating system under it all.

The MacBook is based on Mac OS X, a 'desktop OS' and one that is therefore amenable to a certain amount of tinkering and customisation. Less so than most desktop OSes, admittedly, but far more so than iOS, the mobile operating system that the iPad is based on.

iOS - unless you are willing to jailbreak it - is a sealed system, allowing software downloads only if they come from one specific storefront (the iOS App Store) and the bare minimum of customisation - you can't even delete any of the pre-installed apps that are on the device when you buy it. (This does seem to be improving slowly, however. In iOS 8, the most recent version, Apple added the ability to download and install third-party system-wide keyboards, for instance, and allowed limited and mediated data exchange between third-party apps.)

More importantly than customisability, however, is the range of software that these systems can run. Developers have been making software for OS X for more than a decade, and the range of compatible apps is huge - and that's ignoring the even bigger range of Windows software that you can use if you use Boot Camp to run Windows on the MacBook. Mac software runs the gamut from high-end designer tools to simple utilities and a decent range of games. The range of office/productivity software on Mac is extensive.

iOS has a lot of apps too - there's more than 700,000 officially iPad-compatible offerings on the App Store - but they are rarely as ambitious as the top-end software on Mac OS X. The debate still rages concerning the iPad's feasibility as a work tool: most now agree that it can serve in this capacity, with Microsoft's Office apps now among the wide variety of productivity tools available on iOS, but few would deny that it's more limited in this respect than a Mac.

Best iPad games | Best free iPad games | Best free iPad apps

So available software is an important factor to consider, in tandem with careful analysis of the activities you plan to do on your device. Certain activities are catered for better by desktop platforms (graphical design, long-article word processing), and certain sub-categories too: in the gaming sphere, for instance, there are lots of brilliant tower-defence and puzzle games on the iPad, but only a few desktop-quality first-person shooters.

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2: Battery life

The 12-inch MacBook has a more substantial battery unit than the iPad Air 2 (39.7 watt-hours, compared with 27.3 watt-hours), but because of its greater power demands it's likely to last a little less time away from a mains supply. Apple rates the MacBook at 9 hours of wireless web surfing, and the iPad at 10, and our testing has always backed up the honesty - modesty, even - of Apple's battery life claims.

Indeed, recent testing we've been running on the new MacBook Pro has resulted in some startlingly high figures, so you may find that your 12-inch MacBook last considerably longer than the listed figure in practice.

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2 comparison

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2: Price

The iPad Air 2 is a far cheaper option. Here's how the MacBook and iPad compare on price:

12-inch MacBook: £1,049 (1.1GHz/256GB model) or £1,299 (1.2GHz/512GB model)
iPad Air 2: £399, £479, £559 (16GB/64GB/128GB WiFi models) or £499, £579, £659 (16GB/64GB/128GB cellular models)

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2: Buying decision

The iPad Air 2 and the new 12-inch MacBook feel like similar products - both beautiful, light, slimline computing devices, available in black, silver and gold, that are aimed at the Apple fan on the go. They're both based on a single data/power port too.

But there are some big differences to consider. While both are very portable by the standards of their category, the iPad is a lot more portable - assuming you can live without a hardware keyboard. If you're going to be doing a lot of typing, you should factor in the extra cost and weight of a separate keyboard case.

The key difference is the fact that the MacBook runs Mac OS X and the iPad runs iOS, and despite continual rumours that these system are going to merge they remain distinct platforms tailored to different use scenarios.

If you're looking for a work device, principally, the MacBook is the better option of the two here. There's a better range of work software on OS X, the hardware keyboard and Force Touch touchpad will be a crucial advantage over a touchscreen, and the extra screen space will be a boon.

New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2 comparison

If you're looking at a mobile companion for a little light work but mostly email, web surfing and light gaming, the iPad is more appealing. It's cheaper, it's lighter, it's got access to the huge range of casual games on iOS (and has the power to deal with even the most advanced games on there too) and it's incredibly user-friendly - even more so than the Mac.

But don't ignore your other options. On the Apple front, remember the MacBook Air, which is also very portable and comes with more ports - this is a good device for light work, and can come with a 13-inch screen if you want. It's also a cheaper option than the 12-inch MacBook. The MacBook Pro is a better option than the 12-inch MacBook for work that's going to place heavy demands on the processor (music production and video editing, say). And there are cheaper iPads (the older iPad Air 1, or one of the small iPad minis) that may lack the iPad Air 2's processing power but still do the job.

For more information on both categories, see our Mac buying guide and our iPad buying guide.

Finally, even thought this is Macworld you shouldn't discount the possibility of buying from someone other than Apple. Windows laptops are almost always cheaper than a OS X laptop of equivalent power, and if you like or are used to the Windows platform you can benefit from the huge library of Windows software. We think Macs are worth the extra money because of their high build quality and security, and the user-friendliness of OS X, but plenty of people disagree with us. See our Mac vs PC article for more thoughts on that front.

And there are non-iPad tablets out there, even though we tend to think the Android alternatives are consistently of a lower quality than Apple's tablets. An Android tablet is likely to be a cheaper option, and Android is a far more customisable operating system than iOS; there are pros and cons to both sides.

Hopefully this has been helpful. Good luck, and happy computing.

View iPad Air 2 on the Apple Store | View the new 12-inch MacBook on Apple's website

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