Tristan has been using an iPad since 2014 and has extensive experience in this area. He offers objective advice on personal electronics.
Choosing between an iPad and a normal laptop is still a popular question, pushed by the introduction of iPadOS which has brought the two product categories closer than ever.
I would say that there’s 3 different groups of people who would be considering this question. So, rather than focus on one use case I’ve divided this article into 3 sections, feel free to go to the one that is most relevant to you, but if you want the full picture then read each section.
- General use.
- Professional needs.
Because I’m a big fan of hearing the conclusion upfront in articles videos, I’ll follow that trend and say that in almost every case it just makes more sense to get a laptop rather than an iPad, especially if you’re a student where you want the most value for your money.
(oh and also just a small disclaimer that in this article I focus on comparing the MacBook but obviously the same information applies to equivalent Windows laptops such as the Dell XPS line and the high-end HP laptops).
a) Does your course need specific software — If you’re doing a course like graphic design or physics then your decision is probably already made by the software you need to use.
Often there simply isn’t an iPad version of desktop software so the best thing to do is to check your course to see if there are any software requirements and make your decision from that. If so, you will almost always have to chose between MacOS or Windows so you can safely remove the iPad from consideration.
b) NEED for the Apple Pencil — Arguably the biggest distinguishing feature between a MacBook and iPad is the ability to use an Apple Pencil. If you know your main computing need in your degree is a device on which you can electronically draw on then sure, go for an iPad — its probably the most versatile drawing tablet on the market.
c) more general use — Most students such as those studying courses like English, law or languages only really need a computer to research and type essays so have the most freedom of choice. Now, you may think that this is an ideal use case for an iPad but I would still argue that it makes more sense to get a laptop
- This is for a few reasons, the main one being practicality. A normal iPad has a screen that is simply too small for what I would call normal multitasking like typing and research and storage that is too small for use over a long period of time. Most laptops are at least 13 inches which may not sound very different from the 10.5 inches of the iPad Air, but believe me, it makes a large difference when you use them for a long time.
- If you want an iPad with a laptop screen size you can only chose the 12.9 inch Pro which is already nearly £1000 with half the storage compared to the equivalently priced MacBook Air. You then need to buy a keyboard for a decent typing experience which is another 200. The on screen keyboard isn’t the most convenient thing to use, especially because it covers half of the already small screen. If you decide to get a cheaper alternative to the official Apple keyboard case, it is something extra to carry, charge and is not nearly as convenient as a laptop with a built in keyboard and trackpad.
- Given that most students mostly need a computer to type and research, it makes sense to get a device with the most usable screen (one that is larger) and a a nice keyboard (one that isn’t on screen).
- iPadOS is also just a less versatile operating system than MacOS or Windows, at least at the moment. Everything just feels slower, like it’s an extra step or two away. For example, I use the files app for documents which unlike Preview on the Mac doesn’t have any way of searching through a PDF unless a third party app is used. It just feels cumbersome in some situations.
- Also small things, like charging and using a USB stick isn’t possible on the iPad without a hub or the £300 Magic Keyboard and iPad Pro combination.
- A monitor is also something that many people think is worth investing in to increase computing efficiency and at the moment iPadOS just doesn’t work well with them. Most apps are just mirrored, there isn’t an option for extending your display and it doesn’t even fill the whole display. This lack of future versatility makes the iPad less ideal for use in the long term.
One more thing. There are also more students who are starting to use the iPad and Apple pencil to go paperless with apps like GoodNotes. This is great and I know it works for a lot of students but its not something that I would use for all my notes.
The simple reason is that I don’t want to be stuck if I break my iPad.
If your documents are backed up from your laptop then you could use a university computer but if your notes are all handwritten and something goes wrong then it becomes more difficult to continue unless your willing to print all your notes and start hand writing on paper which negates the point of digital note taking.
So, if you know that hand writing on the iPad with apple pencil is ideal for you then great, get the iPad but i would definitely spend some time thinking about whether this system is actually something you’ll want to sustain in the long term.
Now, for general use such as just a home or work computer, more of a case can be made for buying an iPad rather than a MacBook. If you know that you will only use your computer to casually browse the internet, deal with emails and watch videos, then an iPad may indeed be fine for your use.
However, at the risk of appearing like a broken record, the same drawbacks that I mentioned before still apply. The screen is simply smaller than laptops unless you go for the £1000 12.9 inch iPad Pro. The storage is also limited compared to equivalently priced laptops. So, if you don’t use cloud storage and you want to store all your photos on your computer, you’ll need to pay a lot extra for more storage.
The cheapest iPad only has 32GB of storage so you’d want to upgrade to the 128GB version and at that point you're nearing the price of the iPad Air which is an overall better device (better screen, speed and cameras) but only has 64GB of storage.
A MacBook Air with education discount is around £900 and although it is certainly more expensive than most iPads, I think its value over time makes it cheaper than an iPad. This is because I believe that you can use an laptop for more years before you feel like you want to upgrade than an iPad.
Indeed, you can later buy another monitor and boost your computer productivity or even an external graphics card if you want to start video editing. These future ‘improvements paths’ are just not possible with the iPad.
The iPad that you buy today is the iPad that you will always have until Apple decides to make iPadOS even more similar to the fully featured MacOS operating system.
The iPad is obviously a great device, but if you have to chose a laptop or an iPad then I would still recommend to go for the laptop.
In this case, if you’re a professional who has a demanding use for their computer then it’s likely that you already know the limitations of the iPad and iPadOS. You probably already know if it’s hardware and software can be used in your workflow to complete your work.
While there are some equivalents to desktop software on the iPad such as the full version of Photoshop, most don’t come with the same functionality. This is mostly used because the iPad is a touch first device so everything is designed with your fingers as the method of interaction rather than a mouse and keyboard which reduces the level of granular control possible.
As a professional you know more about your workload so my advice wouldn’t help. I would just say to not be influenced by how futuristic is looks to do your work on such a thin slab of metal and glass.
The iPad is without doubt the best tablet available and it can definitely be used to do most tasks that a normal person needs computer to do. However, I would still say that it is more of a companion device which is seen by the fact that it can literally be used as an external display for your MacBook with SideCar.
So if you’re looking at getting one device then I would recommend getting laptop.
The larger screen, more storage, and built in keyboard and a more versatile operating system makes it a more compelling purchase for most people. You can get a lot of computer things done with an iPad but at the moment the reality is that you can just get the things you want to get done quicker and with fewer workarounds on a laptop
Thank you for reading, please contact me with any questions or feedback!
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on June 10, 2020:
Very good article. I am a laptop guy but wife and child are Ipad people.
Time for a new one for me -- so this settled me to stick with a laptop.