MacBook vs iPad: Which one is better for college?

If you’re starting college this year then you’ve probably been wondering if you should buy a MacBook or an iPad to help you with your studies. The truth is, both of these devices will help you collect notes, write essays, and provide an easy way to read papers online but they ultimately have different pros and cons. Of course, most colleges will provide access to computers in their libraries but it’s much more useful to have your own device for studying purposes, that way you can study in your dorm room at your own pace.

In this buying guide, we’ll take a look at the difference between the MacBook, specifically the MacBook Air, and the iPad to reveal the best device suited to your personal needs.

 MacBookiPad
ProsGood for writing/software/traditional computer UIGood for reading/small/lightweight/drawing
ConsBulkierExpensive attachments

What’s your major?

Whether you decide to buy an iPad or a MacBook will come down to what you’re majoring in. For example, if you’re majoring in Design or Technology then you’ll need to get yourself a MacBook because you’ll need a keyboard and the use of a mouse for detailed design work on apps like Photoshop.

If you’re majoring in English and Literature studies then you might want to consider buying an iPad because it’s arguably much easier to read on an iPad than on a MacBook screen. You’ll be able to use your iPad as an e-reader instead of carrying around a whole bunch of books in your bag.

What do you want out of your device?

Something else to consider is asking yourself what you want out of your device. Do you want to use it sitting at your desk or do you want to use it on the go as you move around campus? Some people want to have their computer fixed to their desk with speakers and external hard drives, kind of a ‘hub’ if you will. You might also want to use your device for gaming, if so, you’ll want to go down the MacBook or iMac route for the extra RAM and storage available on these devices.

If you’re someone who is happy to just read books, play casual games, and scroll Facebook, an iPad is probably perfect for you. The best thing about an iPad is that it’s incredibly mobile. You can put it in your bag or under your arm and take it around to different classes. It’s also easy to take notes on an iPad. Whilst it’s easier to keep written notes a lot faster on a MacBook, you can also use your iPad to take voice notes which is incredibly handy. All you need to do is set up the voice recorder and tape your lecture so you can refer back to it later.

The case for an iPad in general

As mentioned, an iPad allows you to take notes through voice and is easy to carry around. However, because MacBooks are also incredibly mobile, it might make sense for you to have something a bit more robust with you. Most colleges will provide convenient charging ports so there’s an argument that MacBook’s are just as nimble these days. An iPad is more of a companion device that can be used in sync with your MacBook so if you can afford both devices you should invest in them because it’s easy to transfer files and general data between them so no matter what classes you attend, you’ll always have the perfect device for the job.

Something else to consider when looking at the iPad Pro is its industry-leading design apps. Take for example Procreate, a fantastic design app that allows you to create professional-grade illustrations through the use of the Apple Pencil. Whilst you’ll pay more for the Apple Pencil in conjunction with the iPad Air, you’ll have a traditional drawing experience and you can then transfer your artwork to your MacBook or other Apple devices.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air Specifications

 iPad ProMacBook Air
Price$999, $1348 with Magic Keyboard$999,
OSiPadOSmacOS
CPUApple A12Z BionicM1 chip
RAM6GB8GB – 16BG
Storage128GB – 1TB256GB – 2TB
Display12.9 inches (2732 x 2048 pixels)13.3 inches (2560 x 1600 pixels)
PortsUSB-C13.3 inches (2560 x 1600 pixels)
CamerasTwo Thunderbolt 3, headphone720p FaceTime HD
Battery life10:1514:40
Size11. x 8.5 x 0.2 inches (0.6 inches thick with Magic Keyboard)12 x 8.4 x 0.2 – 0.6 inches
Weight1.4 pounds | 3 pounds with Magic Keyboard2.8 pounds

Price

The iPad Pro starts at $999 and as previously mentioned, you’ll need to fork out another $400 if you want the Magic Keyboard too. The MacBook Air however costs $999 or $899 for the education version. Once you start adding accessories onto the iPad Air, the cost goes up dramatically.

When it comes to storage space on the MacBook Air, you get 128GB to start but can upgrade to 256GB ($100 more), 512GB ($300), or 1TB ($500). So, depending on how much space you think you may need for college you might end up paying more than $999 but 256GB should be enough for most people.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Display

Whilst the MacBook Air has a bigger 13.3-inch display screen, the iPad has a 12.9-inch display so there’s not much difference there. It’s worth pointing out that the iPad does in fact have a superior screen to the MacBook Air, even though it is smaller. It features a 120Hz refresh rate.

Its resolution is better than the MacBook Air’s with a resolution of 2732 x 2048 compared to 2560 x 1600. This is important to note because it may steer you towards buying the iPad Pro over the MacBook Air if you want to use your device to take high-quality photos whilst you’re at college.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Keyboards

If you’re typing up essays, look no further than the MacBook Air. It’s got a lovely snappy feel to it as you hit the keys so it’s a familiar keyboard experience that you’ll be used to. The layout not only offers more travel (1mm vs 0.5mm) but feels snappier overall. The MacBook Air also features a large 4.75 x 3.2-inch touchpad.

The iPad Pro’s Magic Keyboard snaps onto the iPad magnetically but it’s going to cost you more money. It also has a nice snappy feel to the keys but you may end up wondering why you didn’t just buy the MacBook Air in the first place. Still, it’s convenient for taking with you to a lecture at college and is no hassle if you’re willing to cough up the extra money.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Air: Ports

If you’re wondering if you’ll be able to listen to music on your iPad Pro then we have some bad news for you – you can’t. At least not through wired headphones. Sure, you could buy some AirPods but then you’re having to fork out more money again. The only port you’ll find on the iPad Pro is a USB-C port.

The MacBook Air is the clear winner when it comes to ports. It features two Thunderbolt ports and a headphone jack which will come in handy if you’re listening to a lecture in the library whilst you study.

Performance

Both devices are incredibly powerful, however, the MacBook Air just nicks it. Both have industry-leading processors featuring 8-core GPUs. The MacBook Air features Apple’s own chip, the M1 chip which has taken the industry by storm because of its steady and powerful performance and the iPad Pro features the best GPU of any tablet, the A12Z Bionic chip.

Even though the iPad Pro brought back lower Geekbench 5 scores, it’s still one of the best tablets you can use for college work, if not the best. It’s also important to note that the Intel-based MacBook Air’s scored lower than iPad Pro’s before the M1 chip was introduced.

 Single-coreMulti-core
iPad Pro11254730
MacBook Air13005925

iPadOS vs macOS

As well as physical appearances, the operating systems of the iPad Pro and the MacBook Air are what separates them the most. The iPadOS system is the first touch-first operating system that now supports cursor input. This is obviously helpful if you want to buy a keyboard and a Magic Mouse further down the line, essentially turning your iPad Air into a less powerful MacBook.

The iPadOS makes the iPad Pro a good choice for multitaskers. With Slide Over, users can overlap apps making it easy to switch between them and keep several open at any one time. Split View is another neat feature that the iPad OS supports. With Split View, you can use your screen as a split-screen. This could be really helpful for college as you write coursework from your digital notes, all on the same screen.

If you have an Apple silicon processor you can actually run the iPadOS operating system on your MacBook. The MacBook Air, for example, uses the MacOS operating system which is a more traditional system you’d expect on a computer. You can see your dock at all times and you’re able to download a lot of different software to use which you might not be able to on the iPad Pro.

The Chrome browser has a traditional bookmark feature which will come in handy for saving references you might want to come back to later on if you’re writing essays or referring to studies.

The Bottom Line

What you buy will depend on what you need your device to do at college. The iPad Pro is powerful and comes in at a price point similar to the MacBook Air for example. The iPad is traditionally app-focused so if you need it for photography and mobility, you might want to lean more towards it. If however you need your device to perform slightly more complex tasks and you require software unavailable or non-usable on a tablet, the MacBook is the answer.

Categories Mac
About S. Santos

I am a tech columnist and blogger by trade, but I'm also an avid tennis player. In my spare time, I enjoy reviewing gadgets and gizmos from the world of tech. A lot has changed in the field since I started out as a writer back in 2009, so it's always exciting to keep up with all that's new. To me, there's nothing quite like getting my hands on a brand-new gadget or piece of software for the first time -- it's like Christmas morning every day!

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