Photographers: MacBook Air vs. iPad

When the iPad arrived in April I had high hopes (I still do) for it to become a great tool for photographers and in many ways it has. More photographers showed their portfolios at Photoshop World this past September electronically than they did in print. Just recently I published my list of 8 Must Have iPad Apps for Photographers. Yes, progress is being made, but yesterday Apple released the long awaited update to the MacBook Air and the more I looked the specs the more it made me think about this new MacBook as a better choice for photographers in the field. 


The iPad appeal

The iPad is/was appealing because it was small, lightweight, has a relatively long battery life, relatively large display and is capable of importing images via the Camera Connection Kit. It can do moderate photo editing on the go. Also the instant on and not having to manage a file system are pluses in many ways.


The NEW MacBook Air offers so much more for not much more money

The most fair comparison I can make is to compare the 64GB iPad Wi-Fi model ($699) with the new 64GB 11.6" MacBook Air ($999). Yes, the MacBook Air is $300 more and weighs 0.7 lbs. more. The MacBook Air is also a few inches bigger.


MacBook Air iPad

Size and weight

0.11-0.68 inch (0.3-1.7 cm)
11.8 inches (29.95 cm)
7.56 inches (19.2 cm)
2.3 pounds (1.06 kg)1

Size and weight1

9.56 inches (242.8 mm)
7.47 inches (189.7 mm)
0.5 inch (13.4 mm)
1.5 pounds (0.68 kg) Wi-Fi model;



Once you get past the slightly larger size and weight of the MacBook Air, you can then start to justify it for what it offers over the iPad. The MacBook Air (MBA) has the ability to run your standard Mac applications (or even Windows Applications using Parallels or other Virtualization apps). So instead of trying to find replacement Apps on the iPad, it can actually fun Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5. Instead of having to use the Camera Connection Kit with low power/speed CF Cards/Readers, you can plug in any standard USB Card Reader and Import photos from any memory cards. With the MBA you can also more easily offload your images onto another hard drive just by plugging it in to the USB port and doing a standard file copy. Also since many photographers publish their websites using Adobe Flash, you can view those sites on the MacBook Air by installing the latest Flash Player if you choose to. Lastly, and probably one the biggest reasons is that the you can shoot tethered to a MacBook Air and see your images on the nice big 11.6" display. Lightroom 3 already does native tethering and that means that the MBA can already do this. Yes, the MBA is $300 more, but you get a much more capable device for that $300.


What I would have liked to have seen

There are two things that I would have liked to have seen on the MacBook Air. The first is a built-in option for 3G connectivity. That's one of the things I love about my iPad is that I can take it out of my bag and get online pretty much anywhere. Sure I can use my MiFi or a 3G USB Stick, but a contract free 3G option built-in the MBA would have been killer. The next thing I would have loved to have seen is a TRUE HYBRID between these two devices. Imagine a MBA in the same form factor, but if you open the lid and flip it over it becomes an iPad and can run iOS Apps. While it's true that a touch screen on a vertical display would be a pain, there's no reason that the display has to stay vertical if it swiveled and reversed. That would have truly been the best of both worlds!


What will I do now?

Believe it or not I have no plans to get a MacBook Air pretty much for the same reasons that I didn't buy myself the first model. When I travel for business I need the most full featured and powerful MacBook Pro available and the MacBook Air just isn't enough muscle for what I do. Since it's not going to replace my current MacBook Pro I see no need to travel with TWO laptops. A MacBook Pro and iPad will continue to be my tools of choice. However, if you're a photographer that doesn't demo software for a living like I do, then the MacBook Air might be a GREAT tool for you! If I didn't need the power of a MacBook Pro, I would seriously consider the Air!

33 Replies to “Photographers: MacBook Air vs. iPad”

  1. The lack of 3G was outstanding yesterday when Jobs said “if the iPad and MacBook hooked up”. You can get a cheaper windows basedpc netbook with built-in 3G, but thats not the point. Its essentially an iPad with a built-in keyboard and usb port, that runs OS X instead of iOS. I love it to replace my Powerbook, but not the iPad in the field.

  2. >”it can actually fun Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5.”

    Terry- We all love Adobe products, but I’m not sure that “fun” is the word you were looking for. Unless your boss reads your blog. 🙂

  3. Do you think the fastest mba will work well with retouch work with raw files in lightroom 3 and Photoshop cs5? I have an iPad and have not found the current version to be suitable for editing professional photos.

    The MBA seems to be a good option for creating presentations in keynote/PowerPoint. Showing flash projects is a plus. If it can run indesign cs5, illustrator cs5, and flash catalyst well, it would be worth it in my opinion.

    With the combination of using air display for the iPad, the display size would not be an issue.

  4. Intel doesn’t include USB 3.0 functionality in its latest chipsets. USB 3.0 is not a prime-time player yet on any platform.

  5. You are *much* better off with a MiFi to share a 3G internet connection via WiFi to all your shiney toys vs. having potentially incompatible 3G or 4G built in to each device with a separate monthly data usage fee.

  6. As a professional photographer, I’d love to hear your evaluation of the relative merits of the screens on a MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and the iPad. All I’ve heard about the Air so far is that the screen has more dpi, but nothing about color rendition or viewing angles.

    And you might see if the screen on the large Air of higher quality than that on the smaller one? That’s the difference between the screens on the latest iPhones and iPod touches. The dpi is the same, but the iPhone is better in other ways.

    As a writer, I find the Air intriguing. It’s light and has about twice the battery life of my MacBook. I was thinking about getting an iPad, but adding a keyboard makes it almost as heavy as a Air and the Air will run 2.0 version of Scrivener, due out next week. Scrivener is almost a necessity for the serious writer.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

    1. Mike Perry, as a professional writer, your first sentence has a perfect example of a dangling modifier. Don’t worry, it happens all the time. 🙂

      I have the iPad and feel no need to make a change. Of course I’m a PC user, so getting an MBA would be the start of a slippery slide. I’m not sure I need to do any editing of photos in the field, so having LR3 or CS5 is not an issue. I do, however, love having my portfolio available to show prospective clients. So the iPad works well for me.

  7. I agree with your assessment, but one workaround you can use today is to jailbreak your mobile phone to get 3G tethering. It gives the cheaper (WiFi only) iPad access to 3G via WiFi, and a MacBook 3G access via WiFi or USB.

  8. Get both! The ipad is better for sharing–you can pass it around to clients and even toddlers without worrying for its safety. Devices with hinges are far less durable and laptops are more vulnerable to spills.

  9. I do all my work on a current model MBP 15″ 2.66GHz i7, 7200 rpm HD, with hi-res antiglare screen but it’s really too heavy for lightweight travel such as in a day pack.

    I’m considering a MBA when travelling for internet & email, word processing, and mainly for loading & processing Leica M9 DRW files on LR, (and maybe FCE for ACHD video files). How significant do you think the performance difference would be between the 11 inch 1.6GHz and 13 inch 2.13GHz for LR & FCE? It would obviously be nice to carry the smaller computer (also a shame the 11 inch MBA doesn’t have a card slot)

      1. How do you think CS5 would work on the MBA? I was holding off on the ipad and now I really like the idea of the new mba. I’d like both LR and CS5 on it but not for primary use. (have an imac for that)

        1. CS5 should run fine on it (haven’t tried it), the only thing would be performance when trying to do really large images or working with really large catalogs in LR. Otherwise, you should be just fine for a second computer.

  10. Great review Terry, agree with most of your points and having a built in 3G would have been pretty sweet. Apple needs to start rolling that into all laptops

  11. Great comparison. The first thought I had after reading the announcement was an iPad with a cover and key board. I might be over simplifying things but the fact paying an extra $300 for a full featured machine with a decent HD tips the scales from the coolness factor of the dear iPad. Nothing can replace my iPod Touch for quick peeks or my my MBP for home and business needs and now the MBA IS that perfect inbetweener for me. Thanks Terry!

  12. OK, Now that the MBA is out, I’m more confused on what I should purchase for a college student!?! Any thoughts or recommendations? I’d like to get as much portable computing as possible… that also MAKES SENSE for a college student. I can see the pros and cons to both, I just don’t know which way to turn. When I was in school we used the old technology… paper and pencil (yes it was that long ago). Thanks.

  13. Thanks for a great and informative comparison.I was watching AutoWeek on PBS this am and the owner of Meade Lexus mentioned that they loan an ipad to each customer bringing a vehicle in for service to help them pass the time while waiting for the service to be completed. It’s nice to be pampered with an Apple product,eh?

  14. The Air uses old Intel Core 2 technology along less than maximum SSD storage on the 11″ versus the 13″, mon speakers on 11″, no USB 3.0, etc. For a company that used to be so great an unleashing technology first the Air is a big disappointment. Compare the Air to any MacBook. I could rant on forever.

  15. Just sold my 64GB iPad and replacing it with the MBA 11″.

    It is so cute, far more productive and portable, Still will use my MBP17″ for graphic and web design, but this is great for portability and power. Lost very little money on the selling of the iPad and made someone else happy.

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  17. BRUCE: that certainly is NOT a dangling modifier. Mr. Perry is very explicit that HE is the one who is interested? As a professional writer. There is no “hidden” word being modified thus no ambiguity of subject.

  18. I am also a student looking for one or the other and there are pros and cons to both.

    The biggest con for the ipad is it doesnt play flash and in many colleges now you have so much online content that cant be viewed on an ipad. For example, I am taking a statistics class that offers online videos of other instructors covering chapters. your ahead of me. they wont play on an ipad. It’s also more difficult to type on an ipad and keep the full screen available to view. typing entire essays might be a hassle.

    On the other hand with the ipad and a stylus you can literally do away with paper and hand write in class etc.

  19. What about iPad 2?
    Using iPad 2, can I transfer RAW files to external hard disk from CF card?

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