MacBook vs iPad: Let Battle Commence

It's been a couple of weeks now since I picked up an iPad at Apple's Bondi Junction store. It's probably the only time I'll ever set foot in that particular arboreally-assigned retail outlet, but anyone who watched my trek there might have figured that out by now. This also means I've had a couple of weeks to work out what I'm actually going to use an iPad for.

Now, admittedly, I'm in a somewhat rarefied category, in that I can use the iPad as a straight business tool simply by writing about it — including this column, which I'm typing out on that same iPad, for what that's worth.

The most frequent criticism I've hit about the iPad (beyond that whole "it's a really big iPod touch" — well, yes, but that brings with it a whole host of possibilities, folks) is that you'd almost always be better off with a netbook or notebook instead. So I thought I'd put that to the test.

This being a Mac-centric publication, I can't test it against a Mac netbook, because (legitimately speaking) there's no such thing. I'm well aware of the whole Hackintosh scene, and I'll even admit I've mucked about with hardware to make that happen. It's a bit like climbing Mount Everest, in that I did it over one Christmas period because it was right there, but the result was a sub-par netbook that clearly ran better under Windows XP. Make of that what you will.

Oh, and I didn't actually climb Mount Everest. But I suspect you knew that.

What I do have to put up against the iPad, however, is a MacBook, albeit one that's aging a little disgracefully. A 2006 Core 2 Duo Macbook with 3.1GB of RAM in it, to be precise. Up against it, I'm pitting a first-generation 64GB WiFi+3G iPad with a couple of accessories.

First, where does the MacBook beat the iPad?

Optical disc reading. I can show the iPad as many DVDs as I can lift (which is quite a few) but it'll never do much than reflect the covers back at me. No amount of wobbling the cover around will make me think I'm watching a movie.

FireWire, Ethernet and USB built in. Yes, again, I could buy the USB Camera connection kit, but that's a dongle that has to be carried separately.

Removable battery. Although for a new MacBook, that's no longer true.

Tabbed multitasking. For now. iPhone OS 4.0 will shorten this gap, although it's not absolute multitasking. More on that shortly.

Bigger screen. Which is OK for the aforementioned DVD watching, I suppose.

Sitting flat on my lap with the screen in an easy to view position. Fixable with accessories for the iPad, but the MacBook does it straight out of the box.

That would seem to be something of a slam dunk for the MacBook, were it not for the areas where the iPad outclasses the MacBook:

Instant on. That might not seem like much, but with the iPad (if I don't set a security code), it's a swipe of the finger and I'm into working, or playing, or what have you. If I've closed the MacBook while on, it will think for a few seconds, then light up the screen, then bring up some (but not always all) the icons ... then wait a bit longer ... then start thinking about WiFi ... then kick up the fan ... then make the DVD drive chunk for no adequately-explained reason ... and then let me start working. Add a good 30-90 seconds to that whole palaver if I've actually switched it off.

Battery life. No great shock here. I don't think anyone would expect a four-year-old laptop with plenty of metaphorical miles on the clock to have much battery life at all. With WiFi or 3G running, I'll maybe get a couple of hours out of it if I'm careful. Whereas my tests while out and about with the iPad have yet to exhaust it below the 60 percent battery mark, even on a heavy load.

Choice of screen orientation. This again has surprised me, but it works. On a train, there's no way I can open up the MacBook without a fair bit of elbow room around me. Pop the iPad into portrait orientation, and I could even try reading it standing up.

Software. No, really. Yes, I know there are thousands of OS X programs out there, but even after four years, I've really only got around 20-30 actual applications on the MacBook that see regular use. Whereas the iPad's got the full whack of everything I've downloaded for the iPhone, plus its own apps. That started at around the 300 App mark, and I'm cutting down the erroneous applications as I spot them. That happens when you do a roundup of Binary iPhone Clocks, none of which I actually needed.

Lack of multitasking. No, really. Again, not something I would have picked as an upside, but in hindsight I can see how it works and helps. When I can multitask, I can multi-procrastinate. Not a word, strictly speaking, but it should be. A clean white iPad Pages screen just stares at me — as this one has done — and demands to be filled. Filled pages equals happy editors, and happy editors are more likely to pay me — or at least that's the theory.

(Nag nag nag — MJCP)

Light weight. Yes, I know, the standard iPad refrain is that "it's so heavy". Compared to a feather, or a single sheet of paper, or an iPhone, yes. Compared to a MacBook? The iPad might as well not be there.

That might seem to indicate a tie. There's an obvious counterpoint to this, in that a new MacBook might beat out the iPad on battery life and, given Apple's rather competitive pricing on MacBooks, there's not much between the top-end iPad and an entry-level MacBook, especially if you add in a few peripherals such as the keyboard dock or a decent case or screen protector.

That becomes a case of suiting it to your circumstances. My office is already home to a very nice recent-model iMac that handles my heavy Mac lifting for me, and the iPad is rapidly taking over the other around the house and out and about tasks. So for round one, at least, the iPad's taking it on a close judge's decision.

What do you think? Is the iPad just a big iPod Touch, or can it be a productivity tool?

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!