• The iPad Pro is a way better portable computer than the Mac, despite being less capable overall. 
  • The Mac is mainly hobbled by its lack of a cellular connection. 
  • The iPad’s software still lets it down.

Someone working on a tablet computer on a plane.

I've been traveling back and forth a lot recently, and I have found the 12.9-inch iPad to be way better than a MacBook Pro for on-the-go work.

The suspended Magic Keyboard offers a lot more room in a bus/plane seat, it has cellular, and when you take the keyboard off, you still have your iPad. And the iPad Pro now has Stage Manager, which is a pain for most things but super useful for working. The iPad definitely falls well short of the Mac for many tasks, but what it's good at, it's really good at, and no other machine can touch that.

“As a frequent traveler (I’m an American based in Bangkok, Thailand, with clients in Berlin, Helsinki, Hong Kong, and elsewhere), I love when I can rely on just my 12.9-inch iPad Pro + Magic Keyboard as my mobile workstation,” Alia Grant, a frequent traveler and writer for remote work company Iglu, told Lifewire via email. 

Portable Powerhouse

The biggest iPad may not seem like the most portable option. And once you add the Magic Keyboard with trackpad, the setup weighs more than the MacBook Air. But the keyboard is already a case for the iPad, and it can be separated from the keyboard whenever you don’t need it. For reference, the iPad Pro weighs 1.51 pounds (685 grams), the Magic Keyboard weighs 1.56 pounds (710 grams), and the latest MacBook Air weighs 2.7 pounds (1.24 kg).

But the portability advantage is not solely about the weight. A lot of it comes from that Magic Keyboard. Thanks to a clever design that floats the iPad toward you and over the top keyboard row, you can squeeze into spaces that are impossible with a Mac. I made the mistake of taking a MacBook on a long bus trip and trying to work on my lap. I couldn't open the lid far enough to see the screen comfortably. 

Closeup on the hinge of a Magic Keyboard with the iPad attached.

With the iPad, you can open it all the way up with no problem. Also, if the iPad takes a whack, it seems more durable than the thinner MacBook screen.

“Additionally, it’s a great size to pop onto the fold-down tray table on an airplane to get work done on a smaller keyboard without bumping elbows into the person next to me,” traveler and travel photographer Mikkel Woodruff told Lifewire via email. 

Next, battery life. The Apple Silicon MacBooks have closed the gap and are just incredible—for laptops. Stated battery life is higher for those Macs, but in my experience of using an old iPad Pro with an equally old battery, and an M1 MacBook Pro, the iPad feels like the battery runs for longer.

And importantly, even if that weren’t true, the iPad has a smaller battery (40.88 watt-hours vs. 52.6 watt-hours for the MacBook Air), which means that you can charge it faster or juice it with smaller external battery packs.

But the biggest portability win for the iPad is its built-in cellular connection. No matter how seamless Apple makes wireless tethering, where you share the cellular connection from an iPhone to a Mac, it's better to have it built in. 

Someone using an iPad while sitting at a coffee bar overlooking a city.

The iPad can update itself while sleeping, receive notifications, sync your photo library, and so on. The Mac loses a tethered connection when it sleeps, and although tethering is easy when it works, in my experience, it drops connections and often cannot see the target iPhone when you try to connect. 

The Mac is more powerful and capable, but those requirements aren't high on the list for many people. 

Bad 

It’s not all great news. Let’s start with that keyboard. The Magic Keyboard is rigid, feels great, and integrates perfectly with the iPad—when it works. Very often, the iPad stops receiving input from the keyboard after switching between applications. And—somewhat ironically, as I am writing this article on an iPad—sometimes the most basic system shortcuts don’t work, like ⌘-Tab for switching apps. 

Then there’s the whole user interface. The latest version of iPadOS adds Stage Manager, which lets you have multiple windows open on the screen, and this really helps a lot. You can do a lot of Mac-like tricks, like easily dragging items between apps. But it is still half-baked and glitchy on the iPad.

These are big problems, but they only really manifest when you try to use the iPad the same way you'd use a Mac. If that's important, then a MacBook is the answer. They are obviously still amazing portable computers. But if the iPad way suits you, then its advantages for the frequent traveler are huge.

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