Ask Techland: iPad with a Keyboard or MacBook Air for an Adult Student?

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Question: 

“Could I ask your advice about buying an iPad? I want to get one for my husband as a gift — mostly I was swayed by the fact that you can get that little keyboard and then you wouldn’t have to lug around a laptop (my husband’s a student). So do you think it’s worth it to get an iPad with all the bells and whistles, rather than, say, getting a MacBook Air?”

Doug Responds:

Great question. When I was a college student between 1997 and 2001, I tried every which way to take digital notes without lugging a laptop around everywhere. They were heavy and had laughable battery life back then. I would have been a good iPad-plus-keyboard candidate, but due to how the pesky fourth dimension known as “time” seems to work, I ended up carrying around PDAs such as the Psion Revo and, later, a miracle of innovation called the PocketMail PM-32. It had a pop out modem-like apparatus that you’d basically hold up to a payphone after dialing a special 800 number and it would e-mail your text back to you for later.

Anyway. The short version is that, assuming your husband needs to complete “regular” tasks such as note-taking and paper-writing, I’d recommend the $630 iPad with Verizon connection and Logitech’s $130 Solar Keyboard Folio. Read on for the long version if you like.

Bells and Whistles: How iPad Pricing Works

The interesting thing about the iPad is that the only benefit when moving up to a higher-priced model is more storage. Expensive iPads don’t work any faster or better than the less expensive models, and your husband wouldn’t be able to write enough text in his entire lifetime to take up the 16 gigabytes of storage that comes on the base-level iPads. You’d want to buy one with more storage only if he’s really going load it up with a bunch of apps, videos and music.

Apple’s basic pricing structure is as follows:

iPad with just Wi-Fi: $500, $600 or $700 for 16, 32, or 64 gigabytes, respectively.

iPad with Wi-Fi + Verizon: $630, $730, $830 for 16, 32, or 64 gigabytes, respectively.

Pretty simple. Each model costs $100 more and doubles the storage of the one before it; models with cellular connections cost $130 more than the Wi-Fi-only models.

Why Verizon over AT&T? Why the Cellular Model at All?

If your husband’s school is blanketed with reliable Wi-Fi, then you could save $130 and buy the $500 Wi-Fi iPad. Verizon’s 4G LTE version will let your husband get on the Internet wherever there’s not an open Wi-Fi signal, provided there’s Verizon coverage. The 4G LTE connection is about as fast as many home broadband connections and “is available to more than 75 percent of the U.S. population” as of August 16, according to Verizon. If 4G LTE isn’t available but Verizon’s 3G signal is, the iPad will use the slower 3G connection. Anecdotally, I can tell you that he’ll be able to get a signal in pretty much every major city and surrounding areas.

The AT&T and Verizon models do not require a two-year contract – or a contract of any type. If you buy the iPad directly from a Verizon or AT&T store and they try to sell you on a contract by tying your iPad access into your current contract, make sure the math works. I personally like being able to use the Verizon connection on my iPad only in months when I’m travelling a lot.

(MORE: Ask Techland: What’s the Deal with 4G? Is the New iPhone 4G?)

In the settings area of the iPad, you can re-up and/or “cancel” your data subscription whenever you like. If you cancel, you’ll get to use your remaining data until a month after you bought it.

There are a few levels of service available: Verizon’s starts at $20 per month, which gives you one gigabyte of data. Use Wi-Fi when it’s available and Verizon when it’s not, and you should be okay. I haven’t ever gone over my one gigabyte, but it’s possible to do so if you use the Verizon connection to stream videos from Netflix, for instance. If you go over, you’ll be charged another $20 for another one gigabyte of data. If you habitually go over, there’s a $30 plan for two gigabytes and a $50 plan for five gigabytes.

The advantage to the Verizon iPad over the AT&T iPad is that the Verizon iPad includes free Personal Hotspot usage. So let’s say you and your husband are in the car driving up to the lake (I don’t know where you vacation – sorry) for the weekend. You can turn his iPad into a portable Wi-Fi hotspot and share his data connection with your laptop or Wi-Fi-only tablet. You should only do this if he’s driving and you’re in the passenger seat.

Why an iPad over a MacBook Air?

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, of course, and not everyone’s going to agree with me here, but assuming your husband needs this setup mostly for note-taking and paper-writing, the iPad can pretty much handle all of that at a lower cost and with longer battery life.

The iPad’s maximum battery life is rated at 9-10 hours, versus the low-end ($1,000 starting price) MacBook Air’s battery at five hours. Your husband could basically bring the iPad around school all day and not need the charger. The $1,000 11-inch MacBook Air, on the other hand, arguably has a better keyboard, far more storage space (64 gigabytes versus 16 gigabytes for the $500 and $630 iPad models) and runs full-blown Mac software.

However, the MacBook Air has no Verizon or AT&T connection options. If he just needs it to take notes and write papers, the iPad should be just fine. As I mentioned before, the amount of storage on the cheapest iPad can hold more text than he’d ever be able to write in a lifetime.

iPad Keyboards

There are a million of them and just about all of them need to be plugged in. Harry has managed to turn the iPad into his primary computer and uses the Logitech Solar Keyboard Folio — which doesn’t need to be recharged — on a daily basis. If your husband wants to be able to gallivant (does he gallivant?) around campus all day, it’s one less thing to worry about.

That being said, most iPad keyboards will hold a charge for days, weeks or even months. Harry says the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover is meaningfully thinner than the Solar Keyboard Folio and seems to go for months on a charge. It’s also $30 cheaper. I, myself, use this $60 keyboard case that turns the iPad into a little MacBook-like thing. It’s chunky, but it packs an emergency battery that can be used to recharge the iPad a bit if it runs out of juice.

Don’t Forget About Apple’s Educational Discounts

Many schools get discounts with Apple, though often the discounts are good on computers but not iPads. Apple’s education store currently lists the starting price of the MacBook Air at $949, for instance, while the iPad’s price remains unchanged. There’s a back-to-school deal running right now that’ll get you $50 worth of iTunes credit (for apps, music, books and more) when you buy an iPad; you’ll get $100 if you buy an Apple computer.

MORE: 12 Uniquely-Designed Keyboards, Docks and Cases for Tablets

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4 comments
BluBlue
BluBlue

I actually have the newest and most bad-a55 tech for note-taking....

It's called the wood-subtrate and ink-resovoir stylus. It actually allows you to use your own hand movements to record things with infinite pressure variation on a surface that is flexible.

immovableobject
immovableobject

My feeling is that if your work requires a keyboard, a MacBook Air is a better solution than lugging around an iPad plus keyboard.  It's also a real computer capable of running serious applications and multiple operating systems.  You can attach a large external monitor for desktop use, connect to a wired ethernet connection, and external storage devices and printers.

iPads may work for some people, but I think the MacBook Air even though it costs more and will need to be recharged more often, will cause fewer regrets in the long run.  I would even go so far as to recommend the 13" Macbook Air over the 11" one.

NStat
NStat

I had this same choice to make, MacBook Air gives a lot more options i feel that are important to students. Also, no usb port on the ipad which can be pretty important for school, but not always 

Wee Boon Tan
Wee Boon Tan

I was thinking like you when I convinced myself to get an iPad several months ago. Turns out, browser on the iPad can't properly run my school's site so I cant download or read any of my school homeworks, PDFs uploaded by lecturers, online quizes and exams directly (I will have to use a laptop to put the content into my Dropbox). 

I know it's not iPad's fault, but basically the iPad doesn't really help for my school. Instead I think the base $999 MacBook Air will be a better choice for school. It is as portable as the iPad with an extra keyboard, more storage, more power to do more thing and the battery life isnt too bad either.