Travelling Light – iPad or Air?

Are the Apple iPad 2 or 11″ MacBook Air Viable Alternatives For The Photographer On The Go?

Most photographers have back pain or have suffered in the past. It’s the ridiculous loads we often carry. Camera manufacturers think that we all want huge and heavy cameras; a couple of those, a few professional spec lenses, lights and computer equipment results in a fair bit of weight. Always being on the lookout for ways of cutting down weight and size of gear, I was an early adopter of the first Apple MacBook Air. It was certainly thin enough but with the 13″ screen, it was still big. Now that Apple have released an 11″ version, the quest to see if a smaller laptop will work is on again.

The Apple iPad 2 and MacBook Air (images have been montaged from two originals). Photos: Apple

The iPad is another possibility. However with all the talk of it not being for content creation but consumption, it’s not had a great start with the majority of apps not catering for the professional photographer who wants to edit and send images. I have the original iPad; it’s far easier to always have with me, especially compared to my much larger 15″ MacBook Pro. In fact on a day off I was given an assignment by The Times, which I edited and sent from the field on my iPad. One major omission from the App Store was the lack of a RAW converter; now that there is one, things have become very interesting and the iPad is definitely a contender; with the iPad 2 there is now much more processing power, making it an even more attractive prospect.

Both are surprisingly similar in size, with the iPad 2 at 24.1 cm x 18.57 cm and 0.88 cm deep with a 9.7″ inch display (1024×768 pixels). The 11″ MacBook Air is at 29.95cm x 19.2cm and 0.3 to 1.7cm deep with an 11.6″ display (1366×768 pixels). Form factors though differ hugely, bringing with them their own advantages. The Air has a traditional laptop design, meaning a real keyboard and a screen that hinges open. The whole thing can be placed comfortably on a lap or desk and both hands used to type and control the touchpad. The disadvantage though is that it’s much harder to use on the move. The iPad 2 is held in one hand and easily controlled with the other using it’s touch screen interface. This means that for situations where one is mobile, like when covering a demonstration, it’s very easy to work, editing and sending whilst on the move. Although both are extremely light when compared to regular laptops, the 11″ MacBook Air weighs more at 1.06kg compared to 613g.

With Mac OSX, now at 10.6.7, being a mature and fully featured OS, imaging software is freely available. Apple’s Aperture, Adobe’s Lightroom and Photoshop along with Capture 1, Photo Mechanic an so on cater for all sorts of workflow. iOS on the iPad 2 though is much younger and finding professional imaging apps that are of use to the pro is a little harder.

iPad Apps


Essential for basic RAW processing. Although a little slow, it’s very usable and allow the photographer to shoot in RAW and not have to play around with a limited jpeg workflow. PhotoRaw is used for basic RAW processing, the image is saved as a jpeg and then opened in one of the following apps.


Full on imaging software, allowing image processing, IPTC metadata and sending, via email and FTP. It has a very usable and easy to learn interface which works well. In tests this proved faster and more straight forward to use than Filterstorm Pro, so we used this for the timed trials.

MacBook Air Software

Any Mac OS X software will run on this machine. One has to be realistic though as even the top of the range model tops off at a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo with 4Gb of RAM. In practice though, it does run Aperture well, which I used in this test (although I would definitely recommend switching off the processor intensive ‘Faces’ feature unless absolutely necessary).

Speed Comparison

The test was to import one Canon 5D MkII RAW file, process the image, add IPTC metadata and save a jpeg version ready to send to a paper, library or magazine.

iPad 2

Importing, basic RAW conversion using PhotoRaw and saving the file as a jpeg took 5 minutes and 11seconds (Camera attached using Apple’s camera connectivity kit). Photogene took 5 minutes and 10 seconds to process the image. Total time for the iPad 2 was 10 minutes and 21 seconds. I have no doubt that with practice a minute or two can be shaved off this time.

11” MacBook Air

By contrast, the entire procedure took 2 minutes and 59 seconds.

By including using an SSD, the speed gains are tremendous. From a cold start the machine is fully ready in 17.6 seconds compared to the iPad 2’s 28 seconds (which does include typing in a 4 number pin). Startup from sleep are a little different with the MacBook Air taking 4.5 seconds (including typing the user password) compared to one second for the iPad 2.

Final Thoughts

With either platform, all isn’t perfect though. Connecting to the iPad involves using a connectivity kit which allows for directly plugging in SD cards or using a USB cable to connect to a camera directly. I would really welcome a built on SD reader on the iPad and a USB port too. There are also issues with the metadata; I have heard from colleagues that this is being stripped by some FTP servers. Photogene seems to be more stable in this. One just has to make sure the image is exported via the app and not just saved. With the MacBook Air, the two built in USB ports are fantastic and a welcome departure of a single port on the original version. I do find myself hoping for more than the maximum 4Gb of RAM and wishful that it also had a FireWire 800 port.

Where both of these platforms come into their own though is their absolute portability; they are smaller and thinner than other solutions with great battery life. Apple’s figures quote the iPad 2 as having 10 hours of battery life and the 11” MacBook Air as five hours; in practice these seem pretty accurate and I would say the MacBook Air actually lasts longer.

For the photographer who wants to travel light on a quick foreign assignment or wants to minimize the gear they carry if on foot, either of these platforms will appeal. The MacBook Air though offers more; the ability to use fully mature imaging software and having built in connectivity gives it the edge. For quick and on the move editing the iPad serves a purpose and can do well. Also, the vast number of extremely useful apps and publications on the platform are fantastic. The biggest thing that’s missing though is a professional imaging App. Idruna, the company behind Phojo should be encouraged to support the iPad; this would then be a killer imaging tool.

I can recommend both; they both do their jobs well but in different ways. It’s up to the individual to decide which suits them best. I personally love the iPad and all the content and apps I get on the platform. For imaging though, the MacBook Air clearly has an advantage on speed, capacity and software.

Addendum: This article was originally written for the BJP in May 2011. Since then, a faster MacBook Air 11″ has been released by Apple as well as an app which I highly recommend for the iPad by Nik Software, called Snapseed.

7 responses to “Travelling Light – iPad or Air?

  1. I have used an iMac in my office for about a year which I have found far superior and more reliable than any previously used PC. However, I still use a PC laptop when on the go which I will shortly be looking to change and will certainly consider a MacBook. Thanks for the advice.

  2. Have you looked at the Sony Z series laptops? I use them because they have great screens, 8 hours battery life, are the same size as the air and (until this generation) still had the optical drives built in.

    Of course, you can’t run OS X or aperture on one…

    • I haven’t; I put up with Windows for far too long! As you say, it won’t run Mac OS X or Aperture, so I’m not at all interested 🙂

      • I finally played with an 11 inch mac book air yesterday with some Aptus back RAW files in aperture…

        I think that the SSD makes it quicker than my quad core i7 with 12GB ram….


  3. Interesting blog, 2 months ago I invested in an Ipad2 then realized it did’nt have flash. 2 days ago I purchased a macbook air the speced up 11 inch and it seems marvelous. Like you I’m interested in saving my back and keeping down the osteopath bill.
    Cheers Edmond

  4. I have both but love the new model 11″ MacBook Air with the i5 processor. In all most every respect I’d rather edit with the laptop – the only (big) advantage of the iPad 2 is battery life.

Leave a Reply to Neil Turner Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.