Should I Buy an iMac and iPad or Just a MacBook Pro or Air?

Let’s get right to the heart of this question: Should you buy an Apple iMac and an iPad combo or should you just buy a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air?

At the heart of this question is a collision of raw computing power with mobile computing. The iMac offers a huge screen with fast processors and plenty of memory and storage — but it’s not portable. The MacBook Pro offers reasonable power with reasonable storage — and it’s a workhorse notebook computer — but it’s not as portable as an iPad Air and it’s not as powerful as an iMac.

Any way you look at it, you’re facing a system of compromises.

And yet, you can get a big 21.5-inch iMac (less than $1,300) plus an iPad Air (less than $500) for a total of around $1,800 depending on where you buy and the tax. That’s still less than $1,999 or so for a 15-inch MacBook Pro. Or you can settle for a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display and buy a cost-effective 24-inch external monitor for home-base use . . . and still spend less than an iMac + iPad.

The question for mobility is this: If you have a MacBook Pro, do you really need an iPad Air for portability? Seems redundant if you have an iPhone, too. And yet, the huge crisp screen and power of an iMac beckons. . . .

How to Make Your iMac Decision

To figure this out, ask yourself a few questions.

1. Can you be productive on the road with an iPad Air 2?

If you have to do serious work from remote locations, will the nature of your job let you get your job done with an iPad Air 2? If you have to do a lot of typing, the touchscreen keyboard will get old fast. You can pair the iPad Air with an Apple Wireless Keyboard, which gives you an excellent full-size Apple keyboard feel. You can also get a keyboard case for your iPad Air, essentially turning it into a mini sort of notebook computer.

Even with a keyboard, though, you’re still working on iOS. If your job requires you to have multiple screens open and to multitask, you might find yourself frustrated by an iPad Air. On the flip side, most people can make some interesting productivity gains when they focus on one task at a time.

If you have doubts about your ability to work while traveling without a real laptop, especially if you travel a lot, a MacBook might be your best bet.

2. Do you really need a portable MacBook?

Despite the popularity of laptops, most laptops rarely move from one key desk. Sure, you can take a MacBook to the backyard or the couch or to a coffee shop, but most people don’t. Will you?

And here’s another benefit of an iMac — a consolidated, centralized iTunes and iPhoto library for you and your family. When I travel, my MacBook Pro travels with me, effectively cut off from our living room Apple TV. If the core Mac in the house were an iMac, it would stay in the house, usable by friends and family at all times.

3. Do you have a good spot in your household to put an iMac?

An iMac takes up space. You need not only a solid place where kids won’t throw toys around, but you also have to have a spot where you can get work done with it. Since it’s not portable, it’s not so easy to simply pick up and take to another room when the relatives are visiting for the holidays.

On the flip side, an iMac works great in open areas of the household, inviting the household adults and family to use it. This is particularly good for teenagers, who you might not want to let loose on a computer alone for long periods of time with screens they can easily hide from passing household traffic. Just saying. Kids.

4. How important is raw computing power?

The real key to the iMac is getting an insanely fantastic all-in-one machine with plenty of processing and graphics-handling abilities. With an iMac you can edit movies, photos, and play games with a super snappy experience.

If you’re settling into the idea of an iMac, here’s another curveball to throw at you: There’s a chance that Apple will introduce a Retina-based iMac sometime this year. You’ll get a sharper screen, but it won’t result in an appreciably greater work area for most consumers. And the iMac screen is already glorious. But if you thirst for the latest and greatest — and you’re willing to pay a premium for it — Apple might introduce a new  iMac by October (Apple essentially never introduces anything new in November or December). When Apple makes its next major iMac move, I expect Apple to offer a premium, expensively priced iMac with Retina display . . . while still selling less expensive iMacs with non-Retina displays — like it did with the transition from non-Retina MacBook Pros to Retina MacBook Pros.

All-in-all, I face this same decision every two or three years as I consider upgrading my MacBook Pro. Ultimately for me, I error toward the MacBook Pro because I spend so much serious time writing. Heck, as I write this right now, I’m standing in a friend’s kitchen using my MacBook Pro on his bar counter, 300 miles from home.

Still, when it comes time to editing home video, I always wish I had a 27-inch iMac with its excellent screen.

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About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and great tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.