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The iPad Air is finally ready to be the affordable MacBook alternative

OPINION: Apple has long failed to offer a proper MacBook with a price tag lower than a grand, but with the huge updates arriving for the iPad Air M1 in iPadOS, that could no longer be an issue.

Apple has long touted its range of iPads as adequate laptop replacements, we’ve had glossy adverts from the brand claiming as much.

But in reality, I have never been convinced. The limits of the iPad’s software have always held it back from being a true laptop replacement due to a barrage of restrictions, mostly focused on multitasking and how users interact with apps.

Features that we take for granted on a desktop operating system, such as having more than three open windows and apps that can be resized, are not available on an iPad and this limits productivity, especially for those people who need to be doing multiple things at once.

iPadOS 16 multitasking

With iPadOS 16 and a new feature called Stage Manager – which you’ll also find in macOS Ventura – these limitations have the potential to be completely removed. Allowing any iPad with an M1 chip, like the recent iPad Air 2022, to function far more like a traditional laptop.

Stage Manager lets you open multiple apps at once with overlapping interfaces and each can be manually resized – just like on a MacBook. You can open up Google Docs, Spotify, YouTube and Safari and have parts of all visible. You can create customised spaces filled with certain apps you want to use together and your dock of other apps is always visible. It has some other neat tricks that play into the tablet nature of the iPad too, like always centring your apps in the middle so you can keep them in focus.

Another boon to those who want to use an iPad Air M1 (or M1 iPad Pro) as a real laptop replacement is the expanded external monitor support. The iPad now properly supports monitors in resolutions up to 6K, and you can have four apps running on the iPad’s screen and another four visible on the expanded screen. Previously, monitor support went as far as mirroring your iPad’s display and was mostly useless.

iPadOS 16 monitor support

Apple has also made the smart move of allowing those who prefer the more basic multitasking to simply disable Stage Manager. If your iPad is purely a media and browsing device then you’ll be happy to know the way you use the tablet doesn’t have to change.

With these enhancements, the iPad Air – when you pair it with some sort of folio keyboard, be it Apple’s Magic Keyboard or an alternative – could finally become the mid-priced Apple MacBook I have wanted for years. The best of a tablet, plus the far less hamstrung multitasking of a Windows or macOS laptop.

Now, of course, there will likely be issues and this is the beginning of a transition rather than the end goal. You’ll still be limited by the apps available on the App Store, and it doesn’t look like Apple is going to be porting any of its pro tools like Final Cut to iPadOS just yet. The software also remains in beta and quirks and kinks will no doubt arise once more developers start using it. Still, this feels like a strong first step and a positive sign of things to come.

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