You’ve got £400 to spend on a new laptop. The Big Tech Question is – should you be spending it on a laptop at all? For the same money as a low-budget laptop you can afford one of Apple’s cheaper iPads.
Ultimately, the decision boils down to what you want to do with the device, so in this in-depth feature we’re going to examine what £400 would buy you in terms of laptops and iPads, and then pit them against one another in a series of everyday tasks such as web browsing, email and editing photos.
Laptop vs iPad? By the end of this feature, you should have a clearer idea of which would work best for you.
You can either read the whole feature or jump straight to the section that interests you using the links below.
- What kind of laptop can you get for £400?
- What type of iPad can you get for £400?
- Which is the best for web surfing?
- Which is the best for email?
- Which is the best for photo editing?
- Which is the best for watching movies?
- Which is the best for work?
- Laptop vs iPad: The Verdict
What kind of laptop can you get for £400?
A pretty basic one. At this price, you can’t afford to get too hung up on looks. You’re well out of the price range of a slim ultraportable such as MacBook Air or its many PC imitators. Instead, focus on getting the best raw spec you can find.
A budget of £400 will generally confine you to a 14in or 15in device. You ideally want to avoid Intel’s cheap and fairly nasty Pentium range of processors and look for a Core i3 or Core i5 chip, even if it’s a couple of years old.
The HP 240 G6 laptop on sale at LaptopsDirect at the time of writing is a good example of the type. It has a 14in screen, a decent if ageing Core i5-7200U processor and 8GB of memory. The compromise comes with the 256GB SSD, which is the bare minimum of storage you’d want from a Windows laptop, but you can of course plug in external drives.
That precise model might not be on sale by the time you read this, but this is the type of spec you should expect for that budget. It’s fine for basic web surfing, email, and for fiddling with your digital photos, but not much else. Gaming? Not a prayer for anything more demanding than Solitaire.
What type of iPad can you get for £400?
For £400, you’ve got no option but the basic 9.7in iPad. There are two models of this, one with 32GB of storage (£319) and one with 128GB (£409). We’d go for the 128GB every time, as you’ll soon run out of space on the 32GB.
Even the bog-standard iPad comes with Apple’s A10 Fusion chip, which will make the iPad feel slicker and more responsive than a £400 laptop, that’s for sure. And with the iPad’s built-in graphics, there’s much more scope for 3D gaming than there is on a comparably priced laptop. Battery life will be far greater, too.
However, if you’re planning on using it for email or any kind of word processing, a keyboard is a must. The Logitech Slim Folio Case has an integrated Bluetooth keyboard, which might not be as good as the one on most laptops, but will suffice. That will add another £70 to the bill.
Cheaper Bluetooth keyboards are available if you don’t need one built into the case. For example, this £20 Artech keyboard case is Amazon’s top choice (although I haven’t tried it).
Laptop vs iPad: which is best for web surfing?
The most immediate benefit for web surfing on an iPad is that you can do it almost anywhere: on the sofa, in bed, in the garden, (whisper it) on the loo. It’s instant-on too. Need to quickly check the weather? You can do so in five seconds.
That’s not so easy with a lumpy, toasty 15in laptop that takes a minute to boot if it’s been powered down. Use it in bed and you’ll likely overheat the device as your duvet blocks the air vents. The garden? Perhaps, although you’ll be lucky to find a £400 laptop with screen brightness and clarity to match the iPad’s. And you’d need to be a determined surfer to take your laptop into the smallest room.
That said, laptop surfing does tend to be a richer experience. Fewer websites will refuse to work, you can easily adjust fiddly menus on estate-agent websites, for example, and you’ll find more useful browser add-ins on a PC than you will on locked-down iPad browsers.
On the flip side, iPad browsing is less afflicted by horrendous pop-up ads. There’s almost no risk of accidentally downloading malware, as there is on a PC. And most major websites are fully mobile-friendly now, making them easier to paw with your iPad.
Verdict: web surfing on a iPad is generally more pleasurable, but you might come unstuck on feature-rich websites.
Laptop vs iPad: which is best for email?
Unless you’re a devotee of full-blown Outlook – and that’s overkill for most home users – then there’s not a great deal of difference in the way Windows and iPads handle email.
Windows 10’s default Mail app is perfectly good. Setting up accounts normally requires nothing more than punching in username and password, and the app is clean, lightweight and easy to manage.
Ditto for the iPad. Apple’s default Mail app is reasonably slick, but if you want email and calendar from within the same app and a host of extra features, the free Outlook app for iOS is excellent.
There are two areas where the PC pulls ahead of the iPad for email. First, the PC is generally more versatile when it comes to handling attachments. Second, you’ll have a full-sized keyboard to play with rather than the more cramped iPad keyboards.
On the downside, email is a target for viruses and ransomware – a PC is much more susceptible to those.
Verdict: We’re pegging this one down as a draw, as long as you’ve got a keyboard with your iPad.
Laptop vs iPad: which is best for photo editing?
First, we’re going to make a few assumptions. We’re going to proceed on the basis that you’re an amateur photographer who uses a digital camera for holidays, family photos, Dave’s retirement do, that kind of thing. Keen enthusiasts or pros – the advice here is not for you.
The first thing you’re going to want to do is get your pics off your camera. The PC wins hands down here. Even if the laptop hasn’t got a memory card slot (and many cheapo laptops don’t), you’ll still be able to plug the camera into the laptop’s USB port.
Getting photos onto an iPad can be more tricky. If your camera has Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, happy days – the camera manufacturer’s app should allow you to browse and import photos from the camera. Otherwise, you might need to invest in a £30 Lightning to SD card reader – Apple does love a needlessly expensive dongle. (There’s a £9 Amazon-recommended version if you don’t mind buying non-Apple accessories.)
The iPad isn’t a place to store a huge photo collection. At best, you’re going to have 100GB of storage to play with. Expanding storage on an iPad is nigh-on impossible, too. There’s no easy support for external hard disks, for example.
This means you either need to be highly selective about which photos you keep or find another way to store your photos. That might be on another computer or using an online account. Amazon Photos, for example, offers unlimited picture storage to Prime members and it has an iOS app.
Even if your laptop storage is limited, it’s dead easy to plug extra storage into a PC in the form of external hard disks. In terms of importing and storing photos, the PC wins hands down.
Where the iPad starts to claw back ground is with photo editing. First, the iPad screens are magnificent – as colour accurate and as highly detailed as you could hope for on a £400 device.
There is also a wide selection of excellent photo editing apps for iPads, some of which are free. Among the apps I’d recommend areGoogle’s Snapseed, Enlight and Adobe Photoshop Express. Even enthusiasts and pros are well catered for with options such as Adobe Lightroom CC and Affinity Photo.
Editing photos on a touchscreen iPad is a joy. You can use your fingers to crop images, rub out objects in photos that you don’t want to be there, to move sliders that change brightness, contrast etc. If you’ve never dabbled with photo editing, it’s much more intuitive to learn on an iPad than it is with most PC software.
Amateur PC editing software has dwindled over the past few years. The best option remains Adobe Photoshop Elements, but it’s expensive (£70) and doesn’t offer a great deal more than you would find in some of those free iPad apps.
The Windows 10 Store does have a few of those iPad-style freebies. A particular favourite is Polarr (pictured above), which offers a fine selection of filters you can apply to your photos, all of which are customisable.
Verdict: If you want to store a huge photo collection, a laptop is by far your best bet. If you just want to edit a few favourites and share to social media, then go for an iPad.
Laptop vs iPad: which is best for watching movies?
If you often find yourself watching Netflix on trains, planes or hotel-room beds, which will offer the best experience – laptop or iPad?
The first thing to point out is your average £400 laptop is not a handy travel companion. It’s going to be a lumpen, heavy machine with average battery life and a chunky power brick to go with it.
The other downside is the screen. The best you can hope for at that budget is Full HD resolution (1,920 x 1,080 pixels). The HP G2 we mentioned above is even less than HD, with a grainy resolution of only 1,366 x 768. Colour accuracy, brightness and contrast are all going to be mediocre, at best.
The iPad screen may be much smaller, but it’s much better too. The display resolution is 2,048 x 1,536, which is almost three times as many pixels as the HP G2 in a fraction of the screen space. Colour accuracy will be spot on, you’ll be able to see baddies moving in the shadows, and brightness will be sufficient to keep watching Killing Eve even if you’re stuck next to the sunlit train window.
Don’t underestimate the iPad’s speakers, either. They pack a surprising punch for a device that can fit into a jiffy bag. Budget laptop speakers, on the other hand, tend to be rattly, hollow units.
Verdict: Given the choice of watching a movie on an iPad or a budget laptop, we’d take the iPad every time, even with the smaller screen.
Laptop vs iPad: which is best for work?
At some point you have to close Netflix and get on with some work – whether that’s bringing a report home from the office, working on your accounts or tapping up a newsletter for your local sports club.
A few years ago, the PC would have hands-down smashed this category. Now, it’s much tighter.
The Microsoft Office apps (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) have matured into excellent products. They’re not as fully featured as PC software, but they’re not far off, either.
Fantastic apps such as Notability allow you to jot notes or mark up PDFs with handwritten annotations (the basic iPad now supports the first-generation Apple Pencil, but set aside another £80 if you want that).
And many of the team communication apps that you find in use in modern workplaces – Slack, Trello, Skype, Basecamp – all have excellent iOS apps.
The big downside for the iPad remains multitasking. It has got better, but there’s no doubt that working with, say, a web browser, spreadsheet and email client open at the same time (and moving data between them) is far easier on a Windows laptop than it is with an iPad.
It’s also the case that the iPad file system remains an utter mess, making it very difficult to save files on the device and know exactly where to find them when you want to resume work.
And call me old-fashioned, but I still find it easier to work at speed with mouse/trackpad and keyboard than I do with a touchscreen.
Verdict: The iPad has closed the gap, but when it comes to work we’d still prefer to reach for a Windows laptop.
Laptop vs iPad: which is the better buy on a £400 budget?
If you tot up the five categories we’ve covered above, the iPad comes out top in two of them, two are split votes, and the laptop narrowly squeaks the work category. In other words, if you’re restricted to a £400 budget – with perhaps another £90 for the keyboard – we would opt for the iPad.
There are some serious downsides, the lack of storage for a photo collection being chief among them, but there are workarounds. We’re pretty confident you’ll find the overall experience of an iPad much more satisfactory than that of a budget of Windows laptop.
There’s very little joy in a cheap computer – it just is what it is. However, even the cheapest of iPads will give a degree of pleasure. If we had to choose between the two, we would go for the iPad every time.
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