I had the same concern when the new MBA launched. MBA if you're in need of normal functions and need to connect with other peripherals. iPad if you're going to be consuming data and need long battery life. If you had nothing and you only can have one, choose the MBA. If you have a desktop or laptop already, choose the iPad.
I should post infographics on my website for this stuff lol.
I was in the same boat. I have the 1st Gen iPad and iPhone 4S. I thought about upgrading the iPad I have. For near the same price of the top iPad, I can pickup a Macbook Air. My 1st Gen iPad is still doing just fine.
If you're going to be in classes, taking notes, and writing essays, an iPad on its own isn't nearly as good as a MBA on its own.
If you're going to be doing digital artwork, with Photoshop or using a Wacom tablet, you definitely need a full computer. If you anticipate doing a lot of processor-heavy Photoshop, you might want to even consider a MPB with expandable RAM and a dedicated graphics card.
I'd say pick up refurbs of both if you can swing it (iPad 2, obviously). If you're dead set on a 3rd gen iPad, I'd say get the MBA first. I had an iPad 1, sold it for MBA, now i'm waiting for my refurb iPad 2 to get delivered next week. I didn't see a need to drop an extra $150 on the latest iPad, so figured $349 for a refurb worked for me.
MBA. No question. Even for things like digital media, the MBA is more full featured and powerful than an iPad. iPad doesn't even have a file-system. One day in the not so distant future, iPad will be a viable option as a stand-alone PC. Today is not that day, nor will it be for the next couple of years probably.
MBA without a question. I graduated from university last year in January and for me the iPad has been the perfect device for home computing since I don't have any homework and or any need to spend hours in front a computer, and thus I scrapped my plans to buy a new laptop and just use my three year old one for the occasional design, journo and photo editing work.
But for 90% of my computing needs the iPad is perfect but for a student it nothing more than a distraction and is nothing the one can actually do much work on. While at uni my second computer was a netbook. It only had 2-4 hours battery life but when it came down to it, I managed to take it with me on holiday abroad and get a 3,000 word assignment done. Is that feasable on an iPad? Absolutely no.
Also wanted to add that if anyone is doing any decent amount of iPhoto/photo editing, or iMovie/video editing, you'll want to upgrade to MBP15 or iMac. MBA is a self-contained solution whereas the iPad will feel frustrating for printing, networking, and a few other tasks.
An iPad is a toy. A very nice toy but basically a toy. If you need it for work or study the the MBA every time. If you are dead set on the iPad go for a separate keyboard like the Cruxcase but I think you will regret it. Of course if you have the money go for both!
I've never seen the point of going for a laptop over an iPad just because of the physical keyboard. That's like going with a Blackberry over an iPhone because it has a physical keyboard.
I take notes in my university perfectly fine using my first-generation iPad. The apps I use are Evernote for grammar classes and the like. I use Noteshelf with a stylus for Math classes. I keep all my notes on Evernote (I export the handwritten notes from Noteshelf straight to Evernote with a few taps).
But it could just be me. I type just as fast on the iPad's virtual keyboard as I do on a real keyboard. So personally, I would go with the iPad. Your skill set and needs could be different from mine. So its something to think about.
hmm.. thanks for the help. i'm still stuck though, haha. as i do have a windows 7 netbook, but it doesn't do as much as i'd like, and the family have an iMac, which i much prefer.. which is why i am tempted by the macbook air - my friend said an ipad is basically a large iPod touch, is this true?
Hardware wise, current MBA is understandably lack lusting over the new iPad. Retina display, a GPU that even more powerfull than Intel HD 3000 on MBA, enough CPU for daily computing needs.
All it needs is a serious OS like OSX. It has full blown Photoshop, Illustrator and whatnot, a proper office apps for writing essays, art students still have to write essays, right? And since OP is in university, even if it's art major, a proper laptop is a necessity. I'd make it a primary choice, and if within a year or so I have spare money, than I'll get an iPad, who knows wha Apple would have on the next iPad.
So yeah, unless you have an adequate laptop/desktop, go with MBA first. iPad is a secondary device no matter what, maybe not because of the hardware anymore, but more to the OS. If iPad runs full OSX, wow .. I don't think MBA would be able to hold a candle against it, just snap the bluetooth keyboard and trackpad, and voila .. a proper laptop with reasonable power .. but fortunately we're not there yet.