For the past year or so I've been trying to decide what laptop to buy. My current machine, a 2006 MacBook, is on its last legs and really hasn't been an effective mobile computer for over a year due to a drastically shortened battery and what appears to be a busted wifi antenna. The machine has done great things for me for the past several years and is the primary machine from which I've authored most of the posts on this blog. It managed to get me started with podcasting and has been my primary development machine for nearly all my programming projects, regardless of platform. The machine still performs quite well considering its age and how much I've used it over the past five-and-a-half years, really the biggest reasons for me to upgrade it are its newfound lack of mobility (no battery or wifi) and its lack of ability to run OS X Lion and by extension the new version of XCode because Lion will not run on the Core Duo line of processors.
The logical step seemed to be replacing the 13" MacBook with another MacBook of similar size and capability. The natural contenders were the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air, both 13" models. Most of the decision for me had started to revolve around the specs of those machines. Which one could hold more RAM? Which could have a larger hard drive? Do I need an optical drive? These questions plagued me for a number of months and I continued to debate which of these laptops was the right fit for me. One day, while browsing the web looking for indications of an upcoming refresh of the MacBook line I had a bit of an epiphany. I needed to follow the advice at I've given to friends and family for years when it comes to technology -- don't focus on the specs, decide what it is that you want or need the technology to do. This was an exercise that I had completely failed to undertake.
Understanding My Technical Needs
As I began to examine just what I used technology for on a daily basis some themes began to coalesce from the jumbled mishmash of devices, services and applications. When the patterns first became visible I was a bit surprised, mainly because they were leading me down a path I didn't expect -- a path which I had felt until now was for the less geeky, the non-power-user... the normals. My analysis was telling me that I didn't need to get a mid- to high-end laptop, in fact it was starting to look like I didn't need a laptop at all...
How did I come to this conclusion?
In any given week there are a number of things that I use computers for, typically all of these tasks have been done on my main laptop which was the centre of my digital life. When I looked over list list closely, the first pattern began to emerge.
- Audio Editing
- Working with family photos
- Software development
- Watching video podcasts
- Reading blogs and news sites
- Casual gaming
Power User Tasks
Some of these tasks are really best suited to the stationary environment that my MacBook has been confined to for the past many months -- it's better to be at a desk with a big screen, a fixed setup and a hard-line to the Internet. The big screen is particularly important for me when I'm working on software projects, editing audio and working on photos. Having the extra screen real estate for toolbars and being able to get into the details of a photo makes those tasks more enjoyable when I can plug the screen into my laptop. These tasks also require a computer with a reasonable bit of power, but still nothing I would call a powerful workstation.
Light Content Creation
By contrast, I prefer to do my blogging and writing when I'm not confined to my desk. These are tasks I've really enjoyed having the laptop for because they've allowed me to get out and write in other locales, whether its in my living room, in bed or at the local coffee shop. The portability of a mobile device allows me to be wherever my creative juices will flow, and where I can even get some sunshine on occasion. These tasks, however, don't require particularly powerful hardware. Even the most basic laptop with a wifi connection is enough to be able to take on most small writing projects and blogging assignments.
Casual and Mobile Applications
The last set of tasks fall neatly into the "content consumption" category. These are also tasks that I would very rarely do at my desk, but would rather read and watch with other people doing the same kinds of things, such as my wife and I reading for a bit on a Sunday afternoon during our daughter's nap. This means that I definitely don't want to be tied down to my desk in the basement, mobility is a key feature for these use cases.
Looking through these three groups of tasks, or use cases, a brand new 13" MacBook Pro would fit the bill quite nicely. It has the power and expansion ports to take care of all of the power-user tasks quite handily. The 13" size is still small enough to make the device nice and portable so that I can take on all of my writing assignments wherever the mood strikes me, and I could still use it for reading blogs and watching video podcasts.
As I thought about it more I also realized that there were some down sides to my one-machine-to-rule-them-all approach. The first being the cost of mobility. Every time I want to switch between my power-user setup and my mobile setup, I have to detach all of The devices from the MacBook, and then reconnect everything the next time I want to code or podcast. While these could definitely be considered trivial problems to solve, my inherent geek laziness doesn't relish the prospect of continually connecting and disconnecting cables for the next four or five years. There is also the issue of heat with the higher-powered MacBook. They do run fairly hot, and whenever I use one for more than 10-15 minutes on a couch or some other similarly loungy position I find the need to place a towel or pillow between me and the device just to keep myself cool (being careful to keep the fan vents clear of course). Lastly was the price, the mid-range MacBook Pro with more RAM and AppleCare would set me back a bit more than $2000 after taxes. While not insurmountable, it's certainly not a trivial amount of money.
After having considered my options a bit more carefully I began to realize that having a portable desktop-replacement like the MacBook Pro really wasn't what I needed. I don't write code away from my desk (except on a few very rare occasions), and I certainly don't podcast away from my desk. When I looked at my mobile use cases, a great many of them could easily be accomplished with a a much lighter device -gasp- a tablet. In some cases the tablet experience would arguably be better than the computer experience. The tasks I wasn't convinced would be good on a tablet were the writing and blogging tasks. My experiences trying to write using the onscreen keyboard of my iPhone had convinced me that I was going to need a physical keyboard to do that kind of work. That said, there are physical bluetooth keyboards available for tablets which can make that experience very similar to working with a laptop. The external keyboard has the added advantage of being removed and stowed when not in use.
Now the catch here (because there's always a catch) is that the tablet can't handle the more powerful scenarios laid out in my Power User Tasks section above. It's limited storage, memory, processing power and screen real estate meant that I would still need another solution to supplement the tablet. This will likely be a mid-range Core i5 or Core i7 Mac Mini, but the need for that device isn't quite as urgent, so the existing stationary MacBook will continue to fill that role until the next refresh of the Mini line, hopefully around the same time as the Mountain Lion launch.
With that last piece of the puzzle out of the way, I reached a final decision to extend my Apple ecosystem and picked up a 32GB 3rd generation iPad earlier last week. I have some additional tools coming to supplement the device including a case, a keyboard and a stylus, but details on those will have to wait for another blog post. So far I have been able to do all of my mobile tasks on the iPad, including writing. I banged out this entire post on the iPad using the on-screen keyboard. There were certainly more errors here than on a physical keyboard but it's certainly serviceable.
Admittedly I didn't give much consideration to purchasing a non-iPad tablet. This is partly because of my existing Apple "lock-in" with the iOS devices I've had in The past, including my iPhone, there is some amount of money invested in software. Having all of Those applications instantly available on my new iPad is nice. In addition, the iPad and iOS are a known quantity more than the other tablets.
While it has only been about 5 days since I made the decision to essentially abandon my use of laptops for the next few years (with the exception of my office-issued machine) I'm really enjoying it so far. There will undoubtedly be more to come on this topic as I learn everything I can about integrating this newest piece of technology into my workflows.