Gotta have it

I rarely write about technology because I am not knowledgeable enough (I know, that does not prevent me from writing about other things of which I am just as ignorant. Leave me alone, OK ?).
However, given the numerous requests (as many as two) that I have received from my faithful readers (approximately the same number), I am writing today about one of my favourite subjects of conversation, namely computers and gadgets in general, of which I have always been a keen follower and avid consumer.
Specifically, I am going to try and articulate why, for someone like me, the Apple iPad is definitely the best solution for portable computing. In particular, in response to an explicit request in that sense, I am going to state my unambiguous preference for the iPad over the MacBook Air. I think that the former is a much better choice for many of us.

For the sake of clarity: I do not presently own an iPad. I have not purchased one because the first model did not come with a webcam, an accessory which I require. I am waiting for the next model, expecting that it will sport one, and some of my remarks below assume this scenario — in that case I am planning to buy one right away.

OK, I can almost hear the screams of indignation coming from computer experts: “But they are not comparable ! They are different things, either you need one or the other…[0]. Of course, strictly speaking this is true, as one of the two (the Macbook Air) is a full-fledge computer, while the other is in many respects just a “giant cell phone” [1].
But, while the technical differences are hardy disputable, it is my opinion that a direct comparison is possible and relevant for many users, for the simple reason that one is looking at a product with a specific use in mind. The question is not “What can it do ?”, but rather “Does it do what I need ?”.
Consider the following analogy: while no sane person would ever compare a car to a moped, in specific situations one might consider both as a transportation solution. Sure, a car is faster, more comfortable, and can do a lot more things than a moped; however, depending on the type of commute, traffic, parking availability, cost of gasoline, and actual need for the things that a car can do that a moped cannot, a moped might be “preferable” to a car.
All of us find ourselves making “comparisons” and choices of this type, all the time.

Same goes for computers, laptop, cell phones and all sort of gadgetry. A simple point that many technical reviews (like this one) miss, is that much of the functionality and performance provided (at least in theory) by computing devices for personal use, is actually of no use for the vast majority of us (I think that this has been true since PCs have been in existence, by the way). For example, for someone using a computer to surf the web, read electronic mail and write documents, a personal computer from ten years ago (if not more) would still do the job more than adequately.
In plain English, the difference between two gadgets is typically assessed based on the things that they can do that benefits most users, not on what they have “under the hood” or “can do on paper”. Who cares if, for instance, one has a “real microprocessor” and the other sports one that was made for a cell phone, one runs a “real operating system” and the other just something that looks like one ? If none of that translates into a significant difference in use, performance and functionality, then none of that is of any relevance to the “rest of us”.
When it comes to portable computers, it is true that they have become increasingly powerful and sophisticated over the past decade, and the difference in performance with respect to desktop systems is now often unnoticeable (here too, precisely because of similar considerations of actual, rather than theoretical use). Still, I think it is fair to say that seldom are portable computers purchased with the idea that they should supply the same performance as a desktop. Usually, the main selection criteria are things such as weight, dimensions, battery life, ergonomics etc.

I myself, like everyone else, would rather use a faster computer, with more memory and a larger hard drive. I did in the past purchase laptop computers, shelling extra money in order to get the model with the fastest processor, thinking that I might do some code development on the plane — something which I have actually never done. I often chose to purchase the model with twice as large a hard drive than the entry level model, only to use no more than 10% of it anyway, during its entire lifetime.
Simple truth is, I use my laptop to read e-mail, surf the web, work on my presentations, write documents, communicate using Skype and play games. Both the iPad and the MacBook Air will do that, I think to my satisfaction (I have played with both, at the Apple store as well as on those of my friends). In the case of the iPad and the MacBook Air, to render the “comparison” even more appropriate is the fact that both devices are roughly in the same price range (I am talking about the entry level MacBook Air).

So, why the iPad ?

First of all, to me the iPad is what a laptop should have been to begin with. I am still amazed by Apple’s ability to innovate — I mean, even simple things like touch-screen technology. It remains a mystery to me that a company like Microsoft, whose R&D resources should be at least the same as Apple’s, consistently lags behind when it comes to ground breaking products. Having said that, in the case of the iPad the situation is funny because, in fairness, the Tablet PC, which predates the iPad by almost a decade, ostensibly was based on the same concept. Why it is that the Tablet PC has stayed a niche product, while the iPad is enjoying such tremendous popularity, is unclear to me. Software maybe ?
Well, be that as it may, these are the main reasons for me — all of them are obviously reflections of my use of my laptop, but I do not think that I am very different from many in my line of work. In particular, ease of use during travel or away from my desk is the number one priority for me.

Generally easier to handle. Focusing on weight alone is misleading. I do not care how light the MacBook Air is, its design is still that of a conventional laptop, one that must be opened and closed. That makes it awkward to use while standing up [2], or sitting on a sofa, or not at a desk. The iPad can be held with one hand while the other can click on the screen. Doing the same with a conventional laptop is much more difficult.
Having to open it, makes a laptop inconvenient on a plane as well, especially if one has the misfortune of sitting behind one of those [insert favourite expletive] passengers who recline their seat all the way back (I have one who follows me on all my flights). Frankly, I think that in just about any situation in which one wishes to use one’s device within the confines of a tight space, the iPad will win hands down.
Oh, and regarding the keyboard, I know it is a matter of opinions but I love the touch-screen keyboard. I think it is a brilliant innovation, and I do believe that it is superior to that of the MacBook Air, which is not back lit, and hence harder to use in the dark (e.g., on the plane or during a boring talk — kidding).

Battery Life. On some of my last few long flights I have had access to AC power on my seat. That made it possible for me to work on my laptop for more than the two hours that would have been normally afforded by a full battery. However, most of the time that is not an option, in which case the longer battery life of the iPad gives it a clear edge, not just on a plane but whenever easy access to power is not available.

Internet access. Because it is fundamentally an evolved cell phone [1], the iPad can take advantage of 3G technology, allowing its owner to get on the internet wherever cell phone connection exists (obviously, the possibility of connecting to a wireless network is the same as for any other laptop). As stated in [1], while this may be too expensive to do on a regular basis, or for long periods of time, the fact that it is possible makes it very convenient. This is a clear advantage over any laptop, at least at this time, especially if one is talking about connecting for a few minutes to check email or a web site.

Yeah, but, what about…

The MacBook Air is an actual computer ! One can open a UNIX terminal, have directories, compile codes, run them…
OK, seriously, how much do we use our laptop for that ? I know I don’t, almost not at all. There are, to be sure, situations where I like being able to do some of that, and in those case I appreciate the fact that my MacBook Pro can almost act like a desktop — even at the cost of being heavy to carry and clumsy and inconvenient to use in tight spaces. That is typically when I spend extended periods of time (a week or longer) away from home, typically in Europe. In those situations, even though I still would bring it with me, I reckon that the iPad would not be a suitable replacement for my MacBook Pro — but neither would the MacBook Air, with its small screen, no DVD player and no ethernet port [3]. As for being able to have directories and store files, it is my understanding that the next version of the operating system will allow that, thereby making the iPad much closer to an actual laptop, at least from the standpoint of everyday use.

Yeah but… the MacBook Air is an actual computer ! It can multitask….
True, on the macBook Air one is running Mac OSX, which allows for true multitasking, namely editing a file, listening to music, surfing the web and reading email concurrently, possibly on four different virtual desktops. The iPad does not (presently) let one do that, but that does not mean that things cannot be done concurrently. I admit that I do not have direct on-the-road experience with that, but if it is as good as the multitasking on the iPhone, it is good enough for me and I suspect many people.

You are not getting this… the MacBook Air is an actual computer ! What about all of the applications that you use on your MacBook ?
They are practically all there. Keynote, Safari, Pages, Papers, Skype… one can open a remote terminal on a UNIX machine and check the status of some computation (something that we all do, of course — and yes, Schlupp, you can plot the data using the only plotting software in existence at this time). Of course, there are specific applications that require the computing power afforded by the microprocessor that one finds in an, um, actual computer. I am also sure that there exist consumers who acquire a portable computer with the documentable need of running specific, power-intensive applications. That is clearly something that would definitely tilt the balance in favour of the MacBook Air.
I think, however, that most users do not fall in that category — I know I don’t, and I regard myself as a normal user. I would personally recommend, before proceeding with the purchase of a MacBook Air, that one carefully think of what it is that his or her machine would have to do, that the iPad would not do — and measure that against what the iPad will do, that a regular laptop will not. I think in many cases the iPad will come out on top, in the end.


[0] See, here, for instance.

[1] Yes, a giant cell phone, not a “giant iPod” — the iPod, just like the quasi totality of portable computing devices, does not have 3G technology, enabling it in principle to access the internet anywhere where cell phone reception exists. Costly as this proposition may be, it is an option that sometimes is very useful, one that is simply not available on a regular laptop (that I know of anyway).

[2] Yes, I routinely find myself wanting to do that, to show some data or a figure to a colleague, at a conference, or even standing in line at the airport.

[3] This is indispensable in Europe. I know that one can buy an adapter for the MacBook Air, but it is another piece of hardware to carry around.

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10 Responses to “Gotta have it”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    Oh, I know you can plot. You showed me on your iPhone. But what can I say: With crappy internet (we might be talking about an insitution that saves on wireless coverage in its buildings, so that only the wing with administrative offices has it, not that I believe such an institution to exist, that would after all be almost as absurd as storing all the back issues of Acta Physica Podunkiana in rooms with large windows insetad of in the basement, well, never mind) a nice colorful 3D plot with more than one surface gets kind of slow.

    For something completely unrelated: I was asked whether one could in the same way use that *amazing* piece of software that doesn’t plot.

    • Massimo Says:

      Well, I am sure that one of the undeniable advantages of that amazing piece of s…oftware is that it is easily ported. I can see how that would be the case, and in fact I am quite sure I could also write just as portable a piece of software that would perform its nominal task just as well.

  2. Schlupp Says:

    Oh, and let me commend you on the timeliness of your post: Someone just bought a MacBook Air, because said someone felt the need to trump my MacBook (sans Air). Your post comes in most handy, I must say.

  3. transientreporter Says:

    Clearly, the motivation behind buying an Air is its “sexy”, not its “utility.” The iPad is clearly not a replacement for a desktop or a MacBook Pro, but just to reiterate your point, neither is the Air.

    I bought an iPad, and my observations are:
    1) battery life is astounding. In fact, I recharge so rarely that I keep misplacing the rechargeable-thingy (it’s in a corner somewhere, gathering dust).
    2) it’s terrific for reading and maneuvering through pdf’s. I don’t print out papers anymore.
    3) the selection in the iBookstore leaves a lot to be desired.

    Also, I never understood why anyone who works at a university needs 3G. You usually have campus-wide wifi coverage. But I guess Schlupp’s comment answers that question. You’ll just have to find the nearest Starbucks or MacDonalds (free wifi – at least in the US).

  4. Massimo Says:

    Also, I never understood why anyone who works at a university needs 3G.

    Well, when you are traveling and nowhere near a Starbucks or MacDonald’s, e.g., airport, train, hotel (in all of these places WiFi may be available but at a charge, and at least in North America I would actually save money using 3G). I am not even talking about Europe where WiFi is typically not available even when advertised.

    • Schlupp Says:

      “not available even when advertised.”

      Indeed. But I’ll give transientreporter that even in Europe, *universities* are probably the best places to find WiFi, as most of them are part of eduraom, so, IF their wireless is good, you can at least get in. Non-university labs like the one I’m visiting right now,* on the other hand, guard access to their wireless like the vaults of a Swiss bank.

      * as well as the one where I am based, but there the issue is theoretical anyway

    • transientreporter Says:

      Here’s the best reason for getting an iPad.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    I’m not in the market for any of the above right now, but when my MacBook dies on me (and I intend to ride that horse until it drops dead in the road), I think the iPad will be the way to go. I’ll be following how both technologies develop, of course, but from what I’ve read and heard from friends, it does most of what I need it to do, and will do all of that by the time I’m ready to buy one.

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