On the surface, I’m probably an ideal iPad candidate: heavily invested in Apple gear already and looking for a device that’s smaller than the 17″ MacBook Pro I use for much of my writing, but with better battery life (and less risk of accidental damage) than the MacBook Air I use as my go-to traveling machine. I need wireless access for light duty work way from the house and I’m already happily using an iPod Touch for productivity apps like WriteRoom, so the multi-touch iPhone OS is familiar. I still own a fully functional Newton MessagePad (or pre-Steve iPad v.1) and to top it all off, my wife wants one. So why did I buy another MacBook Pro instead?
The iPad finally arrives in Canada on May 28, although most of the people I know in these parts who really wanted one drove to a Buffalo Apple Store weeks ago. While not quite reflective of the recent par performance of the Canadian dollar, the entry level Canadian version is only a fifty buck premium over what Americans pay, which isn’t too bad.
During the years of buildup leading to the big reveal in January, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion around here that I’d be camping out at some Apple Store south of the border once the iPad was finally released. Besides the fact that I seem to collect Apple products the way some people collect T-shirts (although, to those who would cry “fanboy,” please note that I continue to resist the siren call of the iPhone, relying on a perfectly serviceable HTC smartphone instead), I’ve been a relatively early adopter of related technologies, such as Apple’s earlier go at pad computing, the Newton, digital media (including eBooks, MP3 players and media centers) and mobile computing in general. Whether I’m off camping or taking the kids to the park, when I have to bang off an article, I pack a laptop and 3G modem so I can get what I need done. The laptop serves multiple purposes, including entertainment as a movie player for those times when we’re camping and poor weather leaves us looking for ways to keep the kids busy in the trailer (we keep a big stash of comic books too, but sometimes you need electronic entertainment, even in the woods). The problem arises when we’re camping off the grid. Suddenly, 3 hours of juice for a laptop over the course of 3 or 4 days seems woefully inadequate, especially considering the multiple uses the machine may be put to. Of course there are ways to overcome this limitation, but they usually involve additional gear. And the idea of having a $2k MacBook Air stomped by a bear, soiled by s’mores or accidentally crushed when the trailer is folded down is always a disturbing possibility.
The iPad should have been a perfect alternative: cheaper, capable of covering all the needed tasks (plus acting as an eBook reader) and eliminating the external modem, all while taking up less space. And it would make a great casual web browser for my wife on those days when she leaves her laptop at work and comes looking for my machine.
Version 4 of the iPhone OS looks as though it should address most of my multitasking concerns, but when I spent a few weeks pondering what to do, I ended up buying a base level 13″ MacBook Pro instead. Here’s why. When the MacBook is used conservatively, battery life between the two is a wash; both are rated by Apple at roughly 10 hours. The MacBook has a bigger screen at 13″ vs. 9.7″ with a higher resolution at 1280 by 800 vs. 1024 by 768. The MacBook lacks built-in 3G wireless, but I’ve already paid for a 3G USB modem and I suspect it gets better reception thanks to the ability to plug in an antenna. The MacBook has the ports needed to plug in accessories like a digital camera and the space to store data. I can use my existing applications instead of having to buy and adapt to new iPad-specific versions of iWork, and I can download and e-mail files easily. I can run Windows on the MacBook, which I occasionally need to do with some clients who use specific software packages. My Sony eBook reader will go for weeks on a charge and its e ink screen is superior to the iPad’s for reading outdoors, so no worries about losing out on the iPad as an eReader. As a web browser, I suspect the iPad would be an exercise in frustration for my wife and kids, who tend to hit a lot of sites that make use of Flash for video or games. The iPad has a definite weight advantage at 1.6 pounds vs. 4.5 pounds, but the MacBook is still quite manageable and when you factor in an external keyboard for the iPad (which, from what I’ve read, is pretty much a must for productive writing), the compactness factor narrows too. With current iPad demand, Apple hasn’t had any need to discount either, so while my wife was able to take advantage of educational pricing for the MacBook, that isn’t currently an option for the iPad. With the MacBook Pro’s educational discount, an external keyboard for the iPad and assuming the high end iPad configuration required for media storage, applications and 3G access, the price disparity is pretty much wiped out, with under $200 separating the two. Not worth the compromises, even for the cool factor.
So I ordered the MacBook Pro and so far, it’s been a great little machine. When used for writing and web browsing with the screen at about half brightness, 9 hours or so of battery life has been attainable. It’s not as sexy as the Air, but still compact and very functional, not to mention more solidly built and a smaller financial hit should the worst happen. I’m not trashing the iPad; I still think it’s a great concept and a product with tremendous potential, but the time just wasn’t right for me this round. I’ll join the ranks of happy iPad owners eventually, but in the meantime, I’ll just look at them enviously in coffee shops. And maybe I’ll plunk that Newton on the table just to mess a few people up.