What's a computer again?

A warning: these are just some Saturday thoughts on the state of Mac and iPad. No specific question or hard-hitting hot takes, but I’d love to hear how my experience matches up to that of others…

So, here are a 14" MacBook Pro (2021) and a 12.9" iPad Pro (2018) with Magic Keyboard. Their user is someone who works in academia, with eyes aging faster than they should. I spend all day in front of screens. My software life is defined by Bookends, AppleScript, and a huge Zettelkasten of markdown files, to edit in the cool app of the day (these days, you guessed it, that’s Obsidian).

On the day the very first iPad 12.9" was released in November 2015, I bought one. It was meant as a joke to amuse my then-girlfriend now-wife. After all, I had owned and loved the “normal” iPad since its launch back in 2010. I ended up liking the 12.9" and its floppy origami keyboard so much that I was one of the few madmen to go iPad-only, for real (meaning no Mac anywhere), in 2015. It was… difficult. But I was excited by the novelty and I knew my ways around software. The Apple Pencil was, for an annotating PhD student, a revelation.

Between late 2015 and now I had no Mac at all for some stretches, or else I had an iMac to keep at home as a secondary computer. I realize now, in hindsight, that my enthusiasm for the iPad Pro made me completely miss the “dark years” of Apple laptops. I had lost all interest in them: with no cellular, pathetic battery life and puny little 13" screens in 16:10 paired with heavy aluminum bodies, they were clearly failing at being mobile computers. I told myself: iPad is intended to be mobile from the start, and it does mobile well. The Mac is a desktop machine. And maybe that logic wasn’t that wrong, after all, given the struggles Apple went through to make those laptops thin and light and to make them have decent battery life – struggles that have only been overcome by switching to their own silicon.

Then there is the question of those aging eyes. A 13" laptop is almost unthinkable for me, for now: the 12.9" iPad, thanks to its better screen aspect ratio and thanks to the elevation added by the Magic Keyboard, is way more text-friendly than a 13.3" 16:10 panel.

In fact, these photos show that when you align the space bars, the 12.9" iPad Pro holds the screen closer to your eyes and higher up than the 14" MacBook Pro:

The ergonomics of the iPad for working with text documents are simply phenomenal – and that’s even before you factor in the ability to simply peel the iPad off the Magic Keyboard if you need to read something in portrait mode, like a scientific journal article.

And yet, as you can see, despite all my praise for and love of the iPad, here is a shiny new MacBook, whereas the iPad hasn’t been upgraded since its last meaningful update, which was back in 2018. The reason, as everybody knows, is software: as my needs got more specific after graduating, I realized that the academic app I need does not exist – but that, as John Ternus would say, is for another day. This is not a “apps on the Mac are better than on iPad” rant: that’s so obvious it barely needs stating. The fact is that on the Mac you can circumvent the limits of poor software with your own scripts, automations and apps. On the iPad, Shortcuts – though more powerful than some give it credit for – can’t do anywhere near as much.

And in the meantime, Apple has seemingly started caring for the Mac again. Don’t get me wrong – this 14" MacBook Pro is a disaster in some ways: it’s heavy and far too powerful for almost all but a few CPU- and GPU-hungry professionals. I bet you that millions of customers would easily take half the power in return for shedding one pound and a half off this thing. But at least the battery is great: in fact, on that front, the Mac finally beats this 3.5-year-old iPad.

Rumors have it that the next MacBook Air will be light and thin (good) but still 13" (bad). I will probably switch to it anyway, and squint. But I wish that Apple made a 15" MacBook Air. Sadly, if their killing of the 27" consumer level iMac is any indication, they just won’t.

Meanwhile, the Magic Keyboard – easily the most exciting Apple accessory since the Pencil – is made of an unfortunate type of plastic that absorbs grease and gets destroyed by…your wrists in normal use:

Whose idea it was to make this “premium” accessory out of rubber? We’ll never know. I wish it was aluminum on the outside: it already has a metal core, and the weight that goes with it. Why condemn your fanciest tablet accessory to being a covered in stickers by customers ashamed of its smudges?

So here we are again in 2022, almost seven years after the 12.9" iPad Pro first upended my computer world, and the transition is not yet complete. My choice is still one between restrictive software and subpar accessory quality (on iPad’s side) and heavy, cellular-less laptops with screens that sits too far from your face (on the Mac side).
From where I stand, this is the contested ground of mobile computing in Apple land. On the fringes, things are clearer: on the desk, the iMac reigns supreme (until next Friday, at least!), for smaller tasks and casual reading, the 11" iPad Pro is perfect. But in the middle, it’s still messy. And will likely be so for a few more years…


Wait…the M1 coming to iPad in 2021 isn’t a meaningful update? What exactly are you looking for them to do?

You’d need a million customers who wouldn’t be happy with a MacBook Air. :slight_smile:

I sympathize with eye issues, as mine aren’t great either - but I don’t think 0.7” of screen would ever get me to drop MacBook Pro money on a laptop if I wasn’t otherwise happy with the design.

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Actually, I kinda get this perspective. My 12.9 is a 2018 and it serves my needs well. I’d consider an upgrade for the sake of more RAM, but for the money I’d have to put down for it…

The faster chip and additional RAM of more recent models is appealing, but depending on what you’re actually using the iPad for (and where you feel the real limitations are) they might not be enough to define as “meaningful updates”. If someone takes issue with the OS, or how the device works with external displays, or any of the other criticisms people level at iPads, a new processor might not make a meaningful difference (as several threads around here attest…).

For the record, I’m still one of those people who still does use an assortment of iPads for pretty much everything I do…

A couple of random thoughts in response to the original post:

  • I opened up my MacBook yesterday to set up a Raspberry Pi Zero. Needed the MacBook for the RPi disk/os imager, but I found SSHing into the Pi easier to do from the iPad, most likely because the iPad is where I spend most of my time…
  • I’ve always been a bit hesitant about going all in on official Apple iPad accessories. Again: budget. Adding an Apple branded pencil + keyboard hikes the price of an already expensive device. Having seen a few of these threads, I do wonder whether the fact that I’m less aggrieved than others about the utility of the iPad is perhaps partly due to the fact that I’ve bought into my setup for less than others have invested…
  • Similarly, I find the iPad’s great for my eyes. At home, I often work with my 12.9 in a “Hoverbar Duo” style stand (raising the iPad to eye level), with a wireless split ergonomic keyboard. And it’s easy to pop it out of the stand and set it down on the table to annotate PDFs, or throw it in a bag to head out… What I really appreciate here is the flexibility. The same device can lend itself to a range of different settings— portrait, landscape, in a stand or stand free, with keyboard or without…
  • I’m grateful that Shortcuts exists, and yet I’ve been burnt between major updates with things not working the way one might hope and taking ages to be fixed. I’m even more grateful for apps like Drafts, Scriptable and Taio/JSBox. Drafts is at the centre of a lot of what I do on the iPad, largely because it’s allowed me to build bespoke workflows tailored to my needs.

Obviously, as is so often the case with these conversations (so much so that it’s almost not worth saying, but still bears repeating), it’s very much down to what you need from your devices.


Agreed on the Magic Keyboard. My previous Smart Keyboard portfolio got all nasty due to my skin oil causing it to first smudge but then bubble and peel off. I wasn’t going to buy the Magic Keyboard but when the sale price dropped down to $200 I went for it and added one of the dbrand skins which will at least keep the front and back sides from going bad. But Apple needs to change that material.

Also agreed on the eyesight issue. At 52 I appreciate the iPad for that!

On the question of the iPad upgrade to the M1, I went for it because I wanted that added 8GB of memory and that has really paid off. Apps reloading between use with the 2018 was not a huge issue as they reload so quickly but I do a lot of switching and I’ve definitely appreciated the impact of more RAM. Hoping Serif releases Affinity Publisher for iPad soon and that was also on my mind as I use the other two Affinity apps quite a bit. Having Publisher on the iPad will be fantastic.

A few months back I updated my display from an 8 year old 1080p to a 4k mostly for use with iPad when I wanted to work at a desk. I just updated my Mac Mini to an M1 from the 2012 version so spent the past two weeks trying to mostly work from the Mac. Partly just to play with the new OS compared to Catalina but also to just re-discover the Mac after so much time away. Also, the old Mac Mini, via the HDMI didn’t take advantage of the 4k resolution whereas the M1 obviously does. It’s been interesting. Working on a blog post about it.


…which of course sent me to eBay to review the price of an M1 12.9… :shushing_face:

“Nope. Happy with what I’ve got,” he said, while placing some options in his watch list…

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Of course it’s meaningful in absolute terms, but I was talking about the (more idiosyncratic) personal ‘meaning’… For me, although more RAM is always welcome, the processing power of the 2018 iPad Pro is still not the limiting factor. The limiting factors are:

  1. Software (of course). If I could have one improvement only, it would probably be better external display handling.
  2. Battery w/Magic Keyboard. I find the MK has a big impact on battery life. The battery itself is at ~85% according to the Coconut app. That 15% is enough to jeopardize the last few hours of the work day, but unfortunately AppleCare+ doesn’t cover it unless it’s below 80%.
  3. Quality of MK, especially given the weight
  4. Some quality of life improvements, like the location of the camera…

It’s actually 14.2" + menubar area, so we’re talking about almost a full inch here! Again, I call the idiosyncrasy card. I have never been able to use a 13.3" laptop because I find myself straining. Even with everything always full screen (which I don’t like – it lends the Mac one of the shortcomings of the iPad…!). 14.2" is just enough that I find myself straining less, when apps are in full screen. I think the vertical height added on top of the 14.2" by the menubar-notch expansion helps a lot. I love the notch, by the way. Seriously.
I tried the 16" MBP and I would have kept it were it not for the weight. It’s a big recurring debate, but I do think there would be a market for 15" consumer Mac laptop.

Same. I still generally believe in a future where people with up-to-medium-advanced computer needs can get by with just iPad. But I’m no longer militant about it. Apple Silicon solved a lot of problems, so form factor aside (ie a 15" MBA) the only other thing missing from the Mac in the mobile space is cellular. My perfect laptop has a big screen, it is ultra light and has no fans, and cellular. In return for all that, I concede that it needn’t be more powerful than an M1 chip. Alas, I’m no Apple executive.

I’ll look again at Drafts. I love Taio! I would need Bookends and Highlights to cooperate with Shortcuts far more than they actually do to implement the scripts I have on the Mac via Shortcuts.

Been watching this thread, because I largely agree with many of the concepts in the original post. Been appreciating all y’all’s insight.

But there is obviously a market for a 15" consumer laptop. I know so many people who bought the 15" or 16" MacBook Pro because it had a larger screen. If they could get the same thing in an Air form factor, it would have been a no brainer for all of them.

I think Apple doesn’t do it because they know this as well as I do, and the MacBook Air is a much cheaper device. I don’t think they’re malicious about it; they’ve just done cost/benefit analysis and seen it would cost them more than it would help consumers, so why bother?

Get your eyes checked for cataracts if you haven’t already done so. Simple procedures now can cure it quite safely and the results are amazing. Then maybe it is just me who learnt the hard way. I thought I would need a special screen within a few months. I also should know about ‘this stuff’ but I just put it down to ‘just getting older’. Which is true but only partly: I am sorry if you have a more serious problem and forgive my insouciance.
Well one time cataracts were career ending and serious though like long sightedness before the invention of glasses. It really brings one up short? For me otherwise, now I know I will probably be able to see close to 20/20 again though nearly 70, I am sticking with my 16 inch mac book pro, maxed out, my apple watch, airpods and make do iPhone that I use mostly for podcasts and lectures.


I agree. The question is why doesn’t Apple.
Or maybe they do agree. I’ve always thought that the 15" MBP of 2016-19 looked relatively good for non-pros for exactly the same reasons it annoyed some GPU and CPU-thirsty professionals: it was relatively thin and sleek at the expense of power, thermals and ports. Now Apple has given those hungry pros (and YouTubers, who have way too much of Apple’s ear, I think) what they wanted but it has made its large laptop less consumer-friendly than it used to be. So who knows, there may be some hope.

Yup. It wasn’t a “pro” type of machine. It was basically a MacBook Air in a different body. I forget what it was priced at, but I thought it was much more reasonable than the starting point of the current 14" / 16" M1 units.

I think that for Apple, the question isn’t whether people might be interested in a different MBA size option. It’s more a question of the size of the subset of people that (a) want a 15" entry-level computer, (b) would be actively unhappy with and/or be unwilling to pay for their higher-spec 14"/16" offerings.

I think all of that would have to be true across a relatively large market for Apple to release a new product.

I was going to suggest the same thing. The cataract surgery is nothing short of a miracle, if that’s what you need. There was virtually no pain. Recovery was a cinch. It made a tremendous difference in my life.

I have a M1 MacBookAir and I never have any problem seeing the screen.


Good to hear. It is an astonishing procedure really. I am going for custom reading glasses too if I need them which I almost certainly will.

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I just wear cheaters. That is all I need. When I first had the procedure done I could see cars, trucks, read the print on vehicles speeding down a highway over a mile away. My vision didn’t stay like that, but it was so cool while it lasted. I had terrific vision as a kid.

I thanked my Dr for giving me the night sky. The stars are still up there!

Good luck and let me know how it goes! It only took a matter of minutes.

Some people’s vision corrects so fast they can read the exit signs going out of the OR.

So in other words, to bring it back to Macs as it were, I might be able to manage a MacBook Air M1!? I had assumed I could never manage now without at least a 16 inch: that, I take it from your account is not so?

I am managing just fine on MacBook Air M1! Never a problem. (LOVE it.) I don’t even think about my eyesight any more. I have readers but they are not too strong. This is the only computer I have. I love laptops. And I do fine with low light. The computer has a lighted keyboard.

The cataract operations are terrific. You’ll need one for each eye. I think I had a smidgeon of pain in one eye that lasted a few minutes and that was it.

I could have and should have had it years earlier but I was a little bit chicken.

Let me know how you do. We are truly so lucky this is available. It can change your life.

At night, I sometimes sit outside. The bushes but a few feet away were blurry. Totally ridiculous. Now I see those stars!

My nephew was in a play. I sat the entire time and could not see the stage! And we were not far back.

And the eye dr couldn’t do much more for me other than suggest the operations. New prescription wouldn’t help. So I plunged!


I had the surgery, not quite finished with the drops yet. My worst eye was blurry for a week or more. She said it was very solid and hard to get out during the op. I was more or less blind in it. The other one went better but the bad one is fine now. I also dropped the battery chewing brightness on my computer and iPhone: I hadn’t realized.
Even now I have reset my macbook to the default print size, it feels as if I have twice as much screen real estate. I need glasses for close up I didn’t go with the bifocal option for a variety of reasons. That is fine and I can actually see: reading is no longer a strain.
Thanks for your encouragement. I will get prescription glasses to read about mid July they tell me is the right time.
This has added years to my career in all truth. I will for sure be able to manage with a MacBook Air when the time comes too.


How wonderful, Tudor!!! I am so happy it worked out well for you. The gift of sight is a marvelous thing. I thanked my Dr because I could see stars which I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

I’m just fine with the MacBook Air. No eye strain whatsoever but I wear “cheaters”. I should have done it years earlier but I was SO relieved that I had it done!!!