I am deeply dissatisfied with my computing life

Juggling an iPad, phone, MacBook, and whatever else feels decadent, consumptive, and bad for the earth

Using my iPad from 7 am to 10:18 am I’m down to 28% battery life. That’s using modest brightness, cellular, and the Magic Keyboard with the backlights on because I didn’t think you can turn them off. Only just a few moments ago did I think to search Reddit for this and found you evidently can (is that new?).

I was listening to Music, working in Safari on a few webpage updates, working in Mailchimp’s website, and doing other web tasks. Occasionally bouncing into my to do list and Basecamp and configuring an MX Anywhere mouse to work in this setup.

That is definitely not “all day battery life.” By my count, it’s 3.5 hours with probably another hour left in the tank. That’s decidedly half the day.

I’ve been trying to use a Surface Pro 9, but that battery isn’t great either. The processor in it, an Intel i7, is two years old now. BestBuy has these things on fire sale frequently and thus why I picked one up to try during a return window.

I keep telling myself the device I want does not exist. I want a computer with pen input I can sometimes draw with. This, you can imagine, is why the Surface is alluring from the “one device” standpoint, since having one device has immense value:

  • It’s more affordable
  • Managing tabs, syncing, etc. is irrelevant because you have just the one device, short of maybe a phone
  • It’s better for the environment, since we’re not constantly juggling multiple devices
  • Having one device helps avoid the consumer culture I’m increasingly weary of

But the Surface runs Windows, of course, and the app ecosystem is just worse there. I don’t really care what defenders say about any of the native Windows apps: they’re all ugly. And using a PC in combination with a phone or other device requires using more cross-platform services. Things like notes, to dos, etc. all need to sync around and there are only a couple of real contenders in this space that work across macOS, iOS, Windows, and Android.

iPad Pro vs Surface Pro 9 battery life

What I’m struck by is battery life. The Surface is bleak and can run down about 15-20% an hour with a few cursory browser tabs open and a little app movement here and there. But this is not unlike my iPad when I do anything on it of any value. I think the battery life claims there are more for video or light reading. Something I don’t do at my desk all day. I make stuff, manage websites, login to lots of services, run photo editing software, and listen to music.

This all reminds me of old Mac arguments from the 80s that Macs are a “toy”, Windows PCs were where people go for real work. And now it’s the iPad that is the “toy.” But I can’t escape one nagging fear:

What if I’m just too dumb or old-fashioned to be able to figure out how to use the thing like it’s designed?

The iPad is a tool, right? And like any good tool it has limits and use cases. A hammer is not a screwdriver after all. But there are so many people making the iPad useful for them that it seems like surely there’s a way to at least achieve 95% of the goals I need. But this, too, is troubling because “We made it 95% of the way” is not a full, clean win that I am looking for. I do not want to own lots of devices.

To be clear: I don’t think Apple maliciously kneecaps the iPad to increase Mac sales. I believe we can hold two things in our heads at the same time:

  1. They believe the iPad should be a tablet first, not “a laptop,” and,
  2. This inherently means you need to buy two devices.

Many people instantly assume a laptop is the obvious solution, but here I run into another quandary: I want a really nice tool to do my job, and that means a pricey MacBook Pro. I use the 16” model, but even the 14” is rather large and they’re expensive. I move around outside a lot, often by biking or walking, and every time I do I think, “I hope nothing happens to this laptop.” I can afford them (once), but I do not like the idea of thinking some person can knock me over with their car and I’m screwed in physical and metal hardware.

And, being able to touch the screen and use a pen tool is really nice. You do it a little bit in Photoshop here or there on a Surface or just use two fingers to move the canvas around real quick and it’s light years better than moving the mouse or trackpad. Which is something I’m also very used to. I’ve been doing this work for 20 years so I have a lot of muscle memory. But I can also tell, “This is really nice!”

I see my students using their iPads for a lot of unique things, despite them also almost always owning a laptop. But I wonder, “Maybe this is still the future of computing?”

I’m less inclined to believe that as Apple seems to have renewed their interest in the MacBooks. But given we currently all believe spatial computing is the future, and that runs more iPad-oriented apps, maybe it is?

But this still leaves me with my most significant moral quandary: I don’t want a bunch of different devices. I want one device and a phone (for obvious size and portability).

Even just this morning, realizing there is in fact a way to change the keyboard brightness from Control Center had me thinking, “There’s a lot I don’t know here.”

Making an iPad Pro work by changing how I work

So I am trying to work more from the iPad to find its limitations that I just can’t work around. The Internet is full of people trying to make an iPad work like a laptop and coming away unhappy. I, for one, increasingly think maybe it is possible once you recognize it won’t adapt to you, you have to adapt to it.

Part of the allure beyond the iPad’s size and cellular features (something the good Surfaces lack, alas), is the ability to draw and draw well. Windows can run the Adobe Suite — but it does not utilize brushes in them as well as the iPad. Windows’ ink features frequently fail for me and require that I restart Illustrator to get them working again. As if it just forgets the pen is there. And I’d like to be more creative and useful for my clients by occasionally drawing out the things they need for email campaigns and events. This is why this is important to me and my work.

To the Surface’s credit, it is incredibly valuable to be able to work in Illustrator’s “Touch Mode”, which is basically the iPad version of Illustrator baked into the full desktop version of Illustrator, and switch into the “full mode” on a whim — when it works. But on an iPad, you can’t, and this forces constraints that sometimes make me question, “Maybe there’s a better way I should be approaching this design?” Maybe instead of relying on a lot of fonts, for instance, maybe I should be able to draw out writing by hand? Maybe instead of relying on Chrome Extensions to help me do random SEO tasks, I shouldn’t be doing that and instead work more humanely for the sake of the Internet and not “over optimize” everything.

Another oddball quirk of Windows with an iPhone is there’s no (good) iMessage functionality. And this is actually kinda nice because the red notification badges are much harder to see when not on the screen in front of you.

Thus there is also significant value in working with a purpose. Red iMessage notification bubbles notwithstanding, the iPad is much more inclined to force you to do one thing at a time. That mono-tasking is the way to go and I have written before how the iPads’s relatively severe windowing management is also a feature of a sorts, capable of pushing you into a set series of tasks without wandering away. Something I do on my Mac from time to time.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

It’s been said small is beautiful, and the iPad represents something very alluring about that, whereas the Surface does not. The Surface has a lot of upsides:

  • It is one device
  • The newer Slim Pen 2 is just as good as an iPad
  • The screen is arguably better than most MacBooks at its price point and still 120Hz
  • The kickstand is genuinely great
  • It has more ports
  • Being able to tear the keyboard cover off is nicer than leaving behind the Magic Keyboard for iPad because the weight difference is massive
  • The Surface Pro 9 + Keyboard Cover and it’s little Pen garage (which is way better than the iPad’s top magnet) is as light as a MacBook Air, which is way less than the iPad + Magic Keyboard
  • The device seems “fast enough”, but I can tell when moving around a lot it does get bogged down, even with its 16GB of RAM.

But the downsides are many, like:

  • It gets hot a lot.
  • The fans fire up a lot. Which is bothersome to me and legitimately makes me assume the longevity of the device will be shorter than it should or could.
  • It has much lower resell value and support options now that the Microsoft Stores are all closed.
  • All my headphones don’t work so great with Windows.
  • The apps are less polished, feature-rich, and functional for non-Corporate apps.

It’s hard trying to make this work, and I am deeply dissatisfied with my computing life as a result. The device I want does not seem to exist.


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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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