Sunday, March 03, 2013

Which is better for work travel: An 11" MacBook Air or a (maxi) iPad with Logitech keyboard?

I have just returned from a conference where I ran R and Python code on my 11" MacBook Air. It did the job well; Mountain Lion's Full Screen and Mission Control features add real value to this small screen lightweight laptop.

So for this trip the Air was a great device. For most trips though, a full sized iPad with a Logitech keyboard case would be a better work option. 

Curiously, this has nothing to do with the touchscreen; it's about other hardware and iOS design decisions. The iPad's advantages include:

  • iOS is a fairly good Exchange/ActiveSync client . OS X is not.
  • Many iOS apps work in offline mode, OS X apps expect a network connection.
  • iOS multitasking is constrained. In OS X many apps may simultaneously jump on a network connection, sucking bandwidth and power alike. (Heck, backup may start!)
  • iOS is, in general, less demanding of a network connection.
  • iOS and the iPad are designed from the 'ground up' to use less power. That's why an iPad can last for hours, receive a power boost from a mere Morphie Juice Pack, and charge off a meager USB connection. Even the best laptops, like my Air, can't do this.
  • The iPad can be purchased with an LTE chip, the MacBook cannot.
  • iOS bandwidth consumption is harder to track than it should be, but it's easier than tracking OS X bandwidth use.

Travel is characterized by limited power and limited bandwidth. The AIr is a lovely laptop, but compared to the iPad it's built for a world of ample power and bandwidth. Today, even excluding the touch interface, the Max iPad is a better traveling device for most use cases.

Apple could make the choice harder though. They could make a future version of OS X a much better bandwidth consumer, and they could provide an option to throttle multitasking. The iPad would still have a large power advantage, but this make for a great OS X upgrade.

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Charlie Stross said...

Weirdly, my experience is the opposite. Multi-app switching is worse on iOS, text editing is vastly inferior (iOS swallows accelerator keystrokes). You can use a mifi with an Airbook and track/monitor bandwidth use thereby. Yes, the iPad weighs less and runs longer -- but it's a much less powerful computer. Finally, even my 11" Macbook Air's screen is a bit too small. My next portable will be (when the Airbook dies) a 13" retina Probook, or a retina 13" Airbook (if such a thing ever appears).

The iPad is nice, but not up to serious work.

John Gordon said...

No doubt it's less powerful; I couldn't have done my Strata Google App Engine tutorial on an iPad. I was thinking in terms of the email/web work I usually do for business when traveling.

Have you done any tweaking to make your Mac a better bandwidth consumer?

I love my 11" Air size, but, like you, I'd get a 13" were I to do it again. OTOH, Mission Control and Full Screen help a lot.

Martin said...

I tried to use my iPad with keyboard on the road and failed, I am much happier with my 11" MacBook Air. It's not only the much better keyboard, it's mainly the versatility. Copy and paste on the iPad is a nightmare, data is isolated in apps data silos and external storage cannot easily be used (on vaciation for example, I often import photos to geotag them with data from my USB GPS logger – importing the data and geotagging are impossible with the iPad). And the keyboard is of course much better on the MBA – that matters since most of my work involves text editing.

I am happy iPad user since I stopped trying to use it in a productive way. I bought a smart cover to replace my keyboard cover and have been a happy 'passive' iPad user since then …

I still hope of course for an MBA with data option and a touch screen, Lenovo sells such laptops and they are great, even with Windows 8.