I am at a crossroads in my work situation. Since 2008 I have worked as a freelance web developer, which naturally meant using a laptop as my primary/only computer. I worked mostly from home, but I would frequently go to coffeehouses, and occasionally work on-site at client offices. A portable computer was a must.
The same week that Steve Jobs announced the 11-inch MacBook Air, I went out and purchased one. It was exactly what I wanted: a full-blown Mac, (almost) as small as an iPad (which of course I already owned as well, but mainly used for testing, occasional gaming, and watching all six seasons of Lost in the span of a month on Netflix, not for “real work”). I loved the MacBook Air. I said it was the best Mac I’d ever owned, though I admitted it was a tad underpowered. Enough so that when SLP needed a new computer 6 months later, I gave her my MacBook Air instead and bought myself a new, slightly more powerful version of the same.
That MacBook Air has been my only computer ever since. In fact, shortly after switching to it full-time, I wrote a glowing review of it right here. But last April I moved my business into a storefront studio space. I’m not going to coffeehouses anymore. Now, more often than not, clients come to me instead of the other way around. And all of this time I’ve been sitting at a desk, with that same 11-inch MacBook Air hooked up to an HP 23-inch LCD. (Yes, HP. I may be a self-proclaimed Apple fanboy, but even I can’t justify the expense of one of their Cinema Display monitors.)
It’s in this context that I’ve finally really become aware of the performance limitations of the 2010 MacBook Air. It’s unbearably slow with Adobe Creative Suite apps. It’s even unbearably slow running Panic’s Coda. And no computer today should choke up on what is essentially a glorified text editor. (That said… As much as I love Coda, it does seem bloated and slow almost everywhere I’ve used it. There’s no comparison to the blazing speed of BBEdit, which I also love, but Coda has some features I prefer, so it remains my main coding tool.)
Over the past few months, as my workload has increased and my patience has diminished, I can no longer pretend that the 2010 MacBook Air’s performance is adequate for my needs. I know the 2012 Airs are at least 3 times faster than the one I have, and I’m sure this year’s will be even faster, and maybe even have a Retina display, and therein lies the problem: I’ve been desperately wanting to upgrade my Mac, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one of the current 11-inch Airs (the only portable I will consider) when they’re getting so close to a refresh.
At the same time, I have a major crunch at work over the next 3 months. I couldn’t afford to wait on my creaky old Air anymore. So last weekend I settled on a compromise, borne of the fact that I almost never touch my MacBook Air outside of the studio anymore. I got a Mac mini for the studio. I went with the more powerful quad-core i7 model, which is rated on Geekbench as at least 6 times faster than my old MacBook Air, and almost twice as fast as the current ones.
I’ve already noticed a huge difference. Adobe Creative Suite is way faster, almost to the point of no longer being infuriating. (But that’s another story.) Coda is still occasionally sluggish, but that may have more to do with the fact that I’m working with files on our local file server over a questionable WiFi connection. I should try putting the files directly on my hard drive to see if it makes a difference.
But now I am faced with a weird dilemma. This is the first desktop computer I’ve owned since the Dell I had back in 2001, and the first Mac desktop since even before that. (It was a Bondi blue G3 tower, if you were wondering.) The dilemma is this: in a world of iPads, where I am already pretty much never touching my MacBook Air outside of work, do I really need a portable Mac at all?
I still have the Air, of course, and have continued to lug it around next to my iPad in my Tom Bihn bag this week. But why? In the two meetings I had this week at client offices, I only used my iPad. Maybe the iPad is really all I need. Maybe?
I have a few months to find out. I won’t consider buying another MacBook Air until the new models are out, so in the meantime I will experiment. I will try only using the iPad for any and all computing tasks outside of the studio. I’ve begun that today, by typing this blog post on it as I sit at the kitchen counter with my Saturday morning coffee. It’s been a bit of a challenge. I gave up on using the WordPress web interface and switched to the (marginally better) dedicated iPad app. And I’ve made lots of typos… some that iOS auto-corrected, some it didn’t, and some false positives it shouldn’t have. (C’mon, iPad… use some context, would ya? Why would anyone ever write “you we’re”?)
The biggest challenge will be if I have to write some actual code. But it’s a far different world for that than it was even a year ago. I have a handful of coding apps on my iPad, though nothing I have could be more valuable than another pair of apps from Panic: Diet Coda (great name, BTW) and Prompt, a terminal app. I haven’t had much call to use either of them… yet. But I’ve been comforted knowing they’re there.
At the end of this month we’re planning a family vacation to Utah. That may prove to be the ultimate test. Do I dare leave for a week with only my iPad? Honestly, I’m not sure I can. It will depend on the state of my various work projects at that time. But I’d like to be able to give it a try.
I’ll post follow-ups here as the experiment continues.