Brian Hough
Big fan of all that tech nonsense, avid walker. 'Do what you like, like what you do.'

Follow on Mastodon

Can a tablet computer really replace my aging MacBook Pro?

The keyboard I type on, in just a couple of short months, will turn five. By extension, this entire computer - a 15-inch Early 2011 MacBook Pro - will be five as well. In some ways, its held up remarkably well; its Core i7 processor still feels relatively speedy, a far cry from my old MacBook Pro’s Core Duo felt at this point in its life cycle. Everything still feels speedy enough when using it for basic tasks, perhaps no surprise given all the upgrades I’ve thrown at this thing over the years; 16GB of RAM, a lightning fast Crucial SSD.

It’s also kind of remarkable at how poorly my MacBook Pro has aged. It’s got an absolutely puny 1440x900 display, laughably bad compared to the displays on the Retina displays on modern Apple products, with substandard color production, absolutely no breathing room to do “real” work, and a crippling lack of clarity in text. With no support for Handoff, AirDrop, and no USB 3.0 ports, there’s a bunch of productivity functionality missing that I utilize daily on my work Mac Pro.

I regularly use Windows for gaming, and modern games laugh at my MacBook’s puny AMD Radeon HD 6490M graphics card. And the final nail in the coffin, Apple has chose (planned obsolescence, I tell you!) not to provide valid Windows 10 drivers for my MacBook Pro, requiring me to put together a hacked solution that, I’m sure, will eventually fail.

Long story short, five years is a long time in the world of technology, and while my MacBook Pro has held on relatively well, it’s time to move on.

Once I reached that conclusion, a second, bigger question began to emerge. It may be time to move on, but in what direction? These days, every manufacturer is trying to hawk one of a thousand different concepts of what computers should look like in world of “post-PC devices”.” This desire to figure out what’s next seems largely to be a result of the reality of floundering PC sales, with only Apple’s line of Mac notebooks seemingly able to break the trend.

A general consensus seems to have been met on touch-based computing, and of course numerous devices that I’m considering are touch-first devices, meant to be used with a finger first, and a keyboard second. Of course, there’s the iPad – specifically the iPad Pro, Apple’s newest addition to the iPad lineup seemingly meant to compete head to head with the Surface Pro 4 from Microsoft, an interesting device that I have also been considering. Failing all of that, of course, is my old standby – yet another MacBook Pro.

The iPad Pro is an interesting device. I’ve seen startlingly different arguments from both sides of the aisle. Some have accused Apple of flat out copying the Microsoft Surface, albeit poorly – ironically limiting a device intended for a professional audience with a mobile operating system incapable of running them by design. Others herald the iPad Pro as some sort of savior for the iPad lineup – a powerful device that the iPad lineup so desperately needed, hardware that iOS 9 truly deserves.

Realistically, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle – a worthwhile and capable PC replacement for a certain segment of the population, and an all too hindered device for another portion of the user base. This is a question that every user will need to carefully consider for him or herself before making an important purchasing decision.

Are you a gamer, with a big Steam library of games? The iPad Pro is certainly out. Do you spend hours in and hours out living in Adobe’s ecosystem of Creative Cloud applications? Stay far away from the iPad Pro; Adobe has yet to take any sort of stab at developing a truly professional application for iOS; all Creative Cloud apps available for the platform are shy imitations of their desktop counterparts.

Do you spend most of your time mocking up or designing with a Waccom tablet? The iPad Pro is perfect for you – many consider the Apple Pencil to be the best stylus available for any computing platform today, bar none. Are you a subscriber of Apple’s variety of services – Apple Music, iCloud Drive, Apple Photos? They all work best on iOS on the iPad Pro. Do you need the ultimate in portability – portability above all else – the iPad Pro is your device.

While I’m incredibly interested in seeing how an iPad Pro would fit into my workflow, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m also incredibly hesitant to dedicating $1000 to that cause. As mentioned earlier, a not insignificant part of my laptop usage is spent in Windows, trying to play games. If I were to go the iPad Pro route, I would be giving this up entirely, relegating all of my PC gaming to my desktop computer. While this isn’t necessarily out of the question – I would be saving considerable money by going the iPad Pro route, after all – I don’t like the idea of hiding out in my room like a hermit just so I can play a couple of rounds of Battlefield. I also do happen to spend a considerable amount of time in Adobe Creative Cloud, specifically Photoshop CC. It’s a shame to ding the iPad Pro for what effectively amounts to laziness on the side of Adobe – it would certainly be possible to develop a more feature complete version of Photoshop for the iPad Pro, after all, it is a serious consideration that I find it difficult to overcome.

On the other hand, nearly all of those considerations wouldn’t really be an issue If I were to go with the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft’s latest generation tablet/notebook hybrid. Running a full version of Windows 10 Professional and featuring some of the most high end specs available for notebook computers today, the Surface Pro 4 would certainly be able to play some games (albeit on very low quality), and I’d be able to run all of the Adobe Creative Cloud applications until my heart’s content.

But when I stop to think some more, I’ve also come to the conclusion that I really don’t think that the Surface Pro is the device for me, either. For one thing, I’ve heard absolute horror stories about Windows 10 on high DPI devices, with most non-Modern Windows programs failing to scale to the Surface Pro 4’s display properly. The Surface Pro 4’s keyboard add-on is also no real replacement for a real notebook keyboard, feeling considerable worse than the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard to my fingers. And since I would be “upgrading” to a full desktop OS, specs suddenly begin to matter a whole lot more than they would on iOS – and frankly, I would need to spend an outrageous amount of money for what essentially amounts to a souped up tablet to spec out a Surface Pro 4 to make an upgrade properly worth it. An argument could certainly be made for the new Surface Book, though I’ve heard that the first generation device is far too buggy to be considered as one’s daily driver, so that’s out off the bat.

After thinking it through more clearly – putting some time between the initial hype of release day and my bank account – it has become clear that there are too many lingering questions that need answering before I can say that the iPad Pro is, with any certainly, the computer for me. Likewise, the Surface Pro 4 would get too expensive with too many little compromises to make it a really worthwhile buy, though it truly does seem slightly closer to being a true notebook replacement than the iPad Pro in its current incarnation.

As tough as it is to say, and as much as it apparently flies in the face of the direction the industry is heading, I truly believe that my immediate future lies in a non-touch device for yet another go around – my old standby, the MacBook Pro. Come on Apple, just release that next-generation lineup so I can give you my money.