At yesterday’s Apple event, I saw a company returning to its finest form. Apple paid overdue attention to its stalwart MacBook Air and Mac mini, introduced a much leaner and more powerful iPad Pro, and fixed the design disaster that was the Apple Pencil’s charging. You don’t have to be an expert analyst to forecast bumper holiday sales for the Cupertino team.
In crafting its most compelling iPad and MacBook Air to date, Apple also created a major headache for people like me. I’m a member of that classic Intel ultrabook demographic whose computing needs are light but constant. You won’t catch me doing 3D modeling or 4K video production on my laptop, but I do a litany of small tasks online, in a word processor, or in Adobe’s Lightroom. I’ve been using a MacBook Pro for two years that does most of what I want, but it really doesn’t last long enough. Now, Apple is offering me the much better battery life I need with the high-quality display I desire, but it’s fragmented the choice. Both the new MacBook Air and new iPad Pro could be the ideal computer for me.
The new Air is the most familiar and predictable scenario. Its strengths are known knowns: long endurance, densely packed, high-quality construction, and all the good things that make macOS attractive. For me, the latter includes all the small utilities like Alfred and Flycut that make my workflow smoother and faster. I tried re-creating the same experience in Windows last year, but that experiment really didn’t sustain the same level of quality and polish that the Apple original offers. Windows laptops have also failed to impress me on the battery life front, which is where the MBP underwhelms, and so Apple has a significant opportunity to stand out by living up to its promised 12 hours of battery life with the MacBook Air 2018.
The iPad Pro, on the other hand, is the more exciting and adventurous choice. I don’t immediately know how all of my existing tasks would translate to it, but it’s grown into such a capable and versatile machine that I get the sense I’d invent new jobs, new ways of doing things, with it as my primary tool. A few of the advantages attracting me to the iPad Pro: the display, with its fast refresh rate and True Tone color adjustment; the new Apple Pencil 2, which magnetically docks to the side of the tablet and even charges wirelessly; and LTE.
Adding LTE to your most-used portable computer is truly a transformative upgrade. My colleague Dan Seifert wrote about it in the context of the Surface Pro LTE from Microsoft earlier this year, and he covered the entire Apple event this week with that device. When the venue’s Wi-Fi network let him down, he didn’t even notice because his computer seamlessly switched to using the cellular connection. The small efficiencies of being able to just pop your computer open anywhere and start working without fiddling with wireless network credentials or setting up a mobile hot spot eventually add up to a big productivity win.
In the years since Apple last upgraded the MacBook Air in a meaningful way, I’ve noticed much of my work time gradually shifting to my smartphone, with the laptop taking a secondary role, deployed only when I need the larger screen and more comfortable keyboard. That’s in large part because of the always-on connection of the phone, the immediacy of everything I can do on it, and the connectedness to all of the most popular social and work communication apps. The number of times I’ve caught myself using my phone in front of an open laptop on my lap has been growing.
At its outset, the iPad was dismissed as being merely a “jumbo iPhone,” but in 2018, we might want to start asking if that’s a criticism or a form of praise. The best apps today are being developed for the iPhone and, by the extension of iOS, as the common platform for the iPad. iOS is the operating system of Apple’s future, macOS is the operating system of Apple’s past. As a writer, I find plenty of apps like iA Writer to deposit my loquaciousness into on iOS. As a photographer, I’m excited that real Photoshop is arriving on the iPad. And as a casual gamer, I recognize that iOS gives me vastly more entertainment options that macOS.
Here lies the dichotomy: do I want an instantly familiar and trusty laptop that will do all the things I’ve been doing for years, or do I want a computer for the future that will grow with me? Apple appears to have strategically engineered this tension into its product portfolio. It refuses to offer LTE, Face ID, or touchscreen options on its Mac line, while limiting the ports on its mobile devices. (The latest iPad Pro loses the headphone jack, and its new USB-C port doesn’t support external storage.) The 11-inch iPad Pro fits into bags and pockets that are inaccessible to a 13.3-inch MacBook Air, but then the Air is vastly more stable on a lap and offers a better typing experience.
The big commonality shared by these attractive new devices is Apple’s typically luxurious pricing. You’ll have to spend $1,599 for a 2018 MacBook Air with 512GB of storage or $1,498 for an 11-inch iPad Pro with a Keyboard Folio, LTE, and the same storage upgrade. Those are MacBook Pro sort of prices, and yet I can see valid reasons for why you’d want to spend that money on Apple’s supposedly junior mobile computers. I’m sorely tempted to trade in my MacBook Pro for one of the new Airs, though the best idea right now might be to take a deep breath and wait out the early adopter price premium.
Reviews will determine exactly how good Apple’s new products are, but it’s not too soon to say that Apple has differentiated their form and function to a sufficient degree that an iPad Pro, a MacBook Air, and a MacBook Pro can all happily coexist on store shelves. Until this week, Apple was still offering some embarrassingly out-of-date computers, but now, it has replaced them with an embarrassment of diverse riches.