The Other Apple Silicon Laptop

I am tantalized by the glowing reviews of the new MacBooks running on Apple's own processors, wherein normally jaded tech pundits express their astonishment at the speed, battery life, and fluidity of these M1-based laptops. But as tempted as I am to scrape together the means to purchase one, I simply can't justify it. You see, I already have a laptop running Apple Silicon, and even after two years it's still wicked fast, unfailingly fluid, lasts as long on a charge as I need it to, and like the M1 Macs, it also runs iOS apps.

Of course, I'm talking about an iPad.

For the past several months, the 2018 11-inch iPad Pro has been my primary personal computer (as opposed to a work computer, which is a 2017 iMac). I sold my MacBook Air a few months ago in order to cut some pandemic-era costs, and I have been genuinely surprised by how little I've missed having a traditional laptop and how I almost never feel the need to use my work machine for "serious computing." This was supposed to be a kind of sacrifice, and I was prepared to deal with what I assumed would be a heavily compromised experience. But as things stand right now, if I had to choose between my iPad Pro as my main "laptop" and a fancy new M1 MacBook, I think I'd have to stick with my current setup.

I did not expect this.

Writing this piece in iWriter Pro.

To be clear, I wouldn’t replace my work desktop with an iPad. My job as a communications director for a national nonprofit benefits mightily from a large screen running multiple applications at once, an easily manipulated cascade of windows and tabs, browsers outfitted with extensions, and a robust file system augmented with several external drives.

But I tell you, if I had to do my job from the iPad, I totally could. I could not have said that just a couple of years ago.

When the work day is over, I use my iPad Pro to write essays, articles, newsletters, and the novel I'm working on. I use it to record and edit video and audio for my podcast and YouTube channel. I manage my photo collection with it and do basic image editing (“basic” because I have no idea what I'm doing, not because of any shortcomings with the hardware). I also draw my ridiculous sketches with it, play a few games, watch TV shows and movies, read books and articles, and even write and record songs.

And perhaps most importantly, I use it to read comics. I'll get to that in a bit.

There's nothing special about my setup. It's an 11-inch iPad Pro with Apple's Magic Keyboard and Pencil. That's it. No dongles, no drives, no mouse. I used Logitech's less expensive keyboard-with-trackpad solution for a time, and while it was very good, it was a victim of its own success, showing me that an iPad-only solution for my personal computing needs really was possible, and worth the extra cost to make the experience just that much better with Apple's keyboard.

There are definitely limitations and frustrations with using an iPad as a laptop, but they have been massively reduced with the last couple of years' worth of iPadOS updates. Apple's full embrace of the trackpad really has made all the difference in the world; not just that they enabled the functionality, but optimized for it. Simple processes that were once maddening to attempt on an iPad, such as working with a CMS like Wordpress, are now almost indistinguishable from the experience on a laptop. The inability to truly arrange windowed apps, and the weird block the iPad has on doing anything else while video conferencing or recording, are definitely pains in the ass. But I can cope.

As reviewers of the M1 MacBooks have raved about the zippiness of the new laptops, I realized that these were qualities that my iPad setup already possessed, and it also reminded me what I would be missing if I were to opt instead for something like a Surface Pro. There simply aren't any other platforms that offer this kind of instantaneous responsiveness.

And then I remembered that the iPad Pro's display also boasts the 120Hz "ProMotion" refresh rate, which not even Apple's own laptops (or phones!) have yet. The front-facing camera on my iPad is still leaps and bounds better than those on the new MacBooks. And though the M1 Macs run iOS apps, by all accounts the experience is about as awkward as running Android apps on ChromeOS: doable, but kind of a mess. But at least Chomebooks have touchscreens for interacting with Android apps! MacBooks still don't, so using an iOS app on an M1 Mac would still be a cursor-only situation. Not optimal.

As a side note, I used to own an 11-inch MacBook Air, circa 2012, and while I wound up needing something more powerful and with a larger display to get work done, good lord I loved that thing. It was so small and adorable! The iPad isn't adorable by any means, but its compact size recalls a lot of what I loved about that old 11-inch Air.

As for comic books: If Windows had available tablet-optimized apps for Marvel Unlimited and ComiXology, I might very well have switched to a Surface Pro ages ago, and all my personal computing needs would have been fulfilled; a tablet-laptop hybrid with a complete ecosystem of powerful, desktop-class applications. But on Windows, Marvel and ComiXology are limited to their abysmal web interfaces (and Marvel Unlimited's iOS app is already janky). And of course with a Surface or other Windows two-in-one, there would also have been the lesser battery life, the display's lower refresh rate, and the general chug and churn of PC performance.

My day job has particular demands that make a traditional PC, if not necessary, then at least highly preferred. The iPad can fill in when necessary as a secondary work machine, but I wouldn't want it to be my primary work device. Besides, I go to some lengths to keep my work and personal lives separate, and that very much includes my technology; my iMac sits on a desk in a particular corner of my apartment, and when my work day is done, I leave that desk and make it a point to avoid using that space for anything else. Opening up the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard signals to my brain that work-work is over, and whatever I do next is for me. It might still be work, but, hopefully, it will be largely labors of love.

Or it might just be catching up with Thor and Loki in the Marvel "War of the Realms" crossover event. Who can say?

I'm still drooling over those new M1 MacBooks. If fortune smiles upon me such that I can acquire one, I certainly won't turn it away. But things being what they are at this point, owning one would mean selling my iPad setup to cover the cost. Not only is that not worth it right now, in some meaningful ways, it would feel like a step back.

Go figure.


I have a newsletter, and you should subscribe to it.