Brian W. Davidson

sharing things I enjoy

For the past five years, I have used an iPad Pro as my primary computer. This weekend, I traded in my 12.9” iPad Pro (2018) for an M1 MacBook Air. In this post, I want to explain why.

When my son heard I planned to trade in my iPad he was horrified, and as I tried to explain I realized the reasons were complex and had been building for a long time. I needed to write this post to get straight in my own mind the multi-year process of coming back to the Mac as my primary computer. Sure, part of it is being drawn to the latest new thing, but there is a lot more to it.

Pandemic Teaching

This year, the school where I teach made some major changes to the way the classroom operates, and these changes are not a patch. They aren’t going away when we finally take off the masks. In each classroom, we have a large Zoom device (DTEN) with which students can join the live in-person class from wherever they are. Students can choose on a daily basis whether they will be in-person or online. If a teacher is quarantined, they can also use the DTEN to teach from home and provide live instruction to students both in-person and online. Having worked with this setup for about six months, I can say it works. It isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done, and the job is quite a monumental task. This MO allows us to offer families ultimate flexibility even beyond that which is necessitated by the pandemic.

This setup is, however, way more tech-intensive. I need to initiate a Zoom call on my computer by connecting to the DTEN, share my computer screen while running the digital portion of the classroom via the DTEN, and I need to be able to pause what I’m sharing to do certain things on my computer without the class seeing what I’m doing but while they still see what I want them to see. The Mac allows me to do all this on one device pretty easily; I can’t do it with an iPad.

The DTEN completely broke my workflow. Last year, I used my iPad in the classroom at least 90% of the time. I ran everything I did through GoodNotes and projected everything we did to an AirPlay projector. It was simple. This year, the limited screen sharing and external monitor support on iPadOS made it too complicated to run the physical and digital classroom with an iPad. I realized this at the end of the summer, and I fought against it for a while. I tried using Astropad Studio to mirror the screen of my 2015 MacBook Air on my iPad, but the whole setup was far too clunky. I had to throw in the towel and use the work Mac.

Enjoying the Work MacBook Air

Once the year got going, there was no time to think about issues of workflow. I couldn’t believe I had to abandon my beloved iPad, but I found that I was actually enjoying the simplicity of using one device for everything I needed to do at work — no need to bounce back and forth between a Mac and iPad.

I also began to enjoy the form factor of the MacBook Air. The MacBook is still slim, but it is also so much more rigid and durable than the easily bendable current iPad design. I am overly cautious and protective of my tech devices — so much so that I regularly catch flack from friends and family over the lengths to which I go in efforts to keep each device as pristine as possible. Nevertheless, in the summer of 2019, I had to take in my iPad because it was clearly bent. Super lame.

Initially, I tried to use the iPad in conjunction with the work Mac for things like projecting a text and annotating it with the Apple Pencil, but it complicated the workflow to the point that I didn’t keep this up. I found myself screen sharing Google Docs or Slides, projecting the text to the DTEN this way, and then simply using my cursor to highlight and point out specific words.

Workflow simplicity and form factor rigidity aren’t the whole story, however. I also fell back in love with being able to use the full version of my absolute favorite app, Accordance Bible Software.

Full Version of Accordance

In 2018, Accordance released a feature called Live Click, which enables you to click once and instantly do three types of searches: (1) lookup a word in all your lexicons, (2) do a concordance like search in any number of texts in your library, or (3) look up a verse in all your favorite editions and translations. I’ve used Bible software for about twenty years, and I think this is the most significant, most workflow revolutionizing feature release that I have ever seen. You can see it demonstrated here, and find the help documentation here.

When Live Click was released, I was fully enjoying my iPad primary MO and unwilling to rock the boat. I continued to use the mobile Accordance app and sacrifice functionality in order to stay iPad primary. Being forced to go back to the work MacBook Air, however, I really enjoyed Live Click and other features specific to the the Mac/Windows apps. To point out one other feature in passing, I love the Research tab, which you can read about here.

Limitations of the Work Machine

Everything I have pointed out so far could be called positives — ways in which I enjoyed using my old, work MacBook. This setup was, however, far from ideal. For starters, the screen on a 2015 MacBook Air is not retina. When you stare at a computer for several hours a day, the clarity and crispness of the text is important. It might sound like “first world problems,” but when you run your life via a computer screen, the clarity of that screen is no joke.

The best analogy I can think of is to compare it to the way someone who is nearsighted sees the world with and without their glasses. With glasses the world is crisp and clear; without the glasses things are fuzzy and there is more eye strain. There is also the enjoyment factor. I tend to think that whatever you use all day every day should be as high quality as possible. Skimping on even the small things when you use something all day every day makes a big difference in your enjoyment of each day.

The screen was not the only issue. There is also the fact that compared to new Macs, especially the new M1s, the 2015 machine was slow. One of the touted new features of the M1 Macs is their ability to wake instantly and the speed with which Touch ID authenticates to unlock the device. These features are so striking and amazing to me having spent about six months using a 2015 MacBook Air as my primary device.

On the work machine, for IT reasons that I don’t understand but am happy to submit to, I am also unable to use the App Store. This means I cannot use Ulysses, my primary writing, blogging, and journaling tool. To write and journal and blog, I needed to use the iPad. This wasn’t the end of the world, but it introduced another element of technological complexity into my life. I absolutely love Ulysses; it’s second only to Accordance. Being unable to use Ulysses on my primary computer was just annoying.

One more, much less significant issue: Remember how I said I take pains to keep my devices in good condition. Well, this work machine has a pretty significant dent on the corner of the display, one that I most certainly didn’t put there. It looks like a previous user dropped it. Doesn’t affect functionality at all and sometimes I forget about it, but when I notice it is there, I hate it.

Unsatisfactory iPad Peak

This year, the ability to use an iPad Pro as a primary computer was greatly improved by the release of the Magic Keyboard. I wrote a post about the Magic Keyboard, and at that time I was most excited about how the Magic Keyboard would allow me to better use my iPad as a laptop. Well, it turns out that when I was given the opportunity to more truly use my iPad as a laptop, I almost always used it in this mode. The bummer was that there were some drawbacks unique to the iPad-Magic Keyboard combination.

The most significant drawback was the way in which the Magic Keyboard impacts iPad battery life. Great battery life is one of the biggest draws to an iPad-primary workflow, but this benefit is lost if you use the Magic Keyboard. With the Magic Keyboard I would get between 8–10 hours, which is pretty similar to a new MacBook (before the M1s).

There are two other ways in which I was unsatisfied with the Magic Keyboard setup: (1) When I sat outside, even in relatively cool 70-ish degree weather, the iPad would get really hot and sometimes shutdown. (2) With the Magic Keyboard the iPad was top heavy and prone to toppling over when using it in my lap.

The Magic Keyboard helped me see more clearly that the computer I almost always want and need is a laptop. In summary, these are the factors that set the stage for the last step, the advent of M1 Macs:

  • A new teaching workflow and classroom setup occasioned by the pandemic
  • Enjoying the more robust form factor of the work MacBook Air
  • Benefitting from the ability to use feature-complete versions of favorite apps like Accordance and DEVONthink
  • Growing dissatisfaction with the limitations of the work MacBook Air such as the inability to use the App Store
  • The unsatisfactory “iPad peak” provided by the Magic Keyboard

Arrival of M1 Macs

Praise for the M1 Macs is everywhere. I hear it from Apple fanboys, from the most critical tech commentators and podcasters, and even from those who primarily use Windows machines and are usually dismissive or aloof to what Apple is doing. You can find all the new features and hear the praise by doing a quick YouTube search. I just want to highlight here the benefits for me:

  • Battery life literally doubled compared to my work MacBook Air, and it almost doubled in comparison to the iPad-Magic Keyboard combo.
  • More rigid, less bendable construction than the iPad
  • Better functionality as a laptop
  • The best, full-featured Accordance experience (and DEVONthink, which I appreciate but didn’t discuss above because it isn’t nearly as important as Accordance)
  • App Store and Ulysses access
  • A simplified tech life

Simplified Workflow

Using the M1 MacBook Air means I’m no longer torn between two devices. I don’t have to use the iPad to read from a crisp, retina screen or to write in Ulysses but then turn to the Mac for Accordance, Zoom, private tutoring, and online teaching. The plan moving forward is to leave the work Mac at work and have the new MacBook Air at home with one primary mobile device, my iPhone — simpler with only a couple drawbacks.

The most significant drawback to trading in the iPad is losing the ability to use it to play Minecraft and Terraria with my son. I can sidestep this, however, by using an old, work iPad Air 2 to play those two games. Secondly, I use my iPad frequently at night to read to the kids while putting them to sleep. Again, the work iPad works fine for this. Video games and bed time reading make up a very small percentage of my computer usage so to me it makes sense to let the old, work iPad take care of this. I don’t have to carry it around because in both situations these are things I do at home. Problem solved.

A Long time Coming

I wrote this post because I’ve been an iPad/iOS enthusiast and evangelist for years, and the decision to move back to the Mac was complex. It’s been a long time coming. In fact, I almost pulled the trigger when the MacBook Air was updated in 2018. Well, I actually did buy an Air in 2018, but I returned it before I had it fully setup. I was unsure if it was the right move and I had some weird defect issues — some serious, some just pushing my buttons. For example, my screen would flicker and sometimes turn off and I noticed scratches on the machine as soon as I took it out of the box. It was bizzare. At that time, there just weren’t enough benefits to drag me away from my beloved iPad. Things are different now.

These are the reasons for the switch. It’s more than being caught up in the new best thing or riding the Apple release cycle wave. I discovered that a laptop is what I actually wanted, and for the type of laptop I need, the M1 Air is ideal. After having some more time with the new Air, I’ll report here on how it’s going. For now, I’m happy with the move back to the Mac.