November 29, 2016

The Retina MacBook Experiment: Day 2

One thing at a time

I quickly learned that trying to multitask too much on this machine isn’t going to work. It’s not that it can’t do it, per se, but the performance of each task suffers as you ask it to do more things in parallel.

Instead, I’m having to work the same way I do on my iPad: in a focused manner that prioritizes single task immersion and discourages distraction. I see this as a positive thing.


Today turned out to be a writing day. Writing emails, writing documents, and writing articles—like this one. If this machine ends up winning me over, it will be because of the strength of the writing experience.

Popping Ulysses or iA Writer into full screen mode presents a blank, beautiful canvas. A very similar canvas to the one on my iPad Pro, but with some subtle improvements. Most notably, there’s no persistent shortcut bar stuck to the bottom of the screen (probably my least favourite aspect of the Smart Keyboard experience on the tablet).

Text looks equally lovely, if not slightly better on the Retina MacBook’s screen, and by default the sizing is a bit more compact as well, to better fit the smaller screen.

I didn’t bother trying to replicate all my settings from the Mac Pro; instead, I left Ulysses at its default settings with the exception of bringing my custom colour scheme along for the ride.

The one fly in the ointment is the keyboard itself, which I’m feeling ambivalent about. The lack of meaningful tactile feedback from the butterfly mechanism is having a negative effect on my typing accuracy. Admittedly, part of that is also the fault of the standard flat keyboard layout (on my Mac Pro I use the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic keyboard with its curvy, split layout). I suspect familiarity plays a role here, so over the next few days I’ll likely get used to this new feel, especially if I have as much typing to do as I did today.

Still, the keyboard isn’t comfortable. At best, I’ll end up calling it tolerable. Going back to my iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard is like a breath of fresh air compared to this thing.


It isn’t just active app usage that causes problems when attempting to multi-task.

Trying to install an app while Dropbox was doing its initial sync presented a significant hit to performance. There are a lot of small tasks happening in the background during a machine’s initial setup, so I’m willing to forgive this as long as it goes away once everything settles down.

I have my doubts.

Individual apps respond decently well, including heavy ones like Photoshop and InDesign, but only if the computer isn’t doing anything else. I haven’t worked with any large or complex documents yet but I have a feeling it won’t be a happy experience when I do. I cringe to think of editing large RAWs on this machine.

That being said, it wasn’t just hopeful optimism fuelling my earlier statement about enjoying the need to do one thing at a time. It’s an approach I’ve learned to love on the iPad and the only real hurdle here is that I’m suddenly forced to adopt it on my Mac as well. It’s equal parts liberating and frustrating.

MacBook vs. iPad Pro

As I approach the midpoint of my time away from the powerful Mac, I’m beginning to contemplate what life would have looked like if I’d opted to continue on the safer route of having a MacBook instead of investing in an iPad Pro as my mobile machine when I did.

That’s ultimately the point of this little experiment: to revisit my decision to choose an iPad for mobile work and see if I still think I made the right call in retrospect.

Realistically, it would have been a computer very similar to this one that would have replaced my MacBook Air before I sold it, and in that alternate universe I would have had a very different computing experience. For one thing, I would have been able to maintain my normal photography workflow (albeit a more patient version of it), as well as maintain access to my usual music tools (capable of only the most cursory projects, but still).

It was only with iOS 10 that we finally got some affordances for RAW photo capture and editing, and we haven’t quite made it back to a desktop-class photo editing and organizing workflow yet. That’s entirely a problem of software though, not something we can blame the iPad itself for.

I’ve had to adapt to a new workflow centred around new apps. The iPad Pro’s battery lasts way longer than this MacBook’s does (if the past two days of usage have been any indication). I miss the Pencil for marking up scripts, taking notes, and interacting with the smaller knobs on my music apps. I miss Touch ID terribly.

Normally, when people try to use an iPad only, they miss a bunch of desktop apps. In my case, I had the opposite experience; trying to use the MacBook for things I would normally use my iPad for has me missing the tablet apps.

Casual music making, for example, is a much better experience on the iPad Pro than it is on the MacBook. They both need dongles to connect to my MIDI keyboard, but where the MacBook’s limits are imposed by processing power, the iPad’s are deliberate design choices. Instead of the MacBook, where I’m frustrated by the illusion of having the same capabilities as I would on my Mac Pro, the iPad Pro presents an entirely different set of tools that are built specifically around the device’s strengths.

Similarly, I prefer the way apps on the iPad respond to split screen mode. On the MacBook, things feel like they scale less intelligently, resulting in tiny text and other unhappy consequences.

On the other hand, with the MacBook I can record and edit episodes of Candid the same way I would on the Mac Pro, with the same tools and plugins, and without having to use one iOS device for Skype and the other for recording. And I get to pick a default app to handle emails, PDF files, and so on.

Tomorrow, I’m going to tackle more demanding work than writing, hopefully revealing the boundaries of this MacBook’s effectiveness so I can get a better understanding of how those boundaries compare to the iPad’s.

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The Retina MacBook Experiment: Day 1 I poked the screen a lot
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The Retina MacBook Experiment: Day 3 Death to Dropbox