I became inspired to write this article after using my latest computing device for a few months. I had needed a new laptop and buying a new piece of technology can be daunting, enjoyable, exciting, stressful all at the same time. This article is a kind of guided tour through my thought process for purchasing any kind of new gadget. After all, the iPad Pro is not a laptop.
“I need a laptop,” is not a very useful thought after you have it – there are thousands of them! It’s nearly impossible to choose just one with that being your sole criterion. We need to establish parameters:
Question 1:“What is my budget?”
The budgetary parameter is generally your most restrictive one & informs the rest of your decision space in a way that the other parameters do not. If you can, don’t forget to amortize if you plan on keeping the device for some years.
Question 2: “Do I have a needed/preferred operating system or software environment?”
This is a bit of a shortcut: if you need – or are committed to – macOS specifically, then your decision space will look different from the one in this article. There are many macOS buying guides out there to find the right fit, but this is not one of them.
If you require a certain application, frequently they (or alternatives) are available on Windows, macOS, online as web apps, and other platforms, although not everyone delights in learning how to use a new environment in the way that I do.
Question 3: “What is my use case?”
What exactly is the new device to do? Will you mostly be web browsing? Are productivity tasks – calendar/word processing/spreadsheets – your main requirement? Is there a special piece of software or task you must accomplish Do you need or want to move this thing frequently?
Question 4: “What are my other priorities?”
Reparability & reliability frequently come up as a priority for many (especially if your new gadget is a business tool). Do you want a wider or taller screen than the usual 16:9 ratios (1080p, 4K) provide? Do you need a mouse, or want a stylus or touch screen? Desires can be just as important as needs!
Now that we have a way to sort out our parameters, let’s see where they took me:
Budget: No more than $1,300. Preferably less to ease the up front hit, but luckily tax-deductibility counts for something and this should be a 5-year device.
Preferred OS: None. The workflow for this device is relatively OS agnostic.
Use Case: I need a lightweight device with excellent battery life to work on product concepts, light 3D modeling, word processing (documents, emails), and will be relatively unaffected by extended trips (4-8 weeks) to China.
Other: A screen ratio taller than 16:9 (1080p, 4K, etc) would be nice. Most laptops with an 11” form factor are a bit too small for me to use comfortably. Access to my NAS (network attached storage) while I am in China is mandatory.
A shape begins to emerge! A thin-and-light class of product for design work with battery life taking the top priority. Then it comes time to research the available options. These are the models I came up with:
Dell XPS 13:
• Windows 10 is the environment I use on my home machines, so I know I can get everything done in it.
• OK 3D modeling performance with my program of choice.
• Good for word processing & office tasks.
• Great offline performance for trips abroad.
• Great battery life.
• No active stylus support (passive styluses only on touch screen models).
• macOS is an easy adaptation for my software needs.
• More anemic 3D modeling performance than the XPS 13.
• Equal in word processing & office tasks.
• Equal offline performance.
• Very good battery life.
• No active stylus support.
• Chrome OS can take some getting used to for getting everything done on the web, but it is extremely secure and easy to live with.
• Variety of browser-based 3D modeling applications substitute for my usual product.
• No troubles for word processing & office tasks.
• Weaker offline performance – local file downloads & playback are all doable. Nicely, Netflix & Amazon Prime Streaming let you download movies and play them back offline using their Android apps on ChromeOS.
• Fabulous hardware. The screen, especially is a tall one (2,400×1,600 pixels) which helps with word processing & research.
• Active stylus support (though the actual applications of the stylus are presently lacking)
• Battery life is slightly behind the MacBook Air, but the hardware trade off feels worth it.
Samsung Chromebook Pro
As another recent, premium ChromeOS device it shares much with the Pixelbook. Some of the cons, however are:
• Battery life is somewhat shorter.
• Lower-quality typing experience.
• Keyboard is not backlit (a baffling choice for a 2017 device).
Some of the pros are:
• Similar screen to the Pixelbook (2,400×1,600 pixels).
• Half the price of the Pixelbook(~$500 instead of $1,000).
• A stylus is included (S-Pen).
2017 iPad Pro 12.9”
• Portable in the extreme.
• Excellent battery life.
• Gamble on the typing experience using the Smart Cover.
• Robust active stylus compatibility (Apple Pencil).
• Gamble on 3D modeling experience – there is dedicated software, but the learning curve is an unknown.
• 2D art programs deliver a high quality experience.
• Word processing & office task efficiency may be a gamble with the Smart Cover keyboard
Now to cull.
Shortening down the list further can be tough. It can be less analytic. This is where you might want to check out floor models and decide that you don’t like the keyboard, mousepad, or headphone jack placement and things like that.
Of the list above, I was not able to convince myself to purchase the Pixelbook or Samsung Chromebook Pro. I hadn’t taken my current Chromebook (a backup device) to China to test performance, and frequently the internet is out or VPNs decide not to work. Finding out if that was still the case outside of the return window was not a gamble I was willing to take.
The MacBook Air is becoming a rather dated machine. A lower than 1080p screen resolution (a feat even budget phones accomplish these days) did not inspire confidence. It was portable, sure, but it did not stand out from the rest of the models on this list, let alone ultraportable laptops in late 2017. It’s a fine machine, but for my money it didn’t quite seem right.
Finally, it’s between the Dell XPS 13 & the iPad Pro.
I have two Windows machines already – a mobile workstation for my productivity use in China & my desktop. Both of these get the job done and Windows 10 is a known entity. I have not used an Apple device since a U2 branded iPod came out in the early aughts.
The decision is settled: better the devil you know than the one you don’t.
Unless you like to get to know lots of devils.
I chose the 2017 iPad Pro 12.9”. It came in just under budget with the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil. I made sure to know the details of the return program just in case it didn’t gel. The deciding factors were the screen (the XPS 13 can be equipped with a 4K screen, but the aspect ratio is still 16:9) and the iPad Pro’s active stylus support. Is the (or any) device perfect? Absolutely not. Does it fulfill my needs?
I did write this article entirely on the iPad Pro, so yes.
To learn more about the iPad Pro, these articles are informative:
• “90 Days No Laptop: Switching to the iPad Pro” by Andrea Phillips: http://www.deusexmachinatio.com/blog/2017/11/17/90-days-no-laptop-switching-to-the-ipad-pro
• “Apples 8 Years of iPad: a Revolution in iOS Computing” by Daniel Eran Dilger:http://appleinsider.com/articles/18/01/27/apples-8-years-of-ipad-a-revolution-in-ios-computing
The first is another perspective that blends both decision making & review. The second article is harsh, but informative.