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The portable machine quandary

Almost immediately after watching the iPad 2 keynote in March 2011 I wrote a post in which I ‘reviewed’ it. I considered the benefits and drawbacks of replacing my ageing laptop with a lithe keyboard-less tablet with a clear focus on media consumption and entertainment.

Being an over-thinker when it comes to making any decision regarding spending money, I considered what Apple might change to improve the iPad further. My conclusion was that the only obvious (hardware) improvement would be adding a Retina screen and improving connectivity with peripherals. I was right about the Retina screen - to the layman, it is the only real upgrade of this year’s model - but we are still waiting for a change in physical connectivity. I suspect that with Bluetooth 4.0, currently sweeping across Apple hardware, it may be considered the preferred interface for 3rd party devices. I still use my Camera Connection Kit to import photographs but it is a clunky workflow and I much prefer the idea of using an Eye-Fi memory card.

I watched with interest as Apple unveiled the new iPad a few weeks ago. Ever since investigating the artistic potential of the iPad, my mother has been interested in having her own. My plan, therefore, has been to upgrade and let her take over my old iPad. This fits nicely with my plans for travelling home after Easter as the price is approximately 8% lower in the UK than in Denmark.

Two weeks ago, disaster struck (well, relatively speaking). I accidentally dropped the bag containing both my laptop and iPad. You will probably not be surprised to learn that the iPad emerged unscathed, but the 5 and half year old laptop now refuses to boot with a screen that no longer functions. You may be wondering why this is a disaster, since I get so much out of my iPad and really don’t care for Windows laptops any longer. This is really for another post, so I won’t elaborate now, but essentially being a computer science student at a department which has no student computers (other than a small handful of thin clients) means a laptop is pretty vital to getting assignments done. Thus far these have all required use of Matlab, a rather heavy toolkit. Despite trying to remotely connect and control a computer through the iPad, it is simply no substitute for a laptop. I lasted 2 stressful weeks before borrowing an old Windows 7 laptop which I will use until the exam assignment has been handed in.

Looking back, the decision not to buy a laptop was a rational choice. I was tired of using a laptop as a desktop, and I foresaw always having a computer where I needed one. When you work in an office, they provide a computer; when you study computer science, the department has hundreds of student machines with everything you need. Why carry a heavy laptop around?

I have had the misfortune to embark on my studies in Copenhagen a short while after the last room of student computers was decommissioned. Luckily I decided to bring my old laptop with me; it was a close call and I only brought it because I hadn’t had a chance to clear out the hard disk yet. So what is the way forward with my portable computing needs? I realise I must have a laptop in order to study here, and therefore I am resigned to buying one.

Having gradually converted to the Apple product line, I cannot envision buying another brand of laptop. Using a trackpad on anything but a Macbook is a torturous experience. This is a slight problem when one is a cash-strapped student in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

The plan is to buy a used Macbook, preferably a 13” Macbook Pro, which will be paid for in part by my mother. It will then become her main computer when I buy a new laptop later in the year. Why am I even considering buying 2 within a year? Because I am stubbornly waiting for the next wave of Apple laptops with Intel’s Ivy Bridge processors (which should increase battery life), and with Apple’s new Mountain Lion operating system which is likely to début in July. The qualities I desire most in a laptop are long battery life (which seems to be the reserve of the Pro models) and light weight (the Air models); it makes sense to wait a little while when you know something better is coming, before dropping a significant amount on a new laptop.

Where does this leave the iPad? It is still my favourite portable device. It is my productivity tool - it allows pure focus on the task at hand and lasts days between charges. I can use it for reading textbooks, checking my calendar, listening to the radio and even calling people on Skype. And more. My hope is to learn iOS app development over the next year and the large touch screen provides an exciting playground for interaction experiments. Having tried the new iPad in person, I don’t think there is much doubt that I will buy one. The main issue of contention is which model to buy; we have 4G in Denmark but not the same standard as in the US. I already have a HSDPA+ WiFi hotspot which is a brilliant thing to have when you travel around with 3 or 4 WiFi capable devices. That settles one choice, but the question remains - how much space?

I chose the 32GB model last year because I planned to store photographs on the iPad when on holiday. I now realise this is not a good workflow for me but it is a nice backup to have. If I am once again carrying around a laptop I would rather use that for storing and sorting the mass of images I take when on holiday. Yet with the new iPad’s higher resolution screen many are choosing to buy 64GB so they can fill it with 1080p video and swathes of large apps. The price increase for doubling the storage capacity is £80, but if I am to carry both a laptop and iPad then I don’t think this is worth it - I would rather spend that money on a good case and some apps. This might be a decision I regret but if I am disciplined with deleting unused apps then it should not be a big problem.

As if Apple don’t get enough of my hard-earned cash already, I am seriously considering their iTunes Match service. I have a large collection of CDs at home in England which I have begun ripping to iTunes; I cannot fathom transporting them over the North Sea. Fully legal cloud music storage for £22 a year is almost made for people in my situation. And it means you can listen to your music on the iPad without syncing it from another computer. When I inevitably get an iPhone (yes, it can only be a matter of time) this will be even more useful - I can spend less on device storage, yet have all my music wherever I am.

All this will leave me with less money, but with a very pleasurable, easy to configure computing environment that by and large just works. My only wish is that there would be more alternatives that worked just as well.