My MacBook Purchase Dilemma

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

I am in the market to replace my three-year-old 15” MacBook Pro. My purchase remains on hold, however, until I resolve my dilemma as to what to buy. Do I get a new MacBook Pro? Or a MacBook Air? If the latter, do I wait for the rumored next update to the Air? Or perhaps I should forego any purchase at all, and attempt to make do with just my iPad.

Let me be clear: With few exceptions, I use my MacBook Pro only when I travel. At home, my desktop Mac Pro is my main workhorse. This means that I don’t need a portable computer to serve all of my Mac needs, just the ones that are essential when I am on the road.

In considering a replacement, a major consideration for me is weight. With each passing month, my MacBook Pro (MBP) gets heavier. At least, that’s my theory. Others have suggested an alternative theory — that I am getting less tolerant of its weight over time, perhaps as a function of my age. Regardless, with my MBP in my backpack, it feels as if I’m carrying around a bowling ball. I am ready for something different. Something lighter.

The iPad

When the iPad was first announced, my hopes momentarily soared that it would be the answer. When it comes to reducing weight load, nothing beats it. I was especially encouraged when I saw that Apple planned to release an iWork suite for the iPad. Unlike the iPhone, I believed I might actually be able to get work done with the iPad.

Unfortunately, things did not worked out as I had hoped. While the iPad does a competent job of handling most work-related activities I do while on the road, such as checking email and surfing the Web, it is inadequate for my two main work-related tasks: writing articles and creating/giving presentations. Even with a Bluetooth keyboard and an app such as Pages, the iPad is not capable of functioning as a word processor for me (for reasons that I detailed more in another column). As for presentations, Keynote for the iPad strips out so many features from the Mac version that the app is virtually unusable for me.

A future version of the iPad may ultimately vault over the bar I set, but not the current version. Ironically, this doesn’t mean that I leave my iPad at home when I travel. I prefer the iPad to a MBP for almost all non-work-related tasks. I especially appreciate having access to all the great apps on the iPad. If I don’t plan to get any work done, I travel just with my iPad. Otherwise, I’m lugging both my MacBook Pro and my iPad. In the latter case, instead of the iPad reducing my weight load, it adds to it!

The MacBook Pro

This brings me back to my immediate dilemma. Given that I don’t intend to get by with just an iPad, what do I buy to replace my current 15” MacBook Pro?

I immediately ruled out a new 15” MacBook Pro. While the Pro offers features (such as the faster Intel Core i5 processor) that don’t come with lesser alternatives, I now realize that I don’t need these high-end features. Given how I use a laptop, they’re certainly not worth the extra weight of the 15” model.

If I decided to go with a MacBook Pro today, it would be the $1200 13” 2.4GHz model. I’d pay another $350 and get the 128GB SSD drive.

This would reduce my weight load from my current MBP’s 5.6 pounds to 4.5 pounds. That’s a significant drop. But I’d like to go even further. 

The MacBook Air

This brings me to the MacBook Air. At under 3 pounds, it’s the lightest MacBook family alternative out there. I’d go with the $1800 2.13 GHZ model, so as to get the SSD drive. I’d throw in another $100 and get the external SuperDrive.

Is this a better choice than the 13” MacBook Pro? It’s currently too close to call. I am more than willing to give up on the built-in optical drive to save the weight. I am less certain about being limited to 2GB of SDRAM and having no FireWire port — yet having to pay $350 more than I would for my selected 13” MBP.

But wait! The MacBook Air has not been updated in over a year (June 2009). Some have speculated that this means that the Air (which has never been a big sales success) is currently on life-support — with Apple ready to pull the plug. However, according to most rumors now circulating (such as in DigiTimes and AppleInsider), a new MacBook Air is due very soon, possibly as soon as next month. Some speculation suggests it will be lighter, smaller (with an 11.6 inch screen, rather than the current 13.3 inch one) — and significantly cheaper.

Regardless of the size and price, I’m holding out for this update. Assuming it doesn’t add new downsides to the current MacBook Air, this is what I intend to buy. Otherwise, it’s back to the 13” MacBook.

The future

I don’t think I am alone in this dilemma. As such, I believe it is in Apple’s interest to help users sort this out and make their choices clearer and easier. There are several possible directions Apple could take. Apple may yet pursue more than one of them.

Last week, I wrote about the possibility of touchscreen Macs coming next year. This week, details emerged regarding Apple patent applications for doing exactly this. While patents don’t always lead to released products, I am optimistic that Apple is truly pursuing this goal.

I am also confident that the iPad will become a better productivity tool in future iterations. Better enough that it will meet my rather minimal demands. It’s not likely to ever match the capabilities of the MacBook Pro, but that’s okay. It’s not intended as a MacBook Pro replacement.

Where will this leave Apple customers?

Will touchscreen MacBooks partially cannibalize the market for iPads? Will the two products eventually be rolled into one unified multi-model product line?

Will an improved iPad eliminate any need for a MacBook Air — leading to the demise of the Air?

How exactly will Apple keep its product line simple and well-differentiated while juggling these overlapping products? And what does it all mean about the future of Mac OS X vs. iOS for these different products? 

These are big questions. Ones for which I don’t have sure answers. I am sure that the minds at Apple have been giving all of this considerable thought. I believe that, over the next 18 months, we’ll find out the results of their thinking — in the form of major new products.

Fasten your seatbelt. There’s some heavy turbulence ahead.

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37 Comments Leave Your Own

CandTsmac

Wait for the new Air, You sound like you know this already.

But like me you don’t want to wait, lol.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Dual-core Win7 netbook with 1366x768 screen would be ideal for you. You’re looking at $500ish. Add $20 and you can set a Mr. Potatohead next to it to maintain your street cred.

Jeff Gamet

I get the weight issue, especially after carting my 15-inch MacBook Pro around under my arm for a couple hours last night. After finally setting my laptop down, I picked up my iPad, and in comparison it felt light as a feather. If I could do everything I need with my iPad, my laptop would never leave my desk. Since I need the horsepower of a laptop that does everything for me, I’m sure my next Mac will be another 15-inch MacBook Pro. For everything else, it’s my iPad.

Ashley Grayson

I’m in almost the same situation, except I can run all my business from my 15” MBP. I do operate some Mac minis as scan/fax servers at the office, but everything else fits on the MBP. All my light email and information access is handled by my iPhone and iPad. When I travel to present, I’m still using, as you do, the MBP.

I think several inevitable developments will inform our purchases:

Upgraded iOS for the iPad is promised soon. This, with the expected new iLife and likely iWork will enhance the iPad significantly. There’s plenty of storage on my 64GB iPad for my 5,000+ scanned PDF documents, but without folders (preferably lockable), there’s no way to organize documents in iBooks.

I’ve been hoping for a 15” MacBook Air or at least one with FireWire if not Light Peak tech, which would be a perfect solution. I also require about a 250GB disk because of those 5,000 historical business records I must have at hand.

I’m waiting for at least the next round of software/hardware.

Dan Hamilton

Read your article on why the iPad does not meet your word processing needs.  If I were you, I’d hold off on a new MBP/air until Apple releases the ios4 update for the iPad. My reasoning? Revisit the iPad as a word processor with multitasking. From my experience with ios4 on iPhone and with current iPad, some (but obviously not all) of your objections to the ipad as a text editor will be addressed. Given that, your decision on MBP/air could be significantly altered.

If not, got with the Air (but I’d wait for it’s rumored update)

LeRoy Dennison

Talk with someone who owns a MacBook Air and see what they think about have just 1 USB port for wired connectivity.  I would go with the 13” MBP for the extra USB port, the FW800, and the built-in Ethernet.  The optical drive is nice, but would not factor into my decision matrix.  Having the ability to do FireWire Target Disk mode would though when it comes to using Migration Assistant to move data over from the old 15” MBP or to do future disk repairs.  Then there is the security slot so that you can lock down the MBP when leaving your hotel room.  Can’t do that with an Air.

Besides, lugging the extra weight is good exercise grin

Lee Dronick

I went through this drill about 2 months ago. I too am noticing things are getting heavier as time goes by so I seriously considered the MacBook Air.

However, as LeRoy mentioned the FireWire and ethernet port are something I wanted so I opted for the 15” MacBook Pro. I wanted the FireWire port for connecting my camcorder though I could use a USB port for that purpose. I have also found the media card slot to be real handy.

Another factor to consider is that you can get an antiglare screen on the MacBook Pro, but not with the MacBook Air (at least not currently). I got the antiglare option and do not regret it.

Vicki

I have a similar dilemma. I have a MBP 17” intel. It is huge. Got the iPad so I don’t have to lug this behemoth to work daily. Unfortunately, I can’t do all the work I need with an iPad. However, since these projects are personal and I only do them during lunch and breaks at work, I leave the MBP at home, It’s now functioning as my desktop with a 27” monitor attached.  If I had a lighter laptop I would be able to work on my projects at work. My iPad will still be useful for the train commute allowing me to do emails and twitter/FB checks, as well as, e-book reading.

Fortunately, for me I can wait. I’m starting a grad school program next year, so I will definitely need something lighter but getting it now with the current options being only 1 lb. lighter is not smart. Also, if I wait I will be able to get the education discount. The wait is still excruciating.

Jerry Henderson

I love it.  Someone else thinks about the same things I do and in the same way and for the same reasons.  I had to laugh out loud.  It is getting older I think regarding the weight.  And I write all the time and NEED a real keyboard.  I have often wished the Air was cheaper.  I like the form factor and don’t know if the “netbook” size would be sufficient to the task.  The iPad may grow up somehow but now it just won’t fit here.  Anyway, Ted, thanks for the comment.  Jerry Hendeson

graphic3211

The reason I keep my 15” MacBook Pro is the new glossy screens. I use one occasionally at work, and I absolutely hate the glossy monitor.

I’ll stick to my older, non-glare screen until Apple realizes that there are customers like me that want that option.

LeRoy Dennison

graphic3211, an anti-glare screen is an option on the new 15” MBP, but not the 13” nor the Air.

davebarnes

AirBook.
Wait.

Lee Dronick

graphic3211, an anti-glare screen is an option on the new 15? MBP, but not the 13? nor the Air.

Yes, one of the reasons I got the 15” MacBook Pro instead of a 13” model. It cost an extra $150.

Gary Noter

Your “dilemma” is for something you truly do not need, though merely want.

The majority of the world would beg for 1/20th of the $$ you’ll be spending to fill your want, this so their needs would be met, if but for a short time. Yet, their needs remain as the latter word of “MacBook Air”.

GaryN

VirtuAl M.

Same boat as you all with the Desire to get a Mac portable- Sorry PeeCee not Spoken here… Ya know (Unless its Virtualized smile  ?

With that stated - I needed to really think- “do I want to spend another 1K-1.5K for another device in 2-3 years again? ...and not be able to sell what I bought then to another person wishing they could afford a Mac but have to settle for falling into the ‘By a new laptop that doesn’t do what they want’ every year PeeCee?

So I went the other way-

Size not an issue, I don’t need the 17”- I’ll use an external 22” Monitor, however, what I do love doing is VIDEO and with a 2 year old and a new one on the way I don’t have time to wait for Camera to CPU transfers. YES- I got the “MBP i7 15” Glossy Screen” and saved by getting it refurbished from Apple.  I simply call it “NICE”. Would you buy a Refurb from Dell or HP? I bet not. But Apple gives a 1 year warranty and I support Macs everyday for a job, so I went down that road I ended up saving $400.00 I might add.

I’m too happy with the choice I made. This puppy SMOKES! and it will the machine I can sell to my Cousin or a friend in 3 years and not feel that I am taking advantage of them. It still will torch other laptops of the same age, and probably not be on the low end of those that are of the same year (2014).  Now that I think of it, maybe I will keep it 4 years, maybe 5!

That’s all for now- Back to doing PhotoShop, iMovies, WebDesigning, Social Marketing, Music and more on my i7.  smile  (It also helps to be 6’2”)

Lancashire-Witch

I believe it is in Apple?s interest to help users sort this out and make their choices clearer and easier. There are several possible directions Apple could take.

I believe Apple don’t agree it’s in their interest, Ted. They revel in keeping their customers in the dark. You know they don’t, and never will, reveal future directions.

That’s why thousands of customers buy an Apple product only to be surprised shortly afterwards by an announcement about a new, faster, bigger, smaller, more capable, cheaper… etc etc.

They’ve caught me twice.

So - Don’t buy new stuff until you really need to (note - “need” not “want”).
Then make your purchasing decision based on current prices and models. Ignore all rumours.  Avoid buying close to traditional announcement times.

I hope your next purchase has a longer lifespan.  I renewed my interest in Apple primarily because I grew tired of replacing my Acer PC every 3 years.

Vicki

@VirtuAl All my computing devices are handed down to my family members. So, my sister will get my 17” MBP. I have one sister that already got my MB when I found it didn’t have the horse power that I needed.

Walter G.

No one is considering using the iPad as a remote display/thin client for your Macbook/Mac Pro? I have solely an Intel Duo MacBook Pro and an iPad.  My next move will likely be to move to an iMac or Mac Pro and use my iPad as a ‘thin client.’ Suggest you try it. Even at my employer, the next generation of desktops will be terminals running on VMWare virtual machines on servers located elsewhere. It’s the wave of the future and might as well start now.

Vicki

I’ve tried using my iPad as a thin client with limited success. LogMeIn is the app I’ve used to remote access my MBP. The problem is the interface is too cumbersome with the limited screen size. Not a pleasant experience.

TMOfanboy

Ted,

I really like your articles.  If this were my situation, I would buy a MacBook Air, no question.  You already have a massive workhouse (MAC PRO).  Why worry about the 2 GB of RAM in the MBA?  The firewire problem is a detractor but in case you don’t know you can boot the MBA from a USB flash drive, which is good to have, just in case.  If you are traveling a lot, and the weight is an issue, choose the MBA.  It really is great computer (like you didn’t know).  Good Luck!

xmattingly

Ted, you and I are in nearly identical circumstances. I too, have a Mac Pro (had a MBP early this year, but decided I needed horsepower more than mobility), but am back in a situation where I’m finding I need a mobile machine. The answer for my situation is simple: I need something I can get work done on (I’m a graphic designer), so that rules out an iPad immediately. But, since I’m not going to be doing work out of the house very often, I want as much RAM as possible, but don’t want to blow another $2000. So I’m in the market for a used 13” MBP. If I can land one for $900 or less I’ll be a happy camper.

My take on your situation: It really ultimately depends on how much you’re willing to spend and whether you want the least amount of gadgets at your disposal, or the fewest that will get you the most of what you’re looking for. If you are willing to spend an extra $600 or so for something that weighs a couple pounds less, and your work isn’t resource-intensive, I’d say go for the Macbook Air. But as you mentioned, the current one is long in the tooth and a new one could arrive any moment. The last release was two years ago in the fall, so any day now…

TMOfanboy

Please make that “workhorse” above instead of workhouse, thanks.

Ted Landau

Your ?dilemma? is for something you truly do not need, though merely want.

Point taken. My dilemma is one that comes from being in a fortunate position. It’s a luxury. I realize this. I do use all of my equipment for work. It’s not just for fun. But even so, you are correct.

Still, your same comment could be launched against much of what people buy in our culture - from large screen HD televisions to fancy designer jeans. Not sure how one decides where to draw the line.

Ted Landau

I believe Apple don?t agree it?s in their interest, Ted. They revel in keeping their customers in the dark. You know they don?t, and never will, reveal future directions.

I believe you misinterpreted what I wrote. I meant only that it is in Apple’s interest (and has been its general marketing philosophy) to maintain clearly differentiated products ? making it relatively easy to decide which is the right one for a given customer.

I did not mean that it is in Apple interest to keep you informed about as yet unreleased products.

Lancashire-Witch

If there are two possible interpretations - I’ll always choose the one not intended.grin

WetcoastBob

Similar quandary.  I need horsepower for image editing on the road.  This is the only thing I still need my MBP for.

Ronin

None of the above. Wait.

You said that your MBP is still working OK, so this is a “want”, not a “need”. If, as rumored, there is a new iPad after the first of the year it may suit your needs somewhat better than the current one. Odds are though, that you still need a real computer, which the iPad is not. That pretty much puts you into a 13” (in keeping with your desire to minimize weight. I would be inclined to pull the optical drive and use a combination of a SSD and a rotating drive for greater capacity. Ultimately you will wind up with both. iPad users with whom I have spoken say that it reduces their time on the Mac by some (usually large) amount, but I have yet to hear one of them claim he/she could get by with just the iPad for very long. Most of the iPad users with whom I have spoken are using it to read, cruise the web and do email. It is just not that well suited for generating substantial text documents. By the time you add a keyboard and stand for the iPad so that you can do some real typing you will have most of the bulk of a laptop even if it is still a little lighter. The deal is that there will be times when just the iPad is enough and is small and light enough that you don’t face the question of dragging along all the weight and bulk of a real laptop. Strangely enough, that is also the conclusion reached by most of the netbook users.

Mike R

Ted,

Thank you for this excellent article. It is nice to see that I am not the only one on the planet with these same considerations for what I need in a travel computer AND is also in “hold” mode for a bit until we see what Cupertino will release next.

Like you the ravages of age have me looking long and hard at weight of anything I carry. Like you, I do my work at home (in my case, an i7 27” iMac with additional 24” display) and use a laptop only while traveling.

However, for me, it is NOT only the weight but the size of whatever I carry. While shedding a pound or two from a “traditional” laptop is important, for me, the first spec I look at is how big a laptop is on the X and Y axis so that I can have the smallest possible bag. Space seems to be getting slimmer and slimmer even in the under-seat space on airplanes. A small case that will fit on essentially any airplane is a key decision point for my choice. Also, due to increasingly tight seating space, a display short enough to open on any tray table regardless of whether the individual in front of me is reclined or not.

I always feel somewhat sorry for those with even moderate size laptops trying to use it while half on the tray and half on their lap and trying to find a place to put their elbows while typing on the keyboard thus positioned all of 3” from their chest. Even worse, and I have witnessed this, is when the person in front snaps back the recline while a laptop is far enough forward on the tray that the top of the display is in the tray table recess. That “crunch” is a truly sickening sound.

My current travel case is a Pelican 1400. It is physically very small and hard shelled so not only will it fit almost anywhere, the hard shell lets me JAM it in anywhere it will go without worrying about whether said jamming is bashing on the fragile devices within. As such, whether or not a computer will fit in this case is rather important to me. I MIGHT move to a Pelican 1450. While not optimal in that it’s somewhat larger it is almost as good as the 1400 for overall size. However, I will still drive to the most suitable device to meet my task needs that will fit in the 1400 (or equivalent) case.

I had been waiting with baited breath for the original MBA to come out and when it did, I was rather disappointed… NOT because it wasn’t light and gorgeous. Rather, while slim on the Z axis, it did not buy me anything on the X and Y axes and thus didn’t help me get the dang thing under the seat. At that time, it drove me to a then current spec 9” netbook. It does the general things one must do while traveling and, while pokey (and we won’t mention the OS), it is adequate for general document creation and editing tasks as well. The other principle detractor is that the 600 pixel high resolution of the screen is a tad short.

It is now getting to be time to replace the netbook with another device. I had been waiting for the iPad and, with the panacea of horsepower and screen size it would bring, had hopes that more robust “business productivity” software would follow allowing it to be my sole traveling companion. As yet, this has not materialized and again, I find myself looking to the netbook or the slightly larger 11.6” Windoze laptops for that bit more CPU punch and more dots on the screen over a netbook.

Fortunately, I am not in the state where I HAVE to do something. As mentioned by another reply, while I “want”, right now I do not “need” a new travel computer for at least several more months. So, I have been holding off until SOMETHING happens with the MBA and, again with baited breath, waiting. IF the rumored 11.6” MBA appears or serious “office productivity” software (read MS Office-like) shows up for the iPad, I won’t even wait long enough to order online and will go direct to the nearest Apple store with plastic in hand.

One hopes that Apple will go the 11.6” MBA route. The iPad has already taken a big chunk of out netbook sales for those that use them for email, web, and other light CPU duty and input tasks and an 11.6” MBA would take a huge chunk out of the REST of the netbook and up into the “mini laptop” markets. I hope they do as it would be, hands down, the perfect travel companion for me.

However, if Apple selfishly does not offer the rumored 11.6” MBA to suit MY needs…. perhaps it is off again to the Windoze world and the mind-bubblingly uninspired and dull laptop designs rampant there for my next travel computer.

Mighty Mac

I know your dilemma and feel your pain…I tried the 13” Macbook Pro but the glass extending to the edge on the LED makes the glare very annoying, especially the reflections in the black bezel.  I then tried the MacBook Air.  Without the extra glass, the glossy screen was really nice.  Size and weight were perfect.  Four issues that I had with it were 1 - the lack of firewire (in the event of a problem this is a lifesaver); 2- it had a 128 GB SSD and I just couldn’t squeeze everything I have on it no matter how hard I tried; 3 - hinges are the weak point and could become an issue at any time; 4- model refresh around the corner.  I ended up getting the 15” anti-glare MacBook Pro.  It’s much larger and heavier (obviously) but for now, I couldn’t be happier.  Can’t wait to see what the new Macbook Air will be like!  (Light Peak and Target Disk Mode, hinges from Liquid Metal Technologies, 500GB SSD option?!)

Solo500

Amen Ted!

If Apple would just come out with an update, any update, I would be able to make a decision.

But knowing that they have something up their sleeve keeps me waiting.

The old MBP is a bowling ball, but a super reliable one. Battery life is abysmal however.

Waiting…

markomd

IMHO, it is hard to beat a 13.3” MacBook Pro for the combination of size, power and convenience. I schlep mine around everywhere and really have no complaints. It has even built up my biceps!

My second choice would be a MacBook Air. It retains OS X while giving up weight, a superdrive and some ports.

My last choice would be an iPad (which I have no intention of buying). Although the size factor is tempting, it runs a variant OS, does not integrate vertically with your Mac Pro system, and appears to me to be an emerging but immature technology.

I purchase all of my Macs from the on-line Mac Refurb Store, and utilize the savings to purchase a longer-term Apple Care contract and some additional software. So far, I’ve never gone wrong with this strategy.

It’s your money, of course, but that’s how I would use mine in your situation!

Ronin

“My last choice would be an iPad (which I have no intention of buying). Although the size factor is tempting, it runs a variant OS, does not integrate vertically with your Mac Pro system, and appears to me to be an emerging but immature technology.”

markomd, you hit the nail on the head about the iPad…it is very definitely an early adopter product at present. There are some compelling uses for it even at this early stage of its development, but I do not believe that it is well suited to Ted’s proposed either or solution. If he buys an iPad he will still need a laptop.

Ted Landau

I do not believe that it is well suited to Ted?s proposed either or solution. If he buys an iPad he will still need a laptop.

Too late. I already own an iPad (bought one before it shipped). smile

As stated in the column,  it is not adequate for my work requirements. But I still use it almost every day and do not regret the purchase.

Ronin

Ted, I am glad that you are enjoying your iPad. Of the people I have spoken with I am unable to recall one who seriously regretted the purchase. That said, they are almost all aware of its limitations, sometimes pointedly so, but it is just so convenient to keep with you at all times that they enjoy. A lady in the airplane seat next to me said “I love it! Love it! Love!” and commented that the battery lasted more than one day in her use which frees you from continually hunting for a place to plug in like the first of the iPhones. This is why I earlier commented “both”. It is not a replacement for a laptop, but you don’t have to stop and think “do I or don’t I want to haul six pounds? The one area where the iPad is at a disadvantage when compared to a netbook is text entry. A good many netbook owners take notes on it at meetings using the keyboard. I do not think the iPad can keep up with touch typing in this regard, but short notes are still quite useful.

Cheers!

james737

In your position, I would by a MacBook Air.

I had a MacBook Air previously, but I sold it and got a 15-inch MacBook Pro. I wish I hadn’t. The MacBook Pro is lovely, but it is very heavy. Like you, I normally use a desktop Mac, and the notebook is mainly for travelling.

Have tried taking the iPad 3G away on short trip, but always feel limited or slowed down by it. I’ve tried to like the iPad but I just don’t.

Let’s hope for an updated MacBook Air soon!

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