My MacBook Purchase Dilemma

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.