May 12, 2019

Tech Dilemmas

For a variety of reasons, I’ve lately had the need to rethink my technological footprint. Over the past five months or so my job has taken a few left turns that now have me working on projects that were not contemplated when I was originally hired. Many of these find me making treks back and forth between my offices on the U of A campus. In turn, I’ve felt the pull to travel lighter, and to pair down my tech footprint to only the essentials. 

Enter Apple’s new iPad Air (or iPad Air 3).


As any good technophile knows, the decision was not one easily made. I had five key criteria in seeking a new tablet: 
  • Portability
  • Digital Note-Taking
  • Laptop Replacement
  • Processing Power
  • Word Processing Capability
I’ll explain each below. 

Portability. As mentioned, my new job obligations see me schlepping across resort-like U of A on a fairly regular basis now (I’m clearly not biased toward my alma mater at all). By way of explanation, the University of Arizona is in the midst of developing programs that involve a major commitment to Native American Advancement at the institution, and I’m grateful to be a part of the team that’s seeing some of these initiatives through. But the changed reality for me is that I’m no longer tethered to a desk at any particular location, on any given day. This means that much of my work was being done on my MacBook laptop circa 2016. 

To be fair, my MacBook is still a fine machine. It has ample storage and I’ve yet to run into a processing task (or series of processing tasks) that it can’t handle. Even so, having replaced the keyboard twice, it was quickly becoming less portable and more a computing station in my home office. The wear and tear of trips across campus would not have served its longevity very well, and I’m not overly eager to spend upwards of $2k USD on a replacement. I could probably have made the arrangement work for another year or two, but the hinge of the screen and top case had become gradually more flexible (loose), and the screen itself was beginning to show faint signs of degradation in the coating of its Retina display. Not something uncommon after a usage-intensive three year run, but clearly happenstances that would not bode well over the long-term. 

Thus, my need for a newer, portable replacement. 

Note: The iPad was not an obvious choice for me. I had considered getting a new laptop altogether. The price point of the MacBook line is still pretty good and some of the internal hardware has been upgraded overtime. But in my three year break from the iPad, some quick research told me that the internal processing, app selections and software upgrades had all made the iPad a much more formidable player in the productivity space. (I had an ailing iPad Air 2 that hadn’t really seen much use since my, then, toddler son scraped up the back of it while playing on a less-than-sparkling wood floor). Given the price difference between a tablet and a laptop in the Apple ecosystem, a tablet replacement for my laptop seemed like a good option for what I envisioned. 

Digital Note-Taking. Another key component of my job involves taking copious amounts of notes. Formerly, I had done most of these by hand and then manually transcribed them word-for-word on my work computer. In a laptop replacement, I wanted to avoid this if at all possible and find a combination of hardware and software that would transcribe my abysmal scrawl into usable text that I could edit and modify as needed without the need to transcribe. On this score, the Apple Pencil seemed like a nice alternative. So, whatever iPad I bought would need to be compatible with this function of the Apple Pencil. 

I should probably mention that I’m not an artist by any means. Some users seek out the Apple Pencil purely for sketching and drawing - and nearly any iPad available today has this function and capability. But given how atrocious my handwriting is, despite Mrs. Gensman’s best efforts during Senior year of High School, I needed something with the power and ability to do the impossible: make my handwriting legible, recognize it (something my Mother still can’t do), and transform it into digital text like you’re seeing now. 

Laptop Replacement. Above all, the replacement had to wield the ability to take the place of my laptop in my technological day-to-day existence. This may seem an obvious point but I reckon it’s an important distinction. Some tablets are great at providing options to consume media. One can use a Kindle to read voluminous amounts of books. The iPads of yore, even, were great vehicles for watching movies and streaming videos on YouTube and Netflix. 

But whatever I opted to purchase needed not only to handle both reading books and watching movies (flights are long after all), but also help me stay atop the steady and increasing workload that is now coming in. In sum, I needed a machine that would both allow me to consume media, and be productive. (This narrowed the options considerably but more on this later). 

Processing Power. Given the above, the device I sought would need to have top of the line processing power. It would need to handle multiple applications at once and accommodate my spastic nature. It’s not uncommon for me to type a few paragraphs, hit on a word that pops into my mind, and then send me reeling on a lesson in etymology, and wondering whether the word selected is fit for the occasion. Self-doubt is a cruel mistress.

Suffice it to say, the ability of the internal processor needed to be stronger than my undiagnosed, adult ADD at a price that wouldn’t break the bank.     

Word Processing Capability. And finally, my “forever” device needed to provide multiple, and ample opportunities for me to write. 

To the kids reading (I so hope you’re not reading, kids), pay attention during your English class. Pay attention to your English professors in college (no matter how lame they may be). And above all learn to write. And when you’ve mastered this basic skill, learn to write well. 

As a university yokel-in-residence, I can’t claim to have followed the advice I’ve just given. But writing in all its forms, from emails, to contracts, to law review articles (yay - new publication coming soon!), to hiring decisions, to blog posts - writing is 90% of what I do. So, my laptop replacement needed to provide the capacity to accomplish this basic function with aplomb. 

(Lest anyone think I’m being overly dramatic, think about the apps any given professional might use on a daily basis: Apple Mail. Outlook. Microsoft Word. Dropbox (file syncing across devices and because Box sucks). iA Writer. Scrivener. Facebook Messenger. iMessage. Skype. Snapchat. Kik. Twitter. The lone thread in all of these apps is that they all depend upon the ability of an individual to translate the thoughts in the mind to digital text on a platform. Simply this and nothing more. And as our robot overlords come to take our jobs, the ability to write and communicate is one of the lone bastions of human ingenuity that they have not quite mastered. Or have they?)   

Outcome
Out the gate, I immediately bought the new iPad Mini (or iPad Mini 5) that was released alongside the iPad Air this past March. The Mini ticked nearly all of the boxes above. It’s portable. It accommodates the Apple Pencil and digital note-taking. It has superb processing power. And I thought that this made it was a viable laptop replacement. Until it wasn’t. Alas, I overlooked the key final component: It was incredibly difficult to actually write on the iPad Mini. 

Consider the following image: 


The iPad Mini checks four out of the five boxes that I wanted in a laptop replacement. It’s incredibly portable. The entire bezel of the device is only slightly larger than than the largest Apple iPhone. It’s size makes it great for note-taking. Any moleskin notebook aficionado will appreciate the form factor of the new Mini. And it’s processing power is actually equal to that of the iPad Air. It is also an amazing media consumption device. Users can happily surf the web, watch movies, and read books to their electronic heart’s desire. 

But it’s 7.9 inch screen means it also has a concurrent 7.9 inch (or so) keyboard. And this made it terrible for word processing, and thus a terrible laptop replacement. I honestly didn’t think that this would be a problem given that my hands are only slightly larger than those of a large child. But even for me, it was ridiculously difficult to type on the external keyboard that I purchased for the Mini, and the onscreen keyboard wasn’t any more convenient. Suffice it to say, I had made a costly miscalculation (the iPad Mini with 256 GB of storage, and Wi-Fi only capability runs $549.00 USD - excluding tax).  

Given the tech dilemma, I wrote off the mistake à la Seinfeld  and purchased an iPad Air (or iPad Air 3).  

As you can see in the image above, the iPad Air 3 is considerably larger than the iPad Mini. The extra 2.6 inches doesn’t seem like a lot, but in the context of onscreen real estate, the difference is dramatic. The iPad Air allows me to tick the final box and actually be productive in the crucial area of word processing capability. This transforms the device from one that permits media consumption to one that also allows for creativity, and communication. I’m sure there are some users that would not see so stark a contrast, but here are some side-by-side comparisons that illustrate the point: 


Above, the Air and Mini showcase their respective screen viewing capacities. The Mini is scarcely larger than the Apple Pencil that I used for taking notes, while the Air has a full-sized keyboard that makes typing a breeze. 


Above, you can see how much easier it is to write on the iPad Air than the Mini. Both are actually great for taking notes. But the larger screen makes transcribing my scrawl much easier - both to do, and to read!

Afterward

In sum, I’m a few weeks into the experiment, and I can’t say that I’ve missed a beat by not lugging around my laptop. Even when I work from home, the experience of using the Air makes me inclined to sit at the kitchen table with my iced coffee and work, rather than dragging the laptop out from the doldrums of my home office. In terms of price point, the iPad Air is in the almost dead center of the iPad lineup and retails for $649 USD, excluding tax. I find that this extra $100 over the Mini is worth every cent for its larger screen and word processing capability. 

While there are some limitations, and a few processes that can be done faster on a computer, unless you are in the top 1% of tablet users, I think the iPad Air is a reasonable middle ground between Apple’s smallest iPad and its most expensive (the iPad Pro). 

With that, here’s that a new device will inspire more blogging, and increased productivity. 
© Pax Plena
Maira Gall