The great Mac vs. iPad hardware upgrade conundrum

Sections: Features, iPad, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, Laptops, MacBook Pro, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Opinions and Editorials, Originals

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I’m trying to decide whether to upgrade to a new Mac, a new iPad, or both. Mac vs. iPad is exactly the dilemma I apprehended when I convinced myself to get an iPad. Apple now has me on a two-device upgrade cycle rather than my previous schedule of replacing my anchor Mac at roughly three-year intervals.

Moving partly to an iPad did facilitate getting an extra year out of my late 2008 aluminum MacBook which is just tying the knot on four years of solid service, and indeed it’s still performing flawlessly—a strong candidate for best computer I’ve ever owned. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could squeeze another year out of it if I were to replace the bung-full 160 GB hard drive and perhaps upgrade to 8 GB of RAM from the current 4 GB, which I’m finding not quite enough. The cool thing in the context of Apple’s latest near hermetically-sealed, locked-down, non-upgradable Retina MacBook Pros and Airs is that the old MacBook gives me the option of component upgrading. I also love it that the battery is replaceable as well, although the original battery is still hanging in at somewhat reduced capacity. The MacBook can still run OS X v10.6—the last version to support Rosetta PowerPC emulation—so it still gives me access to legacy PPC applications via 10.6 installed on a second hard drive partition.

Mac vs. iPad

An HDD and RAM upgrade would run me about $120.00 plus shipping and taxes with bits from Other World Computing, which seems quite reasonable to enable another year’s service, but a potential sticking point is whether the middle-aged 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo with its integrated NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor will be supported by OS X 10.9 due out later this year. I don’t want to spend the money and then discover I’m locked out of Apple’s latest OS X version in a few months. The late 2008 MacBook appeared to barely make the cut for OS 10.8 Mountain Lion, and with Apple’s penchant for throwing more relatively recent models under the bus support-wise with each OS X version release, I’m not overly optimistic (although a point in the MacBook’s favor for continued support is that the GeForce 9400M is a relatively robust IGPU compared with the Intel graphics engine in immediately subsequent unibody MacBook Pro models). Despite being the lowest-spec Mac laptop supported, Mountain Lion actually runs smoother, quicker, and cooler on the Core 2 Duo MacBook than on any previous OS X version. However, the scuttlebutt is that 10.9 will require a 2010 or newer Mac, although Low End Mac’s Simon Royal, who also runs a late 2008 MacBook, says he doesn’t think OS X 10.9 will increase hardware requirements over 10.8, and is tentatively predicting that if your Mac can run OS 10.8, he’s guessing it will be able to run 10.9 too. I hope that’s not just wishful thinking.

Then there’s the matter of the current, non-Retina MacBook Pros very likely having reached their final specification before being discontinued—probably with the release of Macs powered by Intel’s next-generation “Haswell” processors later this year. I’m still on the fence, but leaning toward one more Mac upgrade that will support high capacity storage at a reasonable price (slower though it may be), an internal optical drive, and built-in FireWire and Ethernet connectivity, and the next few months are probably the last chance to buy a new one.

My iPad is closing on two years old, and is likewise still providing excellent service. It runs iOS 6 and offers roughly similar performance to the current iPad mini, so is nowhere near obsolete yet. I even still have 9GB of free capacity on the 16 GB flash storage module. However, I’d like to hand it off to my wife while it still has some future headroom, and also have a better camera in the iPad, which I use for taking pictures more than I thought I would. Another point is that I like the iPad 2/3/4 form factor, and am dubious as to whether I’ll be as happy with the slimmed-down, marginless iPad mini-esque design rumored to be coming with the iPad 5—probably in the fall. A Retina display would be nice too, I guess, although I haven’t been dissatisfied with the 1024 x 768 screen in my iPad 2—the same resolution as the iPad mini.

Mac vs. iPad

I’m using the iPad more and more these days, probably approaching a 50/50 ratio with the time I spend on my Macs. However, I don’t perceive my iPad usage increasing proportionally much more until Apple sees fit to address a whole raft of iPad shortcomings as a production tool.

Necessary improvements would be better external storage and backup connectivity, including the ability to connect via a hard-wired interface through a real standard USB port (rumored) to an external storage drive. Even 128GB (absurdly expensive on the iPad) isn’t enough for a serious production machine. And while the iPad supports excellent text processing apps like Nebulous Notes, TextKraft, and PlainText, to name the three I use most, they all fall short of the capabilities of word cruncher apps I use on my Macs, largely due to the iPad platform’s inherently lame text-handling and editing tools and their limitations. I hate the Loupe. Actually, I don’t really mind using the on-screen keyboard nearly as much as not being able to connect a mouse.

Some folks profess to like full-screen app viewing—even on a Mac, alas. I’m not one of them, and for me the ability to display two (or more) open windows side-by-side would be a huge step toward making the iPad an acceptable work platform. I need real multitasking and the ability to select/drag/drop from one open window to another (something I do a great deal of when working on my Macs). Currently I’m obliged to keep switching back and forth between or among applications using the clipboard (and to my knowledge, there are no Clipboard cache options available for the iOS that would allow access to multiple recent Clipboard content entries—another feature I use intensely in OS X).

Other deal-breakers are the iPad’s severe image handling and editing limitations and lack of document level file system access, both of which rule out the iPad a serious contender as a production platform. You can’t take partial screenshots, and I have to email images to a Mac for editing and format-changing for the Web, as well as uploading to online posting forms.

Consequently, I figure I’m stuck with using both MacBook and iPad for the foreseeable future and with chewing over which to upgrade first for several months yet until the outlook becomes clearer. If I could be sure my old MacBook would be supported by OS 10.9, I think I’d probably opt for the component upgrade, hand off the iPad 2 to my wife, get a 4th-Gen iPad, and hope that mid-2012 MacBook Pros will remain available as Apple Certified Refurbished machines into 2014, but there are still too many uncertainties to make a leap yet.

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  • ICrazy

    Yeah, I’m almost in the same boat and I won’t be replacing two devices again. I even refuse to buy anything from Apple until the OSX and iOS future won’t become known and clear. My last fully customizable MacBook (2010 model allows me to have everything and gives the choice of the software) will probably get support from 10.9, as will the iPad 2/iPad mini get a iOS7 update so they would need to release a Surface RT kind of device to get me excited for an upgrade.