Why is Apple out to get me?

We used to be so happy.

It all started with an escape from an abusive operating system around eight years ago. The little iBook I bought was the first computer I’d ever really loved since my ZX Spectrum many years before. The combination of the 12” screen, sleek design and hard wearing nature, married to OSX which was a dream to use, amounted to everything I needed for my literary ambitions. A few years later I moved on to a new MacBook, which never quite won the same level of affection in my heart, but served me proudly for many miles. Now I stand at the crossroads. I need a new machine, as the Windows one I had to buy – while serviceable – has me shouting at it again in frustration more often than I’d like. A Mac is the obvious choice, but at the moment the choices on offer are a little baffling.

But wait, I hear the voices of a thousand Mac blogs cry, Apple’s range is the best it’s ever been! Well, no, I think I need to disagree, and here’s why.

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I don’t think I’m unusual in wanting a decent amount of bang for my buck when it comes to technology. I’m perfectly happy to accept that quality costs, and it should, but I don’t want to pay extra for something I won’t use. Futureproofing is often something of a fallacy in computing terms, as we don’t tend to hold onto our devices for nearly as long as we used to – probably due to the fact that many are now pretty much impossible to repair or upgrade ourselves. So looking for value can be a Sisyphean task.

Here’s what I want – a lightweight, small size, laptop with a good screen, solid keyboard, responsive trackpad, long battery life, and a decent but not crazy amount of power. Oh yes, and a few USB ports wouldn’t go a miss….plus an SD card reader would be cool, but not essential. There, no unicorns or time machines, just pretty standard stuff. Yet, at the moment, I can’t actually get this in Apple form.

For months leading up to the recent Spring Forward Apple event in March, there were rumours of an expected MacBook Air with retina display. This would have been the absolute sweet spot for my needs. An 11” (or even 12”) retina screen would fix the one thing that makes buying a current MacBook Air not that enticing a prospect. I love the little form factor, and its weight makes it easy to throw the device in your backpack and head off into the world without the worry of a shoulder ache a few hours later. Admittedly the small screen gets a little cramped, but I’m not planning on editing any videos on the machine, so I’m sure it would be fine – plus the retina display would make things pin-sharp, mystically creating a sense of space in that small glowing rectangle.

So here I am, money in hand, waiting for the announcement so I can once again shed the shackles of Microsoft and return to the unibody embrace of the mighty fruit. Then it announces the MacBook.

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The MacBook?

Yes, it’s light – very light. Yes it has a retina screen. The price…well, that’s a bit high, but I can see how the engineering has pushed that up. The power…wait, a Core M CPU? That’s, well, not powerful…at all…but maybe Apple has tweaked it to boost the performance? There’s a new keyboard design? Ok, but it looks very, very shallow. The Trackpad is a new design too? Oh, and there are no ports except for one USB 3.1 type C – which is also where you plug it in to charge.

What just happened?

Surely this is a new class of machine, the ultra ultra portable, and now Tim Cook will announce the Air Retina? Yes?

No.

Instead there were minor spec bumps for the Air, and the same crappy screens remain. But, but, I have the money…I just want the machine to buy….I can’t go anywhere else…why are you doing this to me?!?!

It brought back memories of the time I had saved up for a new iMac, and eagerly awaited the announcement, only to be presented with the thin new design that could only be upgraded at the point of purchase, thus adding a far slab of cash on top of the price, taking it out of my grasp. In the end I bought a Mac Mini, which has been fine, but the sting is still there.

Schiller iMac

Now it’s happening again.

Yes I could move up the chain and buy a MacBook Pro, but that’s more than I need (I’m never going to use those Thunderbolt ports), and the weight is a fair bit more than the 11” Air. All I wanted was a retina screen in the little Air…hell, a HD screen and IPS panel would have done the trick. Why can’t that be done, especially when sub £300 Chromebooks can manage it?

Yes the new design is pretty, and it comes in black, which is awesome, but I like the existing keyboard and trackpad just fine. All it needed was the screen.

Life with Apple used to be so simple. Each machine was great, and you could upgrade it yourself to save a few pounds and extend the working life. Now, well, it’s getting where I’m screaming at the Apple web-store in frustration, rather than my Windows machine. I guess I’ll just have to wait a couple of generations and then get ready to buy the matured MacBook, but of course Apple will be waiting, hands clasped firmly on that rug, ready to pull it hard once more.

Bugger.

Living with the… Griffin A-Frame for iPad

I’ve been thinking recently.

I know. It’s not like me…and yet still it happens.

My old laptop is now tottering towards digital senility, and I’m left with the quandary of what to replace it with? My needs are reasonably mild – writing, blogging, research, a bit of audio production here, a dab of video creation there – nothing that requires a powerhouse machine. Even if I did need some extra grunt  then my Mac Mini is more than up for most tasks. So the question that echoes around the empty caverns of my mind with alarming regularity is ‘Can I use my iPad as a laptop replacement?’

Over the next month or so I’m going to find out.

Before I write that piece I need to get a few things in place and add a few accessories into the mix. I already have a wireless Apple keyboard which I use with the aforementioned Mac Mini. The onscreen iPad keyboard is actually very good, but using it for any extended writing sessions always gives me a crick in my neck, so an external one seems like a good option.

My iPad already has a case, which can double as a stand, but I find that it sits a little low and ushers forth the crick once more. So I need something that will keep the device portable, while elevating the screen and preventing it from toppling forward into my coffee cup. What’s that? A stand, you say? What a splendid idea!

The Griffin A-Frame is such a contraption.

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When you first pick up the stand you can tell from the gentle heft that it is built to last. The aluminium construction feels sturdy and solid, two qualities that I usually hope for when I entrust the safe-keeping of a £500 piece of glass to something’s care. The central piece of the stand swings back to a set distance which offers a good viewing angle for an iPad in portrait mode, but I have to say that the angle is a little shallow when you change to landscape.

Griffin know that Apple have a penchant for elegantly styled and easily scratched devices, so the contact points on the stand are all covered in soft rubber to avoid damage and safeguard the resale value of its prospective passengers.

One of the real advantages that the A-Frame has over many of its rivals is the large chin that compromises the base of the unit. This means that the iPad sits about an inch or two above the desk, which is closer to a normal laptop than many of the traditionally low-slung tablet stands I’ve used. Crick…be gone.

In use the A-Frame is just about perfect. The iPad doesn’t wobble or exhibit any lemming-like tendencies while on the stand, and there is even a cutout on the back of the A-Frame which allows you to feed through a power cable neatly – although this only really works in portrait mode. The wide base is also open enough to hold an iPad in a case, which further maintains the safety of the device.

In truth it’s a little heavy, not stupidly so, and it’s only to be expected due to the solidity of the product, but when added to the Apple keyboard it does mean that the overall weight becomes similar to a normal laptop. Albeit a laptop that can be taken apart without the need for torx screwdrivers and heatguns. Now there’s an idea, Apple!

I managed to find a solution to the landscape viewing angle problem in the end by simply placing the case that usually holds my iPad under the stand. Hey presto, it’s a mini laptop.

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Of course the question will be asked ‘Why not just use an actual laptop?’

Well, I know that I’ll always have a tablet from now on. They just suit my lifestyle very nicely. If I’m going to have one anyway then it makes sense to try and adapt the device into my workflow. If it can carry the weight then I’ve saved about £1000 on a new MacBook Pro. Packing a few extra items in my bag to make this happen feels like a fair trade, and of course once I finish work I can put the keyboard away, prop the iPad on the stand and waste the evening watching Youtube.

The Griffin A-Frame retails for around £20 online. It’s a very useful bit of kit, and doubles as a handy desk stand on which to charge the iPad or use it as a second screen when working on your main machine at home. Simple, sturdy, and affordable. That’s all the boxes ticked for me.