As promised, some thoughts on whether should buy an iPad or perhaps something else.

To quickly recap my initial thoughts about the iPad from a year ago, I thought the iPad was super cool and immediately set aside some money to get one when they were announced. After that initial interest waned, though, I reconsidered and evaluated the tech products I already owned and what I couldn’t already do with them. With a laptop on my desk (and lap) and an iPhone in my pocket, I had most of the things the iPad brings to the table covered. The one thing that was left was reading e-books. Thus, I bought a Kindle. 1

When the iPads hit the stores, I went and played with them a little. Holding one confirmed my opinion: they are super cool. But I still didn’t understand where it fit into my tech life.

And that’s what I tell people who ask me about whether they should get an iPad or not: carefully examine where it will fit into your life. If you have a decent laptop and a smartphone, it’s tough to justify owning an iPad as well. If, however, you only have a desktop computer, or have a work laptop that you can’t use for personal web browsing, emailing, etc. and you have a generic cell phone, then I think the iPad is a reasonable purchase.

Also consider what you want to do with it. Another big problem for me about the iPad is that I want to have a portable writing device. The iPad, in its base form, is not made to crank out thousands of words at a time. Sure, some people say that you can spend a lot of time on the virtual keyboard, but based on my experience with the iPhone’s keyboard, I don’t see the iPad as a device I could use to write lengthy blog posts, use for covering games, etc. And the idea of adding a Bluetooth keyboard to it seems silly to me. You might as well go for a full-powered laptop if you’re going to carry around an iPad and a keyboard.

Which brings me to something else I’ve been meaning to write about for months. Despite having a perfectly good laptop already2, I fell in love with the new MacBook Airs when they were announced in October. Thus I did something I’ve never done before: I pre-ordered a first generation Apple product. Of all the money I’ve spent at the Apple Store over the past decade, this might be my finest purchase.

Let’s get the stats out of the way: I purchased a 13” model with the 128 GB solid state hard drive and 4 GB of RAM. I considered the 11” model, but based on my experience using a netbook briefly last year, I knew my old man eyes couldn’t handle a screen that small.

This is a great freaking computer. I can work comfortably on the 13″ screen, although here at home I generally keep it hooked up to an external monitor. The battery life is insane. I’ve yet to run it down where the old MacBook Pro burned through a charge pretty quickly. Despite having a slower processor, this thing is certainly faster than the old Pro model thanks to the solid state drive. Most of you probably have no idea what a solid state drive is. Basically the Air is using flash memory to store all your data. Instead of a mechanical hard drive with moving parts, there is just a big stick of flash memory. This makes everything about this computer super fast.

But this biggest thing is the size. The Air is insanely light. It almost feels like it’s not a real computer, but maybe a case where all the parts have been removed. Carry it around the house or throw it in a bag and the weight barely registers. S’s 13″ MacBook, which is in many ways a very light computer, feels heavy compared to the Air.

My only real concern in going to the Air was the small storage space. My old Pro had a 200 GB hard drive. While I was not close to filling that up, I do like to keep around 25% of my hard drive free. Going to the 128 GB Air seemed like a challenge at first. But I conquered that problem in two ways. First, I separated my iPhoto collection into two libraries and store all my old pictures on an external drive. They’re right there if I need them, but I also removed about 25 GB of data. Second, I undertook a major reevaluation of what I kept in iTunes. I prune my iTunes library often, but still had around 5200 songs and a few movies and TV shows in there, good for about 25 GB in total. I went through, song-by-song and made some hard decisions, deleting some stuff I had kept for years and eventually shaved off another 6 GB or so of space.3

So that’s roughly 30 GB of space I reclaimed. As I write this I’m about even in usage and free space: both checking in at 56 GB and change. I didn’t need to make those changes; I would still have had plenty of room if I had included all of those photos and songs. But in the spirit of a leaner machine, it seemed like a good time to put the data on a diet as well, and only keep the files I absolutely had to have.

The iTunes pruning offered the added bonus of improving my listening experience. While most of my time listening to music is through a series of smart playlists that are designed to constantly plumb the depths of my library and bring forward songs I haven’t heard in ages, I had a lot of chaf in there. Filtering out the songs I wasn’t really interested in hearing has brought back some of the wow factor iTunes had lost, or at least mine had lost, in recent years. I’m hearing the songs I really want to hear and not having to skip over songs I kept just in case I wanted to hear them.

As I said, this is a fantastic computer. And it’s where things are heading. A year from now, I would imagine most Apple laptops will have solid state drives and hold more batteries than anything else inside. There will still be build-to-order options for high end displays and larger mechanical drives. But soon the entire line will look more like the MacBook Air than they do today.

To sum up: buy an iPad if there is a clear space for it in your digital lifestyle. If you already have a laptop and a smartphone, skip it. Or try to win one in a contest so you don’t pay for it. And if you’re looking for a new laptop, take a long, hard look at the MacBook Airs.

  1. Two months after I bought my Kindle, Amazon slashed the price by nearly 50%. A couple months later, they cut the price again. And then they released version 3 of the Kindle, which was not a great leap forward in terms of hardware. But they announced last week that they will be updating the Kindle 3 to finally show real page numbers rather than the funky locations they currently use. Not the Kindle 2, though. Nice buying decision there, Mr. B. 
  2. I had a 15″ MacBook Pro. Lots of power, great screen, the old PowerBook-style keyboard that I loved, with backlighting to boot. A reasonable hard drive, but nothing huge. Thanks to eBay, a woman in Chicago is now enjoying it. 
  3. These songs aren’t gone either, mind you. They’re all stored on an external drive so if I decide I want that rare Pearl Jam track I had only listened to three times in seven years, I can easily find it.