Thinking about the iPad Pro

Want to see the best example of why the iPad isn’t really a multi-tasking professional machine yet? Try opening up Apple TV while you’re connected to an external monitor. Yes, you can play a video file and you will see the movie play on the big screen. Meanwhile, your iPad screen will be black. And try and open up another application so you can do something else on the iPad while watching that movie, and up will pop the application you just opened on the big screen.

Bear in mind that the processor on the iPad that I’m using – last year’s 12.9in iPad Pro – is a pretty powerful thing. And the iPad can do lots of things at the same time: I can have music playing, watch something using Picture in Picture, have two apps on split screen and another one via SlideOver, all cramped on to the iPad’s screen, and it will work perfectly. What I absolutely can’t do have anything on a monitor that’s not mirrored, unless the developer has worked to create an extended view – which most don’t – and even then I can’t really do much else at the same time.

Here’s what you can do: open up the TV app (or any other application which supports something on an external display. Put the app you want to also work on into the other side of the screen, making it split with TV. Play your movie. And it all works! But what a kludgy, useless kind of hack this is.

You can even have have another app on screen as a SlideOver window, and it works! But forget for a minute that you have had to make this crazy fudge of a way of working, and open up another app… and all of a sudden whatever you have on the big screen will stop working, and you’re back in mirroring hell. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will stop (don’t judge me) and you will need to work out how to juggle the windows all over again.

This isn’t good enough. Not for a device that costs north of £1000 and that has the processing power which the M1 delivers. Apple has a lot of work to do with iPadOS, and I would expect it to arrive at this year’s WWDC.

Weeknote: w/c 31st January 2021

I always have a temptation with these notes to begin them with “this week, I have mostly been eating elderberries” which will make absolutely no sense to anyone younger than about 40.

I’ve been reflective this week. Is there any other way to be when you’re more or less confined to the house? And what I’ve been reflecting on is balance, and how out of kilter things have become. Because I’ve lacked energy, all my energy has been going into work, and not enough into other parts of my life. Because of lockdown, the other areas of my life have also had other kinds of neglect: there’s no visiting friends, the opportunities to get out and do things are limited, and like everyone I feel like my horizons have shrunk.

Things will change, though. This week was the first week of The Focus Course, which is created and curated by Shawn Blanc and seems pretty-much designed to start the process of lifting your eyes and focusing on the horizon. This week was all about examining the roles in your life and working out what your values are. Although you make a big long list of them, you’re asked to boil it down to the two which are really import and which are consistent across all the roles, interests and responsibilities you have. Mine came down to two: self-improvement (I am very definitely a life-long learner at heart) and service. I wasn’t expecting that, but as soon as I wrote it down I realised how much of my love of life comes when I’m doing something which contributes to the well-being of others, whether that is on the small scale of friends and family or the wider view of the environment and society. And the two values are tightly linked: the more capable I make myself, the more I look after myself, the better I can contribute. And the more I contribute, the more I learn and improve.

Perhaps because I’ve been going through this kind of self-reflective exercise I’ve also found myself getting into my flow a few times. Flow is often talked about like a semi-mystical thing among the kind of people who buy every single productive book ever written, but all it boils down to is clarity about what you want to do in the moment. Once you have that clarity, you have to actively resist to stop yourself doing something: distractions melt. Lots of tools can help you make the most of that clarity when you reach it, but there are no tools which can help you get there is the first place.

I also found some time to play some Elder Scrolls Online. I’m fascinated by tit as a game and an experience: the depth and breadth of story is like nothing else I’ve ever played, and it manages to tread the line between being a good and highly playable game for soloing and a group experience. It’s a shame that the Mac client is a piece of crap, but there’s a reason why I always have a decent PC in the house.

Unconnected — I hope — but I don’t feel like I’m getting enough sleep at the moment. Although I’ve long thought that much of my sleepiness is related to long COVID-19, I think it’s more likely to be a combination of things: not enough fresh air and irregular bed times being the main culprit. Nothing that I can’t fix.

Related: if you have an Apple Watch, it’s worth trying out the “Time To Walk” series. These are combined podcasts and walking workout with an interesting person talking to you as if you were just going on a walk together. It’s a surprisingly nice idea and really well executed: I had no idea who Shawn Mendes was, but he was an interesting walking companion.

Two things appeared from the online shopping fairies this week. The first was a penknife. Yes, a Swiss Army penknife, something that I haven’t owned for about thirty years. The Victorinox Super Tinker, which they describe as “the ideal companion for all crafty men and women”. Mostly I bought it because I’m fed up with never being able to find a small pair of scissors, but it’s also a nod towards the post-lockdown world and how much I want to travel and camp and do outdoorsy things in the middle of nowhere. It can sit in my Goruck, ready for the next phase of the world.

The other thing that arrived was a Paperlike screen protector for my iPad Pro. This is another example of something which occasionally happens to me, where I buy something, and it offers such a better experience that I have to do some kind of upgrade for other devices. For example, after buying the Freewrite I had to get a proper mechanical keyboard for my Mac mini, as it basically ruined my relationship with every other keyboard I had.

In this case, using the Remarkable 2 tablet with its exceptional writing feel utterly destroyed the experience of writing and drawing on the iPad Pro. To get it to the point where I could use the iPad Pro again, I needed to get a Paperlike which gives a much better writing surface: not as good as the Remarkable, but good enough to stop me from never wanting to use the Apple Pencil again. It also has the advantage of giving the screen a nice matte look which takes away some brightness but massively increases the readability in sunlight and just makes the whole thing more pleasant. Again, not as good as the Remarkable, but a big improvement.

I have written a draft of a longer article about the Remarkable 2 which I’ll edit and post later in the week. The short version: I like it, but if you’re buying one you have to be clear about where it fits in your life and what it’s replacing/augmenting. The use for it is more fuzzy than something like the Freewrite, where it’s obvious where it drops into your workflow and so you can either use it (if you write everything as an initial draft) or not get one (if you write differently). That makes it harder to recommend unreservedly because there are several ways you could use it, some of this are stronger than others. But as a piece of industrial design, it’s an absolutely lovely piece of work. If Apple can ever get the iPad this thin and light, the rest of the industry should just give up making tablets and go home. If they haven’t already.

23 books read in a year isn’t a bad effort, especially given the fact that remarkably few of them fell into the category of trash science fiction. This year, I want to have read 20 non-fiction books that I haven’t read before – got to keep that mind moving.

Chaffinches are funny little birds – like something drawn by a three year old, all triangular body and spindle legs. They like to hunker down too, which makes them even more squat and fat looking.

An M1 Mac vs the Surface Pro X: How do ARM devices compare?

I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who own both an M1 Mac and a Surface Pro X is small. I fall into that section in the middle, so I thought it was worth summarizing how the two compare.

I should say from the start that the Surface Pro X is by far and away my favourite Windows device. I also have a Surface Book 3, which is a pretty powerful laptop in its own right, but which I just don’t love as much.

The hardware design of the Surface Pro X is exceptional, and it is one of the few non-Apple devices that I’ve owned which matches Apple’s level of industrial design. Using an ARM processor with its much less hefty thermal requirements than Intel chips has freed Microsoft’s hardware designers to make the Surface that they have clearly always had in their heads. It’s thin and light, with an exceptionally lovely screen, and in my experience it just never gets hot, something that I can’t say of any Intel-based computer I’ve ever used.

For some categories of user, myself included, the performance is actually good. Performance is a relative thing: what’s acceptable for someone who lives in the browser would be glacial for a designer who spends their life in Photoshop.

My work life is solidly in Office 365 and a browser, and for this kind of work–which we should remember is a huge chunk of users across the globe—the Surface Pro X is perfect. Office and Edge have never felt slow, no matter how many tabs or documents I have open. And the ability to use it anywhere thanks to built-in LTE makes it more useful than a conventional laptop.

My M1 Mac mini is… well, it’s a Mac. It does everything I have ever used my Macs for, including audio and video editing, and subjectively does it as well and as fast as anything I’ve ever used. It feels faster than my year old 16in MacBook Pro, which has double the memory and on paper at least ought to be easily quicker. And it does it while being silent, cool and snappy with everything.

Using it with third party hardware has also been a very Mac-like experience. Whatever third party hardware I have plugged in has worked from an old Logitech webcam to a Blue Yeti USB mic. Even the software which allows me to programme my Corsair gaming mouse works perfectly. I don’t even know if it’s running ARM or Intel code.

That’s the crucial difference between the two devices. You don’t have to think about the Mac mini as anything other than a Mac. With the Surface Pro X you need to remember that it’s not a Windows device, it’s an ARM Windows device, and limit what you can do accordingly. If your requirements sit within those limitations, it’s a great machine. If they don’t, you won’t be able to use it at all.

This is why Microsoft’s marketing language about Windows on ARM devices focuses on how they are “a new category of PC” and why it talks about the Surface Pro X as for “mobile professionals”. The company isn’t confident—rightly—that ARM devices can replace an Intel PC except in those specific circumstances. Apple thinks of the M1 as making the Mac just a better Mac, first for low-end customers where it can deliver performance that’s already close to the top end, and in 2021 and 2022 for its most demanding users.

What can Microsoft do? I honestly don’t think there’s much it can, at the moment. To get to where Apple is, Microsoft needs to persuade Qualcomm that it should devote time and effort to build chips optimised for higher thermal envelope devices, such as laptops and desktops. That’s not as easy as it sounds. It also needs to persuade Qualcomm that building in features to make it easier to emulate or translate Intel code is worth the effort.

On the software side, it also needs to sort out the mess that is Windows development. Windows Presentation Foundation, Universal Windows Platform, Progressive Web Apps… the entire system is a mess that makes it harder, not easier, to choose how to develop for Windows. This is something that Apple has been very good at managing in the past.

Can Intel or AMD keep up? Apple is already a larger processor company than either of them in terms of units shipped, thanks to its wholly owned designs for the A- and no M-series. Combine iPhone and iPad and Apple ships more than 250m devices per year. Most of those devices will share a great deal in terms of processor design as the M1, meaning that the Mac gains from the economy of scale and design cost amortisation that Intel can only dream of. There are of course big differences between an M1 and an A14, but they share the same cores, the same Neural Engine, the same image processing and secure enclave designs. Perhaps over time the high performance cores in iPhone and Mac will diverge, but at the moment Apple doesn’t need to do it, so it can benefit from being able to design one processor core which ships in 250m devices a year—more than the number of PCs shipping over the same time scale.

I think all this adds up to Microsoft and Intel being in a bigger boatload of trouble than most people think. The shift to ARM feels like a classic Clay Christiansen transformational technology moment, with M1 the tipping point when a technology moves from cheaper but not as powerful as the incumbent to beating it. The path that Microsoft and Intel must take is a radical rethinking of their own businesses, and I am not clear that the internal forces in either company have accepted that yet.

I bought a Mac mini

I lasted a day without preordering a new Mac running Apple’s M1 processor. That’s an improvement, right? Better than I would have done a few years ago?

Well… not by much. My chronic case of former tech journalist disease means that, even though I don’t need to keep abreast of the latest technology for work, whenever a new and interesting change in computers comes out, I end up having to buy it.

That’s how come I own a Surface Pro X, and it’s now why I own a Mac mini with Apple’s M1 ARM-based processor.

I bought the lowest-end model, with 8Gb of memory and 256Gb storage. Having paid out #1800 for a new 16in MacBook Pro earlier in the year, I didn’t really want to pay another #1000 plus for a MacBook Air or Pro 13. I also have too many laptops, anyway.

The timing was right, though, for a desktop Mac, the first one I have owned since another Mac mini about 12 years ago. The shift to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has made me rethink my home working setup, alongside how I work. I have another post in the works about this, but having a fantastic, clear working space has become very important to me, and utilising a small desktop computer with a screen makes a lot more sense than it did even a few months ago.

The relatively limited storage doesn’t worry me. The cloud storage services I use all do on-demand downloading and manage how much of your local storage they take up (this is the future, people).

What about that 8Gb memory, though? Almost everyone’s consensus is that 8Gb is paltry, 16Gb is the bare minimum for proper work, and anyone serious has 32Gb.

I think this misunderstands the advantages of moving memory from discreet components to part of the system on a chip (SoC). Apple’s unified memory architecture is fast and efficient, and swapping between fast, efficient memory and fast SSDs is nothing like paging in and out of RAM from spinning disks back in the day. Remember, too that Apple has a lot of experience in this: while flagship phones in the Android world now come with 12Gb of RAM, the iPhone 12 Pro Max has just 6Gb—and the iPhone 12 gets by with just 4Gb. And now one would say those devices are slow or lacking in power.

Sure, the requirements with a Mac aren’t the same as a phone, but neither does the Mac have the same design restraints.

The new Mac arrives tomorrow, and I’ll be setting it up tomorrow night, so I’ll know more then.