iPad Pro vs MacBook Pro: The Focus Question

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Macs are great devices, they’re capable, they’re powerful, they’re reliable, they even look nice. A large swath of the population relies on their Macs daily to be productive. Steve Jobs famously equated desktop operating machines to trucks, full of power and function.

iPads are also great, but for different reasons and different purposes. The iPad, for most of its existence, has been seen as a consumption machine, but the release of iPad Pro and more recently, iPadOS, the understanding of the iPad has expanded to include creative and productive tasks. When Jobs equated computers with trucks he also equated mobile operating machines (iPads) with cars. As a society/economy evolves, fewer people need the power and function of a truck, or a full desktop computer, opting instead for a less power-hungry, easier to use, mobile operating machine.

This is a helpful comparison between the two types of devices, but I think the iPad vs Mac discussion goes deeper than a distinction in functionality.

iPad-as-a-computer-replacement discussions seem to generate significant traffic in online discussions and forums. I’ve read through countless articles and comment sections weighing the pro’s and con’s myself. As far as I can tell, many people would love to use the iPad as their primary productivity tool but are held back by questions of functionality. Can the iPad really handle all of my computing needs? Will the sacrifice in function be worth the trade-off in form? These were my questions as well. Previously, when I purchased an iPad Pro I thought about it as an all-or-nothing endeavor, either I would cut ties with macOS and use the iPad Pro exclusively, or I would get rid of the iPad Pro and stick with my MacBook. Either the iPad Pro could be a computer replacement or it couldn’t. More than once, I ended up frustrated with the function of the iPad Pro and went back to using a MacBook after a few weeks. I was thinking about the iPad Pro as a MacBook, and since it didn’t perform as well as a MacBook in a MacBook workflow, it felt inadequate. The question was never about the purpose of the device, it was about the raw functionality it offered. The problem with this line of thinking is that raw functionality is not the most important correlate to effectiveness. The function question isn’t the only question, maybe not even the most important question, when thinking about tools and productivity.

Productivity tools exist on a spectrum between function and focus. In order to enhance focus (and effectiveness), it can actually be helpful to give up some function. We think about tools and devices almost entirely as a form of function. Which tool is most capable of performing the tasks I need, or might need, to complete? Because of this, it makes sense that we talk about how the keyboard feels, the power of the processor, the capability of the OS, and the amount of RAM or storage that would best support our use case. Those things aren’t bad, but what we neglect almost entirely is how the tools correlate with our focus, which is arguably more important. We don’t ask how well we’re managing all of the function. Are we distracted by the multitasking capabilities? Have we spent too much time off task? Is all the function actually causing a decrease in our output? Are we burning through diesel gas driving around town? Desktop operating systems by nature offer as much function as possible, and that’s not a bad thing, sometimes we need a truck-type computer to accomplish specialized or complex tasks. But instead of only asking the function question, it’s important to also consider the focus question.

I’m really good at wasting time on a Mac. It happens automatically. All I have to do is turn on the machine, then those floating windows pop up, I see red dots in my dock, a bunch of open browser tabs catch my eye, suddenly I’m clicking links, reading stories, remembering something I wanted to check on, it’s like my mind falls into a state of hyper distraction. And then an hour has gone by, I’ve made no progress on the things that are most important to me, and I’m stressed. I’ll admit, this could be an issue unique to me, and there are ways to clamp down on the distractions of a desktop OS. If nothing else, take this as an exhortation to think about the relationship between your tool and your focus. For me, it has been helpful to use a different type of OS, one that’s not designed for multitasking, one that doesn’t encourage hypnotic attention deficit, one that leans toward the focus end of the spectrum. The iPad Pro limits multitasking, it does away with floating windows, it hides the dock automatically, and it forces the user to attend to one thing at a time. In fact, one of the most annoying things about using an iPad Pro is the friction involved with switching apps and tasks, all those taps and drags. It’s also simply harder to do some things on the iPad Pro, like manage files or build a spreadsheet. Those things may seem problematic on the surface, but when I think about the amount of time I waste task switching and managing files, and the relative unimportance of those things, the tradeoffs don’t seem quite so severe. It’s hard to quantify all of the differences between working from a Mac and working from an iPad Pro, but I know that my mind is more calm and less distracted with an iPad Pro, I know an iPad Pro encourages me to spend much more time on the more important parts of my work. The tool enhances, rather than hampers, my focus and effectiveness. The iPad Pro isn’t the most functional machine you can buy (though it’s come a long way in the last few years), but that very fact is what enables it to strike a balance between function and focus that could have vast implications for your effectiveness, and your stress level.

I’m not saying you have to buy an iPad Pro to be more effective, I’m not even saying that I’ll never buy a MacBook again, but for me, for now, the iPad Pro better accounts for my human weakness and allows me to be more effective by sacrificing some function to enhance focus. If you’re only asking the function question an iPad Pro will probably be found lacking, you can do more things faster on a Mac. But ask the focus question, that’s where the iPad Pro shines. Previously, I tried to use an iPad Pro for productivity because I wanted a better computer. But the iPad Pro is not a better computer, it’s a totally different productivity tool.

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