Monthly Archives: February 2022

Modular Computing and the Mac I Want

Just a few days ago I wrote, not for the first time, about having mostly quit the Mac. I t was a response to a forum post over at Mac Power Users though it was also a post that had already been brewing in my head as a general frustration that I’ve had with managing my Mac. I’ve been a Mac user since around 1993 when I purchased my first, a Mac Color Classic. Still have it. Since then many Macs and I’ve loved using them. It’s only been the past couple of years that I started finding macOS frustrating largely because the simplicity of the iPad has sort of spoiled me, especially in terms of background maintenance type tasks. Also, window management. Bit’s of friction that just kind of crept in with the Mac. But really that might move me from the real topic of this post so I’ll save that bit for another day.

But more relevant to this post is that over time the iPad, as the simplest possible computer grew to feel like a comfortable extension of me. First and foremost a slab of glass. I’ve never gotten over that simple fact that this simple tablet was the computer. It not only set a new standard of simplicity but also of personal, direct interaction. And also the beginning (for me at least) of a new way of thinking about modular and portable computing.

Of course the laptop is that to a degree. Certainly portable and a complete package. I sold my last laptop in 2016 because I’d mostly stopped using it. I was either using my Mac Mini or my iPad. I no longer wanted a mobile device that was permanently attached to a keyboard. At that point the iPad OS was more limited so I often still used my Mac Mini at a desk for many computing tasks.

The past few weeks I’ve been getting closer to purchasing a replacement for the 10 year old Mac Mini. It’s still working pretty well but with inflation, supply chain disruption etc, I thought I’d go ahead and get the replacement, a 2021 M1 Mac Mini. I’ll keep the current Intel as a backup, maybe a server (which is already it’s primary function) or gift it to a family member. In any case, before purchasing I carefully considered a MacBook Air.

Why I skipped the laptop and went with the Mini is the subject of this post as it speaks to the modular, portable Mac I really want but which does not exist. I’ll say first that I went with the Mini because I have a 27″ 4K display which is what I’ll be using anytime I use the Mac. Why pay extra for the 13″ screen, keyboard and trackpad I don’t want or need? The reason I almost spent the extra was that the laptop also comes with it’s own battery, essentially, a back-up power supply and can be charged via USB C from AC or DC power supplies. If I’ve got a power outage my iPads, mobile hotspot, iPhone, etc can all be charged via a solar powered battery indefinitely. As would a MacBook Air. Sure, I can use the standard AC wall plug such as the one that the Mac Mini comes with and run it for many hours from that back-up. But not indefinitely. That’s okay and not a problem because when it comes down to it I’ll be using the iPad for most tasks anyway. But thinking about it did send me down a rabbit hole.

The modular Mac I want most would be a Mac Mini with a battery and the option to charge/power via USB C. But why? Why not just a laptop? Because as I get older I want a bigger screen for larger text. And because I want to be able to have that screen at various heights as needed. And because I’m happy to use an external keyboard and mouse or external trackpad. So, in part, it’s very much a hardware positioning issue. Again, the iPad has spoiled me. I’m used to being able to arrange work spaces in all sorts of ways between the iPad, keyboard and trackpad.

But it’s also an expression of the Apple hardware and software ecosystem. Between my iPhone, 2 iPads and Mac, everything is connected. While not perfect it mostly works most of the time – generally speaking, it feels like like being in a very functional, useful and often magical modular computing ecosystem. I expect I’ll notice and enjoy this even more with an M1 Mac running the latest OS and features like Universal Control.

But about this Mac Mini with a battery, well, I suspect that the current Mac Mini could be much smaller with the lower energy Apple Silicon. I’m imagining a device about half the size and weight. Unlike a laptop, the dimensions of this device would not be constrained by the dimensions of the built in screen, keyboard and trackpad. Maybe a fan, maybe not. But with a built in battery it could be an always on device, easy to transport from home to office or even to different locations within a home. With one of the new portable screens, a keyboard and trackpad, the overall package wouldn’t have to be much more than a laptop. But has the option of a larger screen set at an optimally ergonomic height with different arrangements between the keyboard, mouse and screen rather than for optimal ergonomics.

I can imagine a scenario where I’m at the home office working at the 27″ display attached to this portable Mac Mini and/or iPad and the usual peripherals. But a quick unplug of the display and I’m off to the library or a coffee shop or office. Maybe I’m headed to an office where I’ve already got another display, keyboard, etc waiting so I just take this tiny Mac Mini and my iPad. Or maybe I’m going to another space and I can take a portable 15″ display, keyboard and mouse. Certainly that’s more heft and bulk than a laptop but it’s still very portable and, the key point, at the home office it has advantages over the laptop.

One last thing I’d want in this kind of set-up would be a new macOS and iPadOS feature, an extension of Hand-off, Continuity, Sidecar and Universal Control that would allow me to initiate control of the Mac from the iPad without a third party app and without the Mac or iPad initially being on the same network. In this setting the iPad would see the nearby Mac, recognize it as mine and that it was running without a display, and prompt a connection, turning the iPad into a wireless display for the Mac, no dongles or third party software needed. Currently I can control the Mac via an app like Screens but that requires that both be on the same wireless network. Or I could use a third party wireless dongle or a wired connection via an app like Duet (see below story).

I can imagine that carrying a portable, battery powered Mac Mini and an iPad that could seamlessly initiate screen sharing/control would be a very cool feature in certain circumstances.

I’ll end with this story that popped up in my RSS feed as I neared the end of this post: Dave Mark at the Loop posts about this project to DIY a portable Mac Mini! Similar to what I’ve been thinking here though I would stress the value of a screen that is NOT attached.

Why I quit the Mac (Mostly)

I had a chuckle late yesterday afternoon when I opened up the forum and found this thread: iOS and iPadOS are endlessly frustrating to me.

The reason for my amusement was that earlier in the day was one of the rare occasions I found myself at the keyboard of my Mac Mini and I found myself frustrated with the experience for most of the time. I had a few things I needed to do in the Contacts app that aren’t up to snuff on that app on the iPad. Also not great on the Mac but a little better. Side note, Apple needs to give the Contacts app on all platforms some attention. It’s been awhile since spent any time managing contacts and it’s not a great experience. (Cardhop on the iPad is fantastic, a much better experience and I could have used that but hadn’t checked on the Mac in a couple weeks so figured I’d check for software updates, etc).

So, as I was working on that I had a tech question texted to me from a relative that resulted, after a series of exchanges between us, in my checking my Time Machine back-up. Huh, no back-ups since January 11th. No notifications that it had stopped. Upon investigating I found an error “A disk you are backing up is case-sensitive, but the backup disk is not. Select a different backup disk or exclude the case-sensitive disk from backups.” One of those fun Mac power user exercises! I do some searching and no resolution. Fine, I’ll come back to that later. I’ve had issues with Time Machine for years. For some it seems to work very well, for me, well, this is just the latest in a long, long list of failures.

I get back to my task. A client is having issues with his Contacts app throwing up the spinning beach ball which is why I’m tooling around looking at options for possibly moving some of his workflow to Numbers spreadsheets for contacts relating mailings, class sign-ups, invoicing and various other bits of data tracking that he’s never gotten around to doing.

While I’m at the Mac this same client messages me with a few requested changes to his website. I instinctively reach over to the iPad attached to the Magic Keyboard and open Textastic in split screen with Messages to reference the text and images he’s sending. He also sends a hyperlink to gather additional images and text from a website so I tap over to Safari. I select some text with the Magic Keyboard trackpad and copy. Then I use my finger to tap and hold an image in Safari, then use another other finger to drag up the dock and open Files to navigate to my client’s website folder. I drop the image in. As my hands are already near the screen I use my thumb to drag the dock up and tap over to Textastic. I finger tap the images folder, then tap and hold the new image to rename from the contextual menu then rename it using the keyboard. The client wants another image that I have in my Photos library so I Command-Space and type “flowers” and from those Spotlight results I open Photos app which opens a search for my flower images. I tap the “moments” section of the photos search results which has groupings based on date and within a few seconds I’ve got the image. I tap the share icon to send the image to a shortcut that resizes and compresses the photo which I save straight to the website images folder.

Over the course of this 5 minutes of activity my fingers and hands have danced back and forth from screen, to keyboard to trackpad. I can’t say that I know exactly how I’ll do any particular task, whether it will be the trackpad or touching the screen, I just do it. If my fingers are already on the keyboard I’ll likely use the trackpad. But because they’re always close to the screen tapping is easy and often I find that I can go quite a bit faster because I can interact more directly with the screen via touch and with two hands – with the trackpad I am limited to one cursor. This kind of interaction isn’t possible on the Mac and I feel slower because of it. The Mac limits me to one cursor, one point of on-screen interaction with a mouse or trackpad. I have to drag that cursor, and aim it. Not so with the touch screen where I can much more quickly move a finger right to the place I want to interact.

Another place where the Mac slows me down is in the processing of mail. The iPad and a touch screen feels far superior when processing mail. When it comes time to delete and move mail around the two hand, multi finger process is excellent. My left hand goes up towards the left side of the screen and I use my thumb and/or other fingers to multi select multiple emails to drag and drop. Or I can slide delete or tap delete using a second finger on the delete key if I’m doing this with the keyboard attached. Lots of options and I tend to use all of them.

Same thing for files. I feel slower on the Mac with a trackpad or mouse. On the iPad, whether I’m in split screen with two Files windows open or just one, multi-touch file selection is fantastic. Two finger drag to select multiples is great. Almost everything feels faster.

Another area that I’ll mention is multi-tasking. It’s often said that multitasking on the iPad is cumbersome, difficult and still not finished. It is true that on a Mac I can have as many windows of as many apps as I want, all on one screen, placed free form wherever I want and overlapping as I see fit, and yes, sometimes that is useful. Sometimes, it’s just a complicated mess of windows.

After several years working on the iPad I prefer the iPad multitasking model of interaction, especially given the improvements of the past few years. Having a single app window open is generally fine and when it’s not it takes me no time to bring up a split screen and/or a slide over as needed. Dragging up from the bottom of the screen to get multitasking or using any of the new keyboard shortcuts, again, all of these work very well for me. I don’t need third party window managers to help me organize or keep my windows tidy. I just use the iPad as it is intended and find that it’s fluid and fast and fun to use.

To compare, I just hopped back to my Mac to see where I left things yesterday. A Finder window open and 7 minimized windows in the dock. I can run the cursor over those tiny minimized windows in the dock to get a label to identify them but it feels slow compared to multitasking on the iPad. On the iPad I can more quickly activate the multitasking view which gives me a view that’s much quicker and easier to navigate with less eye strain and cognitive load. Not only that, but I can more quickly get back to an app or task from further back in time right where I left off. This is especially true of the newer M1 iPad Pro with increased memory. I can often, with just a couple of swipes pull an app from multitasking right where I left off at some point earlier in the day or a previous day.

A few more ways that I find the Mac to be too restrictive are tied to the hardware limitations. I don’t know how folks can deal with a permanently attached keyboard. A MacBook Air is more flexible than a desktop Mac in terms of location but it’s still stuck to landscape mode and a keyboard/trackpad. Sure, I use my iPad with a keyboard/trackpad much of the day. But as needed I give the iPad a gentle tug and it’s free to continue using in landscape or rotated to portrait without the extra baggage. I can keep using my fingers to touch the screen directly or I have the additional option of using the Pencil. There’s a fluidity of form, handling and function that come with the iPad that I can’t get with a Mac that’s locked to a keyboard, trackpad and/or mouse.

I’m not sure at what point I began viewing the Mac as more of a hinderance and something I had to over-manage. I’m not certain if it’s the complexity of the OS, troubleshooting things like file permissions, window clutter or just the form factor that requires a cursor. But at some point around 2018 I’d spent enough time with the iPad as my computer that going back to the Mac was more trouble than it was worth. When I was younger I enjoyed the Mac more in part I think because I didn’t mind maintenance, it was a part of the fun. The iPad came along and matured at a rate that matched my own needs and inclinations I suppose. 12 years on and it’s not as simple (or limited) as it was in those first few years. But nor is it overly complex.

Ultimately we’ll all chose the tools we’re most comfortable with for various tasks, environments and at different times of our lives. I’m grateful that the iPad has been iterated in such a way that my mom can still have her easy to use iPad, mostly unaware of all of the new features that have been added. The same is true for my father and quite a few others in my family. For them the iPad is still that simple computer that they don’t have to worry about or spend time maintaining. But for me Apple has provided another version of this same device, one that is far more capable and yet, still, not cumbersome or overly burdened with troubleshooting or maintenance.

The Mac served me well for 25 years and while it will still have it’s place I’m happy to have moved on to the iPad.

I had to recharge so here’s the iPad in desktop mode.