Everyone who uses a computer does some writing. It may be email, texting, or searching for information online. It is almost impossible to use a computing device without putting some bit of text in some field at some point along the way.
That said, not everyone is a writer just because we all have to do some writing on a computing device. But many people are writers who are not aware of it. You don’t have to be a professional to be a writer. If you have a book that you want to pursue, you are a writer. If you do a lot of correspondence in mail, text, and comment forums, you are a writer. If you are a student, you are most definitely a writer.
A writer is anyone who stares a blank page down until it surrenders to their relentless keystrokes. Organizing pixels into pros is the stuff of writing. And if you do it a lot, you are going to need the right tool for the job. Anyone who writes even 500 words a day on a regular basis already knows that a smartphone is insufficient for the task. You are going to need a bigger set of keys, and a bigger screen to conduct that symphony of words. Here is a quick look at what writers do, and the basic equipment they need beyond a sharp wit:
What writers do
- Write lots of words, usually with a hardware keyboard
- Research, research, and more research
- Do lots of reading
- Occasionally conduct interviews
- Light image editing
- Preparation for the web (html conversion), work in online CMS
Required hardware and software
- A good keyboard
- A reliable internet connection
- A good screen for reduced eye strain
- A fast enough computer to handle several open browser tabs at once
- Software for light image editing (resizing, renaming, touch up)
- Portable enough to comfortably take anywhere
- Mobile enough to use anywhere
Here are your options:
I’m just going to go ahead and say it: A 15” MacBook Pro is overkill for the vast majority of professional writing gigs. It is more computing power than you will ever need for one of the simplest tasks anyone can ask of their computer. When companies want to show off the power of their new hardware, there is a reason they never feature writers.
Even if you use Photoshop for editing your images, that is not reason enough to lug around a powerhouse of a computer. There are good reasons Photoshop is no longer used as the test of computing power and speed. Almost any system can run Adobe CC well enough for the tasks utilized by a writer. And honestly, writers shouldn’t be using a tool that heavy anyway. There are lighter, cleaner, quicker ways to manage what little writers need to do with photos.
That said, I have a 15” MacBook Pro. For me, screen size was the key factor. I need to blow things up as big as possible and still have as much information density as possible. If Apple made a 15” MacBook Air, I would have preferred that. But as it happens, I end up using the laptop as my desktop the vast majority of the time. Sometimes it travels with me. But it mostly stays around the house.
For most writers, the base-model MacBook Pro with Function Keys is the more sensible way to go. And that is only if you insist on having a laptop with “Pro” in the name. For what writers do, I don’t believe that is at all necessary. So the laptop I recommend for most people who do what I do is the 2018 MacBook Air. Were my vision a little better, that is the machine I would be using right now.
I have often called the iPad the ultimate writing machine. While I am a fan of the Mac, I am equally a fan of the iPad. I think overall, the Mac is the best tool for the job. Despite that fact, I am writing this on the new iPad Air. For me, it beats the Mac in one critical area almost every time. It is compact. And I can use it anywhere, including on a ;bus or train. Here are the top 10 reasons a tablet may be a better choice for you:
Every iPad has some sort of biometric security built-in. It is easy and natural to use. So if you are working on something sensitive, it is unlikely that a thief is going to get your stuff. There is also the greater software security of iOS over the Mac. There are far fewer exploits that can compromise your machine, and therefore, your work.
For all its problems that people like me complain about, iOS is rock solid. The iPad is one of those Apple devices of which one can still say, “It just works.” The Home button works every time. The gestures work remarkably well. The keyboard does what it is supposed to do, and without drama when something is spilled on it. When you can’t afford your deadline to be challenged by a technical difficulty, use an iPad.
Today’s iPad is faster than yesterday’s computer, and most of today’s computers as well. At no point do you have to worry about not having enough horsepower to get your writing tasks done, whatever they happen to be. You might run into some workflow bottlenecks. But the speed of the system will not be the problem. All modern iPads are exceptionally fast. Some Macs will bog down long before the iPad will.
Ease of Use
I wouldn’t say that the iPad is easy to use. It has a lot of complexity today that it didn’t have a few short years ago. Every year, the Settings app gets more clogged with options, and the system gets a little less intuitive.
That said, It is far simpler than a Mac or PC. Thankfully, most of the complexity is both optional and hidden. So it can still be used like the incredibly simple device it was born to be. When you get stuck on a process and have to figure out what to do, your chances are better on an iPad than a Mac.
Creation and Consumption
The Mac is a powerhouse for creation. But it is not ideal for certain forms of content consumption. It has always been rather awkward to read on a Mac. Reading apps have never done very well in a desktop environment. Remember that writing requires a lot of reading. I often say that writing is half reading, half processing what you read, and half writing. And you need all three halves. There are no great writers who are not avid readers.
The iPad is perfectly suited for both reading long-form writing as well as watching long and short-form video. And because of the size and convenience of the iPad, you can consume that content almost anywhere. That means you can be more productive.
Unlimited Keyboard Options
Right now, the primary complaint about the new Mac laptops is the keyboard. Personally, I love it, and think it is the best keyboard ever made for the way I like to type. Notwithstanding those pesky reliability issues that have plagued this line of laptops.
But none of that matters when you are using an iPad. You can pair it with any Bluetooth keyboard on the market. Apple’s Smart Keyboard is probably the best on the market for the iPad. But it is likely the most expensive as well.
The good news is you can use any keyboard you like. As long as it is a Bluetooth keyboard, it will work just fine. That is one of the big reasons why the iPad is the ultimate writing machine. Even if everything else is perfect, if you hate the keyboard on your laptop, it is not a good writing machine.
When it comes to writing apps, I’m a Ulysses man. I love the compatibility between the iPad and the Mac. I also love that it is distraction free. On the iPad, everything is distraction free. You are working with one window at a time. It is easy to tame notifications and other interruptions. It is not just about a single app. The iPad workflow simply has far fewer ways to distract you.
The smallest Mac laptop you can buy is a MacBook at 12”. That is even smaller than the largest iPad at 12.9”. But because of the way the iPad and Smart Keyboard work together, it is easier to open it on a tray table or in a cramped transit seat.
The interface on the iPad works a little better for smaller sizes than the Mac as well. At 12”, the Mac is tiny. At a similar size, the iPad is huge. A 13” iPad is almost the functional equivalent of a 15” laptop. I’m writing on a 10.5” iPad and doing just fine. It’s a screen full of words most of the time.
The entire package of iPad Air and Smart Keyboard Cover is impossibly small, light, and convenient. In nice weather, you don’t need a backpack, bag, or sleeve. Just grab it and go. I don’t feel comfortable treating any laptop quite that casually. And when you are only consuming content, you can rip off the keyboard and make it even more mobile. The more mobile your workstation, the fewer barriers you have to writing a few words when the inspiration strikes.
I don’t really know why Macs don’t have an LTE option at this point. It seems like something that should just come standard in all computers by now. Imagine a smartphone without its own ubiquitous internet connection. Such a device would be unattractive for most people.
Almost everything a writer does has some hooks to the internet, even if it is just doing a quick fact-check lookup. The iPad can accommodate this need in a way that no Mac can. Pay the extra and get the LTE option for your next iPad. You can’t add it after the fact. And as a writer, you will definitely get your money’s worth from it.
On my commute home, I didn’t want to type on the keyboard. So I pulled out the Apple Pencil and took handwritten notes to get my thoughts in order for the next time I felt like writing. I have lines turned on in the notes app so that my writing is neater. My handwriting is not great in the best of circumstances.
However, I have no problem writing neatly with the Apple Pencil. I love taking notes with it. Handwriting triggers a different kind of creativity for me. Stopping to take notes tends to break writer’s block. And I ultimately get more done. That is simply not an option on any Mac laptop at this time.
There are more pros I could add to the tablet case. But you should also be aware of the cons to using a tablet as your writing computer. The biggest is probably the browser. Unless and until Apple deems the iPad worthy of a full browser experience, there will always be some things that you just cannot accomplish without the aid of a traditional system.
Many clients have their own, proprietary content management system. Those systems almost never work on the iPad. They were designed by people who only know how to code for a desktop, and do not acknowledge the existence of mobile computing platforms.
Beyond that critical issue, much of the web is still dependent on Flash, and other plugins that allow full access to the content you need. This is not a matter of preference, or even smart internet hygiene. It is a matter of practicality. You will eventually run into a client’s site, or necessary research that you cannot complete without having access to the entire web. You don’t have that on the iPad.
Text Selection and Editing
Everyone who does it for a living knows that it is fundamentally more difficult to manipulate text on an iPad than on a Mac. Neither the hardware nor software was designed for it. There is neither built-in pointing device, nor universal cursor. You can’t even attach a pointing device such as a mouse to an iPad via bluetooth.
Fingers are simply not ver accurate text selectors. And you can’t exactly hold an Apple pencil in one hand for selecting text while you use both hands for typing. Editing text is a major aspect of a writer’s job. It starts with the fundamental task of selecting the text that needs to be edited. Apple seems to be intentionally using text selection as a hard line between Macs and iPads. We will have to wait and see what future updates bring.
Another one of those things that differentiates the Mac from the iPad is the file system. This can be a challenge for some old-school writers who organize their work using files and folders full of digital assets. One suspects the file system will always be a challenge on the iPad for those who need it.
The iPad has some accessibility that the Mac does not. And the Mac has accessibility feature the iPad does not. The is naturally the case because the iPad is still primarily a touch-driven system while the Mac is driven by input devices.
That said, when using the iPad as a writing machine, it is not primarily a touch device. And the accessibility features available to it in that mode fall well short of what you get on a Mac.
Conclusion: And the Winner Is…
If you want the ultimate writing machine, skip the Pro-branded computers. Choose something with “Air” in the name. Either the MacBook Air or the iPad Air would be an excellent choice. Everything else is either too little or too much for what writers need to do.
At this time in history, I have to give the nod to the MacBook Air because of the browser. All else being equal (and it’s not), there are simply some parts of the job you may not be able to do without a fully functioning, desktop browser. There are times when it becomes a hard limit. Just bear in mind this is more true for professional writers than casual writers. You will also find that wrangling text is much easier on a Mac. That is the bulk of the job.
That said, I love working on the iPad. And I look forward to the day when Apple takes it more seriously and makes it a complete alternative to the Mac rather than a limited companion.