January 28, 2021#technical

Switching Ecosystems

It finally happened. I told myself I'd stick to Windows machines forever, and would never buy Apple unless Windows ceased to be usable. I didn't think that day would come this early, if at all, but it did.

For those of you who don't know, I've always used Windows laptops for everything -- gaming, working, studying, you name it. Until now, they've been excellent, and I've had very little problems. But in the last few months, things got considerably worse. My main laptop's battery kept getting inexplicably worse, things didn't always work easily (most of the development I do appears to want a proper *nix environment, and WSL is not sufficient), the number of bugs only went up with each new update. As for my Surface Book, well, it got laggier and laggier and couldn't even handle screen sharing to a single output while doing little other computation. And, the primary purpose for which I bought it -- note-taking -- became a hassle as well. The software kept glitching out randomly and my inking would disappear after about five seconds. It was painful.

At first I thought I'd just solve the laptop problem by getting a better Windows laptop, so I ordered a Dell XPS 15. If you're up to speed on the 2020 XPS 15, you may know that there was a defect at launch whereby some pieces had a wobbly trackpad. Keep in mind that this was in the summer, when the device first launched. I ordered mine in January.

The first one came, and to my surprise, had a wobbly trackpad. One corner of the trackpad was wobbly, but it was wobbly enough to make me exchange it for another piece. This second one had a trackpad that was wobbly everywhere, so at least it was consistently bad. Swapped that one in too, got a third one in which the trackpad was straight-up partly unseated. This was over the course of three weeks, though fortunately all over winter break.

That's when I decided that if the supposed "best Windows laptop on the market today" but this bad, I wanted no part in this market. So I took a deep breath, read up on the new M1 MacBooks to make sure I wouldn't be missing access to any crucial software or libraries, and bought one.

Naturally, I'm very satisfied. There are very few things truly missing from this architecture already, the most notable being pandas and scipy, neither of which have official or even pre-release candidates for the ARM chip. Aside from that, though, most things work pretty well. Almost everything I use has an M1-specific version available (VSCode is notably only on the Insiders channel at the time of writing), and even for the software that was translated by Rosetta, I've seen very little in the way of performance issues. The only app that sometimes takes a while to start is Spotify, and that's something I can live with.

Battery life is excellent as well. It's so good, in fact, that I can easily go 1-1.5 days without plugging in. I only start to worry about battery when I get to around 7%, which is pretty insane, considering that most of the work I do is fairly processing-heavy development. Compared to the 4-6 hour battery life of my old laptop, I think it's pretty easy to say that the MacBook Pro, in no small part due to the new M1 processor, outperforms. Actually, it outperforms my old laptop in pretty much everything that it can do (unfortunately this excludes gaming, because I haven't gotten a chance to play games on the MacBook).

Oh, and my old laptop had a frequent idle fan noise. The new MacBook Pro rarely needs the fan to kick in at all. The only time I've heard a peep out of this laptop is when pdflatex kept looking for a nonexistent file to subimport instead of erroring out. Didn't notice until about six minutes in, when the fan first kicked off. Killed pdflatex and the fan went back to silence within the next two minutes, and I haven't heard it again since.

Now, about the Surface Book. I tried my best to make it work for me as long as I could, but I honestly got too fed up with having to somehow project my screen to my laptop or directly to a Zoom call, and the disappearing ink made it a pain too. It still works flawlessly if what you're doing is taking notes in OneNote, so I would still suggest it to people looking solely for a notetaking device.

For me, though, I needed something more resilient. Now that I had a MacBook, I figured I might as well look at an iPad. The 4th generation iPad Air actually fit my use case perfectly -- all I had to do was install GoodNotes, and all of my notetaking and annotating and presenting was immediately consolidated into one easy-to-use and well-organized app! The Apple Pencil 2 works like a charm, and with a paper-like matte screen protector, it feels pretty good to write on the iPad.

So good, in fact, that unlike the Surface Book, the iPad makes my handwriting look as bad as it actually is. Whoops.

But yeah, that was my adventure this month. After multiple disappointments from manufacturers using Windows, I finally caved and switched into the Apple ecosystem. I can't lie though, as concerning as I find the ecosystem's tight binding to be, it's super helpful. Previously. to transfer notes from my Surface Book to my laptop, I had to manually copy the files over or set up some other kind of file sharing system. Downloading things on it was a pain because of how bad I find the touch UI, and the entire process was just long. With my new system, I can pull PDFs directly from course websites into GoodNotes on my iPad, and when I'm done, I can just open GoodNotes on my Mac via Handoff and export the annotated file. This process takes about 1-2 minutes at most, as compared to be previous process, which took somewhere around 4-5 minutes. Needless to say, I'm very satisfied with the changes.

Fortunately, Android continues to be great, so I have no reason to ditch my OnePlus 7 Pro for an iPhone :)