Delusions of Grandeur • R.D. Rhyne

November 16, 2020

Sunday Letter: The Mac is home

The Architect always complains that I prattle and don’t get to the point fast enough. So here it is: earlier this week I bought an M1-powered MacBook Air with my own money. I’ve had the rare luxury of debating this decision for months.

All told, it wasn’t a hard one.

I’m responsible for a team that ships software for the Mac. As a Software Engineering Manager at Apple, I’m also responsible for reporting software issues and ensuring they get fixed.

This makes it particularly difficult to leave work behind. If I discover a bug while writing this letter, I need to stop and file it.

The Mac is work.

My father once told me that he could never work at a bakery. He had a roommate who was a baker. Every day after work that roommate would bring a box of fresh donuts home with him.

I thought it’d be awesome to work at a bakery. But my father explained why he didn’t. His roommate hated donuts. He saw them every day. Baked them, sold them, smelled like them, and got them on his clothes.

My Dad’s message was that too much of a good thing isn’t great. You lose your taste for something when it’s no longer rare. Over the years, that lesson evolved.

Anything fun can feel like work, if it’s your job.

Some people don’t understand why I want to spend more time at a computer after spending my entire day in front of one. It is strange, I’ll admit. Many people enjoy watching television, or solving Sudoku puzzles in the evenings to unwind.

I enjoy writing and programming.

Since doing those on a Mac carries the chance I get drawn into work, I get an urge to try something new every so often. A desire for a computer that has nothing to do with work.

It’s no secret I enjoy using an iPad full-time. I’ve used one exclusively for months on end, including last year when I programmed[1] multiple playgrounds for a WWDC20 challenge.

The iPad Pro is a versatile computer, which promotes focus and clarity. The iPad easily goes wherever you do, from the office to your living room and couch. However, when I was using the iPad to write or program, I preferred to use it at a desk where the flexibility and small screen become a liability.

And the iPad Pro carries all of the work concerns of the Mac. If I find a bug, I need to file it. Work email, texts, and Slack are all there, too.

The biggest draw of the iPad is that I could rely on the same software to think, mainly Ulysses and Things.

My curiosity got the better of me after reading reviews of the Surface Duo. I’m intrigued by folding computers, and everything I read about the Duo said it was well made.

Well made computers are why I’ve relied Macs and iPhones for so long. And while I believe Apple makes the best hardware, I’m not enough of a zealot to presume they’re the only company that can make good hardware. I own multiple Kindles[2] and a Nintendo Switch, after all.

That said, the quality of the Surface Duo defies belief. It is so good, I started looking at other Microsoft Surface products. When Microsoft announced the affordably-priced, but unfortunately named, Surface Laptop Go I took a chance.

Again, the quality of the Microsoft hardware exceeded my expectations. Its dimensions were comparable to the 12” MacBook, paired with a good keyboard and better-than-expected trackpad. As a bonus, Windows comes with a Linux sub-system that’s easy to install. Also Windows Terminal, which is a dream to configure and use.

Using the Terminal application, I built and installed the Swift toolchain. After dusting off some of my Unix skills, I had a familiar programming environment in VIM and a fast capable browser in Microsoft Edge.

Sure, I missed key applications like Things and Ulysses which are only available on the Mac, but I was able to find decent alternatives. I wrote a few articles on the Surface Laptop Go. Even started building my own writing tools in Swift.

It felt like going on a vacation each time I powered it.

The Microsoft Surface experiment made me curious to try other computers. The next one started as I was reading an article about Android development[3]. It turns out you can develop for Android on ChromeOS.

My first (and only) experience with ChromeOS was the original Pixelbook that I got as a freebie for attending Google I/O in 2014. At the time, ChromeOS was limited only to browser tabs. No local file access, no offline apps, and no Linux.

I had heard from others that ChromeOS could dual-boot into Linux, but after reading more I discovered a modern Chromebook could open Linux terminals alongside browser tabs. Intrigued, I looked more into them.

Like most people, I assumed Chromebooks were all cheap machines. Then I read this guide from the Verge. In that article Dieter Bohn links to his full review of the (also unfortunately named) Google Pixelbook Go.

In his review he states:

I mentioned in our first look at the Go that I needed to make sure I didn’t get too excited about the keyboard without further testing. Now that I have, I can just say that I love it. It is my favorite thing to type on by a long shot.

Woah. (emphasis added)

I have two vices: bags and keyboards. After reading that review, I had to try it out.

If the Surface Laptop Go surprised me, I was astonished by the Pixelbook Go. The keyboard lived up to the hype. Battery life is insane. With average evening use around 2-3 hours, I only needed to charge the Pixelbook Go once a week.

Like the Surface Laptop Go, I used a Linux terminal to run the Swift compiler and familiar VIM editor. I even dusted off my tmux chops to get a proper multi-window environment.

While Chrome can be a pig on a Mac, it sings on the Chromebook as you would expect. Paired with the linux environment, I had a very fast, fluid laptop with everything I needed for my evening adventures. I even used the Android version of iA Writer for writing.

As with the Surface Laptop, I splurged for the $850 mid-tier model. Cheaper than the MacBook Air, but not by much.

Experimenting with both has felt like a vacation, during a year where it was impossible to take a real one. Both machines are excellent hardware with good battery life, very good keyboards, and great screens. Apple isn’t the only company that can make good hardware.

But I missed the software.

Some of what I missed were great apps critical to my thought process like Ulysses and Things. While on my writing vacation, I took the Surface Laptop Go. When it came time to write I used my iPad instead, so I could do it in Ulysses.

I also missed smaller details, like typography. Microsoft’s ClearType anti-aliasing makes a mess of most typefaces on anything short of 4K resolution. Google doesn’t license professional typefaces, preferring those with a liberal use license. I missed SF Mono.

Most of all, I missed key-mappings. Cut/Copy/Paste are thumb-x, thumb-c, and thumb-v respectively. If I want to advance the cursor to the beginning or end of the line, that’s thumb-<left> or thumb-<right>.

Re-mapping keys on Windows is do-it-at-your-own-risk, and involves editing the registry. Gross. Google offers a preference in settings, and I was able to remap the search key to something close to the command-modifier on macOS.

Keyboard muscle memory makes for a frustrating sometimes experience, though.

I have a co-worker who likes to experiment as well. We have a standing meeting every few weeks and spend time talking about our flirtations with “the other side”.

He’s the one who likened them to a vacation. I really liked that notion, so I stole it. The same friend had another phrase, which I came to appreciate after a few months using other computers.

The Mac is home.

Microsoft and Google impressed me with their computers. Both were better than expected, and that gives me hope. Yes, really. Hope.

Competition is good for everyone. Both computers I tested are comparable to the MacBook Air.

… or I should say they were until last week.

I’m very excited for the M1, and the computer I will call home in the evenings. I’m proud of my colleagues who worked so hard to bring these new Macs to life.

Sorry Dad, you were wrong. Working at the bakery is awesome, and I still love donuts.

  1. Swift Playgrounds with a Magic Keyboard is quite an experience. ↩︎

  2. A brief sidebar on the Surface Duo. It is an excellent device for reading. Better than a Kindle level of excellent. While I would never recommend a $1200 device just for reading, if you bought it for other reasons, you have the best e-reader money can buy. ↩︎

  3. There was an urge to write an EPUB previewer that would take advantage of the Surface Duo’s dual screen configuration. I eventually discovered Google Books as a plausible alternative, after getting past a few bugs. Like the fact that Google Books wouldn’t open EPUBs exported from Ulysses if I forgot to set an author in the metadata. ↩︎