Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-thriller novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

A final laptop

Tech 4 min read

The last time I felt that my laptop had a shortcoming - a real, noticeable-daily, vexing insufficiency - it was the battery life.

Three, four, or five hours just aren’t enough to fulfil the promise of a computer that isn’t plugged in. Likewise, a portable machine becomes a lot less portable when you’re carrying a power brick too. A laptop with only half-day battery life is essentially a lie.

That was a few years ago. My battery problem has been solved.

My current machine is a 2013 model 11” MacBook Air, and its battery lasts all day. I can literally work on it for eleven or twelve hours. That’s more than enough for me. It’s a portable computer proper. Similarly, the latest model iPads and iPhones have all but retired the issue of power.

There is no single specification so transformative to productivity as all-day battery life. Being able to ignore the battery indicator gives me the freedom to work wherever I like. I have the confidence to use the conveniences my devices offer, without risk of being left without essential functionality. We’re in the twilight years of the power compromise.

I admit, I’m privileged in a way I hadn’t considered during my previous career as a software developer - because the privilege is new.

Previously, I needed an external display, or at least the biggest built-in screen I could get. A fast CPU. Plenty of RAM. Lots of storage, as fast as possible. Then the various cables and peripherals, not least of which were the iOS devices I deployed code to. My office was luggable at best, not portable.

I’m a writer now, and with the new job title comes a gift - one I would previously have avoided at all costs, but I now claim greedily.

I’ve become a regular user.

My working usage profile for a laptop is probably more generally applicable than it’s ever been.

  • I intermittently use the web, email, chat, and social media.

  • I run a handful of fairly modest apps all day, as my main working tools. For me, those are BBEdit, Scrivener, OmniOutliner and OmniFocus.

  • I pretty much never do anything traditionally demanding: image, audio or video editing, working with big files, or anything technical like compiling software projects, or running virtual machines or simulators.

  • I have other devices for gaming and watching movies or TV, so I rarely do those things on my laptop either.

I’m probably lighter on my machine than most ordinary, non-technical people, come to think of it. My needs certainly don’t exceed theirs.

I don’t need a fast CPU, or lots of RAM (beyond the operating system’s basic needs). My 11” Air has a 1.7GHz i7, and 8GB of RAM. Everything runs very quickly. I’ve never noticed any lag. I shouldn’t even have bothered with the faster processor option.

I don’t need a big screen, or even a high-definition display - though I’d be glad to have one. The Air is 1366 x 768. Productivity on smaller screens is just a matter of effective use of your working environment.

I don’t need lots of storage, or more than one or two USB ports. This laptop has a 128GB SSD, and there’s 75.5GB free. All my files are in Dropbox. The folder takes up 290MB on disk.

What I do need, though, is true portability: small size, light weight, and the robustness to carry off the first two qualities without compromise. And I certainly need the reassurance that this tool will be ready for use whenever and wherever I might want to work.

This laptop already does all those things. It’s tiny, very light, and very solid. Those problems are solved.

It’s interesting, because in a way, the market has shifted. The MacBook Air is a subnotebook: a horrible word meaning an ultra-portable laptop. These things used to be premium devices, for the business traveller who was willing to pay for extreme (i.e. finally acceptable) portability, whilst still enjoying reasonable performance. The technological challenge of making devices so small and light was reflected in the price tag.

The thing is, historical price aside, subnotebooks aren’t actually premium devices - they’re the laptops that normal people want. They’re conceptually the base model; the ordinary use case. I want a laptop, so I want it to be small and light. No special requirements.

Portability isn’t a special requirement for a laptop. It’s not a premium feature. It’s the essential promise of the device’s whole concept. And until recently, they came with compromises that were technological, eating away at the ideology of the category. But that problem has pretty much gone away. Now, subnotebooks can find their natural home: the casual user. Me.

The market is still stratified, of course - not everybody is going to buy a MacBook Air. There’s still a quality, design, manufacturing, and materials fit-and-finish premium there - it’s an aspirational lifestyle brand, after all. Most normal normals are probably thinking about a Chromebook by now.

That’s OK with me. I’m invested in the Apple platforms, so I’ll willingly compromise by paying more cash to stay with the Mac. (I also think the Air is the ultimate embodiment of the subnotebook ideal, but we can debate that point another time.)

Rumours abound at the moment about an upcoming new 12” MacBook Air, with a Retina display, further-reduced thickness and weight, and of course a slightly larger screen (made possible by the bezel being smaller, giving more room for the display without making the lid bigger). I’m intrigued, and all other things being more or less equal, I’ll certainly buy one.

It’s tough to see what the next step will be, though. My wish list has been exhausted. Every checkbox is checked.

The devices will get thinner still, of course. Lighter. Even more battery life, and higher-density displays. There will be the usual smattering of novel features, like Touch ID built into trackpads or similar. Ports will subtly change shape, number, and distribution. Specs will continue to scroll by as the non-normals obsess, and the rest of us try to get out of the shop while learning as little as possible.

But what more is there to really do?

Like all humans, once I’m satisfied, I quickly lose interest. It’s not a feeling I’ve associated with technology before, not because it’s interesting to me per se, but because every device always had such glaring flaws that I couldn’t help but hope for improvement. Now, things have changed.

Will there be new laptops, tablets, phones, wearables, and even exotic new categories of machines in the future? Of course. Will I buy them? Some, at least - unquestionably. New is novel, and nothing lasts forever. I have no idea what’s to come.

I do know that I’ll no longer need a new laptop.

It feels like lots of little pieces - strands of evolution - are coming together. The long age of feasibility seems to be drawing to a close. Now we’re in the evening of optimisation, as we wait for the next great shift to reset the cycle again.

In the most metaphorical sense, I feel that my current work-related technology has reached its final form. And with it, for however brief a time, comes a profound feeling of freedom.