I felt personally attacked by Apple yesterday, specifically by the marketing copy it used to promote the new iPad Pro: “Your next computer is not a computer.” This newsletter, Processor, is also (and originally) the name for the tech-focused video essays that I sometimes make. The very first one kicked off by asking the same question Apple did with an iPad Pro back in 2018: “What’s a computer?”
Now, apparently, Apple has decided that the iPad Pro “is not a computer.” Okay.
Of course, the whole idea here isn’t actually to define “computer,” in a strict sense, but instead to play with the concept of what we expect a computer to be and do. I’m obsessed with the evolution of big-screened computers over the past few years because it’s become the locus of so much experimentation.
You’re reading Processor, a newsletter about computers by Dieter Bohn. Dieter writes about consumer tech, software, and the most important news of the day from The Verge. This newsletter delivers three to four times a week, some of which include longer columns. You can subscribe to Processor and learn more about it here. Processor is also a YouTube series with the same goal: providing smart and surprising analysis with a bit of humor. Subscribe to all of The Verge’s great videos here!
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Apple, Microsoft, and Google have each taken multiple shots at repeating the revolutionary change the iPhone effected on the phone world, but doing so with tablets. None have managed to pull it off, and so watching their iterative attempts every year is interesting primarily because they have to keep trying new things.
An iPhone-sized revolution isn’t in the offing, but the same-old laptops feel increasingly disconnected from the way we actually do our most important computer tasks — on our phones.
And so: the new thing Apple is finally coming around on is putting real trackpad support on the iPad. There’s a whole riff here about how it’s a vindication of Microsoft’s original concept for the Surface line, but I’ll leave that for another day or another writer. I also have many emotions about how the new trackpad and mouse support work on iPadOS, but I’ll weigh in after I’ve spent some time using them.
Instead, I’m fascinated by how the new iPad Pro and new MacBook Air are directly competing with each other.
Apple disagrees, for the record. On a call yesterday with journalists, an Apple representative said that very few people who are going out to buy a device are actually confused about which one they want to get. I think that’s right, honestly, but that it won’t be right forever.
Will the iPad cannibalize the Mac? In some ways this question has become boring even as it continues to be vital. There are lots of questions like this in tech, and answering them requires cleaving a Gordian knot rather than trying to untie it. For Google, it’s “will Android and Chrome OS merge?” For Microsoft, it’s “can Windows stay relevant in the age of smartphones?”
The fact that these questions become tiresome doesn’t mean they don’t continue to be vital. For Apple, the problem is that the obvious trajectory the iPad is on right now runs smack into MacBook territory. Making two directly competitive products is a recipe for one of them to stagnate.
It doesn’t help that the Mac has had a bad few years — bad keyboards, bad pro machines, and most recently a pretty big whiff on Catalyst apps. So it’s tempting to say that the Mac is stagnating and it’s only a matter of time until the only people that buy Macs are pros who need to do very crunchy computing tasks like modeling molecules and rendering video and animation.
I don’t think that’s inevitable, but I do think it’s more likely than not on a long enough timescale if current trends continue. Until last year, that felt like a nightmare scenario to me, because until last year the iPad was radically locked down. I still think it’s too locked down to be a great general computing device, but it’s heading in a more open direction at least.
The irony of all this is that on paper, the new MacBook Air is a stupendous everyperson computer. Apple got it down under the $1,000 mark while simultaneously fixing most of the big problems with the last model. The keyboard is fixed. The processor is fast enough for most people now instead of being a modest compromise. The default storage is reasonable.
All of which is to say that at the precise moment Apple finally shipped a great MacBook Air again, the iPad Pro looks poised to supplant it.
I take my job as a reviewer of consumer technology seriously, which means that I bounce between lots of different computing platforms. In a given week I’ll use a MacBook, a Surface Pro, an Android phone, an iPhone, a Pixelbook, and an iPad Pro. It’s weird and I don’t recommend it, but it lets me see the strengths and weakness of each platform very clearly.
And here’s what I see, at least from Apple’s computers. The MacBook Air is the MacBook that Apple should have been shipping for the past five years. If I had to recommend one Apple computer to somebody without knowing anything about their needs, I’d almost surely pick the new Air. But if I had to guess what my default recommendation would be in a few years, I’d say it will be the iPad Pro.
The irony, of course, is that I still haven’t figured out a reliable way to create this newsletter using only an iPad Pro. I can do it on a Mac, a Chromebook, or a Windows PC easily, but the iPad is too locked down to run the tools I need.
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┏ How the new iPad Pro compares to the new MacBook Air. Jay Peters lays out all the specs in a single chart.
┏ Apple’s new iPad Pro keyboard with trackpad will cost up to $349. It’s not coming out until May. Even for Apple, these prices seem exorbitant.
┏ Here’s how the iPad’s new trackpad actually works. I collated a list of all the gestures. I think I forgot to put in “right click” because it was too obvious to me but, in fact, it’s not obvious at all!
┏ Logitech’s iPad keyboard case with trackpad costs half as much as Apple’s. I really, really hope we see a lot more of these. I still don’t fully understand why nobody ever adopted the iPad’s smart connector in any of its iterations (if you do, please email me). Regardless, trackpad support is a moment for a bunch of companies to take another crack at iPad keyboards, since Apple’s solution is super expensive.
I’ll come back to Sony later in the week. After weighing in so much on the Xbox, I feel like I owe it to the PS5. I still think the specs are a wash between the two, but what comes out of that wash is going to be fascinating.
In the meantime, we’ve got solid analysis from the rest of The Verge in the links below.
┏ Sony reveals full PS5 hardware specifications. There are two kinds of people in the world. Those for whom the following paragraph is complete gibberish and those who know what it means and are pretty excited by it.
The PS5 will feature a custom eight-core AMD Zen 2 CPU clocked at 3.5GHz (variable frequency) and a custom GPU based on AMD’s RDNA 2 architecture hardware that promises 10.28 teraflops and 36 compute units clocked at 2.23GHz (also variable frequency). It’ll also have 16GB of GDDR6 RAM and a custom 825GB SSD that Sony has previously promised will offer super-fast loading times in gameplay.
┏ Sony says the PlayStation 5’s SSD will completely change next-gen level design. This is so smart. You might think, as I did just yesterday, that load screens getting shorter is great but not necessarily life changing. But it’s not about the load screens, it’s about all load times. And if they go away, a lot of the constraints you didn’t even realize were there in the first place could go away too.
Cerny says most modern game developers more realistically “chop the world into a number of smaller pieces” to avoid those extra-long elevator rides. But the end result is that you have levels designed with twisty passages and long, repetitive environments that are there solely to account for load times and to avoid kicking the player to a black screen.
┏ PS5 vs. Xbox Series X: a complicated battle of SSD and GPU speeds. There are a lot of numbers and teraflops and comparisons that aren’t immediately obvious just one to one. Essentially you’re going to see some console fan brag about the Xbox or PS5 having more flops or whatever, but all computing hardware is about trade-offs and compromises. Sony and Microsoft just focused on prioritizing different things.
My very-layman’s-and-correct-me-if-I’m-wrong take is that Microsoft just threw as much horsepower into a big box as it could, while Sony is hoping it has something more nuanced.
Though I’d like to see what Sony’s box looks like. So far, as Tom Warren repeatedly reminds me, all we’ve actually seen is a logo. His analysis below and in the full story is worth your time.
Sony is hoping that by offering developers less compute units running at a variable (and higher) clock rate, the company will be able to extract better performance out of the PS5. The reality is that it will require developers to do more work to optimize games for the console until we can find out how it compares to the (more powerful on paper) Xbox Series X.
┏ Space startup Lynk uses satellite to send text message to unmodified Android phone. Loren Grush has this truly fascinating story. You might think there’s some weird gotcha in the headline, but there’s not. A satellite really did essentially act as a cell tower for an unmodified Android phone on the ground — a phone that normally only communicates with cell towers in the range of a few miles at most.
┏ Slack unveils its biggest redesign yet. Everybody always hates the day when their tools suddenly change on them, so I won’t prejudge. I won’t say that I think this design is spatially inefficient and wildly optimistic about people bothering to organize their stuff, much less their willingness to learn how. I won’t suggest that what Slack needs to do is put more effort into an API so people can make third-party clients that cater to their specific work desires instead of following Slack’s ideas. I won’t say any of that. I’ll wait to see what this redesign is actually like to experience. Then, well, I guess we’ll see.
┏ This is Twitch’s moment. Bijan Stephen is cooler than me and therefore knows cooler people, but that doesn’t undercut his point that he’s seeing lots of cool stuff happening on the platform. Twitch is going to break out into something more than what it has been. I don’t know what that’ll be, ultimately, but you can feel the shift happening already.
What’s really cool about all this is the flourishing creativity I’ve seen in the new streams that are happening on Twitch right now. A New York Times columnist I know has started doing cooking streams with her husband; a programmer I’m pals with has started hosting daily yoga classes; my friends at the podcast Reply All have joined, too, and they’ve started streaming live call-in shows. And these are just the people I know — there are undoubtedly thousands more streams like them happening right now. It’s the best time on Twitch that I can remember.