As I’m handing over my 2010 MacBook Air to eldest child, it occurs to me that computing today is very different from 2010.

The MacBook did an okay job in its life. It hosted many OS’s, mostly betas, and was a go-to for kids homework, but it really stank at the one job that differentiated it from my iPad, which is to run Xcode and navigate docs.

Xcode doesn’t want to be on a teeny tiny screen with a crappy keyboard. It wants full glorious mechanical travel and many large monitors.

No matter how many times I promised myself that this time, I’d figure out how to do some light development on the damned thing, I ended up using it as a poorly designed iPad — email, browsing, books, media.

Its greatest utility was booting up a half dozen operating systems to test backward compatibility as it sat 2 feet away from my primary dev machine.

I don’t know what it is about laptops and me. For whatever reason, I can’t seem to get along with decaffeinated OS X. I can iPad, I can desktop, but I just can’t seem to laptop.

Perhaps I’m just deluding myself that there people out there who can actually get real work done on these things. What I can’t figure out is how.

What is the critical equipment line over which you can actually do development? Does it involve bringing along a 24″ monitor and a loud clicky keyboard to the coffee shop, or on a plane?

I’m back to lurking at the online store, trying to figure out if it’s even worth picking up a replacement at this point. What I really want is a portable ultra-light iMac/iPad hybrid, complete with handle on top and kickstand, and that’s just not going to ever happen.

So what do you suggest I look into? Will Retina make all the difference for my bad eyes? Or should I hold out for the mythical hockey-puck Mac or the iPadMac? What’s your advice? And how do you get that work done on yours?



  • I am on a macbook pro mid 2009 17″ if that’s any consolation.. What are your desktop machine specs?

    • 2×24″ screens, DAS keyboard, late 2012 user-servicable Mac mini with 16GB. I love my desktop.

      • I find I can be productive on a mobile Macbook – just not on the same level as I can with a full-sized keyboard, mouse and 27″ monitor attached. The screen scaling is the biggest issue – too much chrome, not enough document space for comfort – but I also can’t stand to use a trackpad for any length of time, especially when editing code.

        That said, I love my 13″ Retina Macbook for the portability and power. the fact that I can plug up a few cables and really work makes it an ideal “one machine solution” for me.

  • A 2009 Macbook is my main machine, and I love it. Though I did have to stick an SSD and 8GB RAM in it, to make it useful with Xcode and the incredibly voracious, slow and buggy Interface Builder and iOS simulators…

    I love that I can still work on the go, but just attach my main machine to my large display, keyboard and mouse when I’m in the office. I couldn’t stand to go back to a desktop machine… I just want to take all my work, entertainment and whatever with me.

    Unfortunately, the new Macbook Lites are a case of style over substance. Under-powered, non-expandable and the ports situation is a joke. Only Apple could get away with this kind of thing. For the first time in many years, the MBP is the only candidate now, for serious work.

  • addendum: of course, the real problem here is the design of Xcode itself, in particular IB. Right now, it’s a mess. Not only does the whole Storyboard concept require a lot of screen real-estate, but the implementation is so poor. We can’t drag-and-drop or otherwise perform editing tasks when the Storyboard is scaled to less than 100%. Do not get me started on the whole idea of Size Classes, Layout Previews and Auto Layout support… It’s a bad situation when Apple demand so much of their developers in terms of fit-and-finish and stability (especially when submitting to the App Store) yet their primary development tool is so obviously poor in so many little and big ways.

  • Most of us don’t know that the keyboard is bad; you’re possibly too informed to be happy there, which is a good thing, if you’ve found keyboards that actually work better.

    I don’t believe we can emulate vision difficulties, though? If you don’t know of a way, the best way I can think of, to understand that problem, is to watch a video of you working, describing what it would be like to have your eyesight, via an audible description of whatever difficulty you’re experiencing. It sounds like whatever solutions we’ve come up with aren’t likely to translate well.

  • I would get a retina Macbook. It’s sleek and has a retina screen that will fit your eyes perfectly. Or MacBook Pro if you want power over portability.

  • Given that you have the iPad already, Duet ( ) is a great option. I stick docs and reference materials on the iPad as a second monitor and it makes work much easier.

  • I use a retina MacBookPro with two attached screens – a 24 inch and a 27 inch. Plenty of real estate for Xcode, etc.

  • The real answer is that you’ll have to wait for the (imminent) death of the monitor. A nice sleek pair of Apple AR glasses through which you can see as much code as you like, in any size. The computer (the puck in your bag), watch, phone, etc will all display on that. Some of us will still prefer to lug a physical keyboard around though 🙂

  • I only use my 2012 13″ MacBook Air. I wrangled Xcode into use by setting up behaviours that configure the panes depending on task. I tend not to use assistant editors but when I do I hide both side panes which gives me just enough space for a left/right split. I also use Dash and Gitbox/SourceTree which means I have far fewer Xcode windows (I find app switching much easier than window switching because there are more visual affordances to know where you’re going to). I don’t use full screen mode/multiple desktops as these confuse me because they introduce another interface mode (but I do have a system wide keyboard shortcut for Zoom window). I rely heavily on keyboard shortcuts and use the trackpad relatively infrequently. The only time when I feel I need a larger screen is with IB.

  • I totally feel your pain. I have one “hive” setup at the BNR office and two here at home. Each has a 27″ or better monitor (one has a 30″ ACD), a Unicomp clicky keyboard, and a magic trackpad. Xcode goes on the biggie, the simulator goes on the small one.

    When stuck with just the lappy (15″), I use full screen mode extensively and rearrange my spaces frequently based on task. F.ex. I’ll put the browser with the docs, Xcode, the sim, and SourceTree all in a row. Then, I’ll have the “social” space that’s Slack, email, the browser full of social / reading, and Messages. Usually after that is a space full of shell windows.

    I can do dev on the laptop alone. I feel far more capable on the 30″. I also like the 30″ turned on its side; 1600×2560 is great for coding. I wish I had two of them going on.

  • Still on late-2012 Mini with SSD, 16GB, and 25″ monitor, which I love. Comparing Retina to non-Retina iMac recently, the difference just looking at text was very noticeable.

    I’m in the lurking state also for portability, and plan to hold out for Skylake. For me personally the cut-off is “am I doing development on it?”. If I just wanted a portable for demos, Air or MacBook might do, but for development off-site or when traveling, don’t think I could settle for less than 15″ MacBook Pro Retina.

  • I’d suggest the 15inch MacBook Pro Retina. It’s quite possibly the best computer of all time. Light, fast and amazing. There is very little disparity between this and a desktop. I haven’t designed or developed any projects on a desktop in like, six or seven years.

  • I’ve been using Apple laptops for developing since 2008. I got a beautiful white Macbook. After that I got a rMBP 15′, and this year I put my hands on a shiny new rMBP 13′, all of them have served me fantastically in developing with Xcode, no problems whatsoever.

  • Quite happy working on my 15″ Retina MBPro. I’ve even stopped plugging in the big screen, mouse and keyboard now. I seem to be faster with the plain old MBP, especially as it means when I do go and work somewhere with a coffee or a view nothing has to change.

  • I use my 15″ rMBP with multiple monitors plugged in at a desk…and then sometimes with most of the Xcode inspectors and stuff hidden, as a laptop on the couch or when traveling. I’ve sometimes used an iPad as a second screen or borrowed one as well.

  • It’s like the AppleEcosystem (“iEcology”?) is made up of two kinds of people. There are Users, who use iThings or the new Macbook Lite that you can’t use a mouse and charge at the same time. And there are Developers, who use iMacs, Macbook Pros, or Mac Pros (for those with $5K to throw around) to make software for the Users.

    And the App [String? : “music, iTunes”] Store, and closed iOS which “enforces” this by the “law of easy-osity” (“default choice bias” or something like that).

    That is, given that most people don’t jailbreak, and perhaps even for those who want to if they can’t find a hole in iOS9), and that iWatch (excuse me, “Apple Watch”) which is mostly closed (for now). And the general collapse of “traditionally bought software”. You know, back when software came on *3.5 inch disks* (or even CDs) – I’m getting old to be able to remember that.

  • I’m using a 15″ rMBP, but it’s almost always connected to multiple monitors on my desktop, along with a full-size keyboard and mouse. So I’m not sure it really counts as developing on a laptop.

    Previously, I had an 11″ MBA that I loved a lot. It wasn’t my primary Mac like the MBP is for me today, but I used it while at work (where I had Linux and Windows machines on my desk). I did do some coding on it, but almost always limited to using vim and Makefiles from the command line. Xcode just wanted too much space to use effectively on that screen.

    If you are always writing code from the same place, the extra portability and the associated tradeoffs probably aren’t worth it. But for those who work in multiple locations, they can be fantastic.

  • I actually come from the opposite direction – started working w/ Xcode on a 2011 13″ Macbook Pro (non-retina). Adding SSD and upgrading the RAM to “unsupported” 16GB made it pretty fast but the small non-retina screen is barely tolerable. When the Retina iPad came out, the simulator didn’t even fit the screen! You can guess what happens w/ the 6 plus! ha.

    This year my company supplied me w/ a 15″ Retina Macbook Pro with 15″ and my a strong sense of regret hit me – why did I not get a 15″ model 4 years ago?!
    Recently my days are spent using a standup desk w/ a bluetooth mouse+keyboard+trackpad and a 30″ hd monitor but whenever I’m sick of the office, get some work from home – the 15″ retina is more than adequate.

    A small warning though – the new macbook pro is driving me crazy w/ the force touch! dragging file into Xcode became a complicated task!