Living with a 12” Screen

You know you want a MacBook.

Back in late May I took delivery of a new 12” Retina MacBook and proceeded to move everything to it — making it the only computer I use outside of my iOS devices. It has been a very long time since I have lived with such a small screen as my only screen, and I know many people think it is just too small of a screen to work with for a daily driver.

Since I’ve had the machine for just over five months I can tell you that there is no turning back for me. Sure, I’ll get an iPad Pro when they launch, but as far as Macs go, this 12” Retina MacBook is all I need. It is my perfect machine.

So let’s talk about the screen size — not as a travel computer or any other category where it will clearly excel — but solely as a desktop computer. Because this is where my MacBook spends most of its time.

Right here.

On my desk.

Dreams of a Large Screen

There are days when I get done with work, get the kids in bed, write a bit, and then get in bed myself. On those days — the ones where I feel like I never left the glow of my computer — I look up at my ceiling and wonder what it would take financially to switch to a 27” Retina iMac and ditch the MacBook all together.

Yes, I think about it a lot.

Because the way I use a computer sure makes me a better candidate for an iMac than a small 12” MacBook. I fully admit that. It almost makes no sense for me to have this machine. If I were to ask myself what machine to get, the 27” iMac would be the machine I recommend.

Even still, as I write this passage I have to stop and ask myself: why is it that I don’t try to swing a 27” iMac again? And I have to stop the urge of pricing one up, or looking on Craigslist.

In front of me is a Magic Keyboard, a Magic Trackpad 2, a Rain Design mStand, and my MacBook. I think the iMac would have a smaller footprint, or at the very least it wouldn’t take up much more room than what I currently have setup.

Back to that number though, the one to switch to a new 27” iMac, the number is about $2,000 after selling this MacBook. That’s enough of a number to make me stop and ask if it is worth it to make the change. I have to think about it more. And in the past five months I have spent a stupid amount of time thinking about this.

Which is why I am writing this post — to remind myself when I lay down in bed how it is most certainly not worth moving to an iMac.

Because I have no need for an iMac at all.

Some people will argue that I will see productivity gains out of a larger screen. And I will sit here and argue it is actually the opposite which will occur if I move to a larger screen. I am running my core apps right now: Ulysses, Slack, HipChat, Mail, Messages, OmniFocus, iTunes, MarsEdit, Safari. Of those apps, only Safari and MarsEdit is not running in fullscreen mode.

Think about that for a moment before you read on. I spend most of my day looking at one app at a time, or two apps in split-view.

I run my Mac like it is iOS. I only move to a windowed setup when I am doing something rather odd with a lot of photos.

And because of this, I can’t imagine how overwhelming this would be on a 27” retina display. It would be too much for me. I would have to run with windows instead of fullscreen. I would see other things on my desktop — hell I would see my desktop.

I would be distracted.

I would be uneasy.

It would not work nearly as well for me.

I also won’t lie to you and say that after a few drinks of Black Maple Hill Rye that I often wonder if that is just my way of convincing myself I don’t need to spend the money. I wonder if I am rationalizing away the decision or suddenly scared of being wrong.

So I then ask myself a question which is fairly easy to answer: when was the last time you felt like your screen was just too small for you to work at comfortably?

Ah, yes, I actually remember when: two weeks ago when I was running Pages and snagging images from Safari and dropping them back into Pages for a work project. When I was doing that I felt cramped and kept having to close inspectors in Pages and drag windows half off my screen in order to work.

Ok, great, so how often does that happen?


Just two times since I switched to this MacBook have I ever felt like the screen was too small for what I was working on. In other words: was each of those incidents worth a thousand dollars? Fuck no is the answer I come up with every time.

Of course not. There’s no rational way I can massage the truth into fitting that. It would need to be a weekly occurrence before I even started to think about the switch based solely on usage.

That right there is the argument I cannot argue with. Typically after I work my way back to this spot I pass out in the bed — especially if I was heavy on the pours of Rye.

If you press on further and think about what it really means to live with a smaller screen you begin to realize that it is a much rosier picture than you might initially assume. And yes, here is where we talk about moving the machine about.

Consider these things:

  • The iPad Pro with a keyboard will be a larger device to carry around.
  • My iPad Air plus a keyboard is usually a larger device to carry around.
  • You cannot move an iMac to and fro.

Of course I could keep spiraling that list on and on, but I think you get the idea of where I am headed. And I can always add a larger screen to this computer later for a very reasonable price — it won’t be retina, but I can add one. ((I certainly won’t add one though. They are all ugly.))

I may never stop thinking about what it would be like to have an iMac and this MacBook, but since I have to choose between the two the MacBook is the clear winner.

This is not a recommendation

I’ve spent a lot of time over my life trying to figure out what type of machine is best for everyone. Surely there has to be an answer to this, but honestly there isn’t.

The more I think about it, the more I think you are either a big screen or small screen fan. You either value portability or you value screen real estate. iOS is the rare exception where the trade off for more screen real estate doesn’t always mean less portability.

This isn’t even to say that if you are a small screen person, get a MacBook. It is simply to say that my favorite computer ever is this MacBook, but my favorite before this was my 12” PowerBook. Apparently I’ve always known the best size for my computing, and I just never accepted this fact.

Every desktop I have ever owned I looked at, and used, with awe over the sheer beauty of the size. But when I really wanted to get going on something creative, I grabbed a smaller screen. My desktops were always my least used machines.

Thinking on this more now, it is the difference between a gigantic empty room, and a small empty room. A small empty room can feel fine as it is, but a gigantic empty room feels empty and that bothers me. So I stick with the small empty room, the room where I do my best writing because I don’t have to worry about what else is in the room. I think the same is true for me with larger displays.

As it also turns out I am always writing when I am at my computer, so small works for me exceedingly well.

Perhaps there’s also the psychological feeling of a desktop machine tying me down to my desk. I may not leave me desk much with my MacBook, but I can leave it whenever I want and still use my primary machine. That’s just not true for a desktop. Heck it isn’t even always true for a larger laptop.

So if you want to know what machine to buy think back to what your favorite computers were, and see if they were small or big. That’s really the best advice I can give you here.

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