My search for the true companion device

My search for the true companion device

Over the last few weeks I’ve been on the hunt for a companion device to solve some (seemingly) simple tasks I need to undertake – turns out this is a harder problem to solve than I anticipated.

The Background

I’m a Mac user – have been for quite a long time now and at the moment I’m using a 13″ MacBook Pro which is a beast of a machine and can pretty much do anything. But there’s a problem – even at 13″ my MBP fails the flight-test. As somebody who flies on average 8+ hours a week this is quite important.

The flight test for me is the following:
1) Can I use it during take off and landing
2) Can I use it comfortably during flight
3) If the person in front of me reclines, can I still use it
4) Do I have offline access to my files and can I edit those files in office

So the MacBook Pro gets a no, sometimes, no and yes – a fairly bad 1.5 out of 4.

The offline file sync is important for me as I use Dropbox for everything both personally and professionally so it’s critical that I have access to the majority of my files at all times.

So onto the contenders:

The iPad

This one was easy to try as I currently own an aging iPad 4 – so I decided to give it a go and see if it might be worth exploring an upgrade to the iPad Air 2 or pro.

For the flight test it scored yes, yes, yes and no – 3 out of 4. Not bad but unfortunately, the one criteria the iPad fails on is arguably the most important – I cannot have all my files available offline and be able to edit them easily. To be quite honest, if the iPad were running OSX I wouldn’t have a problem! But the Dropbox app for iOS is just too limited requiring users to mark individual files as offline sync’d rather than folders.


The Surface Pro 3

So the unwritten criteria for this search is of course cost-based. I’m looking for a companion device – not a MBP replacement so spending over 600$ is just not going to happen. So when I walked into the Microsoft store and saw the surface pro 3 for 499 USD I was intrigued.

Let me cut this story short – yes, yes, yes and yes but it sucked! Too little power, too many bugs and not worth the money – so back it went.

The Surface Pro 4

Ok so I liked the hardware and feel of the surface so I decided to try the SP4 – it fit all the criteria as the SP3 did and in fact for a good few days I started to feel like my search had come to an end – but it was not to be. Why you ask?

Two things really – first was cost – I had broken the 600$ barrier to the tune of 899 plus tax and the keyboard which brought me to the 1k mark and secondly – the bugs! Dear god the bugs!

The SP4 is a beautiful device – well built hardware that feels great, a very nice stylus as well as a very easy to type-on keyboard. But hardware is only as good as the software running on it and Windows 10 pro just doesn’t stand up. Between hibernation issues, zooming issues while using one-note and just plain unresponsiveness at times I found myself wondering if I could put Linux on it.

For that much money it needed to be awesome – it was not – so it too has gone back.


So that leads me to where I am now – no companion device bar my iPhone 6s+ on which I am writing this blog.

Suggestions are most gratefully received but for now – the search for my next companion device – continues!

11 thoughts on “My search for the true companion device

  1. As you know, I’m in the same place and also returned my SP4. I’m starting to wonder if you’ve just got the wrong search.

    Perhaps what we need is just a convertible device which suits multiple needs. You should check out the Lenovo Yoga 900, which I tried last year. It’s 2.8lb all in, and converts to a tablet for plane use.

    Not sure I could give up my MacBook Pro, though…

    1. Yea – that’s the thing – at the end of the day even with the Yoga which is a beautiful piece of hardware, you end up running Windows 10 – and that was clearly the cause of the surface’s problems.

      1. I’m not sure that’s fair to Windows 10. I have it running on a few devices now and it works just fine. Those aren’t devices as sophisticated as the SP3/4 or the SB, though – just plain old PCs/laptops. I did put Windows 10 on a Dell tablet and it has never worked as well since, primarily the pen and digitiser, but that’s down to device drivers – Dell’s fault, not Windows 10.

        Regardless of the cause, though, you’d think that Microsoft should be able to get their flagship OS running properly on their own hardware. There’s no excuse for getting that wrong.

        I do think you’re not going to get what you want in a companion device. As John said, you really should be looking for a single new multi-purpose device. But maybe the device for you doesn’t exist yet? In the Mac world, the closest you can get, I think, is the 11″ MBA, and in the Windows world the Surface Book. If any of the mobile cloud storage apps ever started to support folder-by-folder offline settings, a companion mobile device suddenly becomes possible…

      2. Steve I would point out that the 12″ MacBook is a much better device… and at $999 in BestBuy right now, quite good value for money. We have one at home for browsing around the house and it’s a beautifully made device.

        Brenton wants something which outlasts his laptop and works in a small space. The requirement makes sense… but it’s a different direction to that the major device manufacturers are taking.

        The SP5 is imminent, and I’ve heard backchannel rumors that it will be fantastic.

      3. So my experience with the Yoga 900 and Win10 was much better than the surface. The problem with the SP4 is a mix of hardware, drivers and software. You’d think that Microsoft would get it right on their flagship device, but they did not. Lenovo did a much better job.

      4. Yes, I was forgetting the Macbook. I have never actually seen one in person, and certainly never used one, but for this purpose it can believe it is better than the 11″ MBA.

        I do hope Microsoft have got the SP5 working properly. It really *should* be a great device. I still don’t see it as a companion, though. It is too big and too expensive. It is intended to be a primary device. My experience with the Dell Venue Pro 11 is that the occasions when I prefer to use it over my 13″ MBA are really very rare. The SP is bigger and heavier, so that’s not going to be any different. Take-off & landing, with keyboard detached, is about it.

        I really think Brenton needs to re-think the problem!

  2. None of the major mobile cloud storage apps (Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive), on Android at least, allow selecting offline access for a whole folder, only a file at a time. So it seems you’re looking at a device with a non-mobile OS.

    For MacOS the only possibility seem to be the 11″ MBA. Is that still usable if the seat in front is reclined? It isn’t usable during take-off & landing, though.

    For Windows, if you’ve eliminated the Surface Pro devices, what about the Surface Book? Expensive yes, but I imagine it could replace your current MBP so not a companion device but a flight usable main device? And sans keyboard it should be usable during take-off and landing. It is certainly expensive, but if it will do double duty it might be worth it.

  3. Completely agree Steve – and in fact I know people who have the SB and absolutely swear by it – but if I’m honest – I’ll never give up my MBP as my main machine – it works too well for me 🙂

    Agree that I’m looking for a non-mobile OS – iPad 2 size with the apple pencil and OSX would likely be the dream!

    1. “I’ll never give up my MBP as my main machine”

      You need to open your mind a little:-) But seriously, my main machine is a 13″ MBA and I do like it a lot, but I’m equally happy with a Windows machine. There’s nothing I do on my Mac that wouldn’t work easily enough on a Windows machine. I’d take a Surface Book in an instant. But that’s just me…

      1. Mine is the 2012 15″… I love the screen real-estate. It’s 4 years old and I’ve tried iPad, Yoga 900, Surface Pro 4. Sent them all back and still prefer the 4-year old device with a 5-7 hour battery life. Would love to replace it as it’s battered and bruised, but I don’t think a better device has been made (and the 2013/2014/2015 MBPs are too incremental for me to care).

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