Optimal Interface Part 3: Devices

16 May, 2019 08:02PM · 8 minute read

I’ve been fortunate in recent years to have tried the vast majority of consumer user interfaces and also the software running on each platform that’s widely regarded as best in class for each interface. I’ve written previously about going Back To The Mac and podcasted about using a Microsoft Surface Pro and even tried going Phoneless with just an Apple Watch.

One aspect of my job has been user interface design, conceptualisation and controls and in this series of posts I’d like to explore inputs, outputs and devices in turn, looking at what has worked well and why I think that is as well as what the next inflection points might be.

Part 3: Devices

With the newest iPad Pro outperforming many laptop machines, the question has come up again regarding whether iOS on an iPad can replace a macOS desktop or laptop machine. It’s a debate that’s been circulating for some time and having tried this for years I’ve reached my own conclusions.

Due to much of my experience recently in the Apple ecosystem, I’ll focus on Apples product lines however the conclusions should apply relatively similarly based on product type across all vendors. In addition areas where that are no mass-consumer interface devices available for use will be excluded (i.e. Neural, Smell interfaces etc). We’ll break devices down by several criteria then look at optimal interface for use case:

Device Robustness Portability Connectability Input Methods Screens
Apple Watch WP, SR Wearable LTE/WiFi Touch/Voice 1 Small
iPhone WR Pocketable LTE/WiFi Touch/Voice 1 Smartphone
iPad/Pro Nil Bag/Backpack LTE/WiFi Touch/Voice/Stylus/Keyboard 1 Small Laptop
MacBook Air/Pro/One Nil Bag/Backpack WiFi Mouse/Trackpad/Voice/Keyboard 1 Small Laptop/Expandable 2+ Large
iMac/Pro/Mini Nil Nil WiFi/Ethernet Mouse/Trackpad/Voice/Keyboard 1 Large/Expandable 2+ Large
AppleTV Nil Nil WiFi/Ethernet Remote/Voice 1 Large



Exclusions and Fails

There are multiple voice assistants in the market today, from Amazon (Alexa), Google, Microsoft (Cortana) and Apple (Siri) however they all share the same problem: They don’t always work. Until voice recognition improves (refer Part 1) then this interface will remain a curiosity or at best only be useful for a handful of commands that they can reliably deliver on. Users need certainty of cause and effect before trusting an interface and still overwhelmingly prefer a click interface on a physical remote to provide a definitive result for a TV interface with the recent AppleTV Touch-remote also being sub-optimal for its indirect touch/swipe pad interface.

Adding Siri/Cortana etc functionality on all devices does not present an actual benefit if the underlying technology still can’t reliably set a timer, for example. Where other methods of input are lacking due to size (eg the Apple Watch) then it’s a useful addition, on a HomePod where it’s the only interface it’s absolutely necessary, whereas on every other device type listed it will never be used as a primary input as it is outperformed but all other methods available on that device.


Many of the following use-cases can be conducted using software and techniques on more than one platform. To say one is better than the other is a judgement independent of the software used but rather to reflect the ease of execution for the majority of users attempting to execute said task on the best platform for the job. If not those users are fighting the form factor which is always an option, but is not optimal. Additionally a “desktop-connected” machine could also be a powerful portable machine connected to one or more external displays. There are many reasons why users prefer a powerful laptop rather than having one desktop and one laptop or two desktops depending upon their daily use requirements for all of their use cases - not to mention their personal budget.

Notifications: Apple Watch

A device capable of notifying the user of a message in complete silence, and one that is physically the most robust and always connected and always attached to the body is the clear winner. The watch can then be the optimal gateway device for notifications to other devices.

Video Editing: Desktop

Large screen real-estate and precision pointing make a desktop-connected machine the best choice for this activity.

Music Editing: Desktop

Large screen real-estate and precision pointing make a desktop-connected machine the best choice for this activity, especially for many audio tracks in the edit.

Podcast Editing: Desktop

Despite the fact I know an increasing number of podcasters are editing on an iPad (myself included) for the majority of podcast editors, the larger screen real-estate and precision pointing make a desktop-connected machine the best choice for this activity for the majority of users.

Photo Editing: Tablet

This is a close call with a desktop however a large screen iPad with good software can now quickly and more easily edit photos directly.

Photo Library Management: Desktop

Large screen real-estate make a desktop-connected machine the best choice for this activity.

Notetaking: Tablet with Stylus

For those accustomed to taking written notes, the flexibility of writing notes, sketching and diagramming on a piece of paper that syncs to the cloud, is text searchable and with some apps can also attach audio recordings at the time of note-taking is the ultimate tool for notetaking.

Drawing: Tablet with Stylus

Hand-drawing on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil is more accurate than a Cintique which used to be the preferred interface via a desktop machine. The tablet is more portable and comfortable to use such that many artists have switched to tablets for creative drawing.

Documentation: Desktop

Large screen real-estate make a desktop-connected machine the best choice for this activity for larger documents in particular. For smaller documents with a single contributor and with improvements to tablet keyboards it’s difficult to differentiate between a desktop and a tablet for document editing in some instances.

EMail: Desktop

(Longer form messaging blurs the line between EMail and Messaging, hence this applies to long-form messaging as well as EMail) The desktop interface still provides more flexibility and more configurability options than mobile interfaces permit. That said Tablets would be a close second and improving. Both desktop-connected and tablets with physical keyboards provide superior text input interfaces over a smartphone.

Short Messaging: Smartphone

The portability of the smartphone is close to a SmartWatch but the text input makes this a better option, as well as the built in cameras for sending photos of either the camera view or face view (as Apple likes to call it: ‘Face Time’) make it the best device for Short Messaging.

Social Media: Smartphone

Per the Short Messaging use case, the portability of the smartphone with the text input makes it the better option, as well as the built in cameras for sending photos of either the front view or face view for social media like Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat or Instagram.

Watching Movies or Television Shows: TV

The comfort, large screen and generally better audio make this the optimal interface for this activity.

Personal Audio Listening: Wireless In-Ear Headphones

The move from Wired to Wireless improves portability, convenience and with choices of many models now available the vast majority of users can find a pair that will fit their ear canals without causing discomfort. They are the most comfortable to wear in the majority of physical environments as well, with the only two drawbacks being 2-3 year lifespan (battery technology) and relative cost.

All-round Apocalypse Device: iPhone/Smartphone

It may seem odd considering it wasn’t the optimal interface device for very many of the above but it remains capable of performing every single one of them in the widest range of environments and use cases. Hence if you ONLY had one device, it’s the clear choice.


A disgruntled tech-writer once said, “only my use case matters” with their tongue firmly in their cheek, and whilst he was feeling exasperated I imagine when he said it, the idea is that every person has a different set of use cases and whilst any one person can assess their own needs for their own use cases, articles such as these can’t take that position.

The point of these articles and episodes of Pragmatic is to highlight that people need to be honest about what truly is the optimal interface for their specific use cases and to stop trying to justify to themselves or others that they can force a device to be the right device for everything they do, just because they have one or chose it.

If you have more than one use case, there is no single device that is optimal for all.

If we can collectively agree that, then we can (financial budget permitting) pick the devices that best suit the use case we need and then to get on with whatever we’re doing albeit now with the most efficient and effective device for the job possible.

Or as a tradie once told me, the right tool for the right job.

So get on with it already - back to work ;)