More on the Macbook Pro

This is kinda getting boring at this point, but I have nothing else to write about, so I'm carrying on. This is a post primarily motivated by some blog posts by Marco Arment and discussions on the Accidental Tech podcast.

The posts in particular are 'The Best Laptop Ever Made' and 'Fixing the MacBook Pro'. I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Marco says here, but I don't necessarily agree with the conclusions.

I wanted to write about this, because again, whilst I find myself agreeing with a lot of the criticisms of the new MacBook Pros, I actually do - on balance - prefer them over the old ones. This is as someone who uses a Retina MacBook Pro 15" and MacBook Pro 2017 15" every weekday. That said, I do sympathise and understand why someone would want to go back to the older model, as Marco has.

The Best Laptop Ever Made

I don't agree that the Retina MacBook Pro is the best laptop ever made. Macs, to me, are the software they run. The hardware also has to be good, and broadly speaking, they have always been top tier. But the point of a Mac (and Apple in general) is that vertical integration and the benefits it affords. The Retina MacBook Pro introduced what is possibly the worst period in macOS's life. Now, it also coincided with the iOS business generating ever more gigantic amounts of money, far exceeding anything the Mac could have ever done.

However, the primary issue with macOS during that time for me was entirely down to something introduced in the Retina MacBook Pros. That is what is right there in the name: The Retina display. macOS wasn't ready and in some ways, 5 years later it still isn't. High Sierra finally made some well needed improvements and has made me much happier with macOS, but the legacy of what the Retina MacBook Pro introduced and what it found out people were willing to put up with still hurts today.

That is: UI performance. It was truly awful, macOS does handle scaling better than Windows - but it does not perform anywhere near as well in my experience. macOS has had severe bottlenecks in the UI when it comes to frame rate and consistency. These problems went entirely unmentioned until earlier this year when High Sierra was announced, with one of its features being a new window server (written in Metal 2) to handle these performance issues. It has improved things quite significantly in mission control and general window management tasks (multi desktops, multi windows, etc).

It is also when Apple began to make even their Pro laptops pretty much entirely unserviceable. You couldn't replace RAM and storage replacement possibilities were sporadic and never actually supported like previous models.

I agree, that in comparison to the move to the new generation MacBook Pros, that the inclusion of HDMI, for instance was a surprise - it's obvious but not something to really expect from Apple, but it was a move that was clearly entirely driven by someone at Apple thinking about what could they add to make the lives of their customers easier. Remove one more thing they didn't need to think about when using their laptop in certain situations. That is an attitude entirely missing from those responsible for designing the latest model.

These aren't the only reasons why I don't agree it's the best laptop ever made, but they're the only wants I want to highlight without going into a long list of vague rambling points.

Fixing the MacBook Pro

As I mentioned in a previous post, I think the keyboard has severe design issues. One of Marco's primary points is the keyboard, whilst I happen to like many things about the new keyboard (tactility, stability and accuracy) I do think there's a balance that can be made to make it more palatable for everyone*. But the primary issue is reliability, Marco's solution is one I can get on board with.

The second is ports, and I'll come to my views on this later on in a section about 'perspectives', but again - it kinda comes back to the whole idea of balance. USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are mostly pretty great, especially for a pro machine. But is it necessary to have all ports be that? Probably not, so perhaps getting rid of one or two of them in favour of an SD card slot and a couple of USB-A ports would have gone a long way. The argument here is in favour of more versatility.

Also, another point I hadn't thought of myself - but one that seems obvious now. Apple should invest more themselves in creating USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 accessories, because the market out there is a bit confusing and actually not terribly competitive for certain types of Thunderbolt 3 accessories (e.g. docks, which Apple kinda of sold the future on).

Thirdly, Touch Bar. Getting rid of it is something I'd probably support at this point, I've had some issues with it more recently that have continued so I'm changing my stance - it's overall a net negative. It has introduced complexity where there shouldn't be, and that complexity has resulted in simple things like changing the volume to become a risky task, as if you're in certain apps in certain states and you change the volume, you may find yourself with a frozen Touch Bar. Utterly unresponsive for a 5-10 seconds... and all you want to do is change the volume. It's dumb, adds nothing but a cool look and detracts plenty. These issues have happened across the several laptops I've had, across Sierra and High Sierra (including latest betas).

TouchID is cool and it's not necessary for that to go should the Touch Bar be axed.

There are other points in there, which I personally think are minor or I don't actually agree with - so I'll leave that there. Overall, I actually do agree with many of the principles of Marco's arguments. However, these things are weighted a bit differently depending on your perspective.

Perspective

On the latest Accidental Tech podcast, Marco and Casey Liss argued on what these mean to different people. So my initial reaction to the all-thunderbolt-3 announcement of the latest MacBook Pros was one of excitement, I actually thought it was quite a cool idea. I understood it'd be a bit awkward in certain instances, but overall, I thought it was a good move. These were my immediate, very self-centred thoughts.

A few seconds later, you begin to think about the wider audience and understand a lot of people will not like this. But what other people like isn't necessarily my concern, so it didn't dampen my excitement.

Because this is where the different perspective comes into it. I use my laptops in a particular way. I (used to) carry it to and from work, plug it into a set of monitors, keyboard and mice and it'd just be sat on a desk untouched. The extra functionality and versatility offered to me by having four high bandwidth ports that can do practically anything I need was super exciting for someone who uses their laptop in situation like this. At the end of the day, I'd unplug it very easily, go home and if I wanted to keep working on my laptop - I'd do the same on my home desktop setup (which is primarily used for my windows desktop, but can be used for my laptop too when I want to do some dev work).

When I use my laptop portably, I use it entirely individually - I rarely ever have anything else plugged into it, nor actually need to. Plugging into TVs in meeting rooms is probably the most common task, but those events are planned - and having a couple of dongles in the bag I carry my laptop in is a minor effort, but admittedly it's not as simple as simply having the compatible port on my laptop. But overall, as I said, I was geeking out about the possibilities afford by four high bandwidth ports that can do anything on my laptop.

My only attitude change in regards to all this over the past year has been.. I want this laptop to be more things to more people. It's better for the Mac ecosystem that more professionals feel well served by the available hardware and I think it would signal that Apple has a better understanding of their 'Pro' market. I'd sacrifice a couple of these ports for that.

I don't think Apple are too far from having something that a lot of people would like. I said at the top of this page that I do much prefer using this new model over the Retina MacBook Pro I use at work every day, here are the reasons:

  • Far better display (the panel itself, the coating and the housing)
  • Incredible speakers
  • Brilliant trackpad, the size is a big improvement - and over the past year I have not had a single accidental touch of it despite concerns.
  • TouchID
  • Fantastic cooling (from an acoustics and overall disruption point of view)
  • It looks and feels better (smaller, lighter, fit and finish of the body)
  • The keyboard is clicky with great feedback and accuracy, the old one is definitely still a good keyboard, but the keys are smaller and wobblier, so I'm less accurate and quick.
  • Thunderbolt 3 (doing more with less in my desktop setups).

There are solutions to the issues with the reliability of the keyboard, I hope if Apple does take action that it doesn't sacrifice too much of the things I like about it, but as I said previously, I'd accept some sacrifice for added travel to better appeal to more people.

The keyboard reliability is the biggest issue of this laptop, maybe I believe that because it is the issue I've had the most experience with. However, it also appears to be the one people speak about most (of those who actually use the device, the port situation is something people who use them don't seem to talk about so much, anecdotally).

I hope this is the last of these boring posts about a laptop. I'm not sure what makes me care so much about something most people don't give a second thought to a few weeks after buying, but I am a bit of a snob about the computer hardware I use and despite my efforts, I can't shake it off.