Reflections on the new MacBook Pro

Posted by Chris Rosser on Fri 04 November 2016
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Last week Apple introduced the much anticipated, and long overdue, update to the MacBook Pro line. As I watched the keynote, the thing that struck me most is that Apple wasn't talking to me. Based on the fallout too across the tech press, Apple it seems wasn't talking to a wide swathe of professional users either.

Strictly speaking, as a professional writer, I do not need the power, memory and IO offered by these machines. Naturally, I don't just use my computer for my professional needs. I'm a power user and I like to dabble in programming, and graphic media creation. In terms of power, the closest I get to pushing the envelope is running Linux virtual machines, editing and rendering 1080p videos and creating A3-sized artwork in Pixelmator with lots of layers. I spend much more of time though writing in Scrivener, Sublime Text and using the command line. For me, I can comfortably get away with an i5 processor and 8GB of RAM.

In short, my needs are met by my 2015 Macbook Air. I don't think I'm alone in that either; not every professional pushes the performance envelope. For every audio engineer, 4K videographer and 50 megapixel RAW PhotoShoper there are dozens of professionals that make their crust using basic productivity apps and software specialised to their industry. I'm talking about teachers, academics, facilitators, doctors, occupational therapists, pharmacists, psychologists, project managers, wedding planners, programmers, system administrators, clergy etc, etc, etc.

Apple's problem is that they are pitching the MacBook Pro (especially the high end model) to the so called creative professionals: that is people who create and edit video, images, audio. These people over represent the tech press and blogosphere and they are screaming loud and wide. To summarise their complaints:

  • Memory is limited to 16 gigabytes
  • USB-C has replaced all other ports except for the 3.5mm audio connector that means:
    • No SD card reader
    • No HDMI
    • No USB-A
    • No Magsafe
  • The USB-C ports on the right-hand side of the 13 inch touch bar model have reduced PCI bandwidth
  • The Thunderbolt 3 chipset may not be compatible with early Thunderbolt 3 devices with Texas Instrument chipsets
  • The keyboard has been compromised to achieve thinness
  • Battery life has been compromised to achieve thinness and weight (and if rumour is correct to comply with US airline regulations preventing people taking batteries above 100wH on flights)
  • There was no update to the Mac Pro, Mac mini or iMac
  • Apple have raised the prices

That's quite a litany on complaints. I've likely missed some because I gave up reading all the negativity and went back to writing NanoWriMo.

Having given it some thought and Apple's asking would-be users to accept a lot of compromises and pay more money for a computer that's got one foot in the future and one foot in the past. The high end machines have great IO (if you don't mind using dongles) but are somewhat limited in certain high-end graphically oriented tasks because of the memory limit and the GPU. The high-end device though isn't marketed to me, so I won't give any more thought.

So lets look at the low-end device. That device, according to Phil Schiller, has me -- a 13 inch Macbook Air user -- firmly in its sights. On paper, its a worthy successor to the Air. It has a Retina screen, occupies less volume and is only marginally heavier and has been updated to the Skylake architecture. These are all good things, but that's where it ends for me.

The MacBook Air in contrast to the new Pro, has 2 USB 3.0 ports, Thunberbolt 2, an SD Card reader and Magsafe. That's all stuff I use. Magsafe is brilliant. USB ports are much more practical (and perform plenty fast enough for me). The SD Card reader is a boon for working with cameras and the Raspberry Pi.

As for Thunderbolt I've yet to use it for anything other than connecting displays and I already have the adapters to do so. Thunderbolt accessories are still expensive, hard to find and many have reliability problems.

Perhaps the biggest consideration me though is the Air has a much better keyboard. As a writer that's critically important to me. I had a visceral dislike to the feel of the Macbook's keyboard and early reviews suggest the new Pro is not much better. To all the people who say, 'don't worry you'll get used to it' my response is that I shouldn't have to get used to something that costs more than $1000 AUD more than the computer I already own and like.

Taken as a whole, I don't hate the new MacBook Pro and I certainly don't hate Apple for the mistakes they've made. This new product line feels like a new direction for Mac. In coming years it will be improved upon and the PC (and mobile) industry will catch up and adopt the USB-C standard. At some point in the future, I'll need to buy a new laptop. My Air will inevitably fail or Apple will drop support for it or bloat macOS so much that 8GB is not enough to run the operating system.

Given this new direction, it will be interesting to see what the Mac line up (and macOS itself) looks like when I am ready to upgrade. My feeling is we're in the twilight years of the Mac. Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, has a vision for personal computing that looks very different from a laptop running an operating system built on the traditional desktop metaphor.

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