I’m still with the Mac, unfashionably

I still love the Mac. Judging by the tech sites and blogs I usually read, I seem to be in the minority as of late. There are tech guys who have managed to mostly or exclusively use iOS for work and leisure, and seem awfully proud of it. I was not aware that there was a competition, though, and I’m not quite sure what they have ‘won’ — and what I have ‘lost’.

There are people who got a Mac only recently, just when iOS started getting real traction, and these folks evidently found iOS easier to deal with, they had no real computer preferences or habits deeply ingrained, and jumped on the iOS bandwagon because probably it was a better fit for whatever their workflow is, or because the touch interface has some subliminal ‘instant gratification’ factor that makes using Mac OS X appear ‘difficult’.

Then there are those — as I observed previously — who seem to put the Mac in a bad light just to reinforce how great a decision they have made in leaving it behind to go all-in with iOS. And then there are those long-time Mac users who both use iOS and Mac OS X proficiently, who are quite comfortable with both platforms, recognising each platform’s strengths and drawbacks, but still feel the need to write how, when travelling, their iOS device is essential, and the Mac is the ‘add-on’.

And then again there’s the inevitable commentary on how the Mac is neglected — sloppy software, eternally-awaited hardware updates on the horizon (hopefully, and hopefully they’re going to be significant, and hopefully Apple won’t screw things up after all this wait, etc.). The increasingly frequent remarks on how iOS is ‘the future’ — oh, the hardware is so portable and powerful, and the software… the software, well, it still has a few things it needs to get right… and the iPad, well, Apple should really issue a proper iPad-customised iOS to take advantage of all the ‘pro’ stuff you can do on an iPad Pro, but all in all it’s just so great and it’s the future so it must be better, etc. While the Mac, well, the Mac — haha — is the Cinderella of the household, it’s on its way out, it’s today’s Apple II to iOS’s Macintosh. It’s on borrowed time.

If you don’t know my writings, and where I come from, you may think at this point that I’m an iOS hater. Absolutely not. I’ve been using iOS devices since 2008 and currently, even though they aren’t the latest and greatest, I own an iPhone and an iPad, and use them a lot during the day. I enjoy iOS a lot. And I enjoy the Mac a lot. I’m not an iOS hater, but I am fed up with this recent silly trend of bashing the Mac, whether blatantly or subtly. I feel an air of ‘Mac OS versus iOS’ in the debate that I truly dislike. And I still don’t understand why, for some, there has to be a winner between the two. For some it seems that the Mac has now exhausted its possibilities, that it’s time for it to step aside and make way for iOS the whizz-kid. To some, using both platforms and taking advantage of their respective strengths seems unfathomable. The propaganda of the iOS-lovers doesn’t worry me because I’m afraid of what will happen to my preferred platform; it worries me because every now and then regular, non-geek people fall for it, try to go iOS-only too, and things don’t always turn out as anticipated.

(I’ve already talked about all this by the way, in less sarcastic and exasperated tones, when I wrote The Mac is just as compelling).

Apple, too, is worrying me. These delays in Mac hardware updates, which kind of delays are they? Are they the Wait and see what we’ve been working on all these months delays, or are they the Our focus is almost exclusively on our hottest products and the Mac is becoming a hobby delays? Or somewhere in between? The impression I have, as of late, is that Apple has really too much on its plate, and can’t keep up with everything. Take this oft-quoted bit from Steve Jobs:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.

I may be wrong, but I don’t feel this still reflects Apple’s approach. There’s an air of more is more in what Apple is doing today. Instead of saying no to the hundred other good ideas, Apple’s attitude seems more like Eh, no need to be so hasty with that ‘No’ — let’s keep our options open. And when Apple actually says no to something (the headphone port in the iPhone 7), it feels both like saying no for the sake of saying no, and an unpopular choice.

Back to the Mac: I’m anxiously waiting for new Macs also because I think they may represent — now more than ever — how much Apple itself still believes in the Mac, how much the Mac still means to Apple. As for the software, if I may, it’s time to rethink that yearly update cycle. Having a mandatory new version of Mac OS X every year is not necessarily the best way to show you’re still caring, Apple. This self-imposed yearly update cycle makes less and less sense as time goes by. Mac OS X is a mature operating system and should be treated as such. The focus should be on making Mac OS X even more robust and reliable, so that Mac users can update to the next version with the same relative peace of mind as when a new iOS version comes out. Mac OS X updates should be more in tune with the hardware and its slower update cycle.

Instead of thinking about new features to add every year to make OS X interesting (features which may end up breaking stuff that previously worked, which in turn becomes another problem to fix in subsequent minor updates), why not embrace the slower pace and take some time to fix what’s broken even if it’s not an exciting feature in and of itself? This of course doesn’t mean there’s no more room for innovation or new features in OS X, only that OS X doesn’t need to be handled like iOS. iOS has enough engineers and internal resources to get to the yearly update in good shape. OS X struggles in comparison. Then software quality suffers, and then of course people think it’s all about iOS and the Mac is the old, neglected platform that has little more to offer. Compare this with the long, steady flow of Mac OS X minor updates in the Tiger/Leopard/Snow Leopard era. Six years (2005-2011), only three major versions, those that are usually considered the most robust, by the way.

The Mac is still a relevant, versatile environment. It doesn’t deserve the bad light it’s been put into lately. I could have written this piece sitting (uncomfortably) in a coffee shop, on my iPad connected to my Apple Wireless Keyboard and propped up by the well-designed Incase Origami Workstation. I could have written it in iA Writer and then passed it to WordPress. But I would have felt quite limited by the 9.7-inch screen, by the mixture of keyboard/touch interaction with the device and its apps. And since while writing it I would have needed to check on other things, like I’m doing now, on the iPad it would have been a constant switching from app to app (and thankfully since iOS 9 you can do that like on the Mac, by hitting Command-Tab). But I wrote it on my Mac, in MarsEdit, with a big editor window open and a rather big preview window set up side by side — all this on the external 24-inch display connected to the MacBook Pro, while having Twitter and Safari open on the main MacBook Pro display. And writing on a full-size keyboard. At my desk. In a comfortable position. What can I say? I have done previous tech survival experiments, but the Mac is still the only platform that doesn’t make me feel limited.


Am I bashing iOS in return? No. Again, read my previous The Mac is just as compelling, or at least the “Final observations” section. I’m as heavy an iOS user as I am a Mac user. Both platforms have their conveniences and uses. I can’t wait to be able to upgrade to a 12.9-inch iPad Pro, as I’m sure I would be able to do more when out and about than what I’m doing now with my good old third-generation iPad. I also agree that iOS has now a series of desktop-class apps. I’m not disputing iOS’s value or importance. I’m simply annoyed by this The Mac is not relevant anymore attitude, which I find defeatist, questionable, and misguided. This idea that the Mac represents the past burdens you have to get rid of in order to achieve the iOS-only nirvana. That things have to be moving sequentially (progress is going from the Mac to iOS, is iOS ultimately replacing Mac OS) instead of in parallel (both Mac OS and iOS can evolve concurrently, and everyone’s happy).

iOS-only is a choice, a particular setup that works, and works well, for some people; it’s not an achievement in the gaming sense of the term. These people are certainly tech-savvy users whose job — luckily for them — allows them to streamline their hardware setup to the point that a Mac (or any other traditional computer) isn’t needed anymore. But then some of these people make this assumption: Since I don’t need a computer anymore, and can work with just my iPhone and iPad, lots of other people can do the same, and we can all leave computers behind. Sorry, tech pundit, but we’re not there yet.

Category Tech Life Tags , , , ,

3 iOS apps I’m liking: AdBlock, Feed Hawk, Argent Film Simulation


iOS 9 saw the introduction of content blockers for Safari. They’re excellent at speeding up navigation, reducing websites’ clutter, and helping you save some battery life on your devices. At least, that’s what I’m told. I’ve never been able to take advantage of this feature because my devices, an iPhone 5 and iPad 3, have a 32-bit CPU architecture, and content blockers only work on 64-bit iOS devices. I’ve always found this limitation quite irritating because — as I often stated — this is the kind of feature that would be especially helpful on older devices. A lot of today’s websites are so littered with ads and all kinds of unrelated, superfluous content that loading them becomes unnecessarily cumbersome and resource- and battery-draining. On older devices the issue is exacerbated: my iPad 3, which is still a good performer overall, becomes very sluggish on certain ad-heavy websites. Swiping up and down while the site is still loading is sometimes a painful spectacle to behold — the browser struggles, and every now and then even freezes, until all content is loaded.

So I’ve been wondering whether there might be an app featuring some workaround that would allow even older 32-bit devices to block some content. Thanks to the ever-useful AppShopper, I found AdBlock, which appears to do just the trick. As explained in the FAQ of the app’s website:

AdBlock for iOS uses the VPN OnDemand feature. It installs a “dummy VPN” profile with a list of domains. The list of domains is controlled using the app. Every time some app tries to communicate with one of the blacklisted domains, it will automatically trigger a connection with the “dummy VPN” server (which is not a working VPN). This makes the connection impossible and results in ad being blocked in all kinds of apps.

One neat consequence of this is that AdBlock doesn’t block ads only inside browsers, but also in other apps that may display ads served over the Internet. On the flip side, if you navigate to a site serving ads through its own servers, AdBlock won’t work. (You may want to check out Weblock for that, from the same developer. See the difference between Weblock and AdBlock explained on this page.)

There is an important bit of information on the app’s website and App Store description:

Due to a confirmed bug in iOS 9.3 – 9.3.5, AdBlock can cause some websites to freeze when loading. Apple fixed the bug in iOS 10. Please update to iOS 10 to resolve this problem. Unfortunately this cannot be fixed with an app update (it’s a bug in iOS, not in AdBlock app).

I’ve been using AdBlock for a week now, and haven’t found any issues so far. Sites like iMore and Macworld load faster and ad-free, my iPad 3 feels more responsive, and the battery life improvement isn’t just marketing, it’s noticeable, at least in my experience. Once you enable AdBlock, you may notice that the progress bar in Safari doesn’t go from 0 to 100% — that’s because technically the website-with-ads isn’t fully loaded. Only the good stuff is loaded. At least, that’s what I’ve deduced.

AdBlock is $1.99 on the App Store

Feed Hawk

Until recently, there wasn’t a simple, direct way to add a website’s RSS feed to your RSS reader of choice if you wanted to subscribe. Feed Hawk by John Brayton of Golden Hill Software is the missing piece of the puzzle. The app description in the App Store really says everything you need to know:

From within Safari, simply open a share sheet and tap Feed Hawk. Feed Hawk will find the feed for the site and subscribe to it. If the site has multiple feeds, Feed Hawk will allow you to specify the feeds to which you wish to subscribe.

The Feed Hawk extension works inside most browsers including Safari, Safari View Controllers, Google Chrome, and Marcato.

It works with the following feed services: BazQux Reader, Feed Wrangler, Feedbin, FeedHQ, Fever (self-hosted), Inoreader, Minimal Reader, NewsBlur, The Old Reader, tt-rss (self-hosted).

The developer kindly reached out to me via email and offered me a code to try out Feed Hawk. If I’m talking about Feed Hawk here is not because I simply felt it was the polite thing to do. If I don’t like your app, you can send me all the codes (and sometimes even pre-packaged PR material) you want — you won’t get a mention from me. But Feed Hawk works as intended and does the job well, so I’m spreading the word. The feed service I primarily use is Feedly, which sadly is not supported, but I also have an account with Inoreader, so I tried Feed Hawk with that service and everything was fine. If you use iOS as your primary platform, you want as little friction as possible in your workflow. With Feed Hawk you can add a website to your feeds with a couple of taps. So purchase it already. It has a cool icon, too.

Feed Hawk is $2.99 on the App Store

Argent Film Simulation

This is my most recent discovery, and you won’t believe what I did to find this app: I launched the App Store and initiated a search for “film simulation”. And things worked like they should. Argent Film Simulation was the top result, and got me intrigued. I searched for “film simulation” because I wanted to see if there was some kind of professional photo app that offered a wide array of faithful film renditions and a bit more versatility than the mostly automatic iPhone camera approach.

The good news: Argent Film Simulation appears to be that app. The somewhat bad news: the user interface isn’t immediately intuitive, and can get busy. The good news again: the companion website explains the interface clearly and in detail. All it takes is a bit of patience — once you figure out the various controls, the app becomes more intuitive and rewards you with good photographic results. Let me say that again: if you want a photo app with cool filters for your Instagram-driven instant gratification, the App Store has plenty of those. You probably already have plenty of those. Argent Film Simulation is more aimed at the photo enthusiast (or professional) who likes to tinker with manual settings. It has a high degree of customisation and flexibility. Sure, you could leave everything set to automatic and then apply the film presets, but the fun comes when you experiment with different settings, while you’re shooting and afterwards.

The app is developed by Sean M. Puckett, who is a professional photographer (here’s a link to his website). What ultimately made me decide to purchase the app was this ‘Historical Note’ at the end of the app’s companion website:

This app is the result of ten years of development of a suite of analogue film simulation equations and techniques. They were originally created for a long defunct camera raw processing program called Bibble, and later ported to Lightroom. But always, the simulations were applied in post-processing.

With the advent of hand-held devices with adequate cameras and CPUs, it no longer makes sense to me as an artist to have a separate “photography” and “post-processing” phase. I should instead be able to just create a software camera that combines both steps in real-time, so I can just see in a viewfinder before I click the shutter what I will get when all the post-processing work is done. And that’s what Argent is.

No matter how frequently I’ll end up using Argent — I’m happy to support people like Sean. I like to see competence and this kind of approach in an app.

One last note: predictably, an app like this is rather resource-intensive. I don’t know on faster, more recent iPhones, but during my tinkering in Argent my iPhone 5 got a bit warm and battery life lost 2-3 percentage points. That didn’t particularly bother me. Your mileage may vary.

Argent Film Simulation is $1.99 on the App Store

Category Software Tags , ,

12% of how many?

In this brief article from Business Insider called More people already want Apple AirPods than the Apple Watch the author writes:

12% of U.S. consumers surveyed by Bank of America Merrill Lynch say they intend to purchase AirPods, apparently on the strength of Apple’s marketing, given that few people have actually seen and tried them out.

This is a very bullish sign for Apple, says BAML. “12% of the US installed base could lead to up to an incremental $3bn in revenue,” writes [sic] the analysts.

I was made aware of it via John Gruber, who comments:

Not 12 percent of iPhone owners. 12 percent of consumers. For a product that Apple has merely announced, but not yet even started advertising. That’s huge. It’s just a survey, so take it with a grain of salt […]

Actually, it’s “12 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed by Bank of America Merrill Lynch“. The survey report, as far as I know, can’t be accessed directly online. From what I gathered visiting the Bank of America Merrill Lynch website, you can access the research library through an iOS app, but you must be logged in as a client (correct me if I’m wrong).

It would be nice to know how many U.S. consumers were surveyed. Two hundred? Two thousands? Two hundred thousands? Even if we consider a sample of two million consumers, 12 percent is 240,000 people. Not an insignificant number, but not something I’d call ‘huge’ either. To me, this piece of news and its statistics don’t make much sense if that 12 percent isn’t properly put in context. How many consumers were surveyed in the first place?



Edited to add: Good points made by Michael Rockwell and Luca Soldaini on Twitter. Rockwell says: “Also, what people say they plan on purchasing and what they actually purchase is usually very different.” Soldaini makes a similar remark and adds: “For example, I’d love to know how many knew the price of the AirPods before answering!”

Category Handpicked Tags ,

iOS 10 on the iPhone 5

iPhone 5 lock screen iOS 10

I usually wait a while before installing a new version of Mac OS X or iOS on my devices, especially considering that my hardware isn’t the latest and greatest anymore. And in this specific instance there was the same kind of trepidation as when I updated my iPhone 4 to iOS 7, and my iPad 3 to iOS 9 in the past — Will this hardware be capable enough to keep up with the new features and performance requirements of the new iOS?

Judging from the feedback, many iPhone 4 and iPad 3 users, back then, clearly regretted updating their devices to the latest iOS version they could technically support. The performance change (whether perceived or measured with a chronograph) between iOS 6 and iOS 7 on the iPhone 4 felt disappointing, and many complained about the overall sluggishness of the device. But at least with regard to perceived performance, I also thought it was a matter of habits and the way one usually interacted with the iPhone. I’m not a ‘fast & furious’ user, and the slower transitions in iOS 7’s UI on my iPhone 4 didn’t really bother me. I didn’t regret updating: I felt that the benefits of iOS 7 outweighed the drawbacks. My iPhone 4 never really felt ‘unusable’ to me — as I wrote in my initial impressions three years ago, “Some animations and transitions are different from iOS 6, so I feel the experience as being different rather than disappointingly slower.”

I had more or less the same reaction when I updated my iPad 3 to iOS 9 last year. Apart from the occasional lag and stutter (especially in the virtual keyboard’s ability to keep up with my typing), I can’t say I’m disappointed with iOS 9 on my iPad. As an aside, the devices on which I’ve seen iOS 9 perform in a truly appalling way are the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4s, certainly because of their insufficient 512 MB of internal RAM. (The iPad 3 has 1 GB and the difference is noticeable).

Back to the iPhone 5 and iOS 10, I was relieved after reading iOS 10 is a pleasant surprise for the iPhone 5 and 5C by Andrew Cunningham at Ars Technica. Andrew had been critical of the overall performance of new iOS versions on the slowest supported hardware in the past, so when he concludes that:

For the first time in a while, I’m comfortable recommending the latest version of iOS for the oldest-supported iPhone without major caveats or qualifications. Yes, newer iPhones are faster and can do more things, but if you’re still using an iPhone 5 or 5C (or if you’ve handed your old one down to someone else in your circle of family and friends), iOS 10 will treat the hardware about the same as iOS 9 did — not bad, given that the iPhone 5 is four years old.

Any doubt I had about updating my iPhone 5 to iOS 10 quickly went away.

My experience so far

I installed iOS 10 on the iPhone 5 a week ago. I wanted to wait a few days before writing anything, because I needed to see if something unexpected turned up during extended use. So far, I really have nothing bad to report, and I agree with Cunningham’s assessment overall. Here are a few stray observations anyway:

  • I don’t know why I expected long installation times. In truth, I found it took less to update my iPhone 5 from iOS 9 to iOS 10 (between 15 and 20 minutes) than it took to update from iOS 8 to iOS 9 a year ago (between 25 and 30 minutes). As a personal practice, I always connect the iPhone to iTunes for major iOS updates, while minor updates are done over the air.
  • When it was explained that iOS 10 would replace the traditional Slide to unlock gesture with Press Home to open to unlock the device, I was disappointed and a little annoyed: discontinuing a long-standing, well-designed gesture always feels a bit user-hostile. Same goes with the rearranged swipes — left to get to the camera (instead of upwards), right to enter the Today View. I remember thinking it would take me a long time before I could effectively retrain my muscle memory. I was wrong: it took me just one day, and now I even find the Press Home to open gesture more convenient than Slide to unlock. In one-handed use, and in cramped spaces such as a crowded bus or train, or whenever I had only one hand free and had to quickly take out my iPhone and check something, I often found difficult to simultaneously hold the phone securely and unlock it with a swipe. There were times when the iPhone would not unlock because I basically did not ‘swipe enough’, if you know what I mean. Now in the same situations I can comfortably wake the iPhone and unlock it by clicking the Home button twice. Perhaps my retraining didn’t take much because the iPhone 5 doesn’t have Touch ID. I heard from iPhone 5s and 6/6s users that they’re still trying to adjust to the new gesture.
  • Animations and transitions are shorter than under iOS 9, so, in a way, the device feels faster than before when navigating the springboard and launching/closing applications. On the other hand, I’ve always had a few apps on my iPhone that took longer to launch than others. Under iOS 10, ironically, they feel slower at launch because of this effect. In other words, you tap on the app, iOS 10 quickly displays the opening transition, then you’re stuck a few seconds with the app launch screen. The app doesn’t really take more time launching than under iOS 9, but feels a bit slower at load time due to the faster transition iOS 10 now provides when entering the app. I hope I’m making sense.
  • A few system sounds have changed. If, like me, you’ve always kept the keyboard clicking sound activated, you’ll notice that now the keyboard has a different sound. It’s softer, and modifier keys have a different ‘tune’ when hit. The general impression is that the new clicking sound is more cartoonish and whimsical, where the previous was more typewriter-like. Some like it, some not. I like it, actually. It reminds me of raindrops falling on a soft surface. The ‘clack’ when you lock the phone has also changed. It’s less harsh now and I can’t really describe it, but I’ll admit I’m not a fan, and I very much preferred the old sound.
  • I found myself liking the redesigned Control Centre much more than anticipated. It’s another detail of iOS 10’s user interface that didn’t convince me when it was first presented — I felt that giving Control Centre multiple screens was a bad idea, a needless complication of an effective and easy-to-use feature — but it’s a definitely better experience when in use.
  • Performance isn’t disappointing at all. Nothing feels slower than before. If you were satisfied with iOS 9 performance on your iPhone 5 (and 5c), you shouldn’t have problems updating to iOS 10. This may be a premature assessment, but it seems that third-party keyboards behave a bit better under iOS 10, at least the two I have installed — Microsoft’s Word Flow and Google’s Gboard. Jumping from the system keyboard to one of them feels faster, as it does using them; they feel more integrated overall. (At least to me.)
  • Speaking of performance, some iPhone 5 users have told me they’re not exactly happy with multitasking, finding the process less snappy than before and also finding the iPhone more ‘forgetful’ about the app’s state when returning to a previously used app, needing to reload content more often than before. Again, I don’t know if I’m usually more patient or if the issue is connected to how different users approach the same device, or if the differentiating factor are the apps involved or how much free space is left on the device, but I haven’t really noticed anything strange on my iPhone 5 (32 GB, with about 8 GB free). Multitasking-wise, my iPhone seems to behave basically like before. Your mileage may vary, I guess.
  • I haven’t conducted any specific tests regarding battery life, but in my normal, day-to-day use I haven’t noticed anything different than under iOS 9.3.5. My iPhone 5 doesn’t seem to discharge faster or consume more energy than before — which is a good thing.

So far, I’m very surprised and very pleased by iOS 10 on my iPhone 5 and, like Andrew Cunningham at Ars Technica, I certainly recommend the upgrade to other fellows still using an iPhone 5 or 5c. iOS 10 feels like a solid release, and by upgrading I think you gain much more than anything you may lose. I might update this piece in the following days with further observations. If you have specific questions or doubts, feel free to contact me via email or Twitter and I’ll try to be helpful.

Category Software Tags , ,

The dongle game

What follows is an entirely speculative article, based on the assumption that the next generation of MacBook Pros will provide a completely revolutionised port configuration, featuring only four USB-C type ports. I usually wait for actual changes to products to appear before sharing my musings, because I don’t like to — what’s the technical expression? — talk out of my arse. But while I was writing it I thought: “I’m a prospective MacBook Pro buyer and am waiting for this update with trepidation. Maybe in my speculation I’m missing some important solution or alternative point of view.” So I ultimately decided to impose these 2,000 words of speculation on you, dear readers. Perhaps you’ll share my views, or perhaps you’ll offer a different perspective.



Purchased in 1999, decommissioned sometime in 2003 after it broke for the second time, the blueberry iMac G3 (slot loading) has been my last desktop Mac. Or rather, the last desktop Mac I’ve used as primary work machine. From 2003 on, I’ve switched to laptop Macs as primary workhorses. My first ‘road warrior’ has been a clamshell iBook G3/466 SE (FireWire), followed in mid-2004 by a 12-inch PowerBook G4, followed in mid-2009 by a 15-inch MacBook Pro.

When I went from desktop to laptop, I was mainly following a need: in late 2002 my work started requiring more mobility, so in addition to the iMac G3 I bought the iBook; the iMac remained the home office main machine, while the iBook was the mobile office. Any necessary syncing was carried out across the home network when I’d return in the evening after a day out. When, after the iMac died, I went laptop-only, I also realised the flexibility of such a setup. Yes, initially it was a bit hard going from the iMac’s 15-inch 1024×768 display to the iBook’s 12-inch 800×600 display, but when I upgraded to the 12-inch PowerBook G4 and got an external display, things really got better — desktop setup at home, with a full extended keyboard, a mouse and the external display; and a very compact, lightweight machine when it was time to hit the road.

For my needs, the iBook G3/466 before and the 12-inch PowerBook G4 later on, were excellent portable solutions, powerful enough not to make me miss a standalone desktop Mac. I didn’t expect the little PowerBook G4 to last five full years as my primary Mac, especially in the 2004-2009 period, if you consider the transition to Intel architecture that took place in 2006, quickly making PowerPC Macs less and less relevant. But the MacBook Pro has proven to be an even long-lasting beast, having just surpassed seven years of service.

All the Mac laptops I’ve owned have had an adequate number and variety of ports and connections. The three notable exceptions have been, chronologically, the PowerBook 150, the PowerBook Duo 280c, and the original clamshell iBook G3/300:

  • The PowerBook 150 (1994-1995) only had one serial port and one SCSI port, an audio-out jack and an internal connector for an optional modem card.
  • The PowerBook Duo 280c (1994-1996), like all the other models in the Duo line, only had one serial port, and a Dock connector. But at least the Duo MiniDock was a portable enough accessory, and provided the Duo with a lot of connections.
  • The original clamshell iBook (1999-2000) only had a modem port, an Ethernet port, an audio-out jack, and one USB 1.1 port. At least it could be equipped with an internal AirPort card for wireless capabilities.

The PowerBook 150 was introduced as a low-cost portable solution back then, and that was essentially the reason behind the paucity of ports.

The PowerBook Duo was a more professional machine, and its ingenious concept was to have an ultra-light portable solution when you were out and about, that could become a desktop system through a desktop DuoDock once you got back to your desk at home or at the office.

Macintosh Duo System

The subnotebook form factor of the Duo meant having only the most basic connections (one serial port and an optional modem port), but once the machine was docked, its DuoDock provided quite the assortment of ports (1 ADB port, 2 Serial ports, 1 SCSI port, Video out, Audio in/out, two NuBus slots, and an Ethernet connection on the later DuoDock Plus and DuoDock II models), plus a floppy drive and an additional hard drive.

The original iBook was very much a consumer machine: if you were a professional back then and needed more speed, more ports and more flexibility, the portable pro solution was the PowerBook G3 line, which has seen some of the most expandable Mac laptops ever.

Let’s fast forward a bit and consider what has happened to the available ports on the MacBook Pro, the current professional line of Mac laptops. A peak has perhaps been reached with the late-2011 17-inch MacBook Pro, which offered:

  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Three USB 2.0 ports
  • One FireWire 800 port
  • One Thunderbolt port
  • Audio line in
  • Audio line out
  • Express/34 slot

After this model, the 17-inch MacBook Pro was discontinued. The remaining 13-inch and 15-inch models, after being redesigned, made thinner and equipped with retina displays, were reduced to these ports:

  • Two Thunderbolt ports
  • Two USB 3 ports
  • One HDMI port
  • Headphone port
  • An SDXC card slot

This port configuration has remained unchanged from 2012 up to now, with the only difference being that now the MacBook Pros have two faster Thunderbolt 2 ports. Do you want to connect the MacBook Pro to an Ethernet network or to FireWire 800 peripherals? You get dongles. You need to connect it to any display that doesn’t have a Thunderbolt or HDMI connector? You get a dongle. Well, technically they’re called adapters, but dongle is a better term to represent their quintessential annoyance as appendages.

Two USB 3 ports and two Thunderbolt 2 ports make for decent expandability, especially with the added bonus of a separate HDMI port for video (but even if you use one of the Thunderbolt ports to connect to an external display, you can still daisy-chain lots of other Thunderbolt peripherals, so you don’t lose anything), and the separate port for power — the MagSafe connector.

The time has come to upgrade my main Mac, and I look forward to the new, redesigned MacBook Pros which are purportedly coming as soon as next month. But I’m also worried by some of the rumoured changes. I can certainly live with the OLED mini-display replacing the Function Key row at the top of the keyboard. But for the sake of argument, let’s say the new MacBook Pros really come with just four USB-C ports — I’ll basically have to get dongles for everything:

  • One for connecting the MacBook Pro to my current external display, which has VGA and DVI connectors;
  • At least two for connecting all the USB 2 and USB 3 peripherals I currently own (external hard drives, CD/DVD burner, keyboards, my iPhones and iPods, several pendrives, CF Card reader, and I’ve surely left something out…);
  • One for connecting to Ethernet networks or other Macs via Ethernet cable;
  • Another one for connecting a couple of FireWire 400 and 800 drives I still have around;
  • Another one for reading SD cards.[1]

Of course I wouldn’t need to carry around all these dongles while I’m out and about, but even in desktop configuration it’s not really an elegant setup. But one dongle I would definitely have to take with me at all times is the USB-C to regular USB — there are simply too many devices that still use the ubiquitous USB 2 or USB 3 connection.

I understand Apple thinking forward, but wouldn’t a MacBook Pro with only 4 USB-C ports be a bit too abrupt a change? I’m certain this would be a major nudge to all companies manufacturing external drives and assorted peripherals to definitely jump on the USB-C bandwagon. But I’m also certain that, like me, there are many users out there who are going to be extremely inconvenienced by having to resort to all kinds of dongles to bear the cost of yet another transition. A transition which seems mostly dictated by design: the next MacBook Pros have to be thinner therefore they have to be equipped with thinner ports.

But why not leave all the thinning experiments to the consumer line of MacBooks, and keep the pro line a little thicker, so that MacBook Pros could have a bigger battery and more varied ports and connections?

I’m afraid that the answer is that the ‘Pro’ moniker is getting increasingly meaningless, and the line between consumer models and professional models increasingly blurred. MacBooks are getting the iPad treatment: a 9.7-inch iPad Pro has a few more features than a 9.7-inch iPad Air 2 and a faster CPU, but the distinction between the two devices isn’t all that marked.

Look, I’m not saying that Apple should keep all kinds of ports available until every associated technology is way past its performance and usefulness. I’m not saying that USB-C is a bad choice per se. It’s a fast and versatile connection. Having the same port on both sides of the machine means, for example, that you’re no longer forced to attach the power cable (or an external display) on the left of the Mac. But unless I also purchase a new display and new peripherals with the USB-C connector — and why should I, given that everything I have now still works just fine? — I’ll have to resort to dongles.

For the way I treat my Macs, I can mitigate the issue. Since I’m planning to keep my 2009 MacBook Pro around as a secondary machine anyway, I could turn it into a permanent desktop solution, and keep the new MacBook Pro in ‘pure’ portable configuration even at home, making space for it on another desk. I’d connect legacy peripherals to the older MacBook Pro, and use Wi-Fi for any data transfer between the two machines. But I guess I’d still have to get a USB-C to regular USB dongle whenever I want to directly access large amounts of data stored on one of my external drives (e.g. media files), or if I want to repurpose one of said drives as a Time Machine backup drive for the new MacBook Pro.

But when I put myself in the shoes of those users who get a new Mac and sell the old one, the port configuration of the new MacBook Pro will likely be a bit of a nuisance. I’m thinking of professionals with a varied range of peripherals, most with connections that are not USB-C — they’ll find themselves deep in the dongle game.[2] If the new MacBook Pros will lack a traditional Thunderbolt port too, these professionals will have to use a dongle even for that — and Thunderbolt is hardly an old or inadequate technology. But hey, they’ll have a thinner laptop, probably 50-80 grams lighter too. Because that’s what ultimately they care about, right?


Looking back at other key moments of ‘port transitions’ in portable pro machines, I’m reminded of smarter configurations like the one found in the PowerBook G3 Bronze Keyboard (‘Lombard’) in 1999: it featured the then-new USB connection along with the older SCSI that was being phased out. The subsequent PowerBook G3 model that came out a year later — the ‘Pismo’ — dropped SCSI in favour of the then-new (and newer than USB) FireWire 400 port.

Provided the rumours about the next MacBook Pro having only four USB-C ports are true, I think Apple is taking too drastic a decision, when probably a machine with, say, two USB-C ports and two regular USB ports would allow for a smoother transition. Unless they plan to throw a couple of dongles in the MacBook Pro box…

Anyway, for the first time in years I’m considering going back to a desktop Mac as my primary work machine.


  • 1. Admittedly, I could avoid this by getting a new CF/SD card reader with a USB-C port. ↩︎
  • 2. Not to mention those who use a pro desktop workstation at home, like a Mac Pro or a high-end iMac or even a fully maxed-out Mac mini (all with regular USB and Thunderbolt ports), use a MacBook Pro for working off site, and want to upgrade to the new MacBook Pro. Lots of dongles for them too if they want to share the same drives and peripherals between the two Macs. But I guess this is considered an endangered niche of users now. ↩︎


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