The new MacBook in person — First impressions

Tech Life

It’s svelte. It’s thin. It’s lightweight. It exudes an aura of desirability I hadn’t felt in years, probably since the first-generation MacBook Air. I managed to try it for about 15 minutes, so these are truly first, initial impressions and perhaps I’ll re-evaluate them down the road when I’ll have more time to spend with the MacBook.

In a nutshell, for me the new retina MacBook is a strange machine. When I look at it, I know I’m seeing a very portable, extremely light and compact laptop computer, but at the same time it also feels like seeing a 12-inch iPad running OS X, with a thin accessory keyboard attached to it. Combine that with the visual iOS-feel of OS X Yosemite, and you’ll forgive me if, during the 15 minutes I spent with the MacBook, I tried to touch the screen a few times to interact with the user interface.

The display is, obviously, quite beautiful. Crisp, rich colours, and an impressive viewing angle. I’m not particularly fond of a number of UI decisions featured in OS X Yosemite, but I must say that Yosemite really shines on a retina display, and has evidently been designed with retina displays in mind. On such a display, I really don’t mind reading Helvetica Neue at 10pt.

Everything other reviewers have already said about the new trackpad is true. It’s pure tactile illusion — your eye sees that nothing is moving when you click, but your finger feels differently. It’s weird, but cool. Of course, after the initial sensory confusion, you start using the Mac normally, pointing and clicking without really looking at the trackpad, and everything feels just fine.

What is weird, and not as cool — at least for me — is the keyboard. Keys are slightly bigger and more tightly spaced than on the other MacBook Pros and Airs and external Apple keyboards. It took a little readjustment of the way I usually position my hands over the keyboard when typing, because at first my fingers didn’t fully land on the centre of the keys. That led to typos and typing ‘misses’ I never made on a computer keyboard, though I surely made while typing quickly and for a long time on the iPad’s virtual keyboard in landscape orientation. But the really off-putting detail has been, for me, the short key travel.

I type a lot every day, so keyboard performance in a computer is one of the most important features for me. So, for the better part of the time I spent with the new MacBook, I tried to type as much as I could. Of all the MacBook reviews I’ve read these days, this bit of Christina Warren’s is the one that matches my impression on the new keyboard more closely:

One consequence of the keys being so close to the frame is that the low amount of travel did make the typing process a bit more… painful. I don’t suffer from carpal tunnel, but I did find that extended periods typing on the new MacBook keyboard tired my wrists a bit more than a traditional keyboard. Take breaks if you’re going to be writing on this thing all the time — at least until you “break it in.”

Not only that, but after just 15 minutes of typing, I started feeling some discomfort in my fingertips as well. Christina writes “I was worried that the lack of travel would make typing difficult, that it would be too much like typing on glass — but it’s not.” It is for me, though. After a bit, I felt like I was tapping my fingers on the desk, more than typing on a keyboard. It’s a pity, because I think that the new butterfly mechanism is indeed better and more robust, but for me this innovative detail’s advantage is severely attenuated by the very short key travel.

The last truly comfortable keyboard on an Apple laptop is, in my experience, the one featured in the aluminium PowerBook line and the pre-unibody MacBook Pros. The key travel feels right and when you hit a key, there’s a soft, cushioned return that really makes typing for hours a very pleasant and comfortable affair. My main machine from 2004 to mid-2009 has been a 12-inch PowerBook G4, and I still use it as a second machine, especially when I’m out and about and I know that I’m going to write a lot, because my fingers and hands never get tired on its keyboard. (It’s either that, or the 17-inch PowerBook G4, when I need a little more processing power and a bigger screen, of course.)

PowerBook 12 top view
MacBook retina 12 top view s


As you can see in the photo above, another detail that makes the PowerBook’s keys more comfortable is that they’re not flat, but slightly concave — typing on them is more pleasant, but for me also more precise, and I never have to stop and look at the keyboard to find the right key, so to speak.

Finally, another new design choice that I really found off-putting in the new MacBook’s keyboard is the shape of the new arrow keys:


MacBook retina arrow keys

The enlarged left and right arrow keys really screwed up my muscle memory while using the MacBook. I constantly thought I was hitting the Command or the Option key, and I found myself looking at the keyboard more often than I liked. There are some who don’t love the small size of the arrow keys in the usual ‘Inverted T’ design, at least on laptops, but the space above the left and right arrow keys really helps to ‘find’ them without looking, and also helps when you’re quickly moving around a software program’s interface using the arrow keys (positioning an object in a graphics application, moving your character in a game, etc.). I found their new design in the retina MacBook’s keyboard to be too ‘crowded’ and my fingers didn’t move as easily when tapping on them.

My experience with the new retina MacBook, albeit brief, has been revealing: this new laptop, in a way, drives me crazy — on the one hand, when I see it I can’t help thinking I want this badly, this will be my next Mac, because of its lightness and portability, and because my eyes truly need a retina display in my next Mac; on the other hand, the keyboard is really the deal-breaker here. It’s maddening. What I kept thinking was This should be the perfect computer for a writer and at the same time I was thinking I just can’t write on this MacBook all day. Before I said that the initial impression of the MacBook as a whole is that it kind of feels like an iPad with an attached accessory keyboard; and I can’t help thinking that it’s designed to be used exactly like that, in a tablet-with-a-keyboard way. Therefore the keyboard is going to be more than fine for those who don’t really type that much (Web browsing, email, short documents, etc.) — or maybe for those who may eventually type a lot, but only on the MacBook, and after some time spent acclimatising to the new keyboard.

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