A step forward, in some direction

The only thing Steve Jobs was visibly not excited to present at a keynote was probably the Motorola ROKR phone. The man surely knew how to make his enthusiasm contagious every time he introduced a new Apple product. His keynotes were famously full of amazing, awesome, fantastic and other superlatives. He was a great salesman, and one of the main factors that made him such a great salesman was that he was genuinely enthusiastic and proud of the products. Often it felt as if he couldn’t wait to get back to his office and enjoy the hell out of that new iMac, or PowerBook, or MacBook Air, iPhone, iPad.

At yesterday’s ‘Hello Again’ Apple Special Event, conversely, Tim Cook sounded distracted, stumbled a couple of times while delivering his part of the speech, and his amazing and other superlatives felt like something read from a script. I didn’t like the event much because — and this is certainly a personal impression — there was an air of Guys, we promised there would be a Mac event, so let’s get on with it. Apart from a few sparks (Phil Schiller, always eager on stage and a competent presenter; Craig Federighi and his humour; Bradee Evans from Adobe, refreshingly witty and funny; Susan Prescott VP of Apps Product Marketing, effervescent as usual), there certainly wasn’t the same excitement we saw in September at the iPhone/iOS 10 event. Which is weird, in a way, because the MacBook Pro line has been finally redesigned after years. Yesterday was the time to be proud, to be excited.

Anyway.

As a technology observer and enthusiast, I like the new MacBook Pros a lot. I haven’t seen them in person yet, of course, but still, the design is yet another iteration towards Apple’s idea of notebook quintessence, and even in photos and watching Federighi using one on stage, these new MacBook Pros look even sturdier than the previous ones. The trackpad is generously spacious. The displays are better and brighter and have more colours. The new port configuration — four Thunderbolt 3 ports, one headphone jack — is bold in its removal of basically all legacy ports, and positively forward-looking. Thunderbolt 3 is fast and powerful — it provides 40Gb/s bandwidth and supports 10Gb/s USB 3.1 Gen 2 and DisplayPort 1.2. The new Touch Bar seems to be well thought-out overall, and less gimmicky than I thought it would be.

At the same time, I’m getting tired of this obsession with lighter/thinner at each design iteration. Professionals are more interested in sheer performance, in machines that can be upgraded and expanded down the road. Why can’t Apple leave the light & thin to the consumer line of notebooks, and offer pro notebooks that follow a more ‘function over form’ approach? What once was a clear distinction between ‘consumer’ and ‘pro’ machine, has now become something more like ‘regular’ versus ‘deluxe’ machines. Nowadays, a professional computer shouldn’t be constrained by a maximum of 16 GB of RAM. I know a few people who are barely comfortable with 32. Considering the non-trivial investment when you purchase one at its maximum tech specs, these MacBook Pros are supposed to last a few years. Good luck having only 16 GB of RAM in 2020 — or even a year from now, for that matter.

A few additional observations, in no particular order:

1. Admittedly, when I saw that the new MacBook Pros only have four USB-C-type Thunderbolt 3 ports, I felt annoyed and frustrated. The first thought was Oh dear, if I upgrade I’ll need an adapter for everything. Today, after rewatching a few bits of the event, I’m more open to Apple’s perspective here. As Schiller reminded on stage, this is the fastest, more versatile I/O configuration ever featured on a MacBook Pro. Any of the four ports can be used to charge the MacBook Pro, which is handy considering the twists and turns the power cable has to make in my office to reach the left side of my MacBook Pro. Further, any of the ports can be used to provide these connections:

Connections

It’s a flexible solution because if, for example, you have two ports in use as USB connections, and you need to attach an additional USB peripheral, now you can do so instead of being limited to just 2 physical USB ports and having to free one in order to connect the new peripheral.

2. On the other hand, if I purchase one of these new MacBook Pros, I will really have to purchase a bunch of different adapters if I want to maintain my current setup when I use the MacBook Pro in my home office. And since that involves having permanently connected an external monitor and an external USB keyboard, it means that my new MacBook Pro would already ‘lose’ two ports when in desktop configuration. Given that I usually also keep the Mac connected to the power, I would end up with just one free port. This in turn means that I should either look for some kind of powered USB-C hub or a decent wireless keyboard. Additional costs I have to incur on top of the already expensive purchase a new MacBook Pro would represent (more on this later).

3. Speaking of ports, I firmly believe that leaving the MagSafe connector behind is a poor decision on Apple’s part. Having MagSafe and four Thunderbolt 3 ports would have been quite amazing. It’s true, now you can connect the power adapter to any port you want, but we’re suddenly thrown back to the era of non-magnetic power cable connections — which means: careful not to trip over it or get it tangled up with something and see your very expensive new MacBook Pro get dragged to the floor. This is a step back, pure and simple.

4. I had feared that the Touch Bar would be a gimmicky addition, introduced more to impress than to be truly useful, but after watching the various demos at the event, I really think it’s a smart and versatile feature. I especially like how not only does it change according to the app you’re using, but that it may provide different functionalities within the same app, even becoming a secondary controller/input device, as the various demos at the event demonstrated (I particularly liked the PhotoShop demo). That’s why I think it’s a pity the Touch Bar isn’t taller like a row of regular keys. It would be even more useful and comfortable to use.

The only concern I have regarding the Touch Bar is of a practical nature: its usefulness would be reduced when using the MacBook Pro in a desktop setup with an external display and an external keyboard. There are some who keep their MacBooks front and centre, then place the external display behind and in a raised position, so that it basically extends the Mac’s desktop vertically. With the new MacBook Pro, these people can take advantage of its larger trackpad and the Touch Bar. But I can’t use a laptop this way on my desk. I need to have the external display and keyboard/mouse in front of me, and to keep the MacBook Pro on my right and at an angle. Not to mention those who keep the MacBook Pro’s lid closed when used in desktop configuration.

Some have said that Apple should release a new Touch Bar-enabled Magic Keyboard; it would be an intriguing solution, but it makes me wonder. Such a keyboard would provide the Touch Bar functionality even to Macs that don’t come equipped with it. Now, the Touch Bar seems to be one of the distinctive, selling points of the new MacBook Pro line. Are we sure Apple wants to give other Macs (even older Macs) that unique feature that makes a new MacBook Pro so alluring?

(By the way, I think Apple should do just that, actually. The Touch Bar is a useful addition and enables additional gestures and shortcuts that ought to be available on all Macs, as a way to unify the user interface. I really hope we won’t have something resembling the fragmentation of 3D Touch on iOS devices, which is only available on some of them.)

5. The new MacBook Pro’s keyboard, while sharing the same butterfly mechanism as the 12-inch MacBook’s (which I hate wholeheartedly) appears slightly different. Since the MacBook Pro is thicker than the MacBook, it seems that the keys may have a bit more travel. That, if true, would make this keyboard way more tolerable for me. The new arrow keys layout, sadly, remains a harder pill to swallow. The old ‘Inverted T’ layout was so much better.

6. Along with the new 13 and 15-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pros, Apple has introduced a third MacBook Pro: a less powerful 13-inch model without Touch Bar (it has a standard keyboard with the row of function keys), with only two Thunderbolt 3 ports. I call it the NFNF model, where NFNF stands for Neither Fish Nor Flesh. It’s a weird addition that simultaneously makes and doesn’t make sense to me. On the one hand, it can be a solution for those who aren’t interested in the Touch Bar, don’t need the power of the high-end MacBook Pros, and want a slightly more affordable and up-to-date machine. On the other, the 13-inch MacBook Air is a good contender for those who want an even more affordable machine with more battery life, don’t mind the non-retina display, and want more ports (the 13-inch Air has MagSafe 2, two regular USB 3 ports, one regular Thunderbolt 2 port, an SDXC card slot, and a headphone port).

Note also that once you start customising the non-Touch-Bar MacBook Pro, it rapidly gets expensive to a point that you just start considering the Touch Bar-equipped models. The way Schiller put up the comparison between this base MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air sounded like: Yeah, we’re still offering the Air, but why would you buy that lemon? This MacBook Pro is so much cooler. And where I live, my friend, it is also €600 more expensive than the base MacBook Air and €350 more expensive than the MacBook Air with the better storage option. Having a retina display is great and all, but those who choose the Air typically choose it because they’re on a rather tight budget.

7. Speaking of purchases and BTO customisations… These new MacBook Pros are arrestingly expensive, especially outside the USA. The base model, priced at $1,499, becomes €1,699 in my country. The configuration I’m most interested in — 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, but with a faster i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of SSD storage — would end up costing €2,799. This is both expensive and not cost-effective if you consider that the base 15-inch MacBook Pro already comes with an i7 processor and 16 GB of RAM, and costs €2,699. Sure, it has a 256 GB SSD, but I’ll take the bigger display — and a better graphics card — over storage anytime.

But again, look at those prices! Back in 2009, my 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo 15-inch MacBook Pro, with 4 GB RAM and a 320 GB hard drive, cost me about €1,680. Over time I bought a more spacious 500 GB hard drive (+€80), then I upgraded the RAM to 8 GB (+€65), and finally got an OWC Data Doubler with a 240 GB SSD (+€110). The investment has then been a total of about €1,935. A similar MacBook Pro with today’s technology would cost me €2,699. Or €2,939 if I want a 512 GB SSD. Or €3,419 if I want a 1 TB SSD. Much, much more for a machine that is not as internally expandable, and that consequently forces me to decide (and pay) all the upgrades upfront.

As a prospective customer, as you can imagine, these new MacBook Pros pose indeed a few dilemmas for me. I don’t upgrade Macs frequently so, to make my setup as much future-proof as possible, I should choose higher-specced models, which I cannot afford at the moment. At the same time, investing money in a lesser MacBook Pro (or even in the 13-inch MacBook Air) seems like a waste, a bad move. I mentioned the 13-inch Air because — if I stop and consider my essential needs — it’s a machine that could theoretically serve me well. But purchasing one now increasingly feels like throwing money at something that’s going to get old very fast. I have waited and waited to make an upgrade, the least I can do is invest in better Macs. Similarly, I could accept the compromise and get the entry-level (lots of air quotes here) MacBook Pro, but two Thunderbolt 3 ports and nothing else is simply not enough. I could even wait some more and see what happens when Apple decides to update the Mac desktop line. I just hope the Mac mini won’t be discontinued or stupidly crippled like it happened with the 2014 update. All in all, I’m a bit nostalgic for those times when the Mac laptop line was less crowded, had a clearer distinction spec-wise, more expandability after purchase, fewer configurations and clearer pricing tiers.

8. For all the talk about ‘courage’ when it came to dropping the headphone port in the iPhone 7, Apple seems more of a ‘coward’ when it comes to the Mac notebook line. It remains a mess of models, prices, options. Apple might see this as giving customers more choices overall, but I don’t understand why they’re keeping the previous retina MacBook Pros around. And, philosophically, I don’t understand the new MacBook Pro without Touch Bar. These look like decisions of a committee, where some executives say “We have to push forward, the Touch Bar is awesome!”, while others say “Yes, but what if people are not convinced? We should offer a ‘regular’ MacBook Pro too, just to be safe”. I hate to be the Steve would have done things differently kind of guy, but here’s what I think Steve would have done:

  • Drop the MacBook Air line entirely.
  • Drop the prices of the current MacBook, making it become the more affordable option. Or introducing a cheaper, base $999 MacBook, to the same effect.
  • Introduce the new 13 and 15-inch MacBook Pros with Touch Bar as the sole two new models. No Touch-Bar-less MacBook Pro.
  • Discontinue the previous retina MacBook Pro models.

Leaving us with a 12-inch MacBook, and 13 and 15-inch MacBook Pros. Just three models (each with BTO options, naturally). That’s it. You know, the classic no-nonsense, thinking-forward Steve Jobs.

On a final note, I very much agree with Joe Cieplinski’s piece Taking the Enthusiasm out of Tech. I felt a lot of negativity on Twitter before, during, and after the Special Event. Part of this negativity was unwarranted. I admit I, too, made the occasional snarky or sarcastic comment, but I always approach my livetweeting with a mostly playful spirit. Really, there’s a lot to like in these new MacBook Pros if we just keep our focus on the hardware itself, and I don’t think Apple has abandoned the Mac desktop line just because they didn’t redesign and refresh the entire Mac arsenal and presented an all-encompassing update yesterday. At the same time, and despite the enthusiastic remarks about the Mac made by Apple’s executives, Apple still feels somewhat unfocused and indecisive to me. Things weren’t always perfect when Steve Jobs was at the helm, and there was the occasional blunder for sure, but the feeling I had as a Mac user was to not worry because, no matter how things might have looked at first, there was a ‘man with a plan’ in the building. Now I feel trepidation more than sheer excitement before every Apple event.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!