Thinnotations

One common complaint in the general criticism following the introduction of the latest MacBook Pro models can be summarised as follows: These are supposed to be pro machines — performance should be the design priority, not thinness. On Twitter and around the Web, I’ve read many professional and power users say that they would gladly prefer having thicker Apple notebooks if that allowed for more powerful CPUs, GPUs and a higher RAM ceiling (32 or even 64 GB); and if a side effect of such improvement turned out to be less battery life, so be it. Many have been quite vocal in expressing their frustration at Apple’s obsession with thinness & lightness, and I myself admittedly am getting tired of it too.

On the other hand, Joe Cieplinski makes a very good point:

It’s perfectly normal to be upset that the ideal laptop for you isn’t being made by Apple. But where you lose me is in assuming that decision is a mistake, or a purposeful snub, on Apple’s part.

Apple wants its products to succeed. And that’s as far as the want goes.

For all we know, Apple mocked up a more perfect laptop for developers, complete with Cherry switches on the keyboard and an oversized escape key. But then they analyzed the data, predicted the number of sales of such a beast, and decided it would lose money. So they opted not to make it.

Seems more likely to me than believing Tim Cook either doesn’t know what developers want, or that he doesn’t care because Apple is “obsessed with thin.”

These are not emotion-driven decisions. They are data-driven decisions.

The problem, as I see it, is that at this point thinness has become a trapping vicious circle.

Back in 2007, netbooks were all the rage. They were small, light, cheap portable computers that a surprisingly large amount of people were willing to carry and work on while out and about despite their compromises and shortcomings. I remember how everybody in the tech sphere was arguing that Apple should follow suit and release some sort of cheap subnotebook to enter this thriving market and quickly conquer it. But the pundits who understand Apple better were saying, Yeah, not gonna happen, pointing out that typically you don’t find the words ‘Apple’ and ‘cheap’ in the same sentence. They were right.

Nevertheless Steve Jobs smartly recognised that the need for very portable and lightweight machines was legitimate. And Jobs, being Jobs, decided that Apple was equipped to produce a better candidate, a computer that didn’t compromise on keyboard size, trackpad size, display size, and battery life; the only compromise for the prospective customer was the premium price ($1,799). That computer was the MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air was another great example of ‘the Apple way’: 1) detect a possibly profitable market; 2) introduce a product that fits that market but on Apple’s terms, i.e. a higher-quality, premium product; 3) be successful. It’s what Apple did with the iPod and the iPhone, for example.

MacBook Air intro

The introduction of the MacBook Air was a great moment in Apple’s notebook history: from that moment, people who wanted to purchase a laptop from Apple could choose affordability (the MacBook line), power/performance (the MacBook Pro line), or extreme portability (MacBook Air). The 2008-2009 timeframe gave us this very well-balanced choice in Apple’s notebook family. Then lines got a bit more blurred (I’m simplifying here):

  • With the introduction of the 13-inch MacBook Pro in mid 2009, the MacBook started its path towards redundancy. At the time, it was still the most affordable option with the entry price of $999, but the base 13-inch MacBook Pro was only $200 more expensive, more powerful, slightly thinner and lighter, featured a better, more robust aluminium unibody enclosure, etc.
  • In late 2010, the MacBook Air family was redesigned and expanded. The 13-inch model got slightly thinner and lighter, and its price was reduced by $200 (the two previous 2009 configurations sold for $1,499 and $1,799; now they cost $1,299 and $1,599). But more importantly, a smaller, 11-inch model was introduced, and although it didn’t have an Ethernet port and an optical drive, its base configuration cost $999 just like the MacBook. At this point, extreme portability and affordability were starting to converge.
  • In mid 2011 the MacBook is no more. This is the time when Apple’s notebook line is at its most streamlined: MacBook Air (11 and 13-inch), and MacBook Pro (13, 15 and 17-inch). The MacBook Air is the very portable, affordable-enough option; the 15 and 17-inch MacBook Pros are the professional machines (the 17-inch model in particular); and the 13-inch MacBook Pro is the new balance between portability and power [1].

What happened to the MacBook is that it was made progressively irrelevant by the MacBook Air. It’s clear than people liked thinness & lightness for their Apple laptops. At the same time it’s worth noting how the MacBook Air design has remained unchanged since 2010. Only the GPU, the storage options and the connections have improved over the years [2].

In 2012, after an outer design that had remained the same since 2008, the MacBook Pros gained a retina display and a thinning treatment. It was a rather significant weight loss: the 15-inch retina MacBook Pro was 2.02 kilograms versus the 2.56 kilograms of the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro; it was slightly shorter in length (35.89 cm versus the 36.4 of the regular MacBook Pro) and width (24.71 cm versus the 24.9 of the regular MacBook Pro), but notably thinner: 1.8 cm versus the 2.41 of the regular MacBook Pro).

The retina MacBook Pro was still a powerful machine, and that retina display was really an attractive feature, but with thinness a few compromises started to appear:

  • The RAM was not upgradable anymore: you had to pick either 8 or 16 GB at purchase time.
  • The Ethernet and FireWire 800 ports were gone (although the retina MacBook Pro came with two Thunderbolt ports instead of one, plus an additional HDMI port).
  • No space for an optical drive.
  • Lateral vents were added for thermal dissipation.

Mind you, these were rather acceptable compromises: a retina display, a faster flash architecture (the RAM was soldered to the motherboard, but the SSD was not and could be upgraded later), two Thunderbolt ports, an HDMI port, USB 3 ports, a bigger and more powerful battery… The benefits still outweighed the drawbacks. One big disappointment for pro users remained, however: the discontinuation of the 17-inch MacBook Pro.

These two examples of thinning process — the slight redesign of the MacBook Air line in 2010, and the introduction of the retina display MacBook Pros in 2012 — can be considered a kind of optimisation. Particularly in the case of the retina MacBook Pro: Apple managed to create ‘denser’ machines on the inside, sacrificing as little as possible.

When the 12-inch retina MacBook appeared in 2015, that kind of iteration of the thinning process felt largely unnecessary to me. Is that MacBook an engineering feat? No doubt. Is it an ‘achievement unlocked’ for Apple’s design team? No doubt. Was it a data-driven decision? I don’t know, but I have my doubts about it. At the time, I remember a lot of MacBook Air users wanting one specific upgrade for their machines — a retina display. I never heard a MacBook Air user complain about their laptop’s thinness and lightness. An 11-inch MacBook Air weighs little more than 1 kg; the 13-inch model is 1.35 kg. People have handled heavier and bulkier books in their bags.

Probably the 12-inch retina MacBook was born to address the need of those spoiled by the practicality of their iPad used in conjunction with an external keyboard, who wished to have a similar setup on the go, but with a Mac and not an iOS device. That, and the simple deduction: If people love thin and light, they’ll love thinner and lighter. Well, yes, they do. But unconditionally? Eh.

With the retina MacBook we start to see an increasing number of compromises. You get lightness, thinness, a retina display, even an iPhone-like choice of colours, but to allow for such a diminutive chassis, you also get:

  • Non-upgradable RAM, of course.
  • Non-upgradable SSD flash storage.
  • One single USB-C type port.
  • A significantly thinner keyboard providing a worse user experience, no matter what Apple claims.
  • Less powerful CPU.
  • Less powerful battery, meaning shorter battery life compared to a 13-inch MacBook Air of the same age.

Extreme portability and a better display: these are the only advantages over the MacBook Air line (and with regard to portability alone, the 11-inch Air is still a good contender). Now that it’s even clearer that the 12-inch MacBook is supposed to replace the MacBook Air, I can’t help but think that it’s not a particularly great trade-off for a MacBook Air user who would want to upgrade. That’s perhaps why Schiller suggested the 13-inch non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro as a ‘compelling’ upgrade path. Sure, it has a better processor than a regular MacBook, but only one port more. I still find that 13-inch MacBook Air vs 13-inch MacBook Pro showdown a baffling moment of Apple’s 27 October special event.

Again I have to ask: is the 12-inch MacBook the improvement MacBook Air users wanted? I’m not sure about that. Yes, I know that famous quote attributed to Henry Ford — “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” — but probably all MacBook Air users wanted was more or less the same machine, only with a better display.

The thinning process that led to the retina MacBook feels to me more like a design exercise, a self-imposed design challenge on Apple’s part. The challenge was won. At what cost for the user, though? Is having a better display and a thinner/lighter machine enough? Are there really so many people who would choose fewer ports and a less powerful CPU just to have a machine that weighs 300 grams less? Is versatility less important than sheer portability? Note that I’m not comparing two machines that have a wildly different footprint and weight.

And here we are now, with these new MacBook Pro models, witnessing a similar transformation and thinning process as the 12-inch retina MacBook compared to the MacBook Air line. But while the compromises imposed by ‘thinner & lighter’ in consumer-oriented machines can be digested — they’re data-driven decisions, as Cieplinski points out, so maybe there really was a large target audience at which to aim the retina MacBook — it doesn’t seem to be the case with the new MacBook Pros. Granted, they are going to sell well, mainly because an update was long overdue and those users who need to upgrade aren’t left with much choice. But again, this new iteration of ‘thinner & lighter’, in these supposedly-pro Macs, feels more like another self-imposed design challenge on Apple’s part.

I admit, I’ve frequently used that phrase, “obsessed with thin”, when talking about Apple as of late. But getting back to Joe Cieplinski’s piece, I want to point out that I certainly don’t believe this ‘obsession’ comes from a bunch of capricious Apple executives. My stance is more like The road to thinness is paved with good intentions. I can believe that these anorexic new Macs are the result of data-driven decisions. I don’t deny that, in general, having to carry around a light device with a small footprint is more comfortable than carrying around a bigger computer that weighs the double. People like thin & light, people buy thin & light, so let’s give them thin & light. And when the next round comes, let’s give them thinner & lighter. And again. This is the ‘trapping vicious circle’ I was mentioning earlier.

The problem is: for how long can it continue? At every iteration, thinning the device brings a series of new considerations: how can we fit a battery there, that’s power-efficient and lasting at least as much as the previous one that was inside a bigger chassis? What do we sacrifice? What about thermal dissipation? What’s the best CPU in terms of performance and power-efficiency that we can fit there? Should we design one? Can we create an even flatter keyboard and keyboard mechanism?

What will this ultimate MacBook look like, in terms of lightness and thinness? A paper-thin sheet of battery inside a paper-thin sheet of aluminium, with a virtual keyboard like an iPad? A black-boxed Mac whose only connections are wireless (charging included)? But the most pressing question is: is this absolutely necessary? And another, more pragmatic question: when thinness and lightness reach the absolute limit, what’s next? What’s going to be the pitch? I know, some of you are thinking that the Mac will have already disappeared altogether by then, but that’s a digression for another article.

In closing, I want to go back to this bit from the afore-quoted Cieplinski:

For all we know, Apple mocked up a more perfect laptop for developers, complete with Cherry switches on the keyboard and an oversized escape key. But then they analyzed the data, predicted the number of sales of such a beast, and decided it would lose money. So they opted not to make it.

I still believe there is a place for a performance-oriented version of the retina 15-inch MacBook Pro. Along with the new, thinner ones, Apple could have introduced a second 15-inch MacBook Pro with a similar look and colour options, but retaining the thickness of the 2015 model. Such thickness (we’re talking about 1.8 cm, I’d hardly call that ‘thick’ anyway) would have allowed Apple more breathing room to optimise the internals for performance and battery efficiency. Port-wise, it could have featured the new USB-C type Thunderbolt 3 ports in the same configuration (two per side), plus a legacy USB-A type port and an SD card slot. If this was too much work for a niche machine, Apple could have sold it at an even higher pricing tier. Considering the backlash from professionals (Michael Tsai did an admirable job collecting the most varied contributions on the matter in his New MacBook Pros and the State of the Mac), I’m pretty sure such a MacBook Pro could easily sell for $4,000-4,500 and this intended audience wouldn’t complain.

So, thinness and lightness may very well be features derived from data-driven decisions, but lately it seems that it’s all about thinness and lightness. It seems that every new design iteration starts with thinner & lighter being the primary requirements, and everything else must follow; whether it’s for a ‘consumer’ machine or a ‘pro’ machine. Less and less space to work with brings compromises, more and more at every iteration. It’s a process that can’t go on forever, and I’m curious to see what will happen when Apple devices reach maximum possible thinness. It’s worth noting that technological advances can effectively bring more computational power and battery life. Thinness has physical limits. Aesthetic too, I would add.

 


  • 1. Looking back, I still find this to be the optimal state of Apple’s notebook lineup. All capable, versatile machines, with few compromises overall. All very well tailored to meet different needs from different customers’ sectors. I don’t see the same kind of focus today — but that’s me. ↩︎
  • 2. And very few people complained about that, as far as I know. The MacBook Air has been a very successful, much-loved Mac. ↩︎

 

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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!

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