Thoughts on MacBook Pro

At last week’s event, Apple introduced some major updates to the MacBook Pro. It took me a bit longer to digest everything than I initially expected. But with all of the controversy surrounding the upgrades, I knew I had to share my thoughts on the new machines and the state of the current Mac lineup.

I’ll tackle the MacBook Pro’s design, internals, and my own debate about what machine I’ll be buying in the near future. The decision isn’t easy at the moment and I’m hoping we’ll see more Mac updates soon that will help to solidify each machine’s role and nudge me in one direction or another.

Design

The new MacBook Pros are truly stunning machines. They no longer feature an illuminating Apple logo on the lid, but I think that’s a fair trade off when you consider everything else these machines offer. The most obvious of which is their physical dimensions and weight.

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro is smaller than the 13-inch MacBook Air by every measure — unless the thinnest point of the wedge shape matters to you. And the 15-inch MacBook Pro is no slouch, either. It’s about a pound heavier than Apple’s 13-inch offerings, but still manages to be thinner than the MacBook Air.

These dimensions and weight are very impressive to me. There’s a lot of professional users that would rather see Apple build a thicker portable with more ports and a bigger battery, but I’m not in that camp. I want my next notebook to be as small and light as possible while still offering all-day battery life and good performance. Apple’s priorities seem to line up perfectly with mine in that regard.

Where the company and I don’t see eye-to-eye, though, is with the keyboard. The new MacBook Pro features a second-generation version of the butterfly-style keys introduced in the MacBook. I’m extremely hesitant to switch to this type of keyboard. Granted, I haven’t spent too much time with it, but the limited key travel felt terrible to me. And that’s setting aside the decreased distance between keys which makes it more difficult to know where my fingers were without looking.

I had hope that Apple may have fixed these complaints when Phil Schiller called it a “second-generation” version on stage, but alas, Jason Snell says it doesn’t feel much better:

Well, it’s my sad duty to report that the MacBook Pro keyboard has the same key travel as the MacBook. Apple says the stainless steel dome switch beneath each key has been honed to give you a more responsive feel, but to me it feels just like the MacBook’s keyboard.

Perhaps I’ll get used to it with more time — after all, I manage to enjoy typing on my iPad’s screen with zero key travel. But I do not look forward to living through that uncomfortable stage where I frequently mistype things and spend an inordinate amount of time looking down at my hands instead of the screen.

But Apple has me overlooking the mediocre keyboard with the inclusion of a giant trackpad and the Touch Bar — the most noteworthy feature in these new machines.

The Touch Bar is available on the 15-inch MacBook Pro and the higher-end 13-inch model. It replaces the legacy function keys with a multi-touch screen which can display all of the familiar shortcut keys — screen brightness, volume, media playback controls, etc. — as well as application-specific shortcuts.

There’s been a lot of backlash from the Apple community regarding the Touch Bar, but I couldn’t disagree more with the naysayers. The Touch Bar looks like an incredible piece of tech that will undoubtedly change many of the common user interface paradigms that we see from our software. It won’t happen all at once, unfortunately, but as the Touch Bar makes its way to the rest of the Mac lineup we’ll begin to wonder how we got by with these archaic function strips we’ve been using for the past twenty or thirty years.

In addition to the minuscule multi-touch display, Touch Bar-enabled Macs also feature a Touch ID sensor on the power button. This can be used for logging into macOS and performing online purchases with Apple Pay. I wouldn’t consider Touch ID to be a major new feature for the Mac, but I’m glad it’s finally here. The first iPhone with Touch ID shipped in 2013 and there’s been speculation of it coming to the Mac ever since.

Internals

Power hungry users might not be happy with the processors and graphics available in the new MacBook Pro, but they are a sizable step-up from the previous pro portables. Of course, that isn’t saying much considering how long we’ve been waiting for a new MacBook Pro, but I think Apple made the right compromises for most users.

To put it in perspective, the fastest computer I’ve ever owned is my mid-2011 Mac mini — the base model, Touch Bar-less MacBook Pro is about 50-60% faster than my mini. That’s absolutely incredible. Especially since the Mac mini is already powerful enough to serve my needs.

That brings me to one of the best features in modern Apple notebooks — battery life. For the last several years Apple has lauded the “all-day” battery life in their laptops and the MacBook Pro is no different. Apple claims ten hours of battery life for all three machines. That might not seem impressive to anyone who’s recently purchased a new MacBook, but it’s a substantial step up from my 2011 MacBook Air, which routinely lasts about four hours on a single charge.

It is worth noting that Marco Arment has questioned the validity of these battery life claims. In a recent episode of Accidental Tech Podcast he pointed out that both of the 13-inch models have the same battery life rating, despite the higher-end one sporting a more power hungry processor and the Touch Bar — both of which would impact battery life. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the reviewers say after they get their hands on it.

Apple has also continued down the path of USB-C with these new MacBook Pros. The lower-end model, without the Touch Bar, features two USB-C ports while the two higher-end models have four. This decision seems to have stirred up the most controversy within the community, but I think the complainers are being shortsighted.

Regardless of how reliant you currently are on wired connections, the future is wireless. Apple’s made that very clear with the MacBook’s single USB-C port and the removal of the headphone jack in the iPhone 7 — in a handful of years, most users won’t ever plug anything other than a power cable into their computers. I’ve been mostly living that way for many years now and its an absolute joy.

I have a wireless, AirPrint printer from HP for printing and a Time Capsule for backups. I use Bluetooth and AirPlay for audio and video playback while AirDrop and shared folders allow me to seamlessly move files between devices. Everything works without a hitch and I don’t have a bunch of cables to wrestle with.

The one area where I haven’t transitioned yet is with my headphones. I currently use Apple’s EarPods, but plan on upgrading to AirPods as soon as they’re available. No other wireless headphones offer the same, seamless experience as Apple’s do with the W1 chip and I’d rather wait than buy a junky pair from someone else.

And I am fully aware that many users aren’t living the wireless lifestyle yet. These are the people who have been tweeting about all the dongles they’d need to buy in order to use one of these machines. My suggestion is to purchase a breakout box. Find one that has a few USB-A ports, an HDMI output, and a USB-C port for power. They might be a little expensive, but they’ll get the job done until all of your accessories are upgraded to USB-C.

But take stock in the devices that you plug into your computer, I think you’ll find that you don’t own a single accessory that uses a USB-A to USB-A cable. It’s very likely that everything you connect to your computer is going through an adapter. It might be an adapter built inside of the cable, but it’s still an adapter. Rather than buying a bunch of dongles, consider buying replacement cables instead — USB-C to Lightning, USB-C to Micro-USB, and so on. You’ll have a much better experience.

Debate

In my eyes, the new MacBook Pro lineup features the best Macs Apple has ever built. Their performance, design, portability, and battery life are all killer. But this is where Apple loses me — pricing. The MacBook Pro has always been a premium product and their pricing has reflected that, but a $1,499 starting point is just too much for me.

I have to imagine that’s why Apple even bothered building the Touch Bar-less MacBook Pro in the first place. If Apple went on stage and announced a starting price point of $1,799 for the new MacBook Pro, the community would have lost their minds — more than they already did, if you can believe that. The Touch Bar-less MacBook Pro might be too expensive for me, but at least its an attainable product for a fair bit of Apple’s existing MacBook Pro customer base.

This leaves me with a bit of a debate. Sometime next year I plan on purchasing a new Mac. I thought I could go a bit longer with my existing 2011 MacBook Air and Mac mini setup, but I recently signed up for Treehouse and need a rock-solid machine to learn and code on.

I’ve discussed my new Mac criteria in the past, but here’s a little refresher:

  • At least 16GB of RAM.
  • At least 1TB of solid state storage (or a Fusion Drive).
  • A Retina Display.

The first two are soft requirements — I’m sure I could get by with 8GB of RAM just fine and I always have the option of using a smaller internal SSD alongside a large external hard drive for media storage.

My hope was that Apple would have announced more attractive pricing for the MacBook Pro. But with that out of the question, here’s the two options I see for myself in the current lineup:

  • Purchase the base model MacBook to use as a development machine. Setup the Mac mini as a Plex server and import all of my ripped DVDs — instead of using iTunes Home Sharing, as I do currently. Move my Photos library and iTunes music to the MacBook.
  • Purchase an iMac with Retina display that can be used as both my home media server and as a development machine.

There’s benefits and downsides to both options. The MacBook is portable and relatively inexpensive, but features the less-than-stellar keyboard and would require me to continue managing multiple Macs. The iMac would simplify my setup and would allow me to use a third-party keyboard, but would force me to work at my desk exclusively and is relatively expensive — although, it’s easier to justify the cost since it would replace the functionality of my MacBook Air and Mac mini.

The truth is, Apple’s current Mac lineup is far from perfect. There isn’t really a great machine for me right now. If these new MacBook Pros were a little less expensive, this would be an entirely different story.

As it stands right now, I’m going to wait and see what updates Apple has in store for the rest of their lineup. I’m not holding my breath for a new Mac mini or Mac Pro, but luckily I wouldn’t be in the market for either of those anyway. Maybe we’ll see a price drop come to the MacBook or updates to the iMac that bring a standalone Touch Bar keyboard into the mix. Either way, I’m just glad I have another six months or so until I make my final decision.

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