Having spent the past year and a half waiting for Apple’s next new laptop release after the 12-inch MacBook with Retina Display to hopefully illuminate the company’s roadmap for Mac notebooks going forward, I’m finding that the new MacBook Pros unveiled two weeks ago leave me more perplexed and conflicted than ever.
What I had been hoping for I guess, in broad terms, was a continuation of the MacBook Pro design of the last four years, with requisite CPU and graphics processor upgrades, perhaps an added USB-C port or two, and, this being Apple, a somewhat thinner form factor but not crazy thin.
We got crazy thin. Other than the silicon upgrades, the new MacBook Pros fail on all of my other personal criteria, a major one being keyboard comfort. Unhappily Apple has grafted the miserable “butterfly keyswitch” keyboards from the 12-inch MacBook into the new Pro models. These are supposedly a second-generation iteration of the keyboard design, but based on reports so far, the differences with the original are only subtle. Meanwhile all legacy I/O ports are gone along with the SD card slot, the a lone exception being a conventional 3.5 mm headphone jack.
Speaking of jacks, Apple has also jacked the price of the new MacBook Pros sky-high, bringing back the concept of the “Mac tax” with a vengeance. Adding insult to injury, the new Pro ‘Books’ marquee feature in the is a so-called “Touch Bar” OLED touch panel displacing the standard row of F-keys. Sorry, but this one just doesn’t grab me. I would rather see Apple switch to a real touchscreen in its laptops like most premium PC notebooks have, instead of resorting to gimmicks like this Touch Bar. I’m perhaps atypical in that I actually use the F-keys intensively for triggering macros to run AppleScripts for HTML markup and text editing etc. I’m not certain as to how extensively the Touch Bar emulates the traditional F-key functions but I have my doubts.
Being an satisfied and enthusiastic MacBook Air owner, I was also hoping for a at least a one more upgrade of the present MacBook air design to Intel Skylake processors, and perhaps a USB-C port for forward compatibility, although preferably not at the expense of eliminating all of the legacy ports as in the new MacBook Pros. However, the 2015 refresh of MacBook Air features continues unchanged — fortunately at the unchanged $998.00 price point for the entry-level 13 inch model. The 12 inch MacBook Air has been discontinued, and it now seems quite doubtful that the MacBook Air has much of a future other than serving as Apple’s price leading entry-level machine.
Ominously, it appears that in the fullness of time the Air will be replaced in that role by either the 12 inch MacBook with its poky Intel Core m3 processor and unfortunate keyboard, or perhaps the base new MacBook Pro model that still has conventional F-keys on its unconventional butterfly switch keyboard, but no Touch Bar. I have mixed feelings about this model. Retention of the F-keys pleases me, but the short travel, clicky characteristics of the keyboard do not. It has a nice retina display, but is only equipped with two USB-C ports, which is 100 percent more than you get with the 12-inch MacBook and it’s lone USB-C port, but still not nearly enough, especially now that Apple has defenestrated the MagSafe charging connector magnetic breakaway charge connector cord — one of their all-time better ideas — in favor of charging through a USB-C port.
I’m not doggedly against the switch to USB-C, which at least in future should offer several advantages, a major one being greater standardization across the industry, which I always favor. However in the meantime a lot of us still need compatibility with the old port protocols, and are stuck with the kludgy workaround of needing a bagfull of USB-C legacy adapters. Speaking of adapters, third-party supplier Griffin engineering has stepped up to address the breakaway charge port issue with a adapter of their own that will work not only with Mac laptops (as was the case with the heavily patent protected MagSafe), but with any laptop, PC or Mac, that supports USB-C.
The base MacBook Pro sans Touch Bar has a less impressive internal specification then its even more expensive siblings, but would likely be adequate for my purposes. However, that suck-in-your–breath $1500 entry-level price point is a major barrier, even if it wasn’t for the butterfly switch keyboards issue. Analogically, the new base MacBook Pro puts me in mind of the entry-level “MainStreet” PowerBook Apple released at the same time as the legendary WallStreet G3 PowerBooks in 2008. The “MainStreet” machine was compromised in several ways, the most serious ones being a stripped-down G3 processor with no level 2 cache, which diminished performance substantially and the last passive matrix display Apple ever used in a laptop model. I used one of these machines for several months as my demo when I was selling Macs on the side back in the day, and it was actually a better machine and its many detractors would concede, but it suffered with comparison with its more powerful Wall Street siblings.
The distinctions are not nearly as sharp and harsh with the new base model MacBook Pro compared with the Touch Bar models, but in a general sense, the comparison is still apt.
With Apple’s last two laptop releases having basically left me cold, I’m finding myself in the novel position of being quite attracted to some of the new Windows PC hardware that has been coming on stream. Machines like the HP Spectre copper model, Lenovo’s Yoga Book designs, and Microsoft’s Surface Book and Surface Pro. The real innovation in laptop (and convertible hybrid) computer design seems to be mostly happening on the PC side these days. At least the engineering features I find attractive.
On the other hand, I’ve been very pleased with how macOS 10.12 Sierra is running on my middle-aged Haswell MacBook Air, and one always has to consider the major factor of the Mac OS versus Windows — even Windows 10 that some of my long-time fellow Mac enthusiasts are saying is actually quite a good desktop operating system, with the additional advantage of touchscreen support. Nevertheless, it would be a major disruption to have to start duplicating from scratch even a minimal approximation of the workflow ecosystem I’ve developed over a quarter-century using Macs. I really don’t want to abandon that (particularly AppleScript and favorite software tools), but I fear Apple is abandoning me.
If Apple would just fix the last few shortcomings that defeat its iPad Pros as adequate laptop replacements (eg: accessible filesystem directory, mouse support, document content search), that could possibly be the sensible route forward for me, but unhappily they’ve showed little interest in doing so, No AppleScript with the iOS either, but that’s a lost cause. Meanwhile, productivity oriented Mac laptop users have been cast adrift and left in a quandary, with PC hardware beckoning.