With the release of the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar last fall, Apple confirmed that it has lost whatever interest it may once have had in making a laptop supremacy notebook computer for power and productivity users. The proverbial writing on the wall has been there for some time, back to when they dropped producing the 17-inch MacBook Pro several years back.
The new MacBook Pros were a major disappointment to those of us who had been hoping for new or upgraded features that would have actually enhanced productivity. Instead we got a mild speed bump, a badly compromised keyboard in pursuit of another ridiculously thin form factor, and the Touch Bar displacing the traditional row of physical function keys at the top of the keypad as Apple’s reply to calls for touchscreen MacBooks.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of touchscreens in clamshell laptops, but I would much prefer a real touchscreen over the gimmicky Touch Bar. For one thing I like and am averse to giving up the standard F-keys which I use extensively. My workflows are spatially oriented, and the physical F-keys suit that mode quite well. The Touch Bar, on the other hand, demands visual scan of content and a break in concentration, which slows things down.
The 2016 MacBook Pro is one of the very few Apple notebook computers over the past quarter-century that I have no desire to own. The thinness obsession is getting more and more ridiculous, I don’t like the “butterfly mechanism” keyboard. I don’t like the Touch Bar, and the entry level model with no Touch Bar is overpriced like the rest of the line. These days the laptop hardware that makes me salivate tends to be in the Windows world.
That said, the MacBook Pro letdown last fall convinced me to purchase another 13-inch MacBook Air — not a powerhouse and no Retina display but at least it has a nice keyboard and is reasonably inexpensive for a Mac.
And it’s not just me.
Motley Fool’s Evan Niu explains that as an Apple loyalist, he purchased a new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar last fall, and says that after more than six months of use he can honestly say that it is “pretty underwhelming,” and that he actually values the Touch ID sensor more than the Touch Bar itself. As with me, Niu cites the fact that you have to look down at the Touch Bar to properly use it because it’s constantly changing depending on what app you’re using. He further notes that after the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar was announced, orders for refurbished “old” MacBook Pros are rumored to have gone through the proverbial roof, and after the initial batch negative reviews, they shot up even higher.
More confirmation that it isn’t only a few grizzled Mac notebook veterans like me who are underwhelmed by the new MacBook Pros comes with the release this week of LAPTOP Mag’s annual “Best & Worst Laptop Brands” survey for 2017.
LAPTOP’S editors note that while Apple has owned the top spot ever since that survey was initiated in 2010, in 2017 it plummeted down into a tie for fifth place with Acer, beaten by Lenovo, Asus, Dell, and HP, and not winning any of LAPTOP’s “Best” categories.
That’s a humiliating tumble and a clear rejection of the direction Apple has chosen to take with the MacBook. An optimist might hope that it would be enough of a jolt to convince Apple to get back to making notebooks that people enjoy using and that enhance rather than hobble their productivity, and stop fooling around with gimmicks like the Touch Bar and compromised engineering like the butterfly keyboards. However, Apple has a proven record of dogged stubbornness, so my optimism is not very lively.
Explaining Apple’s mediocre 78/100 score in their survey, LAPTOP observed that MacBooks are slim, powerful and well-built, but are expensive and you’ll need a bagful of adapter dongles to cope with the USB-C only port array. Also Apple got marked down for having no real touchscreen and LAPTOP dismissing the Touch Bar as irrelevant. They note that with the MacBook Air likely on the way out, Apple appears to be abandoning mainstream laptop users and their premium notebooks don’t justify their high prices.
Perhaps Apple will recover from its fall with a product vision reset, but for now the charm is broken. The 2016 MacBook Pros are just not very charming, lacking as they are so many of the features and functionality that have traditionally characterized Mac notebooks and made them productivity powerhouses and consumer favorites. The ball is in Apple’s court.