The state of Apple’s laptop lineup

About a week ago, I realized my 2017 15” MacBook Pro’s speakers are blown. I rarely use the laptop without headphones, so I’m not sure when it happened. Now the laptop is unusable as a shared screen for Zoom calls, because we can’t hear the audio when we call our friends. Or rather, we can, but everybody sounds like they’re hanging out with Aquaman underwater. It’d be a cool sound effect, if it wasn’t unintelligible.

If we were living in the Before Time, I would have simply taken the laptop to the Apple Store to have them assess the damage. Once the After Time comes around, I might still do that.

But I really don’t like this laptop. I hate the keyboard . It feels like typing on cracker wafers, and a single speck of dust can take out the whole keyboard — which is a design failure beyond understanding. I don’t like the obnoxious space grey finish. Silver is the right colour for a MacBook, turns out. I don’t like how large it is (more on this later). And now, the speakers are unusable.

All this got me wondering: if I were to buy a new portable machine from Apple today, what would I buy?

I say “portable machine” because I don’t want to discount the iPad from this list. My 10.5” iPad Pro is a great little machine, and it is very good at certain tasks.

I am in the fortunate position of using an iMac Pro as my primary computing device. I don’t need to necessarily have the same power on the go as I do at my desk. When I’m mobile, I want a small, lightweight device that lets me easily get my essential work done — and it better have a good keyboard.

My laptop fails to meet some of those metrics. The large size of the 15” MacBook Pro seems absurd. It’s too large to comfortably sit on a lap, and every extra pound of weight matters a lot when I’m travelling (not that I’m doing much of that right now). Plus, the keyboard is a failure waiting to happen.

I would love to use the iPad Pro. It’s lightweight and ultraportable, and the Magic Keyboard looks like a dream. But for many reasons, the iPad Pro isn’t for me. The Verge offered some sage advice recently: “Never buy hardware today based on a promise of software tomorrow.”

Which brings me back to the laptop lineup.

Apple’s laptop lineup, in all honesty, hasn’t looked this good in almost a decade. Now that they’ve replaced the butterfly keyboard with the Magic Keyboard, it’s easy to recommend almost any of their laptops. The 16” MacBook Pro is a wonderful machine, even if it’s too big for my liking (I trialled one in November). The 13” MacBook Pro looks very good.

If I had to buy one today, I think I’d buy the MacBook Air. It’s the lightest and most svelte option. I like the taper. It doesn’t have a Touch Bar (for me, that’s a perk). I don’t need power on the go often enough to justify the extra weight or cost of a MacBook Pro. Most of the time, I’m either pushing rectangles around in Figma or writing PHP or Javascript in Visual Studio Code or Sublime. These apps don’t need a lot of CPU power to be useful.

That being said, if the rumours are true, the Mac lineup is about to get very interesting. If Apple makes its transition to ARM chips next year, their laptop lineup should become stronger. ARM chips are what makes iPads as powerful and battery efficient as they are. If a MacBook Air got one, all-day battery life is a possibility — and the laptop would be much more powerful. The most recent iPads are so much faster than the current-generation MacBook Airs, it’s not even funny.

Hopefully, Apple will share more information about the plans for its chip transition in a month or so at their annual developer conference. But they’re a secretive company. They may not share that information with developers before next year, assuming the rumours are true. (And, of course, they might share information this year about getting development work done on an iPad too — which would change the equation for me again.)

All of this puts me in a peculiar situation. I’d love a smaller, lighter laptop. I’d love to get rid of the butterfly keyboard and Touch Bar, both of which make me more prone to errors and less efficient. But if I get this year’s model, I’m potentially getting the last laptop Apple makes before a once-in-a-generation leap.

One should never make purchasing decisions based on the rumours of future gear, but this aphorism is still true: there is never a good time to upgrade your kit.