Thoughts on the New MacBooks

About two weeks ago, I ordered a specced-out 12” MacBook. I had a good feeling that there’d be new MacBook Pros before the end of the month, and knew I could return the 12” within 14 days if I didn’t like it (or didn’t think it was powerful enough for my work).

This is going to be a little self-indulgent and very long, but buying an Apple laptop is a lot more complicated than it used to be.

To set this up a bit, I should explain a bit of what I do every day. I spend about 50% of the day plugged into a display, and 50% working with the laptop on my lap. Usually, I’m running iTunes, Mail, Codekit, Sketch, Coda, Safari, Chrome, TextWrangler, MAMP, iA Writer, and Transmit. At any given time, I might also be running a good chunk of Adobe’s apps: Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, or Experience Design. OS X, or macOS as it is now called, is integral to my workflow.

I need to replace my aging 2012 15” MacBook Pro. It was the first generation with Retina display, and at this point, it’s got a few issues of its own:

  • My display was one of the ones that suffered with the burn-in problem. I’m using my laptop more and more as a laptop these days, instead of solely plugging it into an external monitor, so that’s becoming a huge annoyance.
  • It’s really heavy and bulky at 4.5 pounds. This was great when I used it as a desktop that could become a portable if need be, but now that I use the machine as a portable that occasionally becomes a desktop (and I carry the laptop in my bag a lot), it’s way too heavy.
  • The video card is dying on the laptop. It’s getting really quirky, especially when it runs Adobe apps. The screen will go black randomly. Sometimes, when I boot the machine up, the screen is black until I reboot it (again). It’s frustrating. As a result, I’m never buying a computer with an independent graphics card again (unless I can easily replace it).
  • The battery is dead. If I’m writing, like I am right now, I can get about five or six hours out of it. If I’m doing any design work or coding, I get about two and a half — at most. I could pay Apple a few hundred bucks to fix this, but why bother? I can’t get them to easily swap out the video card, so it’d be more of a bandaid than a real problem.

Replacing the MacBook Pro meant it was time to look around. Last time I bought a computer, I knew immediately which one was right for me. These days, I’m not so sure.

My first inclination was that 12” MacBook. It’s an amazing little machine. Unlike most people, I love the keyboard on it. (I’m thrilled the keyboard is making its way to the new MacBook Pros.) But even at its top-end spec (which was over $2,000 in Canada!), it only comes with a 1.3ghz CPU.

I don’t really understand what all these numbers mean, although like anybody else, I understand the gist that higher is better. I suspected, with my limited knowledge of these things, that the 12” MacBook would be fine for most tasks. And it is, actually. I’ve read a lot of reviews and reports saying the machine is under-powered, but those are largely overblown.

But when things get bad, they get really bad.

Let me give you the quick five-step method to slow down the frame rate on a 12” MacBook:

  1. Run a code compiler in the background that automatically refreshes your development environment every time you make a change to the site’s code. (Codekit.)
  2. Have a local server running on your MacBook with something like MAMP.
  3. Open a 250mb Sketch file and get to work while you code.
  4. Open Photoshop to do some lightweight image editing and create assets for your website design. Leave Photoshop running in the background.
  5. Now use the computer as you normally would for a couple hours, leaving all this running. Things are fine. But suddenly, the computer slows down to about 12fps. This is called “thermal throttling,” and it’s an issue I encountered on day three of using the MacBook as a daily driver.

Thermal throttling occurs on the 12” model because it doesn’t have a fan. So while the laptop can do some tasks pretty quick for a brief period of time, it has no way to cool down when it starts to heat up. Which means that it has to slow down.

Anyway, the 12” MacBook was a no go for me. It’d be great if I had a desktop and only used it on the road, but it won’t work as a daily driver.

So back to square one.

On Thursday, Apple announced the new MacBook Pros. They’re more or less what I wanted: thinner, lighter, still packing more than enough power to do what I want every day.

But I’m a little confused by my options.

Here are your options if you want to get work done on an Apple laptop these days:

  • The 12” Macbook. In Canada, it starts at $1,649. This price has gone up since I purchased it two weeks ago, actually, by $100. Ouch. Unless you’re an office worker or just need a laptop for use on the go when you’re away from your main machine, it’s sadly a little underpowered.
  • The 13” MacBook Air. In Canada, it starts at $1,199. Expensive, somewhat powerful — good enough for just about everybody, I think. I could make do with it. But it has a low-resolution screen. I wish Apple would axe this and lower the cost of the 12” MacBook.
  • The old MacBook Pros. Pass. Too heavy, too bulky, and definitely not the new hotness. If I wanted one of these, I would have bought one two weeks ago. Oh, and their price hasn’t gone down in the wake of the new laptops. They’re even more expensive than before. So why bother?
  • The 13” MacBook Pro, without a Touch Bar. In Canada, it starts at a poop-your-pants price of $1,899. It’s supposed to be the Air replacement (it has a smaller footprint and weighs more or less the same). It’s less powerful than the MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar, and once you spec it up to comparable-ish levels, the prices are on par. So, this seems like an oddly-positioned tweener device. I thought about order this, but when I can pay the same amount for the MacBook Pro with the new Touch Bar and upgraded RAM, why wouldn’t I?
  • The 13” and 15” MacBook Pro, with a Touch Bar. This is the new hotness. In Canada, the 13” starts at a “sell-your-kidney” $2,299. I got the “my-wallet-is-bleeding” mid-tier model with 512GB of storage and 16GB of RAM (a necessity in design these days). The 13” version is, again, smaller than a MacBook Air — and they weigh the same amount.

Of course, I could always go Windows. I actually walked down to the Microsoft Store yesterday and tried out the Surface Book (the Surface Studio wasn’t available for demo yet). It’s a very nice laptop, but I don’t like the way the stylus feels in my hand. I also don’t like the space between the screen and the keyboard, even when the laptop is closed — that hinge is so weird! I’d spend most of my days cleaning dirt, dust, and hair out of the keyboard as a result. Plus, I still hate Windows. So I’m skipping this too.

Am I happy with the options? Mostly. Oddly, it seems to me that laptop prices are climbing — particularly the prices for professional machines. If the prices hadn’t changed from one generation to the next, I think we’d have a great set of new laptops from Apple.

Consider this: you can buy a decent Chromebook for a couple hundred bucks, but top-of-the-line computers from both Apple and Microsoft are climbing towards $3,000 and above. I don’t get it.

I remember balking at the price for my 15” MacBook Pro in 2012. The price then, with the extra storage space I got in my model, was just over $3,000. The laptop I’m getting now is nearly the same price, and has arguably fewer features: I’m not getting a video card, there are fewer ports, and MagSafe isn’t a thing anymore.

I don’t think Apple has lost its direction. I think Microsoft is finding their mojo, and everybody’s competing to make a really great laptop for pro users, instead of a laptop that delivers exclusively on specs. For the old guard of PC users, this all seems confusing and gimmicky. To me, it’s just plain old expensive.

But I need a new laptop. So here I am.

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October 29 2016 in Technology & Tools