Some Quick Thoughts on a Silly MacBook

An expensive, slow, highly compromised, likely very buggy piece of the future.

Image courtesy AnandTech, as Apple must have forgetten my invite to the event somehow.

My initial reaction to Apple’s recently announced MacBook was, like many in the tech enthusiast community, one of visceral rejection. The idea of a machine that scarified performance, keyboard quality, and any expandability whatsoever in the pursuit of being absurdly thin seems at first blush like a fool’s errand. And in many ways, it is – there’s simply no denying that this new MacBook is a severely compromised device. But it isn’t alone among first-generation Apple products in that regard. So having had a few weeks for the news to stew, I thought I would go back and take another look at this latest fruity endeavor.
Image courtesy AnandTech, as Apple must have forgetten my invite to the event somehow.

A lot of Apple fans were quick to jump to the machine’s defense with the age-old defense of “it isn’t aimed at you, tech geek. It’s a device for the average Joe!” It’s a refrain that we hear repeated with almost every major Apple launch, from the original iPod to the first MacBook Air to the iPad. And it’s just as ridiculous here as ever. Of course it’s aimed at “tech geeks,” because they’re the ones that are willing to shell out $1300 for a new laptop every couple of years. The “average Joe” – even the kind that owns a lot of Apple products – is probably only going to upgrade their computer every four years or so, and they tend to favor “cheap” and “works with the other stuff I already own” as primary considerations over “has fancy new technologies.” The MacBook fails on both of those counts, at least for now, so it is likely right out for the “average Joe.” There again, this is true of a lot of first-generation Apple products. The original MacBook Air received very similar criticism to the new MacBook, namely that the port selection was too compromised and that the pricing was too high for the paltry performance on display. The iPad, too, received a lot of initial guff for its lack of expandability and questionable utility. The original iPhone lacked even basic functionality like 3G and 3rd-party application support, featured a wonky headphone jack that posed compatibility problems with a lot of devices, and lacked the hardware keyboard that was seen as a virtual necessity for smartphones of the day. But in all of these cases, these issues were addressed by hardware and software revisions that improved the product, falling prices as the market expanded, and in some cases – like the iPhone’s lack of a hardware keyboard – even by customers adapting and coming to prefer the new way of doing things.

So what about the new MacBook, when viewed in that light? Well certainly the price is too high for the hardware you are getting. The biggest issue here is that the 13” Retina MacBook Pro outclasses the new MacBook in virtually every possible way aside from the thickness and weight, all for the same starting price of $1299. That’s going to be a pretty bitter pill to swallow for anyone, but it’s worth remembering that the 13” rMBP started out at several hundred dollars more than it costs now as well. So did the 15” model, and the MacBook Air, and indeed almost every Mac in Apple’s lineup. So I can virtually guarantee you that we’ll see pricing on this new MacBook come down over the next couple of generations. There’s also the issue of expandability. Much ado is being made over the single USB-C connector that is used for both charging the device and all peripheral connections (aside from a single 3.5mm headphone jack on the opposite side of the computer). This is obviously not ideal, since it means that you cannot be charging the computer and using any wired peripherals at the same time without an (expensive for now) dongle, and that you probably don’t have anything that will plug into the port without said expensive dongle anyways. On the first count, there is no argument: one port is ridiculous, and much like the price, I would bet on that to change within a generation or two. That being said, the argument has been made to me to consider it this way: how often do you actually have anything plugged into the USB port on an ultraportable or tablet? Typically this would only be a mouse, which can easily connect over Bluetooth, or perhaps a flash drive – the need for which Apple would suggest is mitigated by technologies like AirDrop. Perhaps this is a somewhat specious argument: AirDrop, for example, requires everyone you need to transfer files to or from to be using recent Macs or iOS devices, which is rarely going to be the case. Still, I’d be surprised if the single port would be as big an issue for most people as they imagine it to be; with a Bluetooth mouse, I probably haven’t had more than one USB device connected to my MacBook Pro in a year – but then again, I have often had that one device and the power cable connected at the same time. Again, though, expect at least a second USB-C connected within a couple of generations. As for USB-C, the type of port is actually a positive step in many ways. Instead of being asked to buy into yet another proprietary (or semi-exclusive) “standard,” Apple has actually embraced the standard that is quite literally set to be the furture of everything. USB-C can carry power (up to 100W), DisplayPort, and (currently) up to 10 Gbps of data all on the same port through the same passive, reversible cables. The advantages here compared to the old USB-A and MicroUSB ports should be immediately obvious. Even compared to Thunderbolt, USB-C brings reversibility, cheap passive cables, and on-chipset controllers at the cost of Thunderbolt’s rarely-relevant bi-directionality. Over the next few years, USB-C will pop up on everything from mice and printers, to flash drives, to smartphones and tablets, to full-size notebooks and desktops. This really is “one port to rule them all” – the only problem is that on the new MacBook, Apple took the “one port” part too literally.

The “Force Touch” trackpad promises to bring a lot of interesting expanded functionality to the touchpad on the new MacBook, and although early reports are that the keyboard kind of sucks, this appears to be almost entirely a spacing and travel issue – impressions of the new butterfly switch itself are fairly positive with regards to key actuation and stability. So while perhaps the typing experience on the ultra-thin MacBook is unsalvageable, there’s shouldn’t be much need to fear these features being brought to its larger cousins.

That leads me to the biggest bugbear given the MacBook’s price tag – Intel’s Core M. The new MacBook uses the slowest chips in Intel’s current Core lineup, with 4.5 W TDPs and clock speeds that look like they belong in 2005, not 2015. That said, they do enable fanless designs and extreme battery life out of smaller batteries, and those are clearly the things Apple were interested in here. To be completely honest, I doubt very much that Apple are particularly happy with the performance of Intel’s first-generation Core M, either, but there’s that phrase again: “first-generation.” If there’s one thing Intel has proven time and again, it’s that when they start trying to make progress at a certain form factor, they will quickly bring performance up to levels that would have seemed impossible in those power envelopes just a couple of years earlier. Core M is slow, there’s no denying it – but it’s already on par with the fastest mobile Core 2 Duos from barely half a decade ago, which didn’t even have integrated graphics or memory controller despite eating up several times as much power. The same story goes for Intel’s ULV chips, which today pack CPUs and GPUs that would embarrass gaming notebooks from a few short years ago into a 15W TDP. Given a couple more years, Core M will likely pack performance better than today’s ULV Core i7 chips, and you’ll still have a fanless laptop that lasts 10+ hours on battery while weighing less than 2 pounds. That is just the nature of things.

So at the end of the day, has my opinion reversed? Should you run out and pre-order the new MacBook? Hell no. It’s slow, overpriced, the keyboard is likely dreadful, and it will be afflicted by all the usual first-generation Apple device problems. And it only has one port that you probably can’t even use, for God’s sake. But Apple doesn’t always design products that you should buy today, as odd as that may sound. This isn’t for you or me, and it isn’t for the average Joe, either. It’s for the pie-in-the-sky people with plenty of money to burn who want to own a piece of the future today. An expensive, slow, highly compromised, likely very buggy piece of the future, but a piece they can start to build an ecosystem of peripherals and accessories around. Make no mistake: just as the shelves of you local Best Buy are stocked today entirely with ARM-based tablets and Ultrabooks years after the laughed-at MacBook Air and iPad launched, in a few years every OEM will be pushing tiny, fanless laptops with naught but a couple of USB-C ports. And by then it probably won’t seem – or be – so absurd.

(Editor’s note: This piece originally referenced ‘my MacBook Air’ which is in fact a device I do not own. It should have been referring to my MacBook Pro and has been updated to that effect.)

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