A lot has been said about the new Apple laptops. The most prominent commentary has been bad, or at best neutral. As someone who is rather tied (for the foreseeable future, at least) to the Apple ecosystem, and who found themselves in sudden and desperate need of an upgrade, it was with mixed emotions that I made the jump to one of the new machines.
It has now been about a week, and since so many have yet to lay a hand on one of these systems, I figured I would offer my initial thoughts on the hardware and software after some legitimate use.
Tldr; I have some major concerns about this design, and the compromises that appear to come with it. Most notably; battery life (the average so far has been 5 hours per charge, and that’s on the 15″ model under very basic loads!).
Old Habits Die Easily
Traditionally, my habit with Apple is to max out every possible option when configuring my machines, intending the highest longevity over time. I then proceed to patiently wait for my customized system to meander its way across the ocean to me. That habit, in this instance however, had me confronting a 4-6 week delivery window, and, as my frustration grew with this idea, so, too, did my desire to find a workaround.
I was temporarily relegated to my backup machine when my 2013 MacBook Pro went down for the count (and my backup machine is … wait for it … a 2009 17″ MackBook Pro that, while performing admirably for its age, was simply not cutting it for my daily tasks). Adding to my urgency was the fact that an ancient and creaking laptop does not do much to inspire confidence when meeting with your clients. I needed an upgrade, and I needed it fast.
So as soon as my local store got their stock, I threw caution and habits to the wind and committed to the best 15″ model one could buy without modification. So long, my souped-up friend; the stock supply would have to do.
Having played with one of the 15″ machines in the store for a bit before bringing it home, I had a few expectations from the start. Here’s what I walked into the purchase knowing:
1. I was starting out with a distinct dislike of the new keyboard design. (recently converting to the pleasantly springy keys of my backup laptop was not helping with this)
2. I was pretty sure the touch bar would prove useful, but was not going to be a game changer for me.
3. The laptop was light, but not shockingly so, leading me to question Apple’s incessant demand for shaving the dimensions down further all the time.
4. The trackpad is huge, and it was hard to tell how this would affect use in practice.
5. The machine was fast, but nothing about its performance was a shocking upgrade from my 2013 machine.
Pros and Cons
So what of it? How many of those expectations turned out to even matter? Well, the answer is, all of them, actually, for varying reasons.
There have turned out to be rather a lot of unexpected surprises here, and most of them have not been the kind of surprises I enjoy. Overall, I’m cautiously satisfied, for the most part, and the laptop is growing on me. But for the ways that I am not, I offer you the story.
In the Beginning There was the Slowening…
I picked up the machine rather late at night, almost as the store was closing. I purchased from a state away in NJ since it saved me about $100 on taxes, so the travel took a bit of time. Once I drove home, I immediately started t0 back up my old creaky 17-incher. It had a fairly recent clean install of OS X, and I had upgraded to El Capitan – the most recent OS Apple allows that machine to run – only a week previous, so I was assuming a seamless transfer.
There was only about 76GB of data to move, all told, but for whatever reason, passing that data around proved an onerous task. The process took over an hour in each direction, and as the night wore on, I was beginning to think I would have to give up and start again in the morning. Finally it completed, and like a racehorse out of the gate, I rushed to the setup finish line.
Everything else at that point went as expected. Configuring my fingerprint and emphatically informing the system NOT to place my files in the cloud were the only steps that I even paid any attention to. Once all was ready, the system booted, and I proceeded to log in. I was excited to try the touch ID for this purpose, but it didn’t work (more on this later).
After stabbing a finger at the reader a few times before giving up with a frustrated sigh, I entered my password and the system loaded. Slowly.
I didn’t find this to be a good omen, but given that my laptop is a hub for about 15 devices in my studio, and given that this was my first time connecting them all to this machine, and given that I was doing so via the new Thunderbolt hub I had purchased only days prior in anticipation, it was hard to know where exactly the problem may lie. In short, this became a persistent issue that only recently (and to no clear effort of my own) resolved parts of itself. I continue to encounter bugs, however (a little more on this later on).
Your Girl The Feel?
The track pad feels responsive, but occasionally seems to misfire, especially when dragging. I am continuing to have issues with the mechanics of this, and I trigger a lot of strange effects without knowing why.
The lack of a real mechanical switch makes the surface of the track pad much more flexible where actuatation is concerned, but the compensation/calculation that must occur does not seem to be flawless and fool proof yet. Often, when clicking and dragging, the system seems to register pressure changes as a sort of double-click or release. Many times when dragging an item, the taptic engine will fire mid-drag, and my files or target will be politely released back to their origin.
Regarding the famous Touch Bar, I immediately noticed that I missed the Mission Control key (I am an avid user of multiple desktops as well as window management software), so I swapped it for the brightness button and felt relieved. I reviewed all the possible options and concluded that there were none which were indispensable and would make an immediate difference in my workflow, so I left it at that.
The first thing that really began to stand out to me as I went about my development tasks, was that the keyboard was displeasingly loud (in a plastic, clicky-clacky kind of way), but it was also fast. As much as I found myself despising the sound of the thing, I also found myself typing away at significant speeds (I’m no Jason Snell, but I can move when I need to, and this keyboard was slowly proving quite an advantage with that).
Once it was set up, I also found the Apple Watch unlocking to be very convenient, and it has worked every time without issue. (ironically, shortly after writing this, it intermittently stopped working for unknown reasons, and I was forced to use the fingerprint reader in its stead)
Flawless function, however, is not something I can claim for the touch ID.
What Apple does not clarify anywhere that you would encounter it, at least without reading their configuration page (which I eventually had to do), is that Touch ID will never work the first time you boot or reboot the machine. In these scenarios, you must always enter your password.
I assume this is a security measure rather than a hardware limitation, but given that I encrypt my volumes and must enter a password to unencrypt the machine in the first place, I find this level of enforcement to be irritating overkill. And not understanding this requirement lead to a significant amount of confusion for me the first three or four times I attempted to log into the system.
Since the machine was displaying other bizarre behavior, like claiming that I needed to “remove fingerprints from one or more accounts on the system” in order to add more than one fingerprint with my primary user account – and then proceeding to fail when deleting that lonely fingerprint in obeyance – I was pretty sure Touch ID was flat-out broken.
This is how I wound up at the above link to Apple’s configuration page. I wanted to be sure I was not doing anything stupid and that the problem was not user error. Turns out I was in one respect (trying to use touch ID after reboot or power on), but, also it was broken.
This, however, as I mentioned earlier, has magically resolved and fingerprints are registering correctly at this point. With the Apple Watch unlock, however, I find I never actually use this feature in practice, since I literally always wear my watch.
The Clutter of Simplicity
The other thing I began to notice was that the proximity and sensitivity of so many touch surfaces so near the bounds of the keyboard was leading to enough accidental triggering to be irritating. If I flail too wildly while striking the delete key, I trigger Siri. If I pull my hands back to rest for a moment while considering the next block to type, my thumb triggers the track pad and my cursor swings away from its previous target.
I’m fine with having to tighten up my technique a bit, but I really feel that this is yet another case of Apple’s secrecy and seemingly insular testing strategies giving way to decisions that don’t quite play out as intended. And this time we’re talking hardware, not watchOS shortcomings, which is a much harder problem to correct after the fact.
If you add to this my largest gripe about the machine so far – it’s battery life*** – it begs the question of why Apple insists on minifying everything to uncomfortable degrees, or knife’s-edge threshold thereof.
I am a large human (I’m 6’5″ and have the hands to match). I use a Plus when it comes to an iPhone because it is literally the only comfortable option for me (though it took me a few years to figure that out). Squeezing all the elements of my laptop into the smallest case possible is not something I would ever request of Apple. And when it comes at the expense of incredibly important elements like battery performance, and causes undesired side effects like accidental triggering of input elements, I simply don’t understand the mentality that pushes this forward so insistently.
Yes, it’s pretty, yes it’s light. But I’m averaging 5 hours to the charge, and I’m not even pushing this thing hard.
Has Johnny Ive and his team ever stopped to consider that sometimes tools have beautification limits if their primary purpose is to perform a task? I’m all for a laptop that looks like a piece of art, but it better damn well still get the job done, and I better not find myself tripping over its design in the process. So far, I cannot say that of these new machines.
I am admittedly on the most demanding end of the pro user market; I use my laptop for audio and video editing, rendering, generative art, and heavy computing tasks that push the boundaries of what a laptop can comfortably do. But with the Mac Pro seemingly dead on the vine, and the iMac being less than transportable in mobile scenarios (which I find myself in often) it leaves me little option beyond what used to be a very performant laptop line.
The thing is, I haven’t even been working on any of those intensive tasks this week in my initial time with this machine, and I must reiterate again that its battery is literally lasting me an average of 5 hours per charge. That is TWICE the advertised consumption, and HALF the advertised time. If I can’t even expect to get through an afternoon at my local cafe without having to bed down for a charge, I definitely won’t get through a 6 hour flight to California (or worse, trans-Atlantic travel) with this machine, and at this price point, and with the “Pro” moniker, I have a major problem with that.
We’ve All Got a Price. Touch Bar, What’s Yours?
I will go so far as to say that, if this inefficiency in price and performance is the cost of the touch bar, then, frankly, that technology was not worth it. It’s not breakthrough enough for me. I am an artist, a designer, a programmer, and a musician. I’d take a convertible device with touch and Pencil support any day over this, and I guarantee the power requirements for such a device would be much more level than this design.
The touch bar literally gets warm to hot during extended system use. Excepting the possibility of some type of thermal transfer from other internal components, that screams battery drain to me. If this machine is “years ahead” as Apple claims, then Apple’s vision of the future includes a populous that is either tied permanently to a desk chair, or does very little work when they’re not.
To Sleep, Perchance To Dream
The one idea I’m holding out hope for is that something about my system configuration is botched from having brought over data from my other machine. With the age and supposed maturity of the migration feature, this really shouldn’t be possible in my opinion, but all my past experience says it very much is (there’s a reason I always begin from scratch with a new Apple machine; this situation was unusual for its urgency and desperation).
While I haven’t gotten into details, the first few days with this device involved an unnerving amount of hiccoughs on the system level. From kernel panics (I’ve had more than a handful so far) to lagging wake times, to black screens after wake that take up to 30 seconds to resolve, there were clearly some deep-seated causes for concern. With too much work to do to lose time to attempted repairs, I left everything alone and plowed ahead.
That being said, the problems began to miraculously correct themselves without any intervention on my part. I can only assume that macOS is now smart enough to repair its own issues in certain situations, and some of the initial configuration snafus were potentially resolved by the OS itself. I am impressed by that if it’s true, but it isn’t enough to alleviate the pain I’ve been feeling in this transition overall.
Additionally, those miraculous corrections have not done anything for the overall battery longevity and a few intermittent but persistent bugs that have yet to cease completely. The ONLY step I have left to try in an attempt to reign in the performance of this system is to wipe it and start fresh. But that is easily a multi-day endeavor for me, as my running configuration is FAR from stock, and I have not had the luxury of that much extra time on my hands since I bought it.
For these reasons I am hesitant to take action on this front, but it seems to be the only remaining conclusion in an attempt to determine the true origin of the issues I am experiencing.
So, now what? Well, mostly, I wait. I’m going to continue with my work, and in an attempt to have a final verdict, will plan for a fresh start and wipe the machine sometime this month. If, after all that, I am still battling proper operation on these fronts, then my conclusion is that this is yet another partially-baked effort on Apple’s part. If that is the case, it will no-doubt improve with time, but for us early adopters, it sure is a frustrating situation to land in.
At the end of the day, I find myself wondering heavily if Apple has become more of a fashion company than a hardware company. It used to serve a professional market above all other endeavors, but with the success of the iPhone, that focus is clearly falling away in favor of some other paradigm. How exactly this will shake out remains to be seen, but I, for one, am concerned.
I severely dislike the instability and overall kludginess of Windows, and while I love Linux if I’m working on development tasks, it does not serve me well for many of my other needs. macOS has been my go-to hybrid because it meets all of my needs and it does it with gusto. But Apple (arguably) seems to be on a path toward relieving itself of its highly-specific professional market, and it remains to be seen who will take up the charge in its place.
The one thing I’ve not seen anyone talk about, and that I hold out hope for, is the possibility that we are merely witnessing an elongation of intended timelines and refresh cycles due to massive behind-the-scenes projects like the new headquarters. While no one much speaks of it, that project simply HAS to be consuming significant attention and resources at least at the upper levels of the company, if not across the board, not to mention potential issues imposed by Apple literally outgrowing its current facilities. I don’t know if you’ve ever been forced to work in a situation like that, but that level of compression and chaos among departments can definitely impart issues all its own within a company otherwise attempting to proceed with its usual workflow and meet the deadlines and pace it is used to achieving.
The Apple ecosystem remains my favorite platform both for my work and my leisure tasks. That being said, if we continue to witness a decline in function for the sake of form, and an abandonment of customization and power features, I may find myself to be one of the first parties to be edged out of the user base due to feature collapse. I’m nearly there as it is, feet poised lightly on the doorstep.
It will either come to that, or I will find myself needing to adopt an inconvenient hybrid approach, sticking to Linux for my most intensive work, and relegating macOS to a deprioritized position, managing only my design and music studio workflow. This is a worst-case scenario, but I am already very close to its invocation. Only time will tell exactly how this remains to play out, but my hope is dwindling faster than I expected.
We’ve got a lot of investment into you at this point, Apple. I think I speak for many when I ask that you please not abandon your roots and let your faithful devotees down in the name of profit margins. For a company that prides themselves on using their power for positive change, your motivations are questionable lately, and the devout are getting scared.
**Seriously, why is intuitive operation so lacking in software so often? What kind of sense does it make to have the Creative Cloud manager exist as a dropdown view -that doesn’t even animate to give you an indication of where it’s coming from- that disappears the second you click anywhere else on the screen? That layout wasted about five minutes of my life the first time I dealt with it before I discovered why I kept losing track of the view after clicking on the app icon to show it again… Thanks Adobe.
** hashtag, Marco was right.