There is a lot of angst among Mac pundits these days. Last month it was because the MacBook Pro hadn’t been updated in quite a while. Today, it is because the MacBook Pro just got an update. Depending on what signals you are getting, the latter situation might actually be worse.
The outcry is the same after the release as before: Apple has abandoned the pros. Have they? The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. Apple has certainly made a lot of changes to the product line. The breezy answer is that they have made a new kind of MacBook for a new kind of pro. Bear with me while I unpack what that means:
The price is rightish?
How much are you willing to pay for a new MBP? How about the same as you paid last year, and the year before, and the year before? This is not an unreasonable expectation. After all, that is the way it has been for quite some time. New products slot neatly into the old price points.
Say goodbye to that pattern. The new MacBook line has a completely different price point, or so it seems at first blush. There is still a pro model being sold at the $1,299 price point. The problem is that it is last year’s model. Apple didn’t update the internals or change it in any way. It just rolls into the new product line unchanged, including the price. That’s right, they didn’t lower the price either. They just kept it the same.
But the base model of the real new MBP lineup costs significantly more than the base model from last year’s new lineup. It is where the midrange model was last year. And up it goes… If we are only looking at new models as most people are, then there is a definite price increase. If we are looking at the entirety of the product line with its odd mixture of old and new, the prices have remained the same.
But let’s not get lost in technicalities. The prices have most definitely gone up. It will cost you more money to buy a new MBP this year than it did last year. That doesn’t mean the price is wrong. It is simply a matter of if the price increase is justified.
Factoring the form
When considering the value equation of the new MBP one has to factor in the form of the device. There have been some major changes that from an engineering perspective, are quite expensive. Those changes in form were not easy to accomplish, and no doubt add significantly to the price.
All of the new laptops are thinner and lighter than their predecessors. There has been a lot of complaining about Apple making their professional laptops thinner and lighter at the expense of other considerations. But there is not a Windows laptop manufacturer who doesn’t trumpet how much thinner and lighter their new laptop is compared to the last model, sometimes even compared to an Apple laptop.
The interesting thing is that when Windows laptop makers do it, they are praised for creating a desirable laptop. When Apple does it, they lose points for focussing on form over function.
Like it or not, we live in a world where pro laptops are also expected to be some version of thin and light. It is silly to ding Apple for concentrating on that aspect of design while the rest of the industry is doing everything in their power to overtake Apple in the category.
There are trade-offs to thin and light. Those trade-offs seem reasonable. But that is mostly because I’m not personally affected by them. Before taking a closer look at those trade-offs, lets take a closer look at the form:
Thin and light
I don’t believe the people who say that they do not care about thinness and lightness. I don’t buy it for one moment. No one purposely buys a fat and heavy notebook unless they have absolutely no other choice.
Fat and heavy laptops are ugly and are literally a pain to carry. The only exception to this rule are those who use their laptops as desktops. They plop these behemoths on a desk in clamshell mode and never unplug them. Those laptops never see a moment of life on the top of a lap. These people are desk jockeys, not road warriors.
As a writer, I do about half of my work at a desktop, and the other half on a mobile. I almost never leave home without it. Every ounce makes a difference on my back, arthritic joints, and RSI hands. Those pounds and half pounds matter a lot, a whole lot.
There is also something to be said about the aesthetic value of a device that represents you professionally in the public eye. I don’t own a mobile for working at home alone in a dark room. I have it for working while out and about in the coffee shops, on the busses and planes, and on the park bench.
Road warriors use their mobiles in waiting rooms and board rooms. Often, there are large sums of money on the line. They are often in situations where they are cozying up to influence, or jockeying for influence. The mobile they use is as important as the outfit and accessories they wear. In short, what their mobile business tool looks like matters.
The new MBP passes the mobile look and feel test as well, if not better than any MBP before it.
Sights and sounds
There is not much to be said about the sound from this machine except that it is far better than any Mac laptop that has come before it. There is no reason for you to purchase a separate bluetooth speaker just to listen to some smooth jazz while you work.
As you might imagine, the display is stunning. It is the most advanced display ever shipped on a Mac laptop. It is not only a Retina display, it is brighter and more colorful. The wide-color from the iPhone is also a part of the new laptops.
But all these increases were done with new energy saving techniques. That means these brighter, more colorful displays can be enjoyed while burning less battery. That is the kind of improvement you can see every time you use the device.
It is also important to realize that the display is a continuation of the thin and light conversation. Pushing that many pixels is computationally expensive. You need a better GPU/CPU. That extra power means you need a better, bigger way to dissipate the extra heat.
We either get big fans or hot laps. And while all of this is a gross oversimplification of the vast array of compromises necessitated by a more pixel-packed, brighter display, all of those compromises effect the size and weight of the overall device.
In my opinion, Apple did a good job in balancing the various compromises they had to make with regard to size, weight, display, and sound. But the real question is about performance. Did they make the right compromises there?
Most tech pundits reviewing the new MBP are not in a position to really test the performance of the laptop. That is because we do not do jobs that regularly push these devices to their limits. So one should always be somewhat suspicious when a writer talks about performance testing a computer.
By now, we are all aware of how iffy benchmarks can be. Yet more and more, we have to depend on benchmarks to determine the true power of computers since so few of us can actually run into the limits. The benchmarks seem to suggest that this computer is slightly ahead of last years model. This is exactly what we should expect considering the slow pace of progress with CPUs.
What I do not see is any evidence that the product is underperforming expectations. Read/write speed is exceptionally fast. The interface is liquid smooth. In practical experience, I have nothing to complain about. Then again, I’m a writer. I can say that it feels faster than last year’s model.
The only real complaint some seem to have is the ram limitation. These machines have a hard ram limit of 16 GB. But professionals in certain industries like to have 32 GB. I honestly cannot hope to understand why so much ram is necessary because there is nothing I do that can take advantage of so much ram. I am perfectly happy with 8 GB.
I will go on to speculate that while the outcry is loud, there is only a very small niche that would actually upgrade to 32 GB of ram. I am glad Apple didn’t delay this generation of laptop just to appease that particular group.
The best I can say about performance is that it is slightly better in my limited experience. But that impression is born out with benchmarks and reviews. For most people, even pros, performance hasn’t been a bottleneck for quite some time. Nor is it now. These laptops are as fast as you expect them to be.
I suppose I should add a word about battery life since in my opinion, that is the bigger part of the performance equation. All the power in the world means nothing on a mobile device if the battery only lasts two hours. The new MBP seems to have the battery life that Apple says it has, about 10 hours.
Despite the noise from a vocal minority, performance is not the thing you need to worry about if you are considering the purchase of one of these machines for work. The keyboard, on the other hand, is where the real controversy lies.
The key difference
Are you the traveling kind? I am of course referring to key travel. If you like the keys to depress a half inch or more when you press them, then you will hate this new keyboard on the new MBP. It is a lot like the keyboard on the 12” MacBook.
Apple says the keys have the same amount of travel. But the key feel has changed. Having used them side by side, I can attest to the fact that the key feel is different when typing on the two machines. I liked the keyboard on the MacBook just fine. I am pleased to report that I like the new keys on the MacBook Pro even better.
But that is small consolation for the people who didn’t like the keyboard on the 12” MacBook. They will likely not like this one either. They are different, but probably not different enough.
It all comes down to travel. I personally love low-profile, low-travel keyboards. I required zero adjustment period. From my perspective, the tyranny of mushy, deep-travel keyboards are over.
Unfortunately, many of the tech pundits are typists from a certain generation. Not only do they pine for the first keyboard they learned to type on, they purchase expensive specialty keyboards that have just the right deep travel and clicky clacky sound. They do not represent the average person and their opinion should probably be ignored.
Some pundits are generous enough to say that while the keyboard may not be right for them, it is a matter of personal preference.
There is a popular voice in Mac punditry who is far less charitable. He believes that Apple was wrong to produce this keyboard. Moreover, he feels it is an embarrassment to Apple. He doesn’t think it is wrong for him, but that it is wrong for existing. I have lost much respect for him.
The difference in direction Apple is taking with the keyboard and the way people are reacting to it is most emblematic of the fact that this is a new kind of MackBook for a new kind of pro. Here is some of what I think might be going on:
I do not have the institutional memory to know if this has always been true. But as far back as I can remember, the professional lineup of Apple’s products has been the tech of choice for that niche known as creative professionals.
Apple routinely markets to that segment, going as far as designing their products with those buyers in mind. Who, but creative professionals, would be interested in the Apple Pencil? That was one of the most innovative aspects of the iPad Pro.
But at some level, Macs in general have been the domain of the creative pro. From the Power Mac to the Mac Pro, it has been the stuff of aspirational longing for graphics artists, designers, music producers, photo manipulators, and movie editors.
That group in particular feels like they have a proprietary ownership over the Mac brand, the pro machines in particular. Every professional Mac in recent memory has been made for that niche, and tested against their requirements and expectations. For a long time, far too long, they have been the only kind of professional that mattered to Apple, and thus to the community at large.
At Apple and throughout the greater community, the tyrannical reign of the creative professional is over.
They are not taking it lying down. They’re mad as hell. And they are not going to allow anyone a moment’s peace until they have been heard, by everyone. It started with Final Cut X, and continued with the cylindrical Mac Pro. Apple was redefining and reshaping their vision of creative professional tools. And the creative pros were having none of it.
This is not the first time there has been a revolt within the ranks of the Apple faithful. It happened several years ago when Apple started deemphasizing the I bleed six colors fanatics. But my take on the matter is that since the time of Jobs, Apple has been trying to live up to one of their original marketing claims:
For the rest of us
Apple used to fancy the Mac as the computer for the rest of us. There was a time when the PC was a complicated tool for the extremely corporate, techie, or game obsessed. That left out just about everyone.
Apple broke through that definition offering the computer for the rest of us. But along the way, something went sideways with that vision. The Mac became the tool for the tech elite snobs, the creative pros, and those so wealthy, they were unaware of their privilege. Once again, the rest of us were the outsiders looking into a closed and narrowing niche.
I get very nervous when pundits start talking about Apple’s base. It is a very non-inclusive concept. I picture a small, self-obsessed, entitled group of fans who because of previous Apple loyalty, believe they can define and control the company’s destiny.
The base does not include you or I. We can’t be considered a part of the base unless we get in line behind the power players in the movement. Apple ignores the will of these influencers at their peril. There are many people who are a part of that base that I very much respect and like. And yet I feel compelled to deliver the following message:
SCREW THE BASE!
George R. R. Martin is not your bitch. And neither is Apple.
The problem with Mac punditry these days is that it is a homogeneous mouthpiece for the base, and not for the rest of us. The Apple press is very white, privileged, and ideologically narrow. They believe they are diverse. But that sense of diversity is delusional.
The Apple press is a niche that is as tough to break into as the Apple base. There are more voices and points of view that go unheard and unrepresented than those that do. But Apple sees a larger picture. And they are starting to return to their original mission
Apple is starting to break free of their niches which are no less confining as the corporate, techie, and gamer niches of PC-land. Apple is starting to grow beyond their base of entitled, creative pro yuppies, and reconnect with the rest of us.
They are indeed doing this at their peril. They have crossed a line and sewed the wind. My only knock against Apple’s latest moves is that they didn’t do it years ago. They never should have allowed themselves to get comfortable with the praise of those who wanted to use the Mac as a tool to separate themselves from the rest of us as opposed to a tool that empowered and enabled the rest of us to achieve a more meaningful equality.
I am truly sorry for those who feel newly abandoned and disenfranchised by Apple. But they will never fully grasp the fact that they have enjoyed their day in the sun at the expense of keeping the rest of us in the shade.
The way they feel now is the way the rest of us have felt for a very long time. Apple is not abandoning the Mac. They are simply returning it to its rightful heirs: the rest of us.
The other pros
So what do you have if you don’t have the creative pros? Just ask Microsoft. They have never had the creative pros. And yet professionals have been using PCs for decades.
People who crunch data in Photoshop, InDesign, Premiere, Logic, and Xcode are not the only professionals. Though to here their thoughts on the matter, they are. And while they know that there are other people out there who can rightly be called professionals, the creative pros seem to think they are the only ones that matter.
According to the new Apple, they’re not.
Apple also has a very important partnership with IBM because corporate professionals matter. One of their strongest software partners is Microsoft because office professionals matter. Journalists, writers, bloggers, and other professionals who make words for a living are an important niche to Apple because communication professionals matter.
Some professionals are investors. Some are entrepreneurs. Some are housekeepers, teachers, athletes, preachers, coaches, counselors, doctors, attorneys, and perhaps most important of all dreamers.
Some professionals fly up in big planes. Some travel on a bus or in the back seat of a taxi. Some go to a crowded office building and live the cube life. Some stay home and live the SOHO life. Some work out of coffee shops, park benches, and even on the battlefield.
A professional cannot be easily defined or pigeonholed by another who is convinced they have a more restrictive definition. Are you a professional? You are if you say so. And let no one tell you otherwise.
The high-end creative pros are wondering if the new MacBook Pros are right for them. Who cares! The new MacBook Pros are perfect for the millions of other pros who have been waiting far too long to be noticed by a company who’s mission statement is all about them. If you are one of the countless other pros, I’m guessing the new MacBook Pro is just right for you.
A new kind of benchmark
I’ve got a confession to make. I think most computer reviews are stupid. I tend to read them all. But I feel like much of the ink is spilled over things that simply don’t matter to real people who are trying to make a purchasing decision.
That is because the basic assumption of the review is that the only people who really matter are that base of people who are running three instances of Photoshop even as we speak. They use benchmarking tools with names like Geek Bench and 3D Mark just to give you an idea of whose interests they are considering.
Those products are designed to test and compare all the traditional speeds and feeds that do little to inform you of how well the machine will meet your needs and desires. What does a 15% CPU even feel like? Who cares? It doesn’t answer the question of how speedy it feels when you are doing your work.
I don’t care about the GPU numbers. I care about how smoothly words and images appear on my screen. I don’t care how much ram it’s rocking. I care about how quickly and efficiently I can move from one task to another without feeling like my computer is overloaded.
It is not that I don’t understand traditional benchmarks. It is just that I don’t care. I have words to make, spreadsheets to run, and the occasional film to edit. I am not all that interested in whether or not this machine will handle the entire workflow of producing a summer blockbuster. We need a new kind of benchmark to tell us whether the machine is right for what we do.
To USB-C, or not to be?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we just had one kind of cable and one kind of port that worked in any orientation, and could do anything a cable or port needs to do? That is what everyone was clamoring for, that is, until the moment we actually got it.
The new laptops come with USB-C/Thunderbolt ports. You are going to have to pick up a couple of new cables and dongles for use with your older gadgets until everything goes to USB-C. That’s it. No histrionics. No chordpocalypse.
But it seems that some people thought we could enter this glorious future while keeping every legacy port and slot from decades past. I can’t express how tired I am of listening to rich people complaining about having to purchase a couple of extra chords and dongles. This seems like a good time for my first use of this expression: STFU!
This ridiculous outcry is brought to you by that same group of creative pros who are upset because this laptop was not designed with their specific needs in mind. Professional photographers will have to use a different workflow because the card slot is gone. I don’t know how I will sleep at night knowing that.
Personally, I never plug anything into my mobile besides a power cable, and only when I am not using it. I don’t even bring a power cable with me unless I’m traveling. This isn’t my only computer.
I still use a desktop for in-office work. I have all the legacy ports I need. Were I using this mobile as a desktop, I would purchase a hub. If I was the kind of professional who needed to hook this up to ancient projectors, I would already be used to carrying a lot of cables and dongles. This is simply not an issue for any professionals I have ever met.
Conclusion: To the future, and beyond…
There is a bit of culture shock going on in the Apple community. They have seen these changes coming for a long time. Apple is being accused of making abrupt shifts in strategy. But there is nothing abrupt about these shifts. They have been coming for a while. And we are not done yet.
If you are one of those mouthing threats about switching to Windows if Apple makes one more of these moves away from tradition, please do us all a favor and switch now. They have more moves away from tradition and into the future. I suspect these changes may even start accelerating, not declining.
The headphone jack is a goner. Kiss your function row goodbye. And deep-trench key travel is a thing of the past. Thin and light has forever replaced fat and heavy. Siri and Touch ID are a part of what defines a Mac. And more changes that we have not imagined are on the horizon.
I really am sorry for the people feeling a new sensation of abandonment. But they should be happy for the rest of us who are feeling a new sensation of inclusion and empowerment.
For those who are on the way out, please pass the baton to the incoming inheritors with grace and dignity. Don’t try to ruin it for the rest of us. There are plenty of us who have been waiting our turn for a very long time. We know these new books don’t have startup chimes, light-up logos, or images of a 6-colored happy Mac. And we are okay with that. In fact, we prefer it.
This new Apple is our Apple. And these new books are our aspirational inspiration.
Please pass the baton with poise.
We are black males who were born on the wrong side of the tracks, and hispanic females who barely escaped the impoverishing cycle of unwed teen motherhood, and people of questionable gender with dreams of not following in our father’s footsteps, and people who put on business suits to go sell vacuum cleaners, persons with disabilities who need a computer that can talk to us, or speak for us.
We are all these people, and more. And we have work to do.
It is different work than what you do, and probably not as glamorous. We may have to work twice as hard as you to make half the money you do. But we are no less professionals than you.
So please pass the baton with care. And we accept it with pride. The last leg of the race was epic. But the next leg of the race is ours. We will be the ones to write the next chapter of Apple. And these new MBPs are one of the many new tools we will write it with.