When the new Macbook Pro was announced, I was not shy to judge it wanting. Those weren’t empty words, either – I went from being willing to spend £4.5k on a new machine, to hesitating, to buying a top spec Razer Blade for £2.7k instead. I was excited about the Razer – I even made an unboxing video!
The Blade was great – it played games smoothly at high resolution, was sleekly designed, and had a great showy gimmick in the form of the configurable LED backlit keyboard, which I soon configured to send shockwaves propagating across the keyboard with every key press. It ran Windows 10, which is the first time I actually used Windows in about 10 years. That was a tolerable experience, though I wouldn’t call it great. I could certainly get used to it.
Unfortunately, about two and a half weeks into this new experience, I came back from a meeting to find the Blade stuck at the BIOS screen. It would not find its own hard drive. I restarted it a number of times, to no avail. It seems petty to mention that this was really disappointing, but it really was. My hope for a relatively smooth ride back towards the world of Windows after a decade on the Mac hit a deep pothole and went flying off the road. I contacted Razer to get help, and was hit with an abysmal support experience1. The poor support was a large factor in my decision to use my rights under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and return the laptop for a full refund.
With reluctance, I decide to stick with the Mac for now, and try a new Macbook Pro after all. It couldn’t be that bad, right? I ordered a 15″ MBP with 1TB SSD, the top CPU and 16GB of RAM. And dongles – 4 different dongles. Total cost with Apple care, £3.5k. Ouch. Delivery target – over a month away. In the meantime, I continued to use my late 2012 MBP.
After a month, the new MBP finally arrived just after Christmas, on December 29th. I had a couple of days to set things up on it before going on holiday, I also used it a little bit while away in Ireland, and then had about a week of usage back in the office before I decided to return it as well.
Here are my thoughts on the pros and cons, why I returned it, and what comes next.
The new MBP is a beautifully designed machine. It looks slick, feels solid and futuristic. In terms of how the hardware looks and feels it’s hard to fault it.
The screen is amazingly bright and sharp. I never changed the standard background image with the mountains in the sunrise, because it looked so strikingly beautiful.
The new keyboard mechanism was surprisingly ok. I was dreading it being like the Macbook, which just feels wrong, but it somehow managed to tweak the balance to be alright. Not great, mind you. I still prefer the old keyboard. I don’t think it’s an improvement. But it works, and I could see myself getting used to it over time.
The USB-C ports are not a problem. Yeah, you need to get a few dongles, today. In a couple of years’ time, though, when everything has switched over to USB-C, this decision will look like what it is: a level-headed, sensible decision to help nudge the industry towards the future by being the first to go all in. Kudos to Apple on that.
The fingerprint scanner is nice. I don’t have a big problem typing in my password but it makes sense and is a nice way to log in.
The sound was really great, really loud and with more bass than the my 2012 MBP. If all laptops had sound like this the bluetooth speaker market would be mostly wiped out.
Let’s go in order of increasing importance and culminate with the reason why, ultimately, I decided to return the machine.
The touchpad, while perfectly fine, was enormous. That in itself is not a problem, but there was actually no purpose to the touchpad being so large. I never derived any benefit whatsoever from the size of the touchpad. My hands rested where they normally did. I think in 2 weeks there was a single occurence of the palm rejection not working as expected. That’s not a big deal. But it feels a bit pointless. Apparently, they had to switch to haptic feedback to make it that big. The haptic feedback worked well, though I still prefer actually clicks – but I can see the sense in a haptic touchpad: we have about 30 Macbook Airs in the office and a couple of them have developed issues with the clicking mechanism. Mixed bag, this touchpad.
The speed was… not all that noticeably better than my late 2012 MBP. It was faster, sure, but not a whole lot. I would have expected a top of the range machine like this to feel speedy2. It didn’t really. Perhaps that’s because of the tasks I tend to perform on it – mostly Slack, Chrome (Gmail, Gcal), Tweetbot, etc, with TotalSpace set on 9 spaces. I also use Traktor, Beatport Pro and Ableton for music. Those were a little bit more snappy, but not 4-years-and-3.5-thousand-pounds more snappy. There were still moments where the window animations were jerky, when things froze up a little, when the beach ball of doom appeared. Perhaps I’m using the wrong software to get benefits from the last 4 years of hardware improvements.
For games, even the 15″ with the Radeon 460 with 4GB of RAM was disappointing. I only ended up having time to try one game on it: Xcom 2, hardly a beast of a game, being turn-based strategy. It has the odd cut scene 3D animation that’s reasonably complex, though, and while on the Razer (which has an Nvidia 1060) it was perfectly smooth, on the Mac it was perfectly not smooth – consistently jerky, sometimes dropping to maybe 3-5 fps3. That’s poor. Very poor. If this thing can’t cope with a relatively undemanding 2015 turn based strategy game, how is it going to run any game in 2-3 years? Maybe Apple shouldn’t have bothered with the graphics card at all.
The battery life was atrocious. With my typical usage I got about 2-3 hours. Maybe a little bit more if I didn’t do anything. Perhaps this is to blame on a software glitch with the GPU switching. Perhaps this is to blame on my usage of extraordinarily demanding applications like Dropbox, Chrome and Slack (this has been seriously suggested in a Mac repair shop I went to)4. The Razer got just under 6 hours of life under the same conditions, and it made no claims to have any decent battery life. So let me get this straight: Apple made the laptop thinner, put a significantly smaller battery in there, and now I get less battery life from their new Mac, while doing the same thing as I was on my previous Mac? I just paid £3.5k to get a downgrade in battery life?
If all the above was true, but nothing else, I would probably still have put up with it and kept the damn thing. It’s a poor showing from Apple, but it is still bearable in exchange for the warm fuzzies of having a nice new Apple laptop instead of my corroded old MBP. Just about. What tipped the scales, finally, was the Touch Bar.
On a practical level, the main problem with the Touch Bar was that it never did anything useful for me, and frequently, several times a day, made my Mac experience inferior. I use my Mac as it comes, not with an external keyboard, so I could not ignore the Touch Bar. It was in my way every day. Every time I reached for the Escape key and hit… something weird. Every time I somehow rested my fingers in a way that made a long black rectangle appear on my screen, which I had to dismiss by breaking eye contact with whatever I was doing, finding an empty spot on the touch bar, and tapping that (and moving my fingers somewhere else).
I tried the Touch Bar in the mode where it gave app-specific suggestions, and I made the effort to look at it from time to time to see if there was anything of interest there. There never was. Not once. So after a week I flicked it to a static mode that looked like the Function Row. Even there it still got in the way from time to time and was an inferior experience to simply having a row of keys.
A week in, after I came back from Ireland, a weird problem developed with one key on the keyboard, which was somehow stuck down5. I tried hitting it from various angles to loosen it, but somehow it seemed stuck for good. I investigated getting that fixed, and in the process realised that I did not feel good about this laptop. Part of my mind was thinking about scenarios to return it. Why? The keyboard was surely just a minor problem.
After a bit of self-examination, I realised that the cause of that was the Touch Bar. Every day I liked it less. It was annoying, adding nothing to my experience but frequently getting in the way. Moreover, it was a daily reminder of how this MBP is not really a “Pro” machine (as has been covered ad nauseam in countless other blogs), but a sort of compromise based on Apple’s failing vision of what “Pro” users want. To put a final nail in it, I am convinced that in next year’s line-up Apple will either get rid of the Touch Bar or offer high end models both with and without, because in practice it’s just not that great an idea (I have yet to find anyone who is all that excited about the Touch Bar amongst my friends – at best they find it a non-issue). So if I kept my new MBP I’d be stuck with a high end, expensive machine that thumbs its nose at me every time I open it or rest my hands on the keyboard “the wrong way”.
One of the big reasons why people have been willing to pay extra money for Apple gear is that they get the “emotional” attachment right. They make devices that you get attached to, that create feelings in you when you use them. At least as far as I was concerned, Apple did get it right when they made the Touch Bar centrestage during the keynote (though I thought it was stupid at the time). The Touch Bar did create feelings in me. The feeling that this new MBP created in me every time I interacted with the Touch Bar was a growing awareness of my being an idiot for having bought an inferior, deeply flawed machine.
Everything else I would have put up with, but feeling like an idiot every time I use my laptop (i.e. most of the day every day) is not something I’m willing to pay £3.5k for.
So I returned it and got a refund.
The closest thing to the machine Apple should have put out, out there at the moment, is probably the Surface Book. But Microsoft is still getting their production chops together (they can’t even launch a device in the US and UK simultaneously yet). If the new Surface Book with Performance Base had been available in the UK, I might have given it a go. Maybe I will in a year or two if Apple continues to disappoint and Microsoft continues to get better.
As far as I can tell, there is currently no company that sells a Macbook Pro, i.e. a sleek, well designed, well supported professional laptop with solid specs and high desirability, a laptop that you can really feel good about buying – not even Apple. Hopefully someone (hopefully Apple) will soon, but right now there’s no laptop that is a significant upgrade on my 2012 Macbook Pro.
So for now, I will continue to use my 2012 MBP. It’s a good machine, it was doing alright, it can last another year, maybe two. And every time I open it I am reminded that I had the strength of will to return two laptops rather than spend a ridiculous amount of money on nothing just because I can.
I have bought an iPad Pro and am giving it a try for a couple of weeks as a device to use at the office6. It’s decent enough so far. I’m liking it. The battery life seems infinite. The Smart Keyboard case is tolerable (the Logitech one was too heavy). The lack of multitasking is, at the moment, actually helping me to focus better. It’s no good for “heavy work” but I no longer do heavy work at the office – most of my time is spent talking to people, sending emails and drafting documents7. I may return it, but at the moment, 4 days in, it feels like a keeper.
It is not, however, a “real computer” or a sufficient long term substitute. And I still do need a “real computer” – for DJing, for producing music, for managing my tracks collection, and perhaps even for playing games. I will have to get a new laptop, or a desktop, or maybe both, some day. At the moment, unless they really surprise me with next year’s lineup, it’s looking very likely that this next computer will not be made by Apple.