The MacBook: The price of thin

When I first looked at the MacBook Pro design that remains the template for today’s models (the so-called Fourth Generation design, with the Touch Bar and USB-C) back in early 2017 (a few months after their release), what I saw was a technically impressive, and very expensive laptop. It was a nice subject for a technical review for a magazine, but considering that I was actively pondering a new computer for my music-making activities at that time, I decided in the end it was simply too expensive. To equip one the way I needed it would have approached the $5,000 mark. Think about that for a moment: Five. Thousand. Dollars. For a hunk of technology that sits in your lap. I took a pass, and bought an iMac instead.

I did end-up buying a copy of the very latest MacBook Pro a few weeks ago, something I already mentioned, but after even more time using it, I’m reflecting a bit on the decision — while sort of scratching my head (and marveling) at Apple’s mindset.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I love my new MacBook Pro. I love the Touch Bar. It’s light. It’s fast. I like its keyboard (I’m one of two people who do, apparently, the other being Dieter Bohn at The Verge). I like the fact that it’ll charge and work just fine with a 39 watt aftermarket power supply instead of the 80-something watt power supply it ships with. I love the crisp, beautiful Retina display. I love that it puts out surprisingly good audio for what it is. The track pad is big,  and lovely to use (once you get used to it). And I accept the fact that Apple has ditched every port type you might want in favor of one you really don’t (USB-C), thus introducing the concept of dongle hell.

But if I were to reverse-engineer Apple’s strategic imperatives for the MacBook Pro, it’d be thinness, lightness, and performance over anything else — including usability. And all three of those imperatives are in direct conflict with one another. I honestly would hate to be an Apple engineer. But it’s the trade-offs, and those imperatives, that have led to USB-C and dongle hell, not to mention the much-maligned keyboard.

Every fraction of a millimeter of thickness they can shave off that keyboard design is space they can use for something else (like making the whole thing stupidly thinner). So we end-up with a one that has virtually no vertical travel, no springiness, and little satisfaction. For someone who grew-up using original IBM PC keyboards with their lovely buckling-spring technology and held onto them as long as I possibly could (they’re still made, by the way, by Unicomp — long spun out of IBM into Lexmark, and from Lexmark into an independent company from another era that somehow still survives), getting used to that keyboard took a little time. When I say I like it, it probably means I tolerate it. I don’t love the experience; I’ve just gotten used to it, and it’s not that much different from the Apple keyboard cover I use with my iPad Pro. I guess I like uniformity of experience — even if the experience is sub-par.

That same resigned acceptance explains USB-C in my case as well. Like everyone else, I hate dongle hell. I bought an $80 mini-hub thing from Satechi just so I could get wired Ethernet, an SD card slot, HDMI and regular USB ports that should have been in the MacBook itself. And of course, I leave it on my desk where the MacBook is usually parked, which means I never, ever have it where I need it.

But Apple doesn’t care. Lightness, thinness and performance matter — not usability. HDMI is too thick. Ethernet is way too thick. Old-school USB is too thick. An SD card slot is too big; they need that real estate for the components inside that make it faster. We like thin. We like light. We like performance. We know this because Apple tells us so.

And we willingly pay dearly for these things; my standard-configuration MacBook Pro was right in the neighborhood of $3,000. It’s so expensive, I’ve not even been willing to take it outside of the house until I confirm my insurance will cover its loss or theft. It’s insane, I doubt I’ll ever amortize its cost based on the value of the work I do with it, and yet, much to Apple’s delight, I bought their proposition — hook, line, sinker — and dongle.

Part of my willingness to do that is based on operating history. I still have, and still use, every single Apple Mac product I’ve ever bought.

  • The Mid-2011 model 27” iMac, recently disassembled and upgraded with a new 500 Gig SSD drive, and more RAM (24 Gig). It’s a test bed for reviews, but also one of the two machines I keep loaded with the Adobe Creative Cloud suite.
  • The Mid-2012 13” MacBook Pro, which has been upgraded not once, but twice, with SSD drives (now with 1 TB) and which has more memory successfully installed (16 Gig) than Apple says the unit will even support. It was my main music making computer (connected to a Thunderbolt Display), and now serves a backup role in that. And after all these years, its battery is still in good condition.
  • The Early-2015 13” MacBook Air, designed to be an around-the-house sort of machine, but now serves as my primary work computer (because I use my iPad Pro “around the house”). Side note: I even run Adobe Creative Cloud apps on it, including Premiere Pro for video editing, and it does a surprisingly good job. Complex transparency effects in Photoshop are about the only place I really feel, “Oh right, this is not a full Mac, and that dual-core 2.2 GHz processor probably isn’t ideal for this job.”

I’m not including a mention of either the new iMac for my music studio, or this new MacBook Pro. Every one of them has its specific purpose and assigned roles. And yes, I realize I just confessed to having five Macs, and no, I doubt I could use the two oldest of the bunch as primary computers, mostly because the new ones are just so bloody good, not necessarily because they’re bad to use.

But I will also point-out that I have never, not once, ever, gotten 7+ years of utility out of a Windows computer. I honestly believe the average person using my old 2011 iMac would compliment it on its performance. It’s using the very latest macOS. It works — and it works quite well. It runs everything I throw at it. It boots quickly. The display may not be Retina, but it looks nice, it’s bright and crisp. Everything works (OK, except the SD card slot, but that actually failed within the original warranty period and I never got it fixed, so my bad). And it has outlasted every Windows computer I’ve ever owned by a factor of about three. (The record, by the way, for a Windows machine in my life, a Dell workstation class machine, has been three years from time of purchase, to the time where a major component failed, the entire machine failed, or it became so long in the tooth and the registry so clogged with crap that the machine was unable. The average is closer to two years.)

I’ve had Dells. I’ve have PowerSpecs (house brand of Micro Center). I’ve had HPs. I’ve built my own from parts. And not a single Windows computer has ever lasted this long for me. That tends to influence one’s buying decisions. And it tends to make the up-front higher spend for a Mac more justifiable.

I suppose the bottom line is that we all love to bitch about Apple and its prices and its products. They’re not perfect; nothing is. Things like dongle hell are called that because it actually is hell dealing with it. But bitch all you want (and I do my share of it), by most measures, the craftsmanship, the design, the engineering, the longevity and the performance of the devices surpasses most of the competition — enough so that I keep drinking the Kool-Aid.

Now if I could just get that level of longevity out of my iPhones…

NOTE: The featured image on this post is a pile of my MacBooks. Top, Early 2015 MacBook Air, middle, mid-2012 13″ MacBook Pro, bottom, 2018 15″ MacBook Pro.