The MacBook Disconnect

April 26th, 2016

Apple’s notebook of the future, the MacBook, was introduced with a flourish last spring. A big deal was made of its slim and light form factor, the “stepped” battery that provided for higher capacity and reasonably long battery life. Oh, and this was Apple’s first foray into USB-C, an implementation of the USB 3.1 standard. It also sported a Retina display and a newly designed short-travel keyboard.

Almost from the very first day, Apple was attacked by tech pundits and others who claimed that, at $1,299, the 2015 MacBook was overpriced for what it offered. To them, Apple focused too much on fancy styling and not as much on performance and usability. Fitting with Apple’s minimalist design choices, the supplied Intel’s Core-M processor ran cool enough to eliminate the need for a cooling fan, thus enabling the MacBook to consume less power and run quieter even under load.

But the Core-M and its embedded Intel graphics score lower benchmarks than the Intel Core i5 that powers the MacBook Air, a lower-priced computer. The lone USB-C port is also used for charging, which means that you cannot connect anything else unless you pull the charging cable, or buy a dongle for extra ports. So they envision an underpowered notebook with loads of devices hanging off that dongle.

As a practical matter, the fears are groundless for most people. While the Core-M doesn’t score so high compared to current hardware, it’s perfectly capable of handling the needs of many road warriors who don’t need to worry about editing videos or playing high-energy games. Connecting multiple devices may be a tad less flexible (essentially one addition to cable clutter), but that’s not necessarily how many people use notebooks.

Well, at least one person.

So in the 1990s, I was somewhat obsessive about my travel planning. I would take along my PowerBook, a backup drive, a microphone for on-the-scene recording and, of course, a portable printer. After a few years, the printer went by the wayside, and backup drives can be quite small and mostly unobtrusive.

With 10-hour battery life, the MacBook can be used pretty much all day long without the need to plug anything into that USB-C port other than a single peripheral that might be required for your work. In my case, it would be a USB mic. Apple expects to go wireless for most connections, and they are right on. And there’s nothing wrong with having a wireless printer, if you need one.

Sure, I suppose one might require more CPU horsepower. Then again, for my situation, I still use a 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro. It weighs more than three times that of the MacBook, but its CPU scores are in pretty much the same range for most tasks. Since adding an SSD, I don’t feel at a loss for speed.

For me, the MacBook’s sole problem is a display that’s a little small for my needs. I’ve grown accustomed to 17 inches, a form factor long abandoned by Apple. But I could settle on a 15-inch due to the Retina display. Now if Apple built a 15-inch MacBook, perhaps with a little performance boost, it might be the perfect notebook and in many respects a better alternative than the MacBook Pro.

That, however, is purely academic at this point, since I’m still waiting on Apple to get me a review sample.

But I’ve had loads of experience with various and sundry notebooks since the early 1990s, so I have a good handle on what the MacBook is offering. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time using the Apple Magic Keyboard, which is somewhat similar in feel to the MacBook. My experience with the Magic Trackpad 2 convinces me that Force Touch is of little value to me, however.

Now the 2016 MacBook offers a little more performance for those who felt the original model wasn’t sufficient for their needs. It’s 15-20% faster according to published benchmarks, the SSD is 80-90% faster, which yields an even greater feeling of snappiness. But the critics are still griping at the lack of extra ports, the lack of a memory card slot, and the fact that the FaceTime camera has a resolution of a “mere” 480p. Unless your needs go beyond casual video chats, the latter shouldn’t matter.

I am not making excuses for a subpar product. Apple has clearly done its homework and has built a notebook computer that has a large potential market. But it also requires a careful rethinking of your needs, and what tradeoffs you’re willing to accept. It’s obviously not for everyone, which is why Apple produces more than one notebook computer.

Unfortunately, far too many product reviewers fail to recognize that different people have various needs and that a fair number might appreciate a slim and light traditional notebook computer with a great screen and acceptable performance. When you have to drag those things across long passageways from an airport’s security area to the gate from which your flight is departing, you’ll appreciate the lighter load. Let me tell you that my shoulder hurts after I drag that oversized MacBook Pro around for a while even with a carrying case that’s supposedly optimized for comfort.

So I remain intrigued by the possibilities of the MacBook Pro, but I still hope Apple will consider building a larger one.

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2 Responses to “The MacBook Disconnect”

  1. DaveD says:

    The tech pundits who complained about the 2016 MacBook must have not been around in 2008 when Apple introduced the “new” MacBook Air, a cutting-edge design. For only $1799, it had a maximum of 2 GB memory, a 1.6 GHz Intel processor, a 13-inch display, and mainly a USB and a display connections. I can recall the volume of complaints about the lack of ports and the price. The MacBook Airs of today are so much better and it’s hard to complain about its pricing after the improvements made over eight years. In 2015, Apple introduced a new cutting-edge MacBook which some say will replace the MacBook Air. It is just another iteration in the ultimate mobility design.

    The original MacBook Air was not for everybone back in 2008.

  2. David says:

    I think the biggest problem with the Air isn’t the lack of horsepower, it’s the tiny amount of screen real estate. I find the 11″ Air to be vertically challenged and it’s got 768 pixels to work with.

    The 12″ MacBook’s retina resolution of 2304×1440 displays the same amount of information as an 1152×720 non-retina screen. That’s the smallest amount of screen space in a Mac laptop since the 12″ PowerBook from way back in 2005.

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