QR Code contains TinyURL of this article.Apple’s 2016 MacBook Pro

(and the Winter of Our Discontent)

Apple's 2016 15″ MacBook Pro

We might record the 27th October, 2016 in future history books. If we do, it probably won’t be for Apple’s updates to their marquee MacBook Pro computer range. Yet, if one reads just a handful of blog posts regarding the company’s “hello again” event, you might think that all that mattered in the world was what Apple failed to deliver rather than what it did. I don’t recall ever reading such negativity from self-proclaimed Apple fans as I have in recent days.

Remortgage the House

One facet universally criticised by pundits is Apple’s outrageous pricing for these new machines. The cost of entry, for the base 13″ model — a technically humble machine — is 1,499 (USD) (or €1,749). Order a fully loaded 15″ model — you know, because we’re “professional” users — and your bank account will be lighter by an eye-watering 4,299 (USD) (or €5,099).

Now I’ll pay my Apple Tax like any good little fan boy, but these prices sting more than usual. In fact, I was so shocked by the pricing, I spent some time looking at alternative brands1 as I considered an upgrade. That’s something entirely new for me and it’s a problem for Apple.2

Apple, you’re going to drive new and existing customers away with these prices, I’m certain of that.

What, No Touchscreen?

Users are angry about the lack of a touchscreen on the new MacBooks. Personally, I’m fascinated by this. Having used a modern touchscreen computer — a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch — I am on Apple’s side on this one. Sure, for the first hour or so, it’s fun to play with a touchscreen-equipped computer but, when the novelty wears off, it quickly becomes tiresome and I would not appreciate having bought into a technology that offers little utility and lots of discomfort. Honestly, I just don’t get the point (pun intended).

Touch Bar

We knew it was coming. The rumour mill and leaked photos hinted at the Touch Bar long before Apple’s official unveiling. Apple itself let the cat out of the bag with a macOS service release that included images of a Touch Bar equipped MacBook buried within.

The Touch Bar intrigues me. I see a lot of utility in it and the fact that it is open to developers promises interactions I can’t yet imagine. I can’t say I’ll miss the function keys (incidentally, the Touch Bar presents the function key row when one presses the fn key, so no real loss). I’m a little concerned about the loss of a physical esc key though. I hope the adaptive Touch Bar is smart enough to present esc when modals and dialogs are on screen. If not, then I’ll most likely end up revising my remapping of the caps lock key once again.

I’m pleased that the Touch Bar is coplanar with the keyboard. For an old keyboard jockey like myself, that makes a world of difference and makes it more likely that I’ll actually use the thing.

Touch ID

In my opinion, the addition of Touch ID to the new MacBook is a significant new feature. We’re familiar with Touch ID from our iPhones and iPads (and the equivalents on other platforms).

Touch ID allows users to unlock Apple devices, make purchases in the Apple digital media stores and authenticate Apple Pay online or in applications. On announcing the feature, Apple made it clear that it stores fingerprint data locally in a secure enclave on its new T1 processor, rather than remotely on Apple servers or in iCloud, making it difficult for external access or tampering.

“From everything I can piece together, the T1 chip in the new MacBook Pro is a variant of the system-on-a-chip used in the Apple Watch. Running watchOS on the T1 lets the Mac benefit from Apple’s deep work on iOS embedded security, as the T1 gates access to the Touch ID sensor and, from the looks of it, the front-facing camera in the new MacBook Pro too.” Steven Troughton-Smith, in an interview with The Verge

If Troughton-Smith is correct, then Touch ID and the T1 chip-set could bring more to the security of the Mac platform than just the convenience of biometric authentication.

When companies like Agile Bits include support for Touch ID in their products, the pain of logging-in to websites is all set to become a distant memory. This writer can hardly wait for that particular future.

A final comment on Touch ID: I hope it’s reasonably configurable. During the keynote presentation, we saw a Touch ID login and we saw it used for Fast User Switching (that’s cool). I want to be able to configure it to not be active for logging in to macOS, but to be active once I’ve authenticated, traditionally, with my strong password. This way, I couldn’t be physically coerced into unlocking my computer.

Amnesia

noun: a partial or total loss of memory

The new MacBooks top out with 16GB of RAM, much to the frustration of large swathes of its user base. An upper limit of 16GB of RAM, in a self-titled “Pro” computer, in the final quarter of 2016, is simply not acceptable.

Apple’s defense of this limit is that 32GB would result in a significant reduction in battery life. While this may well be true, it’s a straw man argument. This is a “Pro” machine. Its users work with high-definition video, giga-pixel images, massive data-sets…

The problem here is that Apple have chosen not to even give users the choice. A lesser time on battery is a trade-off that myself and others would gladly accept, if it meant the difference between comfortably handling our workloads, or waiting while our computers do their paging dance to virtual memory on the SSD.

I find Apple’s stance on this to be disrespectful of her customers, or indicative of a company that has little understanding of the tasks her patrons buy their computers for.

We can only hope that Apple sees sense and offers a 32GB upgrade in the next iteration. But for some of her users today, it’s too little, too late — and that’s a shame.

Update: Read Jonathan Ździarski’s counter-argument, Can We Put the 16GB “Pro” Myth to Rest?

The Demise of MagSafe

“A cool new feature… and this is going to save us all a lot of hassle…” Steve Jobs, announcing the MagSafe connector, in 2006

Now it’s gone and, again, Apple seems to have upset a large number of people.

Steve Jobs was right, MagSafe was a cool feature. But, something about it always bothered me and it is this: for the majority of my computing time, the power cable is not the only one that I have connected to the computer. So, for all its undisputed usefulness, my MacBook was still vulnerable to the problem MagSafe purported to solve. A careless foot, curious child or unknowing pet could yank my computer to the floor by its Ethernet cable, or by any of the number of USB cables that sprouted from its ports.

Having said that, I appreciate that for others, tethered only by the power cable, the loss of MagSafe is deeply felt. To those people I say, “fear not, salvation is but an OEM away.” Griffin and at least one other supplier offer solutions for the 2016 MacBook Pro. Others will surely follow.

Any Port in a Storm

Then we come to the ports. Apple chose — wisely in my opinion — to drop all the ports from the new MacBook in favour of Thunderbolt 3/USB Type C interfaces (two on the 13″ and four on the 15″ machines). Naturally, this has ruffled feathers in the community. The most common complaint, as best I could determine, is that customers will have to buy and carry an assortment of dongles in order to enjoy connectivity with their existing peripherals.

I get it, I really do. But… I don’t think it justifies the amount of fuss it has engendered. In my case, I have a selection of USB 3 devices and two external displays that I wish to connect to my computer. The USB devices I can handle with a discreet and inexpensive adapter like the Nonda MI22SGRN, or I can swap out my existing USB 3 cables for USB 3 to USB Type C ones. A quick search on Amazon tells me I can get a USB Type C to HDMI cable (no dongle); a USB Type C to DisplayPort cable (no dongle); I can even get a USB Type C to DVI cable, albeit with an inline dongle. Ethernet is no problem either, it requires a dongle but then, so does my current — late 2013 — MacBook and that’s never been an issue for me.

“But wait,” you cry, “what about the poor photographers? Apple killed the SDHC slot.” Oh yeah, that, well I use that too and guess what, there’s a dongle for that also.3

Another thing, remember those frayed Apple power cables we “enjoyed” in the past… no problem now, just replace the USB Type C cable, there’s no need to buy a whole new PSU.

So, for the most part, we’re not worse off. I’ll take the positives of the Thunderbolt 3/USB Type C ports every time:

  • daisy-chainable;
  • reversible connector (these are a delight);
  • universal (plug anything into any port);
  • distributable (USB Type C hubs are available now);
  • bi-directional power on any port.

Count me in.

I Can Hear Music

Curiously, there’s a headphone jack on the new MacBooks. Perhaps Apple could not muster up any more courage? 😃

Admittedly, the 3.5mm jack is on the wrong side of the machine, but I can live with that.

In What Direction is the Mother Ship Heading?

This is the killer question and one that feels like it’s at the root of the discontent that the Apple faithful have expressed so vociferously since the 27th October.

Is Apple slowly abandoning the desktop/laptop line and, by extension, the Macintosh heritage? Has the company forgotten her roots? Is she now driven more by marketing than by R&D, or consumer demand? Has Apple decided that the desktop computers are low priority projects?

Of course I don’t know. The company plays its cards close to its chest. It doesn’t discuss current or future development plans, nor does it publish any kind of product road-map.

It doesn’t seem logical to me that Apple would not have both a near and long-term plan for the Macintosh family. The MacBooks, Mac minis, iMacs and Mac Pros are the mainstays of the developers who produce the software for the iOS platform. Apple makes a substantial portion of its income from the iOS family, ergo not catering to its developers makes no sense at all, that would be killing the cash cow. I take some solace in the fact that Apple, as a public company, is accountable to its shareholders. They will surely not allow the development ecosystem to fall too much into disrepair.

However, it’s obvious that the “hello again” event has left the developer community unsettled and ill at ease. Apple needs to address that because, as we all know, if developers begin to abandon the platform then the snowball effect kicks in and that would be dangerous for the company.

Apple is no stranger to criticism, but what’s new here is that it’s some of her most stalwart supporters who have expressed dismay. It might well be time for the company to break its habit of silence.

Updated: 2nd November 2016.

Phil Schiller’s interview with The Independent goes a long way towards settling my own nerves about the future of the Mac platform.

  1. Upon which I could install some flavour Linux. ↩︎

  2. Ultimately I didn’t switch. I ordered a maxed-out 15″ model in luscious space grey, which should serve my computing needs well for the next 2-3 years. ↩︎

  3. Please don’t tell me that a photographer (or videographer), with bags full of camera bodies, lenses, flash guns, accessories and a tripod or two, is going to endure any hardship in adding a card-reader to her load, because I just don’t buy it. ↩︎