Why the new MacBook is a success

By uliwitness


To those of you following me on Twitter, it hasn’t been a secret that I’ve been waiting for a small, portable Retina MacBook for quite a while. Yesterday, Apple announced one, and it looks to be a good one. Since I’ve heard a lot of nay-sayers, I thought I’d point out some things that people may overlook.

Are you the target audience?

The new device is named “MacBook” and priced in the $1500 price range. Also, the old MacBook Air in the < $1000 price bracket is still available. This makes sense. The MacBook Air moved into the entry-level price bracket a couple years ago. Like with other Mac models, a Retina variant can't be made at that price profitably. So they'll keep the old variant for the price-conscious, as a way to attract new users who will then hopefully later upgrade to a more expensive model, or stay on at the low end. So the people looking for a cheaper (but not the cheapest) Mac are one target of this new machine. Another main feature was that it's slim and ultra-portable. So if you would be fine lugging around a 15 incher, you're definitely not the target audience. If you're looking for a powerful Mac to run scientific simulations or build large programs using Xcode, you already have the 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro. It is only slightly larger and packs the power and extensibility you need. So why the heck would Apple build a machine identical to those existing ones?

The new MacBook is the future replacement of the MacBook Air 11″. If you wouldn’t have bought that machine, why’d you be surprised that this machine at the top end of the price bracket is not for you? It sells like sliced bread, so there obviously are people who want a machine like that.

That ‘single’ port

I’ve seen many people complain about that single USB-C port. But when I look at my and friends’ usage patterns on the MacBook Air 11″, it turns out that most of the time you don’t use a port. Either you’re traveling, on a train or plane with it (if you didn’t, you’d probably be fine with a larger machine), in which case you wouldn’t have anyplace to plug it in anyway.

Or you’re at work, or in your apartment, in which case you’re stationary. So you probably already have an external display that provides power *and* serves as an Ethernet adapter and USB hub, or some other dock, around which your wired ethernet connection or clunky devices that you’d need USB ports for are arranged.

In that situation, only having a single USB-C plug to attach is actually the most convenient solution.

And since USB-C is an industry standard, there’s no doubt that USB keys with C-plugs are only a matter of time. At worst, you may carry along a tiny plug adapter for attaching a colleague’s old USB storage sticks, probably smaller than a 30pin to Lightning adapter. And you won’t even have to pay the Apple Premium(tm), because lots of third-parties will probably be making these, too.

And they did leave in the combined headphone/mic jack, which is probably the only other port I’d use with any regularity, and which might actually be needed while something else is plugged in.

That M-processor

The MacBook Air has never been known for being the high-end machine of the product line. The biggest of the new MacBook’s CPUs Turbo Boosts up to 2.9GHz. That’s faster than the old entry-level ones, but not quite as fast as the old i7 variant. But neither machine is problematic for the entry-level crowd they will eventually be serving. You can write text and e-mails, you can browse the web, you can watch full HD movies. Heck, Photoshop will not be super-fast but probably be fine, and while Xcode may take some time, it will still run and get the job done. That’s not a change from before.

That Webcam

The Webcam is only 480p. That’s not much. Then again, if you’re calling home, you probably know what your kids or parents look like, and you’ll be able to make out whether the facial expression meant that phrase was irony or serious. That’s really all video calls are for. If you’re at a hotel, picture quality will probably be reduced to horrible macroblocks anyway, due to the slow internet. And very likely, you already own an iPhone or iPad, so you can always use their camera.

And if you actually want to take video, you’re likely using an external camera anyway, and not your webcam, which picks up the vibrations from your typing and has a limited angle that requires you adjust your screen.

Non-clicky trackpad

This easily had me worried. I’ve never been able to make touch-to-click work on old trackpads. I always caused clicks at the start of quickly moving the mouse, accidentally trashing or moving files in the process. However, with force-touch, this might work out. If it can detect the difference in pressure, it might have a decent threshold between a strong touch or a soft click. I haven’t actually used one yet, but all the hardware for this to work seems to be present.

The new power supply

I’ve had some issues with my MacBook Air 11″‘s power supply. My cable usually goes sideways off the hotel bed, so the plug being angled backwards means it bends off right after the plug. The rubber sleeve on the cable usually starts fraying and breaking after a while. Since the cable is attached permanently to the power supply, that made for some expensive replacements.

In addition, the MagSafe connector kept unplugging when I didn’t want it to. Oddly, when someone actually stepped on the cable, the sudden force would cause the lightweight MacBook to spin around first, so its back was facing in the direction of the cable. This in turn meant that the L-shaped MagSafe plug now functioned as a hook and would not unplug. In short, MagSafe never worked for me on that machine (It’s fine on my old 15″ MBP, because that weighs enough).

As far as I can tell from Apple’s web site, the new power supply is like an iPhone power bug. There is a separate USB-C cable with plugs on both ends now. The USB cable has a straight, not angled plug. As such, not only would it not get bent when the cable goes off sideways, someone pulling on it would also no longer turn it into a fishing hook. It’s much more likely that it’d unplug under force now than before. And if it doesn’t, it won’t be any worse than before for me.

Now if this power supply and these connectors make their way to the larger MacBooks, the lack of MagSafe may become an issue. But for this device? Not for me.

The Retina Display

If I read Apple’s web site right, the new MacBook has a 2304×1440 screen. At traditional scale factors, that would make it 1152×720@2x or 1536×960@1.5x. That first resolution would be a show-stopper for me. Back when the 11″ MacBook Air came out, most applications did not expect a new Mac to have a screen as small as 768. Lots of windows didn’t fit onscreen, with the “OK” buttons at the bottom ending up offscreen. 48pt less is worse, and will probably cause that problem again.

You can’t run a 12″ screen at 2304×1440 either. The menu bar would be tiny. You’d spend all day bent over the tiny laptop and ruin your back. However, the 1.5x resolution would be fine for me. The screen is a bit larger, so this should end up only slightly smaller than the old 11″ MacBook Air.

Is it ideal to run this device at 1.5x? No. Is it an improvement over the old non-Retina? Yes. More space to work with, and more pixels for text rendering.

I can’t say for sure that these resolutions would be available, though. Apple’s documentation mentions 2304×1440 at 226ppi, and then a number of “Scaled” resolutions which are really weird sizes like 1280×800. I presume these are just the additional resolutions like you’d find them under “Scaled” in the “Displays” System Preference pane, and that we’ll still have the 1x, 1.5x and 2x switches like we have on current Retina Macs.

That Keyboard

In general, I like better keyboards, and as a fast but not very precise typist laud the idea of a more stable key cap. The only issue I have with this one is that the new single-assembly butterfly mechanism seems to be using a thinner piece of material (and apparently plastic) as a hinge/joint of sorts. Usually that means that, after some wear and tear, this thinner piece will break. That would mean this device is engineered to break.

The verdict

In my not so humble opinion, people who are complaining are not real Scotsmen… err … not the target audience for this machine. You can still get one of the others, even non-Retina MacBook Airs on their way out. The features Apple cut or compromised on are the ones that will least affect the typical user. It’s a good machine. I’ll probably buy one once I’ve answered that final, all-important question:

… Space Grey or Gold?

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Good comments. Align with my thoughts as well. My color choices are in this order : 1st Space Grey then Silver. I do not care too much for the Gold.

  2. I’m generally more of a white metal/silver fan myself, but since seeing Apple’s brass-like version of gold on the iPhone, I’m coming around to it. I’m getting bored of aluminium, and Space Grey seems too similar and is also found on lots of PC laptops these days, so gold is really the only “new” color, and somehow I want something new. It’s a close call though, if gold cost more or had longer delivery times, I’d switch to space grey immediately.

  3. I’ve owned an 11″ air for three-four years now, and it’s my primary development machine for all of my own stuff. I love it because it’s really light and easy to carry about—I barely notice it in my backpack—and yet has enough grunt for developing games for mobile. And importantly, I can hang a couple of mobile devices off its USB ports for development and still have it plugged into power so these devices don’t chew the battery up.

    My job provided me with a 13″ retina pro for their stuff, and while it’s unquestionably faster and the screen is miles ahead, it’s so much heavier (and yes, I do have to cart it about quite a bit). The only areas of what I do where it meaningfully beats the air are interface builder* and battery life.

    My biggest complaint about the 11″ air is that the screen is a little too small; that there’s too much wasted bezel. The new macbook completely resolves this problem, and I could happily live with the slightly less powerful CPU and GPU (I am on an old model air anyway, so it’s probably an upgrade for me!); but the lack of USB ports makes it a no go for me for mobile development. It’s a pity, because it looks like a lovely machine otherwise**.

    So if I upgrade this year, it’ll be to the refreshed 11″ air, and I’ll live with the same screen I’ve already got.

    *interface builder would be fine if it actually had sensible zoom options.

    **I have a little skepticism about the fanlessness—I fear that will cause significant CPU and GPU throttling when you try to push it hard that will make it feel much less performant. But I’d be willing to risk that.

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