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Thoughts on the New MacBook

Many reviews have already been written about the MacBook by people far more qualified than I, making a comprehensive review by me pointless. But I did have a few thoughts over the past few days that I wanted to share [1].

The New Keyboard:

Lots of debate on short throw vs. long throw. My approach to typing is much like my approach to any musical instrument. If I want to play fast, I need economy of motion. The less distance my fingers need to travel, the faster I can play. That’s physics. Typing is no different. If you’re used to pounding on Cherry switches, though, you’re probably going to disagree. That’s okay. We’re allowed to disagree on this.

Based on what many reviews suggested, and my own experience typing at the Apple Store for a few minutes, I thought it would take me a day or two to get used to the new keyboard. In reality, it took seconds.[2]

Because of the lower height of the keys, and the fact that they are sufficiently recessed into the unibody, this is the first laptop I’ve ever owned that doesn’t have the nasty habit of leaving keyboard-shaped grease stains all over my screen whenever I close it. I can’t tell you how significant an improvement this is. There’s virtually no grease on my screen, and that’s without putting a cloth over the keyboard when I close the lid. As someone who has been a laptop user since 1996, I’m practically weeping with joy over this. I’ve been cleaning that grease off of various screens regularly for years, and now I don’t need to worry about it nearly as much. Future of the notebook, indeed.

Backlighting is not just nicer, but significantly nicer. Having each key illuminated with its own source results in far less light leak around the keys, which makes the keyboard far less distracting in low-light situations. Combine that with the improved font (San Francisco) on the new larger keys, and you get a far better low-light experience using this machine.[3] It’s almost as if the text on the keys isn’t artificially lit up, but rather just happens to be visible in the dark.

My only issue with the keyboard is the arrow key situation. Specifically, the “up” key is pretty hard to find by feel alone. That’s a bummer.

Space Gray

I’m usually a plain old silver kind of guy. For whatever reason, I usually like the silver iPhone, the silver iPad, etc. The whole Darth Vader thing never appealed to me. (I even ordered the silver steel link bracelet for my Apple Watch.) But when the Space Gray MacBook was announced, I thought, “What the hell. Might as well do something different for a change.”

I think if I had seen the MacBook in person before ordering it I would have chickened out and gone for the regular aluminum color. That’s not to say that I’m regretting ordering the Space Gray. But I would recommend people have a look in person before ordering.

The gold was a non-starter for me. I think it looks nice enough, but I can’t have all that yellow reflectivity hitting my eyes as I’m trying to choose colors in Photoshop.

I couldn’t put my finger on what it was about the Space Gray that I don’t love, until my colleague Tim said it for me. He said it reminded him of one of his old PC laptops before he became a Mac convert.

Now, I’ve never owned a PC, but I immediately understood what he was talking about. This MacBook is way too pretty to be a PC, but we’ve been looking at aluminum Macs for so long that any Mac laptop that isn’t that specific shade of silver just doesn’t look like a Mac. At first glance, it looks like a PC that’s trying to be a Mac. I suspect that will change over time as we get more and more models in this color.

Meanwhile, having a Space Gray Mac does make me want to use Dark Mode in OS X for the first time. And it makes me wish all that much more that Dark Mode were a true dark UI, not just a change in menubar and Dock. (Hopefully, Apple will consider enhancing Dark Mode to include the entire UI in a future OS X release.)

And, oh my, does this darker Space Gray ever show fingerprints. Not just on the non-illuminated logo on the lid (Which is an absolute fingerprint magnet) but the entire body of the machine. (The keyboard, too, even shows prints far more than the other laptops.) So while I’m cleaning my screen far less often, I’m wiping down the rest of the machine on a regular basis now. (One step forward…)

USB-C

I understand that Apple wants to keep making licensing money on Lightning accessories, but having the diminutive USB-C connector and Lightning coexist seems silly. I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually iOS devices just go USB-C. Maybe not this year or next, but eventually, it would make sense.

The one port thing has been talked about to death. It’s not much of a factor for me and my workflow, but I’m sure it’ll be a nuisance from time to time. My guess is it’s a temporary situation with this first model.

As far as losing MagSafe goes: yeah, definitely a step back. It’s obvious why it had to happen, though. This MacBook is far too light for MagSafe to have worked well, anyway. It would be hard to imagine that even a redesigned “MagSafe 3” connector for this machine wouldn’t have either disconnected too easily and become annoying, or too hard to save your laptop from a trip over the cable. And adding a magnet connector to the universal USB-C standard really wouldn’t work for other USB peripherals. USB-C is a snug fit, so that cable isn’t coming out unless you want it to.

Give it time, and USB-C will be everywhere, so the adapters and such are another temporary issue. There are already some good options on Amazon.

The biggest annoyance for me, actually, regarding this new universal port: The lack of an LED to indicate when the MacBook is charging. Obviously, this couldn’t be incorporated into the cable, as it makes no sense for other USB-C peripherals. But just a little light laser etched into the side of the MacBook case near the port would have been very handy. The MacBook does play a sound when you plug in the power, but only if the machine is not on mute. (My Macs are always on mute.) Not being 100% sure that the machine is charging is the sort of thing that drives a nerd like me nuts.[4]

The Lid and Hinge

Opening the new MacBook, you can tell they got much closer to nailing the balance in the resistance of the lid vs. other Mac laptops. It opens fairly easily with one hand, and you don’t have to hold down the bottom of the laptop to keep it from popping up and then slamming back down onto the table as you open it.

The metal hinge (as opposed to the old black plastic) also adds to the fit and finish of this machine. The Unibody construction just keeps getting more and more solid, and Apple just keeps getting better at mass producing gadgets with increased levels of polish.

Size

Don’t let the 12-inch screen fool you. This machine is smaller than the 11-inch Air in almost every dimension, including the most important one: width. It fits better into my portable Muzetto bag than my Air ever did. Once Apple can get the price down on these machines, neither model of the Air will need to stick around.

Speed

This is another one of those things that is mostly a matter of opinion and workflow. My biggest fear in replacing my 13-inch MacBook Pro with this machine was the apparent step back in terms of performance. Having used it for a few days, though, I can say that my fears were overblown. This MacBook has yet to feel “slow” at any point since I’ve started using it. Even with Xcode (albeit with my relatively simple iOS apps) the machine performs such that I don’t notice any sort of decrease in speed. I keep the display at the “More Space” 1440 x 900 setting, so I’m getting more real estate than I did with my old 11-inch MacBook Air, too. I’d say that if you’re working with an Air right now, there’s no reason to worry about performance when switching to the MacBook. Migrating from the 13-inch Pro, of course, is another matter. Again, it depends on what you want to do with your laptop.

The fact that I’m not really noticing a difference in my day-to-day use, though, is a testament to just how little processor speed means for most people nowadays. Maybe I don’t push my laptop nearly as hard as I do my iMac, but I do more processor-intensive stuff than the average person by a long shot.

I did get the build-to-order 1.3 GHz option, though. So this is as fast as the MacBook can currently go. I don’t imagine it’s that much faster than the base 1.1 or the mid-range 1.2, but getting the Turbo Boost up to 2.9 may make some difference.

I’m sure when I do some video work in Final Cut Pro I’m going to notice the difference much more. But for UI design in Photoshop, working on web sites in Coda, Keynote, the Omni Apps, etc.—all the things I tend to do in coffee shops on my laptop instead of on my iMac at home, the decrease in size and weight easily trumps the performance tradeoff in my mind. The same way it did when I first switched from a 15-inch MacBook Pro to an 11-inch MacBook Air many years back.

Overall

Here’s the thing about this MacBook: I’m drawn to it. I don’t know if it’s the small size of the thing that just makes it more lovable, but I’m already finding more excuses to use this machine than I ever did with my 13-inch MacBook Pro. Nothing against the folks who love the sweet spot that the 13-inch offers in size and weight to performance ratio, but I just never became fond of using that machine the entire time I owned it. The MacBook is as close as Apple has ever come to making the right laptop for me. What I thought I wanted more than anything a year ago was a MacBook Air 11-inch with a Retina display. But this is so much better than that. I can’t wait to see how this new machine evolves over the next few iterations.

  1. I’m not saying that no one else has written about any of these things. I’ve just been getting lots of questions from people about my reactions to this machine, so I thought I’d offer some of my own perspective.  ↩
  2. I think my trouble with typing at the Apple Store was the low tables they use there. Puts the keyboard at a terrible angle for someone my height. Any keyboard would be hard for me to use in that environment.  ↩
  3. Those of you who know me know that low-light is my preferred work environment, so this qualifies as a big deal to me. I want Apple to make a wireless Bluetooth version of this keyboard immediately, so I can use it with my iMac.  ↩
  4. Ditto for the non-illuminated Apple Logo on the lid which makes it impossible to know if the machine has actually gone into sleep mode when you close it. You know the old adage about the refrigerator light? Same thing here.  ↩