Thoughts on the new MacBook

Apple is coming out with a new MacBook computer and it looks fantastic. I’m guessing this computer will be a very big success although it hasn’t been without controversy and the various tech blogs are going nuts with all kinds of speculation about why Apple did this.

I think many are making the mistake of attempting to fit it logically into Apple’s current portable computer lineup and that may be the wrong way to think about it. Maybe an easier way to understand Apple’s engineering and design tradeoffs is to think of it being as portable as an iPad Air with a keyboard running Mac OS X. It’s an extremely light weight, small computer that has numerous design and engineering tradeoffs to support its size and weight. It may not be as powerful as a 13″ MacBook Air or Pro, but it’s more portable than either and portability is what it’s all about.

Having an even more portable Macintosh appeals to me because while my iPad Air 2 is a wonderful device for browsing the web and running apps, I dislike text editing in iOS and almost always pass those tasks back to my MacBook Pro from my iPad when I’m in a situation that makes that possible. And, I like using a mouse with my computers and use Apple’s less than wonderful wireless mouse, which I like better than a trackpad for text and photo editing. So, for me, the MacBook would be a more portable adjunct to an iPad.

The very same engineering tradeoffs that are bugging many appeal to me, discussion below.

Fan-less

This is the first Macintosh portable that’s fan-less and Apple was able to do this because they’re using a lower power and slower processor, they’ve miniaturized the logic board, and like all Apple portables now, it’s got an SSD and not a spinning disk. Fan-less is a great thing in that the machine will be as quiet as an iPad.

But, to make it fan-less, which no doubt was an important design goal the machine had to be lower power than a MacBook Air or Pro with a tilt towards a larger battery relative to it’s size and weight. This computer is all battery which allows it to be used all day on a single charge and that’s the way Apple sees it being used: unplugged, only plugging it in when not in use.

One USB-C Port

The single (new) USB-C port has been one of the most talked about features of the new MacBook; this computer has a single port that’s used for charging and I/O. USB-C is a new protocol (designed by Apple and Intel) and it’s considerably faster than USB 2 and 3 and backward compatible with both.

No longer will the computer have a MagSafe power connection (that’s held in place magnetically), the USB-C port will supply both power and I/O. MagSafe was Apple’s invention to prevent pulling your computer off your desk if you tripped over its power cable. Brilliant invention and it’s saved many a computer.

Glenn Fleishman at Macworld posted a long piece on the physics of whether a cable connection like this could detach, MagSafe-like, saving the computer in case of a trip over its power cable: Will your new MacBook crash to the ground without MagSafe? (Yes.).

I think almost everyone who’s been concerned about this doesn’t understand what this computer is all about. I’m writing this with my MacBook Pro sitting on my desk plugged in. When my computer is on my desk I see no reason not to plug it in and I’m guessing that most people use their MacBook Airs and Pros like I do: while on the desk, plugged in, while off the desk, on battery.

The new MacBook is positioned as an iPad and when is the last time you used your iPad plugged in? Rarely if ever do people do this. They charge them overnight, then unplug them and carry them around and use them. That’s the way Apple has designed this new MacBook to be used. It’s interesting that it’s Apple’s first portable Macintosh designed this way and because of this, for many, it’s a hard concept to digest. It doesn’t bother me at all and frankly, Apple’s latest incarnation of MagSafe (on my Retina MacBook Pro) hasn’t seemed like an advancement to me, it feels cheap compared with the older versions.

The single port is giving people fits because of connectivity concerns as well. But, if you charge your computer at night that port won’t be filled with a power cable during the day when you’re using the computer.

But, what might you want to attach during the day when you’re out and about? It’s not like you’re going to walk around with an ethernet cable hanging out of it, or even a CD/DVD burner. This computer is built to connect to the world wirelessly and while not everything can be connected this way, the few things we need wires for Apple has built dongles for. Again, think iPad: iPads have a single Lightning port and various attachments that can connect to it if one needs video out or to read an SD card.

For me, the lack of multiple ports would not be a problem even though I routinely connect a USB 3 hub to my computer with a LabelWriter and my Epson Stylus Pro 3880 photo printer connected to it (I connect to my laser printer wirelessly though our Airport Extreme), I don’t leave it plugged in all the time as I might go for days without using it.

So, the single port doesn’t throw me at all.

Screen Size

There has been a lot written about Apple’s new MacBook but as usual, it’s Dr. Drang that got me thinking about it from a slightly different perspective.

The importance and unimportance of ports

I’ve been uncomfortable with the screen real estate on my Retina MacBook Pro because before it, I had the 2011 MacBook Pro with the slightly higher resolution matte HD screen (a non-glossy screen) and that screen, while tougher to read because of text size, gave me more space to work in. It wasn’t a huge difference but I do notice it when, for instance, I’m looking at my blog and make Safari’s window big enough to show the background a bit. My old 2011 MBP showed this fine with the window taking up only slightly more than half the width of the screen. The new 2014 MBP’s different resolution makes that window take up close to 3/4 of the screen. This is exactly what Dr. Drang is concerned about with the 12″ screen on the MacBook except he’s concerned with height, not width.

The reason I buy 15″ computers instead of 13″ is that I like to have multiple windows open at the same time and have them positioned so I can see them simultaneously.

If I had an external monitor or iMac (which I’ll probably get soon) then the need to have a larger screen in a portable computer would be diminished, but like Dr. Drang, I see a even a small difference in screen height as a potential problem in reading long web pages (more scrolling) or seeing enough stuff on the screen at one time to get my work done.

This is a tradeoff: portability vs screen size.

The other piece of this influencing me is that I’ve been a one computer guy for a long time: I’ve been using Macintosh portables since there were Macintosh portables and while cloud services now make a multiple computer setup a lot easier to deal with than ever before, I feel myself resisting, wanting to keep things familiar.

I’ve been resisting buying an external monitor for this computer because an iMac is a better investment and the new retina 5K screen iMac is incredible. If I had an iMac and a MacBook Air or the new MacBook it would change the way I work and while this might not be a bad thing, knowing me, it would take me a while to get used to it. Honestly, that kind of change scares me and my computer is such an important part of my life, I don’t consider changes like this lightly.

I think the new MacBook is fantastic and when one changes the way one thinks about it (more iPad running Mac OS with a keyboard, less low power MacBook Air) it makes a lot of sense for many people, including me.

I’m working on my brain to get it a bit more ready for a possible change and for me, the first step is to write about it.

6 comments

  1. Good post, Richard. Lots to agree with here, but one point that I tend to disagree with (at least a little) is: “The new MacBook is positioned as an iPad…”. I don’t feel that the new MacBook is positioned as an iPad, but rather as a light weight notebook with just enough oomph to run basic OS X apps, which is suitable for a large number of folks who rarely push their laptops (such as the MacBook Pro) to their performance limits. Many users rarely use their available ports except for an occasional USB flash drive.

    As I travel I see far more Apple portables in airport lounges and on airplanes than I ever did in the past. A large number of those users appear to be browsing the web, accessing e-mail, and grinding on spreadsheets. A few appear to be editing slide decks in Power Point or Keynote. Judging by the specs of the new MacBook, most of these tasks will be easily handled by this modest, yet compact new Mac. Photo pros, video or music editors (professional or hobbyists) will likely be aware of their needs for more horsepower and possibly additional I/O ports.

    To me, the vast majority of detractors of this new Mac offering are missing the target audience: the traveler or commuter who needs more than an iOS device, but really doesn’t need the power or the connectivity of MBP and MBA. I was once one who felt the MBA was too limiting and bought a 13″ MacBook Pro as my travel companion. After using it for a couple of years and rarely connecting any peripherals, and doing my heavy lifting on my desktop Mac, I now feel that even the MacBook Air is more than I need for travel and the new MacBook looks just about perfect.

    1. Dale, you’re right, I guess I misstated the bit about the iPad. What I mean was the new MacBook is being positioned to be as portable as the iPad and as such, doesn’t need the ports or the other things that larger laptops that compete with desktops do. I edited the post to reflect this. My thinking comes from Apple’s probable rationale about the MagSafe connector and lack of ports. The iPad has none of that and people do fine with it. The MacBook doesn’t need those things either.

      My problem is if and then how I move to a two computer setup because while the MacBook could be an adjunct to this 15″ MacBook Pro, it makes more sense to have it be an adjunct to a 27″ retina iMac which puts me in the two computer camp and changes my life around. Sigh.

  2. Very nice thoughts, Richard. I have at the moment Mac Mini at home with several external hard disks and 24 inch display and I use that computer mainly for Lightroom plus other photography related stuff. Now as I bought MacBook Air just few days ago, I am using my MBA to replace my iPad 2 which I actually gave to my son, Tiitus (my wife gave hers to Kaapo as she bought iPad Air).

    It seems that this two-computer concept is working very well with me but I think a third device (like an iPad) would be too much. I have my iPhone 6 with me always anyways. I use my MBA mainly for work-related stuff. Writing, web browsing, reading scientific articles, emails, etc. So, the use for the MBA is not that heavy (I haven’t even installed the LR in it). This all means that I would love to have the new MacBook as my light and small computer. The only thing actually what made me purchase the MBA now and not to wait the new MB was the huge price difference. Over 600 euros. And that’s quite a lot.

    1. Interesting Jonne. I use enough apps in iOS on the iPad that are not really the same on Mac OS so I’d want both: the iPad and a small travel computer (smaller than my 15″ MBP). But, the difference in power between the 13″ Air and the MacBook is significant so what one did with the small computer (the mix of apps one would run) would be the deciding point. Also, as Dr. Drang said, not being able to see enough stuff on the screen, width and height wise is also an important decision point for me.

      When I go to New York I bring my iPhone and iPad and I’m fine with both. When I go to LA for a few days I bring everything and it works fine; on the plane I put my 15″ MBP in the overhead in my pack, using the iPad Air 2 at the seat for movies and podcasts and such. In the house in winter (I know you know winter) I carry the MacBook Pro downstairs every morning to sit by the woodstove (I’m doing that right now), drink my coffee and catch up on email, web stuff, and flickr. The 15″ MBP is fine for that.

      If I had the new MacBook I doubt I’d use it on planes, and I see no reason to carry it to New York unless I knew I had work to do while there. So, your comment got me thinking of exactly when I’d use it and the answer is, not all that much as long as I have my current MacBook Pro.

      It could be that I avoid a new portable computer and just get an iMac for photographic and publishing work and that’s that. When the time comes to replace the 15″ MBP I’ll then consider a smaller machine as the outrigger to the iMac.

  3. Some very well reasoned thoughts from everyone…

    I’m also in a slight predicament about this. Current setup being an old MacPro and two cinema screens at home which is total overkill for what I do (no photo or video editing), but has stood the test of time, is super-fast and the multiple screens mean great productivity for me.

    Having worked at home for 5 years, life has now changed with the C4DI (www.c4di.co.uk) and so I spend four days a week there. I use my 2014 MBA 13″ on my desk and have recently hooked it up to a Dell 24″ screen which is superb.

    My partner Kate has a white 2007 MacBook which is slow, noisy and probably about to call it a day to be honest.

    So, current thoughts (budget allowing), is that Kate gets the MBA, Mac Pro stays in the home office and I look at a retina iMac for the new C4DI office (we move into a new building in October) and partner that with the new MacBook (space grey please). The retina will make a BIG difference for me as I wear glasses and spend a huge amount of time in front of screens.

    I’m not fussed about the USB-C port and agree that it won’t be plugged in all the time for most users.

    I have an iPad Air, but I agree with you Richard about not being as productive on it and much prefer typing on a proper keyboard.

    I’m really looking forward to trying the new MacBook. As always, hands on is always the time when you go from a maybe to a must buy.

    1. Sounds like a good plan Jon. Apple’s current lineup has so many overlapping choices that it’s not as obvious how to go with this stuff relative to just a few years ago. This is good (different minds will find good solutions) and not so good (people will try things and return them as they’re not working out like they expected).

      I should have ordered the new retina iMac as soon as it came out but I just have to wrap my head around having my stuff spread out across multiple computers. Even with much of my stuff in the cloud I’m still not all that comfortable with it; been a one computer guy for so long now, can’t teach an old dude new tricks (easily).

      My friend Steve got a Retina iMac this past week and will set it up at home today. I’m hoping to hear from him later today or tomorrow for a verdict. He’s a developer so has different needs from me, but he’s also a photographer who uses Lightroom and that’s a piece of this for me as well.

      I’ll let you know what he thinks.

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