For the last week and a half, I’ve been doing a lot of my work on the new MacBook. I bought this computer as an experiment with the intention to return it unless I felt it was good enough to replace my existing 15" MacBook Pro. Here’s my story.
The new MacBook is not for everybody. This is a the newest Apple ultralight, built around portability more than anything else.
Up until a few months ago, the 15" MacBook Pro was the perfect laptop for me. I drove into my office everyday and used it at my desk. The retina screen is sharp (and big) and despite being a few years old, that computer is still a screamer. There is something to be said for having a laptop that you know can handle any computing task you throw at it.
Then I went out as an indie lawyer and suddenly found myself spending a lot more time doing my big-boy work in front of my retina iMac in my home office. I no longer need a laptop 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. I do need one when I go out to do meetings and conferences. Sometimes I need a laptop just to be able to get away for a few hours. The trouble is, a 15" MacBook Pro isn’t ideal for something to throw into your bag and hit the bricks. In fact, it’s such a pain to carry that I frequently find myself avoiding bringing it altogether.
No longer do I need a powerful laptop. Instead, I need a portable laptop. I need something that can serve the role of “second” computer.
I have always had an obsession with ultralight laptops. When Apple first release the 11 inch MacBook Air, it took all of my will power not to get one. I just love the idea of being able to go anywhere with a Mac. A few years ago I was telling a friend of mine about my unquenched lust for the 11 inch MacBook Air. It just so happened that she had an 11 inch MacBook Air she wasn’t using and let me borrow it for awhile. I was thinking I’d give it a spin and make her an offer but by then I already had a retina MacBook Pro and it ruined me for non-retina screens. I could not stand to look at that screen.
So I watched the rumors about the rumored 12" retina MacBook with some interest and when Apple announced the new MacBook, I took note. Once the new MacBooks landed in the Apple Stores, I found excuses to stop by several times and play with the new machines. I was interested in the new machine as a replacement for my big laptop. I ordered one with the idea that I’d try it for a week or so and then decide whether I keep it and sell the MacBook Pro or return it and stick with my existing laptop. I bought the second tier model with the 1.2GHz dual-core processor, 8GB of Ram and 512GB SSD in space gray. It’s been a lot of fun kicking the tires.
When it comes to retina screens, I am that guy. I love clear, sharp text on my screen and once I got used to a retina screen, I knew I’d never buy another computer without one. The new MacBook screen lives up to the hype. It’s gorgeous and bright.
There are a few settings to increase (or decrease) the amount of screen real estate. I tried them all and they all look fine. When you have pixels this small, you can fudge in ways that were not possible with bigger pixels and the human eye will be none the wiser. In the end, I found I preferred the default size and haven’t thought about it since.
Apple is so good at manufacturing computers. This new MacBook is no different. It is so small yet feels so solid. The lid opens with just the right amount of resistance. Moreover, the plastic hinge that we see on the currently shipping MacBook Air lineup has been banished for an aluminum one. I really like feel of this computer.
As part of my big life changes, I’ve discovered that I use a laptop on my lap these days a lot more frequently than I ever did before. When I had a 9 to 5 job, the laptop was always on my desk. Now it is just as likely to be on my lap in the park. With this transition I discovered that my 15 inch retina MacBook Pro gets pretty hot. Uncomfortably so. The new MacBook doesn’t work as hard and it doesn’t get as hot. I’d also speculate heat isn’t as much of a problem because the logic board is so small. While the new MacBook does get warm on the bottom, the heat is nowhere near what I experienced with the MacBook Pro. The fact that the machine doesn’t get as hot is just one more reason why am more likely to take it with me on the road.
Compared to my older MacBook Pro, this new computer is underpowered. The older computer has more processing power, an actual discrete graphics card, and more RAM. If you compared specs between the two computers, the spreadsheet would not be kind to the new MacBook.
All that said, at no point during the experiment did I find myself waiting on the new MacBook. I used it for all of the things I do on a laptop and it performed like a champ. This is not the computer I’d use to edit video screencasts or build iBooks Author books but looking back over the last few years, I’ve never really done those things on my MacBook Pro either. For the type of work I tend to do on a laptop, the new MacBook is just fine.
The new MacBook is like the Red October. It runs silent. I love that I never hear the sound of fans spinning up. An added benefit is that because there are no fans, there are also no ventilation ports. I can rest this computer on any surface and not worry about blocking ventilation.
The new MacBook has just one USB type C port. I think this is the most talked about limitation of this computer. Because this is a new USB standard, there aren’t many cables available for it. Moreover, because the computer also charges through the single port, you cannot simultaneously charge it and run an external device at the same time without an adapter or hub. At no point has this caused me any frustration. This laptop is a second computer for me and I don’t need a lot of ports. If this were my only computer, it would be a problem. I did purchase the USB adapter and tested it with my portable hard drives. It worked fine. The only time I’ve really needed it so far was when my Wi-Fi printer decided to stop cooperating.
Because this new port is a USB standard, it’s inevitable that there will be a parade of adapters and cables in the not so distant future. I’ve got a speaking gig in a couple months and I’m waiting until it’s closer before deciding which projector adapter I will buy. I’m hoping some third-party will come in with a solution cheaper than Apple’s.
One final comment on the single port is that it takes a significant amount of force to remove the cable from the port. We’ve all lamented the end of MagSafe. I can confirm it truly is dead with the new MacBook because if someone trips over your charging cable while plugged into this new computer, your MacBook will magically and literally be transformed into a MacBook Air.
I’m averaging about 7 hours per charge. I’ve done better and I’ve done worse depending on how hard I’m pushing it but if you need the new MacBook to keep working beyond that, you are going to need to pack your charger.
Interestingly, because it charges through USB, I decided to try a little experiment with my iPhone external charger. In order to do so, I had to order a standard USB male connector to USB type C cable off Amazon. It costs $7. The question in my mind was when I hooked up the iPhone charger, would the laptop recharge the iPhone charger or the iPhone charger recharge the laptop. For this experiment I was using an Anker Astro 3 12800mAh charger. When I plugged it in, the MacBook made the little charging sound and the menubar battery icon showed the familiar lightening bolt icon to indicate my new laptop was receiving a charge.
The laptop certainly doesn’t charge as fast through the Anker battery as it does when I plug it into the wall but it does charge. I found that using the Anker battery, I could add about 5 hours of battery life. In another experiment I ran the laptop battery down to 10% and then plugged in the fully-charged Anker and went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, the Anker battery was bone dry and the laptop had an 85% charge. The ability to carry and use this relatively small battery on days when I may need extra juice is actually pretty handy.
Having used the new trackpad a lot, I’m convinced it is better than the old trackpad. I can tap it anywhere, including near the top, which was difficult with older trackpads because of the increased leverage needed the closer you got to the hinge.
Developers are still figuring out what to do with the force sensitive trackpad and I expect some very interesting user interface improvements based on this technology soon.
Perhaps my best compliment for the new trackpad is how I just don’t think about it at all. It just works. If only I could say that about the keyboard.
This was my biggest concern about this new MacBook and justifiably so. The keyboard is different. The keys are bigger, which I liked. There is less key travel, which I didn’t like. Apple has spent a lot of time talking up the new switches and while they most likely are superior to the old switches, that doesn’t overcome the lack of travel in these keys. I don’t know if there’s ever been a computer with a physical keyboard that had so little travel in the keys. Typing on it is strange, and not in a good way.
If you are used to mashing keys, this keyboard will be difficult for you. It requires more of a light touch. If you try to press through the keys, you’re just going to add strain to your fingers because the keys aren’t going to go any further. On the flip side, if your touch gets too light, you won't sufficiently depress keys and miss letters. You've got to find the sweet spot.
After having use this keyboard nearly exclusively through this test, it’s my opinion that the new keyboard is inferior to the standard chicklet-style keyboard on other currently shipping Macs. I've found that sweet spot and am able to type on it just fine but it still feels foreign to me. While I am still not entirely used to the keyboard, I don't find myself thinking about it as much now either. I’m not going to say it is growing on me but it is not bothering me that much either. If I had to choose between a keyboard with more travel but a non-retina screen or the new MacBook, in my mind it’s not a contest. I’d take the new MacBook. Keyboards can be a very personal thing, especially for touch typists, but in my case the new keyboard is not a deal breaker for this computer.
As I got serious about making a decision about whether or not to keep the new MacBook, I also considered returning it to buy a different laptop.
Why Not a Tricked Out 11 or 13 inch MacBook Air?
I will never buy another computer without a retina screen. Just last night I was doing some maintenance on my daughter’s MacBook Air. That screen bothers me way more the the new MacBook’s keyboard does.
Why Not a 13 inch MacBook Pro?
In a lot of ways, I think the 13 inch MacBook Pro is the best laptop that Apple currently makes. It has plenty under the hood along with a retina screen and is more mobile than the 15 inch MacBook Pro. My wife has a 13 inch MacBook Pro and I’ve spent plenty of time using it. However, that machine still comes with many of the same issues I experience with its bigger sibling, including weight and heat.
The new MacBook isn’t for everybody. Indeed, I’d argue it’s not for most people. There are a lot of compromises involved but in exchange you get a Mac that can go just about anywhere with you. The compromises required for that portability, in my case, are worth it. Since getting the new MacBook, I’ve found that I can work just about anywhere and I like that. Earlier this week I had lunch with my wife at Disneyland and then spent several hours doing legal work on the laptop while watching the Mark Twain steamship paddle down the Rivers of America. How many people can have that view from their office? On balance, the new MacBook is a good fit for me. I’m keeping it.