Random Thoughts on Apple’s “Hello Again” Event

In the coming days there’s going to be a lot of talk about Apple's “Hello Again” event today and the new MacBook Pros. Here’s a few random thoughts and observations I had watching the event:

  • Who is it sending their vacation photos to Tim Cook for inclusion in presentations? I think she is a much more talented photographer than me (and has much prettier friends).
  • The TV app feels to me like the leftovers from the hypothetical subscription TV project that never shipped. The trouble is that if they don’t have participation from everyone on the platform (Netflix and YouTube are not playing along), it’s much less useful.
  • The day you catch me watching tweets from random people about something I’m watching on TV is the day you’ll know my body has been taken over by aliens.
  • I like that Apple is embracing its past a little bit. I remember when I would’ve given my left one for a Power Book.
  • The “thinner and lighter” thing plays a big role going forward. It’s clear the MacBook air is getting squeezed out. The only thing keeping it alive now is that it’s the only Mac you can buy for under $1000. In a year or two, prices will come down enough to solve that problem and that will be the end of the MacBook Air.
  • They didn’t spend much time on the bigger trackpad but I suspect MacBook Pro users are going to really like it. I’ve already become accustomed to a larger trackpad with my Magic Trackpad on my iMac. It makes using gestures much easier and after using it a little, you won’t want to go back.
  • They didn’t spend much time talking about the new keyboard either. I know a lot of people that won’t buy the MacBook because of the keyboard. Apple is saying this is a second generation but if they don’t deliver the goods with the keyboard, I think it will hurt sales and the product overall. The surprise news item in the next few days may be that the keyboard is a dud. That would be bad.
  • 2 TB of SSD storage in a laptop is impressive. However, it will end up costing you an additional $1,200. Ouch.
  • Farewell MagSafe. We loved you.
  • I don’t think the USB-C transition is going to prove that difficult. Thanks to the existing MacBook that already has the USB-C port, along with other computers from other manufacturers, a healthy USB-C peripheral market already exists. If you’re making the switch you’ll need to buy a few cables and a dongle or two but you’ll be fine.
  • The idea that you can charge your MacBook from either side is kind of nice. How many times have you been in some weird spot where getting the charger cable to the correct side to charge your MacBook was harder than it should be?
  • They kept the headphone jack. Hooray.
  • How weird is it that Apple is selling an LG display during its keynote? Katie Floyd makes the argument in this week’s Mac Power Users episode that this is evidence Apple is getting out of the display business. She may be right. Either way, it is really strange seeing Apple sell somebody else’s hardware in this way.
  • At this point, the MacBook line has three alternatives: low cost, pro user, and ultralight. I’ve written about this before. Ideally, we will get to a point where the low cost and ultralight Macs merge into one computer. That was the case for a little while with the MacBook Air and explains why so many people love that computer so much. If they can get the existing MacBook’s price down to $999, we’ll get back to two lines again but that’s not going to happen this year.
  • Apple did a good job of getting more women presenters than usual. I thought everybody did a pretty good job on stage.

I’ve got more thoughts on what the touch bar really means but I have more to say there than a bulleted list. More on that to come.

MacBooks and Headphone Jacks

I've been wondering the past several days about whether or not we'll see a headphone jack in tomorrow's new MacBook Pros. There's been lots of talk about the leaked Magic Toolbar and folks are assuming that it will have a bundle of USB-C ports but I haven't heard anything about headphone jacks.

Apple must feel pretty good about removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. For months, when it was just a rumor, many people on the Internet lost their minds. Now the phone has shipped the expected outrage has largely fizzled. (I think the inclusion of an adapter in the box did a lot pull this off.) So now that they have the headphone jack out of the iPhone, what about the Macs to be announced tomorrow?

My expectation is that of course the new MacBooks (and future iPads for that matter) will have headphone jacks. The biggest reason that Apple explained removing the headphone jack from the iPhone was space. The air inside your iPhone is so precious that the headphone jack needed to go. I don't see how you could make that case for a MacBook. There is a lot more space in both of those platforms for a tiny headphone jack. Moreover, a lot of people use Macs and IPads for music production and other sound-related tasks and they want a good set of wired cans connected to their Macs.

So maybe Apple will remove the headphone jacks tomorrow but I'd argue such a move is a mistake. As I post this, we're just 14 hours away from finding out. 

TJ Luoma on the 12" Retina MacBook

TJ Luoma went in to the Apple Store to buy a new MacBook Pro and ended up walking out with a 12" Retina MacBook. He loves it. One of the most interesting parts is that he prefers the MacBook's low-travel keyboard. I think keyboards are a personal thing, like the firmness of a mattress. I've grown accustomed to my MacBook's keyboard and don't think about it much. However, I still prefer the more conventional keyboard on my iMac. Otherwise, I'd agree  with TJ across the board. The 12" MacBook is powerful enough for what I do and when you have a computer this light, you can easily take it about anywhere.

30 Minutes with the New MacBook

In addition to spending 30 minutes with the Apple Watch yesterday, I also spent 30 minutes with the new MacBook. I’ve talked about the new design already on the Mac Power Users and written about it here. Now, after having spent some time behind one, I have a few additional thoughts.

  • This machine is one sexy computer. I never thought I’d see a computer that could make a MacBook Air look fat and yet the new MacBook does precisely that. It feels more like picking up an iPad than a Mac.
  • The ability to use an aluminum hinge may have engineering benefits but also looks damn nice.
  • The audio from the speakers sounds better than I expected out of a computer this small.
  • The retina screen looks like every other retina screen—beautiful and bright.
  • The additional colors of space gray and gold both look nice. The gold doesn’t look tacky but it is not for me. Space gray on the other hand…
  • The keyboard was the big question for me. Several people that I respect don’t like it, including Jason Snell. I typed about 500 words of text on it and it didn’t repel me, but it most certainly is different. The key travel is shorter and would take some getting used to. The lower amount of travel might be a deal breaker after using it for a few days but after just a half hour, it felt more strange than terrible.
  • Just one port. Since that port is both new and an industry standard, I expect we'll see an assortment of docks and other pluggy-in bits in short order but if you are buying this as your only computer right now, it will be rough sailing for awhile.

My questions about the new MacBook are not hypothetical. My current laptop is three years old and I’ve been thinking about replacing it while it still has some resell value. Since I turned my life upside down, I no longer spend every work day sitting at my laptop. I use my home iMac a lot more and my laptop a lot less. Put simply, my laptop has changed from being a a second primary computer to just a second computer. I don’t need it super powerful but do need it to write words, handle mail, outlines, mind maps, and the other tasks that I normally do on the road. Getting it down to just two pounds means I’d be able to carry it a lot easier and more often. Something this portable has a real benefit to me. I’m just not sure if I could get used to that keyboard. 

To answer that question I’ve ordered one. I’m going to use it for a week, but still keep the box and my MacBook Pro at the ready. After a week, I’ll either keep it and sell the MacBook Pro or send the MacBook back. Either way, I’ll be reporting in.

Another Case for the New MacBook

Last week I wrote about people that may be right for the new MacBook. Based on the volume of email I've received, I clearly left one group out.

iPad + Keyboard Users

A not-insignificant number of MacSparky readers wrote in to explain that they view the new MacBook with just one port and underpowered processor as an upgrade to their current rig of iPad plus keyboard. One reader even did the math and reports his new MacBook will only be 0.3 pounds heavier than his iPad plus keyboard combined. I realize that the iPad has its own advantages (like a touch screen and always-on Internet connection) but if my inbox is any indication, the new MacBook is going to get several iPad converts.

The New MacBook

It has been a week since Apple announced the new MacBook and the reality distortion field has dissipated enough for me to write about it.

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I'm hardly the first person to make this observation but the introduction of this new MacBook feels a lot like the original MacBook Air. A lot of the same words apply: new, constrained, underpowered, future-thinking.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the original Macintosh quadrant Steve Jobs explained when he came back to Apple. At the time, computer manufacturers (including Apple) had so many different products that consumers faced decision paralysis when they went to buy a new computer. Steve wanted to simplify. Specifically he wanted to have two types of computers, desktop and laptop, with two varieties of computer in each type, consumer and pro.

For the longest time Apple stuck with this quadrant system. That's how we got the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. As the technology evolved and Apple got even better at making things, they started to explore how to make an ultralight Mac laptop. I can imagine the engineers lusting about the idea of building a laptop with portability as the primary design priority. That is what led to the first MacBook Air.

This wasn't an attempt to replace the consumer MacBook. Apple explained this laptop was all about portability. The new MacBook Air was something altogether different. I was at Macworld Expo when they announced the original MacBook Air and we all went nuts. Within minutes of Steve Jobs pulling it out of an envelope, they had demo units on the floor in the Apple booth and none of us could believe how light it was

I think one of the important takeaways is that the introduction of the MacBook Air added a third box to the above matrix. No longer were there just consumer and pro laptops. Apple added ultralight to the mix.

I think it was much more obvious to us back then that an ultralight Mac came with sacrifices. One of the big deals at the time was the optical drive, which almost sounds funny in 2015. But looking back, that original MacBook Air was also RAM constrained and saddled with the slowest hard drive that had shipped in a Mac for years. 

There was much wringing of hands over why the new MacBook Air didn't make sense. Nevertheless, the third category was introduced and a lot of people did buy the new MacBook Air. Within a few years, the MacBook Air got a substantial redesign and became the Apple consumer laptop and the “MacBook” got taken to a farm in the country. Or so we thought.

I look at the introduction of last week's new MacBook as another temporary introduction of a third category Apple laptop. The MacBook Pro ticks the pro laptop box. The MacBook air is the consumer laptop and the new MacBook is the new ultralight. I think a lot of the new MacBook's critics don't realize that this third box has been added to the matrix and are judging an ultralight Mac as a consumer grade Mac. I also think the success of the MacBook Air and the march of technology makes it harder for us to accept the sacrifices required for portability in 2015 than it was in 2008 with the original MacBook Air. 

Again, I don't think the return of the ultralight category is a permanent fixture in Apple's lineup. The use of the name “MacBook” signals that Apple has every intention in the next few years, with a bit more iteration, to do away with the MacBook Air line and leave this new design MacBook as the consumer Apple laptop once again. 

Not surprisingly, this new computer raises many questions. Are people willing to pay the price (both in higher cost and lower performance) to have an ultralight computer? I suspect the answer, again, will be for a number of people, “yes”. This is literally the same conversation we had when the original MacBook Air shipped. It's funny how, as geeks, we all get very personal about these decisions. Is this the computer for everybody? No. Is this the computer for some people? Yes. I don't think this new MacBook is going to supplant the MacBook Air (yet) but it is going to find a home with a lot of users. 

Apple has this reputation for being a secretive company but in a lot of ways their intentions are obvious if you look in the right places. The Apple vision for the future of laptops is the new MacBook. Over the next few years, the technologies and design choices made in the new MacBook are going to make their way across Apple laptop line and, ultimately, across the entire laptop industry. That also happened with the original MacBook Air.

So, getting a bit more practical, who is the right customer for this first iteration of the new MacBook design?

1. The Road Warrior

This is an ideal machine for someone that travels a lot and does not need a lot of power. If you spend your days on the web, email, and other low bandwidth computing tasks, this may very well be the computer for you. I know people are concerned about the new USB-C making it more difficult to share data. I think we're going to be flooded with USB-C devices in the very near future. If there isn’t already a manufacturer ramping up a thumb drive with both standard and USB-C connectors on it, I'd be shocked. Moreover, even non-geeks are much more savvy about cloud storage now than they were even just a few years ago. (A few weeks ago I had a 74-year-old friend “offer” to teach me about Dropbox.)

2. The Early Adopters

I have several friends that bought the original MacBook Air just because of its revolutionary design. They knew it had flaws and they knew it was going to cause them some grief but they didn't care. They just loved living in the future. There is nothing wrong with this. Early adopters, I get you.

3. The Retina Snobs

There are two camps over the retina screens. One group can't tell a difference or explain that the difference is not significant enough to matter. The other group completely lose their mind over retina screens. I'm in that second category. I've got a three-year-old MacBook Pro with a retina screen. It was Apple’s first retina screen laptop and I still catch myself gazing lovingly at the text on this screen … after three years. I simply love these displays.

A little over a year ago a friend offered to sell me her used 11 inch MacBook Air. She really just wanted to get rid of it and was offering it to me at a price that was ridiculously cheap. When I told her I wasn't sure how I'd use it, she let me borrow it to see if I had an 11 inch MacBook Air sized hole in my heart. I loved the portability of it and found all sorts of places I'd take it where I would have left the 15 inch MacBook Pro at home. However, I ended up giving it back to her. I could not get over the non-retina screen.

My lesson from that experience was that I simply cannot use a non-retina screen on my Macs anymore. The retina MacBook Pro ruined me. I'm not alone and I'm certain there will be people looking for something less than the MacBook Pro but absolutely require a retina screen. This new MacBook will suit those people nicely.

4. The Second Computer

All of the MacBook's power and expansion problems go away if this new MacBook is your second computer. If you’ve got an iMac or MacBook Pro that you keep docked somewhere and just want a Mac you can carry around with you for classes or client meetings, I suspect this new machine will serve nicely.

If you find yourself in one of the above categories, the new MacBook is a perfectly acceptable option. For me, the big take away is that the introduction of this new MacBook once again represents Apple carying three categories of laptops. This makes my own decision process slightly more interesting.

I am interested in the new MacBook. My existing laptop is three years old and it is about the time I usually start pining away for a new one. Moreover, my own laptop requirements have changed significantly. Up until a few months ago, I needed my large MacBook Pro because it was my full-time computer as I commuted back-and-forth to my day job. Now I spend a significant amount of my time working on my retina iMac at home. My laptop is no longer my main computer but instead the thing I take along for client meetings, speaking gigs, and other road trips.

This work does not require the power of a MacBook Pro and with this new retina screen MacBook, I suddenly find myself with an alternative. Nevertheless, I still have questions. The new keyboard could be my deal killer if it doesn't work for me. Likewise, I'm a bit concerned about heat. I think the idea of a fanless MacBook is a good one but I don't know how hot it will get. I’m going to need to see the reviews on the devices come out and spend some time in the Apple Store but I have not ruled out the possibility of selling the big laptop and buying a small one.

Regardless of what you think of the new MacBook, I believe it is the future consumer line Apple laptop. It's only a question of time before Steve’s quadrant is restored.