So, I’ve been trying to delay penning down my thoughts about the new MacBook until I actually lay my hands on one, because the new ones are not yet available in India. But the mixed notions have continued, and then a friend began asking for my opinion yesterday, especially after my disdain for the gold coloured iPads. I think it was more a searching for my sardonic and unwelcome verbal diarrhoea about the color gold on laptops.
While we still wait for the notebooks to be officially made available in India, it wouldn’t hurt to spend 15 minutes to put down my thoughts on what makes the MacBook different, and whether it will appeal to the efficiency minded people or not. You can be reminded that I am writing this article on my trusty old 15-inch MacBook that I have now used for a couple of years, most of it in factory condition, with even the RAM being the standard 4-gigabyte lot that shipped with the book. Yes, one big change I admit I have made, that makes the use my laptop extremely pleasurable and efficient, is I have swapped the original Apple provided 500 GB hard disk that spun at 5400rpm with a 480GB Kingston SATA replacement Solid State Drive (SSD), which isn’t the fastest available on the market, but gives a significant bump to performance on my laptop.
Since I am going to discuss performance first, my first stop will be at Geekbench to check out the performance benchmarks for macs and much to my expectation, I can only see that there is a lot of confusion when it comes to performance, and how the Apple has successfully again put forward different bundles and priced them to skim the market of people who will be intrigued to go in for a new Apple product. Let us retrace, a few years into how Apple used to traditionally place their products, in terms of performance.
Among the portables, at the bottom of the chain, we used to have the Macbook Air – the USP of which became portability and battery life, then the 13-inch MacBook (later rebranded as MacBook Pro) and at the top, we had the 15-inch MacBook Pro (also the truly geeky and rarely bought 17-inch MacBook Pro). I’ll reiterate here, that Apple simply re-branded the aluminium edition of the 13-inch MacBook and called it MacBook Pro to boost sales, even though there was no technical difference between the two. Traditionally, the “Pro” branding was only provided to laptops that shipped with discrete graphics and till date, discrete graphics is not available on 13-inch models.
Anyway, coming back to the point, if you look at the performance benchmarks of the present day 12-inch MacBook, you’ll notice it slipping in way down in the chain, actually lower than the late 2011 edition 15-inch MacBook Pro (if you’re looking at single core performance). This is where my argument really begins, because when I see most people considering a laptop purchase, it should be used for a number of years to come. So, when Apple does put down their advertising and call it “years ahead”, there’s a serious quirk here. Considering the fact that there are products from 2009 that still slip in close at the top, if you look at Quad-Core performance. That is what I call “years ahead”.
Apple has always topped the charts when it comes to looks and nifty functionality being integrated into a piece of equipment. Although, I have almost always known them to pay great attention to detail, much of the world who did not know much about the underdog, has known them to make great looking iPods, or colourful iMacs which really set them apart from the others.
But then, let’s face facts here. If you were a geek that the world knew about, you were probably seen with a ThinkPad. If you were a geek that the world did not know about, you would have been seen with an Alienware laptop. And if you were a geek who wanted to stand apart from the crowd, you would have been seen ducked behind an Aluminium screen with a bright Apple logo lighted up in front of where your nose should have been. Yes, the light behind the Apple logo has been the reason of envy, that has driven the intrigue of many. Much less a machine that’s running a seriously different and more-secure operating system, often touted by Windows users as “different and difficult to learn”. With the logo backlight gone, on the new laptops, there could be a serious setback to the intrigue that sets Apple notebooks apart from the rest.
Then, the colours. I do not know if while reading this, you’ll remember that a while ago, Apple used to also ship a white coloured MacBook, that was built in a plastic enclosure. And they also had a black-coloured edition that had slightly better specs as compared to the white notebook, and because of it’s matte look and feel, was immensely popular among the geeks. Although, that edition of the notebook did not see “the light” of day for very long.
And now, we have a set of three colours available in the new 12-inch Macbook, in space gray, silver and gold. I did not like the idea of gold at the very beginning itself, when Apple started offering it with the iPhone 5S. I can’t deny the fact that I used one myself for a year (perhaps being forced into its use for lack of availability of space gray), until finally switching to space gray later but then, I did observe quite a few of the older generation women to have opted for the gold edition. I guess, Apple does appeal to a target audience while offering the gold colour.
The bling factor didn’t stop there. Apple carried the gold factor into the iPad Air 2 line-up, but till date, I haven’t spotted someone using the gold edition iPad. But then, most users tuck their iPads into a case they can use it in, without pulling it out. So, the colour of the iPad doesn’t really show. Personally, if you ask me, I am still quite a fan of the black edition MacBook, and the iPhone 5 Black, which was also discontinued until they brought around the “cheaper to manufacture” (but not cheaper enough on the shelves) iPhone 5C.
And now, the MacBook, without a backlight for the Apple logo. Also in gold.
The size of the laptop is questionable. Really until I get my hands on one. On my 15-inch MacBook Pro, I have the dock visible at most times, unless I am writing a lot of content. While, on a 13-inch MacBook Pro, I prefer to have the dock hidden at most times, owing to the limited real estate on the screen. One can argue the pixel density of the retina screen, but when you’re working extensively, it’s how much percentage of space on the screen that a character takes away, than the pixels that really matter. On the iPhone yes, the retina screen has made a serious difference from the legacy 3GS I’ve used earlier, and retained until recently. But on a laptop or desktop, unless you’re into serious graphics editing, for a regular user, there isn’t that much of a difference between a non-retina and retina display, like one finds on a phone.
I’ve tried using the 11-inch MacBook Air, which my dealer extended for a “test-drive” but the real estate of the screen just didn’t suffice. Thus, I am still skeptical if the 12-inch version will actually fit the bill.
I think this where we must give Apple credit for where they deserve. Look back in history, although, they were not the first to offer the mouse, they have been given credit for the first properly working GUI (Graphical User Interface). Then, taking it forward, they did remove the floppy drive from the IMac, which did cause a revolution at the time. It did take a while for the world to stop using floppy drives and switch to optical media and later USB pen-drives. But they were really the first-movers into an unknown space.
Later, Apple removed the optical drive, and made us entirely dependent on either flash storage or the cloud for our file transfers. And now, with the 12-inch MacBook, Apple is changing the game again, by removing most of the IO ports, and combining them all into one, with the USB-C.
I can go on endlessly flip-flopping (and later, flip-floppying) about the USB-C. Right from the naming convention, with the world knowing quite a bit about the nomenclature of the iPhone 5C. With Tim (C)ook coming forward to iterate that C stood for colourful and not “cheap” but then, there will be arguments that we really cannot see many colours of the USB type C connector.
Basically, Apple is aiming at users going completely wireless. With battery life of the laptop being extended to a day’s use for most people, and features such as Airdrop and Airplay allowing us to exchange files and stream audio and video content to devices in the vicinity. If you’re looking to exchange files over a larger distance, Apple expects you to be using the cloud.
Now, the quirks around this. When, Apple removed the floppy drive from the computer, the floppy had proven itself lower on reliability as compared to optical media. I clearly remember, I used to be in school in those days, and I would carry the same files on at least two 3.5 inch disks, because of the failure rate associated with floppies. Optical media on the other hand only ran short was reliable enough for your discs to be used as coasters for a cup of coffee, and being washed under a tap with soap and water, so long as it was completely dry before you slid it into a drive to read. I do not think I need to talk much about the reliability of flash storage.
But then, I begin to almost laugh when one looks at wireless technology and iCloud. I’ve used wi-fi ever since it came into being. Come to think of it, Apple was the first to offer wi-fi as standard on all computers, ever since the iMac reached the shelves. They called it Airport. So, we have Airport, Airplay, Airdrop and iCloud.
The upgrades that optical media underwent for me, were the CD and then the DVD. Mostly attributed to the increasing reliability and storage capacity. But when you compare it with wireless technology, it suffices greatly so long as you’re just using the internet. But when it comes to exchanging large files – the standard iCloud account offers only 5GB of storage. Which if, you will look into, will mostly be occupied by your photographs, iPhone backups, and you’ll be left with some space to store a few files.
Now, I’ll try and recall the number of times Apple has changed the way we access iCloud. It has been a disaster. Until iOS 5 and OS X Mountain Lion, I used to store all my files in iCloud. I hardly made local backups (which was my fault) because when iWork 5.0 came along, and Apple made some changes to the way we store files, they successfully managed to lose all my data and the versions of files I had stored in iCloud. Many users complained, but to no recourse. I lost years of work that was stored in iCloud, killing my faith in the cloud forever. A number of tickets were raised. I committed two desktops for Apple to continue their research on, which the support team told me not to touch for more than 3 weeks, while they tried to recover the files. But nothing really happened.
And then, they upgraded us all to iCloud Drive. With my few files remaining in iCloud (which I also had backups of), I accidentally upgraded to iCloud Drive one day. And not only did the files disappear, it also rendered my first generation iPad pretty much useless, because iWork on this iPad (which I had to earlier pay for) no longer works. It does not access iCloud Drive. And there is no seamless way to transfer my work to the laptop, in case I want to create any more content on the device. I found it convenient in its days, but then, I lost all the content that had been created. Thanks to Apple’s love for cloud technology, frequent upgrades and superficial concern for legacy device owners.
Then, there is Airdrop and Airplay and storage that’s linked to the Airport Extreme or Time Capsule. There are great reasons why they have really not made it as big in the office or the household. And the reason is reliability. The Apple TV for example is built to stream data from your laptop, iPhone or iPad onto the high-definition television. But if it happens to be placed in a room that’s not the same as where your router is kept, the wireless is jumpy. And the experience not seamless. Much the same about Airplay. I’ve needed a few Airport Express repeaters to repeat the signal from the base station around the house and office, and have Airplay Speakers set up. But it’s quite an effort every time to actually get the music to stream every time I want to listen to a song. By the time, the song gets going, the mood is quite lost. It’s almost equivalent to trying a dozen USB pen drives, before you’re able to copy the file to your laptop. It’s like you’re trying to prove every time that wireless technology exists, it can work, but really doesn’t. It can be most irritating.
Also, if you’re trying to transfer a large file among peers using Airdrop, the failure rate is indeed quite high. In office, I still prefer a wired network to access my servers and share files. Much for the sake of reliability, and the quality of connection one receives over a 1Gbps connection, that offers throughput speeds going upto 10Gbps.
Apple has reinvented the keyboard with butterfly keys on the new MacBook. To make the keyboard thinner than ever before. But then, if you’re not a geek, perhaps you should run a search for why geeks simply love mechanical keyboards. The present-day keyboard offered on the MacBook Pro, and the keyboards that ship with the iMacs (wireless and wired) offer a great feel. The click is almost perfect, and typing speed is brisk. I’ve tried switching to smaller notebooks offered by other manufacturers in between. But the Apple keyboards have kept me completely hooked. In the past months, Apple has offered the newer force touch track-pad on the newer MacBook Pro’s to upgrade them. But they seem to have kept away from offering the new keyboard. Hard to say why until I really get my hands on one.
If you’ve scrolled down without reading my rants about where all you’ll be hitting the bumps with new technology, then let me sum it all up for you. The new MacBook is seems great when it comes to lightness, form factor and to some, it might appeal with the new looks and colours. You will probably find it being placed by their overtly subtle product placement team on TV and in the hands of celebrities on the move. But when it comes to solid performance, the MacBook may be sitting in yesteryear. And, if you’re a student who’s probably wanting to do a lot of work in the library, then be aware the new MacBook does not ship with the erstwhile MagSafe Adapter, that allows you to connect it to the wall, and sit back without the worry of anyone tripping over the cord and pulling your laptop down.
When it comes to being futuristic, I admit a full day’s battery life and the portability are great pluses. It is great that we finally have a laptop that does not have cooling fans. So one can actually sit back and relax on a couch or in bed, and not worry about the laptop overheating.
We all would love to work entirely without wires. But then, wireless technology so far does not really allow full scope of increasing returns of the Moore’s law at the same pace as wired technology so far has. The Cloud remains an expensive option and is not as reliable in my experience as conventional storage. Just 48 hours ago, iCloud servers were facing serious connectivity issues, and it leaves a great question-mark on whether we should be depending on the cloud. It is not soon, the cloud has been around since a while, and Apple should have perfected the technology offering by now, had it been truly as robust as wired technology or physical storage.
I believe the 12-inch MacBook is an experiment for now. It is light. It is ahead. But really not years ahead.