Thoughts on the new MacBook Pros and Apple’s announcements.

Apple finally (drink!) announced the updated MacBook Pro computers and the refreshed laptop line that will carry them forward for the next year or so. As expected, these new computers include Skylake CPUs with support for USB C and the newer, faster, Thunderbolt 3 interfaces and improved monitors with the wide color capabilities.

I bought one immediately after the event, and I’ll have it in hand in a couple of weeks. Am I happy with it? Yes. But…

There’s a huge amount of criticism of Apple coming out online after this event. And there’s a lot to criticize Apple about, unfortunately, because while they updated these laptops, they didn’t even mention the rest of the Mac product line, and the huge questions about where Apple sees this line going over the next few years weren’t even acknowledged, much less addressed.

And I think that’s a big problem. I like the new MacBooks. I think some of the criticism of them is unjustified. I think much of the criticism is misplaced anger at other things Apple is doing (or isn’t). But I think most of the criticism is an indication of larger problems Apple simply hasn’t acknowledged, much less worked to resolve. Things like…

Where did the low-end macs go? They became iPads. Apple has never been afraid of cannibalizing a product with another product, and with the new MacBooks, we see the result here. Low end laptops? Basically, gone.

My guess is this isn’t Apple pushing this change, but following a change that already exists in their sales numbers. And that has an interesting implication for the Mac line: I’m old enough to remember when the “personal computer” was a niche, nerdy product, and I’ve now lived long enough to see the age of the personal computer begin the downward slide back into being that niche, nerdy product again.

What is Apple’s long-term strategy for pro apps? To be honest, Final Cut seems like a prosumer app that is used by pros, not a pro app that’s used by prosumers. What’s the future of Logic? they’ve killed Aperture, is it next? Am I going to be pushed to Premiere and Audition in the next two years? I hope not, but to be honest, I’m starting to think about what that would take for me to do, because right now, I have no idea if I can depend on the pro apps moving forward, because Apple won’t say anything and the last year or so of updates and improvements hasn’t been encouraging. I’m worried, because of the poor hardware situation and the — muted — improvements to the pro line in the last 18 months that Apple has decided these are too niche to invest in, and so they’re just moving them into the same path Aperture lived on for so long.

Where are the updates to the desktop line? Where are the developer-class macs? And what about users who need high hardware with larger memory configurations? These new laptops all max out at 16Gb which is fine for, I’d wager, 95% of users, but for that other 5%? Is Apple really suggesting they head off to Microsoft instead?

Apple needs to sort this out before WWDC, or I wouldn’t want to be wearing an Apple badge at the conference, because it’ll be a non-stop yell-fest. Or more correctly, I’m sure they do have it sorted out and it’s probably on Phil Schiller’s whiteboard in his office, but Apple has to tell its users how it’s sorted out — because more and more I’m hearing these users taking a serious look at alternatives, and I expect many are going to start jumping ship.

Microsoft is an option again

That’s because Microsoft has gotten its act together, and they showed some really interesting products as well. It’s clear Microsoft has decided it can compete with Apple — and win — in the creative professional world that Apple has been a strength in for decades, and I think Microsoft is right here.

I like seeing the Microsoft has finally figured it out and is innovating again. I like that they’re taking Apple on and pushing Apple. The similarities and differences between the new MacBooks with the Touch Bar and the Surface are fascinating; two very different philosophies to solving the same basic problem. Which one will win? I have no idea, and when was the last time we saw technological innovation into a problem where we really didn’t know what the right approach was? This is great.

But if Apple thought it’s new MacBook pros were going to push back against Microsoft and it’s drive to bring over the creative professionals, they were wrong. So far, Apple hasn’t reacted to Microsoft. Instead, this looks like a retrenchment to me, retreating into a safe spot in the product area while jettisoning niches — going to where the numbers are based on sales, and simply abandoning groups that don’t fit that mass mainstream population. Unfortunately, they’re abandoning some of their strongest proponents and evangelists, and in some ways, also abandoning a key component, their developers. That’s potentially disastrous.

Don’t hit us! We are really committed to accessibility!

I love that Apple is so committed to accessibility, and their opening video was awesome in showing some of the things they’re doing to bring the Apple to all.

And yet… in the larger context of the event, why was it there? And given the big issues users have been complaining about — the lack of an updated Mini, the lack of an updated Mac Pro, the chaos and neglect of the entire Desktop line, in honesty — wouldn’t they have been better off spending 15 minutes talking about the state of the Mac and some kind of roadmap explaining when these issues were going to be resolved?

But no, this is Apple, and Apple doesn’t roadmap, and it certainly never admits that there are problems it hasn’t solved yet, even if the problem is out of their control, and so they did the entire event with an 500 pound elephant on stage that was never acknowledge or fed a single peanut.

And so to me, my reaction to the accessibility video ended up significantly reduced, because it came across as trying to prove what great people they were while they were very loudly refusing to deal with the problems much of their audience wanted to know about.

I think Apple’s game of holding information close to its chest and not sharing served itself well, but I also think there are times when you have to realize that’s the wrong thing to do, and in this case, they made the mistake of not acknowledging all of the problems within the Mac product line and talking about it, at least in generalities. And that’s left a sour taste in the mouth of many Mac Faithful, including me.

But it’s so not Apple, not it’s core DNA. And honestly, spending ten minutes admitting the Mac product line is still a shambles but it’ll take them a few more months to sort out wouldn’t be hard. All it takes is a bit of courage (drink!), and Apple didn’t show any in this event.

They spent their time talking about two really interesting trees while completely ignoring the forest dying of drought all around them. And I think the Apple user community has about had enough of Apple and it’s showing in the feedback we’re seeing online.

My bottom line on the event

My bottom line: Satisfaction with the hardware, and the new 13” MacBook hits my sweet spot, so I grabbed one. But I came away with a much bigger sense of frustration because of Apple’s unwillingness to admit the Mac product line is a cluster and their users and supporters need some re-assurance that it’s being fixed. Instead, we got a couple of new laptops and the rest of the dumpster fire was sitting there unacknowledged as if it doesn’t exist.

That’s a typical Apple behavior, but one I’m rather tired of being on the wrong end of. It’s time for Apple to take a long and hard look at how they communicate with their users, supporters, evangelists and developers and realize times have changed. If Microsoft is a legitimate alternative, you’re going to see more and more people start to take that option, because they have no idea when or if Apple will resolve the issues and with Microsoft, you have some understanding of how things are going to move forward. Roadmaps matter.

My New MacBook

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Enough ranting. Immediately after the announcements, I went and bought the 13” MacBook Pro with the touch bar, with upgraded CPU, 16GB of memory and the 1TB SSD. In Space Gray, of course.

Why? My old laptop is a 2013 model and going on four years old. That is, I believe, the longest I’ve held a Mac before upgrading, but in reality, it’s chugging along pretty well with a few inconveniences. That I’m happy holding on to hardware this long is an indication of a key change in the Mac product space: these units have, by and large, hit that “good enough” point where there isn’t much motivation to upgrade, because the changes are smaller and more evolutionary.

[Update: I grabbed the wrong CPU benchmark; my bad. Updated this to the corrected info — it’s not doubled, it’s roughly the same as my current Laptop, but since I’m going from the top end 15″ model to a 13″ model, that’s really what I was expecting in the first place — chuq]

I could stick with this device for another year or two and not feel too bad about it, too, but I’m making the shift for a few reasons:

Skylake CPUs: I get the new generation CPU, and I get to upgrade from a 2.3Ghz I7 to a 3.3GHz i7. According to the Passmark benchmarks, the CPU benchmark scores are very close.

GPU upgrade: A shift from the GeForce GT 750m to the built in Intel Iris Graphics 550. Passmark says this change will be about a 25% improvement.

Now, components are not a system so it’s really about how this all works together. I’m upgrading to a bigger, faster SSD in the unit, which should notably help performance. Memory size stays at 16Gbytes, but the speed of the memory increases from 1600MHz to 2133MHz, so that should lead to a performance boost as well.

So overall, there seems to be some nice speed increases in this new computer, but that’s not why I’m doing this: I’ve found in the last few years that I really wanted a smaller and lighter computer than my MacBook pro 15”. The only time I need the big screen is on the road, and even then, with retina screens it’s not that big a deal as it used to be. But the smaller screen of the 13” also makes this a lighter machine, and I’ll be going from 4.5 pounds to 3 pounds. That’s a lot nicer on a couch or in a hotel room or on my shoulder. Moving to the smaller form factor is a huge win for me today, especially since I can do so without sacrificing overall performance compared to my existing machine, and a primary reason I went 15” in 2013 was horsepower; that gap has narrowed with the new models.

I can’t wait to see geek bench numbers on these things.

On top of that, I get a better retina screen with wide color — and the minute I saw wide color on the iPad, I was hooked, and for my photography, this is huge. And I get Touch ID, and the touch strip, which I’m really looking forward to working with to see if I like it as much as I expect to.

Outfitting the new beast

Now that I’ve committed to the new computer, I’m considering how that will impact my working spaces and how I need to make changes. The first big one: I’ve traditionally used the laptop closed and docked using a vertical holder, but with the Touch Bar and Touch-ID, I think it’s insane to keep the laptop closed. that means shifting to a different dock, and so I’ve gotten the Twelve South ParcSlope. Switching to this will involve re-arranging my entire desk environment, of course.

This shift to USB C will require changing how stuff connects, but solving this is simpler than it seems (I think). I’m right now leaning towards the CalDigit USB-C Docking Station which will give me charging, old USB compatibility, display and speaker connections — pretty much turning hooking into the desktop into a two cable experience instead of 3, because you no longer need a separate charging cable plugged in. The Caldisk will then connect into my existing USB hub, and life will be gravy (I hope).

The other cable? thunderbolt to my external disk, and for now, I’ll just use the existing drive with an adaptors or an updated cable.

I also need to update my travel bag. Here in some ways there’s great news, because instead of having to carry two big charger blocks (Mac and USB), I can convert to one, saving space and weight. Anker has a nice one that’ll charge everything out of one charger, and this, to me, is a nice improvement. On the road connectivity? It looks like the Satechi Slim Aluminum Type-C Multi-Port Adapter solves the problem pretty well and has great reviews. I’m also considering whether I want the portable version as well for coffee shop usage, and if I so, it’ll likely be the Satechi Type-C USB 3.0 3 in 1 Combo Hub. And yes, I bought a couple of dongles.

I know there’s a lot of snide snarking going on about dongles, but, you know what? when I buy a new car, I outfit it with some customizations like chains that cost extra because the chains from my old car won’t fit, and I don’t see reason to complain about that. That’s what this is all about, really — customizing a tool to me specific needs. It’s part of the reality of taking a tool and making it my tool for my needs.

Not that this will stop people from snarking, of course. But I think it’s silly, unless you honestly think a computer should be made specifically for how you want to do things, and ignore the reality that every one of us has a different definition of that.

So I think I know what I need to make my new computer feel at home, and once I sorted it all out, it was less complex than I was worried about. We’ll see how it works in practice.

One more thing

One other things I did immediately after the event: I went onto Amazon and bought a 3 pack of Eero wifi hubs to replace my Airports. Apple has neglected other parts of their product lines, including their Airports and Time Capsules, and I’d decided if I didn’t hear about possible updates or some kind of roadmap, it was time to jump ship and move on — and so I have.

I think we all have to think about where we stand with Apple if we’re using or depending on niche products. With monitors, Apple announced a partnership with LG instead of a new monitor, and later confirmed that it was out of the monitor business.

I think you can take that as an indication of how it’s going to handle other products that are now niche products where Apple isn’t a dominant player, and the Wifi world long ago moved on from Apple; I’ve stuck with it for one reason: ease of use, but the Eero devices seem to have that solved in ways even better than Apple. I get the distinct feeling that Apple simple doesn’t care about the Airport any more, and I’m not willing to wait on zero information to find out otherwise.

And as Apple users, we all need to take a look at where we are using Apple gear and ask ourselves if Apple still cares about those things. If not, it’s time to start thinking about upgrading away from Apple to something from a vendor that cares about the product.

And then there’s that bigger, difficult question: is the Mac product line itself a niche, and has Apple started losing interest in it? Unfortunately, Apple punted on resolving that worry with us at the event, and it’s clear we’ll get no more answers about it until after the first of the year.

And so when I look at people who’ve been faithful to Apple who are now considering jumping ship, all I can say is “I understand, I don’t blame you”, because Apple’s done nothing to resolve the worries we have about where this is all headed, and I can’t blame people for choosing to not wait for Apple to actually do something about it any more.

And that’s a problem I don’t see Apple as having really seen, much less come to grips with. But if they’re paying attention to the reaction to these announcements, they should, and I hope they do something to settle the ruffled feathers out in the user community.

But this is Apple, and so I don’t expect to hear anything until they make the next announcements. Hopefully it won’t be too late for many of you.