MacBook Pro first impressions

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I ordered the 13” MacBook Pro with Touch Bar a couple of hours after the event, and it arrived on the 17th. Since then, I’ve spent a full day setting up the machine, tearing down my office and reconfiguring it to make room for the new beast, and I’ve been trying out various tasks to see how well the unit handles them.

Overall, I’m very happy with it. Mine is the 13” with 16Gb of RAM, the upgraded 3.3GHz dual core processor and a 1TB SSD. It is replacing a late 2013 15” MacBook pro with a 2.2Ghz quad core and 16Gb of RAM. My old laptop was basically the highest performance laptop 3 years ago. The Geekbench number is 3810.

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I ran geekbench on the device after letting it settle in overnight, and my new device’s number is 3817. So in three and a half years what was the raw performance of a top end laptop now is available in the smaller form factor.

My primary reason for upgrading now was size: I really wanted the smaller, lighter laptop if I could come close to the performance so I didn’t have to carry the big, heavy beast or try to use it on the couch. Somehow, it’s gotten big and heavy in the last few years…

To be honest, we aren’t seeing the kind of stratospheric performance gains we saw in the Good Old Days, but this kind of improvement isn’t chopped liver. Geekbench is showing the new 15” device with a score around 4234, or about a 10% performance boost for equivalent models over that time.

So just on the basis of the performance improvement, if you have a 3 year or older device, this looks to be a nice upgrade, and I don’t think it’s gotten credit for that amid the noise these devices has generated.

Is this a game changer?

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Is this new device a game changer? It depends on how you define that term. Your mileage is going to vary.

Having said that, Touch-ID on Mac for me is clearly a game changer. I love it. Integration with 1Password makes the entire password management and entering almost frictionless. I love it. It took me maybe an hour to wonder how I’d lived without it until now. It makes logging onto the device almost painless, and it makes using 1Password almost completely frictionless. That to me is worth the price of admission.

The reason I reconfigured my office was to make sure the touch bar was always easily accessible, so the laptop lives on a stand (the Twelve South ParcSlope, which is awesome) to the right of my main monitor and keyboard — the old laptop was in a vertical stand nearby. I’m still getting used to using the touch bar, but as I do, it’s growing on me. It’s very well thought out overall, but it’s not central to my working yet. It may never be, but I’m definitely using it multiple times a day for various things, and when typing text, I’m finding it’s IOS-like autocomplete useful when I’m struggling over the proper spelling of a word.

I’m loving the new screen with the retina and wide color. Having it sit right next to my main monitor (a super-wide LG “almost 4K” with an IPS LED screen that I really like) and watching my wallpaper set display on both I can see just how much crisper the laptop screen is, and there’s a noticeable improvement in the quality of the color rendition, even with JPG images in the SRGB color gamut.

Performance is quite spiffy. I loaded up some new images in Lightroom and tried a few things that can really push the computer hard, such as merging a 23 image panorama into a 30K x 4K image — and it was as fast or faster is Lightroom was on my old unit, and didn’t struggle at all. Navigation through Lightroom is fast and I’ve yet to see a stutter.

It has easily met or exceeded all of my expectations so far.

the 16Gb RAM thing

A lot of people are complaining about the 16Gb memory limit. In practice, this is a much smaller problem than people seem to think it is. I’ve tried a few ways to stress memory and failed completely, and nothing I could do made my device come close to paging. And the gripe about not enough memory is really because once you start paging, that paging is really slow compared to in-RAM speeds. But Apple has installed a super-fast SSD, which isn’t as fast as RAM, but is a lot closer than any previous SSD was, and one effect of that is that paging is going to be a lot, lot faster.

So Apple has — probably intentionally — mitigated any paging delays by paging to really fast devices. That and the compressed memory VM system they installed into MacOS a few releases back mean that our old view of memory and how VM handles it are gone, and in this new setup, large RAM sets are a lot less important to most people.

And even if you are someone who pushes a machine to page, that will be a lot less noticeable than it was before. I expect the number of people who will notice a slowdown caused by “limited” RAM to be a really tiny percentage of users.

And yes, the problem is if you are in that tiny percent, you don’t have any real options with MacOS — but I think you really ought to test your working setup on one of these new devices before assuming it won’t work for you. I think many of you will be pleasantly surprised.

What’s not to like?

This new machine isn’t perfect: what complex thing is? A point of controversy in discussions about it has been the keyboard, and I understand why. I don’t like it as much as I do my Apple bluetooth keyboard, but I like it well enough; it’s a massive improvement over any of the (it feels like) 30 iPad keyboards I’ve tried and hated.

I’m a pretty good touch typist, and I can touch type fine on it. My speed is maybe 80% of on my main keyboard, but I’m still acclimating. I don’t find the touch bar distracting, I can ignore it when I’m not using it. The escape key is, well, an escape key. It works. I’ve never not had it there when I wanted it.

I do see how some typists won’t like this keyboard, though, and if you’re fussy about keyboards (I’m generally not) I’d definitely take it for a test drive first.

One other complaint about the keyboard that’s surfaced since these have started shipping: it’s loud. It’s noticeably louder — significantly louder — than my main keyboard. It kind of sounds to me like Apple was trying to engineer in the “clicky keyboard” sound, but overshot it. This keyboard will be a problem for anyone in situations where the key noise will be a problem, whether that’s podcasts or web conferences or even coffee shops with fussy neighbors.

I put the noise of the keyboard one step below distracting, but it’s close, and it may be a big problem for some of you. Again, if this is a worry, please go find one at an Apple store and test drive.

Dongles and peripherals

There’s been a lot of yelling about dongles. Here, have a picture of dongles.

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What’s that? That’s a picture of all of the dongles I collected for my LAST, now retired MacBook. Dongles aren’t a new thing, they are a way to take a set of standardized ports and customizing them for your specific needs. You needed them on the old machine, you need them on this one. I am buying many fewer dongles for this unit than I did the last one — three, in fact, of which one I still haven’t needed to remove from its box and may never.

I just don’t get the yelling about this. Buying a $3000 computer and complaining about a $20 dongle? well, okay.

These generational shifts happen. The change from ADB->USB was like this, and much of the yelling was identical. This is setting up Apple’s port/peripheral strategy for the next 5-10 years, and there’s no way to do that without some short term pain. If you want to sit on the sideline while this sorts out, that’s a perfectly valid decision. But I don’t understand the noise about this, given dongles have been a thing for a decade and we always end up needing some to customize our device to our specific needs.

The Caldigit USB-C dock

With my old laptop, I used an Elgato Thunderbolt dock to handle most of my connections, giving me two cables to connect to the device (power and thunderbolt). It worked fine, it stayed out of the way and never caused problems.

When I bought the new laptop, I knew I needed a new dock, so I researched the market. I decided on the Caldigit USB-C dock, which at $149 is about half the price of my old Thunderbolt dock with similar functionality — plus it charges the laptop over the USB-C cable connecting the two.

To be honest, the USB-C dock world is in its infancy and it shows; none of the products available today blew me away as the obvious winner, all of them are getting 3-3.5 star reviews on Amazon, and if the Caldigit is any indication, they deserve them.

It works, but I’ve had some glitches. First thing I ran into is that you need to download and install drivers to get the ethernet working. When I did, the ethernet was slow and flakey for me (120ms ping times vs. 23 on Wifi) until some random combination of laptop reboots and dock power cycles cleared it up — and it was something like the third of each, so it wasn’t a simple reboot.

The dock has an LED that is normally green, but will turn red if there’s enough power draw from peripherals that it might not be able to properly charge the laptop. For me, it turned red when I plugged in a USB-A hub, which shouldn’t have happened since it’s a powered hub drawing no power — and stayed that way for 6-7 hours, and then suddenly turned green again and stayed that way ever since. Why did it do that? I have no idea and it’s not telling. And by the way, it was charging the laptop just fine the whole time.

The biggest hassle, though? After the second night (not the first), when the laptop is idle long enough to shut off the video, when I fire up the laptop again, the dock doesn’t spring back to life, so my main monitor stays dark. I have to power cycle the dock to resolve this. Costs me 10-15 seconds a couple of times a day, but… it shouldn’t be happening.

None of these are deal breakers for me, but right now, I have to say a 3-3.5 star review feels about right. I can recommend it, but with strong reservations. I’m going to use it for a while, and see whether something clearly better hits the market, or whether these glitches clear up as Caldigit debugs things and issues updated drivers or whatever.

These things happen here on the bloody edge of a technology transition, so I’ll cut Caldigit some slack, at least for a while. It’s not blowing up mid-sentence, and what glitches I’m seeing are somewhere between harmless and mildly annoying. But they’re there.

If you don’t want to deal with that kind of thing, maybe it makes sense to avoid docks for now and use dongles for a few months while it all sorts itself out. Or consider the OWC USB-C dock as an alternative (my backup choice to the Caldigit).

But we have a ways to go before this class of product is fully ready for prime time. (for those that forget, we went through this same early glitch cycle with Thunderbolt docks, too).

Who is this for?

If your current Mac laptop is 3 years old or older, then I think these new MacBooks are an upgrade to consider. There’s a nice (if not incredible) performance boost and once it settles out, the shift to USB-C will simplify our lives, even if the transition is a bit messy.

If you are a photographer or someone for whom superior color is an important feature, the new screen on these laptops will blow you away. I’m so impressed and it hasn’t gotten a lot of chatter in the discussions since the event, but the results I’m seeing are just, um, eye opening.

The Touch-ID sensor brings a lot of value to this unit, and the Touch Bar I think will become a solid performer for many of us once we get used to it and developers figure out the best ways to use it in their apps.

Who is this not for?

If you are not someone who is tied into the Mac as a mac — if you are a developer using a Mac primarily as a linux machine with a pretty UX — you may well find the units disappointing. The less a person values what MacOS brings to the game, the more it might sense to consider a Windows box as an alternative.

If you are a touch typist who’s fussy about keyboards, take it out for a test drive first. I think it’s fine, I know people who don’t, and there’s no single right or wrong answer here: you need to check it out for yourself.

If the inevitable chaos (and dongles) of the technology transition to USB-C annoy you, it’s perfectly okay to sit out a generation and let the rest of us figure it out and for the accessory world to migrate forward and settle in. You don’t have to be bleeding edge unless you want to, and if you don’t, I don’t blame out.

If you are one of the relatively rare people who absolutely need more than 16Gb of RAM, you’re screwed: Apple has no solution for you right now. Having said that, I think that group is a lot smaller than people think it is, so I strongly encourage you to find a way to test one of these devices against your apps and workflows and see. The combination of the improved VM system Apple created a couple of releases ago and the massively faster SSD significantly mitigates memory problems in ways that most people haven’t really considered yet. Don’t assume, test.

My bottom line

I’ve only run into one glitch of note: my Dymo 450 label printer seems incompatible with USB-C either via dongle or dock and it seems like some kind of weird hardware issue, not a software one. Which just reminds me that these label printers were evidently designed and software written by the people who normally build and program scanners. ugh. Not sure how I’ll resolve this one yet, but it’s a low priority for me — and FYI, I’ve heard from one other owner of that device having the same problem, so it seems to be the product, not anything on my end.

On the negatives, I have to say the Caldigit USB-C dock is okay but not quite to good, much less great (but check back in in 3 months to see if that’s resolved or if I replace), and the loudness of the keyboard surprised me, in that it actually was so loud I cared about it. It’s not a keyboard I would ever use while recording any audio unless I had no alternatives.

But that’s a pretty short list.

We could argue for a while about price, but… I have no problem with it. I’m not surprised Apple couldn’t get a retina-enabled device under $1000, and I’m not surprised these cost a bit more given the technology being shoved in them. Yes, you can get windows PC boxes for less, but then you have a Windows PC box. If that’s okay for you, then you have my blessing. I’m a Mac user, no interest in changing. I think the days of exploding performance with retreating prices is over for the industry in general, but not something we’ve all come to grips with yet. Welcome to mature becoming declining markets.

I think I got good value for my money, and I am happy with it now that I’ve put my hands on it. For a first few days impression, it’s almost all positive, and I see a lot of upside as the USB-C market matures and expands, which it will, not that the MacBooks are pushing the market as well.

I give the device an early B+. I like the unit, I bought the right size at 13” instead of 15”, and it’s performing like a champ. I love the screen, I love Touch-ID, the migration went smoothly. I’m glad I bought one and I’m glad I have it.