Noel Rappin Writes Here

Not That Anybody Asked: The New MacBook Pro

AppleNoel RappinComment

Some thoughts about my new laptop about two weeks in, which I gather I’m supposed to hate, but which so far I persist in kind of liking. I think it’s a little bit about expectations and what’s being replaced.

So I got the higher-end 13 inch MacBook Pro, with the touch strip, with a bigger SSD, but without the chip upgrades. It’s replacing a 2012 15 inch MBP that was definitely showing its age, with a screen that ghosts and dwindling battery life.

First Impressions

It’s small. For some reason I was expecting it to be even smaller, but it’s small. As advertised, it’s smaller than the 13 inch air, in terms of looks, that’s mostly via having a smaller bezel. Overall, it feels solid and well put together. The hinge feels nicer than the old one, but my old one was a little beaten up. When I pick it up, the thermal vents on the bottom seem a little sharp. (Aside: as a kid of the 80s, the idea that a whole computer can come in a box smaller than a decent sheet cake is still kind of mind blowing.)

It’s about a pound and a half lighter than the old computer, plus I’m at least temporarily not carrying a charger in my bag all the time (even if I was, the charger is smaller than the old charger). I do feel the difference in my regular commuter bag.

I like the space grey color, but it’s not like it’s super adding to my experience or anything.

The display is really nice, and I’m not just saying that because my old one had a bad ghosting problem and this one doesn’t. The smaller size is going to change the way I work, a bit, but the display seems sharper, and the colors do kind of seem to pop a little more — that could easily be subjective bias.

The keyboard and trackpad

All the reviews told me that I was going to have a big adjustment to the keyboard. I’m finding it a small adjustment and I think I kind of like it? I’m not a big fan of high-travel clicky keyboards — I tend to like low-travel ones (I’m perfectly happy typing on an iPad, for crying out loud), the travel on this keyboard seems fine to me (definitely better than the 12 inch MacBook), and I like that it’s relatively clear about when a key has been hit. The key placement seems to have shifted slightly (especially the arrow keys), so I’m missing keys a tiny little bit, and I think I’m just going to need to get used to the smaller wrist area. Two weeks in, I feel like my typing is maybe a little less accurate, but I’m not sure if that’s actually objectively true, or why that might be, I think possibly I picked up some keyboard-specific habits that are not going away. Something about the hand placement seems less comfortable (maybe trying to keep my palms off the trackpad?), but I’m hoping that I’ll get used to it.

The keyboard is a little bit louder, and has kind of a distinctive sound. I don’t mind it, but it’s clearly noticeable. You aren’t going to be able to get away with quietly typing in a meeting without anybody being able to tell, if that’s the kind of thing you sometimes do. Some of the keys have an intermittent click that is not the normal key sound, which is a little grating when it starts to happen.

It did take me some time to get used to the force-touch trackpad. I like that it’s a really big target. I was having some trouble getting used to dragging objects, I think because I was putting in too much force and it was interpreting it as a force touch. So far, I have yet to use force touch on purpose.

The touch bar

So, a) I really like the touch bar, and I think it will be very useful once apps catch up to it, and b) I’m kind of on the fence as to whether I really want a touch screen.

First, the touch bar. Having Touch ID for login is very nice, works exactly as you’d expect and is very fast. It is a little inconsistent in that some password challenges from the system allow you to use Touch ID to bypass, and some don’t. Having 1Password use it is very nice.

The touch bar itself. So, if this was just a way to put the four or five most common keyboard shortcuts I use in each app and put them on the display with useful labels, that’d be pretty good all by itself. I added “lock screen” to the default bar, and now I have a dedicated key for something that I do probably a dozen times a day, and was using multiple keystrokes to invoke via Alfred. Just being able to see the current status of the volume at a glance is pretty nice (I realize there were other ways to accomplish that part).

One funny thing is that it’s a color display (obviously) in an area that I don’t expect to have color, so the first time I saw color being used there, I did kind of a double take. One thing I haven’t seen in any reviews, is that all the system modal dialogs replicate their buttons in the touch bar. This has some chance to be faster than the trackpad.

That doesn’t even get into non-button usage, like using a slider for brightness or iPhoto editing or the like. Overall, it’s very promising. For the record, the soft-escape key doesn’t bother me a ton yet. (And while I kind of like the Emoji picker, there seems to be a bug that causes it to stop working after a while, pending a restart).

That said, even though I genuinely don’t think a touch screen works in this form factor, and I say this as somebody who uses an iPad to write all the time (I still think that touching a vertical screen is not ergonomically great). I have reached to try to touch the screen at least once when I’ve been dealing with the touch bar.

I have another half-written post about this that you’ll probably see at some point.

Speed and stuff

Battery: Current status, is that I’ve been typing on battery in Ulysses for about 30 minutes, and it’s telling me I’m still at 100% and that I have 8:13 remaining (I started with 10 hours remaining). The first time I was on battery for about an hour with a lot of background wifi activity and I lost 20% of the battery in an hour. Both of which are big advantages over where the 2012 laptop was (battery life was down to about two hours). Update: now I’m at 45 minutes, the battery is at 96% and it tells me I have 6:13 left.

Later: About one hour of watching a video on Flash dropped the battery from 100 to 75 (old computer dropped from 100 to 39), same for about 45 minutes on Skype. Different day, about three hours of normal, non-coding usage, followed by a half hour Google Hangout and the battery was at 50. So, I’m not getting anything like 10 hours, but it’s a vast improvement over what I had.

Speed: So, since I was coming from a 15-inch with four cores to a 13-inch with two, I was expecting the speed change to be minimal. So far, it’s better than that for single-core activities. Running Ruby tests, which is single core, but doesn’t use GPU advantages much, is running about 25% or so faster than before (5 minute test suite now taking 4, a different 8 minute suite, now taking 5:30 or so). I’m not sure I expect that to hold permanently (I still haven’t installed some things, the computer might slow down), but it’s better than I was expecting. Overall the machine feels snappier.

Ports: So far, the adapters are inconvenient, but haven’t stopped me from doing anything. I got an HDMI adapter for my home monitor, and a bunch of USB adapters for various other things. I do miss MagSafe, the ports are a little tight and take more force than I’d like to plug and unplug. It’s not ideal. It’s also weird that all the ports look the same, and have pulled out a hard drive thinking it was the power cord, and also plugged into a monitor overnight thinking it was the power cord. This is clearly going to be a non-trivial pain for a while until and unless all the peripherals get sorted out.

It also runs a lot cooler and runs the fans a lot less than my old 15 inch, meaning that I can actually use it on my lap without risking pain. Overall, this means it runs quieter even though the keyboard is louder.

So…

It’s more expensive than I would have liked, especially given how much extra I’ve put into cables. I suppose I’d be fine with more memory, though I don’t think I’d trade battery life for it.

Still, small and light, feels snappy, really nice screen, genuinely new and useful UI component on the keyboard. I had a little checklist of the things I was hoping to get out of the upgrade, and this hits almost all of them. So far, pretty happy with it.