What’s really wrong with the Retina Macbook

A little over a year ago, Apple introduced the 12" Retina Macbook:

If you haven’t seen one in person, you should. Pictures on the internet don’t do a very good job of conveying just how thin and lightweight this machine is, even among a lineup of MacBooks already known for being thin and lightweight.

The Retina MacBook is not without flaws. The CPU is slow. Circa 2010 MacBook Pro slow. The keyboard is extremely shallow, and many users needed some time to adjust their typing style. There is only one data port, and it’s of the new USB-C variety. The price starts at $1299, which is the same as the much faster and more capable 13" MacBook Pro.

In many ways, the arrival of the Retina MacBook mirrored the introduction of the MacBook Air in 2008. That machine was slow and only had a handful of ports, mostly hidden behind a ridiculous trap door on the side. It was priced at $1799, the same as a fancy 15" MacBook Pro. There was no optical drive, a big deal at a time when a lot of media and software was delivered on CD or DVD. The battery, storage, and RAM weren’t user-accessible.

Steve Jobs said of the MacBook Air: “We think all notebooks are going to be like this one day.”

And he was right! The MacBook Air got cheaper, taking the MacBook’s place at the low end of the lineup. The MacBook Pro got thinner, lighter, dropped the optical drive, and adopted the SSD and multitouch trackpad originally introduced on the MacBook Air. In fact, so did the Mac mini, iMac, and Mac Pro. The only Mac that Apple still sells with an optical drive is a weird vestigial non-Retina MacBook Pro they’ve kept around for some unknown reason.

So you could say Apple predicted the future of the Mac with the MacBook Air. I would argue that they worked very hard to create that future:

  • OS X updates and recovery disks in 2008 came on DVD media. Apple started offering them on adorable little flash drives and over the internet.
  • A new feature called “Remote Disk” was added to OS X, allowing a machine without an optical drive to use the drive of another machine on the same local network.
  • For people who absolutely needed a physical optical drive, Apple made a really nice external one that was very small, very lightweight, and could draw all of its power over the USB cable. Because the motor in an optical drive could use more current than the USB standard allowed, Apple developed high-current USB ports and added one to the MacBook Air.

They made a list of the pain points a user would encounter using a laptop without an optical drive, and found solutions to each. They built the ecosystem necessary to sustain the kind of product they wanted to sell.

The Retina MacBook is equally forward-looking. A single USB-C port handles all charging, data transfer, USB accessories, and video. While there has been some disagreement about the role that Apple has played in the development of USB-C, the Retina MacBook is almost certainly the highest-profile device to depend on the standard for all charging and wired connectivity. Apple needs to build the kind of ecosystem around this USB-C-only future that they have built around the optical-drive-free present.

This is where they’re failing.

Here’s a picture of every USB-C accessory that Apple makes:

That’s it. Seven products.

Two Lightning cables ($25 for 1m and $35 for 2m), a USB-A adapter ($19), an HDMI adapter with USB-A and USB-C passthrough ($79), the same adapter with VGA instead of HDMI for legacy projectors ($79), a USB-C charging cable that oddly only supports USB 2.0 and therefore not Target Disk Mode ($29), and a power brick ($49). Only the final two are included with the Retina MacBook

Those Lightning cables are new, by the way. For the first year, the only way to plug your Apple phone into your Apple laptop was with a separate USB-A adapter.

The only monitor Apple currently sells is the ancient Thunderbolt Display, which doesn’t have a USB-C plug. Theoretically you could buy an old Cinema Display, and a Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter, and Apple’s HDMI-to-USB-C adapter, and maybe make it work. Good luck.

While this admittedly only applies to a small subset of users, Xcode still doesn’t support wireless debugging. The only way to build and run an app on an iOS device is to physically plug it in. If you want to charge your MacBook at the same time, you need to construct a rat’s nest of cables and adapters.

Apple doesn’t sell a USB-C power brick with a port hub built in. It would go a long way toward alleviating the short term hassles of missing ports, and would make a great desktop dock.

Apple also hasn’t added USB-C ports to any of the other Macs released in the last year, while shipping several new product lines with Lightning charging ports. This sends an unmistakeable message that USB-C isn’t worth committing to yet. A third-party hardware vendor who wants to support USB-C would have to choose to ignore the rest of the Mac market.

The Retina MacBook is a great piece of hardware. The battery life is amazing for a machine that thin and lightweight, and the underpowered CPU is fine for most non-gaming uses. I really think that with the right accessories, it could be a great computer for the majority of Mac users. Right now, though, there’s a pretty big asterisk next to that.

Apple can fix this, they can create a future that appreciates tiny, simple computers that send everything over USB-C or wireless connections, but to get there they’re going to have to take their role in shaping tech standards and building accessory ecosystems seriously.

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