#thoughts: 2016 MacBook Pro Refresh

Martin Hajek’s mockup of the new MacBook Pro with the new OLED touch strip display.

After listening to Daring Fireball’s most recent episode of The Talk Show With John Gruber, I couldn’t help but think of some points that came to mind during his conversation with Jason Snell regarding the rumoured (and much needed) updates to the MacBook Pro line.

The OLED touch strip is perhaps the most obvious of the purported new hardware additions, and is the cause for some minor controversy. While Gruber argues that the existing physical hardware keys aren’t of great use to most users, I feel the need to speak from the perspective of most early twenty-something-year-olds when I say that, while Apple would like to think that most MacBook’s, Air’s and Pro’s are used in lecture theaters and coffee shops, this is simply not true. Admittedly, I am speaking anecdotally when I say that a large majority of people my age use their laptops when in bed, with a lot of my friends and colleagues often even falling asleep while halfway through a Netflix binge. What does this have to do with the OLED touch strip? Well, when I annoyed my friends with interrogations over their bedtime laptop usage recently, surprisingly, all of them attested to knowing precisely where the brightness keys resided on their laptops. Why? Because they roll over just as they’re about to fall asleep to turn off the brightness, leaving the sweet sounds of Bojack Horseman to send them to sleep with its comforting audio-only lullaby.

This renders the volume keys as equally as useful, as, quite frankly, sometimes the Netflix blaring from the tiny speakers is just a little bit too loud to usher us off to sleep. In fact, in the middle of writing this, I received a phone call and instinctively hit the mute button to silence Spotify. It wasn’t till I hung up until I realised what I’d done. And then I felt conflicted, as I didn’t know whether I should be proud or ashamed of my muscle memory.

The other function keys such as exposé, dashboard and the multimedia keys? The consensus seemed to blur between, “What’s exposé?” to “Meh.”

I realise this is a very specific gripe, but it’s a very accurate and peculiar use case that pertains to a lot of regular users. Having said that, these criticisms would be more so relevant to those with MacBook Air’s, who aren’t currently at threat of losing the benefits of their tactile memory.

“Who are you to tell me how to love my macbook”

Jason Snell made the interesting argument that the best way to control specific things such as brightness and volume isn’t with hardware keys, but with touch sliders that afford greater customisability. This is actually quite important, when you realise that there is a huge disparity between blacking out your MacBook’s brightness completely and its lowest setting. There’s no Goldie Locks option that’s “Just Right.” However, if the responsiveness of phones and tablets are anything to go by, I consistently find that the small size of touchscreens and the UI sliders don’t lend themselves necessarily well to the precise input that Snell is alluding to. I’m sure any Android user that has ever tried to alter their brightness from the notification panel can speak to this. Then again, this would all be largely dependent on the height of the proposed touch strip, and the size of the slider itself. Such is the nature of rumors.

While it’s largely assumed that Apple will typically attempt to hype the perks of the customisable touch strip to professional users of video, photography and audio editing software, I feel that the idea may prove utterly stupid if executed lazily. Sure, the 14 year old in me is absolutely ecstatic by the sheer prettiness of the touch screen mock-up attached to this piece, but, will it be useful? As a heavy user of Ableton Live and Adobe Photoshop, I’ve spent so much time in these applications that I’ve already memorised the keyboard shortcuts. In fact, I — and many other “professional users” — practically pride themselves on knowing these shortcuts; a badge of honour, if you will.

Although it may prove useful in specific instances, it seems somewhat pointless if it’s only usecase it to simply replace existing keyboard shortcuts such as “Split Clip” or “Merge Layers”. Having said this, I concede that I wouldn’t be terribly upset if they utilised the touchstrip to act as a tracker that enabled me to scrub through a Final Cut Pro or Ableton Live timeline.

However, this does create a new problem altogether. While not entirely common, there are a number of professionals who do switch between hardware depending on the environment. It’s not impossible to envision a scenario by which someone becomes very accustomed to the shortcuts provided by an OLED touchstrip, only to find themselves backtracking when in an environment where the hardware doesn’t allow such luxuries. It’s not a brilliant point — I admit — but it is definitely something worth considering nonetheless.

As a small aside, Snell argued that slow adoption is a downside for third party developers who would be forced to rush to gain compatibility. But honestly, I doubt this concerns Apple as they understand they have such a huge user base that developers will update their software for support eventually. I mean, heck, Apple arguably made the entire internet upgrade their picture resolutions with the MBP Retina, as it’s high resolution screen made a large majority of the web appear practically fuzzy for quite some time. Even some legacy apps have yet to upgrade for Retina support.

Bloomberg’s recent rumours suggesting that the Pro wouldn’t have a tapered design doesn’t bother me in the slightest, as I can see entirely valid reasons for this: the slate design allows for greater battery capacity and more ports.

And ports are important for Pro users. A leaked image (via Cult of Mac) of the new MacBook Pro’s shell suggested that it would only feature four USB-C ports and a headphone jack. If true, I know a lot of photographers that will be utterly perplexed at the omission of an SD card slot. As far as the USB-C ports? Well, that’s fine. I understand Apple’s desire to want to lead the way in port standardisation advancement. But — and there’s a huge but — what about Magsafe?

This year’s MacBook is an interesting device and serves a very specific purpose. But, if Apple is to continue this trend of abandoning the MagSafe, it makes me shed a hypothetical tear for the direction of the company. I know, I know, it’s a very small detail, but dear god, I would be lying if I were to say my MacBook Pro Retina would be in the immaculate condition that it’s in today if it weren’t for the MagSafe. Simply put: It’s a tiny detail that makes owning a MacBook so pleasurable. I recently borrowed a friends Windows laptop, and almost shuddered when I saw the circular AC port. And I almost screamed in fear when I later tripped over the cord, bringing his HP with me to the floor. Fortunately no damage was done to either his laptop or my wallet. Then again, I suppose I’m just quite clumsy. While I admire Apple for pushing forward as somewhat of a vanguard for USB-C, why not take it one step further and implement the magnetic breaksafe technology into their USB-C ports? I mean, Griffin did it, and are Apple really going to let Griffin beat them in innovation? The answer is unfortunately: probably.

While Apple fanboys have an undying sense of allegiance, I feel that with each iteration of their products, they leave behind a smaller detail that made me fall in love with them in the first place. Upon buying my MacBook Pro Retina after upgrading from a 2011 MBP, I was sad to see that I lost the battery indicator on the side of the body. I justified this internally as some sort of necessary engineering compromise, but, shucks, it sure was a shame to lose such a basic, yet useful feature. I remember packing my laptop to go to a friends house to do some work for an hour, and was unsure of whether I needed to take my charger. It was that handy little indicator that removed the need for me to open the lid and check the menu bar. It’s a small thing, but it’s one of those things that made me kind of smile inside, and feel a little bit more justified in having spent approximately $2,000+ on a laptop.

While these are all very unique and minor gripes, these are just some thoughts that I feel have been underrepresented by a large majority of mainstream consumer technology journalists. While these professionals have an amazing grasp on the finer details of these companies internal politics, greater strategies and immense history, they often seem to miss some of the finer details that impact the average user who doesn’t even know whether they’re running Mountain Lion or El Capitan.

Oh well.