Apple’s MacBook and the Search for Computing Nirvana

Computing Nirvana: an IT state of being where one has the right tools and information at the right time without worry or pain. It’s a state of computing consciousness I think all techno-nerds strive for. Unfortunately I’ve been using computers for over thirty years and still never reached it.

But with the recent addition of Apple’s 2015 MacBook to my gadget arsenal, I feel like I’m closer than ever. Starting at €1499 in Euro Europe, it doesn’t come cheap. Is it worth it?

Before you read any further, please note that this is not a traditional product review. If you are looking for technical specs or product comparisons, look elsewhere. There are a ton of great reviews out there.

Instead I will focus on how the new MacBook fits into my personal setup. I’ll discuss my take on a few of the key criticisms often repeated in reviews. And I’ll briefly touch on where I feel the new MacBook could be improved. But first, let’s start with a bit of personal computing history.

Do I Still Need a Desktop?

Up until a few months ago, I was really struggling with my computer setup. I’d made the decision to buy a 15” MacBook Pro Retina in 2012, with the intention of using it as my only computer. It had the CPU horsepower for everything I needed. And the thought of keeping everything with me when I travelled (something I do a lot) was very appealing. I was sure it would be perfect to simplify my life while giving me the power to do everything I enjoyed.

But the MacBook Pro never quite lived up to my expectations. While it was an excellent machine, it had limitations intrinsic to it being a laptop. So despite my original plans, I continued to keep my 2008 Mac Pro in service for quite some time. It was great at providing secure storage for my large photo and media collection. I didn’t have to hook up multiple wires to connect peripherals every time I used them. (For reference, I have two scanners, a printer, multiple external hard drives, a Firewire sound system with studio-grade speakers, a MIDI keyboard and other music related gear.) And finally, the Mac Pro offered two 21” screens that were very useful when I worked on audio projects or edited documents. Even if they weren’t retina.

Needless to say, I wasn’t satisfied.

Even after upgrading my 2008 Mac Pro tower with additional RAM and a SSD drive, I found the complexity of my computing setup disturbing. So I decided to take a drastic step. I sold it and bought a Thunderbolt docking station for my 15” MacBook Pro Retina.

I was certain that I would shortly find computing Nirvana. With the Thunderbolt docking station, all I had to do was connect/disconnect one cable every time I switched from desktop to mobile mode. At least that is how it worked in theory.

In practice, it wasn’t that simple. The setup was very unstable from the beginning. Between the Thunderbolt dock, my Firewire sound equipment, external hard drives and the other peripherals, OS X crashed regularly. Moving between mobile and desktop was a nightmare. No amount of tweaking seemed to help. I felt like I was back in the 90’s, stuck in Windows blue-screen-hell.

After months of fixing problems, only to run into more every time the wind shifted, I finally did what my techno-lust had been urging for months. I went back to a desktop. I bought a 27” iMac Retina.

And just like that, every technical problem that plagued me for months literally disappeared. I simply plugged my one Thunderbolt cable into the new iMac and everything just worked. No problems. Perfect.

Computing Nirvana?

For a moment, I finally thought I’d found computing nirvana. But something was still weighing on me. Quite literally.

While my desktop computing needs felt like they were in balance, my mobile needs felt out of whack. While it fit into my briefcase, my neck and back couldn’t take the weight of my 15” MacBook Pro on a regular basis. Using a backpack helped some, but I feel unprofessional lugging a backpack around in certain situations. And even in a backpack, the MacBook Pro feels heavy.

It didn’t take long before I regularly left the MacBook Pro at home and tried to make do with my iPad Air. While it’s great for many situations, I’ve never found it to be a good enough road replacement for my laptop. I cannot get my work done fast enough on it. Even with a bluetooth keyboard. I began to search for other options.

I first tried the MacBook Air. I borrowed a 13” and carried it around for several weeks. It was decent from a weight perspective, but the screen was absolutely horrible. The retina displays of my other devices had spoiled me forever. I found myself getting into heated, mental debates with myself when it was time to walk out the door. MacBook Air or iPad Air? Neither left me satisfied.

So I began to look outside the Apple ecosystem. The Surface Pro 3 in particular was tempting. With many software tools now available for both Mac and Windows, I thought I could incorporate a Window’s machine into my workflow without too much trouble. But after trying out the keyboard cover for the Surface Pro, I decided to walk away. While I know some people think it’s great, I disliked it. A good keyboard is crucial for me. And the Surface Pro’s keyboard cover wasn’t it.

I was starting to consider some of Lenovo’s and Dell’s new laptops when Apple announced the 2015 MacBook. I was immediately captivated. Its design instantly stoked my techno-lust, while the thought of a retina display, a great keyboard and full OS X got it revved into overdrive. I was certain this would be “the one” that would take me to computing nirvana.

Doubts and Fear

Living in Finland, however, meant I would need to wait. In the interim, the initial reviews started coming out. “Only one port” was probably the biggest complaint that seemed to reverberate across the Internet. That didn’t really worry me. I wanted portability. Not ports. I already used the cloud to sync pretty much everything.

But the other complaints stuck in my mind. “Its CPU is so weak you can’t even edit photos.” “It’s just an overpriced netbook.” “Its keyboard is awful.” Those got my attention. I began to worry.

It took several weeks for the new MacBook to finally make its way to Finland. By this time, I’d read so many reviews about why everyone should skip the 2015 version that I’d started looking at the Surface Pro 3 again. One review of the MacBook even stated that the Surface keyboard cover was far better than the keyboard on the new MacBook. Maybe the Surface Pro 3 was the closest I could get to computing nirvana in 2015?

Hands-on with the 2015 Apple MacBook

Finally, after weeks of questioning whether I should introduce Microsoft back into my life, the new MacBook showed up in a local shop. (We don’t have an official Apple store in Finland.)

It looked stunning in person. Even better than the pictures. The space grey version was the “perfect” color. The screen was clear and vivd from every angle; everything I’d come to expect from Apple’s Retina displays. And the weight. Oh the weight. It was so light. I knew my back and shoulders would never ache again.

But what about the CPU? And the keyboard? The reviewers’ critiques still rang in my ears. Surely Apple wouldn’t put out a dud of a machine. I had to test it myself.

The keyboard was the easy thing to test. I did that in the store and it only took a few moments to understand whether or not I liked it. The truth is that Apple’s butterfly-mechanism keyboard is different. While that seems to be a negative for most reviewers, for me it was a clear positive.

The fact is that I do type. A lot. And as a touch typist, I love old school (think heavy IBM from the 80’s) keyboards. Exact keys with great feedback. No wobble.

But times change. It’s been years since I regularly used a “proper” keyboard. In this age of chiclet keys, the MacBook Pro had become my keyboard of choice. Better feeling than the keyboard that came with my iMac, it was the current gold standard of keyboards in my opinion.

Until I used the new MacBook.

I have to admit that the first few minutes with the new keyboard were a bit odd. I instantly loved the exactness of the keys. There was no wobble. And they were big. Very easy to hit. The spacing was just right to me. It felt like I could type fast on this keyboard. Like I’d just hit a stretch of straight, open highway.

I poured on the speed as soon as my fingers touched the keys. But after a few moments of typing, the tips of my fingers began to feel a bit sore. The travel was shallower than I was used to. I was hitting something hard mid-keystroke and it hurt. The reviewers’ negative keyboard comments rang again in my ears.

But instead of stoping, I decided to type faster. I adjusted my style slightly to be lighter; to let my fingers glide over the keys. And suddenly I was flying. It felt faster. It felt exact. It felt close to perfect. And just like that, I was in love with the MacBook’s butterfly keyboard.

Total adjustment period? Under five minutes.

Now I realize that the feel of a keyboard is a matter of personal preference. Some of you may hate the new MacBook’s keyboard. I personally love it. It feels “right” to me. Light and exact. No wobble. I can use it for hours without discomfort. Plus I swear I type faster and with less mistakes than when I use my iMac keyboard.

To me it’s much better than a Surface keyboard cover. And better than the MacBook Air. At the end of the day though, you’ll need to try it out for yourself. Spend some time with it and see if it works for you. I’m sure glad that I did.

The other thing you’ll have to test is the CPU. Try out the software that you regularly use. Despite initial reports saying it was woefully underpowered, I’ve found Intel’s Core M processor to be very capable for my mobile needs.

When I’m away from my iMac, I typically use Scrivener, DevonThink Pro Office, OmniFocus, Spotify, Evernote, Safari, Microsoft Office and Mail. I also use Apple’s iTunes Match and Photo Library cloud services for access to all my music and photos while on the go. Occasionally I’ll use Garage Band. Other than some minor issues with Photo Library’s syncing that I hope will be ironed out soon, everything works fantastic.

Updated reviews of Intel’s Core M processor seem to support my personal experience. While it is probably underpowered for someone editing 4K video on a regular basis, it has plenty of power for my on-the-go needs. Hut once again, it’s worth testing it with the software you regularly use.

Conclusion

So have I finally found computing Nirvana? Between my 27” iMac Retina, the 2015 MacBook, the iPhone 6 Plus, and some key cloud services, I feel like I’ve come pretty darn close. And the new MacBook is a key reason why.

It looks and feels great. It’s compact and light. It has a fantastic screen, great keyboard, and runs all the apps I regularly use. I take it with me everywhere I used to take my iPad Air. And I never have an internal debate about it.

Is it perfect? Of course not. Although battery life is very good, I wish it was a bit longer. 14 hours would be the sweet spot for me. The eight-ish hours I’m regularly getting feels a bit short for my work days. Especially when I travel. I also wish I could tell if the battery was fully charged without opening the lid. To me that is a design flaw for a mobile product like this. At least it charges very fast.

A higher quality web-cam would also be nice in a computer at this price. But the truth is I haven’t used a webcam on any computer since I bought the new MacBook, so it’s not really a big deal. (By the way, the speakers and microphone are amazingly good. It is a fantastic machine to do “audio only” Skype or FaceTime.)

Other than those few niggles, I’m very happy with the new MacBook. It fits my workflow and my life extremely well. All without the shoulder and neck pain. I highly recommend it for anyone that wants a light, easy-to-take-with-you-anywhere computer. Combined with Apple’s other products, it’s as close to computing nirvana as I’ve ever been.

Now excuse me while I go off to meditate about the Apple Watch and its place in the universe.