Thoughts on Laptops™

aka Yet Another Think-piece on the MacBook Pro announcement

I’ve been using a 15″ mid-2012 (non-retina) MacBook Pro for the last 4 years or so, and like many people, had been waiting for Apple’s recent announcement before upgrading. Now that it’s happened, however, I find myself having second thoughts.

My Criteria

First, a word about what I’m looking for in a laptop. My primary use cases are software development for work, and photography and gaming for personal use. I also use my laptop both at a desk, connected to a monitor and mechanical keyboard, and as a laptop, whether on the couch at home or out at a coffee shop or library.

  • Storage is thus very important to me, and 1TB is the minimum I would consider. Virtual machines, RAW photos, and modern games all take significant amounts of space.
  • 16GB of RAM is also important, but I don’t do high-end video work, scientific data processing, or large compiled software builds (I’m a web dev primarily these days), so 32GB or more is not a requirement.
  • GPU performance is important, primarily for gaming, but secondarily for photography, as modern photo editors and graphics apps can offload computation to the GPU.
  • Because I use my laptop without a monitor a reasonable proportion of the time, screen size/resolution is quite important, ruling out laptops with under 15” screens. Similarly, the built-in keyboard and trackpad have to be good, since I spend a fair amount of time using them. And while hybrids are interesting, a stiff hinge is required for lap use, rather than a tablet with attachable keyboard.
  • A thin and light computer is nice, but I’ve been carrying around a non-retina 15″ for quite a few years now. Significant power or feature tradeoffs in service of a thinner and lighter laptop are not something I’m interested in (ruling out something like a 12″ retina MacBook).

All of this sounds like a MacBook Pro would serve me nicely, and indeed I’ve been quite happy for several generations with my 15″ Pros; so why am I considering other options now?

MagSafe Removal

The MagSafe connector for power was a great bit of design when it was introduced. Having spent a large part of my teenage years doing tech support at my high school, one of the things we saw most often was power sockets broken off the motherboard inside the laptop due to general stress and strain, or shock (aka someone tripped over a power cable). MagSafe was an ingenious solution to this; unlike other accessories, which can live on the surface next to the laptop, power cables have to reach to a power socket.

In theory, having all USB Type-C ports means that anything can plug into any port, “docking” your laptop could be accomplished with a single cable, and all your devices could share power cables/chargers. But none of these are problems that I have now; using a different cable for my monitor vs my keyboard is fine, and nothing else I own uses USB Type-C for power anyway (including, it should be mentioned, all of Apple’s mobile devices). Rather, a lot of the time I use my laptop, there are two cables plugged into it: power, and headphones, and MagSafe solves a very real problem there.

Apple has always pushed towards a future where peripheral ports are better, faster, more standard, etc.; sometimes that entails some pain in the form of adapters. But when the change involves the loss of one of the best, clever, and largely invisible pieces of laptop design, it’s not a change I want to defend or live with.

New Keyboard

The new Apple laptop keyboard was first seen on the 12″ Retina MacBook, and has now arrived in an imperceptibly modified form on the Pros. On a first (brief, in-store) test, I just don’t like it. Key travel is extremely shallow, and feels very clicky (but not in the good way, like a nice mechanical keyboard). This is a highly personal choice, and reviews for the 12″ rMB say that you get used to it. However, I’m not particularly interested in getting used to a worse keyboard, especially in the service of making the laptop thinner.

Touch Bar Not Compelling (yet?)

The new Touch Bar is harder to evaluate without using it, and without seeing the level of software support. My initial reactions, however, are along the lines of others I’ve seen (paraphrasing):

  • “Custom per-app toolbars? Don’t we already have those on the screen?”
  • “So now we have to constantly glance between the screen and the keyboard, even when touch-typing?”
  • “Isn’t this just a bad touchscreen?”

Compelling software may offset some of these issues, but right now this feels pretty gimmicky. Having Touch ID on the laptop is less so, but also much less useful than on a phone. I already use a strong passphrase on my laptop, but I have a real keyboard to enter it, and I only need to unlock my laptop 3-4 times a day and my password manager 1-2 times a day, depending on my usage patterns; on a phone, by contrast, Touch ID enabled the use of a secure passphrase instead of a 4 digit PIN as well as tighter auto-lock restrictions, on a device I unlock upwards of 10-20 times a day.

Touch ID and the Touch Bar in general also suffer from another issue: you can’t use them when the laptop is closed. Since a reasonable chunk of my usage is with an external monitor and keyboard, I won’t be able to rely on their presence, making them significantly less useful (or requiring a different desk setup that keeps the laptop both open and close enough for using the Touch Bar).

Pros Feel Ignored

This is harder to quantify, but there’s a general growing feeling that Apple is no longer targeting certain kinds of pro users with their machines or software. Pro usage is increasingly a series of different niches, but the list of niches served by Apple has been growing smaller. For example, photographers will miss the SD card slot, which is gone on the new Pros, and have also had to make a migration from Aperture to Lightroom when Apple killed Aperture. Scientists working with large datasets are limited by the 16GB of RAM and the GPUs for their data processing, as are developers dealing with compiling large codebases or running multiple testing VMs simultaneously. Video or music pros have to wonder if Final Cut or Logic are next on the chopping block after Aperture, as well as dealing with the RAM cap. And Apple’s obsession with making their devices thin and light doesn’t help; there will always be people seeking such devices, but there’s also a niche that wants more power or connectivity; these days, it seems like Apple doesn’t make anything for the latter.

This is partially the curse of Apple’s iOS devices being so successful; compared to the iPhone, Aperture sales were presumably a rounding error, whereas for Adobe, the success of their apps and platform is fundamental to the company. But pro users create a halo effect, and evangelize the platform to friends, family, and the world via blogs and social media.

One interesting anecdote about Apple’s focus here is my recent visit to the Apple Store on Regent St in London. Apart from two display Touch Bar laptops (safely encased in glass cases), the rest of the laptops and desktops were at the back of the store, buried behind table after table of iPhones, iPads, and Watches, and quite hard to find amongst all the visitors. It’s hard to fault Apple for prioritizing their popular and profitable products, but for long-time Mac users, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

It’s Not All Bad

All that said, the new Pros are well-spec’ed, if expensive, machines, and among all the removals and changes there are some good additions, such as the wide color gamut screens that photographers and other creative pros will appreciate. As mentioned before, USB Type-C does allow for single-port docking and standardization across manufacturers, eventually. The laptops are gorgeous, thin, and light. And of course, there’s still macOS, which continues to be a nice-to-use graphical OS with UNIX underpinnings and tools, excellent integration with Apple’s mobile products and cloud, and (for now) a healthy developer and app scene.

Other Options

Other options basically mean Windows; Linux is great, and I’ve run it as my primary OS before both for work and personal use, but photography and gaming means Lightroom and Steam, and despite Valve’s efforts with Linux/SteamOS, that still means Windows. How much this affects you personally will depend on which apps and services you’re invested in. It’s certainly true that the indie app scene on Windows is not comparable to macOS, and if you’re heavily invested in those apps the switch will be hard. However, the “useful utility” scene is just fine, and most if not all major services have apps for the platform.

Going through my list of apps and services, there are a few switches I’d have to make, but nothing too bad. Alfred is one that I’d really miss, but just as Apple keeps building more smarts into Spotlight, I believe Microsoft has been doing the same with the Start Menu search/Cortana. Microsoft has also developed the WSL layer, enabling native Ubuntu apps such as bash to run in a Windows console. This is not as good (yet) as the UNIX underpinnings of macOS, but it goes a long way towards making people like me, who spend their days in a web browser and a terminal with tmux, ZSH, SSH, and vim, able to switch without needing a Linux VM.

The main pain points are things that hook into Apple’s services more. I’ve kept our family calendar on a standard CalDAV service, and could move my contacts to the CardDAV service there too (fruux if you’re interested). Although I don’t use iCloud photos, Apple does actually have iCloud for Windows, which will sync some, although not all, of iCloud to a Windows device. But the one annoying missing link is iMessage; being able to message from my laptop instead of my phone when I’m working there is incredibly useful. Time Machine is another loss, although the cloud backup that I keep meaning to set up (Arq) has a Windows version, and can also backup to a NAS device, which is what I already use for Time Machine.

In exchange for dealing with these changes, and the different app ecosystem, you get access to a wide range of hardware from different manufacturers, some of whom are willing to serve niches that Apple won’t or can’t. Based on my research, here are the two that are most interesting to me personally, although there are certainly other options.

Surface Book

One such option is the Surface Book from Microsoft. The Surface tablets are more in the vein of the iPad Pro, with an attachable keyboard and not quite enough power to replace a laptop for someone like me. But the Surface Book, especially in the recently updated Performance Base configuration, has specs that match my needs, as well as some interesting features, most notably the screen and how it attaches.

First off, the screen has a 3:2 aspect ratio, rather than the traditional 16:9. As someone who loves a 16:10 monitor, that extra vertical space is great; it also allows more screen real estate while maintaining the form factor of a smaller laptop. Microsoft is also betting heavily on the idea of convergence: sometimes you want touch input, sometimes you want pen input, sometimes you want keyboard and mouse input, and you want one device that can switch seamlessly between those. To that end, the Surface Book screen supports touch and pen input, and can also detach from the base to be used as a tablet, or re-attached backwards and closed to use the laptop as a larger pad/tablet. The battery life when in tablet mode isn’t amazing compared to an iPad, and if you need to use the discrete Nvidia GPU you have to attach the base. Additionally, since most of the guts of the laptop are in the screen, it can be a bit top heavy (hence the fancy special hinge). So there are certainly tradeoffs for this flexibility, but Apple’s approach has a cost and complexity tradeoff instead; the iPad Pro starts at $700 for the 9.7″ model if you include the Pencil, and if you want to work on the same document with a desktop app, you have to navigate cloud syncing and app compatibility and availability.

Artists are thus the obvious use case for Microsoft’s Surface line, with the draw being running full desktop Photoshop etc with pen input on one device that can also handle whatever else is part of their workflow. Photographers doing complex masked edits may also appreciate the pen input (and they’ll certainly appreciate the SD card slot). Note-taking is another angle that they push hard; click the pen, and OneNote launches, ready for input. Music composition is a use case more relevant to me, with the amazing looking StaffPad app that does musical handwriting recognition input. Traditionally my workflow has used Lilypond, for its amazing power and beautiful typesetting, but with a hybrid device I could have the best of both worlds: write naturally with the pen and StaffPad, but still end up with quantized musical data that can be exported to MusicXML or MIDI for use in more advanced typesetting or playback programs.

Other interesting things to think about with the Surface Book are the $200 dock that uses the custom magnetic connector to provide a one cable docking solution, and the fact that since you can attach the screen backwards you can use the laptop in “tent” mode. This is especially useful on airplanes, when you can watch a movie without the keyboard sticking off the tray table; you could even combine it with a game controller like the Steam Controller for a great travel gaming experience.

Razer Blade

With the Surface line, Microsoft is serving the creative niche that wants to use one system for everything, but move seamlessly between different input modes depending on the task. Razer, on the other hand, serves the gaming niche (and their marketing reflects that, sometimes unfortunately so). The general specs on the Razer Blade are all as expected; what’s interesting here is the GPU, an Nvidia GTX 1060 with 6GM of video RAM. While the screen is a touchscreen, the new mode of usage that the Blade enables is virtual reality: that GPU is enough to drive a current VR headset, and the laptop has the ports to connect one. If you’re interested in gaming, or futuristic new computer interfaces, this is much more compelling than a small touchscreen above the keyboard. And the Blade wins on value too, with the top spec coming in at $2699 (which is good, since VR headsets aren’t cheap).

Razer also takes advantage of Thunderbolt 3 to enable connecting external GPUs, with the Razer Core. You’re obviously limited to only having that power while at your desk, which is less interesting for me, but if you can live with that, you can go for an even more portable machine, the Razer Blade Stealth. This gives you a thin and light 12″ ultrabook while out and about, and a powerful graphics machine while at home, all in the same device. And for the other end of the niche, the recently announced Razer Blade Pro is a 17″ laptop with a desktop-class GPU and a mechanical keyboard (a first for a laptop).


So after all that, what’s my conclusion? What am I going to buy? To be honest, I’m not sure yet. My current system isn’t in imminent danger of dying, so I can afford to wait for reviews of the new Touch Bar systems and updated Surface Book, and ponder things a bit more. I’ve played a bit with the non-Touch Bar 13″ MacBook Pro in the Apple Store, and a Surface Book in an electronics store, and can keep doing that (as well as looking for a Razer system in stores). I’ve also played a bit with a Windows 10 VM (you can use the IE test VMs for 90 days) to see what that’s like, especially the new WSL subsystem.

My current opinion is that even with macOS, the new MacBook Pros don’t bring enough to the table relative to the competition. I’m leaning towards a Surface Book, with my feeling being that if I’m going to change all my power cables anyway, I may as well gain all the flexibility of the hybrid form factor along with touch and pen input. For such a heavy Mac supporter and user as myself, that’s impressive, and speaks to how far Microsoft’s hardware and software has come.

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