The MacBook: Redux
I wonder how many people remember the 12-inch MacBook that Apple introduced to much fanfare in 2015. It was supposed to be the future of computing, a super thin and light computer for the modern person on the go. A worthy successor of the legendary MacBook Air. The ultimate ultrabook.
I bought into the MacBook hype in 2017. Back then I was traveling for work around the world non-stop and I was tired of carrying my bulky 15-inch MacBook Pro (2014). At the time the MacBook seemed like a fantastic machine to me, as supposedly it was:
- very light (something like 900 grams)
- super silent (no active cooling)
- with long battery life
- reasonable performance
I knew it wasn’t perfect, though. I was well aware that the new butterfly keyboard was problematic, and that the port selection was… limited. But the MacBook still seemed quite appealing, especially because in 2017 Apple started to offer a model with 16GB of RAM and more powerful CPUs. The idea of passive cooling also resonated strongly with me, as my old laptop made as much noise as a vacuum cleaner half the time.
I got the maxed out model hoping that the performance would be fine for my modest goals, as on the road I mostly do online meetings, and work on documents and presentations. I’d also do some programming, of course, but between the bad keyboard and the modest CPU I always knew I wouldn’t be working on anything big and demanding on the go. Fast-forward to the present and I can tell you I’m very conflicted about this machine. I totally loved (and still love) the form factor, but everything else felt like a compromise:
- the battery life was never really great, but it got massively worse after the second year. I had never seen a laptop battery decay so quickly. Today it barely lasts even an hour and when it dies it often screws the laptop clock.
- the performance is pretty bad and that’s not entirely on the CPU. The laptop gets hot quickly under load, which throttles the CPU massively and results in abysmal performance. When I’m in a Zoom call I can barely do anything else. On the bright side - I’m very focused on the call, as it’s hard (impossible) to multi-task. During hot days I often get overheating warnings, which were definitely new for me. In hindsight it seems that Apple’s engineers were too optimistic that the MacBook will do fine with passive cooling.
- the keyboard got stuck more times than I could count. In end I figured out that simply slamming the side of the laptop on a desk/table is the best way to fix it. And I certainly wasn’t very gentle when doing this. I will remember this keyboard as the worst laptop keyboard I’ve ever used.
I guess I wasn’t the only person unhappy with the MacBook, as it was discontinued by Apple after only 3 iterations (mine was the final one), and replaced by the MacBook Air with Retina display. The irony of this is epic - to be replaced by the tool you had supposedly rendered obsolete…
This leads me to the reason for writing this article. Now that my MacBook is dying and the transition to Apple’s M1 silicon is in full swing, I cannot help but wonder if the MacBook wasn’t just ahead of its time. I still believe there are plenty of people who value portability more than performance, and something like the MacBook with the M1 silicon should be a great option for them. Yeah, the MacBook Air is light at 1.3 kg, but that’s 0.4 kg more than the MacBook! Your back will definitely notice the difference after a day of carrying a laptop around. In my own subjective experience:
- laptops over 2kg are somewhat uncomfortable to carry around
- laptops between 1.5kg and 2kg are relatively comfortable to carry around
- laptops under 1.2kg and 1.5kg are quite comfortable
Anything less than 1.2kg I can barely even sense on my back, which is one of the main reasons I like the MB’s form factor so much. Also - I feel sorry for everyone who got a 3kg+ portable powerhouse and actually carries it around. For me laptops were always first and foremost portable devices, that typically complement a desktop workstation. Of course, the times are changing and for many people this is no longer the case. I think the vast majority of my acquaintances have only one laptop they use for everything and that’s it.
Right now I’m shopping for a new laptop and I’m torn between the MacBook Air and the 14-inch MacBook Pro. If the Air was lighter I would have probably gotten it by now. As it stands today, however, it’s not a lot more compact than the MBP (1.3kg vs 1.6kg) and the MBP has MagSafe, HDMI and a nicer display. On the other hand the MBP is quite expensive and I already have a very powerful desktop, where I do most of my work anyways. Tough decision to make! Right now I’m leaning towards an MBA, but I’m definitely not sold on it.
I hope that Apple will eventually come up with either a brand new MacBook (ideally with a real keyboard this time around) or it will manage to slim down the MacBook Air in its next iteration. I’m very glad that with the MBP they took the approach that slimmer isn’t always better, but I’d love to see some efforts on the ultra-portable front as well. I just hope that their current vision for a super thin and light computer is not an iPad with a keyboard…
Some meaningful competition by the PC vendors will be appreciated as well, because today laptops like the Dell XPS 13 and the ThinkPad X1 are priced like MBPs, but don’t hold a candle to them when it comes to performance, battery life and screen quality. We live in a mad world…