There are two posts preceding this one which are New Laptop: Windows, macOS or Linuxwhere I try to explain why I’d like to buy a laptop and what options I see for myself and Why a MacBook in Favor of Windows or Linux Laptopsthat explains why I bought the MacBook Pro that I’m reviewing here or, to turn it around, why I didn’t go with a non-Apple mobile computer running whatever operating system.
This won’t just be another review of the kind you can find on other tech or Apple focused sites. I’ll not be showing any performance benchmarks or review every aspect of the device to check off items on a check list. That horse has been beaten to death already by many, manyother sitesafter the MacBook Pro had launched in 2018. Of course, I’ll be touching on a few controversial topics like the keyboard and the Touch Bar, despite which I still decided to buy it. For the past few months I’ve been using the computer regularly and I think I got enough experience with it to be able to tell whether I like something in the long run or not. It’s not just a first-look-kind-of-hands-on. It’ll be a combination of hardware, because that’s the physical good you’re buying, software and on being an Apple user (again).
To get this out of the way, I went with the entry level Core i5 quad-core processor, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of flash-based storage. That should be future proof enough for what I’m trying to do. I did read a lot of performance benchmarks to find out if it’s worth buying the upgrade to the Core i7, but what you get in additional performance is by absolutely no means worth the money. That’s all I’m gonna say about this topic. Moving on.
First of all, the hardware is still stunning, despite the big bezels around the screen when compared to the competition. I simply like the clean and minimalist look of the MacBooks. As mentioned in the previous post, the HP Spectre is a stunning looking computer, an eye catcher. But it also screams “LOOK AT ME, I’M PRETTY” whereas the MacBook quietly and silently simply is.
Another thing that Apple manages to do better than many other laptops, like the Lenovo ThinkPad I use at work, is how nice it is to open the lid on the device. I can do it with one hand without having to hold down the base. When I try that with the ThinkPad its front lifts off the table. And that is happening despite it having a huge battery that protrudes from the bottom of the laptop’s back, tilting it slightly forward. It’s not a huge deal, only a little detail that gets overlooked so often.
Something that is not little is the MacBook’s track pad. This isn’t something new at all but let me put it in perspective and show you a picture.
(Sorry for the quality, shot on an iPad mini 4)
That’s a 4.6-inch iPhone 8 on the track pad and it barely covers it. This thing is freakin’ huge and an absolute joy to use. Whether it is scrolling pages, navigating between desktops or simply moving the mouse, it doesn’t matter. It’s so incredibly accurate and responsive. Not to mention the fake click that is simulated by the “taptic engine” or whatever they call it. Using my work laptop as a comparison again, the ThinkPad is no fun. It does support almost the same gestures which is good, but they do not feel as precise. Don’t get me wrong, they are not bad, for a Windows machine it works very well. Apple is just a little bit ahead in this regard. What isworse is clicking on the track pad. On the MacBook you can click anywhere, and it feels the same all the time, no matter if you’re in the middle, the bottom or in some corner. On the Lenovo you get the best experience at the bottom of the touch pad, but as soon as you start moving your finger towards the keyboard it gets harder and harder to push it down because it is a moving part and it is hinged at the top. That’s just how physics works. A little detail technically, a big impact on usability. Of course, a pro uses the track point and a colleague of mine has mastered this pretty nicely. It’s not how I work on a laptop, though. To me, using the track point to move the mouse feels like playing a first-person shooter with a gamepad.
Since I have already started with the input devices, let’s address the elephant in the room and talk about the keyboard. Apple is obsessed with making all of their devices thin and light and as a result of this fixation on thinness they have engineered their own keyboard switches. Most of the tech press and Apple enthusiasts are not all too amused about this change, although there are people that like the feel of it. These switches provide very little key travel and the worst trait is a horrible reliability issue. Since they are so small, tiny specs of dust may render keys unusable if the dust gets lodged somewhere in the switch’s moving parts, effectively blocking it. As a response to that, Apple has announced an extended warranty program(German site) – not including the 2018 model (yet, I suppose; I’ve heard about first issues*).
Putting that aside: I like the keyboard. Let me repeat it, in case you think you read that wrong.
I. Like. The. Keyboard.
Yes, at first it was a bit odd to type on those keys and it still is if I switch back and forth from the MacBook to my ergonomic Microsoft Keyboard. But once I had gotten used to how it feels, I really started enjoying it. The feeling the keys make when they click is so irrationally satisfying, I don’t know how to describe it. And one thing Apple has gotten right with those keys is the stability. It’s just like with the track pad. No matter where I press, I get a good response. So yes, I’m one of those unicorns that does not hate the new keyboards. Lenovo’s is nice as well, although it requires more strength to push down the keys. I don’t like it as much and I even prefer the rather mediocre switches of my Microsoft keyboard.
I wouldn’t mind a little bit more travel, only to reduce the contrast to any other keyboard, and I’m sure that Apple’s engineers are smart enough to do that if the company wanted to. However, I wouldn’t place any bet on it happening, although it’s about time they address the reliability issues – and that may be possible by increasing the travel. Maybe?
Since I’m talking about controversial features, what about the Touch Bar? In some applications it could provide a benefit, but most application’s user interfaces are so optimized that the Touch Bar merely mirrors elements that are already on the screen. I use it for a few specific things, like accepting or deleting comments in Word documents or adding emojis in WhatsApp. But even for the latter I prefer to use CTRL+CMD+SPACE now. It’s also nice to control iTunes, but the same could be achieved with the media keys of yore. I think it could have potential but right now it’s more of a gimmick and an interesting technical implementation. Applications have to be optimized to place items there that are not in convenient reach in the ui but are used often enough to warrant some place where they are visible. The other extreme is a Touch Bar that is constantly adapting to my button presses. IntelliJ IDEA, a very powerful Java IDE, does exactly that. It tries to be smart and show you different actions when you press the CMD or OPTION key. The only thing that does is annoy me because of the constant changes in my peripheral vision.
All other applications mainly mirror what’s also on the screen, like dialog buttons. What good does that do when it is most likely that I have my hands on the track pad anyway because I selected an option that triggered the message box prompting me to choose something? I will probably move the mouse cursor onto one of the buttons instead of raising my hand to touch the Bar. Chances are, that the mouse is already in the vicinity. Besides, how do I use it when my laptop is closed and hooked up to a monitor?All in all, I’m like 80% in the anti-Touch Bar camp. I don’t hate it and I like it for media controls which makes up for 20% 😉It could’ve made the computer a bit cheaper if the hardware for this more or less useless toy were replaced by a simple row of keys. For it to have any future at all it would have to be available on _every_Mac. Otherwise I don’t see why a developer should spend any time on developing for it if not all users can reap the benefits.
What else is there to complain about? How about the four USB-C ports? I would appreciate at least one USB-A port, but only because I don’t have any native USB-C periphery. The future is in USB-C though, and I see and want the benefits it can provide. Also, four USB-C ports make for a uniform looking exterior and I totally understand the appeal of that. This is just how Apple designs hardware and my mind works the same way. Have you ever wondered why there are two speaker grilles at the bottom of an iPhone when there is just one speaker? Symmetry. A little visual detail.
Of course, I now live in Dongletown when I want to attach anything to the computer. It’s not much different from using a regular USB hub though – if you are using a hub and not just a single adapter. I went with a hub because I have an external hard drive, mouse and keyboard and an external CD drive to rip audio CDs (like a cave man, living a life in the past).
I have to admit, once I hook up everything to the MacBook it looks rather convoluted and not at all Apple like. To be honest, I’d prefer an empty desk with only the laptop on it 😅Unfortunately, that’s not entirely feasible. I want to be mobile, and now I can, but sometimes it’s just more productive to have a big screen, a full-size (ergonomic) keyboard and a (semi ergonomic) mouse.
But that’s where USB-C can come in. If I had a monitor with support for this technology, then I could drive all my needs through one USB-C cable and the monitor becomes the hub. One day I might just do that because it’s such a great feature. Until then it’ll look like this.
But this is not my regular setup. I only use it like this on the weekend when I do some longer coding sessions. Otherwise I use the laptop as a mobile device, like it was originally intended.
There’s still more hardware to cover though, namely the display and the speakers. I’ll try to make this short.
Let’s start with the screen because it’s the main piece of hardware with which the computer communicates with you (ignoring Siri) and the only thing I can really say about it is that it is good. I’ve looked at a few pictures but didn’t really bother comparing it to my desktop monitor (which has a quality IPS display). The most important feature is its high resolution and the proper scaling of macOS. Text looks so incredibly nice and crisp. Unfortunately, this is not the case on my external monitor. I’m aware that it can’t be as sharp as it is on the MacBook screen, but it looks so much worse in comparison. On Windows, it performs much better. It’s a 27-inch screen with a 2560×1440 pixels resolution so it has a decent pixel density for a desktop monitor. It’s not terrible, but a stark contrast to the internal display of the laptop.
One thing I noticed when I connect my external monitor in addition to the internal display is that the computer generates much more heat compared to only using the internal or only the external screen. It seems like the Intel graphics chip or the drivers cannot handle this efficiently. Too bad.
Now to the part through which Siri scared the hell out me when I first opened the laptop after taking it out of the box: the speakers. Those have been a very positive surprise. The first time I listened to some music my jaw literally dropped to the floor. Of course, after a while I noticed the shortcomings. Voices get lost in the music because the instruments drown them with their presence. But the overall sound appears very voluminous and strong, not as thin and squeaky as if squeezed through a peephole. These are certainly good enough for casually listening to music, watching YouTube videos or movies and TV shows. This is a big thumbs-up.
So far, I haven’t noticed any performance issues. Even IntelliJ IDEA starts up quickly and doesn’t show any slowdowns while I’m writing code. The user interface is as responsive as a Java interface can be, code editing is fluent, no hiccups. Note though, that I don’t have any projects big enough to properly put the IDE and the computer through its paces.
I do, however, heavily multi-task with a lot of applications always open. Not that I need them all the time, but I keep them in the background, nevertheless. I paid for all that RAM for a reason. Among those are Word, Safari, iTunes, Visual Studio Code and IntelliJ, a terminal, WhatsApp, Mail etc. No problem. Until now, I haven’t felt a difference to my six-core Windows based desktop computer.
Only Safari can feel sluggish sometimes, but I suspect it being Safari rather than the computer. Unfortunately, Firefox uses too much CPU to consider it and Chrome… Well, I don’t want to use it.
When it comes to battery, I noticed about 10% to 12% usage per hour. It’s not an exact measurement, of course, and it’ll not hold true once you tax the computer. I achieved that by only writing and light browsing for research. As mentioned, I had a few applications open, but if you’re not using them then they won’t need any resources. Even simple code editing in a Java IDE won’t hurt your battery. Overall, it works for me.
I’ve been a Mac user before, so I know my way around the system and there isn’t much to discover or unfamiliar that I could write thousands of words about (although I tend to write thousands of word anyway). Since I still work on Windows every day at… well… work, I do notice a few conceptual differences.
First, using the mouse to activate application windows “eats” the click on the window. On Windows, a click typically activates the application and it is also passed through to the application and whatever is under the mouse. If it’s a button, it is pressed. Not on macOS. You can safely click anywhere without fear of performing an action. On the other hand, it also generates a few more clicks depending on what you are doing. Imagine you want to write something in a text field. You first need to click on the app window and then into the text box. On Windows this would be achievable with one click only.
Note though, that some Windows frameworks try to simulate this behavior, WPF is one of them, I believe. It’s a wild west, even from the OS vendor.
What I like the most is how macOS usually manages applications. In the simplest case installing a new app means dragging it to the application folder and dropping it there. Boom. This is genius. You won’t be able to get rid of installers completely. Some do exist and it’s probably because they do more than just copying the application binaries. But hey, still better than on Windows.
Something that bothers me out of the box is the speed in which you can navigate the cursor from character to character, line to line by holding the arrow keys, or the backspace key to delete characters. I’m used to it being faster by default on Windows. I don’t know why this is the default setting. What’s worse however, is the fact that I cannot jump to the beginning or the end of the line using CMD+ARROW [LEFT/RIGHT] in the terminal. This is truly frustrating.
Which brings me to the Finder’s default setting of not arranging files and folders, so they neatly stick together. Drop a bunch of files and/or folder into another folder and they will be placed anywhere, spread apart. Why? Why not arrange them in rows and columns without gaps? That’s, by the way, the only mode the iOS home screen supports. Just saying.
How about something nice for a change? I enjoy using dark mode. Although light mode is much more attractive to look at, we all like bright and shiny in some way or another, dark mode is more relaxing to the eyes. And, unlike in Windows, it spreads across the whole system, not just a few applications that have been written in a particular framework. It’s also much more attractive than the Windows equivalent. Microsoft uses much darker blacks for a greater contrast and this is very uncomfortable for me. I cannot use this. The same is true for the dark background in the Kindle iOS app. I have to go with Sepia because the white text on black background is too straining on the eyes. macOS is nice though, so is IntelliJ IDEA, my Java IDE and VS Code. Of course, it all falls apart within the browser. Maybe someday there’s an option in Safari to automatically darken websites. But I like bright and shiny more and consequently use the light theme most of the time.
Another difference that I came across is how both operating systems handle biometric authentication. On the Lenovo laptop I can always login using the fingerprint reader, regardless if I started the machine fresh or woke it from sleep. macOS requires the user’s password at least once with every reboot and only then you can use TouchID. It’s all in the name of security, like on iOS, but I am not so convinced that this makes it so. Usually I put the computer into energy saving mode so it doesn’t really bother me.
As much as I’ve complained about tiny things in the operating system, I still somehow prefer macOS over Windows. It’s nothing ideological, like it’s the case with some of the Open Source fanatics (*cough*Rich*cough*ard Stallman*cough*), it’s just a subjective feeling. Both have their pros and cons, and both have their place in our modern world. Right now, based on market share, both OSes are dwarfed by Android anyway.
Famous Last Words
Is this computer worth its price tag? I believe at the time I bought this computer it would’ve cost around 2700€ buying it directly from Apple. I cannot prove it, but I’m pretty sure of it because I’ve been looking at the models and prices for a long time, pondering the ultimate question. Right now (end of March 2019) it’s at 2489€, which is still considerably more than I have paid. I found an online shop with a retail store in my city where it cost almost 250€ less. It’s still a more than 2000€ – for a simple laptop. At Apple prices I’m inclined to say that it’s not worth the money. You really have to hate Windows and Linux to pay that amount of cash. Even at 2200 it’s not really reasonable and as much as I like it and enjoy it, I’m also filled with doubt once in a while. Thinking back maybe ten years, I bought a base model 13-inch MacBook for 1050€ off Amazon. Now the base price is 1700€. Knock on wood that it will be my reliable companion for at least the next five years.
* At the time of writing, Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal wrote an articlehighlighting the ongoing issues of the MacBook keyboards, whatever revision.