Joe Beninato

@beninato

Apple and MacBooks and Dongles, Oh My!

Steve Jobs 2x2 matrix circa 1997

I’ve been using Apple products since I first bought an Apple IIe in 1983. While there was a period during the 1990s where I used primarily Windows computers for work, I switched back to the Mac about 15 years ago and haven’t looked back. Until now.

There have been a series of decisions by Apple that remind me a great deal of the decisions made by Apple in the ‘90s before the return of Steve Jobs as CEO. This isn’t about removing the floppy drive or the CD-ROM drive. This is about the general user experience for an Apple consumer, like myself.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, Apple was scattered and working on way too many products. He sketched out the 2x2 matrix pictured above, focusing on desktop computers for consumers and professionals, and portable computers for consumers and professionals. If you now look at the lineup for iPhones or iPads or MacBooks, you see literally dozens of configurations and have to do way too much thinking to make a decision about what to buy.

I own an iPhone 7, and while I wasn’t happy about the removal of the headphone jack, I’ve dealt with it. There are many situations where I’d like to charge my phone and listen to music on my phone (for example, on this flight I’m on right now), but I can get around it in this situation by using my Mac.

Here’s a question for Apple: how do you release your 2 flagship products (iPhone and Macbook Pro) with different connectors for audio and power? After just convincing us that Lightning is the way to go for charging an iPhone, we get introduced to a new USB-C connector for power on a MacBook Pro. Why not put USB-C on the iPhone then? And the MacBook Pro gets an audio jack, but not the iPhone, a device that is used for talking and listening to music? The lack of consistency here feels like 2 different groups who aren’t talking to each other.

My 4 year old 13" MacBook Pro has had a battery issue (only 30–45 minutes of battery life) for 6 months. The repair would require me to send my MacBook away for at least 4 days, which is not something I can do running a startup right now. Apple suggested that I just buy another MacBook 6 months ago, transfer over all of my stuff, send in the repair, and then return the MacBook. Between the hassle of setting up a new machine (which usually takes me hours over a weekend), and the slimy feeling of using a MacBook for a week (in spite of it being Apple’s suggestion), I decided to just wait. I anxiously awaited the release of the new MacBook Pros this fall, and was somewhat disappointed with the announcements in October. But given my situation, I went ahead and ordered the new 13" MacBook Pro, officially named “MacBook Pro (13-inch, Late 2016, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports),” a name which provides a hint of the issue here.

Yes, it’s a beautiful Space Gray. Yes, it’s the thinnest lightest MacBook Pro ever. Yes, using your fingerprint to unlock it is amazing. And yes, after almost 2 weeks of trying to use it, I’m returning a MacBook Pro to Apple for the first time in my life. I just placed an order for the previous generation MacBook Pro.

My goal here is not to beat up Apple, but rather to help educate others who might run into the same issues I’ve run into. And maybe Phil or Craig or Tim will hear the challenges their loyal customers are encountering and try to fix them.

First the positives. This is a gorgeous piece of hardware. It is thin and light. The screen is beautiful. It’s fast and responsive. Touch ID on a computer is great. The TouchBar is an interesting innovation and the hardware is nice, but the lack of static keys for escape, volume, brightness, etc. present issues (more below). But unfortunately the cons are outweighing the pros. Here’s a summary of some of the issues I’ve faced:

  1. MagSafe Power: When I first heard MagSafe was being removed, I honestly didn’t worry too much about it. But through this process, I’ve realized that I plug into power between 2–5 times per day, docking with Apple monitors at work and at home, or working in a hotel room. There is no doubt that replacing MagSafe with a USB-C port is a mistake. For me, it’s not about the safety aspect, it’s about the convenience of plugging in and disconnecting. I can do it with my eyes closed with MagSafe. With USB-C, I have to actually tilt the computer so I can see the port and plug into it. It may seem like a minor issue, but do it 4 times per day and you’ll change your mind. This doesn’t take into account the fact that my beautiful Apple Display can no longer provide video without a dongle, and can no longer power my MacBook Pro, requiring a new power adapter (which is now sold in 3 separate pieces!) both at home and at work.
  2. Bugs: I’ve noticed two pretty significant bugs so far. First, there are graphics issues I’ve never seen on a Mac before. I see random solid color triangles occasionally when windows are being drawn. Seems like a graphics chip issue and definitely not ready for prime time. The second bug I’ve seen involves the new trackpad. I frequently use my left index finger to click on a file and hold, then use my right index finger to press and hold as I drag a file to another location. The trackpad regularly has issues with this standard movement and I have not yet been able to figure out how to fix it. I suspect it has something to do with palm detection or something similar, but it happens every day, multiple times per day.
  3. TouchBar: I watch a significant amount of media on my laptop. Whether it’s a video on the web, or streaming a TV show, on my current trip, I’ve probably had to use media controls over 100 times in 3 days. While the TouchBar is a good idea, I use the mute and volume up/down buttons so frequently that I need instant access. For example, when watching a streaming NBC show yesterday, every time a commercial came on, the volume would go up 25%. So I had to lower it, then raise it back when the show started again.
  4. Dongles: I couldn’t believe that I had to spend $400 on dongles. Yes, between the various power adapters for home/work, extenders, HDMI converters, etc. it was over $400.

You might see a trend here. Most of these issues are small issues. They take just a second. But what pushed me over the edge is the addition of all of those seconds. It adds up to minutes of lost productivity every day, and in the end, having a slightly smaller lighter machine does not outweigh these issues.

Then there are the more esoteric issues. The glowing Apple logo and the famous Mac startup chime are both gone. I understand that lighting that logo probably added a few millimeters of thickness to the lid, so I get that, but the chime? In spite of the fact that the chime is usually only heard when there’s an issue requiring a restart, that sound comes from the soul of the MacIntosh. Every time I hear it, it takes me back to my first Mac with the tiny screen, 3.5" floppy drive, and ImageWriter printer. Maybe I’m just old and nostalgic, but I have to believe that decision was a mistake.

I realize I am most likely just pushing out some of these challenges (like buying new power adapters everywhere and monitor replacements) a few years. But by then, maybe Apple will be using the latest Intel processor generation and will have fixed some of their issues. I for one, can’t wait for the arrival of MagSafe 3!

Update December 14, 2016:

A few updates since I published this:

  1. I bought a previous generation 13" MacBook Pro and have been using it for almost a week. I couldn’t be happier with the switch back. No more dongles, my Apple monitors work just great, the keyboard is awesome, and the machine is fast and reasonably priced. I think the display is slightly worse, but I mostly use external monitors and I won’t notice after a few weeks of use. The biggest thing I miss is the Touch ID for logging in. But the size/weight, Touch Bar and keyboard are not missed even a small amount.
  2. I suspected I was not getting great battery life, but I rarely need more than 2 hours since I mostly dock. However, since I published this, a number of reports about the 4–5 hour battery life of the new MacBook Pro have surfaced. I just read that the latest macOS update may fix this, but it was definitely an issue with my machine: http://www.macrumors.com/2016/12/14/macos-10-2-2-improved-battery-life-reports/
  3. This review entitled ‘Apple 13” MacBook Pro review: the best computer you shouldn’t buy’ does a pretty thorough job of reviewing the pros/cons of the new MacBook Pro: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/12/apple-macbook-pro-review-the-best-computer-you-shouldnt-buy
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