Thoughts on the New MacBooks

About two weeks ago, I ordered a specced-out 12” MacBook. I had a good feeling that there’d be new MacBook Pros before the end of the month, and knew I could return the 12” within 14 days if I didn’t like it (or didn’t think it was powerful enough for my work).

This is going to be a little self-indulgent and very long, but buying an Apple laptop is a lot more complicated than it used to be.

To set this up a bit, I should explain a bit of what I do every day. I spend about 50% of the day plugged into a display, and 50% working with the laptop on my lap. Usually, I’m running iTunes, Mail, Codekit, Sketch, Coda, Safari, Chrome, TextWrangler, MAMP, iA Writer, and Transmit. At any given time, I might also be running a good chunk of Adobe’s apps: Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, or Experience Design. OS X, or macOS as it is now called, is integral to my workflow.

I need to replace my aging 2012 15” MacBook Pro. It was the first generation with Retina display, and at this point, it’s got a few issues of its own:

  • My display was one of the ones that suffered with the burn-in problem. I’m using my laptop more and more as a laptop these days, instead of solely plugging it into an external monitor, so that’s becoming a huge annoyance.
  • It’s really heavy and bulky at 4.5 pounds. This was great when I used it as a desktop that could become a portable if need be, but now that I use the machine as a portable that occasionally becomes a desktop (and I carry the laptop in my bag a lot), it’s way too heavy.
  • The video card is dying on the laptop. It’s getting really quirky, especially when it runs Adobe apps. The screen will go black randomly. Sometimes, when I boot the machine up, the screen is black until I reboot it (again). It’s frustrating. As a result, I’m never buying a computer with an independent graphics card again (unless I can easily replace it).
  • The battery is dead. If I’m writing, like I am right now, I can get about five or six hours out of it. If I’m doing any design work or coding, I get about two and a half — at most. I could pay Apple a few hundred bucks to fix this, but why bother? I can’t get them to easily swap out the video card, so it’d be more of a bandaid than a real problem.

Replacing the MacBook Pro meant it was time to look around. Last time I bought a computer, I knew immediately which one was right for me. These days, I’m not so sure.

My first inclination was that 12” MacBook. It’s an amazing little machine. Unlike most people, I love the keyboard on it. (I’m thrilled the keyboard is making its way to the new MacBook Pros.) But even at its top-end spec (which was over $2,000 in Canada!), it only comes with a 1.3ghz CPU.

I don’t really understand what all these numbers mean, although like anybody else, I understand the gist that higher is better. I suspected, with my limited knowledge of these things, that the 12” MacBook would be fine for most tasks. And it is, actually. I’ve read a lot of reviews and reports saying the machine is under-powered, but those are largely overblown.

But when things get bad, they get really bad.

Let me give you the quick five-step method to slow down the frame rate on a 12” MacBook:

  1. Run a code compiler in the background that automatically refreshes your development environment every time you make a change to the site’s code. (Codekit.)
  2. Have a local server running on your MacBook with something like MAMP.
  3. Open a 250mb Sketch file and get to work while you code.
  4. Open Photoshop to do some lightweight image editing and create assets for your website design. Leave Photoshop running in the background.
  5. Now use the computer as you normally would for a couple hours, leaving all this running. Things are fine. But suddenly, the computer slows down to about 12fps. This is called “thermal throttling,” and it’s an issue I encountered on day three of using the MacBook as a daily driver.

Thermal throttling occurs on the 12” model because it doesn’t have a fan. So while the laptop can do some tasks pretty quick for a brief period of time, it has no way to cool down when it starts to heat up. Which means that it has to slow down.

Anyway, the 12” MacBook was a no go for me. It’d be great if I had a desktop and only used it on the road, but it won’t work as a daily driver.

So back to square one.

On Thursday, Apple announced the new MacBook Pros. They’re more or less what I wanted: thinner, lighter, still packing more than enough power to do what I want every day.

But I’m a little confused by my options.

Here are your options if you want to get work done on an Apple laptop these days:

  • The 12” Macbook. In Canada, it starts at $1,649. This price has gone up since I purchased it two weeks ago, actually, by $100. Ouch. Unless you’re an office worker or just need a laptop for use on the go when you’re away from your main machine, it’s sadly a little underpowered.
  • The 13” MacBook Air. In Canada, it starts at $1,199. Expensive, somewhat powerful — good enough for just about everybody, I think. I could make do with it. But it has a low-resolution screen. I wish Apple would axe this and lower the cost of the 12” MacBook.
  • The old MacBook Pros. Pass. Too heavy, too bulky, and definitely not the new hotness. If I wanted one of these, I would have bought one two weeks ago. Oh, and their price hasn’t gone down in the wake of the new laptops. They’re even more expensive than before. So why bother?
  • The 13” MacBook Pro, without a Touch Bar. In Canada, it starts at a poop-your-pants price of $1,899. It’s supposed to be the Air replacement (it has a smaller footprint and weighs more or less the same). It’s less powerful than the MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar, and once you spec it up to comparable-ish levels, the prices are on par. So, this seems like an oddly-positioned tweener device. I thought about order this, but when I can pay the same amount for the MacBook Pro with the new Touch Bar and upgraded RAM, why wouldn’t I?
  • The 13” and 15” MacBook Pro, with a Touch Bar. This is the new hotness. In Canada, the 13” starts at a “sell-your-kidney” $2,299. I got the “my-wallet-is-bleeding” mid-tier model with 512GB of storage and 16GB of RAM (a necessity in design these days). The 13” version is, again, smaller than a MacBook Air — and they weigh the same amount.

Of course, I could always go Windows. I actually walked down to the Microsoft Store yesterday and tried out the Surface Book (the Surface Studio wasn’t available for demo yet). It’s a very nice laptop, but I don’t like the way the stylus feels in my hand. I also don’t like the space between the screen and the keyboard, even when the laptop is closed — that hinge is so weird! I’d spend most of my days cleaning dirt, dust, and hair out of the keyboard as a result. Plus, I still hate Windows. So I’m skipping this too.

Am I happy with the options? Mostly. Oddly, it seems to me that laptop prices are climbing — particularly the prices for professional machines. If the prices hadn’t changed from one generation to the next, I think we’d have a great set of new laptops from Apple.

Consider this: you can buy a decent Chromebook for a couple hundred bucks, but top-of-the-line computers from both Apple and Microsoft are climbing towards $3,000 and above. I don’t get it.

I remember balking at the price for my 15” MacBook Pro in 2012. The price then, with the extra storage space I got in my model, was just over $3,000. The laptop I’m getting now is nearly the same price, and has arguably fewer features: I’m not getting a video card, there are fewer ports, and MagSafe isn’t a thing anymore.

I don’t think Apple has lost its direction. I think Microsoft is finding their mojo, and everybody’s competing to make a really great laptop for pro users, instead of a laptop that delivers exclusively on specs. For the old guard of PC users, this all seems confusing and gimmicky. To me, it’s just plain old expensive.

But I need a new laptop. So here I am.

Changing Habits

For five years, I ran three to seven times a week. When I started running, I was fifty pounds overweight. I ran for an hour a day, every day, for four months. By the end of that four month period, I was at a weight I hadn’t been since the seventh grade.

Since then, I’ve put back on about ten pounds (and am now at a pretty healthy weight), but I kept running three or four times a week for five years. To add perspective, within that same time period, I’ve started a business, graduated university, met my wife, and become a married man.

Some habits die hard — but maybe they shouldn’t.

About a month ago, I finally quit my regular running habit. I read an excellent article about the biology of belly fat and muffin tops. It’s a bit over my head, but here’s what I got out of it: did you know that belly fat is the most stubborn fat on the body? The article suggests that weight training is better for burning stubborn fat than cardio, because of long-term gains in calorie burning attributed to strength-based workouts.

In order for it to work, you have to:

  • Stop running (almost), to prevent your body storing fat.1
  • Eat less and do only short workouts at the gym.
  • Or alternatively, you can eat more and do longer workouts at the gym.

Your body will slowly use up its fat reserves naturally, meaning it will displace and shrink the fat cells in those stubborn areas. So long as you’re consistent.

In the past month, I’ve noticed a slight reduction of fat in that area. So has my wife. Like most positive changes in our bodies, the results are slow to come, but they’re meaningful.

I say all this to say one thing: sometimes, in life and work, we have long-lasting habits. Maybe our lives and our work would be better off if we spent some time revising and changing them.

  1. This is the part that’s most over my head, so correct me if I’m wrong. The article makes it sound like if your body notices that you’re eating well and you’re getting lots of cardio, it shifts excess fat to the belly for leaner times. It will burn the fat later, when we start eating less and getting less exercise while food is scarce. This served us well when we were hunter-gatherers. It does not serve us well as urbanites. ↩︎

A Question About Side Projects

My father is always working on side projects. When I was growing up, he spent weekends building a new shed or deck, fixing the garage door for the thousandth time, or designing a new workshop for himself.

In hindsight, these projects were very specific: they were all large and time-consuming, they began on paper, they often involved learning new skills, and they always required building something with his hands.

It’s that last detail I’ve been having trouble rectifying over the past couple years. Like my father, I’ve spent a lot of time working on side projects. They’re long, time-consuming projects that I do during breaks or quiet periods between client work. They always involve learning new skills.

But they rarely, if ever, involve building something with my hands.

Like my client work, all of my side projects are digital. My father doesn’t build things for a living, so his side projects are an escape. I don’t know if mine are the same thing.

As an industry, we (particularly digital designers) tend to struggle with the echo chamber. Our ideas and creativity feed off each other, and become very self-perpetuating. Our work becomes homogenous.

And most people in our industry recommend side projects as a way to attract potential employers and clients, even though — in that regard — these side projects are actually unpaid spec work.

I’m guilty of digital side projects — I’m working on a huge one right now — but I can’t help but wonder if we’ve collectively missed something.

Would our industry be more rewarding, fulfilling, and creative if we all stepped away from the screen and made tactile side projects that required us to make something with our hands?

Blue and Orange

I’ve read a lot of articles about how homogenous web design has become, but few have compelled me like Morgane Santos’ on Medium. For the first time, I felt as a web designer that I wanted to join this conversation.

This part of the article grabbed my attention:

Perhaps the biggest issue with all this homogeneity is how lonely it can feel when you want to do something different.

Two separate friends have told me how they don’t feel like they fit in with the design community. These two friends are guys who more or less fit the Designer Dave stereotype, too. If they feel isolated, how does everyone else feel?

I started to gather my thoughts, but explained to my wife later on that I didn’t feel qualified to share them — which is interesting to me because it proves Ms. Santos’ theory. I, too, am white and in my mid-twenties (although I do not have a beard). Some of my web design work falls prey to certain stereotypes (although I don’t necessarily feel all of it does). In many ways, I relate to Designer Dave. With that being said, I’ve tried to gather my thoughts coherently regardless.

What’s happening in design reminds me of what’s been happening in filmmaking over the past twenty years. Have you noticed that a lot of popular action movies have been bathed in orange and blue?

An image from Blade Runner
Blade Runner was filled with blue and orange decades ago.
An image from Thelma and Louise
Similarly, Thelma and Louise followed suit.
An image from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight is a not-often-referenced example of excessive blue and orange tinting.

Once you see it, it’s hard to un-see it. Priceonomics has a really good rundown on what’s going on, and you should read the whole article, but this quote deserves special mention:

One way to figure out what will look good is to figure out what the common denominator is in the majority of your scenes. And it turns out that actors are in most scenes. And actors are usually human. And humans are orange, at least sort of!

Most skin tones fall somewhere between pale peach and dark, dark brown, leaving them squarely in the orange segment of any color wheel. Blue and cyan are squarely on the opposite side of the wheel.

You may remember from preschool that “opposite” color pairs like this are also known as “complementary” colors. That means that, side-by-side, they produce greater contrast than either would with any other color. And when we’re talking about color, contrast is generally a desirable thing.

I’d need to do more research, but I’d be willing to wager that a teal and orange colour scheme makes your average film studio more money on opening weekend too. Most big-budgets films are cast in this orange and blue look, while indies feel more free to roam around.

That’s not very different from web design: while market forces are unwilling to invest in unusual design, smaller organizations who need to stand out may be more interested. The same way some directors make one for the studio, and then one for them, it’s financially sensible to do the same thing as a designer. (I’m not saying to compromise your values; I’m telling you to make enough money to support yourself and your families.)

My second thought is this: there are ways to play with established conventions.

Priceonomics included an image from Mad Max: Fury Road in their article. It was my second-favourite movie last year, and a big part of that was because I adored the colours. The story is that director George Miller wanted to show the film in black and white, but Warner Bros. refused (market forces at work). In response, Miller gave them what they wanted: blue and orange, cranked up as high as he could make it go.

An image from Mad Max: Fury Road
The blue and orange feels like art in Mad Max: Fury Road.

That sense of over-saturation practically outdoes Transformers, and in a backhand way, forces you to notice it and be aware. I don’t know a single person who saw it who didn’t mention the colours. It’s subversive. Miller wants the colours to be part of the film’s intensity, yes, but he also wants it to reflect the insanity of everything else going on. It’s absolutely intentional.

I think we can learn something from Miller: If you’re given constraints that you don’t like, be subversive with them. We design for audiences who are smart enough to notice, and while they might not realize you’re being playful, they’ll appreciate your work all the more. You’ll stand out within the confines of homogeneity.

All that being said, at the end of the day, I don’t know the answer to homogeneity in web design, nor do I feel qualified to share my thoughts on the topic. For me, sharing this takes courage.

I learned in school that our brains are wired to notice semiotic patterns. Blue and orange is one such pattern. Boring websites are another. And while neither are going away any time soon, I think there’s a lot we can do to subvert expectations and experiment with new things.

Thoughts on Todo List Apps

Most digital todo lists suck. I’m sure you’re aware of this. I’m certain you’ve probably spent hours combing through tips on LifeHacker about how to organize the chaos of your life with “this one simple app that will blow your mind.” Or maybe you’re like me and you’ve bent over backwards to fit your workflow into somebody else’s expensive dystopian view of getting things done.

I don’t need to tell you that task management apps suck.

But I need to share this because nobody is saying it, and we’re all pretending like we’re organized, but the truth of the matter is that the people who make these apps must have nothing to do — because their apps don’t work for busy people. So this post is for them.

I only need one thing from a todo list: to tell me what I should be working on right now. And when I’m done that, what’s the next thing I can do?

That’s it. No gimmicks. It’s that simple.

Yes, all your extra features, like sub-tasks of a sub-project inside a project within an area of responsibility in the context of ‘Phone Calls’ are all well and good, but if you cannot give me a high-level look at what needs working on today, don’t bother.1

This isn’t just about what’s due: it’s about what’s important, what’s in progress and what big-picture project I should be working on. If I need to finish a project by Friday and it will take three days, then it should show up in a special Today view as early as Wednesday and not leave the Today view until it’s done, even if it’s overdue by three months and a day.

My task management app should be about managing what’s important, making changes to the unimportant on the fly, and getting crap done.

For reference, this is where I’m storing all the crap I need to do now.

Note: This post was originally called ‘I Tried Every Todo List App So You Don’t Have To’. I changed it for the sake of brevity, not because it’s untrue. I think I did try almost every todo app on the market for iOS and the web.

  1. If you plan on making a todo app, the second-most important feature is not fiddle-daddles like sub-projects and nesting. It’s making your information hierarchy really bloody obvious. Even some of the most famously simple task management apps fail at this. ↩︎