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:
- 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.)
- Have a local server running on your MacBook with something like MAMP.
- Open a 250mb Sketch file and get to work while you code.
- Open Photoshop to do some lightweight image editing and create assets for your website design. Leave Photoshop running in the background.
- 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.