My “New” (old) MacBook Pro

Despite Apple introducing new 2016 MacBook Pro’s last week, I just ordered at 2015 model. Yes, the one that was last updated a year and a half ago. I spent a considerable amount of time looking at the new lineup and thinking through how I intend to use the machine. Ultimately I concluded that in addition to costing several hundreds more, the new models simply offer me less utility than the 2015 models.

I work in Higher-Ed IT in a support role, and need to use both Macs and PCs for a variety of testing and other work functions. Though my very first two computers were Macs (SE and PowerBook 540), I’m really a PC person. I’ve always supported a handful of Mac users, but I started in a new role last January which requires that I become much more proficient in supporting Macs. I was issued Dell Ultrabook right away to get started, and was given the go-ahead to order a MacBook Pro. I decided to hold off on buying a MacBook Pro since new models would be coming out soon (hah!). There was also a four-year-old 21.5” iMac that I could use in the meantime, so I didn’t feel rushed.

I certainly wasn’t expecting to wait until late October. I thought that at worst, the new models would be out for back-to-school. Since I really needed to get up to speed on supporting Macs, I went ahead and setup the old iMac as my primary machine, plugging in a 25” Dell monitor running at 2560×1440. I remote into my Dell for Windows tasks and running VMs (it has an i7, 16 GB of RAM, and a 256 SSD). I then waited, and waited, and waited.

Everyone’s use case is somewhat different, but for me, none of the updates offer any real benefits. Marginally smaller and thinner – I don’t really care. Half a pound lighter – I don’t really care. Better screen, I don’t really care. The 2015 model was already thin, light, and had a great screen. The increases in processor, graphics and storage speed won’t have a significant impact on my workflow, even though I will be using VMs and driving an external monitor. I don’t do design work or video editing, so I don’t expect to ever need to connect multiple 5K displays. I don’t really care about the Touch Bar, and based on the limited time I’ve spent using a 12” MacBook keyboard, I expect to prefer the keyboard on the 2015 model.

However, many of the things that Apple took away are a problem for me. A huge part of my workflow requires that I use a USB security token, and I use USB flash drives a fair amount. I’m not a huge klutz, but I was looking forward to the MagSafe connector. I connect to projectors and large LCDs on a fairly regular basis, so an HDMI port is very useful for me. The thought of having to use dongles all of the time doesn’t appeal to me.

The machine I ended up ordering was the 2015 13” MacBook Pro with the i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of storage. With our contract pricing and AppleCare, it cost about $2200. It would have cost about $350 more to get comparable specs on the new model, plus the cost of dongles. The price is already painful enough – when purchasing a Mac I try not to look at PC prices for similar specs, but the gap is pretty staggering.

It will be really interesting to see what the sales numbers look like over the next several months. There is certainly a tremendous amount of pent up demand, given how long it has been since the last substantive upgrades. Ironically enough, my purchase will count towards Apple’s sales number for this quarter, even though I’m not happy with the new releases.

Concerns for the Mac

Having read lots of blog posts and listened to a number of podcasts from long time Mac users, I concur that there is legitimate reason for concern over Apple’s direction with the Mac line. It is certainly fair to question Apple’s commitment to the “Pro” market, defined as people who truly need high-end processing capability. Apple seems to have stopped making workstation class machines altogether. These sorts of machines simply don’t fit into Apple’s thin and light design philosophy.

This philosophy makes sense for some models. I think the 12” Macbook is a great machine. I think the new 13” “Escape” model makes a lot of sense, even though it’s overpriced. The 13” Touch Bar model seems nice, and will also make more sense once the price comes down. However, I’m having a much harder time wrapping my head around the 15” model as a “Pro” machine. Pro machines, and for that matter desktops as well, don’t need to be so thin and light. Just as trading off some processing power makes sense for some users to have extra portability, trading off some portability makes sense for users who need more power.

I’m also confused by the mixed messages that Apple is sending with regard to which technologies they are keeping, getting rid of, and introducing. They removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 because it’s such an old technology (and courage). Yet they kept it on the new MacBook Pro’s because it’s a “Pro” feature, but apparently they dropped optical audio output through the headphone jack. They also got rid of the SD slot, which is causing fits for some photographers.

Touch Bar

Speaking of technology introductions, there’s the Touch Bar. While the Touch Bar seems like an interesting concept, I do worry that this will lead to a word usually reserved to criticize Android – fragmentation. There is a huge installed base of Mac desktop and notebooks that don’t have a Touch Bar, and Apple is selling current generation laptops without it (12” MacBooks and the 13” MacBook “Escape”). This seems to be the first time in quite a while that there are going to be Macs with a significant enough hardware difference to affect software functionality.

For years Apple has scoffed at the notion of touching any other screen than an iOS device. The Touch Bar seems to be a compromise at first glance – it’s close enough to the keyboard that you don’t need to raise your hands, but also close enough to the screen that you don’t need to adjust your gaze very much. The question is, how will Apple and developers translate the functionality of the Touch Bar to models without the Touch Bar?

This raises several other questions. Will we soon see new iMacs with a Touch Bar built into the lower part of the bezel? Will there be a floating menu on the screen instead for Macs that don’t have Touch Bars? Will Apple just decide to “invent” the touch screen with the next iMac? Will Apple roll out the Touch Bar to the “Escape” and MacBook models next year to justify the prices?

Prognostications

There seems to be much more rumbling from the Mac community than usual with this release cycle. It will be interesting to see if this is part of a trend, and how all of this plays out over the next several years. Overall, I expect Apple to lose some market share, yet remain very profitable.

At the higher end, Mac users have always had to make a trade-off when it came to raw specs as compared to what’s offered in the Windows universe. For these Mac users, the benefits of MacOS and its integration with (less powerful) hardware made this somewhat of a no-brainer. “It just works” was thrown around quite a bit. In recent years this has shifted as Apple has delayed updating the Mac product line, and software quality has slipped. Staying with Mac OS changed from being a “no brainer” to “still worth it”. It now seems like many high-end users have just about had enough. After some ups and downs, Windows has come a very long way. Some of these users are taking another look at Windows, especially given the wide array of hardware choices available for much less money.

At the low end, Apple seems to getting squeezed as well. Case in point – I just purchased an unlocked Moto G4 from Amazon for $120 with ads. It’s a fantastic device, and in many ways is comparable to my wife’s iPhone 6S Plus. Her company paid for it, and would have cost $750 unlocked when new last year. While the Moto G4 won’t be supported nearly as long as the iPhone, based on a three-year cycle for the iPhone, I could replace the Moto G4 twice a year and still come out ahead financially. If she suddenly had to buy her own smartphone, there’s no way we would spend the extra money for an iPhone.

This holds true for laptops as well. Chromebooks are getting better all of the time and selling quite well. I could just about get away with one as my primary computer at home. You can also get a really good Windows 10 laptop for half the cost of the new MacBook Pro “Escape”. As more and more of what people interact with moves to the web, the operating system seems to be becoming less and less important. The companies that make these inexpensive machines aren’t making much money, but as a consumer, it’s not my job to inflate the profit margins of the vendors.

For consumers who are not price sensitive and don’t have unusually demanding processing needs, Macs will continue to be a great option for years to come. However, as Macs become an increasingly small portion of Apple’s revenues and profits, I expect them to become less and less suited to the needs of true power users. Whether this starts to detract from the “cache” of Macs is doubtful.

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My “New” (old) MacBook Pro