2016 MacBook Pro First Impressions

Okay, you thought I was an Apple fanatic, right? After all, I started on an Apple I, sold and programmed hundreds (maybe thousands) of Apple IIs, and have been using Macs since 1983 (that date is correct, I was one of the first in the developer program, evangelized by Guy Kawasaki himself despite Steve Jobs barring me from the building [a long story for another day]). Well, read on. Just as I’m harsh with Nikon when they make mistakes, I can be harsh on Apple, too, as I have at times in my long career that included front-of-book columns in both Macworld and MacUser magazines.

It is time for me to update my greatly aging, first generation, 15” MacBook Pro Retina, a notebook computer that has traveled the world a few times, chocked on a sandstorm, and bounced harshly on things that were called roads but weren’t. 

So I bought a 2016 MacBook Pro 15”, fully decked out.

Apple has generally been good at solving user problems. Apparently whoever it was that was solving them has left the building. Jony Ive obviously hasn’t left, as we get the usual minimalistic design style he’s known for: simple lines, spartan extras. So Jony, I blame you.

Let’s just start at the power connection and see what happened:

  • User problem: tripping over power cable and pulling computer off the desk. Apple answer: MagSafe cables that easily come undone with pressure on the cable and leave the computer on the desk intact.
  • User problem: where do I put the power cable that runs from the charger to the computer? Apple answer: flip out two ears on the charger and twist it around those when you go portable.
  • User problem: how do I know when my computer is charging or is charged? Apple answer: a small LED on the power connector that changes color when fully charged. (Previous answer, a small LED buried in the aluminum chassis.)

So, how’s all that work with the 2016 MacBook Pro? MagSafe is gone, the ears on the charger are gone (as is the AC extension cable to the wall), as is any visible charging indicator.

Good grief, Apple. Who the heck authorized those changes? Obviously, not someone who travels with their MacBook Pro. These are details that Steve Jobs would have shouted about. These are design details that actually matter to a user. Not a single one of those details needed to be eradicated, though I’m sure that the missing magnet, plastic ears, and LED saved Apple a ton of money.

The funny thing is that I actually am in agreement on some of Apple’s design choices. The simplification to four USB-C ports I don’t mind one bit. Yes, it means that I’ve had to move to USB-C drives for the new unit, but they’re faster, smaller, and even the 8TB external drive I bought is bus powered. The future is most definitely USB-C (at least for the time being; the future has a habit of changing with connections, though some changes last longer than others).

I’m glad the move to USB-C allowed Apple to slim down the 15” some, though it didn’t lose as much size and weight as I was hoping. Unfortunately, that led to another user problem previously solved now going unsolved: the SD card slot is gone. That was a premature ejaculation, in my opinion. We don’t yet have cameras anywhere on the horizon—still, video, action, or anything else—that are fast wireless or USB-C capable. Thus, most of us creatives—Apple’s most faithful customers—are still stuck with card readers. Having a common one built-into the computer is useful. Solves a common user problem. 

But not according to Apple. Apple’s response when queried on this was that their surveys showed that only about 20% of Macintosh users were using the SD slot. Oh dear, it’s come to that, Apple? You’re going to design to surveys? And might I point out that when you put the SD slot on the back of a computer (iMac, Mac Mini) where no one can reach, they probably won’t use it? ;~)

The problem here is that the minority of us who use the SD card slot use it regularly. Indeed, many depend upon it. It’s not exactly an inconvenience to the rest of the MacBook Pro user base to have the card slot, but it certainly is an inconvenience to a reasonably large-sized minority that use the slot. User problem previously solved once again unsolved by Jony Ive design.

In all tech design there’s a delicate line of balance you have to walk. You want to be towards or at the front edge of technology when you introduce a new product like an updated MacBook Pro series. But you also don’t want to lose customers you already have. Nor do you want the ones, who like me update to the new model, then complain about the updated product. Simple: don’t unsolve previously solved user problems. 

Funny thing is, I’m not experiencing the other issues that most folk are complaining about with the 2016 MacBook Pro:

  • Battery life: seems reasonable, and a bit more than the old model I had been using. Moreover, the new computer seems to charge a bit faster than my old one. 10 hours of life? No. More like 8 in a pinch. But that’s perfectly acceptable to me, especially since I have a small, external USB-C battery that will run the computer for another 10 or so. But there’s clearly a software issue relating to power. When I run some programs I can see the GPU bouncing back and forth between the integrated and dedicated version for no apparent reason. Just scrolling a Web page sometimes generates the flail. Simple solution, though: use GFXCardStatus and force the integrated GPU. Only let the MacBook Pro use the dedicated GPU when you know you need the performance boost.
  • Keyboard: many seem to complain about the keyboard, but I actually like it. Yes, it’s definitely nosier than the older models, but that’s actually one of the things I like: there’s audio feedback to a key press now. True, the key action is shallow, but it’s very definite, and easy to adapt to. As a 200 word per minute typer, if the keyboard were problematic I’d definitely be complaining. Related: the huge trackpad does sometimes get in the way, and I’m not sure why I needed a bigger track pad. It doesn’t happen often, though it’s annoying when it does, but a random palm rest sometimes moves the cursor. That’s a big PITB for someone typing long stretches of text lickety split. Tip: the trackpad seems to be fairly repressive of touches on the right side and when you’re continuously typing. It’s the left side when I’ve paused briefly that seems to be moving the cursor on me most of the time.
  • Speed: probably because I’m coming from the oldest Retina 15” I see a distinct and welcome speed boost. If you were using the 2015 model, I can see how you wouldn’t really see any useful change. CPU speed is a bit like megapixel count. As we get further and further into the evolution of these digital technologies, we’re seeing smaller and smaller visible changes. But if you jump from a few generations older to the current one, guess what, you see the change.
  • Memory: the 16GB RAM limitation isn’t really a limitation that I worry much about. It may be to a few folk, especially those music industry folk that create RAM disks to solve latency issues on their huge data sets. But to me, I’ve been watching the memory statistics carefully, and it’s somewhat rare that I trigger even a basic virtual memory swap. Yes, 32GB (or more) would make a few things in Photoshop run faster, but for a small, portable machine, the performance even under full load seems fine to me.

The new display can go wickedly bright. Indeed, far too bright for my eyes in my office, so you end up dialing the display back down, mitigating the advantage. I haven’t used the laptop enough outdoors yet to see if the new brightness solves one of the common issues I have when traveling, so the jury’s out on that. But I can’t imagine anyone using the full display brightness indoors.

The TouchBar can only be described as a work in progress. Even Apple hasn’t managed to tune all of their software to use the TouchBar, and in the few products where they have, I’m not sure that they’ve picked the right choices. Certainly the integrated touch sensor is a big step forward. For security purposes I have a fairly aggressive time out to the screen saver when traveling. Having to click and type a password to get back in is now simply touching the pad instead. I can’t say that this saves any particularly useful amount of time, but it does make it feel like I’m saving time. Sometimes tactile experience is as important as actual gain.

That said, the rest of the TouchBar doesn’t get that same nod from me yet. I have a tendency to overreach the Delete key and accidentally trigger Siri (in the default bar; and by the way, Siri’s initial wait for response is way too short). That’s annoying. We’ll see if I adapt to or end up swearing at the computer on that. Meanwhile, I wait for applications that truly discover the value of having TouchBar controls available. Adobe’s first attempt with Photoshop doesn’t feel right to me. Apple’s first attempt with Photos is definitely not right, but then their Photos software team is confused and currently creating a giant crap-hole of user-confusing capabilities (and lack of capabilities). 

Given the price of top-end Apple products, this is one of the least satisfying purchases I’ve made from them over the years. Yes, I’ve gotten many things I needed and value (faster, updated CPU and main components in a slightly trimmer package). But Johnny Ive is playing us for fools now in his design tweaks, and I ain’t no fool. I’d love to sit down to lunch with him and outline all the issues with this latest design and why there was absolutely no reason for them to be in the final product. 

The problem for most Apple users is that this isn’t the first time we’ve gotten this kind of unsolving of solved user problems in Macintosh models. Another big Johnny Ive production, the MacPro desktop—known as the trash can to most, which should tell you something—unsolved just as many problems as the new MacBook Pros do. The iMacs refuse to solve problems they’ve had for years (that pesky backwards facing card slot, for instance). The Mac Minis have become gutted, least common denominator models when they were once the best small computer solution available (solving a problem for many). 

Someone needs to stop Ive before he unsolves all previously-solved user problems. Turn him around and get him solving new user problems that need solving. Please. Oh, and it would help if the software team set to fixing a few more of the more than 10,000 items in Apple’s macOS bug database, too.

Update: This MacBook Pro has had more kernel panics and unexplained restarts than any other Mac I've used. This was especially true early on (2016 and early 2017), but it seems that macOS updates have been slowly eradicating the problems and the computer is almost as stable as my desktop iMac now, but not quite. It doesn't help that I push all my computers to their limits; that 16GB RAM limitation may be part of the issue, though my 12" MacBook has only 8GB and doesn't seem to have the same issues.

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