Apple’s 2016 In Review

I think the first thing that has to be discussed when talking about any Apple product is the customer experience. How do I feel when I use the product? For years, and I still maintain that this is the case to this day, Apple fans believed using an Apple computer simply felt better than using a PC. Many PC and Microsoft fans are going to tune out now simply because I brought up operating systems but in order for us all to get along, we need to cede certain facts about each other.

Apple developed a very solid, very easy to use system that catered to designers and artists. Navigating anything on a Mac felt, and still feels… good. I still maintain that quick preview on files simply by hitting space bar is one of the most ingenious additions to any operating system ever.

So when an Apple person continues to buy Apple, it’s not because they just want to buy something that Apple makes, it’s more like chasing that heroin high. They just want it to be as good as the first time. They just want to continue on with the same user experience that they have come to know and they’ll spend an absurd amount of money to get it, even at the cost of other features.

It’s no secret that Microsoft has been dramatically improving over the years and that the diversity of options in that side of the market has led to a more affordable price point for the same things or better that you find in a comparable Apple product, but to an Apple user… that doesn’t really matter. They’re chasing the OS.

So with that said, PC users have to understand where Apple users are coming from. They aren’t just mindlessly buying what Apple sells. There is a method to the madness.

And it may, at times, be totally mad.

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Let’s look specifically at the MacBook Pro, because the 2016 release of the much anticipated professional mobile computing machine was hit hard immediately by a giant hellstorm of bad press. It didn’t necessarily help that Apple’s keynote on the iPhone 7 and their whole “courage” thing was still ringing in people’s heads at this point, and the pitchforks and torches were lit well before there was any actual announcement.

The MacBook Pro made many of the same mistakes that I highlighted in the Canon 5D Mark IV release: There was too much buildup, too much time to sit and create expectations, for the MacBook Pro to ever meet them with any sense of satisfaction. That combined with any idea that the computer was less than its predecessors and you have the perfect storm of angry and dissatisfied.

If you look anywhere online, it’s pretty hard to find a review that’s mostly positive on the computer. That’s a real shame, because through its faults, there is a lot to like in the MacBook Pro. But the reason that so few vastly differing groups across the internet all kind of agree on the same things regarding the MacBook Pro is something pivotally important that I’ll touch on at the end.

But the purveying argument that the Pro isn’t really Pro is… not totally inaccurate. But it’s not totally accurate either. Bear with me.

Looking beyond the lack of ports and the weirdly low battery life compared to what is expected and was advertised, the MacBook Pro feels good to use. That is one thing that Apple developers absolutely nailed, and continue to nail with most of their products.

On that whole battery life thing, I am aware that Apple chocked the tests up to a weird bug with the Safari developer module, and that it should be much better and more consistent. But I personally, and many users online as well, have yet to get the maximum hours promised out of the laptop. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly not “all day” power. I found that while working from home or an office, I never really had a problem with battery life. If it started to fade, I just sat down near a wall and plugged in. But I could easily go hours sitting anywhere I wanted. And that’s a good thing.

Anyway, back to the way the computer feels…

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It just feels pleasant. The keys, the touchpad, the smoothness of the operation all are incredibly pleasant. Even avid PC users have to admit at least that point. Despite other shortcomings, Apple clearly wanted users to feel a certain way and have a certain experience when using the MacBook Pro. I think they succeeded here.

One place I do want to stop and mention momentarily is that giant touch pad. I mean it’s giiiiant. Huge even. That’s nice in that it’s easy to get to no matter how big or small your hand, but annoying because it’s very, very easy to accidentally touch it with the side of your hand while typing. I had to completely change how I positioned my right wrist because I couldn’t get right click to work if another part of my hand was touching the pad (something that happened very frequently because the sheer size of the pad takes up where I used to reset my hands when typing). It was a nice idea, but in practice, the huge size is just awkward.

The speakers, newly redesigned speakers mind you, are really excellent. Like, super excellent. Though they aren’t as good as a dedicated speaker (still), they are a lot less “tinny” than any other laptop I’ve ever used, and the bass and loudness is outstanding. I went from barely being able to hear my laptop in a slightly chatter-filled room, to easily being able to hear it in a Starbucks (if I wanted to, which I don’t since that is rude to my fellow patrons). It’s a great speaker, and I am super stoked on the improvements Apple has made here.

Online pundits and YouTubers, bloggers and editors, they will all find a way to say that a lack of ports means that a product can’t be made for professionals. It’s actually their biggest finger to why the MacBook Pro isn’t “pro” at all. As a pro myself, I don’t think that’s fair. Sure, it’s a big part in the picture, but as a Pro I have used the MacBook Pro for professional things. I’ve edited articles, videos, and spreadsheets on the MacBook Pro and everything feels great. Is that not something professionals do? Did it not work?

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That said, while on location in Georgia late in December of 2016, my assistant tried to give me one of his memory cards to dump and I was unable to do it because of the lack of an SD card port. I actually had to bring the card home, dump it on my main desktop machine, put the SD card in a box and FedEx it back to him. That is a set of circumstances that actually happened, and it was kind of a pain in the ass.

USB-C has its advantages, in that it can be many, many things. However, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Apple opted to ditch MagSafe on the MacBook Pro because the USB-C connection can instead power the machine. They were able to ditch a “port” of sorts and consolidate, except that save for one real-world reason, I disagree with the choice. Thanks to USB-C, you can now charge your computer on either side of the device, which is kind of nice. Sometimes the plug isn’t on your right, sometimes it isn’t on your left. The MacBook Pro can use either side.

Except the one thing we had to give up for this minor convenience was the knowledge that our computer couldn’t be torn off our desks by a rogue foot. MY OWN rogue foot. I’ve totally done that before, and thanked the computer gods that my computer wasn’t flung across the room with the rocket speed of a bro who hears the words “strippers” and “slim jims” uttered together.

Also weirdly, the brick for charging the MacBook is a lot heavier than it used to be. At least double. So even though the computer got lighter, that extra weight just moved to the charging apparatus.

And you know what else? I miss the fact that the Apple doesn’t glow. It’s the little things, but it was a little thing that I liked.

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After the whole port issue, it’s the RAM max that has people most upset. Here, I have to agree. One of the first things I do with a new iMac is upgrade the memory to maximum capacity. I do notice a difference in performance.

I think the mentality of Apple, as flawed as it is, was that the MacBook Pro doesn’t need the memory if you’re using Apple product. Apple software is extremely good at efficiency on Mac devices. Final Cut, Pages, Safari, etc all run smoothly and with little drag on memory and GPU, but building a machine with a 16GB cap on memory for this reason is assuming your users will all be using Mac products.

Which… we don’t.

Photographers specifically will at least need Photoshop and Lightroom, and files can get pretty meaty on the former, and the latter already runs sluggishly on the best of computers.

I can’t really keep going without addressing the two biggest additions to the MacBook Pro: the much-maligned Touch Bar, and the new fingerprint scanner. What’s funny about the latter is that fingerprint scanners on laptops are totally not new. They’ve been on the lower right hand corner of IBM/Lenovo business machines for like ten years. What makes the scanner on the MacBook more useful is that it links to your Apple Pay account as well as can be used for logins much like you find on the iPhone. These feature adds I like. They make paying for things faster and accessing my computer easier. It’s a smart addition.

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I like additions like the fingerprint scanner. They make sense, they add to the experience, they make things easier and make me say “finally!” when I see it’s added to a machine.

In contrast, the Touch Bar as a whole does sort of the complete opposite. Though I do think there are places that the Touch Bar does well, such as scrubbing through footage in video editing, in general it’s kind of a massive distraction. Here is my perspective, a perspective you may or may not share.

When I grew up, part of elementary school was learning how to type. They would put these little keyboard-shaped orange silicon covers on the keyboards so we couldn’t see the keys, and then we had to type what we saw on the screen. When we got something wrong, the computer made a noise and it showed what we did wrong in red. All the while, the teacher (who in my case was also a nun) hovered menacingly behind me. That, right there, trained me good and quick to not look down at my hands when I was typing.

And that’s reason number one why the Touch Bar doesn’t really help me. It goes against deeply ingrained training not to look down at my hands, and requires me to really stop and look to make sure I’m doing something right. In essence, it actually slows me down dramatically from a process that I’ve spent over 20 years practicing.

It is really cool how the Touch Bar is customizable to your experience in addition to making the keyboard adapt to whichever program you are currently in (at least that’s the eventual goal, since really only a few apps take full advantage of the Bar at this point). I like the idea of my computer morphing to fit present needs. The “F” keys kind of do that now, but are a bland solution. Apple’s is far more jazzed up, but I do find it hard to hit SHIFT + F5 now in Photoshop (which is a shortcut for fill selection, if you’re curious).

In the end, the Touch Bar is, as many have said before, a solution looking for a problem. It’s this weird, in-between zone of having a touch interface and not. It’s as if Apple kind of wanted to do the Surface thing, but chickened-out halfway through. It’s neat, but not particularly helpful. And that sucks. I really wanted it to be helpful.

But all the things I just highlighted aren’t really my sticking points. None of them bother me to a degree that would shy me away from the computer. No, what gets me is a philosophy. It’s a philosophy in motion that I can’t ignore.

So what is it?

Apple has a very odd inconsistency with their recent product releases that really bothers me. Even though I like the way the computer handles, don’t have a particular issue with the hardware specs or even the price (as high as it is), I can’t ignore one huge, glaring inconsistency with the product development that takes a giant dump on those feelings:

Connectivity.

Apple seems intent on getting rid of ports and unifying their systems and moving themselves into a future that maybe we aren’t ready for. They have a history of forcing change before anyone else, and we end up looking back at the decision and applauding it because we can admit that it was right. Hell, remember those colorful iMacs? They didn’t have a CD burner. Remember Toast? I remember Toast.

Anyway, that goal, in itself, is admirable. Hell, maybe it’s even “brave” or “courageous.” But when you can’t be consistent among your top two product lines currently available, it makes even Apple fans scratch their heads.

Removing the headphone jack from the iPhone didn’t bother me much at all. But not including a way to directly connect that device with the MacBook Pro? Moving to USB-C on the laptop, but sticking with Lightning on the phone with no direct lightning connection on the laptop? How, how I ask, does that make sense?

Competitor products from Motorola, Samsung and LG are moving to USB-C for their phones, which can connect directly to a MacBook pro with one simple, unified cable that can also be used to connect to a host of other peripherals… but not the iPhone. That, right there, is a huge head scratcher. Why would you purposely divide your two top selling products? Was adding a lighting connection on the side of the MacBook Pro too hard? Too obvious? Not obvious enough?

I was totally willing to forgive every other complaint made against the Macbook Pro up until that point. It feels like Apple’s departments don’t communicate at all though the year-or-longer development cycle of their products. It baffles me that at no point in the design process for either product did someone, SOMEONE not stand up during a… stand… up… and say, “Wait, don’t we want our products to easily connect to one another?”

And boy, if someone did… and no one listened… perhaps that’s even worse than the situation of simply oversight. I can’t help but think it was rather impossible for it to have only been oversight.

And that troubles me.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that it was likely impossible for the oversight situation I just proposed to have happened given the number of people that work at Apple, and the incredible talent they hire there. That means someone did say something, that person was ignored, and they willingly chose to release two major products that have no direct way to connect to one another.

That really troubles me.

For a company who has worked so tirelessly for years to give us new ways to connect devices and experiences to knowingly discard something so vital is a very bright red flag.

But then we go back to the heroin high. Is this enough to dump the user experience of an Apple? For some, it already has. But for others who are deeply, deeply connected to the workflows designed around an Apple… the answer is much muddier.

So where does that leave us, here, with this review? It’s a weird feeling, looking at these words, typing them on a MacBook Pro. It’s a gorgeous, beautiful, light, wondrous product that is so, so tragically flawed in several unique and fascinating ways. To make something wonderful is to understand its end usage, and that’s where I think Apple is having trouble these days. Who would like the MacBook Pro? This is that part I mentioned in the beginning about a vast array of reviewers from different disciplines all coming to the same conclusion.

There are elements of the product that appeal to different groups. The insistence on being light and portable is good, but not imperative to everyone. Hell, Razer just released a product that has three screens but weighs 12 pounds. 12 POUNDS! And you know what, they’re gonna sell a ton of them to the high-end gamers. The same people who like the light weight probably don’t care about the lack of ports, because they’re just going to use it to browse the internet, use email and type term papers. Except those people can’t justify the high price point. Those who don’t care about price point are the same people who want ports, but they care less about the weight and want high-performance.

So in looking at the MacBook Pro, it feels like a giant compromise, which at its core is the reason it’s flaws are tragic. It’s the device that tried to be too many things to too many people, and in the end it ended up pleasing none of them.

It’s a wonderful, beautiful product that is in constant disagreement with itself. I want to love it, but first it has to love itself.

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