This fall I’m going to be learning a lot of front-end web development. I’m super excited to get started, but my current hardware setup was kind of lagging behind. My 13″ MacBook Pro from 2010 was the first computer I ever bought with my own money, and though it had served me well (and still works great for everyday use, or as a Minecraft server!) I needed something a little more powerful for when I’m outside of the apartment. A 1280 x 800 screen can only take you so far.
I can’t bring myself to sell my old MacBook Pro (we’ve been through so much), but I don’t have the same attachment to my 2013 iMac, so it is currently on Kijiji to finance my new computer. Now the smart thing to do would have been to wait until after I had sold my iMac, but my available credit disagreed, so today I went to the Apple store to pick up a new MacBook Pro.
I was looking for something at least as powerful as the iMac I was selling, and it turns out that the base model for this year’s 15 inch MacBook Pro does slightly better on Geekbench than my iMac does. It also has 350% more memory dedicated to graphics, so it should be able to handle everything better.
Look and feel:
I was impressed by how light and thin it is compared to my old laptop. It’s nearly half as thick, and despite having a much larger screen, the smaller bezels make for a footprint that feels nearly identical. Given its thinness, it also feels like it should have considerably less computing power.
When you start using it for the first time, you immediately notice the new keyboard. The touch bar, while super cool looking, takes a bit of getting used to. It turns out that I had gotten in the habit of resting one finger on the escape key or the play buttons for some reason, but since they’re touch activated on the new MacBook Pros, you can’t do that anymore.
The keyboard itself also feels much different. While my old MacBook’s keyboard felt smooth and buttery, this new one is incredibly firm and shallow. I’m still not sure what I think about it. One of my co-workers said that it makes him feel like he can type faster, and while that seems to be the case, I don’t know if I’m typing better yet.
After about a day, I got used to the keyboard, and I can type at least as fast as I could on my old Mac. I’m still getting used to using some of my custom shortcut keys, but otherwise I have no complaints. The touch bar escape button habit is a non-issue by now.
As for the ports, that’s where things start getting a bit complicated. Apple decided to go ahead with killing off all ports that aren’t USB C. Personally, I think this is a great idea. I have an entire desk drawer that is entirely devoted to cables and adapters that are either obsolete or rarely used. I’d love to see USB C become the de facto cable for data and power transfer, with future iterations keeping the same form factor, but increasing the throughput.
My phone is a Google Pixel, so I’d already started stocking up on USB C adapters. In many ways, the Pixel is much more compatible with the new line of Macs than the iPhone is. It came with the best dongle ever, called the “Quick Switch Adapter”, which was meant to allow people to easily transfer the entire contents of an iPhone to their new Pixel. Unfortunately I can’t find this adapter for sale anywhere on the internet, but it’s excellent and I’ve already used it a ton in the last few days.
The Pixel’s “Quick Switch” adapter
I don’t mind using adapters, and I think it makes for a more flexible ecosystem overall (my Mac at work only has one mini DisplayPort, so I can’t plug a third screen into it), but I feel like the port layout could have been thought out a bit better. If you try to plug in two dongles next to each other, it can be a pretty tight fit, since there’s less than 1cm between the ports. Apple’s solution is to use their dongles, but frankly I find them to be much too big for what they do.
This thing takes up way too much space.
I kind of miss MagSafe as well, which made taking my laptop off a desk feel much more effortless. That being said, charging over USB C is incredible and full of ridiculous surprises!
I can plug my new MacBook into my old one, and it will charge. It won’t charge fast, it might even discharge slowly if you’re suing it at the same time, but theoretically all you need is a USB A to USB C cable and you’ll be able to charge nearly anywhere. I can use the Pixel’s USB charger, or the old USB 2.0 (or maybe even 1.0 ?) charger for my first phone. They all just work, and it’s beautiful.
I can also use my Pixel to charge my MacBook, which is a terrible idea and will drain the battery in minutes, but it works!
Connecting two USB C ports to each other tricks your Mac into thinking it’s charging itself. Beautiful.
My old MacBook charging the new one
There’s tons of new and freakish charging configurations that are now possible thanks to USB C! I’m looking forward to the day where we’ll be able to plug 10 MacBooks into a power bar via USB C and run a microwave on battery power! At 100W per USB C connection, this is theoretically possible!
In terms of speed and performance, It’s a bit faster than my iMac, and it definitely blows my old laptop out of the water. I have had a strange issue with Chrome though, where CSS isn’t loading on pages at a much higher rate than usual, but a refresh always fixes that. It’s been less of an issue as I’ve used the machine a bit more, and I know it’s not unique to this Mac model.
I haven’t really found anything that it can’t handle, performance wise anyway. It runs hundreds of Minecraft mods simultaneously with excellent frame rates, and even fairly intensive tasks like video calling don’t destroy the battery life in the same way as on older macs. The 7th generation processors really make a difference!
I imagine that the maxed out Macs would perform even better, but so far I’ve been pretty happy with the base model. Worst case scenario, if I need more power I can get an external GPU.
The Touch Bar:
Ah yes, this has been a huge source of contention! People have been calling it useless, or worse, a gimmick. I don’t think it’s either of those things, but I’ve also played around a lot to make the touch bar into a tool worth paying for.
Out of the box, it was a bit lacklustre for someone like me who doesn’t use a ton of the stock Apple apps. This is what the touch bar looks like in Chrome:
The MacBook Pro Touch Bar while using Google Chrome
I already have the shortcut keys for every single one of these functionalities in muscle memory.
Safari fares a bit better, with some really useful previews of open tabs:
The MacBook Pro Touch Bar while using Safari with multiple tabs open
But it’s lacking widespread developer support:
On top of favicons, developers have to add another set of graphics to their sites if they want them to show up nicely on the touch bar.
Not to mention the fact that Safari is missing a bunch of key features like user profiles or favicons on tabs and bookmark items. If they had this, I’d use Safari instead of Chrome.
Where the touch bar really starts to shine is in apps that have implemented it well. Sketch is one of those apps.
The MacBook Pro Touch Bar while using Sketch
In Sketch, the keys change dynamically depending on which elements are selected. Many of these are common shortcut keys, but some aren’t, so it really helps to speed up your workflow.
Photoshop has a similarly rich touch bar experience, with colourful sliders popping up whenever you need them.
Not all apps have touch bar support though, and some of the ones that do aren’t as customizable as you might like sometimes. This is where third party tools come in!
Better Touch Tool is, as the name implies, a tool to make touch based interfaces better. It isn’t free, but it also isn’t expensive ($2.99), and considering all that it does, it’s certainly worth it. It allows you to contextually remap your touch bar, keyboard, mouse, or other input devices to de a slew of custom commands. For instance, there was a shortcut key missing in Sketch for a common command (toggling smart guides), so I just made a new key for it.
I created a custom key to enable/disable smart guides in Sketch
All this does is navigate through the menu tree, and finds the command I’m looking for. A 3 click operation can now be done with a single press of a button, and it could have also been mapped to another shortcut key.
In the Finder, I’ve created custom keys to help me with my developer workflows.
Some of the contextual buttons I’ve created to help me with my developer workflow
The Chrome icon just opens a new Chrome window from anywhere (without having to right click on the Chrome icon in the dock or switching Spaces). The binoculars toggles hidden files in Finder (without me having to enter the commands manually in Terminal). These are fairly simplistic commands, but they can be more elaborate as well.
For instance, when I have the folder of a React project selected, the React button opens a Terminal window and
cds into the selected folder, opens the project in Atom, resizes Atom to be on the left of the screen (where I like it), opens a Chrome window on the right of the screen, and then starts the local React server in Terminal, to launch the preview. This saves a huge amount of time! Any Terminal command or AppleScript can be run from the touch bar (or other shortcut keys) so the possibilities are pretty big!
It’s also pretty cool for anyone who wants to program in Emojicode, which is clearly the programming language of the future!
In terms of things I would improve with it, haptic feedback would be a great addition. Sometimes it’s not clear whether you’ve actually pressed on a virtual key or not, and while there is a third party app that uses the haptic engine of the trackpad, it’s not close enough to the touch bar to feel particularly believable.
Apple also needs to let me enter emoji in any text field, in any app, without having to use a third party emoji picker. It doesn’t make sense to have to rely on app developers to implement this in each app individually.
The RAM and SSD are soldered to the logic board (WHY⁉️), so they are impossible to replace without changing the entire logic board.
The battery on the other hand looks like it’s technically replaceable, but it’s pretty difficult and would require some kind of solvent for the glue. With my current usage, I only go through about 10 battery cycles a month, so iFixit has 8 years or so to come up with a battery replacement kit for it! The Lithium batteries in the Macs are rated for about 1000 cycles.
With my 2010 MacBook Pro, I upgraded the RAM twice, along with the hard drive (SSDs weren’t commonplace in 2010). I also ended up changing the fans, which I ruined by rendering videos every night for 2 years, and the battery, because it inflated and had a very high cycle count.
I don’t wear the battery down in the same way as I did with my old Mac, so that shouldn’t be an issue, but I am a bit worried about the RAM, especially looking at current trends in memory usage. If we can make external GPUs, maybe external RAM isn’t far fetched?
Despite the fact that it’s kind of pricy, I still think it was worth it. Once you’re set up, everything is pretty frictionless, and I feel like whether I’m on a couch, in a bus, or at a desk, I can get a lot done with this machine.
Thanks to the touch bar and USB C it’s also the most hackable Mac I’ve ever owned, in the sense that I can reprogram and reconfigure pretty much all of the inputs if I want to. It’s a huge advantage over a static physical keyboard
9/10, would buy again… but let me upgrade the RAM please.