Marco Arment has a number of suggestions for Apple in Fixing the MacBook Pro. Arment’s post runs down a list of the things that are wrong with the 2016 MacBook Pros and offers suggestions for putting them right. It covers four areas, but the main one and the problem that bothers me personally is the new MacBook Pro keyboard.
Butterfly key switches are a design failure that should be abandoned. They’ve been controversial, fatally unreliable, and expensive to repair since their introduction on the first 12” MacBook in early 2015. Their flaws were evident immediately, yet Apple brought them to the entire MacBook Pro lineup in late 2016.
The decision to use the butterfly key switch keyboard looked odd at the time. One reason people thought earlier MacBook Pro models were among the best-ever laptops was the solid keyboards. They were great. Dropping the earlier design looked and felt like a mistake at the time. Yet, as Arment points out, things only got worse when it emerged they were unreliable and required an expensive, fix.
After three significant revisions, Apple’s butterfly key switches remain as controversial and unreliable as ever. At best, they’re a compromise acceptable only on the ultra-thin 12” MacBook, and only if nothing else fits. They have no place in Apple’s mainstream or pro computers.
Maybe not. But here’s the strangest thing. I have a 12.9 inch iPad Pro with the Apple Smart Keyboard. It is great to type on. Yet it uses the same basic butterfly key switch.
I’m a touch typist and hammer keyboards because I learnt to type on manual typewriters. The Smart Keyboard may not be perfect, no portable keyboard is, but it is a far better experience than typing on a new MacBook or MacBook Pro.
My ageing MacBook Air is coming up for replacement. After looking at the MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards and deciding they are not for me, I’m thinking about the options for my next portable computer. At this stage the shortlist is go with the iPad Pro and get a desktop iMac for home, buy a new MacBook Air or wait until there’s a refurbished older Retina MacBook Pro in the local Apple Store.
While buying a refurbished machine is good for the planet, it doesn’t seem right. A new MacBook Air would be a productive choice. Yet I prefer Retina displays. The MacBook Air specification is old-fashioned by late 2017 standards.
Which means the most likely choice will be the iPad Pro and iMac. That’s remarkable as it means for the first time in years there isn’t a MacBook model that meets my needs. All because Apple doesn’t offer one with a decent keyboard.
Back to Arment:
The MacBook Pro must return to scissor key switches. If Apple only changes one thing about the next MacBook Pro, it should be this.
It needs to do this soon to get my business. I’m probably not alone. And yet it’s unlikely Apple will move because it seems the new MacBook Pros have been selling better than expected. If the market has spoken, whatever it said was not: “fix the MacBook Pro keyboard”.
You could see these differences as a fork in portable computing’s evolutionary path.
Most people considering one of these two laptops will have already made up their mind. A number will weigh the two up and choose the computer that most suits their needs.
There are matters to consider. You may prefer Windows 10 or MacOS. Perhaps you invested a fortune in apps. You could have a lifetime of habits, skills and muscle memory tied up in one or other operating system.
You may have a deep-seated philosophical or ideological objection to Apple or Microsoft. This may, or may not, be rational.
You may want a device with a detachable screen that acts as a tablet. It possible you need plenty of ports or you have an aversion to dongles. You may want to punish Apple for not keeping faith with whatever was on your personal MacBook Pro wish list.
Or you might like the look of the Touch Bar.
All these considerations are valid. Only a fool would spend a few thousand dollars without thinking them through. The important thing is you have a real choice between two quite different machines.
What you do with your hands
Switching from one line to the other is more than just a one-off investment in a new laptop.
Yet the most important choice between the two ranges is simple and fundamental question:
Do you prefer to work where your hands stay on the keyboard plane or are you happier reaching up from the keyboard to hunt and peck screen buttons?
Apple thinks you’ll be more productive and comfortable keeping your hands on one plane. Microsoft begs to differ.
Getting this decision right is vital. It depends on what you do with your computer.
People who touch type, who write vast numbers of words each day might do better going with Apple’s keyboard-centric approach. 1
If you use your laptop more as a consumption device, then Microsoft’s touch-screen way of working may better suit your needs.
Again there’s a qualification: may. Some readers who want a touch screen computer could be better served with something else. That could be an iPad Pro or it could be another brand of tablet.
There are qualifications here because you don’t need me to tell you what to buy2. Once you’ve figured out how the physical user interface relates to the way you work, you’ll know yourself which is right for you.
The question may be simple, the answer is not.
Clash of ideas
Both computers appeal to the same class of demanding, well-heeled user. They both look and feel good. Both deliver enough power. They both cost a lot compared with alternatives.
Apple is sticking with the clamshell-keyboard-screen laptop format that has been around in one form or another since the early 1980s.
While it uses an old format, the MacBook Pro is not conservative. You only have to listen to the critics who decry the lack of ports or sneer at the Touch Bar to realise just how different it is to what went before.
Computer makers don’t alienate customers with incremental design changes.
The Surface Book has an elegant approach to docking and undocking the two parts. Most hybrids involve compromise. They sacrifice something of their laptop personality and part of their tablet identity.
Microsoft avoids this.
It can sound pompous to talk of philosophy in this context, but there is a clear divide in the thinking behind Microsoft and Apple’s designs. It goes beyond the hands flat or hands moving between screen and keyboard choice.
Microsoft built its device for people who want both a laptop and a tablet in a single package. Most likely, people who buy a Surface Book will use it as a laptop most of the time with occasional tablet forays.
The Surface Book has a touch screen. This isn’t because it can function as a tablet, it’s because Microsoft sees touch screens as the future.
Microsoft bet the farm on touch technology when it released Windows 8. That was a mess of an operating system. It belongs among the great technology missteps of modern times. The mistake could have killed a less robust business than Microsoft.
Consumers are less keen on touch screen laptops than Microsoft anticipated. There are good reasons for this. Touch interfaces are still clumsy. The jarring step between Windows tablet mode and desktop Windows is still not resolved.
This makes for cognitive dissonance. The effect is not as pronounced in Windows 10 as in Windows 8, but it has not gone away. If you’re a Windows user and you don’t like or need the touch interface, it is easier to ignore in Windows 10.
The Surface Book is the most expensive Windows laptop choice. You’ll be hard pressed to find an everyday computer that costs more. Although if it meets your needs, the Surface Book is worth every penny.
You can buy a Surface Book for NZ$2750. That money gets you a model with only 128GB of storage and an i5 processor. Going all the way to a i7 power plant and 1TB of storage will lighten your bank account by NZ$5800.
That’s a big investment. Yes, if you work all the time with your computer and it lasts more than a couple of years it only amounts to $50 a week.
Apple’s prices are at the same nosebleed altitude. A bare bones 13-inch 2016 MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar but with 256GB of storage and an Intel i5 processor costs NZ$2500.
If you crank the spec up all the way to a 2.9GHz i7 chip and 2TB of SSD storage, a graphics card and extra graphics memory then you can spend a whopping NZ$7250.
As with the Surface Book, you’re only going to go for the full monty if you run applications that need all the power. If you do, then the price of the hardware is among the least of your problems.
Apple touch screen
Apple doesn’t offer touch screen laptops. At least it doesn’t offer touch screen laptops running MacOS.
You could argue the iPad Pro with Apple’s Smart Keyboard or with a decent third-party keyboard gives you what amounts to a laptop.
Whatever that is and whatever its merits, it does not compete with the Surface Book or the MacBook Pro.
It’s possible Apple may one day build an iPad with the power and versatility of a Surface Book or MacBook Pro. It won’t be soon, the chips needed to build such a device don’t exist today.
Might because my experience is touch screen computers are painful after hours of typing. They may not trouble you. ↩︎
Often when I write about comparisons readers think I’m telling them what to do. That’s not my aim. ↩︎
Apple introduced its butterfly laptop keyboard design for the 2015 12-inch MacBook. It is shallower than previous keyboards.
The key action is less positive than on older Apple laptops like the MacBook Air or earlier MacBook Pros. The 2016 12-inch MacBook uses the same keyboard.
Put aside for one moment the Touch Bar that appears on most 2016 MacBook Pro models. We’ll look at that in-depth in another post. What remains of the keyboard looks like those on Apple’s recent MacBooks.
The Force Touch trackpad on the 15-inch MacBook Pro is huge. Because of its size, the MacBook Pro keyboard sits further up the body, closer to the screen. This doesn’t make any difference to typing in practice.
Flush versus recessed keys
Although it has the same underlying design, it is not identical. On the 12-inch MacBook the keys are flush with the body. The new MacBook Pros have keys recessed a millimetre or so below the body.
Apple has improved the butterfly key action. There is more click and greater travel when you hit a key. You hit them harder.
The keys sound louder when you type. This audio feedback helps but I can’t articulate or measure how that works. In practice I found it all adds up to make typing and touch typing easier than on the 12-inch MacBooks.
MacBook Pro keyboard for touch typists
When I first used the 12-inch MacBook keyboard it took a while to adjust my touch typing technique. That’s not unusual, this happens every time I use a different machine or keyboard.
After a few hours I was typing with ease. I made a few more errors than before, but there was no performance hit. At that stage I decided the butterfly keyboard was an acceptable change.
Then I returned to the old MacBook Air keyboard. It was like swapping smart new shoes for comfortable slippers.
Although I didn’t get through my work faster, it felt right. There’s a more pleasing bounce to the keys that feels right or maybe it’s a matter of familiarity.
There is less of a comfy slippers effect moving back and forth between the 2016 MacBook Pro and the Air. It could be down to what some describe as muscle memory.
My error rate is still higher on the new keyboard, but not as high as it was on the 12-inch MacBooks. Unlike then, this time I’m certain that it will soon be back to normal.
The new keyboard is not without flaws. The up and down arrow keys are too small and close-packed. They are hard to use. There’s a good chance you’ll hit the wrong one by accident. Yet with the trackpad, there is less need for arrow keys.
Flat, less travel keyboards seem to be a feature of 2016 premium laptops.
Surface Book comparison
Microsoft echoes some aspects of the butterfly keyboard in its Surface Book. Both are flat, both keyboards have a hard feel. If anything the Surface Book keyboard has a better layout and spacing. In practice the typing experience is similar.
Some other reviewers are unhappy about the missing esc key. The good news is that it always turns up on the Touch Bar when you need it. This is not a real issue.
You might argue that a MacBook Pro is not the device for someone who spends a lot of time typing so all this is academic. That view is nonsense. A keyboard is why you buy a computer instead of a tablet. It is not an essential component it is the essential component.
There is always a payoff between portability and function with laptop keyboards. Apple has balanced the two well here. You may find better keyboard experiences elsewhere. Yet the MacBook Pro keyboard goes well beyond being an acceptable compromise given the size and weight. It’s a worthy keyboard for a Pro laptop.
There is so much to write about the MacBook Pro that I’ve broken my review down into a few separate stories. Look out for the next part where I look closer at the Touch Bar.
The MacBook Pro and Surface Book have a different fundamental design. They come from different philosophies of what modern laptops should be. Yet in many ways they are head to head rivals. I’ll explore this idea in more depth elsewhere. ↩
Global PC sales have fallen for five years in a row. Until now Apple bucked the trend. Mac sales continued to grow while every other major brand declined. This saw Apple’s market share increase.
IDC’s latest quarterly report says total PC shipments fell 4.5 percent year-on-year. Gartner puts the drop at 5.2 percent. The two companies have different ideas about what counts as a PC, hence the difference.
According to IDC’s numbers, Apple shipments dropped 8.3 percent year on year. Gartner said Apple shipments fell 4.9 percent.
By IDC numbers Apple’s market share edged down from 7.4 percent to 7.1 percent. Gartner says Apple’s market share was steady at 7.1 percent.
One bright spot is total PC sales fell a little less than forecasters expected during the last 12 months.
Even new models in the popular MacBook Air and MacBook Pro ranges are unlikely to restore growth when they arrive.
Computer sales for all brands have peaked as the baton has passed from laptops to tablets and phones. Although tablet sales are also falling and phone sales growth has stalled.
Falling Mac sales will worry investors, not just those with money in Apple. It’s one of the world’s biggest companies and a bellwether. The market’s eyes will be on Apple’s next financial result at the end of the month.
For the rest of us, it’s not the Macpocalypse but a timely reminder that all growth runs come to an end.