MacBook Air M1, Test #2: Hooking up things

In this test I take my Apple dongle (heh heh) and hook up the following things to the Air:

  • Asus 24″ monitor via HDMI
  • Logitech M720 Marathon mouse (using USB Type-A wireless receiver)
  • CTRL mechanical keyboard via USB-C

I’ve done similar with the MacBook Po in the past and the good news is everything simply works as expected. The default mouse tracking speed is set in a way that I am convinced it is meant to test your patience as it very slowly and carefully tracks across the screen. But that is easily adjusted.

The monitor works fine and looks good once True Tone is turned off. Every time I connect an Apple laptop to this thing it makes me want a 4K monitor. Someday.

The keyboard just works, as expected.

So until my dock arrives, I can use this jury-rigged system to use the Air for writing and such activities. And I will.

Starting tomorrow. Or maybe the next day. Definitely by the weekend.

I’m not kidding. Just watch.

Also, I have added a few more apps:

  • Discord. Intel-only but runs fine. It’s mainly a chat program, so it doesn’t have to do a lot (I don’t plan on streaming games from the MacBook Air, though that could prove modestly amusing)
  • Day One. Maybe I’ll finally commit to this journaling thing and record my darkest thoughts for all the world to never see but wonder about. Until I re-post everything to this blog.

The new MacBook Air and its allegedly silent clicking

This is not a full review, as I’ve only had my 2020 M1-based MacBook Air for a day, but I can give a few impressions.

First, yes, I got a replacement for my 2016 MacBook Pro just a few weeks shy of its four-year free keyboard replacement offer ending.

After mulling over the differences between the equivalent MacBook Pro replacement and the Air, I opted to go with the Air because:

  • The Air costs a fair bit less, allowing me to increase the ram and storage without spending more
  • They have the exact same M1 chip, so general performance is pretty much identical
  • The Air only loses out on sustained performance, something my use case would rarely if ever hit
  • As a bonus to the above, the Air has no fan, so is completely silent
  • The Touch Bar still seems like a goofy, unnecessary idea
  • The extra battery life of the Pro is nice, but the Air is already way better than what I had before, so the improvement in the Pro is not worth the price premium

Setting up the Air was pretty straightforward. I have made a new rule this time, which I plan to strictly enforce (until I stop):

Only install programs I am actually using, not ones I might use or may eventually need to install. Slim (installs) is in. So far I have installed:

  • Firefox
  • Edge (to have a Chromium-flavored browser handy)
  • Ulysses
  • OneDrive

And that’s it!

For Firefox, I started with the current non-native version, but it was just janky enough to drive me to use the 84.0a beta, which is M1 native. The two issues I encountered were crashes on quitting and searches not working. Annoying and I could have probably managed, but the beta has been stable and runs fast.

Ulysses is M1 native. Edge and OneDrive are running under Rosetta 2 translation, but they both seem fine. So software-wise, I haven’t had any major issues, or nothing that couldn’t be fixed fairly easily.

I set up Touch ID and it is fast. FAST. Pretty much instant. But having the system unlock with the Apple Watch is even better.

The system wakes up almost instantly, too.

Battery life so far seems very good, though I haven’t really used the Air enough to give it a proper workout.

I selected Silent Clicking for the trackpad, but can still hear it click. Maybe I need to reboot? Maybe silent means kind of silent.

Oh, and the keyboard. This feels much closer to the keyboard on my old 2013 MacBook Air. It is still clicky (and clicks notably with my caveman typing style), but the clicks are much softer, because there is actual travel now. It no longer feels like pounding your fingertips into hard, unyielding plastic. It’s what the 2016 keyboard should have been. Better late than never, I suppose.

I’ve ordered a dock for the Air and in a few days will ship off my Mac mini for trade-in, so the Air will be doubling both as my laptop (for the future days when people can take laptops outside their homes again) and as a desktop machine, where simply plugging one cable from the dock to a Thunderbolt port should be all I need to get it working with an external monitor, keyboard, mouse and all that stuff.

So far it seems pretty good. We’ll see how it holds up over the long term. My MacBook Pro still works, but I can’t say I ever enjoyed typing on it. Considering it was my primary writing tool for a few years, that was a bit of a problem. Hopefully the Air will be a better overall experience.

The 8th gen ThinkPad X1 Carbon is priced to sell (to the 1%)

First, I realize the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a business class laptop and business class means expensive. But this pricing just seems silly.

I get newsletters from Lenovo (I have a 6th gen X1 Carbon) and they’ve just announced the 8th gen model, which uses 10th gen Intel CPUs. There’s a lot of generational stuff here. Anyway, I’ve modified part of the newsletter below to highlight my concern.

The thing, though, is what does that absurdly high (starting!) price of $3149 get you? It’s really just standard specs for any decent ultrabook:

  • 8 GB ram
  • 256 GB SSD
  • 14 inch 1920×1080 non-touch display (not even 16:10)

You get a few minor extras like a fingerprint reader (which is pretty standard on ultrabooks now, anyway), the infamous red nub for navigation (which I find a mild irritant when typing), an alleged 19.5 hours of battery life (take this one with a huge grain of salt–like, jumbo salt), a promise of ruggedness (which I can verify from my model) and the rest is really just configurable options, like a privacy screen, touch display and so on.

Now, compare this to the just-updated MacBook Pro 13 inch model (the one with the 10th gen Intel CPUs). It starts at $2399. This is also a lot of money, but it’s $750 less than the X1 Carbon. What do you sacrifice for that?

  • No USB 3.0 ports
  • No Wi-Fi 6
  • Battery life rated at 10 hours instead of “19.5”
  • Heavier at 3.01 pounds
  • No shutter on webcam
  • Aluminum case will dent and scratch when treated roughly

What do you get over the X1?

  • Four Thunderbolt 3 ports instead of 2
  • Touch Bar (OK, some might consider this a negative)
  • 13 inch display–smaller, but running at a higher resolution of 2560×1600 and at a more productivity-friendly 16:10 ratio
  • Wide color support
  • True tone (display can detect ambient light and adjust automatically)
  • Faster integrated graphics
  • 16 GB ram (twice as much)
  • Ram is significantly faster
  • 512 GB SSD (twice as much)
  • Faster CPU (2.0 GHz vs 1.6 GHz)

Really, unless you absolutely need Windows (which you can still run on the MacBook Pro, actually) or some of the privacy features, or must have Wi-Fi 6 now, the MacBook Pro is not just a better deal, it’s a significantly better deal.

How weird.

But good for Apple. I’ll be posting again about my own laptop possibilities again soon. I will not be considering an 8th gen ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

Quest for a new laptop, Part 4b: Quest complete (again/still)!

After chatting with a Lenovo rep, I found out my credit card had triggered an alert and their system automatically canceled the order for the ThinkPad Carbon X1, with no verification or anything else happening after the fact. It might be because the card is new and I think I only used it once before this purchase, which may have made the order look a bit shady. The rep pushed the order through again, so if everything doesn’t get nuked a second time, I should have my first full-blown Windows laptop in anywhere from a few weeks to a month (the shipping is free, not fast).

In the next few weeks I’ll do the follow-up task of logging out all appropriate accounts on my MacBook Pro, wiping its SSD, then selling it (to a buyer or back to Apple for a gift card/credit) as I have no real use for multiple laptops. I will miss typing on the MacBook Pro the same way I might miss bapping my fingers against a hard plastic surface.

Quest for a new laptop, Part 4: Quest complete! (For now)

Today I finally made a decision on a laptop, after Lenovo put a bunch of their models on sale again for Father’s Day.

I went with the ThinkPad Carbon X1, with the following specs:

  • 8th Generation Intel Core i5-8250U Processor (1.60GHz, up to 3.40GHz with Turbo Boost, 6MB Cache)
  • Windows 10 Home 64
  • 14″ FHD (1920 x 1080) IPS anti-glare multi-touch, 300 nits
  • 8 GB LPDDR3 2133MHz (Onboard)
  • Integrated Intel® UHD Graphics 620
  • Black
  • 720p HD Camera with ThinkShutter and microphone
  • Fingerprint Reader
  • UltraNav (TrackPoint and ClickPad)
  • 256GB Solid State Drive PCIe-NVME OPAL2.0 M.2
  • 3 cell Li-Ion 57Wh
  • 65W AC Adapter (2pin) – USB Type C
  • Intel Dual Band 8265 Wireless AC (2 x 2) & Bluetooth 4.1 with vPro

I’ve highlighted the most relevant specs. The one not shown is the keyboard, which has 1.8 mm of travel, an absurdly luxurious amount compared to many laptops these days (my MacBook Pro has a measly 0.8 mm of travel, which explains why it is so clicky, loud and awful). It was the primary deciding factor.

Well, that and the 25% discount making the price reasonable. Without that discount it would have cost even more than the MacBook Pro I bought in late 2016 and at that premium I would have considered other options.

In terms of what I’m trading into, the MBP comes with a faster processor (2GHz vs. 1.6GHz), but it’s also a generation behind and the 8th gen Intel CPUs have gone quad core, seeing the first significant speed boosts in awhile. And while I could have gotten a 2K display to again match the MBP, I stepped down a bit to a 1920×1080 in order to get a touchscreen. I won’t use it a lot, but it will be handy to have when I do.

The battery life should be even better and the ThinkPad is about a half pound lighter.

It includes Thunderbolt 3 ports, as well as USB 3.0, HDMI and mini-SD, so it works with both current peripherals and is still equipped for when USB-C really hits the mainstream.

It even includes a fingerprint reader for logins, something that Apple only offers on models that cost a whopping $670 more (granted these models also offer faster CPUs and more TB3 ports, but come on).

What I’m looking forward to the most, though, is that keyboard. In the weeks since I’ve semi-retired the MacBook Pro I’ve been using my Surface Pro 3 instead and its keyboard is so much nicer to type on. And I don’t have to worry about footing a $700 out-of-warranty repair if one of its keys stops working.

As for the MacBook Pro, I’ll miss the trackpad, but really that’s all. macOS is nice but it doesn’t make my socks roll up and down anymore than Windows 10 does. It has things I like, things that bug me, just like Windows 10. I’ll be happy to get away from the horrible (for me) typing experience, the need for adapters and the lack of touch. I’ll probably be taking the MBP to the Apple store and trading it in for a gift card that will likely go to a new Watch, iPad or phone. Basically anything except another Mac. :P

And unless Apple abandons its butterfly keyboard design–and I don’t think they will–I will never buy another Mac laptop again. I’m not sure why anyone would these days. There are better options available, no matter what your criteria is–price, port selection, display options, battery life. About the only area where the MacBook Pro is ahead now is in class action lawsuits.

UPDATE: I just received an email informing me that the order for my ThinkPad Carbon X1 has been cancelled, with no explanation as to why. I’ll try using Lenovo’s chat on their site on Monday or call their 1-800 number, but this is a bit puzzling, to say the least. I guess my laptop quest may continue after all.

Quest for a new laptop, Part 3

Two months since my last post and I have…not yet purchased a new laptop.

I have been using my MacBook Pro a lot less. I’ve updated my Surface Pro 3 and have used it a few times. I like having the touchscreen for certain tasks and the keyboard is so much quieter and weirdly nicer than the MBP.

A few updates on my previous picks, which I ranked thusly:

  1. Surface Laptop – best all-around mix of features
  2. HP Spectre x360 – same as above, but dimmer display, less battery life–but 2-in-1 versatility
  3. Lenovo Yoga 920 – keyboard might be an issue, heavier, bulkier
  4. Dell XPS 13 – no touchscreen option but solid otherwise (webcam is a non-factor for me)
  5. Surface Book 2 – powerful and strong in most respects, but big, heavy and expensive

Yep, I’ve eliminated the Yoga 920. It gets a lot right, but after using the keyboard for a bit in a Microsoft store, I don’t think I would be happy with it. It has more travel and spring than the MacBook Pro’s keyboard, but it still feels shallow and too light. The Surface Pro 3’s detachable Type Cover’s keys feel better. So it’s off the list.

Oddly, though, another Lenovo laptop has come onto the list, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. I hadn’t considered it before because it’s a business laptop and normally quite expensive, but it’s discounted on Lenovo’s site until the end of May.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Pros:

  • best in class keyboard
  • long battery life
  • excellent 2560×1440 display, especially the HDR version
  • touch is an option
  • includes USB-A and USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) ports
  • includes an HDMI port (!)
  • includes standard fingerprint reader
  • some configurations support Windows Hello with the camera
  • fast SSD
  • quite light at 2.5 pounds
  • rugged

Cons:

  • small trackpad
  • the weird TrackPoint nub still weirds me out (this isn’t really a con)
  • so-so audio
  • mediocre webcam
  • normally quite expensive

For writing, this machine hits several of my critical requirements, with an excellent keyboard, display and long battery life. I’m almost at the point where I’m going to go for this, I’m just mulling configuration options and seeing if anything else catches my eye in the next week.

I’d put the revised list like so:

  1. Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon – excellent keyboard, display and battery life
  2. Surface Laptop – best all-around mix of features
  3. HP Spectre x360 – same as above, but dimmer display, less battery life–but 2-in-1 versatility
  4. Dell XPS 13 – no touchscreen option but solid otherwise (webcam is a non-factor for me)
  5. Surface Book 2 – powerful and strong in most respects, but big, heavy and expensive

Quest for a new laptop, Part 2

Based on my previously discussed criteria, here are some candidates I’m considering. It’s deja vu all over again, as I did this back in 2016 before buying the non-touch bar version of the 13″ MacBook Pro (which I’m now replacing because I just plain don’t like the keyboard and also I’m kind of afraid of getting stuck keys now that it’s past warranty).

Unless otherwise noted, these laptops all come with the following:

  • touchscreen
  • quad core Core i5 CPU (8th generation)
  • 256 GB SSD
  • IPS FHD display running at least 1920 x 1080

Microsoft Surface Laptop

Pros:

  • lightweight at 2.76 pounds
  • among the best Windows laptop trackpads
  • solid keyboard
  • long battery life
  • slightly better than HD resolution at 2256 x 1504 and large 13.5″ display
  • 3:2 display ratio means less vertical scrolling
  • Windows Hello support
  • Alcantara fabric on keyboard (possibly also a Con)
  • four colors!

Cons:

  • few ports. Really only one USB 3 and mini-DisplayPort
  • no USB-C ports
  • screen wobbles a bit when using touchscreen
  • uses 7th generation CPU
  • doesn’t include a pen

The main selling point of the Surface Laptop is it does everything decently. You might find laptops that offer better individual features but none that offer all of them at the same consistent level as the Surface. Still, the design has always struck me as being very conservative. When you look at it closely it appears to be a Surface Pro with a permanent keyboard attached, down to the same deficiencies that the Pro has, with few ports, no USB-C and so on.

That said, because it gets all the basics right, it’s a strong contender.

Dell XPS 13

Pros:

  • even lighter with the 2018 redesign at 2.70 pounds
  • sexy slim bezels
  • excellent if slightly glossy display
  • excellent keyboard
  • good touchpad
  • good battery life
  • USB-C ports
  • Windows 10 Pro is an option
  • optional fingerprint reader
  • Windows Hello support

Cons:

  • still has that nosecam, just moved to the bottom center now
  • FHD (1920 x 1080) models do not include touchscreen
  • no legacy USB 3 ports
  • battery life not as good as previous Core 8th gen model

The Dell XPS 13 is often cited as the best Windows laptop (The Wirecutter calls it the best Windows Ultrabook) but the current version ditches all legacy ports, meaning you’re probably going to need dongles. It’s also a poor choice for those who need a webcam, though that’s a non-issue for me. Nearly everything about it is appealing or at least livable, but for some reason Dell is not offering the HD model in a touchscreen variant. This gives me serious pause, as I’ve come to really like touchscreens on Windows laptops.

HP Spectre x360

Pros:

  • light at 2.75 pounds
  • fairly compact design
  • includes both USB-C and USB 3 ports
  • 2-in-1 design, so screen can be folded around to use for drawing, watching video, etc.
  • Windows Hello support
  • includes pen
  • good keyboard
  • good display
  • great value for what it includes

Cons:

  • some persistent complaints in reviews about coil whine give pause
  • wobbly touchscreen
  • battery life is only average (but still good)
  • screen brightness is only average

The Spectre x360 comes close to hitting all the marks, with battery life, brightness and a wobbly touchscreen primarily holding it back. Plus the snazzy dark ash silver color is hard to find without ordering direct from HP (I prefer darker-colored keyboards to others, especially silver, which is the other color option here).

Lenovo Yoga 920

Pros:

  • Very good battery life
  • 2-in-1 design
  • capacious 13.9″ display
  • sexy slim bezels
  • Windows Hello support
  • fingerprint reader
  • includes pen (when buying from MS)
  • Windows 10 Pro is an option
  • 3 colors!

Cons:

  • a bit heavy at 3.1 pounds
  • not as compact as other ultrabooks
  • shallow keys “similar to a MacBook Pro keyboard” (The Verge review) – yikes!
  • screen brightness is only average

The main reasons to get the Yoga 920 are its large screen and battery life. Unfortunately the keyboard appears to be reminiscent of the 2016 MacBook Pro–and the MBP’s keyboard is the primary reason I’m looking for a replacement, which may prove to be the 920’s fatal flaw (I’d probably need to test it in person to make a final determination).

Microsoft Surface Book 2

Pros:

  • detachable screen doubles as a tablet and can be reversed to offer drawing/tent modes
  • among the best Windows laptop trackpads
  • solid keyboard
  • outstanding battery life
  • better than HD resolution at 3000 x 2000
  • Windows Hello support
  • comes with Windows 10 Pro
  • USB-C port

Cons:

  • USB-C port is limited by not including Thunderbolt 3
  • Core i5 version uses 7th gen CPU and is more expensive than comparable ultrabooks
  • Core i7 version is $600 (!) more (you also get an integrated Nvidia GTX 1050 at that price)
  • on the heavy side at 3.38 pounds
  • that weird fulcrum hinge with the big dust-collecting gap
  • pen is now a separate purchase

The Surface Book 2 is big, expensive and on the heavy side. On the plus side, it’s powerful, has a large, excellent display, and a very nice keyboard. It’s tempting but…expensive.

Beyond these laptops are plenty of others that get most but not all things right, sometimes by design (to keep price down, for example) and sometimes for no apparent reason.

If Apple revealed a MacBook Pro with a completely redesigned keyboard this year I’d probably consider sticking with it, but that seems very unlikely. They’ll just continue to tweak their existing butterfly design (which some people admittedly love) to make it more reliable, without fundamentally changing the feel of the typing experience.

The XPS 13’s baffling lack of a touchscreen in its FHD model almost puts it out of contention, but I’m keeping it in mind for now. My current ranking would probably look like this:

  1. Surface Laptop – best all-around mix of features
  2. HP Spectre x360 – same as above, but dimmer display, less battery life–but 2-in-1 versatility
  3. Lenovo Yoga 920 – keyboard might be an issue, heavier, bulkier
  4. Dell XPS 13 – no touchscreen option but solid otherwise (webcam is a non-factor for me)
  5. Surface Book 2 – powerful and strong in most respects, but big, heavy and expensive

And now I ponder and, where possible, try some hands-on demos. Most of these are available to look at locally (heck, the Microsoft Store carries most of them), though the newer Yoga 920 appears to be not unlike hen’s teeth in the Lower Mainland currently.

Quest for a new laptop, Part 1

The most important parts of a laptop, from my perspective:

  • Keyboard. I use laptops primarily for writing, so the keyboard is paramount
  • Display. This is #2 because I am going to be looking at the screen intently, riveted by my deathless prose, and I need a sharp, high-resolution display. It doesn’t need to be 4K and probably shouldn’t be, given how it affects battery life. Speaking of…
  • Battery. I need enough battery to allow me to use the laptop multiple times throughout the day without needing to plug it in. The ideal is 10 hours, as this provides plenty of breathing room based on my typical usage.
  • Trackpad. A mediocre trackpad can make editing infuriating. I shouldn’t need to add a mouse to make the laptop feel usable. On the other hand, I can use a mouse if I really need to.
  • Light and compact. I don’t want something that I feel I’m lugging around. At the same time I don’t mind a bit of extra heft if it means not sacrificing anything else on this list.
  • SSD. This is pretty standard these days. It insures that loading programs and saving files happens fast, to minimize disruption.
  • CPU. A Core i5 of some sort is usually good enough. Faster is always better but here it’s more nice than essential.
  • Ports. I don’t really plug a lot of things in, so a wide port selection isn’t necessary. At least a couple of USB-C ports is nice, though lacking those I’d want at least a USB Type A and maybe something to connect to an external monitor, like mini-DP or HDMI.

Everything else would come after this. For a Windows laptop a touch screen is nice to have but not essential, as is the 2-in-1 form factor. I don’t really watch any media on a laptop so have little need for a tent mode. Being able to draw in a tablet mode can be handy at times, but again is merely nice to have.

What laptops meet these criteria? Next post!