Laptop Quest 2020: Maybe a better keyboard

I have two laptops currently:

  • A sixth generation (2018) ThinkPad Carbon X1
  • A 2016 MacBook Pro without touch bar

I got the ThinkPad because I a) hated the MacBook Pro’s butterfly keyboard and b) worried that it would fail out of warranty, leading to a $600-700 repair bill, given Apple’s insane (or insanely clever?) design that necessitates not just replacing the faulty keyboard, but basically half of the entire laptop.

Apple then started its keyboard repair program, which covers every model with a butterfly keyboard (this is every MacBook released since 2015, not counting the MacBook Air prior to its 2018 redesign). For four years after purchase, Apple will repair or replace a defective keyboard for no charge.

I bought the MacBook Pro in December 2016, so I am good for 10 more months, after which the cost of repair will again rise to about $700. Or maybe even more, because Apple has never been shy about raising prices.

This whole thing is further complicated by a couple of things related to my writing:

  • I went back to Ulysses, which is Mac-only
  • I still really hate the butterfly keyboard. I find it uncomfortable on my finger tips, and that’s even when I’m not applying my usual “fists of gorilla” approach to typing

I’m wed to macOS, but have begun looking for other writing app alternatives again, because the tool is really secondary to the writing itself.

But wait! In October 2019 Apple updated the 15 inch MacBook Pro to a 16 inch model and brought back the more traditional scissor switch keyboard. Instead of having half a millimeter of travle, it now has one entire millimeter of travel! I tried it out in an Apple store and it’s better, but it’s still not great.

The ThinkPad keyboard feels luxuriously deep and satisfying in comparison (my partner is using the ThinkPad now, as his $200 HP laptop is not running anymore so much as hobbling along intermittently).

So my current options are:

  • Hope that Apple comes out with an equivalent to my current MacBook Pro this year with a “good” keyboard and a price that is not any more outrageous that what it is currently. Rumors suggest the possibility of this is pretty good, but Apple is notoriously unreliable for updates on anything other than the iPhone and Apple Watch. And they have treated the Mac line pretty shoddily post-Jobs.
  • Get a Windows laptop and find other software to use. I’ve been trying out a bunch of new writing apps, as well as noodling around in some old standbys, like the perpetually-in-beta version 3 of Scrivener for PC. For the actual device, the Dell XPS 13 and ThinkPad (7th gen) both seem like strong candidates. The Surface Laptop 3 can be had for a decent price, too, and I’m not concerned about its relative lack of IO.

It’s early, so I’m not really leaning in one direction or the other yet. On the one hand, Ulysses is a really nice app. On the other, I resent having to pay a subscription for it (the updates have clearly not been enough to warrant the cost, which I’ll go into in a separate post). I’m also not a huge fan of macOS. It’s fine and for writing it does everything I need, but I am both extremely comfortable with Windows 10 and really like some of the native features of Windows (it may come as no surprise that windows management is really good, where in macOS it is just short of a disaster).

Anyway, I’m typing this on the MacBook Pro now and my finger tips are starting to hurt, so unless I switch to voice dictation, I am going to end this post here. More to come!

MacBook Pro 2016 revisited

Since I started writing with Ulysses again, I’ve been forced to reacquaint myself with my 2016 MacBook Pro sans Touch Bar. This is the one that an Apple executive (maybe Phil Schiller?) claimed would make a nice alternative to the MacBook Air when it debured, neatly ignoring that it cost $700 Canadian more than the Air (ironically, the updated 2018 MacBook Air, combined with a 128GB version of the MBP, has resulted in the price difference now being only $230).

There were no great revelations in going back to the MBP. I still liked the things I liked before, and still disliked the rest. So let’s recap:

The Great:

  • The haptic trackpad is still the best I’ve ever used. It’s a tad bigger than it needs to be, but that isn’t a real issue, and being able to click anywhere on it is great. And the clicks are smooth, not, uh, clicky.
  • The display is terrific. High resolution, bright, and without using the “skinny” 16:9 ratio. It’s not as tall as a 3:2 display, but it gives more headroom than 16:9, something I find important in a laptop.

The Good:

  • Speedy SSD.
  • Versatile Thunderbolt 3 ports.
  • macOS is still pretty solid.
  • Backlighting is spiffy.
  • Save about $670 over the next tier of MacBook Pro, and get bonus real function keys in the process.

The Meh:

  • Only two Thunderbolt ports. One for charging, the other for…everything else. And both on the same side.
  • Actual performance varies. It’s never bad, but sometimes it doesn’t feel as tight as what you’d expect for a “pro” machine.
  • Headphone jack (ya) is on thee right side, which, given the design of nearly every wired set of headphones in existence, makes no sense.
  • macOS is still pretty solid, but the Finder still kind of sucks.
  • Styling is getting dated.
  • All-aluminum design is slippery as all get-out. Every time I pull it out of my knapsack it feels like it’s going to squip out of my hand. And it doesn’t even feel that nice. It’s metal and cold. Meh!
  • Even though it only weighs about three pounds, it somehow feels heavier.
  • Battery life is only average vs. other Ultrabooks.
  • Display bezels are pretty big in 2019.

The Bad:

  • You can’t upgrade anything post-purchase.
  • Any repairs are difficult and costly.
  • The keyboard still sucks.

I can tolerate the keyboard, but I still don’t really like it. It’s just too shallow and clicky, like a scissor switch keyboard imitating a mechanical keyboard. It just doesn’t feel right. And I have less than two years before a potential repair bill of $600+ awaits, should even a single key fail. Given Apple’s flailing in trying to make the keyboard more reliable, I’m very interested in seeing what the next MacBook Pros look like. I doubt they’ll retreat to what they had before, but I think there’s a decent chance they will do something different, instead of continuing to tinker with the current design. Hopefully they won’t present something even worse still, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Overall, this is a laptop that doesn’t stand up to the best Windows laptops anymore. The only thing that really separates it from the competition is the trackpad, but the deficiencies like the keyboard, battery life and repairability, lag behind many other notebooks. Still, it’s a competent machine and I can muddle along with it for writing. Every other Mac laptop now comes with the same butterfly switch keyboard (even if current models feature a newer, quieter version of it), so it’s not like switching to another model of MacBook will make much difference.

On a scale of 1 to 10 Think Differents, the 2016 MacBook Pro without Touch Bar rates 6 Think Differents.

The Mac turns 35

Today is the 35th anniversary of the original Macintosh. Since I am old enough to have lived through personal computer prehistory, I remember the original Mac well.

In 1985–only a scant year after its introduction–I worked on a Macintosh Plus as part of a job entry program in a small publishing/advertising firm in Duncan. The Macintosh Plus came with what was then a staggering one megabyte of ram and this particular model had two floppy disk drives, one internal, one external, so you didn’t need to switch out floppies. Convenient!

I mostly worked on simple ad blurbs and also did entry for a database (I forget the actual software, but it would be pretty easy to find, I imagine). I spent most of my time writing a parody of Friday the 13th using MacWrite. I printed out hard copy on the LaserWriter Plus (this company either had lots of money or lots of debt) and still have that same hard copy kicking around somewhere. I may even have the floppy disks stuffed away in a box.

Since the Macintosh was ludicrously expensive back then (even more than today’s models in relative terms), my own computer was a Commodore 64, which was inferior to the Macintosh in most ways, except it had color graphics and about ten million more games.

The closest I came to owning a Mac back then is when the Macintosh was offered for student discount while I was attending university in 1990. It was around $1,000 as I recall. By then I had an Amiga, which in many ways was a better machine and cost a lot less, so I never went Mac.

That changed in 2013 when I finally got my first laptop, a MacBook Air, then regarded by many as the best all-around laptop. I was too used to Windows, though, and the display was actually not that great, so I ultimately sold it for a Surface Pro 3 the following year.

I returned to the fold (while keeping the SP3) in late 2016 when I picked up the updated MacBook Pro without the goofy Touch Bar (the Touch Bar-free version was the most reasonably-priced–and it still cost $1799). macOS had matured and was a lot more refined, the haptic trackpad was awesome and it had a bright, sharp display. The battery life was only average, but it met my needs. Unfortunately, the ultra-shallow keyboard was something I learned to merely tolerate, not really like, and when you use a laptop for writing, that’s not a great thing. And this was before all the issues with the butterfly keyboard mechanism became known.

I still have the MacBook Pro, with two years left of free service if the keyboard goes south. I’ve actually been using it more recently, as I toy with the idea of going back to Macs for writing (I make the decision tomorrow, per my self-imposed deadline).

When I look at the current Mac line, it makes me a little sad. It could be so much more, but Apple has gotten so big and so reliant on the iPhone that the Mac is playing not just second fiddle, but third, after the iPhone and iPad.

Apple’s attempts at innovation on recent Macs have all been failures:

  • The 2013 Mac Pro was fatally flawed by its design, which led to heat issues and throttling. Apple also seemed to assume “pros” wanted a small computer that they would plug every sort of upgrade into, creating an ungainly mess of cables and peripherals. Nope.
  • The 2016 update to the MacBook Pro introduced the Touch Bar and raised the prices significantly. A couple of years later and the Touch Bar has really been a bit of a dud. It’s never been expanded beyond the Pro laptops and feels like an afterthought now.
  • The MacBook in 2015 introduced the butterfly keyboard, which was divisive due to its extremely shallow keys. Some people love it, as it requires a very light touch, but many dislike it for the same reason. It was also kind of loud for a laptop keyboard. Worse, it was prone to a number of flaws, like keys getting stuck, or registering multiple times, or just not working at all. Apple has revised the keyboard twice and the same issues are still being reported. They really need to chuck the design altogether, especially since it is now used across all of their laptops. I give this a 50/50 chance of happening in 2020.
  • Even the revised Mac mini, after being neglected for four years, emerged with flaws–cheap thermal paste that results in the machine throttling easily, expensive and with piddly specs on the base model. At least they finally killed the 5400 rpm hard drive it came with in favor of SSDs (that are glued and cannot be upgraded or replaced by the user).

So while I consider a return of sorts to the Mac, it’s only as an adjunct to my PC and likely through either a dock with my MBP or through a hackintosh I’d build from an Intel NUC.

Still, happy anniversary to the first personal computer to popularize the graphical user interface. Despite my gripes, the Macintosh had a huge, undeniable impact on personal computing.

iPost, Part 2

I’ve found it strangely soothing to lay in bed and tap out a post on the virtual keyboard of the iPad. I do so using the WordPress app rather than loading in this site directly, as the app smooths off the edges of working on a tablet’s smaller display.

Speaking of Macs, I now have a Macbook Air, my first laptop and also my first Mac. I’ve used Macs on and off for years and always resisted the siren call because of price, lack of good gaming choices and as of Windows 7, OS X is no longer a compelling reason to venture over to the Mac side of things.

Regarding the first point (price), ultrabooks (super-slim and light notebooks) and the Macbook Air are pretty much at price parity, with neither side holding a definite advantage on comparable specs. This will probably change over the next year as more Windows 8 ultrabooks come onto the market but for now the pricing and features are close enough to remove it as a deciding factor.

On the gaming front, things have improved in Mac land but it still sucks compared to the PC side, it just sucks less. And that’s why my main machine is still running Windows.

On the third point, OS X has its flaws and strengths much like Windows 8 (which I currently run), so that’s a wash, too.

I opted to get the Macbook Air because it’s especially light (less than three pounds), has excellent battery life and the keyboard is backlit, something I’m always a sucker for. Its primary function will be for writing when I am away from the home machine, so this sucker is ultimately meant to pay for itself. Or at least pay a little for itself. Really, I’d probably be happy if it just paid for the taxes.

Ironically, I made this post on the PC while the Macbook was updating.