MacBook One Enters

My venerable MacBook Pro has been retired, involuntarily. At first, I thought the intermittent crashes over the period of a couple of weeks were due to a memory module failure, but a thorough memory test and a consistent failure to be able to boot into the hardware test suite in OS X, both at home and at the Genius Bar at my closest Apple Store, led me to believe it was a motherboard problem. If I could isolate the problem and repair it, I might be able to keep the old reliable workhorse[1] for stud duty as a server at home, or a desktop stand-in at one of my work locations.

In the meantime, I needed a computer for work. With only two days left before the beginning of the fall term, I didn’t have the option of waiting until the expected refresh of the Mac lineup, which some people hoped would be announced at the event in September. Unfortunately, it’s generally unwise to bet against Jim Dalrymple, and he was right in being very doubtful about the prospect of a new lineup being released so soon. If I could have held out until around mid- to late-October (my best guess as to when a new MacBook Pro will be announced) I would have just bought a new version of the class of notebook I’ve been using for forever.[2]

The Mac Buyer’s Guide is a simple and usually reliable resource for buying advice. Right now, the whole lineup is marked with a solid row of red DON’T BUY banners … except for the new MacBook, dubbed the MacBook One by Marco Arment. While I wasn’t really looking for a small-and-light machine, I decided to give it a try and see how I like it.

A couple of weeks in, here are my impressions.

She’s Got the Look

Upgrading from a lower resolution to Retina is … wow.[3] While I miss the anti-glare glass a bit, I don’t miss the slight blurriness that even the relatively good built-to-order option “high definition” display (1680x1050) my MacBook Pro had. I’m running this MacBook in “More Space” mode (looks like 1140x900) and even though text and graphics are physically smaller than my old screen, I have less eyestrain. Text is especially clear and easy to read.

Look, Ma, Both Hands!

I’m still getting used to the keyboard. I’m not much of a keyboard snob, having used almost exclusively the built-in keyboards of notebook computers for over a decade. (I bought my first PowerBook just before coming to Japan in 2000, and I’ve been exclusively mobile both by necessity and choice since. I like nice clicky keyboards, but they don’t travel well.) Like some other writers I am not happy about the arrow keys. Over a week into using it daily, I still hit the left arrow sometimes when I want up or down.

I have mostly adjusted to the slight difference in key spacing from my MacBook Pro, but I still sometimes don’t move quite enough to hit the right key. The key travel is okay; not great, not bad enough to be really annoying.

I never hammered my keyboards, keeping as light a touch as possible. Unfortunately, now I have to sometimes hit a bit harder than I think I should or the key won’t register. The keyboard is a compromise for the sake of the overall design, and it shows. The butterfly switch is actually nicer in feel than the old scissor switches — there is a crisper, more solid feel and less key rock — it’s the unavoidably short travel that’s the problem.

Invisible Toucher

Unlike some people, I have used tap-to-click even from the early trackpad days. I think it has probably held off some RSI issues. The Force Touch trackpad is a good compromise for fewer moving parts with equivalent, and in some cases enhanced functionality.

Any mechanical engineer can tell you that moving parts fail. One of the only problems I had with my MacBook Pro started when it was about 4 or 5 years old. Clicks on the bottom left corner of the trackpad often didn’t register. I think some fine grit managed to infiltrate the mechanism and I was unable to get it out without disassembling it, which is not a good idea with a very delicate part like that. When I noticed some hand strain due to pushing harder in attempt to make a click register, which was especially necessary when dragging, I ended up having to activate three-finger drag in Accessibility settings.

With the Force Touch trackpad, I’ve got to retrain myself to lighten up on the trackpad so that I don’t trigger a Force Touch when I simply want to click, or click and drag. This is actually a good thing. I like being able to “click” anywhere on the pad, instead of having to scrunch my thumb up and push in a different spot. That means I have a better, more ergonomic hand position and have less of of a chance of overuse injuries since I can use any finger on either hand to click or drag. Even the higher pressure necessary to trigger a Force Touch is lower than the static pressure I used to have to use on my old trackpad to ensure I didn’t “drop” whatever I was dragging.

Force Touch, aside from being horrible branding,[4] is actually useful. It brings back easy word lookup, which I use a lot when writing in Japanese. One consequence of enabling three-finger drag is losing the trackpad gesture to bring up the dictionary. While ⌃⌘-D is ingrained almost as well in my motor patterns, it’s less convenient than a multi-finger tap, or now a Force Touch.

I disagree with Marco. The Force Touch trackpad is an overall win. I don’t care as much about the feel as the functionality, and the functionality is improved, along with probably less of a chance of part failure since it’s sealed and there are fewer moving parts.

Dongles, Adaptors, and Cables, Oh My

I have wired internet at work.[5] Not surprising since they finally upgraded from XP machines to Windows 7 this April. So, while I was at the Apple store I bought a Belkin ethernet dongle.[6] To transfer files to our lovely, lovely new high-security setup, where printing or uploading files to the server is only possible from our official work computer via the LAN, I have to use a USB drive; another dongle.

This was another problem generated by my need to have it right now. If I had had the option of waiting, I would have bought a USB-C hub or dock, but I had to have something by Monday and I was buying on a Saturday. I eventually bought a HooToo hub, which provides two USB data ports, plus one for charging, an SD card slot, and an HDMI port for connecting to an external monitor or projector.

I already had an Anker 4 port charger. So far, it’s worked well for charging multiple devices, and I especially like the status light on the charger. Since it’s rated at 40W and the supplied Apple charger for the new MacBook is only 29W, I thought I could just carry the Anker, using a USB-to-mini cord with an adaptor for USB-C.

Unfortunately, the Anker charger either doesn’t negotiate power requirements properly with the HooToo hub or can’t supply enough power for everything through one port. So, I have to choose between power or connectivity, which kind of defeats the purpose of the hub. The hub does work with the standard Apple charger, probably because it doesn’t try to do any fancy power switching and pumps all of its voltage through the connection. Anker also offers a 60W charger with a USB-C port and 4 standard USB ports that might work, but I haven’t ordered one to try yet.

(Storage) Size Matters

The only in-store option I could get was more storage — any processor or other upgrades are only available via the online Apple Store as a BTO option — so I opted for a the 500 GB model given that I was migrating from a self-created Fusion drive with a total of 756 GB of storage.[7]

Leery of running out of space, I have treated the MacBook like a new iPhone, only installing things I know I will need. Because of that, I’ve been carrying around the 1 TB LaCie Rugged I originally bought for backing up my MacBook Pro. Since I haven’t even transferred over everything from Documents, I still occasionally find that I need to plug in and grab files.

The limited storage of the MacBook is a bit of a pain, but it helps to counter my digital packrat tendencies. I’ve found that because of being more conscious of storage space limits, I increasingly only save things I actually need to save.

Let Me Sum Up

[8]

The Good

It’s tiny. The whole thing is barely larger than a 9.7 inch iPad. It’s got a decent keyboard that, while not perfect, feels better than anything this low-profile normally would. Force Touch is a bit gimmicky, but it’s a useful gimmick. The screen is gorgeous. The battery lasts out a regular work day with no problem, and only needs a bit of charge time part of the way through a heavy day to make it to the end.

The Meh

It’s #^¢*ing tiny. I’ve been using a 15 inch screen for a decade. The Retina resolution helps, but it still feels cramped even after an adjustment period, which means I’m probably always going to feel that way. I never used an external monitor with any of my previous MacBooks Pro,[9] but I’ve already started using a dual-monitor setup when I can with this one.

The one port practically necessitates a dock or multi-port dongle for most uses, there are only a few decent options still, and none does everything I need without additional complications. While the MacBook is small and light enough that I sometimes double-check my bag to see if I actually packed it, I end up carrying almost as much weight in support equipment as the theoretical savings.

The Grey Havens

It’s probably not a big surprise that, like a lot of other reviewers, I consider this to be a machine of compromises and adjustments. They might be the kind of compromises you’re willing to make for the design and weight. It’s a good computer, and I’m fairly impressed overall, but I still miss my 2010 MacBook Pro.

Since my notebook is my only computer, it has to be capable of doing everything. While for my uses the MacBook “One” is technically capable of doing what I need, since I probably underutilized the processing power of my previous computers most of the time, there are some significant downsides to using it as a primary computer. If connectivity is important, you will probably not be particularly happy, especially at first. You will need to invest in the right adaptors and peripherals for your uses.

I tend to buy for the long term. I buy the best machine I can get at the time, and use the hell out of it for years. I don’t see this MacBook being a computer I want to use for that long. I’ll probably be trading this in for one of the new MacBook Pros when they are released. Considering that the MacBook is a good computer — it’s just not the best computer for me — I don’t think I’ll have a problem finding a buyer for it when I’m ready to sell.





  1. This machine not only had a longer active-duty life than any past Mac notebooks, which were themselves nearly A–10-like in their reliability, but it took on a bike accident where I was hit by a taxi and rolled over the hood. Admittedly, it was protected in a WaterField Designs sleevecase in my backpack at the time, but I rolled over it after getting hit by a car and the only damage was a small dent in the unibody case on the screen side.  ↩

  2. Because of their longevity, I’ve bought only 3 Macs in the last 15 years: Powerbook Pismo, PowerBook G4, and my late lamented Mid–2010 MacBook Pro.  ↩

  3. such resolve. much pixel. amaze clear.  ↩

  4. Force Touch sounds like something that would get you banned from a conference for creating a hostile environment. The 3D Touch branding used on the iPhone and Watch lines is much better to my ears.  ↩

  5. Wi-fi is, like lots of other “advanced” tech, not a thing in Japan. I’ve been in exactly one office in 15 years that had wireless ’net access for the employees. Out in public, not even the Starbucksen here have free wi-fi. You can get optional wi-fi access plans through your cell-phone carrier (Softbank is aggressive in pushing this to reduce the load on their less-extensive cell network) but leeching wi-fi for the cost of a meal or a cup of coffee is simply not possible in the vast majority of places. #welcometojapan!  ↩

  6. Apple doesn’t make a USB-C version, though they do make a USB-A. I guess they figure 15 years of widespread wi-fi usage is enough to make it ubiquitous. As @JonyIveParody might say, “maybe you should buy one of our revolutionary fucking wireless devices”.  ↩

  7. I used this 256 GB Samsung 840 Pro) SSD in tandem with the original 500 GB hard drive to set up my homemade Fusion drive. Apparently, I neglected to add a link to it in that article.  ↩

  8. If you don’t recognize this reference, scale the Cliffs of Insanity and fight ROUSs, do whatever it takes* to see this movie and fill the gaping maw of darkness in your life experience.

    *Like clicking this link.  ↩

  9. Blame Gruber for this one.  ↩