The end of my Mac era

2016-11-29 22:41

I first used MacOS X in 1988. No, that’s not a typo. See, MacOS X is really, under the hood, an older operating system called NeXTStep, which I started using in 1988.

It’s been, for most of the last 28 years, my favorite operating system to work in. And I’m giving up on it, because Apple doesn’t want customers like me any more.

When Apple announced their new 2016 MacBook Pro line, I was… not quite heartbroken. I was, however, in denial. I was sure I could make the machines somehow be just about usable enough. I mean, sure. I’d have to buy dongles. I’d have to buy some kind of dock. The dock that I’d need doesn’t exist yet, but it would exist someday. There’s nothing on the market right now that can deliver the wattage the new MBP needs over USB-C in a general way, except one specific 5k monitor by LG. Dell has a dock that can do it, but only with other Dell products. Everything else caps at 60W.

The new MacBook Pro is everything I don’t want in a computer. Ethernet’s still gone. So’s everything else. Memory? Soldered onto the motherboard. You can’t upgrade it. And it maxes out at 16GB, because they had to use lower-power LPDDR3, instead of the faster DDR4 the hardware would otherwise typically use, and the chip can’t handle more than 16GB of LPDDR3. Storage? Soldered onto the motherboard. No upgrades.

Every laptop I have had since the early 90s, if memory was upgradeable, I upgraded the memory a year or two after getting it. Every laptop I have had since the early 90s, I upgraded storage at least once. Except, of course, the new Macs where this isn’t an option. They just fall behind the performance curve way faster than other laptops. Of course, you can spend 4x as much to get an Apple-markup upgrade at the time of purchase. (Apple’s markup isn’t all that steep; what’s steep is buying something at the high end of the curve at launch, rather than buying the same thing for a lot less two years later.)

Apple discontinued all non-glossy screens. I hate glossy screens. In fact, so does almost everyone; glossy screens have a lot of initial “wow” factor, but most people end up sooner or later hurting their necks trying to get to a position where the glare isn’t too bad. The “low” reflectivity of Apple’s glossy screens buys you very close to nothing; what makes reflections bad isn’t that they’re bright, it’s that they’re sharp, clear, and easily seen. The “Retina” displays sound nice in principle, but in practice, I hate them. See, they’re done as super-high-resolution screens; for instance, the screen might be 2880×1800. But you don’t actually use it at that resolution, it’d be illegible. You run it scaled. If you run it at 1440×900, you get a 2:1 scaling effect, everything’s crisp and clear, and you have a desktop the size I’d expect from a 12” machine on your shiny new 15” machine. If you run it at any intermediate size, everything is a bit fuzzy because it’s all scaled. So I hate it.

Apple replaced the standard laptop keyboard with a new super-thin keyboard. I typed on it for half an hour and was in pain. If I’d used it for a full day, I wouldn’t have been able to type for two or three days thereafter. Yes, I know, I’m atypical; I have old RSI pains. Luckily, every vendor in the world except Apple is willing to make keyboards which reach the bare minimum standards of usability I need not to be injured by keyboards.

Apple killed the function key row, on the nominal grounds that function keys have been around for too long. Guys, that’s true of letters, too. Function keys were, and are, useful. Indeed, on that shiny new Mac, with shiny new MacOS preloaded on it, there were standard system functions accessible only through… You guessed it… Function keys.

The new trackpad is probably the real reason function keys were out; it’s enormous, and there’s simply not enough room to have it be that enormous if you kept the function keys and added the fancy new touchbar. It’s also awful. It has clear, audible, tactile, clicks in the lower corners. They don’t work, even if configured. You have to also set the force requirement for clicking to “light”. Also, if you do the obvious thing of configuring it to recognize right clicks when you click the right side? Even the lightest brush of a palm on the right side, while clicking clearly and unambiguously on the left, is a “right click”.

So, what is a laptop? A laptop is a screen (awful), cursor device (awful), keyboard (awful), battery (awful), and memory and storage (also both awful). Oh, wait. There’s connectors.

The machine has USB type C ports. Interesting in principle. Not yet remotely ready for prime time. Trying to find combinations of things which will allow you to use the four available ports and get everything working is a nightmare. You want to use power passthrough? You’re now capped at 60W and can’t run the laptop at full power. You want any kind of connection to any kind of display? Special cable. USB ports that work with literally any other thing you could plausibly own? Special adapter. Oh, and the adapter will probably kill the wireless.

Magsafe is gone. You might not think this is a big deal, but the magsafe adapter is easily the best feature I’ve ever seen in a laptop, and is why I have bought so many machines with it over the years. When a friend who has a dog needed a laptop, I got him a MBP because I knew the cable would survive longer. (I’ve soldered together three or four power cables or laptop power supply connectors this year. None of them were on machines with magsafe.)

This machine is a joke. It is an insult. Apple used to have three product lines for notebooks; the “macbook” was the consumer line, the “macbook air” was extra lightweight and a bit light on functionality, and the “macbook pro” had all the extra functions but weighed more. The new MBP is now replacing the MacBook Air. (I believe they’ve actually stated that the Air line is being dropped because the new MBP is just as thin anyway.)

So what if you wanted other features? Too bad.

The writing was on the wall years ago, and I should have jumped then. I still remember my confusion when someone on the MacRumors forums, speaking of the removal of the Ethernet port, said “well, I don’t see why the MBP needs Ethernet, I think of that as more of a Pro feature.” Why, yes. That’s exactly what it is.

In the entire time that there’s been a “Macbook Pro” product line, I don’t know of a single MBP which had mid-range or better graphics, and which could run at full speed for a sustained period. At all. Every model has been prone to dire failures (think “must replace parts”) due to heat, or has throttled because of overheating, or has had parts that were way down on the bottom end of the performance curve. Why? Because they’re too thin to have enough volume to have space for functional heat sinks, and they’re too thin to have the battery it would take to power such a thing and have usable battery life.

So, here I am with a Dell laptop. Upgradeable storage? It has both a PCIe slot and a 2.5” drive bay. Not only can I upgrade the storage, I can have two different kinds of storage. Memory? Ships with 32GB, upgradeable to 64. Ports? Yes, lots of them, even including a fancy new USB type-C port it could use if I cared. Screen? Matte finish, perfectly clear. Flexible configuration options; for instance, the hardware can turn off the wireless card when ethernet’s connected, if you want it to. It won’t, if you don’t want it to. Options like this are not really a part of the Mac experience.

But the kicker is, this machine which is unambiguously superior in every way to the 2016 Macbook Pro also costs about $1,300 less. So that’s enough extra money to get things like a dock. I like docks. Docks are a “pro” feature; many people don’t care about them. But I do, and I like that I have the option of getting one with this machine. And if I were willing to settle for a slightly less impressive machine, without quite as many expansion options? There’s gaming laptops which are in the $1,500 range and still quite a lot more powerful than anything Apple will ship. That $2,000 price gap is significant. (If I could buy a license for MacOS to run on an ASUS laptop like the GL502 for $1,500, I would do that in a heartbeat. Assuming it actually had drivers for the hardware and didn’t have the problems the Hackintosh people run into on laptops.) And yes, both machines would be heavier than the MBP, but… okay, that’s a thing I understand, hardware takes up space and weighs something. I’m okay with that!

And lest you think this is specific to hardware: It’s not.

Mac OS X Server was a really nice server operating system. I spent $hundreds on it and had no regrets. It saved me time and effort. It was, of course, discontinued. Now you can buy “” from the Apple app store. is a weird hybrid app that contains basically a clone of everything that was in the OS X Server filesystem that’s not in normal MacOS. It is dodgy, at best. It doesn’t work reliably, it doesn’t integrate well, and in short, it completely fails at the things that made OS X Server worth spending money on.

Aperture was a lovely photo program. It got axed, with all the functionality moving into “Photos”. Here’s when I realized this would absolutely not work for me: In Aperture, when importing pictures, you can denote a “project” for them, allowing you to separate images out into different categories or whatever. In Photos? “Last Import”. It’s all sorted by date, all the time. There are no categories, there are no divisions, it’s just all one big stream of every picture, sorted by date. Deal with it. Wanting to categorize pictures is a “pro” feature. (The limited tagging functionality is in no way a viable replacement.)

iWork used to be a fairly respectable contender as a serious tool. It hasn’t been for a long time, probably because of the iPad ports, which imply that the software’s functionality has to be limited to things that will play well on the iPad. At one point, Apple sold a keyboard for the iPad. Numbers (the spreadsheet) on the iPad didn’t allow you to use arrow keys to navigate spreadsheets. Why? Probably a “pro” feature. iWork also dropped any pretense of backwards compatibility with older iWork files, or files from predecessors like AppleWorks. Need to access old files? Look for third-party solutions.

And this has been happening to everything Apple does. The new iPhone drops the headphone jack, because why would you want a 100% reliable technology that has been in use for something like 35 years and works with your existing headphones when you could have unreliable wireless technology which sounds worse. Well, sounds worse briefly. Then it stops sounding like anything at all until you find a charger.

And all of this is plenty of reason for me to give up and migrate away from the platform. I’m going to keep a few things running on a Mac Mini until I find suitable replacement apps or get my data exported. But the worst thing is:

Most of the people I know who develop software feel the same way. And you can’t develop for MacOS if you aren’t using a Mac. And why would you get a Mac, when they’re insanely overpriced and horribly dysfunctional?

Apple’s not refreshing the Mac Mini and keeping it remotely competitive, and they’ve gone from being quite nice machines to being sort of horrible. I have an older Mac Mini, it runs fine, it’s easy to fix if things go wrong. I have a newer Mac Mini, and I want to put in a new drive, so I have mail-ordered the special tool which does only one thing — let you get the main board out of a 2012/2014 mac mini so you can replace the hard drive. That’s ridiculous, and stupid. And if the Mini were priced based on its hardware, and decreased in price over time, that might be defensible. But now the Mini is non-upgradeable, just like the rest of the product line, and a Mac Mini with reasonable specs costs $1,500. It’s not really cost-effective at that point, to put it mildly. At $500, plus spending $200 to upgrade some parts in a year or two, it would be attractive. At $1,500 for hardware that’s roughly two years old, paying the full Apple Hardware Premium for hardware that wasn’t really even impressive then? No. The old plan of “get a mini and use that for development” is gone. The iMac line is great if you happen to want an all-in-one machine with a glossy display. Don’t like glossy displays? Apple doesn’t like you. The Mac Pro is even more ridiculously overpriced. It’s a great example of a machine which is in a niche where you must upgrade regularly to keep on top of the performance curve, or lower your prices, or be subject to ridicule. Apple’s gone for ridicule.

So… There are no good options for Mac development. There are no good options for users who want slightly higher-end machines, or even what would be considered “midrange” in most of the market, anymore. If Microsoft weren’t being quite so aggressively horrible with Windows 10 (seriously, MS, “we report usage back and you can’t turn this off and you can’t even disable the quasi-AI assisstant program unless you’re an enterprise customer” is not how you make friends), I think Apple would be in even worse trouble. But even as is, I think the Mac app market is at serious risk of starting to dry up as developers seek greener pastures.

To summarize:

Apple’s executives do not understand that “getting thinner and thinner until you can’t do your job” was a fatal illness that killed Steve Jobs, rather than another of his visionary design decisions to emulate.

(For other thoughts on this: Michael Tsai has a really interesting piece with lots of links to other writing on the topic.)

Peter Seebach