Diary of a Convert

Following Apple’s event last week and after I ordered a top of the line 15” Retina MacBook Pro, I sat down to read John Siracusa’s famous Mavericks review. I started last year’s Lion review with good intentions, but without any incentive to finish I only read a few pages. This year though, with a shiny new Mac already on its way from China, I finally had more of a reason to persevere than simply to say that I had. Surprisingly, that gray “24” page marker — for I read it on Ars just as John suggested — turned up much faster than I expected it to after more than 24,000 words; unsurprisingly, I enjoyed every minute of John’s epic. Less than a week later, I received a FedEx email whose subject line told me everything I needed to know: “FedEx shipment delivered”.

Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to toss my backpack aside and spend the next twenty-four hours playing with this new machine, life stepped in and managed to keep me away for all but the occasional hour once or twice a day. Spread out over Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, despite an extremely short time period I nevertheless managed to form a few general impressions that I believe will successfully extrapolate into future use, which I have laid out here in a semi-orderly fashion.

Unsurprisingly, the MacBook Pro’s exceptional battery life impressed me early on. Although claiming “up to 8 hours” on a single charge, I routinely check the battery status indicator and find much longer than that left on the clock. Right now, for example, having just unplugged my computer at 100% capacity, the indicator reads “9:48 remaining"; another time, at 95% it claimed 11:08 left. Especially coming from a DELL INSPIRON 15 that rarely got fours hours even just after I bought it1, this incredible battery life continues to amaze me.

In addition to battery life portability also ranked near the top of my priority list, and the MacBook Pro did not disappoint: not only did I consistently see nearly ten hours with each charge, its slim form factor and high build quality lent themselves to a very solid device I immediately felt comfortable sliding into my backpack without worrying about it getting damaged. My plastic DELL had handled such treatment for five years, after all; this aluminum — or aluminium, as you say — case would have no problem in such an environment, and would occupy considerably less space to boot.

On the topic of space, I have found myself deferring to the MacBook Pro instead of my iPad, which many hold up as the epitome of portability, increasingly often since receiving it. In fact, over the past week I have taken my iPad out but twice to fulfill its previous main draw as a writing machine, whereas its main function has devolved into a note-taking device during class. With comparable battery life and much greater computing power, the Pro is slowly obviating my need for the iPad in almost every capacity save as a device I can watch Family Guy reruns on, and even in that respect it has begun to encroach upon the iPad’s territory: over the weekend I watched episodes of both Downton Abbey and Homeland on my computer, something I would have never done on my old DELL. Although perhaps insignificant on the face of it, this use case marks a distinct change in the job I employ my computer to do, and is therefore one worth noting.

As for weight, my initial reaction upon pulling the Pro out of its box was that of surprise: it felt heavier than my old computer despite a greatly reduced form factor. Although a quick trip over to Apple’s website and an Amazon page that still, strangely, sells a near-identical version of my laptop five years past its prime proved my theory wrong, my perception of the Pro as a heavier device persisted likely due to its solid and dense build. Not that half a pound made much of a difference, though: every time I read an article proclaiming the significance of an x-gram delta between two devices or listen to a certain popular podcast host complain about the iPad Air’s weight versus the ever-so-light iPad Mini, I can’t help but find humor in the pedantry of it all. Spend five minutes in a gym with a dumbbell whose gradations come in 5-pound increments — 2267.96 grams, for those keeping track — and then come back and complain about the 137 gram difference between the Mini and the Air. In fact, go to your cupboard and pick out seven slices of bread; that’s roughly the weight difference we’re talking about here. But I digress.

At this point in my article I would be remiss to gloss over this glaring, high-resolution elephant in the room: the Pro’s retina display. My notes for this section simply read “Beautiful retina display”, but while I would be foolish to argue the value of such an attractive screen — because I do love how it makes everything so much crisper — the more I tried to write something along those lines the more I came to realize that I cannot, in good conscience, hold this feature up as the greatest thing since those slices of bread you held earlier. While I certainly appreciate greater clarity, and the display makes a number of my favorite websites look especially clear and polished, unlike phenomenal battery life 220 pixels per inch is not a spec I consciously make note of every single time I open my computer; I do, however, notice its effects every time I open the lid.

Over the years I have moved from a gigantic 17” laptop to a much more reasonable 15.6” in my latest computer, where I imagined I would stay as a good compromise between vast screen real estate and portability. Capable of housing similar components, the ability to coherently and effectively display a greater volume of content has remained the primary draw of a larger form factor versus a more portable, smaller one. With the advent of the retina display, however, physical dimension ceased to be the only way to increase available screen space. Herein lies the greatest advantage of this technology: rather than merely a way to make the internet look almost universally terrible, utilizing high resolutions in service of enabling small screens to display great amounts of information clearly obviates the need for larger displays. Some use cases will undoubtedly still require 15” or even 17” form factors, but the more I use my 15” Retina MacBook Pro the more I become convinced that mine no longer does.

Facilitating much of the multi-touch interactivity Apple’s iOS devices have pioneered and then become famous for over the years, the MacBook’s trackpad combines much of Apple’s touch and desktop computing paradigms to interesting effect. A huge fan of the iPad’s gestures myself, I was quite happy to find many similarities between the MacBook’s gestures and that of its iOS counterparts. Of the entire machine, this trackpad has proved both one of the most useful tools and the most confounding.

Back in my days as a die-hard PC fanboy — and I say that with no hyperbole, for I epitomized the derogatory aspects of the term — I used a mouse constantly; wherever I had my laptop, I also had my mouse. I did not go so far as some of my friends, who bought mice with tens of buttons in addition to the traditional left, right, and scroll wheel, but I avoided the trackpad like a plague. I found it especially interesting, then, to discover that after just a day or two with Apple’s implementation of the tried and true trackpad, I preferred it over my old squeeze for every task save gaming. I also found this interesting when considered as the continuation of a trend towards centralization of resources. A vague phrase to be sure, let me elaborate:

At some point a year or so ago, I reached peak accessorization in my setup: atop my desk I had the central hub — my laptop — attached to a CyberPower seven port USB extender, to which I kept an external hard drive and at least one USB flash drive connected at all times, along with my iPod and iPad. For science. I had attached so many devices, in fact, that I had to power the extender independently. On the other side, I had a Westinghouse ~18” external monitor and a Logitech mouse, plus an array of knick-knacks. In various states of disarray, I also kept two sets of headphones available at all times, with an optional third in a drawer close by. Who knew when I might need a microphone or if I would tire of my go-to in-ear Apple earbuds? I sure didn’t. Obviously. Then one day I did an about-face and began gradually moving in the opposite direction: the USB extender went first, followed closely by the external hard drives and my extra monitor. An iPhone replaced my iPod, and my iPad still resides off to the side, but those two devices and my mouse are the last vestiges of a dark and cluttered time. As I began using my MacBook Pro increasingly often, I took one step further in that direction by removing my mouse from the equation for all but a few specific tasks.

I only mention this because John Siracusa did so on episode thirty-seven of ATP, A 30,000 Word Digression, where he briefly took the Mac OS to task for its unintuitive approach to installing third-party applications. No surprise given that Apple obviously prefers users to install software through its Mac App Store, the process is nevertheless very un-Apple like. Whereas Windows simply requires users to obtain an installer and navigate disgusting offers to install some scourge of a toolbar and change your homepage to a porn site before running new applications, OS X makes its users download a DMG, mount the disk image, and remember to move the application from the mounted disk to your Applications folder before launch. Forgetting that, suppose someone launched an application directly from the DMG and unmounted it later only to find that next time he or she tried to open Sublime Text, the application did not exist. I did this twice before realizing that I needed to change the application’s location. And although some apps include links to the Applications directory and a readme, few — including Apple — make the requisite steps obvious. As if to further complicate the issue users will also occasionally encounter unsigned apps, for which OS X provides no apparent alternative to abandonment unless you happen to remember the right-click-to-open workaround. Again, granted given the push for developers to adopt the Mac App Store over the last two years Apple has almost no incentive to improve this experience, but at the same time this is a process many users will likely undertake during their tenure as a Mac user, and a poor one at that. To paraphrase Steve Jobs’ famous line, we must let go of this notion that for the Mac App Store to win, third-party apps must lose, and instead focus on improving the platform as a whole.

Surprisingly, the app installation process is not the only source of friction in an operating system that has gained widespread renown for its polish. On a far more pedantic note, a small bug in Mission Control continues to annoy me: every time I perform a four finger upwards swipe to access this view, I place my mouse where I know the application I wish to launch will appear in an effort at opening it as quickly as possible. And every time I perform this gesture, my efforts are stymied when my clicks yield no results until I move the cursor, at which point the OS selects my desired app and allows me to click it. Until that time, however, I am left tapping my trackpad, like an animal.

In an effort to stay my fall into nitpickery I will conclude on that note. If I have failed to make it obvious thus far, on the whole I love my new computer: not only is it extremely fast and powerful, it is also light, portable, and has an excellent battery. That’s to say nothing for Mavericks which, despite my concluding criticisms, I have grown to like over the past few days. All in all I am very satisfied with this purchase, computer, operating system, and all. Well done, Apple: you have made me a convert.

Four hours being the optimistic number achievable only through restricting web browsing to the occasional foray and sticking mostly to a text editor at all other times. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that my old laptop managed to hold that charge throughout the course of its life: I can still get nearly the same battery life today as I could five years ago just after I bought it.