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Thinking about the new MacBook Pro

Posted 2016-10-26

Unless something extremely unexpected happens, on the 27th, Apple will be announcing new MacBook Pros. These are long overdue, the last update was a year and a half ago. The rumors and leaks point towards the following:

There's a lot of gnashing of teeth about much of this. But not all of it is is necessarily well-founded. Let's have a look at the possible issues that such a machine may have.

Power / MagSafe

I think it was with the Intel-based MacBook (Pros) that Apple introduced the MagSafe connector for power. The MagSafe connector attaches to the laptop magnetically, so if you trip over the power cord, it simply detaches and nothing bad happens. I once tripped over my PowerBook's power cable and sent it flying through the room. MagSafe is definitely very useful.

On the other hand, there are some advantages to charging over USB-C, too. USB-C can deliver as much as 100 Watts over a very small connector. But a USB-C charger is still compatible with older USB power delivery specifications, so you should be able to charge other devices that take power over USB with it, too. Including bluetooth headphones, mice and iPhones. And with USB-C it's possible to handle data, video and power over a single cable. So in the future I could hook up my computer to an external screen with just one cable rather than two or three.

And USB-C is an open standard, so it'll get much easier/cheaper to find power supplies.

It would have been nice to keep MagSafe, but with laptops getting smaller it's getting harder to make MagSafe work well. Also, with 10 hours of battery life, you can simply connect to power when the computer is on a desk or another place where it's unlikely the power cable will be snagged and then use it on battery power elsewhere.

I do wonder about the power key/button, though. You do need a hardware key to power on the machine, and power it off when it hangs. But there doesn't seem to be one in the leaked photos...?

The SD card slot

I'm really going to miss this one. Now I have to carry an extra cable to connect to my cameras. Of course they both have different ones and they plug into a USB type A port, so I also need an adapter. Using the cable drains the camera's battery and is slower than reading photos off of the SD card directly. Or get a card reader. Again, with a USB-A to USB-C adapter or wait / pay extra of a fast USB-C one.

Also, you can use the SD card slot to add some semi-internal storage to your computer.

Losing all of this really sucks.

External screens

Currently, adapters to DisplayPort, HDMI and VGA go for about $/€ 45. That's pretty expensive. Hopefully the price will come down in the not too distant future.

Removing the HDMI port together with the miniDisplayPort / Thunderbolt ports is really annoying, because now you have to carry some kind of adapter to connect to an external screen or projector just as HDMI was becoming the lingua franca of external video.

Again, this sucks, certainly for business / conference stuff. But once the adapters/cables come down in price, connecting an external screen on a disk using a USB-C port shouldn't be a big deal.

USB

We've all had 20 years to collect numerous USB devices that use the USB type A connector. So moving to USB type C requires adapters. It would have been much easier if Apple just wouldn't be so Apple-y and just give us some old ports along with the new ones.

But it's not a huge deal. With one adapter you can hook up an individual USB device or a USB hub and attach old USB stuff. And within a year or two nearly everything will be USB-C.

Thunderbolt and networking

I assume the new MacBook Pros will be using the latest USB 3.1 gen 2 so they can reach 10 Gbps over USB. Thunderbolt still beats that handily at no less than 40 Gbps for Thunderbolt 3. Conveniently, Thunderbolt 3 also uses the USB-C port. If you have a fully wired USB-C cable (which doesn't include the one that comes with the current USB-C MacBook, this one tops out at the 480 Mbps USB 2 rate), you should be able to run Thunderbolt over it as well as USB.

However, Thunderbolt 1 and 2 use the miniDisplayPort plug/connector. So in order to keep using your existing Thunderbolt stuff, you'll need an adapter or cable. Hopefully Apple will sell these, but I expect them to be expensive.

I think I'll get one, because this is the only way to connect my old MBP to a new one at speeds that can keep up with the SSD in my current machine.

It would be nice to be able to keep using my Thunderbolt Gigabit Ethernet adapter, but what I really want is 5 / 2.5 Gbps Ethernet. Hopefully that will be coming soon at a reasonable price. So I'm probably not going to get a new USB-C to GE adapter. Then again, if I want to be able to use 2.5 or 5 Gbps Ethernet, I need at least two of these adapters... Networking over Thunderbolt is probably faster and easier, although in the past the speeds were inconsistent.

I haven't heard about Wi-Fi improvements beyond the 1.3 Gbps that my late 2013 MacBook Pro supports. And even if the Wi-Fi gets faster, it's unlikely to surpass wired Gigabit Ethernet.

The function keys

The new touchscreen strip is really interesting. Although Steve Jobs made a big thing about the software keyboard on the iPhone, Apple has always refused to add touch capability to their laptop screens. This seems to be a way to square the circle: give you (some) touch screen ability on your laptop without the "gorilla arm" phenomenon that occurs when you have to lift your arms to touch the screen.

Of course it all depends on how the new abilities are used, but it seems obvious that Apple and third party developers could do something useful with this strip, by displaying context aware options.

The trouble, of course, is that now the function keys are gone. I don't think very many people use the actual function keys (F1 - F10) regularly, and certainly not without looking at the keys. I can kinda-sorta touch type numbers through the number row, but I can't use most of the function keys without looking. However, I can use the volume keys on the right side without looking.

I'm thinking that if you press the fn key in the lower left corner of the keyboard, the strip will show F1 - F10 / F12. And you can probably still set up the system so it uses the function keys if you don't press the fn key. If they align those keys with the number keys on the keyboard, you can use those to position your finger and then tap the touch screen strip. So it should still be possible to use the function keys without looking.

(Some people have suggested having a keyboard with e-ink mini-displays on all keys. Nice idea, but it's not going to work. Real typists don't look at the keys and thus the keys can't change and thus they don't need a display.)

I wonder where the power button went. But obviously it must still be there in some form.

The biggest issue I have with the new touch screen strip is that we lose the escape key. Hopefully, you can still hit the location of the escape key to trigger the escape function, so this shouldn't be too terrible, but I'm sure I'm going to miss the actual key. (Yes, I'll admit it, I'm a vi user.)

Verdict: color me intrigued. The touch screen strip could be great or it could be a dud. I'll survive the removal of the function keys and probably even the escape key.

Conclusion

I haven't talked about the TouchID fingerprint reader because it doesn't take away any current functionality. It's probably going to be very useful, but if you don't want to use it, don't and you lose nothing.

As so often with Apple, the future arrives before we're really ready for it. I'm sure that in 2019, this is going to be a great laptop. But it just doesn't fit into the 2016 or 2017 computing ecosystem all that well.

I'm probably going to get one, but I'm also going to hang on to my old computer so I don't have to buy a crapload of adapters and cables in order to use my existing peripherals.

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