Friday, September 16, 2022

The State of the Mac

I've always used Macbook Pros docked with external monitor, keyboard, and mouse at home. It offers the best of all worlds; maintaining a portable option without sacrificing full desktop comforts at home.

But then iPads got better (I'm still using this setup from ten years ago), and I found myself taking my laptop with me less and less often. So when it was time to upgrade to a new machine, I had a choice: 1. pay up for a Macbook Pro with a fancy expensive retina screen I'd never actually see as I used it like a Mac Mini, or 2. buy a Mac Mini. The latter cost half the price, making it a no-brainer. So I sold my Macbook Pro and bought the Mini (either used or refurbished, I can't remember; I never buy this kind of equipment new).

I kept using my excellent 4K monitor (link above) with the Mini for a while, but, compelled to give my aging eyes every advantage, began researching 5K monitors. I learned that the only affordable route was to buy a 2020 iMac Retina, with built-in 27" 5K display. The thing was so bafflingly cheap that the computer essentially came for free. So I sold my Mac Mini and monitor.

The iMac's 5K display is astounding, though the computer, while considerably faster than the Mac Mini on specs, didn't deliver any discernible speed improvement. No computer does anymore. As I wrote earlier this year, computers are now fast enough…though I’m apparently the only one who’s noticed. My 2015 Macbook Pro, my 2018 Mac Mini, and my 2020 iMac felt more or less equally fast, though their specs varied widely. So fast as to be essentially instantaneous for normal tasks. Fast enough!

I'm headed to live in Portugal for a while, and, having researched options for bringing iMacs on a plane, decided to put it on the slow container ship that’s bringing the rest of my stuff. After much scheming, here's how I'll bridge the gap: I bought a 2021 MacBook Pro (open-box on eBay), and will use that until my stuff arrives in Portugal in the Spring. Then I can sell the Macbook Pro in Portugal for more than I paid for it, and return to the comforts of my luxurious 27" 5K iMac screen (note that all Apple devices are dual voltage).

I'm averse to small screens - even the comparatively huge 16” screen of this Macbook Pro. When I first started writing (on a Mac Classic II with a 9" screen) a more experienced writer - I think it was David Lindsay - mused to me about how writers suddenly all seemed to be stamping out 9" chunks. There'd be great coherence within each tiny block, but the beginnings of paragraphs/chapters/articles/books and their endings often felt oddly disconnected, as if they'd been crafted with blinders on. Which they were!

I've embraced larger displays whenever I could afford them, and each leap improved my writing coherence. It's painful for me to revert to a laptop screen. A big part of what feels like "home" to me is a large display. And while I'm plagued by anxieties re: chunky coherence, and thirst for the day when I can unfold a business card-sized slab of magical material into a semi-rigid 27" screen anywhere I want, this temporary screen size demotion is a concession for the move.

For the moment I'm still typing on my 2020 iMac, and the screen is fantastic. It remains nearly impossible to find an affordable separate 5K display. Advancement isn’t a given! In fact, Apple discontinued this 27" iMac, so you might want to look for it on eBay (again: computers are fast enough™, so you won't take a processor speed hit by reverting to two year old hardware).

I just received the 2021 MacBook Pro 16" M1 Retina (note that an M2 version is due soon), and it's terrific, display dimensions aside.

Sometimes a computer "feels" great. I remember, after buying a Performa 630 in 1995, emailing my friend (and programming hero) Bill Monk to rave about it ("I haven't had to restart it in days!"). It was impossible to say what made the 630 so creamy delicious to use, but it's less of a mystery with this MacBook Pro.

It's got the custom M1 chip, designed by Apple not just for MacOS and Mac hardware, but specifically for recent MacOS and recent hardware, so it's not tasked with serving all scenarios. Most chips support a funnel of legacy hardware and software, but this thing's positively bespoke, so the usability - the Fahrvergnugen - is off the hook.

I described the Performa 630 as more solid than any Mac computer I'd ever used, though the touchy-feely notions of “solidity” and "usability" are surely nonsense. Hardware differences are easily quantified via drive and processing speeds. Beyond those stats, it either works or it doesn't - though, sure, poor hardware will torture you as errant operations touch errantly upon errant points of failure.

Yet no one buys more credulously into the "usability" myth than hardcore computer geeks - the ones you'd expect to be super rational. I remember Bill being genuinely excited to hear how buttery good the Performa 630 "felt".

On those same terms, the MacBook Pro is doce de leche. It's fast, but all computers are fast now. Bespoke architecture, fahrvergnugen, impressive build quality, crazy nice 16" screen. And Apple's finally put keyboard-gate behind them (notoriously crappy keyboards for several generations of Macbook Pros). This may not be my favorite keyboard, but it's good, and the built-in TouchID relieves pain I didn't know I’d been suffering on the iMac. I’ll say this, though: my 5K iMac display at half brightness looks like stadium lights compared to this laptop at max. 

One real speed benefit, courtesy of the M1 chip: boot time is under 20 seconds. Not that I often reboot.


I particularly enjoy talking and writing about Apple tech, because, while I've been very avid about it for a very long time, the topic gets buried beneath my more public-facing interests. Really, I could write full-time about this stuff. Prior Apple writings (including, sorry, lots of posts about AAPL stock) here. Don’t miss ”Massive Mac Info Dump.”


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