Thoughts on the Pro Debacle

Well, it’s certainly been an interesting week. For starters, this site had hundreds of thousands of unique visitors over the past few days (hundreds of gigabytes of traffic) converging upon my post on Elementary. But it being a Plan B wasn’t obvious to most people, so here’s what Plan A currently looks like – i.e., what my take on what a Pro machine ought to be.

Setting the scene, again

In a nutshell, I tested Elementary because I’m more concerned with upgrading my home desktop than my laptop, because for my current line of work all I need is essentially Docker, SSH, Visual Studio Code and Remote Desktop (the rest is all secondary) and because I prefer its looks over other Linux distributions (i.e., it’s where I need to do the least amount of tweaking to get a usable desktop).

I also need to have something to use that isn’t Windows at home to both keep an open mind and stay in the UNIX universe – which is how I got into OSX in the first place and started this site fourteen years ago.

But first, let’s tackle some fallacies; I’m particularly fascinated at the FUD from the hardboiled traditionalist Mac camp about touchscreens, so let’s go for that one.

On Touchscreens

I have a Lenovo Carbon X1 as my work laptop – which, incidentally, fits my personal definition of a Pro machine because it is a workhorse; a big, bulky workhorse with common expansion ports that is quite thin and light, and has a HIDPI display. And that display has a touchscreen that I actually use.

While it is true that most desktop UIs require some tweaking to take advantage of touchscreens, I find that it is a very welcome addition to my workflow in general, and rate the “gorilla arm” pushback from purists as utterly ridiculous – raising your hand from the keyboard to place the caret, move a window, scroll and zoom a web page, nudge a box on PowerPoint or just dismiss a dialog box are completely natural, effortless actions that I perform dozens of times a day, and macOS would certainly be a fair bit better with it on laptops.

And it is not hard to come up with “Pro” uses for it – like live music performances, for instance. That is, if you can actually do them without an extra dongle for digital audio, since it now became apparent that SPDIF is gone from the MacBook Pro’s audio jack despite Apple talking up that same jack as a Pro feature after removing it from the iPhone. But I digress.

Another non-argument against touchscreens on laptops is screen quality (brightness, saturation, etc.) degradation due to the touch layer, to which I merely point towards the iPad Pro – where, amusingly, business users sometimes complain about a lack of mouse support, which just goes to show you everything is relative (I will get back to this particular topic in another post).

The way I see it, Apple does not want to undo the iOS+touch vs Mac+trackpad split even though the rest of the industry is moving beyond it at a fair clip on portable devices, and they have accepted the risk of looking antiquated, foolish, or both by launching the Touch Bar. It’s their call.

As to the Surface Studio, I must say that despite being a Microsoft employee and liking the industrial design, it is not a machine I’d consider buying at this point. That may change, but is a good way to segue onto my next topic.

On Desktops

I’m not crazy about my work laptop (I prefer smaller, more portable machines, and plan to replace it with a Surface i5 at the earliest opportunity, solely because it’s the most compact and lightweight machine on the roster with a decent enough display and battery life). Getting a Mac at Microsoft (sadly) doesn’t make sense for my role, but then again the main reason I am disappointed with Apple is not their new laptops – it’s their desktop line.

I’m holding out for something like a new Mac mini (I prefer small machines, and like to pick my own displays), and at this point I am pretty sure I’m going to have to buy a bunch of dongles for it too (if it ever materializes) and that I will never be able to expand it – and the latter is one of the major anticipated pain points, right there.

I also find it frustrating that I can build a Hackintosh for half the price of a current Mac mini that has a comparable (larger, but bearable) volume, fully standard ports, vastly superior repairability and much better performance. This is not a pipedream, it exists and clocks in at around €700 with a more modern i5 CPU than the current mini SSD and 16GB RAM.

So what is a Pro machine, anyway?

That depends on what you do for a living, so I’m going to point out what makes sense for me, as a paying Apple customer: I want expandable hardware with commonly used standard ports and adequate performance for my needs.

I don’t need Kaby Lake, but I do understand that many people might be frustrated at the rate Intel has been delivering (which is not Apple‘s fault) and the lack of even minor CPU/GPU revisions over the years (which totally is).

Since I’m focused on upgrading my desktop, my take on a desirable Pro machine is something like what Chuq outlines – a standalone Mac desktop box (why not a Cube, again?) with a modern CPU, a proper NVIDIA GPU, at least some standard ports (and by standard I mean today’s standards, including SPDIF, an SD card slot and USB-A) and the ability to at least upgrade the RAM (if not also the storage and GPU).

Thunderbolt 3 might be a suitable expansion path (my six-year old Mac mini has survived this long largely thanks to my running it off an SSD in an external Firewire enclosure1, and PC gamers can now run powerful external GPUs in much the same fashion), but removing all “legacy” ports and shipping a design with nearly impossible to replace storage plus soldering RAM on the motherboard is, to put it quite bluntly, raising the middle finger to Pro customers.

Most people complaining about the MacBook Pro do so because it doesn’t match their requirements for performance (with or without Kaby Lake, GPU, battery or thickness compromises) or expandability (either aftermarket or lack of standard ports). But sure, they’re also doing it because expectations were too high regarding refreshes of all the Mac product lines (even though rumors only hinted at laptops).

And for the sake of argument, it wouldn’t have killed Apple to add a MicroSD slot to it – there most certainly is room for it, even on the MacBook 12”.

As a photographer who’s now standardized on 32GB Class 10 MicroSD cards (because I can also use them on my Android phone), I think that is completely ridiculous.

Moving away from macOS?

Even though macOS has evolved relatively little under the hood (the UNIX bits, in particular, feel unkempt) and recent versions have had a few more bugs than usual, it’s noteworthy that few complain about the ecosystem or the OS.

My personal use case for a powerful desktop is an outlier in the Mac universe – I need a very powerful UNIX terminal with the ability to run either VMs or native Docker for building Linux software, and wouldn’t mind having a decent GPU for doing some machine learning – but overall, to have lightning fast UI rendering across two 4K displays I plan to buy (which are much more important to me than the computer itself, and which I am still picking out).

But it is relevant to point out that if I do switch over to Linux to get this (and I believe I can endure the pains involved), then my investment in iOS becomes questionable, because the Apple ecosystem will stop making sense for me – and that is something many other people have already alluded to as well.

In the end, the only thing I cannot get on Linux right now that I would certainly miss is 1Password (and even then I was able to run it under WINE a while back).

What will Apple do?

It’s pointless to try to guess, really, and I’ve pretty much given up on reading tea leaves to replace the lack of a clear statement regarding their intentions for the Mac desktop line. It’s nice that they cut USB-C dongle prices (and monitors too) but, in the end, that only serves to offset the cost of the MacBook Escape (great moniker by the way, guys).

What will I do?

My original plan (and what I had budgeted for this year) was to upgrade my Mac mini with a new, revised model now (because my machine is clearly on its last legs) and upgrade my monitors just after Christmas during stock clearances.

After the keynote, I decided to spend last weekend looking for discount 27” iMacs simply because they are the single current desktop model that has upgradeable RAM (a good friend of mine snagged one), but my dislike for all-in-ones prevailed and retailers here are slow to take advantage of opportunities to shift old stock, so that was fruitless.

Turning things around and buying a MacBook Escape places me smack dab in the middle of a vortex of fresh, untested products, forces me to buy a decent Thunderbolt 3 to dual HDMI adapter to use my current monitors temporarily while I work up the nerve (and the cash) to replace them, and will cost me at least €2230 to get something I can use for a few years.

Waiting is a pretty tough call – especially now that I’ve started spending a big chunk of my “office” time in my home office. I might as well give up, plug my Lenovo into my monitors, and just use Azure VMs for the whole thing (which works fine, but that’s a completely different story).

All of a sudden that €700 Hackintosh seems like a great bet, not just because of the price and expandability but also because I’d have zero issues with ports or monitors (now or in the future) and I can always run Elementary on it instead; even if I retire it in favor of a “real” desktop Mac another few years from now, it’s still going to be a fast, useful machine.

If there even is another desktop Mac, that is.

  1. I had enough trouble dismantling it to upgrade the RAM, so when it came to upgrading the hard disk I decided I’d had enough and just bought a cheap enclosure. Both because I’ve had enough of dismantling minis for the past few years (I became quite the aficionado) but also because I’ve used external disks with Macs since the Mac II days and am comfortable with it. ↩︎