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Apple: Make a MacBook Pro SE

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This year the MacBook Pro was badly in need of a refresh, and fans of the product had high hopes. Apple’s laptops have been standard-bearers for a decade, and many people rely on them as a crucial tool for their work and their personal lives. Usually, major updates to the MacBook Pro receive a broadly positive response. This time, however, reactions have been all over the map: a few positive, some mixed or simply bewildered, and many anguished and condemnatory.

There's no question that a lot of people will like the new MacBook Pro; that said, there's a significant community for whom it's a huge disappointment, and this represents an opportunity for Apple to release one additional product in the spirit of the MacBook Pros of the past.

Apple can still fix this mess: it can make a MacBook Pro SE.

When a lot of customers complained loudly that the iPhone 6 was too big to fit in their hands, Apple took the opportunity to launch an unexpected product: the iPhone SE. The SE recycled the form of the iPhone 5, but with new components to keep it up to date. While not perfect, it did a lot of things right, and it was a huge hit. It satisfied people who valued essential usability above the cachet of a big screen, while also offering a lower entry cost for people who found the flagship price to be too high.

The circumstances aren’t exactly the same, but Apple has a similar opportunity here: to offer a less “glamorous” laptop that focuses on key areas of essential functionality that are crucial to an important customer segment: professionals and other discerning users who are unswayed by shiny gimmicks and the cult of thinness, and who want a powerful, beautiful, well-engineered computer that “just works”. These people have always relied on - and evangelized for - Apple’s computers, but they are now in danger of becoming aggrieved and disenchanted.

What’s wrong with the new MacBook Pro line?

The new MacBook Pro didn’t single-handedly introduce all the changes that are alienating certain people from Apple’s laptops. It’s more the straw that broke the camel’s back, adding untenable insults to a long string of design choices accumulating in the product line. In the list below, I lay out some thoughts on how to make the perfect MacBook Pro SE to recapture the spirit of the past.

-1- In the new MacBook Pro, Apple prioritized thinness over usability. Cutting bezel size (i.e. reducing the footprint) was absolutely the right move, but cutting the thickness necessitated a controversial new keyboard with almost no travel. While some people claim to like it, many people find it almost unusable, causing significant and constant discomfort at best and outright pain at worst, especially for those with overuse injuries. Apple has always prioritized quality keyboards, and it used to be an industry tradition for the MacBook and the ThinkPad to be cited as having the best keyboards year after year. Therefore the new keyboard - which instead of winning accolades has strongly polarized users - is a disturbing deviation from the norm.

-2- The reduced thickness also forced a reduction in battery size. Apple has been an industry leader in pushing the battery life of laptops, and it's been appropriately lauded for this effort. Therefore it's a real shame to see the company backing away from its dedication to this area.

-3- Almost all ports have been removed. Let’s go through these one at a time:

MagSafe: universally lauded as one of the MacBook line’s best features. Arguments for removal are that charging through USB-C allows for plugging the computer in on either side, and will push the world toward interoperable, non-proprietary chargers. Both of these arguments are actually quite reasonable, but they don’t conflict with offering a MagSafe port in the back-left of the MacBook Pro SE for those who still prefer its advantages.

Mini DisplayPort, USB 3.0, and HDMI have all been ditched for USB-C: I respect this decision, and although it will cause short-term dongle pain, it strikes me as closely parallel to Apple’s very successful past efforts to push the industry forward (killing the floppy, PS/2 keyboard and mouse, CD/DVD, FireWire 400, FireWire 800, ethernet, DVI, etc.). We might not like it now, but the MacBook Pro SE won’t be ready for close to another year, and by then I think most people will be glad of the future-proofing.

SD card slot: no excuse. Photo card functionality isn’t superseded by USB-C, it’s simply lost. Usually when Apple is being “courageous” and trying to push the industry away from obsolete standards, it will offer an explanation for its decision. Sometimes the explanation is genuinely compelling; other times it’s thinly-veiled nonsense. The fact that Apple didn’t even bother with thinly-veiled nonsense for this one suggests that it knows there’s no plausible explanation that would be acceptable to its audience. The most likely explanation is that it’s part of Apple’s aggressive vision for smartphones to supplant digital cameras entirely. It’s true that Apple has done incredible work advancing smartphone camera technology. That said, the idea that smartphones will catch up to APS-C or Micro 4/3 (or larger formats) in the next few years, even with dual-camera setups married to software depth-of-field effects like the one on the iPhone 7 Plus, is delusional hubris. Removing the SD card slot hurts photographers while offering no material benefit. It should be returned in the MacBook Pro SE.

-4- Zero upgradeability for storage and memory. This is the culmination of a long transition, in which we’ve seen the ethos behind Apple’s computers shift from powerful tools to disposable consumer devices. Apple switched to its own flash storage connector before a good industry standard was readily and affordably available, and I don’t blame it for that choice. But now there’s M.2, and Apple should use this standard for the SSD in the MacBook Pro SE. To do otherwise is to signal that it prioritizes monopolistic greed over the good of its customers.

Regarding memory, some professionals have written that the 16GB limit is a major problem. I think 16GB will be enough for most people, but for those who need more, it could indeed be a deal-breaker. However, since the lack of a 32GB option is more an issue with Intel’s roadmap than with Apple’s design choices, I’m not staking out a position here. My hope is that by the time Apple comes out with the MacBook Pro SE, this problem will have resolved itself.

-5- Touch Bar: A harmful gimmick. Not only does the Touch Bar remove the escape key and make it harder to access basic functions like the volume controls, but it adds extra and unnecessary expense. It’s also just embarrassingly removed from the real needs of advanced users — for example, autosuggestion while typing on a smartphone makes sense, but on a computer it’s a distracting oddity. The MacBook Pro SE should retain physical keys instead.

-6- The trackpad is much larger now, for uncertain reasons. No commenters have ever mentioned being unhappy with the previous size of Apple’s trackpad. To the contrary, Apple has been cited as being the best trackpad maker in the world so often that it’s become a cliché. But the new one actually hurts functionality, as it’s big enough to cause accidental palm touches when you type. This makes the curser jump unexpectedly — an inexcusable annoyance.

-7- One more thing: a matte screen. This one’s been a long time coming. The MacBook Pro SE should have a matte screen option with a bezel that’s matched to the body color of the laptop (rather than a glossy screen with a black bezel and edge-to-edge glass). Apple’s last laptop with a matte screen was sold in 2012. But a lot of people, myself included, are still waiting for a screen option that doesn’t have distracting and headache-inducing reflections and glare.

It says a lot about how important this is that I’d much rather have a 1440x900 matte screen than a 2880x1800 retina glossy screen. In fact, the matte screen on my 2008 MacBook Pro was the best screen I’ve ever used on a laptop. Furthermore, I've noticed a correlation between people who value the other features proposed for the MacBook Pro SE and people who prefer matte screens. Since this option isn’t currently available elsewhere in Apple’s lineup, the SE is the right place for the matte screen to make its return.

Why does this matter?

Apple may have a minority share of the total computer market, but its position is still a monopoly. Specifically, it controls a monopoly on computers running OS X / macOS. There’s a reason why people who are familiar with both operating systems and who have the ability to choose between them overwhelmingly go with OS X: it’s stabler, more elegant, less weighed down by bloatware, and less susceptible to malware.

Many people spend well over 8 hours a day on computers: working, writing, communicating, browsing, watching videos, and more. Smartphones may be eating into that time, but the personal computer is still the most fundamental extension of the human mind. By changing the focus of the MacBook Pro from well-rounded excellence to thinness and glitz, Apple has left a lot of people with no computing option that combines the right hardware and the right software in a single package. This means that one way or another, those people will be spending a large percent of their waking hours in a digital world that (to them) feels uglier, more frustrating, and less capable. Every one of those hours is made worse as a result.

Fortunately, the solution doesn't call for any new technology. It doesn't require innovation or radical design. It needs only two things: 1) the work (which should by no means be minimized) of fitting the right mix of existing components into the right physical case; 2) the courage to embrace two distinct but equally valid visions of the MacBook user base, rather than the singular, consumerist, thinness-obsessed, gimmick-focused profile to which the existing MacBook Pro has been unabashedly pitched.

The point is not that the new line is bad per se. To the contrary, it's a very impressive product. The point is that there’s another line that needs to be made, one for which there is significant demand and for which Apple will win huge accolades and love. We need a 15" MacBook Pro SE.

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