The 2016 MacBook Teapot Tempest

I have never seen such unremitting negativity about an Apple product release as I'm seeing now. You'd have thought Apple had released a MacBook Pro composed entirely of cow dung from the reactions of the soi-disant pundits in the computer press.

Some of this can probably be attributed to Apple's unparalleled record of corporate success since Steve Jobs rescued it from near-certain doom. Some of the complaints about the machine are legitimate, but I think many are hideously overblown.

Attracted by the new screen and the gadgety-wonder of the Touch Bar, I recently bought one of the new 15" MacBook Pros. While it's not perfect, it's a far cry from the unpolished turd the press make it out to be.


The higher price is not awesome. All of the models carry a significant cost differential over their predecessors. (They're also far more powerful than their predecessors, based on some real-world comparisons like this one.) This guy actually compared a 2016 model to a 2015 model. Whaaaat? He didn't just slavishly parrot the specifications?

Many people are not fond of the keyboard. I had one of the second-generation MacBooks with the newer flat keyboard, and I have to say, I wasn't too keen on it. The newer model is a huge improvement. It still takes me a while to adapt when I switch from my desktop iMac keyboard to the laptop, but it's not nearly as problematic as I'd feared it might be.

The absence of an SD card slot is a minor issue for me. I'm using my iPhone 7 Plus much more frequently than my big Canon 5DS or 5D Mk III. Those cameras have both Compact Flash and SD slots, so I need a CF reader to be able to take advantage of them. I've never been able to get away from using dongles for this purpose, so losing the SD card slot is a no-op for me. I can see how a lot of people whose only camera uses SD cards would be irritated by this, though.

Battery life hasn't been great so far, either, but at least some of this is because my machine has been spending an awful lot of time doing metadata indexing for Spotlight. I transferred 800 GB of data from my old MacBook Pro 13" model, and it takes a very long time to index all of that information. I've encountered this particular problem many times, and every time, it solves itself by completing the indexing.

The only real bug I've encountered is a crashing problem when running Time Machine backups. This is reported to be fixed in an upcoming update to macOS Sierra. I'm really looking forward to THAT. Given that it's a new model and a new OS, it would be more surprising to me if there weren't a few bugs like this. It always takes a while to iron them out.

Conveniently, not long after I wrote the previous paragraph, Apple released macOS 10.12.2, which fixed my Time Machine backup problem.


What I really like about the new machine: it's really fast. The SSD is insanely fast. Even though it maxes out at 16 GB of RAM, I've never been able to get it close to the point where it starts paging to disk, but if it does, it has in the neighborhood of 3000 MB/sec of bandwidth to play with.

The screen is gorgeous. I have a 5K iMac with the expanded P3 color gamut, and you get used to it. Computers with the old sRGB color space seem dingy and pale by comparison. My MacBook screen now looks as good as my iMac screen. And with SwitchResX, I can use every possible screen mode, up to and including its native 2880 x 1800 pixel resolution. Everything's insanely small, but it's usable. I'd have to put a pair of jeweler's loupes in my eye sockets to be able to read the screen at that resolution. The high-DPI 1920 x 1200 mode is very useable, however, when I need more screen real estate on the go. And of course, I can always plug in my iPad Pro and use Duet Display for a two-monitor portable setup.

The gigantic trackpad is a pleasure to use. I made the switch to the Magic Trackpad some time ago, primarily because I was tired of the uneven response of the older trackpad when clicking in spots that were too close or too far away from the fulcrum. The solid-state Magic Trackpad doesn't have that issue, and it's huge. I really appreciate my MacBook having a trackpad about the same size as the one on my desk. It's smooth, easy to control, and the haptic feedback really fools you into thinking you clicked it even though it has no moving parts whatsoever. The palm rejection has been flawless for me, and I have gigantic palms. The super trackpad is a big win.

The Touch Bar hasn't proven to be very useful to me yet, but it's still early days as far as software support goes. I'll have much more to say about the wisdom of going with a keyboard-based touch strip as opposed to a full touch screen later in the post.

I thought I would miss the hardware ESC key more than I do. As it turns out, even though the illuminated area of the ESC key on the Touch Bar is small, you can still tap all the way to the edge of the Touch Bar and still hit it. The positioning and size of the ESC key is clearly meant to provide visual symmetry with the space occupied by the Touch ID / power button on the other side.

It is awesome to be able to use Touch ID to unlock the screen saver and to use Apple Pay. Really awesome. Huge win for usability.

The audio quality is a big step up from previous MacBooks. Some are griping that the tear-downs show that the "speaker holes" on either side of the keyboard are not sitting above great big speakers. They claim that the sound comes out of the spacious vent slots on the bottom of the machine. I'm not going to argue with this, but the results don't lie. Perhaps the speakers are smaller and fire downward. Sound still bounces around inside there and comes out of those holes. It is far better now.


Oh, my God. Have you ever heard such caterwauling about the lack of USB Type A ports on a computer? Probably not, because every other laptop out there undoubtedly has at least one.

Apple signaled with the 2015 MacBook that it was going to transition to the reversible USB-C style connector, and it did so in a big way with the new MBP models. USB-A is gone forever. In its place are two or four combo Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 ports, depending on the model you buy.

If you have USB-A mice, keyboards, or other peripherals, you'll either have to use a dongle or a USB-C cable with a connector on the other end that matches your device.

Apple responded to the bitter griping about the cost of its adapters by cutting their price in half until the end of the year. But Apple isn't the only source of dongles or cables. USB-C is a standard. Some other computers and tablets support it now. More will follow now that Apple has committed to this connector.

In the meantime, yes, there are some annoyances as the new standard gains traction. There's no question that replacement mice, keyboards and other devices with dedicated type A connectors will ship soon. So how can you avoid having to fill your bags with dongles in the meantime?

One commonsense approach is to get a multiport USB-C to USB-A hub. Like this one. Oh, look! Four USB-3 ports on a single USB-C connection! And it's small! Or you could get a Type-C card reader with a USB port. Or if you just want to permanently equip a mouse or other USB peripheral with its own adapter, you can do that, too. None of these dongles have Apple logos on them, you'll notice. The need for USB-C adapters is not unique to Apple.

A rather pathetic question I've encountered any number of times is "how can I connect my iPhone to my MacBook Pro now?" This is always accompanied by much sniveling. Well, dumb-ass, do you connect your iPhone directly to a USB-A port on your old MacBook Pro, or do you use a cable? You use a cable! How can you connect your iPhone to your new MacBook Pro? WITH A DIFFERENT CABLE! How hard is this to understand? Or if you're intent on using a hub or a dongle, use it with your old cable. Dork.

The dongle issue is self-limiting. Eventually people will wonder what the fuss was all about, and laugh at computers with ancient USB-A ports the same way we laugh at computers with parallel printer ports.

In the meantime, consider the new things you can do with these USB-C style ports that you could never do before.

For one thing, they're not just USB. They're Thunderbolt 3. Which means 40 Gbps bandwidth direct to the PCI bus. Which not only means you can hook up to insanely fast storage devices, but even equip your MacBook Pro with an expansion chassis. does nothing but create expansion peripherals for Thunderbolt.

And there are others, like AKiTiO, who are working to make their products work with the new MacBooks. Eventually there should be any number of vendors who support macOS for their PCI expansion chassis, which will make using a high-powered graphics card a reality. No longer will you be wedded to the built-in GPU.

In the meantime, even if you don't use Thunderbolt at all, you can now charge your MacBook Pro from either side, since any of the USB-C ports will accept DC in, and you can even power it from a portable battery charger or charge it in your car. You couldn't do that with the older MacBooks without an AC inverter. Stick that in your dongle bag and smoke it.

And if you ordered the bigger RAM version of the graphics card for your MacBook Pro, you can drive two 5K monitors, or up to four smaller monitors. That's pretty amazing for a laptop. Up til now, you had to go through some crazy hoops to drive more than two monitors from a MacBook Pro.


Now we turn to the Touch Bar, which has generated the most and least enthusiasm of all of the new MacBook's innovations.

When I first saw it, I was enthusiastic. I'm a geek and a fanboy, of course, and any new input device is always worth trying. My only real qualm was the absence of the physical ESC key, which I've already mentioned, and in practice it isn't an issue.

I can bring up the F keys by holding down the Fn button. I guess I'm a bit unusual in the way I use them; I have never memorized function key locations, and always have to look down at the keyboard to check which one I'm pressing, so having to look at the Touch Bar to select F keys is no hardship.

The one element of the Touch Bar that's univerally admired is the inclusion of Touch ID. Being able to unlock the Mac with it, and using it for Apple Pay or password authentication (in apps that support it) is a real benefit, and it's been a long time coming.

The default collection of system controls displayed on the Touch Bar is very useful. I particularly like the ability to hold my finger down on a volume or brightness button, which displays the slider, and then adjust the value without having to lift my finger from the Touch Bar. This is much more precise and fluid than tapping the hardware buttons and incrementally adjusting the volume or brightness.

There aren't many Touch Bar optimized apps yet. I'm very much looking forward to seeing the Adobe apps support it, as well as Logic Pro X. Evidently that's coming next year. The idea of having modulation and pitch bend sliders on the Touch Bar is terrific. It would make the MacBook Pro far more useful as a music production device. It will even be useful in the Microsoft Office suite.

Now that Xcode support for the Touch Bar has officially shipped, I'm sure more Touch Bar applications will be forthcoming. I'll opine again when I've had more experience with them. At the moment, though, the jury is still out. At least the Touch Bar hasn't negatively affected me in any substantial way.


I had a long discussion with my buddy Archie about this. He (and to be fair, most people) are convinced that eventually Apple will release a touch-screen enabled MacBook / tablet device.

I am skeptical.

For one thing, macOS is not really suited to use with a touch interface. iOS and macOS seem to be bleeding feature sets into each other, but I doubt that they will ever merge completely. General purpose computers have different needs, requirements, and capabilities that require a dedicated OS. Windows 10 does an okay job of merging these into a single unifed environment, but I emphasize the word "okay." I doubt that this kind of UI will ever exceed "okay." It imposes too many compromises for my comfort.

For one thing, Apple executives have gone on record saying that they've tried laptop touch screens and rejected them for a variety of reasons.

My opinion of current touch screens is that they're little more than novelties that require a great deal of design and ergonic compromise. I don't want to have to lift my hand up to a screen to move the pointer or click an icon. The Magic Trackpad has gesture recognition and is far more capable than a mouse at macOS UI interaction. I can left-click or right click, drag items around, invoke Mission Control to choose other virtual desktops, and even clear the screens of all windows so I can see the Desktop. I've even become pretty good at drawing with the Trackpad over the years, though I do have a mouse connected for use with Adobe Illustrator.

And as much as I appreciate the ability to use a pressure sensitive stylus (I love my iPad Pro and Pencil), I have no interest whatsoever in using one on a laptop screen. I am a big, big man, and I have heavy arms and exert a lot of pressure when using a pen or pencil. I am uninterested in the extra fatigue on my aging joints, not to mention having to pull the laptop screen back every time I nudge it away from me with a finger or a stylus. No, sir, no thank you.

The only touch-screen device I've seen that I am even slightly interested in is the Microsoft Surface Studio. It's designed like a drafting table. Smart. You can lay it flat on your table and use a stylus or a weird puck-shaped selector wheel thing. Although my first attempt to use it was a disappointment (the stylus is kind of sticky, and doesn't seem even close to the smooth sensitivity of a Wacom stylus or Apple Pencil at low pressures) I am sure this kind of device will be a success—in the studio.

Touch sensitive tablets make all kinds of sense to me. Studio-level touch sensitivity also makes sense, at least if the ergonomic concerns of long-term use can be addressed. Touch sensitive laptops? Not so much.

I think the Mac and the iOS devices will continue to be separate devices for the foreseeable future. It wouldn't surprise me too much if iOS inherited more of the features of macOS that are meaningful to laptop users: a user-visible file system with a browser like the Finder, for example, or a windowing system that supports a pointing device like a mouse or trackpad. Even that would represent a significant investment in time and energy. While Apple's still making big bucks on these devices, I don't think Apple will bother.

I am particularly dubious of the idea that Apple will follow Microsoft and other vendors down the road of a convertible MacBook / iPad hybrid. Given the emphasis Apple's industrial designers have put on making the MacBook more and more like a single solid-state object,

I would be shocked if Apple built a MacBook with a detachable display, especially with LCD screens. The weight of the batteries, the display and the glass would make for a very top-heavy design, not to mention a hinge capable of sustaining that weight that also includes a fairly sizeable (and potentially vulnerable) connector to dock it to the electronics of the base unit. This just doesn't strike me as anything Jony Ive would sign his name to. The Touch Bar, for better or worse, appears to be their nod to touch inputs.

However, given the relentless negativity of the press, perhaps Apple's future isn't so rosy. Maybe the ship will run out of steam. Maybe they'll have to compromise their design choices to make more money. Who knows? At the moment, Apple is still raking in the money. It will be interesting to know whether the critics were right, and that Apple didn't sell enough of these new MacBooks to justify the compromises they had to make.

I expect the new MacBook Pros will sell very well, though. I'll come back to this topic after the quarterly results are reported. In the meantime, I'm enjoying my new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar every single day.


Because the power budget doesn't allow for more than sixteen gigs with the current chip technology. It's as simple as that. Go to 32, and you slash the battery life. That's an unacceptable compromise.

In any case, with a 3 GB/sec bandwidth to the SSD, if you do manage to get the machine to start swapping, which is really hard, given the memory compression technology in macOS now, it will be swapping to a device that is super fast.


And that's all I have to say about that. I'll revisit the Touch Bar and battery life issues as I get more experience with the new machine. In the meantime, I am absolutely not sorry I bought it. I am also happy I was able to sell four older MacBooks to pay for most of it. :-)



“The Prometheus Option” is done!

I finished The Prometheus Option a couple of weeks ago and have been scrambling to fix the few remaining typos and omissions in the meantime.

I'm happy to say that the book is now final (assuming someone else doesn't find an egregious typo) and is available on the Amazon Kindle store:

If you're a member of Kindle Unlimited, you can read the book for free!

If you're not, you can purchase it for Kindle for $5.99. Pretty good bargain for this massive, 220,000 word opus. Don't let the size throw you: it's a compelling, fast read.

Some people still like regular old books! I do, too, except when I look at the sagging bookcases in my garage and think about what fun it's going to be when we move again.

The print version is still under review but will be available on Amazon soon as a 6" x 9" x 1.5" trade paperback, 632 pages, matte-finish cover, for $24.95.



Magic Trackpad 2 Review

The other day I picked up the new Magic Trackpad 2.

I wasn't tempted by the new wireless keyboard, primarily because it lacks a numeric keypad. I still use an Extended Keyboard, but the old version of the standalone trackpad was a source of constant irritation to me, in spite of the fact that I've fully adopted the gestures in preference to using mouse buttons. These days I can barely operate a mouse.

For whatever demented reason, the old model of the trackpad was impossible to click just anywhere on its surface. It had to do with the trackpad's shape. The "clicker", for lack of a better work, was in the leading edge of the trackpad, closest to the position of your hand. It used the cylindrical battery compartment at the rear edge as a fulcrum. The closer you tried to click toward the top, the harder it was to actually get it to click.

Worse, if you rest the old model of the trackpad on a soft surface, like I do—I use a cloth-covered neoprene pad as a wrist rest—if you ever want to engage the mechanical clicking mechanism, fuggeddaboutit. It ain't happenin'.

Apple put in a clever software workaround: a "tap to click" function that took advantage of the trackpad's multi-touch capability. With this option enabled, a feather-light tap, quickly withdrawn, was enough to trigger it. And the "two-finger" click, or "right-click" as my wizened brain persists in calling it, was a terrific option, too.

The new Magic Trackpad 2 is better in pretty much every way. Its angle is shallower, but it's substantially wider and smoother. It still supports all the old options of the original model, and it has Force Touch—the ability to press harder, and harder still, and engage two different actions without having to do any other selection operation.

I have yet to test this feature extensively. In editing this page, I find that the hard force-click on a word causes it to open a little definition pop-up window. Of course, I'm using a web browser, but I expect other interesting applications of force touch will eventually make it as indispensible as it apparently now is on the new models of iPhones. We'll see. At this point, it's just a nicer, wider trackpad. And I can use it perfectly well, even with the mechanical clicking action, with it resting atop a neoprene mouse pad.



80,000 and Counting

I'm making great progress on The Prometheus Option. Unfortunately it's going to be a monster, just like The Storm Winds Rise.

I just got back from PyCon 2015 in Montreal. My Python programming skills are only about seven months old, but I'm good enough that the introductory sessions were way too elementary, the intermediate sessions were on familiar topics, and the advanced sessions were either too advanced or not advanced enough. I didn't get much out of it. I doubt I'll go again.

Then I got a nasty stomach / intestinal bug last Sunday that kept me either in bed or in the bathroom for three days. This prevented me from doing the thing I really wanted to do at the conference: interact with the programmers and contribute to some open source projects. Dammit.

I did get a lot of writing done in the evenings and on the two last days of my stay, when I really should have been exulting in my restored intestinal fortitude and exploring the city. I did take a seven mile walk through the city on Thursday. I walked up and down the Mont Royal itself. From there I got a good view of the leafless trees and chilly, hilly countryside around the city.

On the whole, though, the only part of the trip that I can consider successful was the writing. It was just about the only thing I really wanted to do. Tourism isn't exciting when you're on a business trip by yourself.


The New Hotness


The New Hotness

I was a big fan of the MacBook Air (both 11" and 13" models), and had both of them. The little one was for trips, because it was... little. The bigger one was for everyday use. Then I went to work for Google, and I had no reason to use the 13" model anymore, because they gave me a newer one. I still use it every day, but only for work.

I wanted a powerhouse laptop for my own tasks. I do a lot of creative work and I need a lot of storage, RAM and CPU power. And occasionally, just occasionally, I like to play games. The MBA just isn't up to gaming. I've owned the 15" MacBook Pro before, but it's just a bit too hefty for convenient carrying-around purposes.

Rather than just let my old MacBook Airs (MacBooks Air?) languish in disuse, I decided to sell 'em and get a new 13" MacBook Pro Retina. And boy am I glad I did. The new machine packs 16 GB of RAM, a 1 TB PCIe SSD drive, and has a flatly gorgeous display. I packed everything from my old MacBooks onto it and a whole lot more, including every single one of my Steam video games, and I haven't quite used half of the storage.

I did a speed test of the disk. It reads and writes data at just under a terabyte per second. HOLY CROW! That is some crazy speed. And yet the machine is still small enough that I can carry it around with my work laptop in my backpack without discomfort.

Did I mention how gorgeous the screen is? Its native resolution is 2560 x 1600 pixels, but in everyday mode it displays the UI in 1280 x 800 mode. The pixel-doubling effect makes text ultra-sharp and much easier on my aging eyes. And when I need more real screen estate for whatever reason, I can set the display to native mode. I used VNC to connect to my 27" iMac the other day and it can display all of the pixels on that much larger display with room to spare.

I can't say enough nice things about the 13" MacBook Pro Retina. It may be the best laptop ever made. Until the next one, of course.



The Book

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