Building notes, projects, and occasional rants

New Mac

I got a new Mac at work a couple of weeks back and I’ve been slowly moving my life to it. It is the new Macbook Pro 13” with a 2.9GHz i5 and Touch Bar. The only upgrade I did was bumping the memory to 16GB.

For comparison, my previous Mac was still a Late 2008 Macbook, fully upgraded with the unofficially supported 8GB and after market SSD (two in fact, replaced the DVD a year back with a second SSD). And yes, apart from the slowness (a 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo can take only so far these days…) it is still a perfectly good Mac, and I still use it on occasion.

The build quality on the new Mac is excellent with one exception. I don’t like the keyboard at all, it is too shallow for me. On the other hand, 99% of the time I use an external keyboard, so I can live with it. Still, I would trade a thicker laptop for a better keyboard. This is a “feeling”-thing. In actual use the keyboard is precise enough for my casual needs, I just don’t like shallow keyboards.

The screen is wonderful, but don’t get to enjoy it much because I mostly use the Mac with non-retina external displays. Compared to the old Macbook the difference is striking.

The SSD is wicked fast, it feels like magic, and I love having 8 hours of battery. This are actual real life number for my usage: text editors, Perl, a bit of Go, and a light Docker - heavy Docker cuts this to 5 to 6 hours.

The Touch Bar is useless to me. Even when I’m using the laptop keyboard, there is very little that the Touch Bar provides that makes my life simpler or more productive. As productivity enhancer, I don’t have many needs for an analog input mechanism. The only thing analog that I use in there is the sound and brightness controls, and I’m perfectly happy with the keys for those on my external keyboard.

I do really miss the Esc key…

I’ve thought about of exchanging this one with the model without a Touch Bar, but that one is inferior in at least two ways:

  • only has two USB-C ports: yes, this is relevant, see below;
  • the CPU is 30% slower, and even with the upgrade you don’t reach the less expensive Touch Bar model.

I also remember reading that the internal Thunderbolt is half the capacity of the Touch Bar models, but I don’t have the reference at hand at the moment.

So I’m keeping the four-port Touch Bar model.

Regarding dongles, yes, they are unfortunate, but I like the fact that I now have a laptop with USB-C 3.1 and TB3. I can plug some really nice external devices with this, and I don’t mind this dongle iteration. Over the years I’ve owned and used:

  • serial DB9 mice, DIN-5 keyboards, and parallel port printers;
  • DIN-6, PS/2 style, keyboards and mice;
  • USB-A, USB-B, and all the mini and micro variants;
  • SCSI-I, -II cables;
  • Firewire 400 and Firewire 800;
  • VGA, DVI, HDMI, and too many display port variants.

I’m not naive enough to believe that this will be the last interface type, but I’m hopeful that it lasts as long as USB-A did. If he can do that, at the physical connector level, I’ll be happy enough.

I mentioned above that I needed more than 2 ports. This is true. I currently have the following adapters:

  • a Multi-AV VGA adapter from Apple: VGA and one USB-A, plus power passthrough - this is a decent mini-docking station for the office;
  • a Gigabit ethernet adapter from Belkin: due to my work, a physical network connection is a requirement;
  • a external SSD USB-C 3.1 Gen2 enclosure: really really fast - and the best way to keep a set of large git repos and build tools between two computers - the speed is very good over USB 3.1 Gen2;
  • a Apple USB-C to USB-C connector: this one works, there are a lot of really bad dongles out there.

So I need at least three ports at the office, I can live with two during the weekend but I can’t connect to the external display at home. I might need to buy another AV connector there, but I’m looking into other options.

My hope is to see a decent 27” or 30” display, TB3, with two USB-A, a ethernet port, and hopefully one or two USB-C or TB3 ports. That would be the perfect docking station for me. The idiotic LG 5K is a TB3 monitor but has no extra ports!

One final warning: I bought a USB-C => 3x USB-A + Ethernet adapter at a local retailer (identical to this one but from another brand). This is a low-quality dongle. The USB-A and Ethernet ports work fine, but the moment you plug it in, the Wifi connection dies. This is most likely related to poor shielding somewhere.

In terms of build to order upgrades, I would recommend that you at the very least max out the RAM: you won’t be able to do it later, and a Mac with 16GB of RAM will last a couple of years more. If you do any type of virtualisation or Docker, you will see a big difference.

After the memory, it depends. I don’t value CPU power that much, the i5 I have is more than enough, but others might. I think my second upgrade would be bumping the SSD to 512GB if you have big iTunes libraries like me.

Now the big question: would I buy the new Macbook Pro again, or would I go back to the previous generation without USB-C ports? I think this is easy to answer:

  • if you are a true road warrior, moving from place to place, and with a myriad of connectivity scenarios, you will probably be better served with the previous model, without USB-C - you will save a lot on dongles to cary around and loose. I might change my mind if a small USB-C dock, with video (VGA + HDMI), USB and ethernet shows up soon;
  • if not, if you are mostly stuck to a desk or move between one or two places, I recommend the new one.

We’ll talk again in 8 years.