I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Bothered about some design decisions on the new MacBooks

One of the reasons I’ve decided to hold off on a laptop upgrade is that Apple has made a number of questionable design decisions with them.

The buttonless trackpad
I’m not entirely sure who, exactly, had ever complained that Apple’s trackpads had too many buttons. I appreciate the goal of minimal design, but this isn’t elegant at all: it requires a lot of hardware and software tricks to work properly, and it still doesn’t. It’s incredibly unreliable, missing a lot of clicks. (Buttons never had this problem.) Supposedly a software fix is coming soon, but we don’t know if it will actually solve the problem, or if the problem can be solved without a hardware redesign. Why was this change necessary, adding tons of complexity (and more weight, I bet) at the cost of reliability, to eliminate an inconsequential part of the design that never bothered anyone?

Glass screens
Note that I’m not complaining about glossy screens. I used an original 13” MacBook for almost 2 years, then switched to an Air, both with the “old” kind of glossy screen with a plastic overlay, and it never really bothered me. But the new screen overlays are glass, which makes them much more reflective — and they extend over the entire bezel around the screen, significantly increasing the reflective surface area. This pushes the glossy surface solidly into the “offensive” range. Even more significantly, the glass seems much heavier than the plastic, especially on the 15” MacBook Pro. This makes the screen lid unnecessarily and disproportionately heavy, even to the extent that it sometimes closes or flops down unexpectedly. (This very well could be the reason why the 17” version has been delayed.) Again, I wonder why this was necessary. Nobody ever complained that the screens weren’t reflective enough or were too lightweight. Apple may have been going for the environmental angle, but I don’t buy it — I think it’s because Steve Jobs* has a crush on the aluminum-and-glass combination, and they think it’s cool enough to ignore the obvious practicality problems.

* Normally I wouldn’t attribute a company’s decisions to individual executives, but in this case, I believe that this is actually the reason, and Steve in particular has enough power to dictate that sort of thing and a history of doing so.

In both cases, Apple has clearly sacrificed usability, practicality, weight, and complexity for a questionable upgrade in visual appeal.

While nobody was asking for these improvements, they were asking for the usual laptop upgrades: smaller size, lighter weight, and better battery life.

Battery life is a wash: while the chipset uses less power and the 13” finally benefits from an LED backlight, Apple also shrunk the batteries, presumably to offset the additional weight of the aluminum case and glass screen. The aluminum case is very nice and has practical benefits (better build quality, durability, and long-term wear resistance), but the weight of the glass screen could have been saved. That may have been an extra hour of battery life.

The 13” MacBook did indeed benefit from an overall reduction in size and weight. It’s a great improvement over the plastic MacBook, and the gains are enough to offset the annoying screen and trackpad for most new buyers. (If you already own a working plastic MacBook, though, there’s no rush to upgrade.)

But the 15” MacBook Pro retained its size and weight, has almost the same general performance, and kept the same battery life (or slightly less, depending on whose benchmark you see). It’s not a compelling upgrade: buyers get very little benefit in exchange for tolerating the screen and trackpad.

It’s terrible that we have to search for justifications to tolerate new design choices. And with Apple’s design cycle, we’re unlikely to see any improvements on these for at least 18 months.