For several months in 2016, I simmered away idle time by refreshing Apple rumors sites in anticipation of any news about the new MacBook Pro. I’d use my MacBook Air, a 13-inch model with grimy key surrounds and a top covered with largely aspirational brand stickers, which had done its duty ably for four years before starting to give polite little coughs to indicate that it, like all things, would die. Or I’d use my iPhone, spry and newborn and just a little too large to clutch without fear.
To pine for an unreleased computer is a healthsome vice. You enjoy all the twitterpations of consumerism while rolling up little boogery rationalizations to place on the scale: I use my computer to work; I use my computer to talk to my friends; I have ignored temptations of minor upgrades with saintly patience, to be now blessed by an upgrade that will improve my glowing portal experience in several concrete ways. I recommend it. Anticipation is the cheapest thrill, and it’s amusing to watch yourself mentally Marie Kondo your future computing choices.
The new MacBook Pro is not a bad computer, but it isn’t a great one. Certainly not for the price, which matters the most, frankly, and which I will never mention again. Mine, preordered as soon as the Apple store came online, is a handsome Space Gray. It is tidy and geologic, restrained. It follows the generational path worn down by Apple for two decades or more, more Colin Chapman than Steve Jobs: simplified, then lightness added. Less isn’t more, exactly, but less is enough.
It is a computer, a very good one, probably still the best one, when viewed within the concordant philosophical and aesthetic frameworks. MacOS, like the MacBook Pro itself, provides the sturdiest place to hang your art. It’s a gallery with properly kerned placards, maybe a little sterile, but predictably and comfortably so. A little corny, trying a bit too hard, but clearly an environment built with its inhabitants in mind. A great place to sip some wine out of a plastic cup and critique television shows and then turn in early. Technically, it animates and spatially manages its windows more reliably, with a visual tactility that few other operating systems have historically matched, especially in a desktop OS. (There is ancestral kinship between how MacOS appears to feel and how iOS appears to be felt. It was no surprise, in retrospect, that the only computing company that prioritizes animation detail so highly in its window manager made the first mainstream touch devices.)
I miss MacOS very much, now that I’ve left.
If MacOS is trying very hard to hide a man behind a curtain, Windows 10 is handing out “You’re In Oz Now, Motherfucker” T-shirts. Hit the Start button — it might be the Windows button now, I’m not sure — and a wall of animated “Live Tiles” appear alongside the names and perfectly square program icons. One tile is advertising some software to buy. Another is showing Ed Sheeran doing something on Twitter. One, about the size of a quarter, is letting me know that Obama looked sad at some point and that people were killed in a nightclub attack, but with an animation that indicates these two events are not related. A box beside the Start menu holds Cortana, the voice assistant (fine, about as useful as Siri, so not very) and is permanently labeled, “Ask me anything,” even if I have nothing on my mind. Scrolling with two fingers can provide wildly different movement depending on which app I’m using, or if I’m using the touch pad or the touch screen or a mouse. I can touch the screen and my fingertip does the same thing as a mouse, mostly, or I can undock my screen and use it as a tablet, which causes Windows 10 to switch into a different mode that emphasizes fingertip and pen interaction, which works pretty well, but not as well as iOS.
It’s a big mess. I like it a lot. It’s fine. It’s charming. It’s not restrained in the least. Some new, modern programs still look like ‘80s software with tiny, cluttered menu bars and yawning Times New Roman text areas. Some programs slap giant beautiful photographs behind their workspace, for some reason, so that your to-do app can have the same tasteful setting as a recent college graduate’s first couch. Some apps are what are called “games,” which are fun experiences that teach you about your emotional weaknesses. If MacOS is a midtown gallery, Windows 10 is a machine shop in a youth pastor’s den.
What it mostly is, though, is ambitious, especially on Microsoft’s own hardware. Microsoft’s laptop, the Surface Book, can do all sorts of things, including unlatching little metal cables that hold the screen to the keyboard, which is genuinely incredible the 90 percent of the time it works and guaranteed to impress exactly no one, no matter how many times you interrupt their conversation to show them.
Apple mentors its users. It provides a path through a gloomy forest, a route that has historically led through a series of confidence-building challenges every few months, grooming customers into proficient users of Apple products. A Mac owner puts one hand in Apple’s, and is guided. Here is a web browser. It is simple, but powerful. Here is how you listen to music, or make your own. But what about? No, you can’t do it that way. Not yet. But if you wait a while, and prove that you can do it the way we think is best, we may let you try it another way. We might even take that idea you thought you wanted, and give you something even better.
Windows is a carnival in an open field staffed by drunk orphans. You can approach it from any direction, pulling a cart you first loaded up in 1998. There are signs posted everywhere, telling you a dozen ways to move forward. “TOUCH THE AMAZING SCREEN!” “BEND THE HINGES … ON A LAPTOP!” “SEE THE PEN! IT WORKS NOW!” “DARE YOU SAMPLE THE DELIGHTS OF THE CLOUD?”
Carnivals are confusing, mostly disappointing, and huge fun. They may not be the best place to learn how to build your own ride — so many distractions! — but nobody will stop you from trying.
There are plenty of arguments for Apple’s journeyman-user methodology. It is, above all, comforting. To know that your tools are of good quality and preordained by a master allows you to focus on your work. I think this is why the new MacBook Pro is disappointing: It indicates that our teacher may not be leading us where we should go.
More than the lack of legacy ports (annoying) or the abandonment of MagSafe (criminal), it’s the Touch Bar that gives pause. It isn’t bad. It isn’t good, either. It’s a compromise, and not in the middle-path way to which Apple has traditionally hewed. It’s filigree on a hammer. It doesn’t hurt anything, really, except the cost, but it doesn’t make it better at driving nails. It makes me wonder if the Apple leadership team actually uses Macs anymore. I’m sure they have nice iMacs on their desk; they may even check their email using Apple Mail from time to time when they aren’t on their iPhones or iPad Pros. But do they live out of their laptops, like I believe most people still do? (Or at least, tautologically, as most people who buy laptops do?) It’s hard to square it. The latest MacBook Pro seems to be made for people who use their laptops as a second-tier computer, even if Apple’s stated design principle for Mac versus mobile is to keep them delineated. The Touch Bar is a timid answer to “Should touch be on a computer?” It’s a sighing “Eh, I guess,” while Windows 10 is — for better and worse — replying “We don’t know! You tell us!”
It was my MacBook Pro’s battery, and not the multiple hard crashes, that finally unwove the illusion. The battery is too small, even if, practically, I rarely use a laptop off the plug. Unlike many, I actually do want my laptops to get smaller, lighter, and thinner, and am even willing to trade some capability to get it. Not much capability, mind you, but a little; I’ll fuck with a weird keyboard, sure. It was Apple’s response to the complaints of poor (or at least confusing) battery life that soured me: When MacOS’s battery widget was reporting inconsistent predictions of time remaining, Apple simply removed the widget. It’s such a small thing, but it was enough to make me waver, to ask the question that any supplicant should always ask when told that their complaints are trivial: Are they looking out for themselves or for me?
I’ll almost certainly buy another MacBook, especially if future iterations can give me back the rationalization that paying so much money allows me to have the best computer. (The best for me, of course; the person who does not need to play videogames on his laptop, for example, because he is going to write a short story or record a pop song.) But in the meantime, I’m enjoying a new type of anticipation which for now only seems to be available in Windowsland: that someday, despite the funfetti working environment and Homermobile nature of the hardware, I may actually be on a path that’s going somewhere not just new, but better, or at least more exciting.
Oh, last thing: Even though the MacBook Pro doesn’t have MagSafe, the Surface Book, amusingly, does. However, the Surface Book’s magnetic power plug is on the right and not the left, which as any MacBook user can tell you is objectively wrong, because all our couches are on the left side of our living rooms.