Apple Watching

Apple Watching

When you consider activities that contribute the most to battery drain on your smartphone (or any computing device, really), there are certain activities that rise to the top.  These include:

  • Playing a highish-end game (anything 3d, or intense 2d… think Vain Glory, or Asphalt 8)
  • Using GPS, the cellular radio(s) for talking or largish network traffic
  • Powering the screen for extended lengths of time (e.g., doing email for HOURS)

If you expect to do any of these things with your Apple Watch, or have the fundamental expectation that you should be able to do any of these things on your Apple Watch in the future, cancel your order.  Order an armband for your phone, strap your phone to your wrist, and be eternally happy.  It is clear that Apple focused on a handful of really important concepts when they created the Apple Watch.  Time and battery life being chief among them.

The Apple Watch is aptly named.  It is not an iPhone on your wrist.  It is not an iPod on your wrist.  It is a watch… first and foremost.  When the Apple Watch eventually runs out of power and it resorts to powering down all major functionality, one function remains until it dies: showing the time.  Why?  Because it is a watch, and that is what watches do.

And yet the Apple Watch is all of these things.  It can do calls and messages.  It can do music.  It can do “apps”.  It has more out-of-the-box functionality upon initial launch than any other Apple product to come before it.  And perhaps because of this, Apple pundits have been head-faked into wanting the Apple Watch to be what they expect it to be, while completely missing the essence of what it already is… an extension of not only your iPhone, but an augmenter of what it is to be human in the connected age.

Let’s get down to business.

The Watch Itself

The fit, finish, and feel are superb.  Apple has taken all of its mastery of materials and craftsmanship and distilled them down to this.  Any other ‘smart’ watch feels cheap in comparison.  But yet for all its beauty and refinement, the watch body is not the star of the show from a physical feel standpoint.  The real star(s) here are the bands.  If there were a trojan horse argument to be made about the Watch, it’s in the selling of these bands.  And boy are they going to sell a lot of them.  It’s clear that an equal (if not greater) amount of time and thought went into crafting the Apple Watch bands as the body itself.  The Sport Band is a revelation.  I have numerous watches in my collection, and the Apple Watch Sport Band is by far the most comfortable.  After that, the milanese loop is a close 2nd.  Then come the rest… all with equally smart features, comfort, and self-adjustability.  If Apple is going to disrupt anything in the Watch market, it is doing so starting with these bands.  Even if the Watch fails, the bands have already succeeded, and Apple should be applauded for these.

The screen is good.  Really good.  It’s OLED, and it will get washed out in the bright sun, but only when its directly reflecting into your eyes.  Otherwise its quite readable.  I found myself putting the screen on the brightest setting, but I do that with nearly all my screens, watches or not.  The feel of each of the buttons are good, and the haptic feedback that accompanies the digital crown can sometimes fool your mind into thinking that you are physically reaching the end of a scrolling point, which is quite trippy.  Navigating the watch is initially confusing. Read the watch tips that come with the device.  Then read them again 24 hours later.  You’ll get it, but it boils down to this:

  • “Home” is the watch face
  • Swipe down for notifications
  • Swipe up for glances (tidbits of info, that can link to their respective apps)
  • Press the crown for watch “apps”
  • Press the button next to the crown to access your friends list (think, ‘important contacts’ for your Watch)
  • Double press the contacts button to initiate Apple Pay
  • Press in and hold the digital crown to initiate Siri (she won’t beep, but you’ll feel a couple taps… after which you can start talking)

Beyond this, you’ll eventually learn all the nuances of Watch navigation.  You can keep pressing the crown in to eventually get back home, or double-press to switch to your last opened app.  Hard-press the watch face to access secondary features, akin to a ‘right click’.  Because there is no indication of when a force-press is available (and rightfully so, I think), you’ll find yourself force-pressing everything until you learn where it is applicable.  Give yourself 2 or 3 days to get acclimated.  Oh, and then there are the settings.  Use the Watch app on your iPhone liberally.  Take an afternoon and go through every single one.  Learn what they do.  You’ll thank yourself later.

The watch has a speaker, a mic, and the wonderful Taptic Engine, the latter of which is responsible for the gentle taps you’ll feel on your wrist.  Clanky vibrations these are not.  Nice, silent taps.  Like a friend letting you know something happened… gently.  I kept the Watch’s sound on, but I turned the volume of them way down.  I find this setting helps reinforce the haptics, and I find the (now) gentle sounds pleasant.  Dictation is remarkably accurate (probably due to the proximity of the Watch’s mic to your mouth, in conjunction with an improved Siri/dictation back-end Apple has recently released), but you’ll also be frustrated if and when you have no signal for your phone nor any wifi – the Achilles heel of the digitally connected age.  The speaker is loud enough to carry on a conversation when you are in Dick Tracy mode, but you’ll have to hold the watch closer to your head to hear and be heard… like Dick Tracy.

The Watch faces are well thought-out, and most are customizable.  Get to know them, and enjoy the nuanced details they exhibit.  The astronomy face is particularly smart, and you can find yourself getting lost in the sun’s position, the earth’s rotation, the moon’s waxing and waning, or even our position in the solar system.  Fascinatingly smart stuff.

Apple’s built-in apps are useful, and work well.  The timer, stopwatch, and Siri abilities are all great.  Pro-tip: if you have trouble launching apps from the tiny app screen, just use Siri instead, ala “Launch XYZ”.  Much easier in a pinch.  Also, when utilizing the rather good Maps integration, a consecutive tap-tap-tap-tap-tap on your wrist means turn right, while the more measured tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap means turn left.  You’ll get used to it.

Apple Pay on the Apple Watch is confusing at first.  There is a setting to ‘mirror your iPhone’ for payments, but then you still have to add your credit cards to the Watch separately using (get this) your iPhone.  It makes complete sense from a technical security standpoint… but not to grandma.  This needs to be cleaned up a little.  Otherwise, it’s quite a magical thing to listen to a podcast while you ride your bike (tracking your heart rate, speed and distance) to Starbucks, buy a DoubleShot on Ice, call mom, reply to a few texts, and then send a penis drawing to your best friend – all without taking out your phone.  Not even once.  I don’t know what the future holds, but I feel like a part of it is on my wrist.

Reconnecting Humans

Go out to dinner with your friends.  What do you notice?  Well, if you have the shit quality of friends that I have, inevitably at some point in the evening someone will pull out their smartphone because they got a text, or email, etc.  It doesn’t matter what it is… something buzzed, and they must attend to the buzzing.  They attend to it, and because their attention is already diverted, they start attending to other things on their phone as well.  Maybe they check their email… perhaps a quick Twitter scan.  And thus we have the precise moment when the cancer takes hold.  Others in the group are reminded that they too may have had a buzz in their pocket, perhaps it’s time to check it.  And just like that, everybody is buried in their phones.  The fear of missing out digitally, spreading like a disease while they ironically miss out on what brought us all together to begin with.  Make no mistake, technology is the master that has enslaved us all.

So how can (yet another) connected device make this… better?

Notice I called my friends ‘shitty’ for doing this.  But is it really their fault?  Well yes… but not entirely.  You can’t reasonably expect people to ignore the realities of modern life.  People have kids.  People have jobs.  Life is important, and it stops for absolutely nothing.  So the reality is you simply cannot expect everyone to ignore their phone if it buzzes, dings, or rings.  The problem with the phone is that there is a physical and cerebral investment in attending to it.  Unless it is (rudely?) in front of you on the table, you probably have your phone squirreled away in a pocket or purse.  Tending to it requires that you adjust your body to take it out, turn it on, (potentially) unlock it, and then read, discern, and finally handle whatever it is that began this chain of events.  During that process, your mind can (and will) become distracted and placed on a different train of thought.  You are now in the machine.  To get back to what you were doing would now require a conscious decision to do so, and a near equal amount of effort to reverse this chain reaction.  It sounds dramatic, I know.  Just put down your fucking phone, right?  But why so often do we find ourselves in this exact position… over and over again?

It is in this reoccurring scenario that we find benefit #1 of the Apple Watch.  When tuned properly (see my tips at the end), the Apple Watch is the bouncer at the club.  Only the prettiest and most important get past him.  The rest are turned away… forced to come back another time.  When the watch taps you (notice, I said tap, not buzz obnoxiously), nobody notices it but you.  The screen doesn’t turn on.  It won’t make any noise if you don’t want it to.  It just taps, and that’s it.  If you decide that you can afford a simple glance at your wrist, the Watch will turn on, showing you a brief notification of exactly what just happened, and who or what may be involved.  If you stare at it a half second longer, the notification gives you more details… the first few lines of text, or perhaps the subject of the interruption.  At this point, you decide what you want to do.  You can simply turn your wrist away, and the notification is shelved for later (a friendly red dot as the only reminder that it is still waiting for you).  But tap it, and you can read the entirety of the notification.  From there, it’s one more tap to dismiss, reply, etc.  Quickly replying is a breeze.  Apple Watch predicts a few canned responses that may be appropriate to the question at hand (and you can even set your own custom phrases you often use), or you can dictate a custom reply right there utilizing the Watch’s built-in mic.  The Watch cannot handle anything more complicated than that, by design.  It allows you to handle what’s going on, without being so involved as to wreck your train of thought, or completely distract you from your loved ones.

When you are spending time with your family and close friends, this ability to filter, discern, turn away, or quickly address is invaluable.  If time is money and relationships value, the Apple Watch will pay for itself in a few days.  It’s really good a this.  It may very well save your marriage.

When we apply all of this to the original dinner scenario, the Apple Watch becomes the Terminator sent from the future to prevent your shitty friends from pulling out their phones to begin with.  Helping keep us connected to not only our immediate surroundings, but to those far away as well… Efficiently.

Yet, is there a danger that instead of staring at our phones, we instead stare at our watches?  Well yeah… but not really.  Remember, the watch is first and foremost a watch.  It’s limited in its capacity by design.  You can get lost in the Watch for the briefest of periods, but you quickly run out of runway.  It’s not a phone replacement, and thank the multiverse for that.  If it isn’t already apparent, the Watch’s focus is now coming into view.  Keeping us communicating with both near and far.  Being present without mental barriers or choosing one over another, while at the same time giving us choice.  And speaking of communication…

The Apple Watch also includes the ability to communicate in ways that have never existed in a mainstream product.  Namely, taps, heartbeats, and (as I alluded to earlier) little drawings.  It’s easy to trivialize this as kitschy, gimmicky, or just a series of penis drawings, but it’s much more than that.  The fact that I can send my wife a couple taps to let her know “it’s time to go”, is priceless.  It’s the modern day equivalent of the codeword, and I love it.  Physical and visual communication without even having to be in the same room, or pull out your very obvious phone.  Very cool… and this will be the runaway feature of the Apple Watch once it hits critical mass.  The biggest problem for a 1.0 release? – The limited circle of friends that you’ll have to choose to be on your Watch contacts ring (the contacts button accesses this ring, which is how you initiate taps, drawings, or sending your heartbeat, and it’s limited to 12 friends currently).  You may roll your eyes now, but it will be the most used feature of the Apple Watch… I guarantee it.


The Apple Watch tracks your heart rate, steps, how often you stand up, and a few other metrics.  Generally speaking, it’s very accurate.  It does all of this throughout the day (the heart rate measurement is more spread out, taking a reading every 10-20 minutes or so).  When you start a workout, it starts tracking your heart rate in realtime, and augments its movement tracking with the GPS in your phone (for outdoor activities, such as running, walking, or cycling).  As a fitness device, this is among the best I’ve used.  In all of my tests, it accurately tracked my walking steps, heart rate, cycling distance and speed (in conjunction with my phone on the cycling metrics), and even my caloric expenditure.  If there were anything lacking, it’s in the companion fitness app on the iPhone.  It breaks down your recent workouts, but it doesn’t give me enough details over time.  I’d like to know what my heart rate and cycling speed were plotted out along my ride time, for example.  It doesn’t do that yet.  Luckily, 3rd party apps do (Strava, e.g. – though their latest update which includes an Apple Watch “app” is absolute shit, and needs work), but I want to see it built-in.

Having your heart rate at the ready is something I never thought would be all that useful, but I find myself checking it periodically throughout the day, and I am gaining insight into my own health and habits as a result.

The Apple Watch will also remind you to move periodically (if you allow it to), and will show you summaries of your physical movement and fitness goal progress at settable intervals.  It does a good job (again, after tuning) of bringing your overall fitness activity into focus, and I have no doubt that those who invest in the metrics can and will get healthier.  All good things.

Despite all the fitness tracking it does do, inevitably the #1 complaint for the Apple Watch (from a fitness standpoint) will be that it does not have a built-in GPS (and hence relies on your iPhone for GPS tracking).  I think this came down to a very practical decision on Apple’s part. If the Watch had built-in GPS, and you turned on GPS tracking for an hour or two, it would likely affect the battery life enough to cause battery anxiety with the Watch, which nobody would want.  I think the efficiency of the Watch internals will improve in the next version or two, and GPS will likely be included when they can afford it from a battery perspective.  Speaking of which…

The Battery

In the week I’ve had the watch, I’ve used it daily for approximately 14 hours a day.  I reply to nearly all text messages from it (30 – 40 or so, per day).  I send multiple taps, heartbeats, and drawings from it.  I usually add in a 2 hour bike ride in the late evening (for which I use the ‘outdoor cycling’ fitness tracking).  In short, I don’t hold back using this thing, but I don’t stare at the screen for hours at a time either.  I’m busy, I’m on the go, and I dick around with it like any tech person would.  My battery life has never gone below 30%.  Hop in the fighter jet and land on the carrier, because as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to battery life, Mission Accomplished, Apple.

The “Apps”, room for improvement… and a potentially serious hardware problem

I keep “apps” in quotes because (at least for now) 3rd party apps on the Apple Watch are not true apps.  They are restricted extensions of apps for the iPhone.  The fact that these Watch apps are called “apps” at all is a point of contention for me.  It sends the wrong signal.  I expect apps to be fast.  These are anything but.  Apple’s apps are fast, but they are truly native apps for the most part.  3rd party apps are not, and are entirely driven by their iPhone counterpart.  They rely on your phone to power them, even for basic user interface interactions.  And not unlike controlling the Mars rovers from Earth, there is always going to be some lag. Just how great this lag factors into the particular Watch app’s usability depends on the smartness, ambition, and restraint of the developer.  For the few that get it right, the apps can be very useful, and fairly responsive… even quick at times.  For the ones that get it wrong… well, I hope you like loading circles, because you’ll see a lot of them.  And this is where we hit our first major bump in the road.

For the most part, Apple Watch 3rd party apps fall into the latter category of laggy suck.  Developers simply haven’t figured out what the Watch is, or what makes it special.  I think that some developers were likely anticipating the Watch being the 2nd coming of the great app gold rush, and they didn’t want to miss out.  That thinking is a mistake.  Apps should be small augmentations of their iPhone counterparts.  A 2nd screen to make the original app more accessible, or somehow better.  Yet many try to shove the entire app onto the Watch (Instagram), or in some cases, the Watch counterpart simply doesn’t work at all (Strava).  But there are a few gems that get it right (Uber… Overcast).  For this reason, don’t allow the Watch to install anything and everything.  Resist the urge and be selective.

As far as that potentially serious hardware problem… that lies in the Taptic Engine.  The Taptic Engine is the thing that taps on your wrist.  It is the heart of the Apple Watch’s interaction with you, and is the most critical organ of the Watch’s internals.  It can also be overloaded and induced into an ear-piercing distorted screech.  If a fellow Watch user decides to send you some taps in a very rapid fashion, the Taptic Engine on your watch simply won’t be able to keep up.  This manifests itself in a distorted, and audibly screechy (albeit very brief) sound, and you’ll feel like your watch is breaking.  It isn’t good.  Apple needs to limit the taps-per-second that the Taptic Engine can try to reproduce…  a rev-limiter, if you will.  Let’s hope this comes in a future update before teenagers all over the world are murdering the ears (and red-lining the Taptic Engines) of their friends and family.

Conclusions and Tips

If you are looking for a way to wrangle your life in a positive direction, want to spend more time gazing into your wife’s eyes, or simply don’t want to be a shitty friend… Consider the Apple Watch.

If you want to do email on a 1-inch screen, find your way home without your phone, or want to watch Netflix on your wrist…  Move on.

As for me, avoiding the throngs of distraction presented by my vampiric succubus time-sink of an iPhone is worth the price of admission alone.  I’m more present, and yet it doesn’t cost me anything from a reachability standpoint.  Never again will I be that shitty friend who buries their head into their phone, instead replaced by a quick-glancing, fast swiping, tap, swipe and BOOM back at the gazpacho dip kind of friend.  I think we can all agree it’s an improvement.

And did I mention how damn comfortable the Sport Band is?  It’s not rubber… its some kind of buttery velvet space material sent from the heavens.  I’ve never worn a more comfortable band, and I’ve never been more comfortable with a tech product before.  Apple has done what heretofore has been inconceivable for me… a tech device that saves me from my tech devices.  I’m sold.

Tips for setting up your Apple Watch:

  • Don’t install any apps or glances at first… slowly add apps, and then glances as you learn how to use the watch, and you figure out what is important to you.  Less is more.  Trust me.  Add apps and glances one at a time, and try them out before you commit to leaving them installed.  Most apps are utter shit, as developers don’t know what the watch is yet… but luckily you do!
  • Similarly, pare down your notifications.  By now you should have already limited what apps push notifications to your phone, but if you haven’t, start there.  Then be even more discerning for what you allow to ping your watch.  Then get rid of more stuff.  I don’t even have email pinging my watch, for example.  It’s just not that important to me.  Only allow the important stuff.  The rest can wait for when your wife isn’t talking to you about her day.
  • Take your time in choosing and customizing your watch face.  Resist the urge to create the ‘everything’ face where it has calendar events, the moon phase, and the battery life indicator, etc.  When you glance at your watch several times a day, you don’t want to be reminded of how busy your life is.  Let go if you can.  Simplify.  Jellyfish.  You’ll thank me later.
  • Change your watch face often.  Have a weekend one.  Have a Monday one.  Have a Disneyland one (that part is easy).  You’ll find yourself using your watch differently for different occasions. This is a good thing.
  • Turn off the ‘stand up’ reminders, but keep the fitness progress summaries.  The ‘stand up’ reminders are annoying, and they aren’t too smart yet.  I agree they are healthy, and useful, but its one more hourly reminder I don’t need just yet.
  • Learn the navigational tips and shortcuts.  Apple documented them in the booklet that came with your Watch.  Learn, young padawan.

The heir of the Air: A review of the 2015 MacBook

The heir of the Air: A review of the 2015 MacBook

Greetings, primal human. I have been sent from the future to warn you of things to come, yet bring glad tidings and reassurances that things will get better.

If the 2015 MacBook could talk, it would probably say those exact words. This machine is from the future. The not-so-distant future, mind you, but the future nonetheless. It is the point on the horizon that all other high end portable laptops will converge at, and all other frigate laptops will watch, adapt, and learn from. Watch it unfold… as it is guaranteed.

The moment you actually hold the MacBook in your hand, you understand. The lightness, the tinyness. WTF that retina screen… it’s the best looking screen I’ve seen. “How is it that they could even craft something like this”, you will ponder. Like holding your first born child in the delivery room, you really can’t imagine the gravitas of what it is until it poops on you.

And then you start using it, and that’s where the road forks. One road stays on the flatland and heads home… “It was a very pleasant ride folks, but here’s where my journey comes to and end” some will say. The other road soars up into a lofty mountain, and the adventure is only beginning. As I have witnessed with everyone who has used or reviewed this machine, you will find yourself on one of those two roads. Lucky for me, I’m still bustling along up the mountain. Not to say there aren’t bumps, rocks, the occasional landslide, and a very scary ledge that is ever-present… because there are, but dammit if the ride isn’t well worth the risk.

Enough with the metaphors, analogies, an flowery prose. Let’s get down to business.

The Keyboard

The keyboard is a revelation. If you ask any techcore person what their favorite keyboard was growing up, it will always come down to some flavor of IBM, or an Apple Extended II, etc. A number of companies have sprung up in trying to replicate what people loved about those keyboards, which if you ask them what exactly it is they are trying to replicate, one adjective will always be mentioned: tactile-ness or tactility. This MacBook keyboard has that in spades. The clicky, tactile feel of this keyboard has instantly made it my favorite. It was like moving into a new home with a great fireplace and all the furnishings you love. You may not know where everything is yet, but you know it’s home, and you can’t wait to live there. Oops, another analogy. Apple has increased the surface area of the MacBook keys and added a slightly larger concavity as opposed to any other keyboard they still produce, while at the same time slightly decreasing the space between the keys. Despite the larger surface area, the stability of the keys are higher than any other keyboard I’ve ever used (these key’s don’t “rock” or swivel about), and the travel length of the keystroke seems like it may be measured within a single millimeter or two (this is the part most folks will need to get used to – your fingers simply don’t need to push down as much to register a stroke). Once the keystroke is at the end of its extremely short journey, it’s met with an extremely satisfying metallic yet somewhat subdued ‘click’. It’s not really clicking from a switch in the traditional mechanical keyboard sense, yet there is definitely audible and mechanical feedback. Let me explain: If you type softly, your fingers will feel the clicky, tactile feedback of a key registering, and it feels wonderful. Audibly (again, at soft strokes) there is measurable sound, but not obnoxious… it’s very friendly. As you really start banging out words, the clicky feedback audibly increases, but never annoys. The feedback is a welcome delight with such short travel, and (at least for me) the frequency of hitting a key and having nothing happen are nearly reduced to zero. With less space between the keys, larger hands will perhaps find themselves with a slightly steeper learning curve on knowing just how far away the next key is, however the larger keys themselves help keep the slope small. Despite the fact that this keyboard is purpose-built (keeping the laptop impossibly thin), I’d like to see this exact configuration show up as at least an option for our desktop friends, though the likelihood is slim. If I had this keyboard in college, the carpel tunnel would have never reared its ugly head. Those were the days, and this is the keyboard.

The Screen

It’s a retina screen. If you’ve owned an iPad or iPhone from the last few years, you are already spoiled with Apple’s exacting standards. For a laptop, the pixels feel closer to the glass than any other previous model I’ve owned. For comparison’s sake, my last lappy was Apple’s latest 15 inch MacBook Pro with retina screen. This screen surpasses that in both color rendering and general looks. Despite this being Apple’s smallest retina laptop screen, it never feels cramped (especially if you opt for the ‘more space’ display setting), and having the pixels close to the glass (coupled with the reasonably svelte and deep black bezel) somehow makes it feel bigger. It makes the Macbook Air screens (and bezels) feel like 1980’s computing. And for me, the return of the ‘MacBook’ moniker on the bottom of the screen is a welcomed nostalgia-tickler. I have more proof than ever that Yosemite really doesn’t shine unless you are using it with a retina screen, and the system-wide fonts really look magnificent on this one. The black levels are approaching near OLED, and it feels like I’m seeing some of my photos clearly for the first time, matching my minds eye of how they looked when I took them. This screen gives new life to sites like 500px, or Flickr… prepare to fall in love. And prepare to want a Leica. That’s just how it works, I guess.

The Nobel Prize Winning Trackpad

Wait… you are saying the person or team who invented this trackpad didn’t win a Nobel Prize? Well I guess it makes sense as they probably phased that out in the  year 3030, which is where this trackpad came from. This ish is SPACE. It is NUCLEAR. It is NASA before the funding cuts. Did I mention it doesn’t actually move? You can click it. You can click through it. You can experience multi-level clicking for the first time in the history of man, yet it doesn’t actually move. This trackpad is the greatest single innovation in human-computer interaction since the invention of the mouse itself. Nothing I say can accurately articulate the mind-blowingness of this piece of technology. You won’t believe me when you try it… you won’t believe your own mind. But once you realize the trackpad is fooling your finger, body, mind, and soul into thinking it actually ‘clicks’, you’ll never trust this Matrix world again. But the trickery also has a very practical use: 3-dimensional input. At it’s most basic level, you click down, and then continue pressing further down to a 2nd click (which, by the way, feels ‘deeper’ and stronger than your initial first click), and then the word you are clicking “through” is instantly highlighted and defined for you, through OS X’s built in dictionary. Very useful… and much easier than highlighting, right-clicking, and then clicking ‘Look Up …’, as was the old way of getting a word’s definition. This deep-click is just the beginning of 3-dimensional computing interfaces, but wow oh wow, Apple should be commended for this. It’s a big deal.

The Port

Lol… the port. That lonely port. Never has more been written about a sibling-less port than the single USB-C port on the new MacBook. OH WAIT, this MacBook’s great grand-daddy, the ORIGINAL MacBook Air, also suffered through such speculation, punditry, and persecution. Well, the Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree I guess. Yes, the MacBook has only one port, used for both charging, and peripherals. There is also a headphone jack, but that’s it. Nothing else for your $1300. Want more ports? Fork over $80 until the myriad of aftermarket USB-C extendo tchotchkes flood Amazon. If there were a legitimate complaint to be made against the MacBook… THIS ISN’T IT. Personally, I get it. The MacBook is a return to the definition of Apple’s vision of the ultra-portable in the modern age. The future has no ports, only magic. And this laptop has just enough magic to warrant the original vision of the Grand Daddy Air. You have to be practical when evaluating a device for your personal use. It is no different when it comes to port speculation. When was the last time you plugged in a printer, scanner, memory card reader, or anything into your laptop? Why? Is it because that’s the best way, or is it because it is just familiar? For me, ports were already on the way out. Some ports on my Retina 15 were completely virgin. For printing, I AirPrint. Same for scanning (my printer is of the wireless variety, and supports OTA printing and scanning). I haven’t used a USB drive since DropBox first arrived on the scene. I might miss the lack of a memory card reader, but for that one day out of the quarter that might need it, the adapter will be fine. For all other days, there is AirDrop and iCloud Photos. What about Time Machine backups? My Airport Extreme with attached USB drive takes care of that for me, over the air. If you haven’t figured it out, I’m about neck deep into the Apple Ecosystem. I have an Airport, I use iCloud, I use AirDrop, I use AirPrint. For everything else, there is Dropbox or a dongle. I don’t miss a beat, and more importantly, I don’t miss any ports. I am the poster child for Apple’s vision of the future, and I will enjoy it while others whine about it.

I did have a giant concern about that one port, however. To understand my concern you should first understand my love of MagSafe. MagSafe was the greatest invention ever for powering laptops. Somewhere within MagSafe lie the secrets to peace on earth. Yes, it is that great of an invention. Almost as good as the new trackpad. With MagSafe, Apple eliminated the fuss of plugging something in, or the consequences of tripping over said plug. With the MacBook it’s now gone, slayed as part of some strange sacrifice for this newfangled USB-C. I had concerns that I would miss MagSafe too much, or worse, that this USB-C would be like every other experience I’ve ever had with plugging in anything USB… which is to say, it has always been somewhere between awful, and thoughts of suicide. I worried that even though this new USB is supposedly reversible, would it still behave like the snaggy weird toothy mess of a “Shiz, I think I just broke it” experience like micro-usb? What would it feel like? Nothing can replicate the pure joy of pugging in a Lightning cable, right? That satisfying snap and solidity? Well, dear readers, I’m happy to report Apple’s implementation of USB-C in the MacBook is pure joy. It feels even clickier than a Lightning cable, and not at all flimsy, or off-putting. It has a very satisfying tactile-ness to it that puts it on par with the keyboard, screen, and trackpad. In other words, it fits, and I’m not going to miss MagSafe, nor long for the Lightning. It’s totally fine. Not to mention it’s a very attractive connector. I thought there could never be another Lightning… but I was wrong. But what about cord tripping? As it turns out, I think Apple made the right choice. The MacBook is light. Essentially 2 lbs. Basically the same as an iPad 3. To have MagSafe not be annoying, it needs a reasonably strong magnetic connection. With the MacBook being so light, that magnetic connection would probably be just strong enough to drag the MacBook off the table on a slow pull, yet would probably work properly if it was a very quick yank. So it’s a tradeoff. If you have the weight of an iPad, why not give it the same power connector, since MagSafe wouldn’t be 100% optimal anyway? Plus the single port is cleaner, and fits the vision of the device. In a coin toss, the vision side of the coin was slightly favored. MagSafe lost, and it’s not a bad decision.

The Battery

Like anything with a depleting source of energy, it depends on how you use it. Even a Hummer can get respectable gas mileage downhill. If you are editing 1080p videos in iMovie all day, it’s not going to cut The Mustard for very long. If you are typing a review about said product, you’ll get through most of a practical work day without issue. This is no 13 inch MacBook Air. But on the flipside, this is no 13 inch MacBook Air. The MacBook looks like paper sitting next to any Air, or especially its Pro cousins. It’s thinner than an iPad Air with an aftermarket keyboard. It’s nearly the same x/y dimension as the 11 inch MacBook Air, yet has an even larger retina screen! The physics have to give somewhere, and they do on battery life. Practically speaking, look for around 6-7 hours of solid work. It’s not bad, but it’s not magnificent. A newer Intel chipset should push the battery life into Golden Child status next year, or sooner. Until then, it’s not exactly in a bad spot, and should not be a deal-breaker for anybody who’s considering this laptop. It’s good enough. If you long for workhorse status, you have no choice but the 13 inch Air anyway. Would I have battery anxiety on a 6 hour flight? Not really, unless I was using the laptop during any part of the 3 hour pre-flight TSA molestation, while subsequently losing once again at musical power outlet, immediately prior to the pre-board cow culling ceremony where only the strong survive the 90 minutes of standing before getting on a plane built in the 70’s. I love flying. The terrorists won.

The Power

My 1.1 ghz MacBook feels fast, most of the time. Large complicated applications take longer to load than on comparable systems with faster processors, but it’s not overly dramatic. The fast SSD helps mask whatever slowness the Core M processor exhibits. When it does feel slow, it often feels like it’s not strictly due to the CPU. The noticeable problems often feel like they lay with the GPU. The graphics processor can comfortably push around these retina pixels for most tasks. Word processing… scrolling in Safari… these feel and are great (If they didn’t, this thing would be DOA. Luckily, they are fine). System-wide animations in OS X also feel right most of the time. Expose, Launchpad, notification center – they have the appropriate framerate to not feel crappy, if just barely. But if you have 10 largish applications open, Expose will drop its framerate to passable, which is annoying and disappointing for the hypercritical side of me. Framerate drops also manifest if you happen to dock your Application folder. There is the occasional chuggy-ness when expanding Applications in Grid view, but this specific use-case has felt slow on other machines I’ve owned, including the 2013 iMac that didn’t have a discreet GPU. That’s no excuse however… these folder actions and animations are 100% smooth on the MacBook Pros, modern Airs, or other machines, especially if they have discreet graphics. But on the MacBook, animation smoothness runs the gamut from mostly butter, to passable, to chuggy. It’s nit-picky given this is an ultra-portable. But it’s an Apple ultra-portable that starts at $1300. I’m putting the framerate drops on blast. I don’t expect 120 fps at all times on this tiny machine, but expanding a list of folders shouldn’t be chop suey either.

Now while system animations might be the subject of scrutiny, oddly enough video playback is not. I’ve streamed 60fps 4k vides on youtube and nearly had heart attacks at how beautifully smooth and vibrant the images passing before my eyes were. When I die, I want ‘birds of prey 4k 60fps’ flashing before my eyes… preferably on this very MacBook 12-inch retina screen.  Yet it isn’t too long before Jekyll goes Hyde again.

When loading up a reasonably sized image in Pixelmator for editing, scrolling around the image taxed the GPU, and the framerate suffered a little. It’s passable, and won’t affect my workflow too much, but it’s these instances which bring you back down from the clouds as you are forced to recall, “Oh yeah, this is a Core M processor”, even if it is the GPU portion that is likely at fault. Apple needs to pressure Intel to step up its built-in graphics prowess. For anything but watching video, this isn’t good enough. I don’t care if it’s an ultra-portable. And even though this on-board GPU issue affects other Macs as well, it is in the MacBook where it is most manifested. Apple, figure it out.

Conclusion and Recommendations

This is Apple’s most ambitious laptop since the original MacBook Air, and it is an obvious nod to that machine. It is a direct descendant. The heir of the Air. A bold, pricey, not-for-everybody-and-not-ahsamed-of-it kind of laptop. It’s the laptop Steve would have made, which is perhaps ironic, as it’s the first truly new lappy since his passing. And whereas the world of the original Air was not quite socially or technologically ready, now, with the ecosystem that Apple has built, this machine has a place.

Yeah, it’s not perfect. It probably won’t be for at least another generation or two. And there is no way I could survive if this was my sole machine. But dammit if I wouldn’t love to attempt having this thing be my main squeeze. And that’s what’s so fun about it. It’s got moxie, and you just want to root for it. There is so much here that Apple may change or kill, and I hope all of it makes it (minus the crap GPU… kill it with fire).

If you buy one laptop every 6 years, and/or this is your main machine for everything, be all end all, skip this and get the MacBook Pro.

For those of you who want the most portable retina display money can buy, and don’t play hardcore 3d games or edit 4k videos, this is likely a great fit.

For those of you on the fence… to a point, the decision to buy the MacBook cannot be distilled by reason. It is an artistic decision. When you behold a Seurat in person, it either moves you or it doesn’t.  Go to the Apple Store. Hold the MacBook in your hands. Type on its clackity keys. Push through its magic trackpad vortex. Behold that beautiful screen. At the end, you are either one of us, or you’re one of them.

So gun to my head: punt or purchase? Isn’t it obvious?  For me, this is automatic. Purchase. This is Apple’s glimpse of the future, and I am voting with my dollars to express my approval. I love the slaughterhouse port murdering, keyboard upheaval, and drastic power restrictions that show Apple can still make the bold moves. Moves no other company dares to make for fear of facing the wrath of people who wouldn’t buy the product anyway. Good on you Apple. Stick to your guns.  I don’t want to see two ports in your next stab at the future, I want to see none.