Apple had a slew of announcements at this years 2011 WWDC, and with that out of the way, I can start being picky about Apple’s choices, and the next generation “Retina” MacBook Pro seems like a good place to start.
One thing I admired about the “old” MacBook Pro’s design was the even Bezel all the way around the display. This provided a distraction free environment to work in and an overall balanced design. The New MacBook Pro has a slightly redesigned hinge where the display is mounted slightly upwards, possibly to allow for a slimmer chassis design. This means that the glass bezel is no longer uniform, makes the display slightly more distracting than other models.
It’s a small niggle, I know. But for a company which seems to care about the small details, it’s a big slip up to make.
When designing a slim device, the last thing you want are screws taking up valuable vertical space. Apple’s solution is to use adhesive to glue components to the chassis. The iPad 2 did this, and the Retina MacBook Pro does the same. However, the touchpad ribbon cable (a very delicate, and important component by the way) is wedged between the battery and the chassis, meaning that prying the battery out of the chassis carries a risk that your trackpad would stop working. Great. No surprise that iFixit gave the Retina MacBook Pro a repairability of 1/10.
When iFixit tore down the iPad 2, they didn’t like the battery which was glued to the chassis. Although Apple touts that the MacBook Pro is made out of highly recyclable Aluminium and Glass, it’s notoriously difficult to recycle bits of aluminium if they have hazardous batteries glued to them. And to add insult to injury, prying the batteries out carries a risk of puncturing them, breaking the electrolyte barrier and potentially causing an explosion.
The glass layer of the display is also fused to the LCD panel (like it is on the iPad 2/3). While this reduces glare and display thickness, it also makes recycling more difficult. While removing the glass on previous generation Pro’s meant prying a single piece of glass, on the new MacBook Pro, the panel comes out with it. Oh, this also makes repair costs a lot higher, should you be unlucky enough to shatter your display.
One of the things I admired about the previous generation MacBook Pro was the simple design. Looking at the chassis from a distance, it’s easy to forget how it works. Extraneous openings found on many other notebooks such as air vents are not visible on the MacBook Pro, and this adds to the simple and elegant design. It is not to say that the Pro doesn’t have a heatsink and exhaust, it does; but it is hidden behind the hinge away from sight.
So where does the previous MacBook Pro take air in from? Well that’s covered in this blog post. But put simply, most air is drawn through the ports on the left side. Ports are a necessity on a notebook (not even Apple can do without them completely), and using them as openings for air intake was an elegant solution.
The fact that the new Retina MacBook Pro has clearly visible air vents surprises me. Although I have little doubt that their prescence serves an important practical function, they also signify the powerful hardware inside the notebook, much in the same way that a powerful car has large exhausts or extraneous openings. This may please some people, but it spoils the pristine and simple image that Apple has created for it’s products over the recent years. It almost screams “The MacBook Pro’s design can no longer accommodate such hardware without making sacrifices to a simplistic design”.
Apple does justify the vents in their promotion video, claiming that they add structural rigidity to the device itself, I for one can confirm that anecdotally, the non-vented MacBook Pro’s are among the most rigid notebook chassis you can find on the market.
If I had it my way, I would fully advocate the asymmetrical fan design, but find a way to move the air intake to the ports. The Retina MacBook Pro has ports on both sides of the machine, and coupled with the dual fans makes this potentially a great cooling solution. Because the new Pro is designed in a similar way to the MacBook Air’s, most of the heat generating components are located towards the back of the machine, and if a cooling system like this could work on the Air, it should in theory scale up quite well in the new Pro.
Microphone Jack (or lack thereof)
The 13 inch MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air line doesn’t have a dedicated microphone port, and for the most part people don’t tend to complain of this missing feature reserved for the 15/17 inch MacBook Pro’s. It’s a shame however, that in a chassis which can physically accommodate a microphone port doesn’t have one. It’s a bit like the Lenovo Thinkpad U300, the chassis doesn’t taper, but it’s missing an SD card slot. This machine is likely to be used by people who need a dedicated microphone port, or whose workloads would be easier with one.
On the MacBook Air, soldered RAM (where the RAM “chips” are soldered permanently onto the motherboard instead of a removable module) made sense. The mechanism for holding/releasing RAM modules takes up vertical space and makes it a thickness constraint in a thin notebook, so it made sense on the Air. Plus, Apple thought that users of the MacBook Air would not need to upgrade RAM anyway, but on the Pro where users may decide to increase RAM due to the applications they are running, soldered RAM doesn’t make sense. For users who need more RAM than the standard 8GB, they need to make a pricey upgrade at the time or purchase, and those who didn’t upgrade will have to hope that their workload doesn’t require more RAM in future.
The older MacBook Pro’s gave users the option to add more RAM, and still maintained a sleek chassis. However, the old MacBook Pro design also uses stacked RAM modules which take up more vertical space. If Apple designed the motherboard to accommodate RAM side by side, this could save more vertical space allowing for a thinner chassis.
Proprietary (and Pricey) SSD
Thankfully, the SSD can be replaced by the end user. Compared to RAM and CPU’s, SSD’s are very unreliable and only have a finite number of read/write cycles before they become unstable, even with techniques such as garbage collection and wear levelling. Unfortunately though, Apple chose to use a non-standard connector for it’s MacBook Pro SSD, and while the connector is electronically SATA, the physical shape is not. Therefore finding upgrades or replacements could be more difficult and costly than replacing a standard hard drive. This is probably a way for Apple to ensure that this faster SSD is not swapped out by users and placed into last generation Macs, or vice versa, but in future I would like to see Apple stick to one standard of SSD connector, or perhaps even adopt an industry standard, making it easier for users to upgrade.
What it means for users today though, is that they have to commit to a pricey technology still in it’s infancy. SSD’s have a long way to go before they become anywhere as cost effective per GB as hard drives, and I would personally advise anyone thinking of an SSD upgrade to wait as long as possible, as prices are dropping all the time. The “older” MacBook Pro’s allowed users to upgrade to an SSD later on when prices fall/capacity increases. With the new MacBook Pro, users may never be able to have more than 768GB of storage on their MacBook Pro, while users of “older” Pro’s would be able to swap in >1TB SSDs in a few years time.
So there we have it…
The Retina MacBook Pro is possibly the most technologically advanced notebook of it’s time. It’s display resolution bests almost anything else on the market, it packs the fastest available mobile CPU, a high end Nvidia Kepler GPU and one of the fastest SSD’s you can find. In the process however, Apple has made some serious design/simplicity sacrifices, and this simply takes away from the “magic” of using an Apple device. The Retina MacBook Pro strikes an uneasy balance between the Pro and Air line of Mac Notebooks, too heavy and expensive to be an Air, but far too “soldered in” to be a Pro. The MacBook Pro line of notebooks have been renowned for their upgradeability and connectivity since the Unibody design came along. This new notebook doesn’t have that, but shares more of it’s DNA with the MacBook Air or iPad.
Personally, I hope this isn’t the direction Apple is taking. Integration makes vey impressive designs possible (the iPad probably wouldn’t be so thin and light if it had removable RAM and SSD for example), but there comes a time when too much is too much. Users only have to decide between different storage options for the iPad, but a MacBook is much more complicated as far as component selection is concerned. You choose the RAM, Storage, CPU and GPU. Integrating everything simply doesn’t make sense for the end user in a product as complex as this.
Images from iFixit and Apple’s Website.