14 Apr 2015

Getting the Tradeoffs Right With the New Macbook

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but not on any hardware-related teams, and in any case, these are my personal opinions.)

Reviews for the new Macbook are out, and most of them recommend against buying it. The consensus is that Apple made too many compromises, and while this may be an excellent machine to buy an year or two from now, it isn’t now. As The Verge put it, the future is not here yet.

What might have Apple done to make a less compromised machine?

A lot of reviews are turned off by the limited connectivity the Macbook has: only one USB port.

Apple claims that it makes more sense to connect things wirelessly. But that’s not true outside Apple’s walled garden. In fact, it’s not true even in Apple’s walled garden: when I upgraded iOS, it told me that it turned off Wifi sync and that I should plug my iDevice in to my Mac to re-enable it in iTunes. Well, how would I do that if I don’t have the appropriate cable? Even if I wanted to buy a Lightning to USB type C cable just to work around Apple’s flawed software, Apple doesn’t sell one. The obvious solution is to let me enable wireless sync on the iDevice itself, but Apple doesn’t let you do that. Apple should get things working wirelessly in its own ecosystem before it claims that you can connect wirelessly.

Even if wireless connections worked in Apple’s ecosystem, they don’t work outside. This is critical for a laptop. A big part of the appeal of a laptop is its versatility and interoperability. Few people want a laptop that’s as limited as an iDevice. Compromise that, and you have a crippled laptop.

For example, why can’t you use AirDrop to send files to or receive files from an Android phone or a Windows PC? Or manage an Android phone’s filesystem using a file manager UI, without having to plug in a cable? Apple should have worked with Google and Microsoft to make this happen. Or, since Android and Windows are open platforms, Apple could have made Android and Windows PC apps that enable AirDrop. No need for Google’s or Microsoft’s permission or co-operation.

The point is: if Apple claims that it’s fine to have a laptop with only one port and you should connect wirelessly, they should actually make it work. Otherwise you end up with empty marketing talk and a compromised laptop.

Another example is AirPlay: why doesn’t every TV, monitor and speaker system support AirPlay? It has been around for 11 years yet hasn’t been widely adopted, instead stagnating as a niche technology. Apple should work with all OEMs to have AirPlay work in all or most of their devices. License it far and wide. Don’t charge a licensing fee. Remove contentious terms, if any, in the licensing agreement that are not really needed for a great user experience. Apple should set itself a goal of having 1 billion AirPlay devices sold in the next 12 months [1].

Since the Macbook is supposed to work wirelessly, Apple should have made LTE standard on the Macbook. Not an option that you pay extra for, but standard. Not only that, the Macbook should come with an Apple SIM. In case you’re not familiar, an Apple SIM lets you sign up for a plan right on the device, and deactivate or switch providers any time, including when you travel. Apple should pay for LTE service for three months, say with a 10GB per month limit. After three months, you should be able to leave it enabled and have data use on the Macbook accounted for as part of your existing plan, rather than having to pay extra. Nobody wants another bill to pay, and nobody wants to add another fixed cost to their monthly expenses.

Apple should build an OS-wide compression service that compresses data transfers for all apps using Apple proxy servers on the cloud, to make the most of your cellular quota. This should work without the need to upgrade those apps, since that defeats the purpose [2].

No matter how great wireless works, there will be a need for wired connectivity. For example, devices like external hard discs and USB drives don’t have a battery. And the last thing you want is yet another battery to charge. Or having your filesystem corrupted because your hard disc ran out of battery midway through a transfer. Or you may prefer wired headphones so that you don’t have to charge them. Another reason for wired connectivity is performance, to avoid the lag you’d see when you connect a Mac to a monitor wirelessly. For all these reasons, whether or not wireless is the future, which is debatable, the Macbook should work well today, and that means supporting better wired connectivity.

To begin with, Apple should have replaced the headphone port with a second USB type C port. On a machine with only one USB port, wasting the second port for headphones is crippling. Instead use that space for another USB type C port.

Apple should bundle USB type C headphones with the Macbook, so you don’t lose anything. In fact, Apple should make them noise-canceling, because you need power for noise-cancelation, and USB supplies power in addition to data (audio). This will be more convenient to use than having a battery in your noise-canceling headphones, which would be yet another battery to charge. And if you forget to charge it, not only do you not have noise-cancelation, but some noise-canceling headphones don’t work even as ordinary headphones. Apple can solve these problems by shipping noise-canceling headphones with a USB type C jack. Turn a drawback (lack of a headphone port) into an advantage (it works better than a headphone port).

Apple should also update its own hardware to natively support USB type C. Where’s the Apple USB Display? Why wasn’t the wired Apple keyboard updated for USB type C, with an adapter for old-style USB A [4]? Why isn’t there an affordable 2TB hard disc, and pen drives in various capacities? Why aren’t there a range of external battery packs for phones, from tiny credit-card-sized ones to normal-sized ones that can charge a phone fully, to larger ones that can charge a phone multiple times? Apple should have gotten the ecosystem ready.

If you have only a wired mouse, you should be able to use your iPad as a trackpad. Apple should have made a Trackpad app for the iPad.

Apple should have also bundled cables which connect the Macbook’s USB type C port to commonly used ports: DisplayPort, HDMI, USB type A, micro USB and Lightning. Yes, all of them, free with the Macbook. Apple should get out of its usual habit of ripping customers off with expensive cables, like ₹1500 for a Lightning cable, when I can probably buy a micro USB cable for ₹100. Given the high price of the Macbook, to begin with, charging a lot of money for cables only serves to discourage people from buying the new Macbook. Most people don’t want to pay through their nose for a limited laptop, and then again pay through their nose for each cable [5]. So make the commonly used ones free.

These are all cables I’m talking about, not adapters. It’s more convenient to use a cable with the appropriate connectors on both ends than it is to use an adapter, because you need to plug the cable into the adapter and then plug both ends into the devices on either end. Apple should not make adapters.

In addition to bundling cables for commonly used ports free, Apple should also make available, for a price, cables for less commonly used ports or older technologies, like micro USB 3.0 (the ugly cable that looks like two smaller cables glued together), mini USB, USB type B (the squarish ports used by printers, for some reason), Ethernet, Firewire and DVI. And an adapter for SD cards. If you’re buying a Macbook, in addition to getting cables for commonly used ports for free, you should be able to buy cables for these less commonly used or older ports. It doesn’t matter who makes these cables — Apple or a third-party — as long as you can include them in your order when you buy a Macbook online or at a physical Apple store. Without the ecosystem in place, the Macbook becomes a crippled laptop.

Even with all these cables available, the Macbook suffers from having only one port. To begin with, Apple should have replaced the headphone jack for another USB type C port, as I said. Beyond that, they should have bundled a USB hub. This needs to be powered to work properly — you can’t connect multiple high-power USB devices like hard discs and phones to an unpowered hub and expect it to work properly, because a single USB port doesn’t supply enough power. So we need a powered USB hub. But Apple already includes a device that plugs in to mains and has a USB port — the charger. Apple should have given it four USB type C ports, with two supplying enough power for the Macbook, one for your yours and one for a friend’s. And two others supplying the standard 4.5W USB power, say for hard discs. And when you unplug the charger from AC, it becomes an unpowered hub, drawing power from the Mac. With the cables I mentioned above, you will be able to use the hub to connect a monitor or TV. In other words, it will be three devices in one: a charger, a powered USB hub, and a dock. And it will come free with your Macbook. This would have addressed a lot of the concern about having only one port.

Moving on from ports, many reviews also find the processor under-powered. Rather than offering three processors, with the fastest one commanding a premium of as much as $450, Apple should have made the fastest processor (1.3Ghz) standard. Remember that these are all low-power CPUs to begin with, so going even slower is a bad idea. Include the fastest fanless CPU you can find.

Apple should have also made 512GB of SSD standard, given that it will be inconvenient to connect an external hard disc to the Macbook, given that there’s just one USB port, and even that is not USB-A. So, making 512GB standard would have addressed that concern.

Including the fastest CPU and the most storage standard means that there will be only one model of Macbook. Which is perfectly fine to get started. Apple can always introduce another model six months down the line, rather than making them too skimpy and risking rejection. In other words, make one good model rather than one good model and one crappy model. Apple can always figure out later how to add another model without making it crappy.

This leaves us with the final issue: price. The name indicates that it’s the Macbook for everyone. Well, it needs to be priced accordingly, by which I mean no more than the Air or Pro, which are themselves expensive laptops. Unfortunately, the new Macbook costs $150 more than the Air (comparing models with 8GB memory, 512GB storage and the 1.3Ghz CPU for the Macbook). Apple should have reduced the price of the Macbook by $150.

And that’s assuming Apple includes the commonly used set of cables, as I suggested above. If you need to pay more for cables, then the price of all the cables you commonly use — DisplayPort, HDMI, USB A, micro USB, Lightning, SD card — should be factored in. The Macbook should be no more expensive than the Air even including the price of all these cables.

Apple should have followed these suggestions, or similar ones, and thereby avoided making such a compromised laptop that almost no review recommends. Product design is about compromises. Make too many of them, and you end up with a product that’s hard to recommend. I’m surprised that Apple seems to have gotten so many things wrong on the new Macbook. Each of them excusable in isolation, but not in aggregate, resulting in a compromised laptop. Apple should have followed the suggestions above to make a laptop with fewer compromises.

[1] Replacing all the monitors and TVs and speakers in the world takes years, maybe a decade. In the interim, Apple should make an AirPlay app for OS X and Windows desktops that let them receive a stream from a Macbook. After all, if you have a desktop with a large screen, you should be able to use it wirelessly as a second screen for your Macbook. Ideally, the monitor should be able to directly receive a wireless stream, just as it has ports for wired connectivity, but replacing all the monitors in the world takes years, maybe a decade, so in the interim, we need an app running on our desktop computers.

[2] Apps should be able to opt out from data compression, but the default should be to compress data. This option would be useful for privacy or confidentiality reasons, or if an app already compresses transfers, like Dropbox. But the default should be to compress data.

[3] Apple’s Thunderbolt Display doesn’t work with the new Macbook, given their intransigence at not supporting any video input but Thunderbolt. Apple shouldn’t repeat this mistake again — make an Apple USB Display that supports USB type C, DisplayPort and HDMI.

[4] As long as Apple continues making the wired keyboard, it should support type C natively.

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