Marco Arment: Fixing the MacBook Pro

Marco Arment:

There’s a lot to like about the new MacBook Pros, but they need some changes to be truly great and up to Apple’s standards.

Here’s what I’m hoping to see in the next MacBook Pro that I believe is technically possible, reasonable, widely agreeable, and likely for Apple to actually do, in descending order of importance:

On the newer, butterfly keyswitches:

Butterfly keyswitches are a design failure that should be abandoned. They’ve been controversial, fatally unreliable, and expensive to repair since their introduction on the first 12” MacBook in early 2015. Their flaws were evident immediately, yet Apple brought them to the entire MacBook Pro lineup in late 2016.

After three significant revisions, Apple’s butterfly keyswitches remain as controversial and unreliable as ever.

No matter how you feel about the feel of the butterfly keyswitch, reliability and cost of repair are real issues. To me, butterfly or scissor design, Apple should stand by their keyboard design. If it’s true that the butterfly keyswitches are breaking far more frequently than their scissor predecessors, Apple should acknowledge this and extend warranty support for the keyboards, repair them free of charge for, say, two years.

On the placement of the arrow keys on the new keyboards:

The Magic Keyboard only needs one change to be perfect for the MacBook Pro: returning to the “inverted-T” arrow-key arrangement by making the left- and right-arrow keys half-height again. This arrangement is much more natural and less error-prone because we can align our fingers by feeling the “T” shape, a crucial affordance for such frequently used keys that are so far from the home row.


On Apple branded USB-C hubs:

Apple’s most full-featured USB-C accessory is downright punitive in its unnecessary minimalism: one USB-C passthrough, one USB-A (a.k.a. regular/old USB), and an HDMI port that doesn’t even do 4K at 60 Hz — all for the shameless price of $80.

Instead of giving us the least that we might possibly need, this type of product should give us the most that can fit within reasonable size, cost, and bandwidth constraints.

How can you argue with this?

USB-C is great, but being limited to 2 or 4 total ports (including power) simply isn’t enough. Even if you adopt the USB-C ecosystem, these MacBook Pros are more limited than their predecessors

On the Touch Bar:

Sorry, it’s a flop. It was a solid try at something new, but it didn’t work out. There’s no shame in that — Apple should just recognize this, learn from it, and move on.

Not sure I agree with this. As is, the Touch Bar might not be exactly right, but it is a concept that some people do find useful, even invaluable. I think of Touch Bar as more an early adopter work in process, a MacBook element that will evolve into something we all grow to love.

And on charging:

I’d like to see them bring back the charging LED on the end of the cable, and the cable-management arms on the brick. These weren’t superfluous — they served important, useful functions, and their removal made real-world usability worse for small, unnecessary gains.

Amen. I miss the charging LED, especially.

Thoughtful work from Marco, well worth the read, a terrific conversation starter.

  • john doofus

    There’s not much to disagree with in Marco’s article. The keyboard reliability issues are real. Getting rid of the inverted T arrows was a big mistake. I’m nearly a year in with the touchbar, and have yet to figure out what it’s good for. The screen is great, performance is excellent (for what I do at least), and touch id is nice. But overall, this generation of MacBook Pro gets a C grade from me (which becomes an F every time I deal with a stuck key).

    This is disappointing, because the last few generations were all A’s (I’ve owned nearly at least one of nearly every major redesign since the original G4 Titanium). But it simply has too many suboptimal design choices to rate higher.

    The issues with USB C have been much discussed. Things have not turned out the way the optimists claimed they would a year ago. Unfortunately, it seems to be a mess by design. How did anyone think that it was a good idea to have a bunch of different ports and cables that are physically indistinguishable but functionally different?

    The USB C only approach is sorta kinda defensible on the 13″, as the machine really is quite small as a result and I suspect a lot of 13″ users (like me) don’t plug stuff in that often. But I think Apple totally missed the mark on the 15″. It should have been a distinct design with more thought given to what actual pro users want, rather than simply a stretched 13″.

  • I know you are a fan, Dave, but you can tell when Macro’s being an ignorant tool because his lips are moving.

    As such, the article is not worth addressing point-by-point. In fact, I’m done reading his shit.

    • Janak Parekh

      The post has some merits. It is, as usual, his tone and certainty that’s the turn-off.

      I like how he says Apple must use the scissor switches from the Magic Keyboard. Or, he ignores the fact that the Magic Keyboard, which he lauds and presumably uses with his iMac, doesn’t have the inverted T layout.

      I do agree about the Touch Bar and the lack of good USB-C peripherals, though.

      • john doofus

        He talked about the magic keyboard because of the switches, not the layout. Pretty sure he uses an ergonomic Microsoft keyboard.

        I’m equally certain that the current MBP keyboard sucks and needs to be fixed. In less than a year this keyboard has given me more problems than the all the others I’ve used combined over the previous 15.

        • Janak Parekh

          Oh, you might be right about the MS keyboard, although I vaguely remember him ditching it in a recent ATP…?

          The sad thing about the new keyboard is I, personally, really love its feel (and don’t find the lack of an inverted T problematic at all; I prefer the new symmetric design). But, its sensitivity to dirt and heat tolerance is indeed ridiculous. In my case I luckily don’t have to push the CPU often (at which point the T and R become sticky), and one otherwise sticky key was easily solved by compressed air.

          This is the kind of thing where I think Apple’s product secrecy hurts. If you only use a new product in closed labs, not in the real world, you probably don’t run into this stuff nearly as often. Now we have to wait for 2 years for the next iteration.

          • john doofus

            Maybe he changed and I missed it. But with all the great external keyboard options in the world, why would he be using the Magic Keyboard? The non-inverted T is really awkward for text editing. Feels like a case of visual symmetry winning out over usability.

            Once Apple makes a decision it usually goes all in, which for the most part is a policy I think is good. But the new MBP keyboard was a big mistake. Laptop keyboards were a solved problem. Not sure why Apple had to unsolve it.

          • Janak Parekh

            As someone who uses Atom, emacs, various web applications, etc., I find the new arrow layout fine. But it definitely sounds like it is for a lot of users. I do think Apple likes the symmetry of the new design; it’ll be interesting to see where they go with it.

            As for “why,” Apple likes to re-invent everything. Partially for thinness. Partially because it’s always what they’ve done; they have decades of experience in keyboard design and redesign. They were the ones to (re)popularize the chiclet design years ago, and now almost all other laptop vendors adopt it. Clearly, they thought this new design was the next future step.

      • Yeah, I thought I’d miss the inverted T. I don’t. In fact, I find the full height left and right arrows much more useful.

        But that’s as close as I want to get to going through this point-by-point, because he’s being Marco.

  • Tom_P

    Surprisingly I agree with him on every points. By “agreeing” I mean I’ll buy that machine in a heartbeat with no complaint upfront.

  • sleepcountry

    If anything, I feel that the Touch Bar is a great non-pro feature. It’d be great for my parents who don’t touch type and don’t remember keyboard shortcuts.

    The problem is, customers are accustomed to paying more for pro features, and how does Apple charge more for an “amateur” feature?

    Also, I think it’s rather telling that there’s no Touch Bar coming with the soon-to-be-released iMac Pro.

  • rick gregory

    Yawn. few good points but he makes the mistake of both overgeneralizing about what people need and failing to support things like the Touch Bar being a flop. Just a couple of points:

    The 13” MacBook Air can connect to power, two USB devices, Thunderbolt, and an SD card simultaneously. Its replacement, the 13” MacBook “Escape” (without Touch Bar), can only connect to two total devices on battery, or one when powered.

    This is checkbox feature comparison-itis and ignores the advantage of generalized ports. Yes, the Air can connect to 2 USB A devices. And only two. Thunderbolt? Yep. But only one. Don’t need to connect a Thunderbolt device? Need to connect 3 USB devices? 1 USB A and 1 microUSB? Don’t care about the SD slot? Tough shit. You’re stuck with all of those ports and with them in THAT combination. That was partially the reason for moving to USB-C. You have 2 or 4 ports and they can adapt to what you need as you need it. The main issue here is that you should have 4 ports, not 2 on any of the models.

    On the Touch Bar – I don’t use it (I actually grabbed the model without it) and doubt I would. However, I’m not generalized from my lack of need to everyone. Some people use it (I have a friend who presents a lot in her job. She likes the TB a lot) others don’t. Flop? Not a flop? No idea. But Apple likely knows where as neither I nor Marco really do.

    Several of the other points are real issues (the keyboard) or picky ( the charging light). However, I bet the majority of people who style themselves as “Pro” users would trade all of these for 32G of RAM.

    The point of moving to USBC wasn’t just a new, uniform port, it was also that they eliminate the discussion above. You can connect all of those things

  • ericdano

    Marco’s whole “shtick” is getting old. I listen to ATP, but only for Siracusa. Marco makes everything a superlative in his statement. He is so sure of X, Y and Z that there is no doubt. I seriously skip any podcast he is on. I sorta wish at the next WWDC that Phil Schiller would serve Marco some STFU Juice…..

    As an owner of a 2017 Macbook Pro without a touch bar, I love the machine. I had a 2015 Macbook Pro…..and do not miss it one bit. The 2017 is faster, lighter, and has better battery life than the 2015 (which I did replace the battery on). Do I miss the ports on it? Nope. Perhaps miss the “Maglite” power charging….that would be about it.

    The keyboard is worlds better. When I go back to an Apple Extended keyboard or any other keyboard, I feel like I’m going through mud. The action on the Macbook’s keyboard is great. I wish they’d do a new Keyboard for the iMac/MacPro that has the same feel.

    • Janak Parekh

      Yeah, I’m getting frustrated with listening to Marco’s rants on ATP. He’s quite an intelligent guy, and when he talks about development of Overcast it’s interesting, but he’s so CERTAIN of everything. Casey also does not push back hard enough on Marco, he often seems quite unsure of himself. I’d love for some of the certainty to flow to Casey.

  • Mo

    I’m in agreement with some of what Marco prefers for himself, if not most of what he declares in absolutes.

    Were I to buy a new MBP tomorrow—and I’d want it to be a 15″—I could get used to the Touch Bar.

    But the new keyboard: not so much. I have a certain way of typing, and while I quickly adjusted from big old-style keys to the newish wired keyboard’s shorter travel fairly easily, I’m not happy about the idea of having to adjust to those butterfly keyswitches.

    The current state of one-port-many-differences USB-C ports: not really. I’ve commented on this site before about the nonintuitive foolishness of having to figure out which USB-C port is meant for what.

    If I was buying tomorrow, I’d likely get the 2016 model. I can carry another half pound.

    • on USBC, this isn’t an apple failing, it’s how usbc was developed. do you expect the industry to change it next year to different plugs?

      • Mo

        I expect Apple to at least label capacities of different ports, if not wait to implement the standard until it’s better defined.

      • Cranky Observer

        It isn’t the customer’s problem that the spec is bad or hard to implement: it is the designer’s problem to make it work transparently and well for the customer. Given the brilliant job Apple did with the Lightning connector (which is IMHO 4 orders of magnitude better than micro-USB) they clearly understand this – or understood it at one time.

  • Cranky Observer

    To me the key point is: were the name simply changed to MacBook, with the promise of a real Pro model in the near future, then 80% of the deficiencies could be understood/explained. If the current model is Apple’s understanding of “professional” then there is a problem looming or already upon us.

    • oh nos! doom!!

      • Cranky Observer

        That’s a helpful addition to the discussion.

  • marco being a whiny entitled rich guy, yet again. techie echo chamber, yet again.

    • john doofus

      iPad Pro, the price bumps that came with this generation of MPB, iPhone X, the $5K+ iMac Pro…. Apple’s pretty clearly going for the entitled rich guy market, so they probably should listen.