The Invisible MacBook

A thread of minimalism weaves through Apple’s products, starting with the Bondi blue iMac and flowing to the Apple Watch. One could argue that the minimal thread weaves back to the original Macintosh, a single, all-in-one device that made computing accessible, but I think the theme is most visible when looking at the modern age of Apple. Jony Ive’s designs have consistently focused on aesthetically pleasing, usable design. A concept that simultaneously puts the device at the center of our day, and almost makes it disappear. Technology is best when it is nearly invisible. The Apple Watch may be the culmination of this invisible tech, but it’s the new MacBook that I believe embodies the design philosophy of Apple best. When the lid is closed on the new 12” Retina MacBook, it’s so small and light that you hardly know it’s there.

I spent a half hour or so with the new MacBook at our local Apple Store today. I walked away from the device with two conflicting feelings: 1. the space gray one is probably the most beautiful piece of computing hardware I’ve ever seen, and 2. I’ll most likely not buy one. Not yet anyway.

The Case

I have an allergic reaction to cables. At work I’m lucky enough to have a Thunderbolt display that handles and hides most of the cables from me, so that I only ever need to plug in two things to my MacBook Pro: power and the display. Thankfully, both are part of the same cable that comes from the display, but even this I’d rather not have. The new MacBook seems to really get me, it’s simplified everything down to the absolute minimum of what’s possible.

The retina screen is beautiful, and the case is just big enough to hold the keyboard. It’s astonishing how small this computer really is. It’s comparable to the 11” MacBook Air, but feels to be only a fraction of the bulk, and yet the MacBook retains the solid and sturdy construction we’ve come to expect in an Apple product.

The Trackpad

I was impressed with my first experience with the new Force Touch trackpad on the 13” MacBook Pro. I had a hard time believing at first that the glass was not actually moving, and like David Sparks I was wondering if I was actually using the new trackpad or not. The trackpad on the MacBook felt almost the same, but there was something in the feel of the first click that felt off to me. It’s not to say that there was anything wrong with how it functioned, and the second force click worked perfectly, just as before, but the MacBook’s trackpad lost some of the magic of the one in the MacBook Pro.

It could be that I was surprised with how good it was in the Pro, and then expected it to be as surprising in the MacBook. It could also be that the particular models I tested were suffering from “demo version” syndrome, but I’ve rarely come across anything other than the best on display in an Apple Store.

The Keyboard

Apple made a big production out of their new keyboard design. The new butterfly key design provides a smoother, more consistent key press than the older scissor keys. As someone who types for a living, the keyboard is very important to me, and the feel of the keys makes a big difference. I’ve tried mechanical keyboards, ergonomic keyboards, and horrible PC keyboards, but I’ve always liked Apple’s aluminum bluetooth keyboards the best. They have the same feel as the notebook keyboards, with just the right balance of resistance and feedback. I know when I’m pressing the right key on a standard Apple keyboard.

I didn’t have the same experience with the MacBook keyboard. The keys are so close to the case that there is almost no travel when pressing down. The lack of travel makes it hard to tell if you’ve actually pressed the key, particularly when pressing one of the special keys like shift, option, or command. I typed out a few paragraphs in a few different apps on two display models, and repeatedly had issues not capitalizing a new sentence, or stopping to make sure I was hitting the right key.

It could be that the new keyboard will just take some getting used to. After all, the current line of keyboards was a change from the previous versions, but I think the current line is the best. I think if the MacBook keyboard stayed the same size, but increased tactile feedback when pressing a key, they’d have a winner. I didn’t have any issues with the arrow keys (I never use them), but I did notice that the esc key was too close to the top left edge. Vim users might find that annoying, most everyone else probably won’t.

Compromise

The MacBook is certainly a compromised machine, but the deals it make are for the better. Smaller, lighter, more invisible. Stashed away when you don’t need it, there for you immediately when you do, taking up so little space that you barely notice it. The MacBook might not be right for me now, but I’m going to give version two a very close look.