Many of us have been talking our way around this issue for the past week without directly confronting it, so I feel like now’s as good a time to address it as any: Apple’s new MacBook Pro laptops are not designed for professional use.
This should come as no surprise to those who’ve long perceived the Mac platform as inward-looking, limited in compatibility, and generally worse value for money than comparable Windows alternatives. Pros are smart with their tools and their money, after all. But the change with Apple’s 2016 generation of MacBook Pros is that those downsides have been amped up — more expensive and less compatible than ever before — to an extreme that exposes the fallacy of the continued use of the Pro moniker. These are Apple’s premium laptops, its deluxe devices, but not in any meaningful way computers tailored for the pros. A MacBook Pro is now simply what you buy if you’re in the Apple ecosystem and have a higher budget and expectations than the MacBook can fulfill.
The backlash from among pro Mac users that’s arisen in the wake of this new product launch is unprecedented, drowning out even the widespread grumbling about the loss of the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 just a month prior. Just take a look at this studious blog post from Michael Tsai, which gathers together the broad negative consensus from among Apple’s most passionate followers. The Mac community finds the specs underwhelming, even on the 15-inch model, which uses power-sipping AMD Radeon graphics instead of the world-conquering Nvidia Pascal chips. Emotions are running so low that people are even speculating about whether Apple should do with the Mac what IBM did when it sold off the ThinkPad line to Lenovo.
This is partially because Apple hasn’t had a class-leading professional Mac computer for years — the Mac Pro is 1,054 days old now — and the new laptops have given an outlet and reason for expectant fans to vent. Many people were clinging on to their aging MacBook Pros in the vain hope of seeing a major spec and performance upgrade that simply didn’t materialize, and that’s been frustrating.
The updated MacBooks from Apple have newer chips, but not that much newer, with Apple using yesteryear’s Intel Skylake CPUs and not this year’s Kaby Lake. They have faster storage, which is an indisputable benefit, but they also max out at 16GB of RAM. For consumer or casual use, that’s perfectly adequate, but “for a developer work machine, 16GB is the uncomfortable minimum requirement,” as web developer Baldur Bjarnason points out.
Here’s the thing: if these new MacBooks simply didn’t carry the Pro label, we’d all have a lot less to complain about. It’s perfectly okay for a company to craft expensive, niche devices that will only match the particular needs of a select group of people. But over the course of the past decade or two, the entire tech industry has moved away from labeling things as exclusive or luxurious, opting for more inclusive language. If you can’t afford the premium model, that implies you’re not wealthy enough; but if you can’t afford the pro version, maybe you’re just not that into it. A subtle, but important distinction.
And so it is, that we’re now living in a world populated by the PS4 Pro, DJI Mavic Pro, Surface Pro, iPad Pro, Beats Pro, Logitech Pro Gaming Mouse, and many others. Those of us old enough to remember ATI, the Canadian graphics card company that was taken over by AMD, will remember it pioneered many of these tags with such historic GPUs as the Radeon 9500 Pro, 9800 SE, X800 XT, and so on. They’re all meaningless as far as the company is concerned, but it just so happens that the “Pro” appendage is more meaningful to users than slapping on a “Plus” or “XL.” With the obvious exception of leisure-time devices like the PlayStation console, a “pro” piece of consumer electronics is generally interpreted as a signal to actual professionals that this machine is for them.
Apple’s folly is in not recognizing just how passionate and committed its professional audience is. But the company should already know that all the iOS app developers that generate its unparalleled third-party software ecosystem are doing their work on Macs. It should be aware of their RAM requirements and the improvements they most want to see.
Beyond developers, there are the photographers and video producers that have made Mac computers the central hub of their home and work studios for many years, thanks to Apple’s early prioritization of high-quality displays and intuitive software. Leaving them without an SD card slot or an included adapter runs entirely counter to Apple’s fundamental principles of having a coherent ecosystem and a more user-friendly approach than the (previously) cold and aloof Windows PC manufacturers.
Apple used to be a friend to creative professionals, and now that it’s acting against their wishes and interests, it seems surprised at their impassioned negative response.
MacBook Pros were once professional computers that could also appeal to an aspiring consumer audience. They were pricey for a general-purpose laptop, but justifiable as a luxury purchase or as a device that pays for itself by making its user more efficient and productive. But today MacBook Pros are very definitely consumer devices that only gesture toward a professional audience without truly endeavoring to appease it.
The new Touch Bar is not a pro feature. It’s cool, it works really well, and it has tons of potential for the future, but it clashes with professional workflows, many of which involve external monitors and keyboards. Apple showed how DJs might use it, but those same people would probably prefer to have dongle-free USB ports for the rest of their gear and a MagSafe charging adapter in the event of some inebriated clubber tripping over their cables.
NONE OF APPLE’S ADDITIONS IMPROVE PROFESSIONAL WORKFLOWS YET, AND ITS SUBTRACTIONS WILL LEAD TO PLENTY OF HEADACHES
The ultra-flat keyboard with 0.55mm key travel is also not professionally minded. Its purpose is overall thinness, but I know of no app developers, globetrotting businesspeople, or digital artists that had “more thinness” anywhere near the top of their priority list of MacBook Pro improvements. Professional writers might have asked for more tactile response, not less, and Apple’s keyboard alterations seem to primarily serve to optimize and harmonize its design rather than enhance any functionality.
Apple’s 2016 MacBook Pros carry on the Pro moniker dishonestly. At least we should all hope that’s the case — because if Apple actually believes that these new laptops are suitable and sufficient for intensive professional needs, then the company’s long and happy relationship with creatives may be heading toward a calamitous breakup.