Technology doesn’t always move forward. Sometimes you have a solar flare, or maybe a robot revolution, and in the end the collective decides that it might be better off living a simpler life.

Sometimes the decision is made for you, by people who claim to know better than you.

Apple decided to resurrect the Macbook a couple weeks ago, to the usual media circus and fanboys (or fanpeople, to be more equal) collapsing in seizures of ecstasy. The laptop’s primary feature is that it is even thinner, as per Pope Steve‘s papal bull issued in time immemorial. All other features, apparently, are secondary. Coming in at a gaunt 13mm and just a hair over two pounds, the new Macbook continues to solidify Apple’s stance as the heroin chic of the computer industry. After seeing the absurdly-extended marathon of anorexia Jony Ive and his coworkers seem compelled to display, I’m surprised I haven’t yet seen a Macbook regurgitate some part of its mainboard live on stage.

Unsurprisingly, it has had to give up some of those pesky internal organs to maintain its girlish figure. While optical drives have been vanishing on thinner laptops for some years now, Apple decided motherboards were just too damn big. The more features you want, the more circuit board there needs to be, and who really wants either of those, right? Hard drive connections, memory slots…those are all just vestiges of previous generations that need to be evolved out. And that’s why we have Apple. To tell us what we need and don’t need.

Among the earth-shattering changes wrought upon humanity with this model is the improved runtime. The new Macbook includes a “stepped battery” design, to fit the laptop’s frame as closely as possible, and pack in that ever-so-coveted battery life. Combined with the tiny mainboard, this means the laptop’s footprint is around 90% battery. And none of these are removable. Everything is soldered, screwed and glued in, to make serviceability as impossible as possible.

Now, I’m not an engineer or anything, but it seems to me the Macbook would get even better battery life if it just had a slightly thicker battery with a few more layers. Or a user-replaceable battery that could be swapped for an extended model. Or even two batteries, allowing the user to swap between them on the road without powering down. Nope. Apparently the future is in paper-thin batteries you can’t touch or replace without destroying half of the fucking machine.

But one more thing…the new Macbook actually does possess one feature that everyone agrees is the future: a USB “C” port. This nifty new guy promises to eliminate long-standing frustrations, will increase the bandwidth to 10Gbps and carry up to 100 watts, allowing phones and even laptops to charge over a USB connection. And guess what? The new Macbook will do exactly that. It’s a fairly brilliant move–future proofing, if nothing else–and I can’t wait for a future where I don’t need to lug my laptop’s charger around, just a USB cable and wall outlet adapter. I can remember the last time a change like this had so much convenience potential. And it was glorious.

Problem is, apparently the future doesn’t include multiple ports. That’s right. The new Macbook includes exactly one USB connector. And that’s it. Oh, it also has a 3.5mm for headphones. But it has no HDMI-out (or any AV-out for that matter), no SD slot…nothing else. If you have to charge your laptop and use an external drive, you have to pick one. You have to read an SD card and use an ethernet adapter because your Macbook’s wifi crapped out? You’re SOL. The Mac world’s response basically amounts to “more ports bad, more accessories good!” Yes, because external add-ons are exactly the thing to complement portability. I mean, it’s not like this laptop is going to be on the road, right?

What makes this whole thing really entertaining (or depressing, whichever works for you) is that Asus beat them at their own game. The Zenbook UX305 is superior to the new Macbook in almost every imaginable category: While the processor is (possibly) not as powerful, the memory is user-upgradeable, as is the hard drive. The screen is capable of up to 282 pixels per inch, versus Apple’s 226 much-trumpeted Retina display. And this even comes with two free kicks in the nuts: Asus’ Zenbook has a bigger battery, has three USB ports (granted, not v3.1 “C” ports), is thinner than the Macbook, and will be almost half the price. It boggles the mind, it really does. It makes me want to buy the Zenbook just so I can stand outside an Apple store as people build their hoovervilles and wait desperately for a chance to breathe the same air the new Macbook used as intake and exhaust.

Personally I don’t see why laptops need to be thin enough to double as filet knives. I have no problem with a laptop in the 1-2cm range, and if manufacturers are going to impulsively shrink the electronics with each new generation, why not instead work on replacing that newly-empty space with more battery? That way everyone wins. Laptops are thin enough, damn it.

vision problems

Another milestone in computer technology has been reached.  Dropped upon the human race like a monolith of Kubrickian proportions, Apple released the new Macbook Pro a month ago to the usual pomp and circumstance.  The new model is incredibly slim at less than 2cm in thickness, and more importantly, features a breathtaking Retina display, clocked in at an astonishing five-megapixel LED display.

One question that arises is whether this incredible resolution is actually necessary.  Recently there have been calls in some (small) communities for higher-resolution displays, but are there actual, verifiable advantages to this?  Another question is that of the hardware’s ability to support it.  The Macbook Pro’s screen has more than double the pixel count of a 1080p display; the more pixels need to be driven, the greater the load on the hardware driving it.  The laptop features a GeForce GT 650M, which is more than enough to handle this sort of work, but this chip is only active when necessary; under less demanding circumstances it will rely on an Intel HD 4000, which while perfectly fine for multimedia use, isn’t well known for driving the equivalent of two and a half 1080p displaysThis is a lot of pixels for this chip.

Another feature of note is the new Macbook’s incredible thinness. At less than 2 cm, the laptop is slimmer than most keyboard keys are tall.  This feat of engineering was achieved primarily by soldering everything to the motherboard.  Everything.  Even memory is no longer user-replaceable, and while the SSD is not, in fact, soldered, it does save space by connecting through a proprietary daughterboard.  The casing requires the typical pentastar screwdriver to open, and the usual level of destruction to actually access the innards.  All this has resulted in iFixit declaring this the least repairable device of all time.

There is some defense for this new design methodology (emphasis on some).  When such extreme thinness is reached, the element holding back further progress becomes the connectors commonly used for memory and other peripherals, meaning that soldering these components saves valuable millimeters and allows that much more clearance to be reduced.  But therein lies the rub–is it really necessary to make a full size laptop this thin?  This makes more sense with smaller, lighter models (see: Macbook Air), but this is a general-use machine; portability is low on the list of priorities.  Previous versions of the Pro model came in at 2.5cm thick, which is still respectable–my personal laptop is 2.46cm, and I find this more than satisfying.  Even moreso, the Macbook Pro’s battery has been increased to 95Wh (and is, of course, unreplaceable by any means available to the consumer) and gets a healthy seven-hour charge.  By contrast, the Asus UL30 has an 84Wh battery that can easily hit the ten-hour mark; this I can attest to personally.  While the MBP is still getting an admirable battery life considering the hardware, it is clearly considerably less efficient than other designs.

At the same time as the announcement, the 17″ Macbook Pro was taken out of production by Apple.  About a year ago, the baseline Macbook was similarly (though more quietly) retired, though it was still available for institutional purchases until February of this year.  With the removal of the 17″ model, there are now only three laptops in total available from Apple: the 11.6″ Macbook Air, the 13″ Macbook Air, and the 15″ Macbook Pro.  I personally won’t be surprised if one of the two Air models is eliminated, or if the two model lines are merged into one, within a year or so.

Consumers now have to choose from a subnotebook with an SSD and soldered memory that is 1.7cm thick and features an aluminum body, or a notebook with an SSD and soldered memory that is 1.8cm thick and features an aluminum body.  As usual, Apple is dictating to its customers what they may buy–and buy they will, by the caseload.  No matter that owners might eventually want to upgrade their memory, have a need to replace the hard drive, or might not desire an aluminum body or even install a larger battery.  This is what Apple is selling you, and you will buy it.

What’s even worse is the way this will affect the secondary market.  When I say “affect,” it would probably be more accurate to say “destroy,” because that’s what is going to happen.  When in the past at least something could be salvaged from a dead laptop and used for future repairs, this won’t happen with the new MBP.  Getting the casing open alone is a pain, and the only part that could possibly be salvaged with any amount of ease is the hard drive.  There is no incentive to keep a secondary market going; no one will be motivated to take the time and effort to actually get these parts out of a dead MBP, let alone want to solder them into a new one.  This is already happening with the iPad–the device is so difficult to repair, that most reports I hear from users is that if there’s a problem, they are simply handed a new one at the Apple Store, and chances are the old one goes right in the trash.

In regards to Apple I have no cares.  Apple will do what it does, and if its customers are being inconvenienced, that is their business.  But in the last few years Apple has set a dangerous precendent.  Many other tech companies now look up to the guys in Cupertino.  When Apple does something, it (almost) invariably succeeds, and when it succeeds other companies see that success and want to replicate it.

I for one enjoy having a great array of choices when I go shopping for a new laptop.  And I, for one, will not be pleased if in the future every manufacturer is attempting to force me to buy an ultralight with soldered components and no choice of hardware.


Along with about half the developed world, I watched the iPad 3 announcement with keen interest.  I’m not an Apple fan, but neither am I one to simply dismiss a new product without knowing anything about it.  Nevertheless, after watching video and a live blog feed, I felt the same way I felt after the iPad 2’s debut: disappointed.

I feel it necessary at this point to note that I do not simply hate Apple for the sake of hating Apple (or hipsters, turtlenecks, or those newfangled MP3 players for that matter).  Shortly after the first time I used a PowerBook G4 running OS X, I was very nearly converted wholesale to the brand.  I’ve spent most of the past five years doing my damnedest to defend Apple in every way.  And I have to be honest: there is no defense left.  There is no rationalization to justify their business practices, either in the marketing realm or in the way they treat app developers.  That being said, I still go into every new product launch with some hope that they will redeem themselves.  And so far, every new product launch of the past three years has left me jaded and frustrated.  The same pattern has repeated itself twice now with this release of the iPad.  The iPad 3, or the “new iPad” as Apple is calling it simply, has followed its predecessor with glam, flash and pizzazz in spades.  But when it comes to the actual meat and potatoes of the whole affair, this is a rather slim meal.

The new iPad is light on new features.  Though Tim Cook and company were able to pack a 90-minute presentation with content and show dozens of new things available on this iPad, much of this was fluff, not unlike a 10-page essay written by a high school sophmore which only contains about 2 pages of actual content.  Most of the excitement is focused on the tablet’s screen, a so-called Retina Display.  While a true Retina Display clocks in at 336 pixels per inch, the iPad’s is only 264, about 75% that of its little brother (a true Retina-armed iPad would have a 2500×1900 display resolution, a very expensive proposition considering the vehicle).  But Cook is more than happy to say this is “good enough to call it a Retina Display.”  This tells me the Retina name is becoming little more than branding, used to create hype and agitation amongst its legions of sworn defenders.  Moreover, the actual merits of the Retina Display are at best debatable, as the visual acuity of a human eye can still resolve pixels at the intended distance.  But Apple expertly used this, and a few other features, to make the whole thing much more than it really was.

Almost every other new aspect of the iPad is new only to Apple.  The quad-core graphics have been in use by competitors for over a year now.  The 1080p camera, while always an enjoyable feature, has also been done, although to their credit the software support it is nothing to scoff at, in particular the image stabilization.  The camera, however, lacks an LED light, essential for taking pictures when you don’t have that convenient star on your side of the Earth.  4G is also a worthy advancement, although whether this is actually worth it has yet to be seen, as Apple’s history with antennae is questionable.  Cook also claimed that the new 4G model still maintained the same battery life with only a minute increase in thickness and weight–another assertion that will need to stand the test of the real world in a month or two.

And, once again, the iPad still lacks two things the entire remaining computer world doesn’t: SD card support and USB support.  This one still baffles me.  No tablet should be without either of these.  Memory cards make transfer of large data files simple (and, in some cases, more secure) and allow for expansion of existing memory.  Without this, iPad users are stuck with whatever the iPad comes with–64GB may seem like a lot for a tablet now (assuming you can afford it), but if you plan on watching lots of movies on it you will quickly find yourself wanting more.  And that’s when Apple will probably release a 128GB version, no doubt at an exorbitant premium.

Phil Schiller was eager to point out that Android apps on a tablet “[look] like smartphone apps blown up.”  Lots of wasted space and too-large text were displayed on the gigantic screen behind him as he picked apart the Android designs.  Notably, he cherry-picked only a couple apps to compare, and did not run any comparisons against Windows Phone or Blackberry apps.  Badly designed iOS apps do exist, however–not even Apple’s perfect, flawless operating system is immune to the mistakes of developers.  This is clearly another shot at Android, the OS that “ripped off Apple,” even after Apple ripped off Android.

Possibly the most absurd part of the presentation related to gaming.  Opening the segment, Cook stated that in internal polls, the iPad 2 was the preferred gaming device of the majority of households, even being “preferred over home consoles.”  Without overstating it, this is laughable.  Tablet gaming has its uses, but it has just as many limitations, namely that it is difficult to come up with a comfortable control scheme without the user’s hands blocking significant parts of the screen–and then there is the prospect of holding a half-pound object aloft while also attempting to tap away with reasonable accuracy for any considerable amount of time.  No household with real gamers would consider the iPad superior to the PS3, Wii, or even 3DS.  Epic Games’ Mike Capps appeared onstage and demoed a couple games for the new iPad, throwing his unconditional support behind it and even going as far as to tell the audience that it is a superior platform to the Xbox 360.  Considering Apple’s history of stabbing developers in the back, it would be a supremely satisfying irony if this fate were to befall Epic.

Once again, Apple has turned a lot of nothing into something revolutionary.  No doubt millions will mob Apple stores throughout the world to get their own iPad 3, stepping over their own mothers to take out loans against their twice-mortgaged homes just to own one.  What concerns me most is the thought that this model might catch on.  While many products are already being called iPad clones, and many claims are thrown about focusing on who is copying Apple’s design methods, the fact remains almost all of these competing products have more features and are capable of more functions than any iPad on the market.  When other manufacturers start realizing that they can add marginal improvements and bill them as revolutionary progress on par with the invention of the transistor…I shudder to think where the market will go after that.