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I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Mistake One


MacBook “One”, 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, and Hops for scale.

I’ve had mixed luck with impulse buys.

As a kid, I impulse-bought Marble Madness for my Sega Genesis. I saw it in Electronics Boutique, the box looked really cool, and it was only $40. Without having read any magazine reviews, I took the chance. It ended up being the worst Genesis game I owned.

I also impulse-bought the first Retina MacBook Pro. I didn’t want to wait weeks for a custom build, so I drove to the Apple Store and bought the base model.

That $2200 computer was one of the best technology buys I’ve ever made, and three years later, it’s still my travel computer — it’s the one pictured above. It’s still fast enough to do anything I ask of it, including substantial Xcode and Lightroom use on the road. It did develop the image-retention problem common among the early screens, but Apple fixed that last month, out of warranty, for only $300. My only complaint is that the battery doesn’t last as long as the newer models.

But in a brief period of questionable judgment yesterday, I impulse-bought the new MacBook, which I call the MacBook One.1 My theory was that I could use it for roles in which I’ve failed to use iPads because they don’t work for me: writing and email around the house or in bed, and bringing on most trips that wouldn’t involve Xcode. It would be my iPad Pro. I’ve been waffling for years about finding a cheap 11-inch MacBook Air to serve this role, but I didn’t want a non-Retina machine.

I knew the MacBook One was slow, I knew the keyboard was weird, and I knew it only had one port. I also knew that it was really small and light and had a Retina screen. So I went into it with low expectations and acceptance of its limits.

Keyboard One

The MacBook’s keyboard is not good.

Even after getting accustomed to it enough to type at my full speed — or maybe even a bit faster — its limited key-travel depth and keyswitch feel not only make it feel much worse, but also make typing much more error-prone for me. You have to use so little downward force to type quickly and keep from uncomfortably “bottoming out” that I often miss keypresses, not because I didn’t hit the correct key, but because I just didn’t press it hard enough.

The extremely shallow key travel is partly to blame, but so is the keyswitch feel. They’re more like clicky buttons than keyboard keys, feeling almost like the iPhone’s Home button. They don’t engage or actuate — they snap. This makes it harder to modulate downward force while typing on them, especially from your weaker outer fingers.

I can type on the MacBook, but I’d rather not.

What I hadn’t considered was that even though I had common tasks that could fit within the MacBook’s limited specs — email, writing, chat — all of them required a lot of typing. Oops.

Trackpad One

The Force Touch trackpad is really cool. It’s a piece of glass that doesn’t move, but responds to pressure and simulates a click feel with haptic feedback. It even simulates two different click “depths”, calling the deeper one Force Click and giving it special functionality in certain apps (separate from a right-click). It’s a remarkable technical achievement.

It is also not good.

The simulated click vibration does feel like a click, but not a good one. It offers three different firmness settings, none of which feel anywhere near as good as Apple’s trackpads with real buttons. It feels like what it is: mushing my finger against a fixed pane of glass that’s emulating the feel of a button and almost getting there, but not getting there.

The keyboard is worse than the trackpad to me, but not by much. Both are major compromises in the name of thinness, and both are significantly worse than their (pretty great) predecessors.

And unfortunately, the Force Touch trackpad has now spread to every Retina MacBook Pro. (At least the keyboard hasn’t.)

Gigahertz One

This is not a fast machine. I knew that going in, but also knew that it wouldn’t matter for most of my intended light-web usage — hell, I had the original 2008 MacBook Air with the iPod hard drive, and I made that work.

But once you’re accustomed to MacBook Pros and iMacs, the speed difference is noticeable in almost everything, even light tasks like browsing through folders or processing email. And when presented with a more intensive task, like browsing Photos or installing large apps, you really feel it.

If I were only using this computer for writing and light web work as intended, it’s capable enough. But it would be frustrating if I ever needed to do anything else on it. It’s not as slow as the 2008 MacBook Air was, relative to its time, but it certainly evokes that era for me.

Centimeter One

For all of these tradeoffs, the MacBook is ridiculously small and light. When comparing it in the store against its next-smallest Retina sibling, the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, it’s not even close — there’s a vast gap between them. It even feels like a major improvement over the MacBook Airs, which are already extremely small and light.

The MacBook just looks and feels like the obvious, no-brainer choice for a small Mac. That’s why people buy it. That’s why I bought it. I loved it before I bought it. I love looking at it and picking it up.

I just hate using it.

I hate typing on it, I hate the trackpad, it’s slower than I expected, the screen is noticeably blurry from non-native scaling to get reasonable screen space, and I don’t even find it very comfortable to use in my lap because it’s too small.

I hate returning things, but I’m returning this.

I can see why a lot of people love it. Not everyone hates the keyboard and trackpad as much as I do. If I were carrying my laptop for a long time in a shoulder bag every day (which I was when I got the 2008 Air), this would be a welcome weight reduction. If I frequently worked on airline tray tables in economy with the person reclined in front of me, the extremely small size might make the difference between being able to use my laptop or not.

But all of those benefits are also available in the 11-inch MacBook Air. It has a far better keyboard and trackpad, more ports, and faster performance. The only major downsides are the lack of a Retina screen and less screen space.

The 11-inch MacBook Air shows that the MacBook’s compromises have nothing to do with going Retina — the One has roughly the same GPU, less horsepower, less space, less weight, and a smaller battery, yet still drives a Retina screen perfectly well. Apple could have made a Retina MacBook Air instead of (or in addition to) this new MacBook, but chose not to.

Instead, we have major compromises on previous invariants. Until now, since I started buying Macs 11 years ago, Apple had never shipped a laptop with a keyboard or trackpad that was less than great. They recognized that a laptop without a good keyboard wasn’t a good laptop, even if a lot of people would be OK with it and buy it anyway.

Now, Apple’s priorities have changed. Rather than make really great products that are mostly thin, they now make really thin products that are mostly great.

This concerns me more than you probably think it should. Not only does it represent compromised standards in areas I believe are important, but it suggests that they don’t have many better ideas to advance the products beyond making them thinner, and they’re willing to sacrifice anything to keep that going.

The 15-Inch, Which Is Now A Giant Aircraft Carrier By Comparison

The 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro hasn’t changed much since my impulse buy in 2012. Today, Apple updated them, but it’s a very minor update — the aging Haswell CPUs are unchanged from last year and barely changed since 2013, held back by Intel’s Broadwell delays, and the current base model is only 11% faster than the one I bought in 2012. Even today’s highest-end CPU is only 24% faster than my 2012 base model. There’s still no USB-C, no LCD improvements since 2012, and nearly the same battery life as last year’s model.2 They now have Force Touch trackpads, but I consider that a downgrade.

The base-model 15-inch is usually a fantastic deal, and this generation is no exception — I’d say it’s the best laptop value in the lineup for a power user, only spending extra for more storage if you need it.3

In the last 11 years, when I’ve had smaller laptops, I’ve often run into their limits. But I’ve never regretted buying a 15-inch. It always serves me better, doesn’t leave me wanting more power or screen space, and just feels right.

It’s not sexy, it’s not cool, and it may never be again. But neither will I.

It’s heavier than Apple’s smaller laptops, but it’s not heavy, really. It’s about the same weight as the original white plastic 13-inch MacBook, which we all thought was incredibly light and portable.

I want more battery life, but I can get most of the way there by just getting a new 15-inch: they’re now offered without discrete GPUs (which drain power and kill logic boards for benefits I don’t need), Haswell is more power-efficient than my Ivy Bridge core, and anything I buy today will have a battery that’s three years newer. The CPU will only be 11% faster, but it’s already fast enough for my work, and the new ones have twice as much RAM. This one has lasted three years and still works well enough that I can sell it for a good price or give it to a family member.

Since I don’t like Force Touch trackpads and the new models offer nothing else I need, I just ordered yesterday’s base model for $1850 before it goes out of stock — an even better value than usual. Today’s hardware at yesterday’s prices.

It has a great keyboard, great trackpad, the largest screen available, tons of ports, and tons of horsepower. It can do everything I need a laptop to do, and I’ll enjoy every minute of using it. The only major compromise is the size, but now that I’ve seen the other side, I’m OK with that.


  1. Because of the Xbox One being the third Xbox and this being the third major product line named “MacBook”, and because it famously only has one port for all data and power. 

  2. Apple rated the previous model as 8 hours and the new one as 9, but the battery increased only from 95 to 99 watt-hours. All of the power-hungry components are identical except for the optional discrete GPU, and the footnote here suggests that the tests were on the base model without it. Rather than 4.7% more capacity being responsible for a 12.5% increase in stated battery life, efficiency gains in the tested OS and software also likely contributed, since last year’s test was with Mavericks and an older version of Safari. Fortunately, those efficiency gains benefit old Macs, too. 

  3. The 15-inch MacBook Pro is like the base-model Honda Accord: it’s a great value and a fantastic all-arounder for pretty much anyone, and compared to its smaller siblings, it’s not much more expensive, you get much more car, and you’ll probably never regret going for it. 

Redesigning Overcast’s Apple Watch app

I originally designed the Apple Watch app for my podcast player, Overcast, with a scaled-down version of the iPhone app’s structure.

This seemed like a sensible adaptation of my iOS app to the Apple Watch. In practice, it sucked.


Overcast’s initial Apple Watch app.

Rationale

The three-level navigation hierarchy matched my iPhone app: the list of playlists and podcasts, then the list of episodes in the selected list, then the Now Playing screen.

I’d arranged the play/seek controls in a spaced-out triangle to minimize accidental taps on the small touch targets. The Now Playing screen also had a Force Touch menu to change speed or effects, or recommend the current episode.

I brought my own font, for the same reason I chose it for the iOS app — it’s narrow without looking condensed, so I can fit more words per line on small screens than Helvetica-like fonts1. I even rendered the episode titles as images so I could enable hyphenation, fitting a bit more per line and reducing huge gaps. (Apple’s Watch apps use hyphenation for the same reasons, but hyphenation isn’t available in WatchKit.)

Reality

WatchKit load times are inconsistent and problematic.

Every time the interface loads or changes, the Watch and iPhone communicate round-trip over Bluetooth. Whether due to wireless flakiness, 1.0 OS bugs, or (most likely) both, WatchKit is frustratingly unreliable. Apps or glances will sometimes just spin forever instead of loading, and even when everything’s working perfectly, apps still take so long to load and navigate that the watch’s screen often turns off before you’ve accomplished anything.

My three-level navigation was a poor fit for the Watch in reality:

After using my initial app on a real Apple Watch for just one day, I set out to completely rethink and restructure it.

Rethinking

To simplify both the code and the workload on WatchKit’s fragile data connection, I rebuilt the app with the Now Playing screen as the single, main, root screen, with other screens sliding up as modal views only when needed. This dramatically improved loading time and reliability, and removed the need to keep the list screens updated in the background as data changed.


Old app is on the black-banded watch (left), new app is on the “Jony Ive” white Edition (right).

I experimented with a scrolling main screen and side-by-side “page” interfaces, but neither were as good as a single non-scrolling screen: not only did the single screen require less loading, but any scrollability in either direction requires touches to be slightly delayed (to determine whether they’re swipes) and sometimes misinterprets taps as unintended swipes.2

I also made the Now Playing screen more useful based on what I actually wanted in practice from a Watch app:


New Now Playing screen, and the menus when you tap the “Now” and “Up Next” artwork.

Despite moving to a single-main-screen interface, the new app has more functionality:

The Force Touch menu remained with the Effects pane and a Recommend shortcut, and now it’s on the only main screen of the app, making users more likely to find it.

Its new Podcasts item is how people browse to other podcasts and playlists (since I don’t have a navigation stack anymore), which I feel comfortable burying here because it’s infrequent in practice — Overcast’s playlists are designed to let you “live” in one most of the time, set priorities, and rearrange it as you like. And since this browsing interface is on-demand and short-lived, I removed all of the slow, error-prone live-sync logic.


Force Touch menu and the Podcasts browser.

I had also initially underestimated glances, which are very important in practice. Going out to the honeycomb app screen to launch apps is cumbersome — it’s much more compelling to keep a small number of glances, using them (and complications, which I really want third-party access to) as status updates and quick app-launching shortcuts.

WatchKit glances can’t contain any buttons — tapping them just launches the app — so mine couldn’t hold a candle to the usefulness of Apple’s built-in media glance, especially since Apple’s is always loaded with no delay, while mine may show stale data for a few seconds while it refreshes (just like old Mac Dashboard widgets).

Even given the constraints of WatchKit glances, my initial glance wasn’t very useful. It only displayed the current episode and an approximation of a progress bar. The new glance includes all of the information from the Now Playing screen, so launching the app is only necessary to make changes:


Apple’s media glance, Overcast’s initial glance, and Overcast’s new glance.

Results

Friends and beta testers have all had similar reactions:

I’m much happier with the new app.

Trying to match the structure of the iOS app was a mistake. For most types of apps, the Apple Watch today is best thought of not as a platform to port your app to, but a simple remote control or viewport into your iPhone app.

My initial app was easier to conceptualize and learn, and it closely matched the iOS app. But it just wasn’t very good in practice, and wasn’t usually better than taking out my phone.

The new app is a bit weird and polarizing, and has a learning curve, but it’s great in practice if it fits your preferences. (Just like the Apple Watch.)

Reflection

It’s unwise and futile to try to shove iPhone interfaces and paradigms into the Apple Watch. Instead, design for what the Watch really is.

Because WatchKit 1.0 is so limited and performance is so inconsistent, it’s hard to make Watch apps that are truly useful compared to just taking out your iPhone and using the full app. I believe this will always be the case to some degree, even after we get a native SDK.

Just as not every Mac app can have a useful corresponding iOS app (or vice versa) due to the physical nature and OS paradigms of iPhones and iPads, not every iPhone app can or should have a useful Watch app. Conversely, there’s a lot of new opportunity here: plenty of compelling Watch apps would’ve been much less compelling on the iPhone.

The Watch seems to fit on a continuum somewhere between the iPhone and, say, a Bluetooth headset — part peripheral, part computer — and it will likely stay there. Not every computing device should or will become a general-purpose platform. Today, software limitations are partially to blame for the Watch not replacing your iPhone, but it’s mostly due to physical limitations and ergonomics that won’t change significantly over time, just as tablets haven’t replaced laptops and likely never will. The newest Apple Watches in ten years still won’t be able to make the average human wrist bigger or give wearers a third hand, and the phone in your pocket will always have space for an order of magnitude more battery capacity and a screen big enough to type on.

So I don’t think the smartwatch will ever replace the smartphone as the dominant general-purpose mobile device. But there’s a lot that it can do, much of which it can do better than the smartphone, and we still have a lot of learning to do and assumptions to shed to unlock its potential.


  1. I also like Concourse because it’s sans-serif but very distinct from Helvetica, it’s casual without looking anything like Comic Sans, it has some personality but not too much, and it looks great in small caps. (You should’ve seen how many fonts I auditioned for the iOS app before picking this one.) 

  2. This is why I love-hate the Solar watch face: I love its look and the information it conveys (although it really needs complication support), but it’s scrollable — scrolling the Crown moves the sun around, which I never want to do — and I often accidentally scroll it slightly when trying to press the Crown in, which cancels the press. 

More battery outliers, please

In AnandTech’s great review of the MacBook One,1 the extensive battery-testing graphs were a bit depressing to me — not because of the MacBook’s results, which were roughly what I expected, but because of the relatively stagnant battery-life range covered by Apple’s laptop line.

As batteries and components advance, device designers are able to spend those advancements increasing battery life at a given size and weight, or they can keep battery life in the same range and just make the batteries (and therefore the devices) smaller and lighter. In recent years, Apple has chosen the latter almost every time.

The relentless expenditure of technical progress on ever-diminishing thinness and lightness gains rather than battery life strongly suggests that Apple considers battery life good enough across its major product lines. The result is a homogeneous battery-life range across the lineup.

But, especially if you’re not interested in the aging MacBook Air line and only consider the Retina models (once you go Retina, you never go back), those battery graphs make it clear that battery life isn’t good enough across the board yet to stop pushing it forward as much as possible — especially if your use is closer to the “Heavy Workload” test, which I’d hardly describe as an unusual or truly heavy computational load (web browsing, downloading a large file, and playing a movie in the background), under which no Apple laptop lasted more than 6 hours and no Retina model exceeded 5.

These only truly offer “all-day battery life” if you do very light work all day, and don’t work the long hours typical of today’s disturbingly ubiquitous workaholism-glorifying culture in tech companies… such as Apple.

Design is about making difficult decisions and trade-offs. Longer battery lives would make some of the products thicker and heavier, and not everyone would accept that trade-off. But today, everyone who wants an Apple product needs to accept the opposite: thinness and lightness that some of us didn’t need, at the expense of battery life that many of us could’ve really used.

And the larger-screened MacBook Pros that do have large batteries also come with much more power-hungry CPUs, negating the battery-life difference. The 15-inch MacBook Pro, with the largest battery and ostensibly Apple’s best laptop, has only mediocre battery life, due in part to its larger screen but more because of its quad-core CPUs and (mostly) dual-GPU configurations.2

Imagine some of the options we could have if Apple made a few outliers for people who really wanted them:

These would be less newsworthy and dramatic than the thin-and-light gains on the other products, but a lot of customers would absolutely love them. The “iPhone Extended” and the “13-inch MacBook” could plausibly become the best-sellers in their respective lineups, and I know a lot of people who would jump at the chance to buy one of those 15- or 17-inch options.

It’s great that Apple pushes thin-and-light boundaries so aggressively on many of their products, but I wish it wouldn’t be the only choice they offer on all of their products.


  1. My temporary pet name of “the new MacBook”, since it famously only has one USB port, until its actual name of “MacBook” generally unambiguously refers to this product line. 

  2. The base model of the current 15-inch has only the Intel integrated GPU, an option that Apple has made available in some 15-inch generations. I wish my 2012 model had that option. Discrete mobile GPUs run hot and expensively fail often, and the dual-GPU setup in the 15-inch line is often buggy and causes significantly worse battery life when using certain common apps — most notably including Chrome. If I were buying a new 15-inch laptop today, I’d definitely get the Intel-GPU-only base model. 

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