Honestly, I think WWDC was a bit of a disappointment. The MacBook Pro and MacBook Air got minor bumps with Ivy Bridge (a 10-15% improvement at the same clock speed), though in my opinion the move to Nvidia graphics is a poor choice. It benchmarks almost the same as the AMD Radeon HD 7770M, which would be the natural replacement to the older 6770M that Apple used in the high-end Late 2011 MBPs. Nvidia’s graphics architecture isn’t nearly as parallel as AMD’s is, which can limit it’s speed in certain tasks such as Bitcoin mining and other OpenCL-based tasks. The GTX 650M that Apple uses in the higher end 2012 MBPs has 384 cores at 850 MHz (326.4 GHz in total) while the 7770M has 696 cores at 675 MHz (469.8 GHz) in a slightly smaller thermal envelope. While not directly proportional to performance because these are two separate architectures, this should show that the AMD card will likely have more available computational power for any properly optimized parallel task. I haven’t looked at Nvidia’s road map in a while, so I don’t know if they have anything special in store for the next couple years, but the new Kepler architecture just doesn’t quite stack up against AMD’s Southern Islands architecture with the Radeon HD 7000 series.
The obvious new announcement to discuss is the MacBook Pro with Retina display. What changed: depth, display, I/O, expandability. As for depth: 0.2 inches, in my opinion, isn’t enough to warrant some of the changes that I will discuss later. Honestly, the Retina display is a huge disappointment. As seen with the Retina iPads, the 2048×1536 display uses up significantly more power, generates more heat and offers little more than slightly sharper UI elements. The Retina iPad’s effective resolution is still 1024×768, providing no extra display real estate. The 2880×1800 display in the new MBP will do exactly the same thing: rather than, say, making a 1680×1050 display standard (a previous-generation build-to-order option) with more effective workroom, we will simply have slightly sharper UI elements and subpar graphics and battery performance to show for it, a consequence of quadrupling the pixel count. For all intents and purposes, it is no different than any other 1440×900 display. One other thing to consider is that in the new Displays prefpane, Apple provides a couple options that emulate 1920×1200 and 1680×1050, though the display actually renders a pixel-doubled version (for example, 1920×1200 is rendered as 3840×2400) downscaled to 2880×1800. Not only will this massively slow performance with very little benefit, it will also be blurrier as the system tries to downscale and antialias the image. Thus, a Retina MBP running at the 1920×1200 resolution will have to render everything at 3840×2400 and downscale it to 2880×1800 dynamically, two separate consecutive performance hits on little more than midrange graphics hardware. I’ve played with the hidden HiDPI (read: Retina) resolutions in Mac OS 10.6 and 10.7, so I know roughly how this will work from firsthand experience, and I don’t think I like it. Retina is not a Pro feature, despite Apple’s arguments to the contrary.
I/O is a mixed bag. To make it thin, Apple had to sacrifice FireWire, Ethernet and MagSafe 1.0. I don’t mind losing MagSafe, especially considering the new $10 adapter, but I still use FireWire and Ethernet on occasion. That some businesses rely on Ethernet as an additional layer of network security makes me question Apple’s decision to make a professional machine without Ethernet. The addition of a second Thunderbolt port is very good for obvious reasons, but if one buys Apple’s Thunderbolt to FireWire and Thunderbolt to Ethernet adapters, one loses both Thunderbolt ports right there unless the adapters are on the end of daisy chains. That means that it is probably a better idea to use a Thunderbolt display, Belkin hub or similar product instead, none of which are cheap. Both of the aforementioned adapters have Ethernet, FireWire 800 and Thunderbolt passthrough ports. HDMI might be good for consumers, but I’m honestly disappointed. HDMI is notorious for being an expensive, low-bandwidth, DRM-laden and otherwise poorly engineered standard. Mini DisplayPort is superior in every way from licensing to audio quality to physical size, not to mention that it can be integrated seamlessly with Thunderbolt. The port could have just as easily been a much more useful and less redundant USB 3.0 port, especially considering that Thunderbolt carries Mini DisplayPort signals. Lack of an audio input on the MacBook Pro is a total killer for AV pros and will require either a FireWire adapter with Thunderbolt dongle or a USB adapter and probably a somewhat expensive USB 3.0 hub to boot. (a USB keyboard and mouse plus an audio adapter probably uses at least two ports by themselves, depending whether the keyboard has any USB ports.) At this point we have a MBP, at least one dongle, a USB hub, a power adapter, probably one or more external HDDs/SSDs to compensate for small internal storage and possibly even a MagSafe to MagSafe 2 adapter all crammed into a laptop bag. In my view, it completely defeats the purpose of a slim and light computer if you need 427 adapters and peripherals spread like spider legs all over a desk to make it usable.
Expandability: with this machine, everything except the proprietary SSD is soldered to the main logic board. This is bad beyond words for professionals. For example, with a current MBP, one can buy a $125 1 TB HDD and a $50 adapter to add a second hard drive, giving us 1.5-2 TB of storage space in total for $175 extra . In order to upgrade a new MBP from 256 GB to 768 GB (0.75 TB), one effectively needs to spend $1100 on upgrades. The first $600 is for the higher processor speed (Apple doesn’t offer additional storage space on the $2199 model), the other $500 is for an extra 256 GB of storage space. Current going prices for 256 GB SSDs are about $300. In addition, if somebody finds out that 8 GB isn’t enough RAM two years from now, a sub-$100 16 GB kit won’t be an option. A $2199+ MacBook Pro will be, however. The soldered components also mean that the whole thing is one big design flaw. If any one component fails, that’s a new $1100 logic board. The one exception to this rule is the SSD, though this uses a proprietary connector that few if any companies will ever develop products for. This machine, more than any I have ever seen Apple produce, will need AppleCare. The battery is even glued to the case, making it impossible for even the venerable iFixit to tear it down completely .
On a somewhat related note, iFixit reports in a great blog entry  that it is difficult if not impossible to recycle the display used in this computer because of the way it is glued together. Unfortunately, this may start a trend in the computer industry leading to computers that technically use recyclable materials but cannot be recycled. With the amount of electronics produced increasing exponentially, the ramifications of this design precedent may be far-reaching. While I doubt it will directly lead to any environmental catastrophe, it certainly isn’t the best possible design, except for marketing numbers.
I do like that they finally moved the name of the computer off the display surface and to the bottom where it belongs. The label underneath the display was so…not Zen that it marred the otherwise beautiful surface of the very nice panel (mirror finish notwithstanding). That’s the only significant aesthetic change in the new MacBook Pro that comes to mind, and even then it’s just a minor change to a great design.
I can cover most of OS X and iOS in just a few sentences. The new features are essentially Twitter, Facebook and Growl notifications on steroids integrated into the system. Standardized notifications in OS X are nice, but I will probably not use many other new features of the new systems, and until I hear that Lion’s performance problems and many, many bugs have been quashed, I’m staying with Snow Leopard. The iOS ticket book is nice, but I haven’t noticed many other significant new features. Voice recognition is nice, and I’m surprised that Apple didn’t implement it sooner. If it works well, it could be very useful. The limitations of MacSpeech Dictate (now replaced by Dragon Dictation) leave me a little leery, though. It has potential.
I find it unfortunate that the world’s most advanced operating system has such abysmal memory management. As of this writing, I have Firefox, Thunderbird, Terminal, iTunes, Preview, and a text editor open (I quit the Finder completely) and my system is using 3.9 GB out of 4 GB of RAM. The system was using 5.5 GB (4 GB + 1.5 GB pagefile), but I forced the system to clean up with a ‘purge’ in Terminal. The same things in Ubuntu (one of the most popular GNU/Linux distributions and hardly the least bloated) would use about 2-2.5 GB. For this reason, I am awaiting the arrival of a recently-ordered 16 GB RAM kit to help cope. If Mountain Lion fixes this problem, I’ll upgrade without hesitation. I’m not holding my breath, as Lion merely made my problems much, much worse, to the point where I reverted to Snow Leopard. The Darwin kernel is just turning into a big mess these days. The OS and kernel are still salvageable, so long as Apple will dedicate a few more engineers to optimization and a few less to pretty but pointless animations as soon as is possible.
[I am editing this in the latest version of Ubuntu and with Firefox, Thunderbird, a terminal and a text editor open, my MacBook Pro is actually using 1.3 GB of RAM in total, dramatically less than OS X with a similar workload.]
So, a final status report:
New MBA: a minor update, as expected. The price drop is welcome, but the machine is still too inflexible for my needs.
New old MBP: a minor update, not expected. Ivy Bridge is good, but I was hoping for a bit more. The loss of the 17″ Pro is a tragedy and aggravation that professionals will remember for years to come. R.I.P. MBP 17.
New MBP with Retina display: this was a huge update, but the MBPR is basically a 15″ MBA. I am not impressed. It’s too consumer-ish and locked down to be a Pro machine and too expensive to be a consumer machine. In my mind, it is the metaphorical bastard child of a MBA and a MBP. I predict that it will probably sell reasonably well if not spectacularly, but they will only rarely be used by any actual Pros. Hopefully this is the first Mac with UEFI 2.0, but I doubt it.
New Mac Pro: this update is a disgrace to the Pro moniker and shouldn’t have even existed. Three year old Radeon 5770 graphics cards (not fast when new) coupled with three year old processors on three year old logic boards at three year old price points with no USB 3.0 and no Thunderbolt. I thought AMD and their partners stopped producing the Radeon 5000 series a year ago and Apple was just peddling the overstock. I was wrong. Apple has since removed the ‘New’ tag on the Mac Pro from the Apple Store, though the specs remain updated. I suspect they are trying to downplay this update as much as possible to save face.
All in all, I’m disappointed. I’m sure consumers everywhere are thrilled, and I’m sure that several companies are already hard at work trying to clone the new MacBook Pro, but I remain unconvinced that this is the future of professional computers. Until Apple can learn that even with Zen principles, some allowances need to be made for usability, they will never again make truly great products.
This leads me to a final aside: for many years, the reason that Apple succeeded where others failed is because Apple doesn’t just add as much junk to their products as they can to make them look more impressive on paper. Apple for the longest time realized that form is equal to function. This is shown in many revolutionary products, including the Apple II series, the original Macintosh, the iMac, the Titanium PowerBook G4 and its close descendants.
In the Retina MacBook Pro and most if not all of the iOS devices, Apple has strayed from this line and, to me, seems to value form over function. Apple wishes to delight the user but unfortunately seems to have forgotten that empowering the user to create, to learn and to experience things for themselves is equally important. Until Apple once again remembers why they are creating great products, they will, paradoxically, never again truly create great products.
The goal of Apple in the 1970s and 1980s was to enable the user to create great things with as little difficulty as possible. This vision is what lead Apple to start the desktop publishing revolution in 1984-1987 with Macintosh and the LaserWriter. But then Steve Jobs, the lead visionary, was ousted from his company and was replaced by a series of CEOs who just wanted to push more units and drive up profits. As a direct consequence, Apple stagnated and almost went out of business up until Steve Jobs came back and regained power in 1996/1997.
Steve Jobs brought with him a few remnants of the original Macintosh design team and recruited a few other employees who helped the company regain its goal, its purpose. The new Apple realized that beige boxes just wouldn’t cut it. They were ugly, bland and nobody really wanted them, whether they would admit it or not. Apple immediately went to work on iMac, iBook and an overhaul of the PowerBook series, cutting back on model numbers and simplifying the supply chain. Apple realized that the consumer often doesn’t know what they want, absorbing the meaning of a quote often attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
Did cutting back on products limit choice? Certainly. Apple’s problem at the time is much the same as Microsoft’s is now and Google’s was a year ago: they were trying to impact every market, but without the dedication to excel in any of them. So Apple cut everything and, after an explosion of colorful computers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, settled on Zen-inspired designs: smooth, sleek and thin computers and devices that often traded some functionality for build quality and simplicity. These designs proved to be wildly popular and even today are strikingly similar to their original designs from 2001-2003. Most of the designs succeeded, but the few that prioritized form too much over function, such as the PowerMac G4 Cube flopped on the market.
With the introduction of the new Retina MacBook Pro, Apple has once again swayed slightly away from the beautiful middle ground that they found and traveled so carefully for many years. The new MacBook Pro, in my view is far more form than function, and I fear that now that Apple has so much more market leverage, this design won’t just fade away for a few years like the G4 Cube did before it was reborn, much improved, as the Mac mini. Apple may very well have enough buyers that are used to the locked-down iOS mentality that they might accept the probable success of the new MacBook Pro as an invitation to convert all of their products into disposable devices designed to be replaced entirely every two years. Products designed to be tamper proof, to protect the user from themselves.
Not products that allow the user to learn about their computer, to properly inspire the user to create, to build, to improve. Until Apple can once again learn that the very users that they are alienating with their pathetic Mac Pro update, the discontinuation of the 17” MacBook Pro and the consumerization of the Macintosh as a whole are the same ones that invent, that create, that build and need fine tools to do so, they will never again create anything more than mediocre consumption devices. This is no longer the Apple of old that built computers that would last an average of seven years before obsolescence, designed to be sleek, yet modular and repairable.
In short, form is not higher than function. Function is not higher than form. Until Apple and, for that matter, all the other computer companies realize this, their offerings will be incomplete and, one way or another, will cater to a bottom line, whether that line be price, knowledge, ability or something even more abstract and meaningful. Unless somebody far above any of those bottom lines can use a product with the same joy and ease as somebody at the very bottom, the product will never be truly great. That is why I worry not that the Retina MacBook Pro will fail, but that it will succeed. One way or another, it will change the industry.