Five Months with the 15-inch 2017 MacBook Pro

March 14, 2018

I have now spent about five months with a work-supplied Macbook Pro 2017, complete with discrete GPU and the infamous TouchBar.

So far, my experience has been... well, I'll get to that eventually.

First, some background: my first computer was an ancient (even for the time) mid-90s Macintosh. If I had to guess at the model, a feat which would require an awful lot of investigative work, I'd probably peg it as an LC 580 from 1995, which would make it only slightly older than me. At the time, I didn't think much of it, but I definitely liked it a lot more than the god awful underpowered Windows XP machines I used in the following years. You probably remember those machines, too (though I think we've mostly tried to forget them): too little RAM, so they constantly swapped with the hard disk, which was <2000RPM and uttered noises resembling a child mopping up the least dregs of a Slurpee; graphics that could hardly power the 480x600px fullscreen monitors of the era on a blank desktop, no less running Excel or a web browser; IE6; that awful, awful rolling green hills XP default background; the untangleable mess of hardware drivers for even something as simple as a mouse, keyboard, or printer; constant blue screens of death and crashes... and so much worse that I've suppressed over the years.

Anyway, it's safe to say that I wasn't a fan of Windows growing up, though that probable has something to do with the terrible hardware used for cheap consumer Windows machines at the time. From what I've heard, OS X wasn't much better pre-Snow Leopard, so I think it's safe to say that I would have hated either as a kid. All I know is that I saw computers as awful utilitarian machines (an unfortunate necessity for messaging, games, and web forums) until I saw my brother's 2006 white polycarbonate macbook. That was the first time I remember being truly impressed by a computer -- it didn't just look like something I'd tolerate using, it looked like something I wanted to use. It's funny to look back at it now, considering how dated the machine looks, but at the time it really was an impressive machine. That recessed, high resolution camera; those nearly seamless transitions between the bottom and top case; the satisfying click of the chicklet keyboard (that I must admit, I really preferred to other laptop keyboards at the time, including my father's IBM era ThinkPad); and most of all, the fact that the machine had a cohesive, thoughtful design. In short, it was a sexy machine, and the minute I saw it I knew I wanted a Mac. The software design of OS X was just icing on the cake -- I didn't even know what Unix was at the time, much less yearn for a proper terminal, but I could appreciate the font rendering of OS X and the contextual top bar.

But I didn't get a Mac immediately -- after all, I was only 11 at the time, and I could hardly afford a $1000 laptop on the money I earned mowing the lawn. So I waited, and saved up, and got my first job. I used a truly awful desktop, another truly awful desktop, and a truly awful laptop, all running XP and all inherited from family. In 2010, I purchased my first brand-new laptop: a 2010 MacBook Pro Unibody, with a 250GB HDD and a Core 2 Duo processor. It was awesome. I used that thing until 2015, upgrading the RAM to 12GB and the drive to an SSD along the way, and only abandoned it because it started to choke on web apps. The uniformly backlit keys, the battery indicator light, the trackpad that, through a combination of gestures and a smooth glass surface, felt like an extension of my hand in a way a mouse never did... there was little I didn't love about that machine. Sure, it didn't have the performance of a $1000 desktop at the time, but it was mobile and worked perfectly for my use cases. When I eventually got into programming in 2012, I'd first use the 2006 MacBook that my brother no longer used, and later use my MBP for my college Computer Science classes at the University of Rochester. I never regretted the money I spent on that machine, and still maintain that it was one of the best purchasing decisions I've ever made. Technically the machine still runs today, but I was force to remove the battery since it expanded after a year of neglect. My brother (the same one who bought that original 2006 MBP!) is currently using it for Python and R development, though it's tied to an outlet these days.

My 2015 MacBook Pro is another purchase I don't regret at all. It has served me well since I purchased it at the beginning of my first software internship, and still remains my daily driver personal machine. It runs games like FTL, Starbound, Terraria, and Minecraft well enough, it travelled across Europe with me during my study abroad semester, and I've never had an issue with it whatsoever aside from a few software bugs in Yosemite when I first got the machine. I quickly upgraded to El Capitan beta, and the machine actually remains on El Capitan to this day -- a decision I don't regret, given my experiences with Sierra on my work laptop.

So, now that you've read through that meandering recount of my personal computers, you're probably wondering: why did I read that? Why on earth would I care? Well, I just wanted to give some context before I unload on my work MacBook Pro 2017. I wanted to establish that I'm not used to desktop performance, mechanical keyboards, and I've certainly experienced plenty of software/hardware bugs in my day. I've worked on college computer lab Fedora machines, a work ThinkPad on Windows 7, a work Dell on Windows 7, a desktop replacement gaming laptop on Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 10, Fedora, and Ubuntu, a MacBook 2006, a MacBook Pro 2010, a MacBook Pro 2015, and now my MacBook Pro 2017, and I don't think I've experienced a computer with this many issues since at least 2005, when I used an ancient Gateway laptop that literally had keys falling off of its keyboard (but unlike the 2017 MBP, at least they still worked ;-) ).

Let's go through a list of some of my top grievances with the MBP 2017:

  • The keyboard is the most uncomfortable keyboard I've ever typed on, to the point where my finger pads actually hurt after just a few sentences.

  • The lack of spacing between keys and key height makes it very difficult to type accurately, so I type much slower than usual.

  • I thought my personal 2015 Pro got hot when I watch YouTube with the vents partially blocked, but I was totally wrong. This laptop gets hot -- to a point where my hands actually start sweating just trying to type on the keyboard. Unexpected pro to this con: if my hands get cold on my walk to the office, this laptop heats them up in a matter of minutes. Unexpected con: the cumulative heat generated by this laptop actually heats up my area of the office by a noticeable increment.

  • The TouchBar is beyond useless. You'd think that making the escape key a virtual button wouldn't cause that huge a disruption to your workflow... but you'd be wrong. Every time I try to switch modes in VIM, I look down at my keyboard because the lack of an escape key surprises me. 6 months later. I thought I'd adapt but I can't, especially since every other keyboard provides physical feedback when I hit escape, so I never truly get used to the lack of feedback. Sorry Apple, but I don't like you enough to ditch every other keyboard I use... and you don't even provide an external TouchBar, so I couldn't even if I wanted to. If you're having trouble imagining why this is such a problem, imagine if your laptop's 1 key made a loud quacking noise, like a duck, every time you pressed it. You might get used to it for a few hours... but as soon as you used a keyboard where that key didn't sound like a duck, you'd be surprised, and start getting used to the lack of quacking. And then the next day at work you'd be surprised by the quack again! But then you'd get a little used to it... but then you'd use a different laptop... over and over again. Whiplash, Apple, is what you're giving me. I don't want my $3000 laptop to give me whiplash.

  • Since my previous TouchBar rant was mostly a "virtual escape key" rant, let me rant about the rest of it: having my keys change between applications means I never get used to their location, so I can never, say, skip a song or adjust the brightness without looking because it's constantly moving all over the place. And it's hard anyway to position a slider without looking at the slider, and it usually ends up accidentally maxing out my volume and bursting my eardrums. In addition, the TouchBar sometimes gets really laggy (probably because the laptop hits 90 Celsius and the TouchBar is near the hottest part of the laptop), so it'll randomly not respond to inputs. And it doesn't provide physical feedback either, so I can't tell if I hit it anyway. I've pretty much given up on using laptop shortcuts to raise/lower brightness, volume, and skip/play/pause/songs because of the lack of reliability.

  • The left/right arrow keys are full sized, unlike their size/spacing on all previous MacBooks I've used. This sounds like a small issue, but it adds to the difficulty of orienting yourself on the keyboard, since you can't feel out the arrow keys easily. I'm not even sure why it's such a problem, since the up/down keys are still half-keys... but for some reason, it is.

  • Keys break far, far, far, far, far too easily. Keys stick, double press, fail to have any effect, or just stop clicking. I know a lot of developers who use MacBooks at work, and none of the pre-2016s have had this issue (aside from one guy who bashed enter so hard he literally broke the key off his laptop)... but at least half of my 2017-using friends have had this issue, and their laptops are mostly <1 year old. I'm horrified to think about how this keyboard will hold up in the long term if folks are getting it replaced in mere months of use, which, in typical current-day Apple fashion, is a $700+ repair that takes close to a week minimum.

  • Freezes, stutters, issues with external monitors, lack of a decent Apple-sourced USB-C/TB3 dock, USB-C only... the list goes on. But at some point you're nitpicking :)

TL;DR: I've loved every MacBook I've ever owned, but the 2017 MBP is a complete trainwreck. I don't know what's happening at Apple... but if things don't change fast, I'll be moving toward full Linux for personal use. For work use, OS X is still my best bet, but every day I get closer to giving up on Apple.