The MacBook Pro saga: Apple's walled garden is turning increasingly Orwellian

Only outright revolt elicits a response from the increasingly reticent keepers of Apple's garden.

Three years ago, the decision to buy a MacBook came down to a matter of price and the acceptance of a life within the confines of Apple’s walled garden.

On the plus side, you’d get a stellar design, an unmatched display, a safe and stable platform and of course, exceptional resale value. On the downside, you’d be paying a premium for a device that offered a fraction of the power of competing Windows devices.

Today, this decision involves worry about device longevity, giving up on the once unmatched resale value and a life within a platform that’s getting increasingly and inexplicably user-hostile.

Buying a MacBook in 2018 requires you to take a leap of faith.

The problems started manifesting themselves in 2015 when Apple first introduced the world to the admittedly gorgeous but ultimately flawed 12-inch MacBook. I say ‘manifested’ because Apple’s design cycle is said to start three years prior to a device’s launch.

The previous generation MacBooks all had their flaws, GPU issues, motherboards that were prone to failure, anti-glare coatings that wouldn’t stay on, and so on. None of these were as bad or as infuriating as the ones that Apple brought upon themselves, and us, from 2015 onwards.

Let’s start with the most recent news though, the issues with Apple’s latest and greatest MacBook.

Thermal throttling

Seven months after the world shifted to faster, more powerful Intel CPUs, Apple updated its TouchBar-toting MacBook lineup. It was an exciting update for Apple fans. Alongside a promise of a 40-70 percent bump in performance, there was also the promise of a fix for the keyboard issues (more on that later) and the addition of a whole bunch of new features.

Barely a week after it launched, Apple had to issue an unreserved apology and a software patch.

Why? The brand new MacBook Pro would get so hot that it would perform worse than the previous generation model. Now there are some caveats to this, but the bottom line is just that Apple’s latest computer suffered from a serious flaw.

I’ve explained the problem in more detail here, suffice it to say that Apple hadn’t configured the device properly, resulting in the overheating. While Apple did apologise, they also tried to pass it off as a rare issue affecting “certain specific workloads.” Those specific workloads included video rendering, one of the biggest selling points of the MacBook line.

How in the world could Apple be so negligent as to not have tested for video editing performance on their brand new devices?

Bridge OS and T2

Unless you’ve been following the development of Apple Macs closely, you wouldn’t have heard of Bridge OS, and may have heard of T2 only in passing.

The T2 is a co-processor that Apple introduced in the iMac Pro and the 2018 MacBook Pro with TouchBar. Its predecessor, the T1, was introduced in the 2016-17 TouchBar MacBook Pro devices.

The chip is similar in design to the chip that powers Apple’s iPhones. If you’re curious, the T2 is said to be in the same performance class as the A10 chip that powers the iPhone 7.

This chip provides additional security for TouchID, independently encrypts the disk, manages the TouchBar, speakers, TrueTone and a whole lot else besides.

It’s a critical part of the TouchBar MacBook Pros and iMac Pro. On a related note, it appears that the T2 chip makes it impossible to recover data from the MacBook Pro.

The interface between T2 and macOS occurs via something called Bridge OS. Recent reports are now suggesting that BridgeOS is so buggy that it’s causing kernel panics. A kernel panic is the macOS equivalent of the infamous Windows BSOD.

The list of problems includes a non-functional sleep mode, unresponsive peripherals and of course, frequent reboots. To be clear, it’s not definitively known that the T2 chip and Bridge OS are to blame, but mounting evidence points in that direction.

Apple appears to be working to fix these issues, with the latest update apparently fixing some of the more serious issues. That’s good, but these issues started popping up within a week of launch. As with the thermal issues, how in the world did Apple’s QA team not pick up on the issues?

I’d love to cut Apple some slack for this, it’s a whole new platform after all, and nobody else has done anything like it, but a $3,000 computer should not be a buggy, unstable mess. Thankfully, this is at least something that can be fixed via software updates.

Butterfly keyboard: Worse than useless

By far the biggest misstep Apple made was the introduction of the Butterfly Switch keyboard in the 12-inch MacBook in 2015.

The keyboard uses something called a “butterfly” mechanism to register a keystroke. It’s an ingenious design that helped Apple slim down its MacBook’s profile, but it also arrived with the unlikeliest of weaknesses: dust.

Essentially, a single speck of dust can render a key unusable.

 

This was an issue with the 2015 MacBook, and despite issues, Apple stuck with the key design, carrying it forward to the 2016 and 2017 12-inch MacBook, 2016 and 2017 MacBook Pros (all models).

It’s frustrating enough to have stuck keys on a premium device. It’s even more frustrating to have to deal with potential data loss and a $700 bill for simply replacing a key.

Why? The keys are so fragile that they can’t be individually replaced. To replace the keyboard, Apple techs will have to rip the device apart and replace the entire upper panel. Given that the battery, speakers and a few other odds and ends are glued to the panel and are replaced with it.

If your device wasn’t under warranty (1 year regular or 2-year extended warranty), you’d pay through your nose for the repair.

Despite mounting evidence that the keyboard was flawed, Apple continued to push out iteration after iteration, year after year. The design did improve over time, with fewer 2017 models affected than 2016 ones, but the damage was done.

Apple refused to acknowledge the problem until users got angry enough to file lawsuits. Apple then backed down, slightly, and did the right thing, sort of. Apple announced that all affected models would be protected by a 4-year extended warranty program that only covered the keyboard. Those who paid for a repair would get a full refund.

Apple has more pro-actively tried to fix the keyboard issues on the new MacBook Pro models.

Apple has more pro-actively tried to fix the keyboard issues on the new MacBook Pro models.

While this is all fine and dandy, the replacement keyboards are as prone to dust-induced failure as they’ve always been.

Indirectly, the keyboard issue is a blow to the second-hand MacBook market as well. You’d have to be of a particularly masochistic bent of mind to deliberately go out of your way and buy a defective product, particularly one that’s as expensive to repair as an Apple device. If you're ignorant of the issues, woe be you.

Apple’s reaction to the initial reports wasn’t “we screwed up”. It was “it’s not a big deal, feedback doesn’t matter, let’s continue pushing a design that we know is flawed because it shaves a few mm off the thickness of our MacBook.”

To add to this, Apple’s wording around the issues attempts to play down the seriousness of the issue. Apple claims that only a “small percentage of devices” are affected. Everyone I know with a butterfly switch MacBook has had issues with the keyboard. Literally everyone. Some have had their keyboards replaced twice already. Back-of-the-hand calculations by some folk suggest that as many as 20 percent of the butterfly keyboard MacBooks in circulation could be affected.

Apple’s 2018 TouchBar MacBooks more pro-actively address this issue by introducing a silicon membrane under the keycaps. iFixit reports that the keys are now easier to remove as well, making a repair easier. Despite evidence to the contrary (Apple’s repair manual), Apple continues to insist that the membrane is only for reducing the noise of keystrokes.

#DongleLife

If you thought a phone without a headphone jack was bad, imagine a computer without regular USB ports. This is life in Apple land.

The first sign that something was amiss came from the 12-inch MacBook and the switch to USB-C. Contrary to what most might believe, USB-C only refers to the shape of the port, not its capabilities.

 

USB-C is a great port with great potential, and it is the future, but that future isn’t here yet and it definitely wasn’t there in 2015. At launch, the only thing you could connect directly to that port was the USB-C charging cable that Apple bundled with the device.

Three years later, that’s still the case. Hell, Apple didn’t even introduce the USB-C to Lightning cable, essential for connecting your iPhone or iPad directly with a MacBook, until a year or so after the release of its first USB-C-only device.

When users complained, Apple eventually dropped the price of its dongles, and that too only temporarily. Worse still, they doubled down on USB-C, eliminating all the useful ports from its MacBook/Pro lineup.

Without a dongle:

  • You can’t connect your iPhone
  • You can’t connect a camera
  • You can’t connect a wired mouse or keyboard
  • You can’t connect to an external monitor or TV
  • You can’t connect a portable drive

One could argue that Apple has the muscle to force the world to USB-C, but one could also be delusional. It’s not like the 3.5 mm headphone jack has shown signs of disappearing anytime soon.

USB-Confusion
In theory, USB-C is a universal port and you could plug anything into the port and expect blazing fast performance. There would be no need to worry about varying display standards and the like.

Unfortunately, USB-C is not as universal a standard as it may seem. Given that USB-C simply describes the shape of the USB port, USB-C could refer to anything from USB 2.0 to USB 3.1 to even Thunderbolt 3. Even in this regard, there’s a lot of fine print to be considered. USB-C cables also vary significantly in capability and power-handling ability. 

Here’s how the USB-C ports in Apple’s MacBooks are currently distributed:

12-inch MacBook: All models
1x USB-C port rated for USB 3.1. In other words, this is the same as a regular USB port, the only difference being that it’s shaped like USB-C and so incompatible with regular USB devices. This is the only port on the device and must pull double duty for charging as well as data transfer.

13-inch non-TouchBar MacBook Pro: All models
2x USB-C ports rated for Thunderbolt 3. These are blazing fast ports that meet and surpass most people’s expectations.

However, Apple’s earlier MacBook Pro had 9 ports. The new one only has 2. Regardless of how awesome that port is on paper, 2 ports does not equal 9. Plug in a display and power and you now have no more room for anything else.

Why is this ridiculous? When using a MacBook with an external display, the only way that the setup will function with the MacBook lid closed is if the device is connected to external power and there is a mouse and keyboard connected. With only two ports at your disposal, you'll run out of ports faster than you'd realise.

13-inch MacBook Pro with TouchBar: 2016-17 models
2x USB-C ports rated for 40 Gbps Thunderbolt 3.
2x USB-C ports rated for 20 Gbps Thunderbolt 3.

All the ports on these MacBook Pros seem identical, but they’re not. If you’re connecting multiple displays or external graphics card docks (eGPU), there’s a bit of voodoo involved regarding how they’re connected.

True, this is not a use-case for us regular folk, but some pros, the people these MacBook Pros apparently target, live and die by these outlier use-cases.

13-inch MacBook Pro with TouchBar: 2018 model
The newer MacBook Pros now feature 4x Thunderbolt 3 ports with 40 Gbps, i.e., the ports are all built equal now. Three years since their introduction.

15-inch MacBook Pro with TouchBar: All models
Thankfully, this model has always had 4x Thunderbolt 3 ports rated at 40 Gbps. As critics point out, though, why couldn’t Apple simply have added useful I/O ports to at least this model? The powerful 15-inch line is, after all, the one truly meant for professionals.

If all this wasn’t confusing enough, the USB-C cable that comes bundled with your MacBook can only be used for charging and low-speed data transfer. You will need a new cable for connecting an external display, USB drive, etc.

Where’s the trust?

I can’t help but feel that Apple’s walled garden is turning increasingly Orwellian. There’s little room for feedback and only outright revolt is eliciting a response from the increasingly reticent keepers.

Does Apple not understand that we simply need a device that works, one that we can blindly trust to function? We don’t care if the sides are a millimetre thicker or if an excess of ports looks ugly. Unreliable keyboards are maddening and dongles are uglier still.

Come on, Apple! You’re better than this.




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