is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
In spite of the fact that I’ve publicly doubted whether I’ll personally buy another laptop again, my employer does mandate that my main computer should be a laptop. So for a while now I’ve been using a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. It’s fast, has a beautiful screen and comes in a pleasingly sleek form factor with a gorgeous space gray finish.
However, for reasons too complicated to explain, for the past week or so I’ve been using an early 2015 model MacBook Pro. There’s no Touch Bar, the screen is not as sophisticated, and it’s both thicker and heavier. But you know what? It feels like an upgrade.
I say this for a bunch of reasons, but maybe the most socially significant of them is the fact that this older model has a keyboard that produces hardly any noise at all as I type on it. By contrast, my newer MacBook Pro’s abrasively loud keyboard has become a major annoyance in my work life. The clamorous, hard-to-ignore clickety-clack of its keys is so disruptive in live meetings and, especially, over conference calls (where the mic seems to hone in on the specific frequency of the tapping) that it effectively makes the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar harder to use than other laptops. It doesn’t matter how great a piece of technology is when your usage of it is hindered by the irritation of your colleagues. I’ve been dealing with this all year and I’m tired of it.
The deeper problem with the new model MacBook Pro is, of course, its blithe reliance on USB-C as the only available type of physical port. A lot has been written about this but it bears repeating that it’s a pain in the neck. I’ve had to buy a host of adapters and dongles and now tote them along with me constantly, unnecessarily complicating an aspect of my tech life that, as a rule, should always be trending towards simpler.
Of course, the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar also uses USB-C for its power supply, a technically impressive feat that’s also a nontrivial hindrance. It makes me long for the halcyon days of MagSafe power adapters, which were so profoundly elegant that they still seem essential. MagSafe had become nearly ubiquitous by the time Apple conspicuously omitted it from this model. Between my office and home, I couldn’t even count the number of MagSafe adapters I own or have easy access to. Now I’ve got just one hateful USB-C power adapter and I have to carry it everywhere.
Suffice it to say that my 2015 MacBook Pro has MagSafe, older style USB ports, and works will all of my devices (even my Google Pixel phone, which is itself USB-C-based). Using it as my primary computer feels like rejoining the world of the living.
Apple has a history of making bold leaps forward that also obsolesce popular technology—usually ports and media formats—and I’ve been on board with just about all of them. To my mind, these dramatic shifts work best when they bring with them demonstrable, near term benefits to the user. When Apple omitted the floppy drive from its first iMac, it showed that network transfer of files was much more elegant—and faster. When Apple killed the beloved FireWire port, it opened up the world of more widely available USB peripherals. When Apple ditched optical drives, they hastened the demise of physical media and spared customers the expense of the cumbersome hardware. And even when Apple retired the old, iPod-style Dock connector, it gave the world the infinitely better designed Lightning cable.
But after living with the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar for months now, I can only conclude that its “bold leap forward” is an ambition that leaves me cold. I just don’t see any immediate, material user benefit to consolidating on USB-C, at least to the premature exclusion of Thunderbolt, HDMI, MagSafe and the older USB standard. Between those four technologies, there are far more devices out there in the wild than there ever were of the older technologies that Apple defiantly obsolesced in the past. This makes life today much more difficult for more people than during any of Apple’s previous technology shifts. It’s true that there are some meaningful benefits to the Touch Bar itself (I’ve barely mentioned it here because I barely use it), but that feature is hardly contingent on the omission of these others. And it’s also true that USB-C is becoming more popular, but that’s a reality for another day. Today’s reality is that the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar could stand to inherit much from its immediate predecessors. My only hope is that Apple realizes this.+