Regular readers will know that I still have a 17-inch MacBook Pro as my main computer. It’s almost five years old now, which is a relatively long time in Mac terms, and an absolute age for someone who usually does poorly when it comes to resisting shiny new tech.
But when Apple stopped selling the machine, I’d initially hoped that it was just a temporary measure. The company had only just introduced new Retina displays in the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros, both of which carried a hefty price-tag, and my theory then was that a 17-inch Retina screen wasn’t practical. Yield rates were too low, I supposed, meaning that the cost of a 17-inch model would have been too expensive even for Apple to contemplate.
So I hung in there …
I’d already upgraded it straight after purchase to 16GB RAM and swapped out the 750GB hard drive and optical drive for two 1TB hard drives. When the machine’s performance started to show its age, I upgraded it again, this time swapping out the spinning metal disks for two 1TB SSDs. As (nearly) 5-year-old machines go, it performs extremely well – but I knew there could come a point when I’d need to replace it, and I wasn’t seeing any viable candidates.
Two years ago, I still hadn’t entirely given up hope on Apple reintroducing a 17-incher. Sure, I recognized that it was a niche product, but so was the Mac Pro – and Apple had finally launched a new one. The company took its time, of course, but it did it in the end. Maybe, then, it would do the same with the 17-inch MacBook Pro.
A modern refresh could, I suggested, be a phenomenal machine. Put in PCIe SSDs and couple that massive battery with a modern, power-efficient CPU and you’d have a machine as long-lasting as it was fast.
Two years on, that hope has pretty much dwindled away. Given that Apple managed to create a 5K 27-inch iMac at a relatively affordable price, it’s clear that making a 17-inch Retina display wouldn’t be a problem – but Apple still hasn’t launched one.
I did have one small glimmer of possibility earlier this year, ironically stemming from the smallest MacBook in the range: the 12-inch MacBook. Apple managed to squeeze an extra diagonal inch of display into the same size casing as the 11-inch MacBook Air. It seemed to me that it could do the same thing with larger models, suggesting that we might get 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros. I haven’t given up on that one yet.
But one thing is now certain: I’m never again going to be able to buy a MacBook with the same degree of upgradability as my classic MacBook Pro. Whatever RAM I opt for when I buy it, that’s all the RAM it will ever have.
For now, upgrading the SSD storage is still possible. Back in March, OWC introduced PCIe SSD upgrades for both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, and we ran a guide showing you how to perform the upgrade.
But I’m not confident that will remain possible next time around. My view is that Apple showed us where the MacBook range was headed when it launched the 12-inch model. These days, sleek and slim trumps upgradability and even battery-life. And the 12-inch MacBook uses soldered SSD memory, meaning that storage is no more upgradable than RAM.
Battery-life is particularly annoying to me. Apple has set the bar at what it calls ‘all-day battery life.’ Superficially, that sounds great. That claim starts to unravel a little when we turn to the specs page and see that what that equates to is ‘up to 10 hours’ with the 13-inch model and ‘up to 9 hours’ with the 15-inch one.
I used to praise Apple for its honesty in battery-life claims. My rule of thumb has always been to halve manufacturer claims to get real-life usage, but MacBooks consistently delivered significantly better than that. Not any more; not by much. The iPad aside, Apple seems to have joined everyone else in using extremely unrealistic conditions for its claimed numbers. My 2013 MacBook Air, for example, claims 9 hours but typically delivers 5.
Manufacturers usually cheat in three ways when it comes to claimed laptop battery life:
- Continuous use, not real-life mobile use of sleep/wake patterns across a day
- Very light usage, avoiding anything demanding of CPU or storage
- Brightness turned down to an unrealistic level
Apple doesn’t share the specifics of its claimed usage, but it does say ‘wireless web,’ which implies nothing more demanding than web-browsing, and the ‘up to’ caveat tells us that it’s a best-case scenario. (I’m ignoring here the even more optimistic figure gives for doing nothing more than iTunes movie playback – as unrealistic a usage pattern as you could get.)
The frustrating thing to me about this is that if Apple allowed just a centimetre more thickness than current models – which is already way thinner than the classic MacBook Pro – that would allow sufficient battery to turn those claimed numbers into real-life ones. Instead, each generation of more power-efficient CPUs is just buying us thinner machines, not greater battery-life.
I know we’re supposed to live in an always-connected world, where our data lives in the cloud and is accessible from any device, anywhere, any time. But that’s still rather a long way from the reality, which is why my current MacBook Pro has 2TB of SSD storage, of which I’m currently using 1.5TB.
That means that when I pick up my computer, whether to travel to the local coffee shop or the other side of the world, I have all my data with me.
Admittedly, most people won’t need that much. I’m a keen photographer, and I keep all my photos on my Mac (as well as backed up numerous times, of course). But I can guarantee that the one time I travelled anywhere without a particular photo folder on-board would be the one time I would really need it.
The current 15-inch MacBook Pro comes with either 256GB or 512GB as standard, and is configurable – for a hefty $500 extra – to 1TB, but there’s no 2TB option. Perhaps this will be the year when there is, but I’m far from confident. Apple appears to think that we do live in that always-connected world, so unless 1TB comes as standard in the higher-spec machine, I suspect there will be no option for 2TB.
This year will probably be the one when I have to abandon my ‘all my data everywhere’ approach and start getting selective.
So, sure, my next MacBook Pro will be better in many ways. It will undoubtedly be slimmer and sleeker, and probably offer some nice new finishes. Looks-wise, it’s going to make my existing one look like a museum piece.
With a much more advanced processor and PCIe SSD, it will undoubtedly be significantly faster than my existing machine. I can’t wait to see how it flies through batch-processing of a large Lightroom library.
It also seems likely to have that shiny new OLED bar, which could be an extremely nice feature if macOS allows app developers to make full use of it – or just a gimmick if not.
But I’m near-certain I’m not going to get the screen size I want. I’m probably not going to get the storage I want. And I’m definitely not going to get the upgradability I want – which means it also won’t last me as long as I want. And that’s not to mention a move to USB-C that is said to be in the cards. So much as there are things I know I’ll enjoy about upgrading to a late-2016 MacBook Pro, in several important ways it’s going to be a downgrade.
What are your own views? Is Apple headed in the right direction, sacrificing upgradability and battery-life for sleekness? Or would you prefer a fatter machine that has room for more battery and user-upgradeable components? Please take our poll, and share your views in the comments.
Update: See also the follow-up post here.