The Mac is losing me

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I’ve been mostly happy using a Mac since I got myself my first computer earned with programmer money. I believe it was a mid 2009 15" MacBook Pro. That was a computer I used at least until 2016 which I consider very decent usable life. At that point I had replaced the hard-drive with an SSD, upgraded the RAM and switched a battery that was worn out. I stopped using it when it just straight died some time in 2016.

My history with the Mac

So what was that computer to me? It was an extremely well-built and solid-feeling piece of aluminium. A cool keyboard backlight. The magsafe charger and a bunch of USB ports. The keyboard and touchpad were best in class. The build quality was better than any laptop I had owned before. Partly because I had only bought the cheap ones before but also because they really were a step above at the time.

I got it primarily on recommendation from a friendly hacker who’s recommendations had never lead me wrong before. He spoke well of the underlying UNIX and the experience of using it. Fast, clean and visually pleasing. I think he mostly really liked the backlit keyboard, very hackerly. His recommendation held true, this computer was very good to me.

I’ve also been the admin on an Xserve server. That was wild. Neat UIs but buggy and finicky as all hell.

Since then I’ve used the second generation Macbook Air (I believe 2nd, first wedge version) at 11". That was a cool little machine and did what it did very nicely.

Hardware aside, MacOS in it’s earlier incarnations on these computers was always a snappy and competent experience. A polished surface which did a bunch of stuff under the hood that generally made it work better than the different Ubuntu desktop environments and various Windows versions I’ve had before. Things like Wifi and even Bluetooth felt good in a way they never had before.

A lot of it was the visual polish and the extremely snappy UI. But in total the experience was just great. Spotlight was glorious. I think my first upgrade was Snow Leopard which was generally a very good update as it focused on performance and stability.

As a developer’s machine it was fast enough, competent enough, got out of the way and the UNIX underpinnings meant I didn’t miss Linux at all. I’ve never been able to really connect with the equivalent powershell stuff in Windows. I guess I just like UNIX.

The only bad thing I can say about my early years of MacBook Pro usage was that the trackpad and the Magic Trackpad I got eventually are probably some of the biggest culprits in some of the RSI-style hand pain I’ve been dealing with. Trackpads are just murder on my hands and I worked loads off of that setup for a number of years. Took a while before I realized that it was trackpad-related.

Beyond that I’ve had some refurb Macs for my wife and assorted family, some 13" MBP for work at one point and then a 15" butterfly touchbar MBP for work. I think that was when I started to feel that Apple was diverging from my preferences in the MBP line.

My current experience

That’s the same computer I have and work on now and it is.. fine? Maybe just OK. Not great. I’ve had some keys getting stuck but fixable with canned air. I don’t like the touchbar, it has been between useless and an actual hindrance. The TouchID power button is good though. I don’t like living in dongle-town though I mostly like USB C in the long run.

The reason it has been mostly fine for me is that I keep it on tray mounted on a VESA arm, dangling dongles like a technical octopus and I use external peripherals for input.

It gets really hot and loud and then it performs incredibly poorly. So I guess this is one of the throttliest generations. I think I had the “don’t charge it on the wrong side” problem as well. Some of the CPU shenanigans have calmed down as I installed the Turbo Boost Switcher tool to just disable the Turbo Boost, removing performance for peace and quiet.

As I’ve been using these devices it has become increasingly annoying to figure out how to install “unknown” apps. I need some non-discoverable terminal incantation to get the option to accept installing things that are unsigned. There’s always a new piece getting locked down. And while I think that’s often to the benefit of the average consumer, I’m not that. And I just get more annoyed.

I’ve been frustrated about the uninspiring performance delivered for the incredible brand markup that Apple charges. I don’t mind the computer being expensive if the experience is good and the hardware reasonable. The experience feels like it is slipping, especially for my needs and the hardware has just been getting less impressive to me.

The hardware

My gaming computer has a Ryzen. For a while I did my dev on that as we had just moved to our house and the office wasn’t finalized. Woof, aside from running Windows as a dev environment which I didn’t enjoy there was some serious upside on that machine.

On the Mac my options are very limited. I can’t get a Ryzen, I can’t get anything modern with Intel or meaningfully upgradable at all. The Mac Pro doesn’t count. It comes underspeced at hilarious prices. I like some of the design decisions but the price-point doesn’t make any kind of sense for me and what I do. I can’t buy an interesting Mac from a performance standpoint.

Or can I? Well, they just announced the M1 chip and ARM Macs are now a fact. I think I might get one at some point. For a travel laptop I don’t think the rest of the industry is ready to fight Apple. Battery life and good bang for buck power might actually keep a Mac in my life for that. But I feel like the general trend is away from what I want. Or I might just use my iPad Pro for that use-case.

I think the M1 will be quite impressive when the benchmarks roll in. I’m sure it will suit many people for real-world use-cases as well. However, from the first presentation on it and the first batch of Macs I don’t feel like the direction is for me. IO was heavily sacrificed. Upgradability is pretty much out the window. These things can be fine for a travel device for me where battery and weight are primary concerns. In that regard the new Air looks pretty good.

The software

Beyond that the coming OS, Big Sur, is taking MacOS in a direction I dislike. Catalina was quite messy and felt like it took steps toward walling off the Mac. Big Sur seems even more heavy-handed in that area and finally the M1 can push that even further if Apple feels like it. My trust is eroding on letting Apple set the tone for my computing life.

Don’t get me wrong, I think their approach to this transition is incredibly neat with Rosetta2 and how they are using the bytecode stuff with the App Store and whatnot. And the possibility to run iOS and iPad apps natively could be very useful. But none of this really moves the needle for me.

So what’s next?

With my office in the garage as my primary work location I’m looking to transition to a desktop computer with lots of power. It will run Linux. Marking my first major return to desktop linux as a daily driver in a bundle of years. And it will run as light a desktop environment as I can stomach. I just wanted a stupid amount of performance to offset som of the UX niceties I know I will miss or have to customize on my own.

I’m excited about exercising my development tools on a strong modern CPU rather than the throttled mess my current laptop offers. But I’m not thrilled about this move beyond the hardware aspect. I liked MacOS but I just don’t feel like Apple gives much of a care for the things I care about. And I feel like the software side on the Mac is slipping, consistently.

If they released an expandable Mac that wasn’t ridiculously expensive they would really make me think twice. But that feels unlikely.

So I’ll build myself a monstrous machine that can compensate in raw power for the potential lack of elegance and which offers unbounded flexibility rather than a poorly tended garden that someone keeps trying to wall in.

I’m not happy about it. I’ve generally enjoyed using my Macs. But when someone says “we’ll give you the full experience”, settling into that requires trust. And my trust that Apple and me are in alignment keeps fading.

Also, I’m developing a lot with heavily concurrent workloads. So I really look forward to exercising more cores. 2021, year of the Linux desktop (for me).

If you have thoughts, comments or a hell yeah you want to share about this topic or maybe you want me to cover some specific part of my transition here, let me know either via or on Twitter @lawik. My first thoughts and my build might just show up first on my newsletter, so consider signing up for that below. It don’t track. Thanks for reading.

Underjord is a 4 people team doing Elixir consulting and contract work. If you like the writing you should really try the code. See our services for more information.

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