Matt Gemmell

A Laptop for Writers

tech, writing & cover 12 min read

Update, October 2016: The 2015 MacBook is a very attractive machine in most respects, but after a series of problems with the reliability of its built-in keyboard - including three warranty repairs on my 2015 model, and a full replacement with the 2016 model as an apology - for the first time in my history as an Apple user, I am withdrawing my recommendation of this Mac.

I must now advise that you do not buy the 2015 edition of this machine. From my experience (which isn’t isolated; I’ll leave you to search online for others’ stories), there seems to be a fundamental design flaw with the new keyboard. I’m by no means tough on my laptops — indeed, I treat them with the utmost respect and care. I’m stunned at how readily the keyboard becomes intermittently unresponsive on certain commonly-used keys, like the spacebar and the left Command key. The repair process also requires being without the machine for a week each time, due to the highly integrated nature of the components. It’s a very poor situation, and not one I’ve encountered with Apple before.

At time of writing this update, just over two months since receiving the replacement, the 2016 model is working as desired.

The original article remains below, as published.


When I buy a laptop, my main concern is portability. That’s been true for years now, but the reason has changed.

I used to be a software developer, and my computer use was split between my desktop machine (a big iMac with the maximum amount of RAM, upgraded processor, extra display, and all kinds of attached gadgets), and my “evening or travel” machine. I didn’t code, or design, on the evening machine if I could possibly help it – and since I work from home, the big desktop was always within reach.

Things changed overnight when I quit my career.

I’m a writer now, and my needs are modest indeed. I run a browser for the web and email, a Twitter app, and Slack for the chatroom I’m in all day with my closest friends from university. My actual productivity apps are BBEdit, Scrivener, OmniFocus, and OmniOutliner. When I’m writing, I’m usually only running either BBEdit or Scrivener, to avoid any distractions.

I don’t do any software development. I haven’t opened Xcode in 18 months. I don’t edit video, or have a big photo library. My laptop runs near-idle most of the time, with occasional bursts of light activity in one or two well-behaved apps. I’m most productive on a small screen. And I like to be able to move around throughout the day.

I’m privileged, and I know it.

Screen size doesn’t really matter to me; I keep my font sizes large, and my workspace focused. I have one app on screen at a time. Performance doesn’t really matter, either; for about ninety percent of the day, I’m just typing. I don’t play games on my laptop, or edit big Photoshop files, or anything like that.

Ports don’t matter – I can’t remember the last time I even plugged a USB key into my laptop. And storage doesn’t matter, because my entire body of work and constantly-needed files fit comfortably into my Dropbox, which is all of five hundred megabytes.

So, I’m lucky. I can work on pretty much any machine – but I do have some requirements.

  • A keyboard that’s comfortable to type on for long periods.

  • Enough battery life to last through the day, under light load.

  • As portable as possible: small, light, and sturdy.

Everyone has a list of other features they’d like to have (mine are: a beautiful display, an aesthetically pleasing machine, and the ability to charge from battery packs as well as mains power), but they’re not deal-breakers. I can live without them.

For the last four years, my evening machine – and also my main machine, for the last eighteen months – has been a MacBook Air 11”, my most recent being the 2013 model. It’s the finest laptop I’ve ever owned, and it was hard to see what was left to be improved. The only less-than-stellar aspect is the non-retina display, and its relatively low resolution, but I managed just fine with it. Day in and day out, at home and abroad. I feel a great deal of affection for that trusty little device.

But I’m not immune to the lure of what’s new.

It was with a lot of uncertainty that I recently took delivery of a new 2015 model MacBook 12”, with Retina Display. Marco Arment doesn’t like it, and that’s fine. We’re each allowed to have our own opinions. Marco is a discerning and thoughtful person, and his words carry weight with me. Our usage profiles are also probably quite different. I decided to see for myself.

I switched fully over to the new MacBook the day it arrived – a week ago, as I write this – and I’ve been using it solidly since then. It’s been a normal working week, and I’ve typed many thousands of words. I’ve worked from my desk (during weekday afternoons), from my exercise bike (each morning from 9 til 11 AM) with a laptop cushion set into the handlebars, and from my armchair for several hours each evening and during the weekend. I’ve done everything on it that I’ve been doing on the Air for the last several years, and I’ve got a feel for this new device.

Let’s talk about it in more detail.

Keyboard

For me, a laptop is its keyboard. I can make do with most display sizes, qualities, resolutions, and so on – but I need a good keyboard. The main source of my worry about the new MacBook was how very different its keyboard is from previous models.

I’d used the new machine in my local Apple Store on numerous occasions, mostly focusing on the keyboard, but you never really know until you’ve spent a few days with it in a realistic situation.

MacBook 12" 2015

There was a brief learning curve.

The key feel is different: there’s much less travel, and when the keys bottom-out, the feedback is harder; more abrupt. The mechanism has a different sound, too; if you pretend to type by tapping your fingers on a solid surface, that’s pretty close to how this keyboard sounds. Less splashy, and more clicky. It’s a more bass sound.

The keys are also physically larger, and closer together than those on the Air. Even the shapes of some keys have been changed, notably the Escape key – which is longer – and the left and right cursor keys, which are now full-height. (Note that the inverted-L-shaped Return key you see in the photos here isn’t new; it’s perfectly normal for a British keyboard.)

It’s the cursor keys that caused me the most problems during the first day of real use. Apparently, I used the gaps above the left and right arrow keys (and below the rightmost Shift key) to orient myself without looking, while editing text. It did take a day to adjust, and maybe two days to learn to trust myself again without glancing over.

Otherwise, I was fluent and back up to speed with the new keyboard within an hour of switching over. It’s just not as different in use as it at first seems. The only lasting effect of the switch for me is that the keyboards on the Air, and my wife’s MacBook Pro, now feel spongy – but still perfectly usable. The shallower action on the new model still has enough travel to let you know that you’re typing. My error rate after the first day or so wasn’t any higher than on the Air’s scissor-action keys.

I’ve been lucky to never seriously suffer from RSI, but I’ve also always been careful. I believe that shallower-action keys are probably easier on the wrist. Whilst the keypress force on the new MacBook is delivered over a shorter travel, making it feel harder, I suspect that overall there’s less actual muscle movement required to operate each key compared to the much higher travel on the scissor-style keys on Air and Pro models (and indeed the desktop Apple keyboards).

In any case, after a week of work, my wrists are still just fine.

Trackpad

Much has been made of the new Force Touch trackpad, and it’s an interesting toy. The actual features that it adds to OS X are all gimmicks: alternate ways to lookup words in Dictionary, or pop-over link previews in Safari, and the like. There’s nothing essential or life-changing there; it’s just an additional option for interacting, instead of a right-click or a different gesture.

The technology is certainly impressive. My brain can’t accept that the trackpad isn’t actually moving when I click, or Force Touch. It’s a very convincing illusion, and you can choose between three levels of click-feedback firmness (with corresponding noise level). It works as advertised, and you will believe that the glass panel is moving down and back up again.

MacBook 12" 2015

Having said that, I don’t use it at all. I’ve been a tap-to-click person for as long as the option has existed, again because I find trackpad button-pressing (particularly for dragging operations) quite heavy on the wrist. I try to use keyboard shortcuts whenever possible, but sometimes you do need a pointing device, and I try to protect my wrist and elbow as much as I can. So, it’s tap-to-click, and three-finger dragging for me. In an average week, I never press down on the trackpad, and that isn’t going to change with this new model.

It is nice, though, to have a larger surface area on the trackpad itself, and it works just as flawlessly as every other Apple trackpad I’ve used. They’re the best in the industry.

Screen

We have an assortment of Retina Display iOS devices in the house, and my wife has had a Retina MacBook Pro 15” for two or three years, but my own Macs have all been non-Retina up until now. I honestly didn’t notice any pixels on the big desktop iMac – it’s too far away from me – but I did immediately see the difference when using the new MacBook, as I always do when I glance at my wife’s Pro.

There are four scaling options available:

  • 1440 x 900.
  • The default 1280 x 800.
  • 1152 x 720.
  • 1024 x 640, which comes with a warning about some apps not fitting entirely on-screen.

None of those options warn about potentially degraded performance, which is interesting because my wife’s MacBook Pro does warn for any scaling option besides the default. Here’s what those screen sizes look like relative to each other, also including the 11” Air:

Full set of MacBook Air 11" vs MacBook 12" Retina screen dimensions

(You can also see that image at actual size.)

I fully expected to use the default 1280 x 800, which would give me a little less horizontal space than on the (1366 x 768 only) 11” Air, and a little more vertical space. I tried out each mode, and within the first fifteen minutes I’d decided to go with the largest virtual option instead. I’ve been running at 1440 x 900 all week, and it’s gorgeous.

This display is certainly the finest I’ve used on a Mac laptop, right up there with the 15” Pro. Blacks are deep, it’s incredibly bright and saturated (I run it at a maximum of 50% brightness during the day, and down to maybe 30% in late evening), and everything is crisp and beautiful. It’s more glossy than the Air’s – an effect that’s enhanced by the black glass bezel – and there’s a definite gradient effect depending on viewing angle. For me, that just makes it look more luxurious and inviting.

I’ve barely noticed the increased number of available pixels, honestly, because it’s the Retina resolution that makes the most difference. I could comfortably use this at the default scaling too, but I haven’t seen any need to change that setting back.

Like any Retina Display, it’s so sharp and vivid that it looks like a printed decal at first. Non-Retina graphics in apps and on the web are glaringly apparent. I had to make a couple of tweaks to my own site within the first 48 hours.

Form factor

It’s not news to anyone that this is physically a beautiful machine. Mine is the gold model, which is actually a warm, buttery caramel colour; darker than the champagne of the iPhone 5s, and in line with the gold colour option on current iPhones and iPads.

It’s also light, small, and solid. It’s lighter than the MacBook Air 11” (noticeably, if not dramatically), and it’s smaller in every dimension except depth – i.e. front to back, as it lies on a table – where it’s 0.46cm deeper than the Air.

MacBook 12" 2015

It’s also just as sturdy in the hand; picking it up one-handed is no problem. There’s no creaking or flexing. The hinge cover at the back is now metal just like the rest of the body, instead of black plastic. The hinge itself has a very noticeably different action: it’s easier to push the screen away from you, but it still stays firmly in place.

To my hands, the surface on either side of the trackpad is a little rougher than on the Air; there’s just a tad more friction and grip.

Lastly, the Apple logo on the lid is now mirrored, and doesn’t transmit the screen’s backlight. I’d rather have a mirror than an ad, and that says two things about me.

Connectivity

There’s a single USB-C port, which is for charging as well as connectivity, and a headphone port. I don’t connect things to my laptop any more than once every few months, so that doesn’t matter to me. I do have the USB-C to USB adapter in a drawer here.

MacBook 12" 2015

My iPhone syncs directly to iCloud. My Photo Stream is wireless, as is Dropbox, and Backblaze for backups.

Again, Apple got rid of things I barely use anyway. If you’re worried about connections, this is a gorgeous-looking gadget.

Battery

The raw battery capacity of the new MacBook is essentially the same as the 2013 11” Air. It’s a different machine, though, with a Retina Display, so that’ll negatively impact battery life. It also has a slower processor, which I barely stress at all, so that might positively impact battery life.

Keep in mind that I run very few apps (if I don’t need it right now, I quit it – a habit formed back in System 7 and Mac OS 8-9 days). Most of the time, I have either BBEdit or Scrivener running, and little else.

In practice, I get the same battery life on the new MacBook as I do on the Air: far more than I need. To quantify that, I run the machine at 50% brightness and 1440 x 900, with wi-fi on, Dropbox and various other utilities always running, and one or two productivity apps. I occasionally check Twitter, do something on the web, read my feeds, manage my calendar, or handle email – then I quit those apps and get back to work. I don’t have any Bluetooth peripherals, or any other hardware connected, and I listen to music from my phone.

Under those normal-for-me conditions, I get about 12 hours of battery life. That’s good enough. It’s also a comfort to know that, in emergencies, I could get a little top-up (albeit slowly, and with the machine asleep or off) from any USB battery pack.

Performance

I’m a writer, and this review is for people who use their laptop in a similar way to me.

I don’t write code, or compile software projects. I don’t edit video. I don’t podcast. I don’t work in the Creative Cloud apps, except light work in Photoshop for a few minutes at a time. There are a lot of things I don’t do.

What I do do is write, and any machine can handle Scrivener and BBEdit. Ditto for OmniFocus and OmniOutliner. The most machine-taxing activity I regularly do is no doubt browsing the web, which has become a hellscape of power-gobbling, stutter-scrolling, ad-laden awfulness these days. I try to minimise exposure, and focus on sites that respect the reader.

For me, the new MacBook’s performance is fine. It’s definitely slower than the 11” Air, but for the most part, I don’t notice – because I’m barely using the machine’s abilities as it is. I’m lucky that way.

If you’re asking whether it’s the right choice for software development, or whatever that thing is that you do, it seems to me like you’re trying to convince yourself that you should buy it, rather than actually seeking out the best tool for the job. If you have concerns about whether or not the performance or battery life are up to what you need, you’re probably looking at the wrong laptop. If you buy based on benchmarks, you’re definitely not in the right place.

Video/audio editing, etc? Wrong laptop. Gaming? Wrong laptop. App development with really big projects? Wrong laptop. Design work in Creative Cloud, with hundred-layer documents? Wrong laptop. Just looking at the specs should make that pretty clear. It can do those things, but you’d be much better off with something more powerful.

For everything else – i.e. most normal stuff, involving office/productivity applications, social media, the web, email, and so on – it’s just fine.

The Air models are now general-purpose machines; the performance and endurance threshold has long since been crossed. The Pro models are for hardcore usage; they’re desktops you can lug around. The new MacBook will evolve to become what the Air is now, but for the moment, it’s what the first Air was: the perfect laptop for a very specific type of person.

Don’t force it.

Privilege

This is a computer for those privileged enough to be able to use it.

I’m not talking about money, but rather the freedom to not care about the areas where it might be suboptimal for others. It’s for people who are lucky enough that this kind of machine doesn’t demand compromise.

That’s me. I have modest performance needs; the battery lasts all day; I don’t care about ports and connectors. The screen is gorgeous, and more than big enough. The keyboard suits me well.

This thing is for the most casual of users, or those whose work can happily masquerade as casual use: the writers, journalists, bloggers, and the like.

For them, and maybe you – and definitely me – it’s the ideal laptop.

MacBook 12" 2015