A Review of the 2016 MacBook Pro 15”

06/09/2017

Forward

I started drafting this review a few weeks prior to the 2017 updates to the MacBook Pro line. Those updates (Kaby Lake, speed-bumped AMD graphics) are negligible improvements, so I’m not too worried about this review being outdated even as I publish it.

Introduction

I’m a long-time Mac user, starting with the platform in the late 1980s, and using it full time since about 1992. There are a lot of MacBook Pro reviews out there, but I think my Mac credentials can offer things that might be missed by other reviewers who never used a Macintosh SE, or never had to use Mac OS versions prior to X.

Ordering and Configuration

I’ve been needing/wanting a new MacBook for a while, as my old machine has been slowly failing in peculiar ways.

I use my Mac full-time for work and for my personal needs, which can include a lot of web work (many open tabs across two different browsers); graphics work, including Photoshop and Lightroom; transcoding video (client videos or my own DVDs/Blu-Rays); the occasional game. The 15-inch model continues to serve these needs the best, as I need the extra screen real estate and the faster GPU.

As I have done since Apple’s online store debuted, I placed an order for a custom configuration.

I started with the base model, which is the only way to get the slower 2.6 Ghz CPU. I often value battery life over raw CPU speed, so I’m comfortable sacrificing CPU speed for some battery gains (this “slower” CPU is still faster than the i7 in my much older machine.) To this base model I then added the Radeon 460 and 1TB of storage.

My new machine arrived in about a week.

Build Quality

I’ve been using this machine for two weeks, and I can safely say that this is the most solidly-built Mac portable I’ve ever owned (a list which includes a couple each of iBooks, PowerBooks, and MacBook Pros.)

When you pick it up, it feels like a solid piece of aluminum. No creaking or flexing anywhere. Using only touch, you cannot even feel the seam where the bottom panel meets with the main body. That is excellent overall engineering and quality control.

The new MacBook Pro charges with an 87-watt USB-C power supply and cable. The power supply brick looks like any other power brick Apple has included for the past 15 years. The cable is the big change. The beloved MagSafe connector is dead, and USB-C is the new do-it-all plug. I’ll miss MagSafe, but USB-C seems fine. The ability to charge my MacBook from any of the four ports is pretty handy.

The build quality of the new charging cable is excellent. It is thicker than previous cables, as well as being replaceable (on previous generations, if your power cable broke you had to replace the entire $80 power supply; now you can just swap out the $20 cable.) The strain relief on the ends seems much more robust than previous cables. Overall, I think the new cable is the best that Apple has ever shipped with a MacBook.

Living that USB-C Life

Alright, so as of June 2017, the USB-C standard is a mess. Excluding Thunderbolt 3, there are at least 4-5 very different USB-C cables with very different specifications (specs which determine how well it can charge your device, or if it can carry video, or how quickly it can move your data.) My Nerd IQ is pretty damn high, but I still find the USB-C “standards” to be unnecessarily confusing.

Unfortunately, USB-C style ports are the only ports available on the MacBook Pro, in the form of Thunderbolt 3. Thunderbolt 3 is awesome. It’s super-fast and fulfills the dream of having a single port which can do everything. I picked up a CalDigit Thunderbolt Dock through which I can connect Ethernet, a 4k display, and 8 USB devices to my Mac with a single cable. No third-party drivers needed, and my desktop isn’t a mess of cables.

Once I leave my tidy desktop though, I’m living in a dongle hell. USB-A to USB-C adapters everywhere. But it will get better.

Veteran Mac users have survived many of these situations in the past. SCSI gave way to Firewire; ADB to USB; Firewire to Thunderbolt. Dare I even mention the 68k to PowerPC and PowerPC to Intel transitions? Being a Mac user means living a life of transition, those are what allows the platform to continually move forward.

In the PC world, most of their desktops still carry PS/2 ports, for mostly unnecessary reasons. I’d much rather trade that space for a few extra USB ports…

In the case of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, I have to live with some dongles for a while. I’m okay with that. The long-term gain is that we will have a single port that can do everything. That’s the future we’ve dreamed of, right? Well, at least until we can replace ports with wireless tech that doesn’t suck (but I’m not going to hold my breath on that one.)

For perspective, here’s the evolution of ports on Apple laptops since 2005 (from my collection):

15” PowerBook: IMG 0943 jpg Who were all of these people who needed an S-Video port on their computer? I guess maybe for the camcorders of the era?

15” Retina MacBook Pro: IMG 0944 jpg

15” New Hotness: IMG 0942 jpg

In Day-to-Day Use

It’s fantastic. Everything is faster.

The updated display is noticeably brighter. The new GPU can drive both the built-in display and my external 4k display with buttery smoothness; on my old machine it would occasionally turn into a slideshow as it attempted to move all of those pixels.

The keyboard, it’s not great. I use a fully-mechanical keyboard at my desk, but the keyboard on this new machine has so little key-travel that it’s almost like typing on an iPad. I’ll get used to it. Look, it’s not as offensive as the hockey puck.

The Touch Bar is fine. Reaching my pinky for the Escape key and finding only glass is a little weird, but I think it’s a feature with a bright future as developers figure out the best ways to utilize it. It’s the first step toward a Mac keyboard which is just one big sheet of programmable glass. I bet the 2020 MacBook either goes all-glass, or has dual-Touch Bars (now also consuming that bottom row with the modifier keys and arrows…)

I consider Touch ID an indispensable feature of my iPhone, and it is quickly entrenching itself the same way on my Mac. A single swipe of my finger to unlock my system or 1Password? Yes, please.

Conclusion

It’s a great machine. If you need a laptop that’s both powerful and lightweight, it’s hard to do better than the MacBook Pro. There is plenty of griping about this machine, and I’ll admit that the USB-C port situation is sorta painful, but it really is a solidly engineered machine. It’s not built for all users in all situations, but what computer is?

So many reviews of this machine were written at a time when it appeared the Mac was stagnant and this one new MacBook Pro would have to serve all “pro” needs. But as of this week, we’ve got all refreshed portables. We have higher-end iMacs with really fast GPUs (and the iMac Pro was announced for the end of the year.) A few weeks ago we learned that the Mac Pro lives, and will get a full re-design sometime after this year. Even the MacBook Air got an update. There are Macs for everyone!

I’m curious how those original reviews of the 2016 MBP would change if they had been surrounded by all of these other updated Macs? I suspect they would be a lot more positive.

Floppy Longevity

05/27/2017

This week, I received a package in the mail. From my mother. Inside was a treasure:

A bunch of my 3.5 inch floppy disks! All of these are at least 20 years old, so I was pretty curious if any of them could still be read.

Modern macOS dropped the ability to read floppy disks a few versions ago, but thankfully I still have a 12-year old PowerBook running 10.4 and it can read floppy disks just fine. Armed with a USB floppy drive, I inserted the first disk.

It was readable! In fact, of the 20 disks I’ve tried, 16 of them seemed perfectly fine. Most of the disks contained software (mostly vintage shareware, and a few commercial bits that have long since achieved abandonware status.)

I also unearthed some Hypercard stacks I created for school in the early 1990s. I cannot wait to fire up an emulator and explore those.

I spent about 30 minutes creating read-only disk images of them, so I’d have a perfect archive of these for the future.

I’m sad to report that this is one of the disks that was unreadable:

Yes, I used to be a teenage boy.

Floppy disks: more durable than I thought.

Practice Skeptical Computing

01/27/2017

From Ars Technica:

Former Firefox developer Robert O’Callahan, now a free agent and safe from the PR tentacles of his corporate overlord, says that antivirus software is terrible, AV vendors are terrible, and that you should uninstall your antivirus software immediately—unless you use Microsoft’s Windows Defender, which is apparently okay.

This has long been my personal policy. More often than not, antivirus software causes more problems than it fixes. It’s either an impediment to user activities, or a drain on system resources; most likely it is both. I haven’t installed an anti-virus package on a Windows machine in over a decade (though I generally allow Windows Defender to continue to function.) I certainly haven’t used a Mac antivirus in the OS X era.

Just practice smart computing. Don’t download software from shady websites. Don’t click on links you receive in your email (even if it says it’s from your bank or your dad or the exiled Crown Prince of Nambutu.) Keep your computer’s software, especially your web browser, up-to-date at all times.

Family Reunion

01/27/2017

I have a few small collections of things, but my latest curation is old software. In this case, Mac OS through the ages.

From left:
System 6 (the first retail boxed version of the Macintosh OS)
System 7
System 7.1
System 7.5
Mac OS 7.6 (Name Change!)
Mac OS 8.0
Mac OS 8.1
Mac OS 8.5
Mac OS 9 (this sealed copy even has a CompUSA tag on the outside, which made me covet it even more)
Mac OS 9.1 (the final retail release; 9.2 only shipped with new Macs)
Mac OS 10.1
Mac OS 10.2
Mac OS 10.3
Mac OS 10.4
Mac OS 10.5
Mac OS 10.6

About half of these are unsealed boxes of major system releases, while the other half are opened but complete packages. This is a mostly complete collection of retail Mac OS releases from 6.0 to 10.6 (US Releases).

Still missing are these hard-to-find versions:

  • System 7.1.1, aka System 7 Pro. A short-lived release, which I think was the most expensive version of Mac OS ever sold ($150/retail.) This was the first version with AppleScript (which still exists today) and PowerTalk.
  • I suspect that there was an 8.6 retail version (much like 8.1 was released in a box which was otherwise identical to 8.0) but I cannot find any hard evidence of its existence. I’ve seen a PDF version of the installation guide for 8.6, but it’s unclear if this accompanied an actual retail release.

10.7 came on a USB stick, so that’s definitely a weird one to fit into the collection.

Computers, and Macs in particular, have been a big part of my life for about 25 years. Whenever I look up at this shelf I can remember the first time I used most of these versions. I’m definitely nostalgic for the classic Mac.

Not pictured, my sealed boxes of Hypercard and ClarisWorks!

Sometimes I Backup My Stuff

01/23/2017

With most of my correspondence, financial information, photos, etc. only existing electronically, it has always been important to have reliable and redundant backups. I’m sure you’re the same way, right? If something happened to your laptop or tablet or phone, you’d have a means of recovery, I’m sure (?).

I have archives of documents going back to at least 1994, and that is not because I’ve never had a crash. I’ve had numerous failures of hard disks (and even an SSD failure three years ago) which resulted in total data loss. With a backup system in place, however, I was able to recover virtually everything each time.

A caveat: my system is a bit complex and almost certainly unnecessary for most purposes. I will have a simpler recommendation at the end.

Replication

My primary computer is a MacBook Pro, so nearly all of the software I write about here is Mac-only.

My first and primary backup utilizes software which is already on your Mac: Time Machine. Time Machine isn’t perfect, and under the covers it’s actually a little bit gross, but it just works and you should be using it.

While my machine is at my desk, it is always plugged into an external Time Machine drive (a second external Time Machine drive also exists and I rotate between these two; one typically goes with me when I travel.) I use full disk encryption should I ever misplace one of my drives. If you don’t have an external hard drive already,
this one is a fine choice.

When I am on my home network, I also utilize storage from a Synology Diskstation, a network-attached storage device. My Synology has five hard disks installed (two of which are RAID-6 redundant.) My Diskstation is connected to a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) and serves out movies, TV shows, and large amounts of storage to our home network. A lot of stuff gets archived here. Among its many tasks though, it serves as a network Time Machine for all of the Macs in our house (currently three laptops.) My wife and teenager are backing up their computers and they don’t even know it (or care.)

Update 2017-03-08: I have migrated my Synology to the Btrfs file system. Among new features like checksums, auto-healing, and copy-on-write, Btrfs supports Snapshots. Snapshots, in computer storage terminology, is capturing the state of the file system at a particular point in time. This is more efficient than a full, file-for-file backup of the entire NAS. With snapshots, I can capture just the bits which have been changed since the last snapshot, later even rolling them back in time to a previous snapshot state. It’s not a replacement for full backups, but it’s a very handy tool to have.

So that takes care of my incremental backups. I also create bootable full-images of my Mac. To do this, I employ a second piece of software called SuperDuper. This, combined with a third external hard disk, allows me to restore everything very quickly to a bootable state in the case of catastrophic failure. Historically, I would have a second (encrypted) SuperDuper backup disk that I store off-site somewhere, but this has been harder to pull off since I started working from home.

Remote and Off-site

Okay, but what if my house burns down? Well, I’ve got that covered.

My Mac, starting each morning at 2:00 a.m., wakes up and sends an incremental backup of everything to Google Cloud Storage. To accomplish this I use a piece of software called Arq. Arq is a pretty powerful tool, which can send your data to just about anywhere. I chose Google Cloud Storage as the endpoint because it’s almost as inexpensive as competing Amazon Glacier, with much faster transfer speeds.

My Synology also has a remote backup. Once a week, the system sends an incremental backup of everything (currently 3.52 terabytes, plus another terabyte of Time Machine backups) to Microsoft Azure storage. Restoring all of that data after a catastrophe would take a few days, but at least it’s possible.

Remote storage does cost money, but it’s worth the small expense for peace of mind. My monthly storage and transfer fees for Google and Microsoft are about $30.

Recommendations

Assuming you have a Mac and are in the Apple ecosystem, you have no excuse not to buy an external hard drive and use Time Machine. Even if you only perform weekly backups, that’s better than nothing. I also recommend buying additional iCloud storage and keeping your photos there (with room to spare for your nightly iPhone and iPad backups). Honestly, backing up is not hard to do and it will save you a lot of heartache.

You can start adding some of my crazy redundancies (Arq or SuperDuper) as you deem necessary for your storage needs. The important thing is just to start backing up, even if only with the simple Time Machine. Do it now.

Digital Video Advertising: 2017 Landscape

01/20/2017

Cross-posted from work.

Researchers predicted that 2016 was to be the “Year of Video” in the digital space — and it was. Cisco projected that 64% of all consumer internet traffic was video, and Brafton is projecting this to rise to 74% in 2017. Today, more video content is uploaded to the web in a single month than TV created in the last three decades, and 55% of people watch videos online every single day. It seems that everyone is creating, uploading, and watching video online. Even your mom.

So as you plan your media buys for 2018, why is your template modeled on a strategy from 1998? This might sound self-serving coming from a digital firm, but that doesn’t make it any less true: your voter audience is choosing to watch digital video over broadcast video. It is well past time that your creative strategy and budget reflected this fact.

So what are some steps you can take to modernize your video strategy? Let’s explore.

Video Length

Nearly all traditional political television ads are structured around the tried-and-true 30-second spot. That inventory is still available in digital pre-roll, but there are now a lot of other options to consider. The shorter 15-second format is increasingly dominant, with available inventory on most premium publishers. Last year, Google launched six-second ‘Bumper’ ads , a format which makes a lot more sense when consumers might be watching a YouTube video which itself is less than 30 seconds.

Additionally, social media channels provide opportunities to engage voters with videos longer than 30- or even 60-second formats. On Facebook, advertisers can utilize videos up to two hours in length. While very few voters are going to have the attention span necessary to sit through a two-hour political speech, you can easily envision an inspirational campaign kick-off video of 2-3 minutes in length. Facebook will even auto-generate closed captions for your video, a tactic which has proven to increase viewer engagement.

Video Content: Digging Deep

Consider creating digital-specific videos for social. This can be great for highlighting things from the oppo file which you might not put on traditional television or pre-roll. With captions, you don’t even have to spend money for voice talent, making these relatively inexpensive to produce and with a fast turnaround.

Precise Targeting

I’ve written about this before, but our strategies for targeting voters online are now even more advanced. With our partners LiveRamp and TubeMogul, we can take your modeled voter file and match it to voter identities across the internet and across devices. This enables us to serve ads to your target audience on whichever device they are using: their computer at work, their phone while at lunch, or their tablet at home. This is precision and efficiency which broadcast television cannot match.

Next Steps

If you’re ready to start planning and executing a digital video strategy, get in touch with us. The Prosper Group is here to help.

Clicky

08/23/2015

Most out-of-the box keyboards (the one that came with your crummy Dell, or was built into your laptop) are pretty terrible. Mushy-feeling, cheaply constructed, and quiet. Most laptop keyboards are bad because they have to be lightweight. Desktop keyboards are terrible because they have to be cheap. This is the world we live in.

I’m not super picky about my computer keyboards, but I definitely have some preferences. I like my keys to have a certain amount of travel (the up and down distance when you depress a key and release) and I like them to feel solid (no mushiness or wobble).

I use a laptop as my primary computer. I tolerate the built-in keyboard when I’m out and about, but I always have an external keyboard for use when I am desk-bound.

I learned to type on fully-mechanical keyboards — the Apple II and early Macintoshes — and have always had an affinity for their ancient keyswitches. Sadly, these fully-mechanical keyboards aren’t standard issue anymore. They are heavy (too heavy for laptops) and much more expensive than some of the non-mechanical keys. Lots of people still prefer mechanical keyboards (gamers and writers) and there is a cottage industry built up around buiding them. Check out the mechanical keyboard reddit — some of these are quite striking and beautiful (for a keyboard.)

I’ve been interested in getting a mechanical keyboard for a while — specifically an old Apple mechanical keyboard. So a few weeks ago, I picked up an old Apple Extended Keyboard II on eBay.

It’s 25 years old, super-heavy, and a thing of beauty.

Buying a keyboard of this vintage means that I cannot connect it to my computer out of the box. These keyboards use the Apple Desktop Bus connector, not USB. So I was going to need an adapter.

My choices were to buy a new adapter from Amazon (around $80 currently) or build my own. I opted for the latter. Building your own electronics is part of the fun, right? It was time to channel my inner Woz.

Using some instructions and software found here I set about buying the parts I would need.

  • Teensy 2.0 USB development board
  • S-Video 4 Pins Mini DIN Female Socket
  • 1k ohm 1/4 watt resistor
  • some short, solid-core copper wires

Most of the people who go this route seem to solder the Teeny board directly to the inner circuitry of the keyboard. I instead connected it to a cheap s-video connector (mechanically the same as an ADB port) so that I wouldn’t risk messing up my board.

I won’t walk you through this step by step, but for about $20 worth of parts and about an hour of construction and programming, I ended up with this:

Now, I’m happily clicking away on a very old, but very cool piece of hardware.

Did I mention that it’s loud? So gloriously loud and clicky. Check out this audio of me typing.