By Jason Snell
November 30, 2016 2:39 PM PT
Computers are awesome!
There’s been a lot of existential angst about the Mac lately. Turns out the only thing worse for the mood of Mac users than no new Mac announcements was… the announcement of new Macs. I’m not going to recap the furor and arguments about the details of the new MacBook Pro models (or the lack of updates to other languishing Mac models) in this space—they’re well covered elsewhere, including on Six Colors and every other site and podcast that talks about technology.
Instead, I wanted to back up a couple of steps and, from a perspective where I have a slightly better chance of seeing the forest rather than just the tree trunk we just smashed into, talk about how great today’s computers are. You heard me. In the face of a declining PC market and the ascension of the smartphone as the primary computing device for most of the planet, let me inject you with a shot of enthusiasm about that most boring of technology products: the personal computer.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love my iPhone and my iPad. And I’m happy to travel with just my iPad Pro when I can manage it. But that doesn’t take away from how much I love the device I’m using to write this article: an original (2014 model) 5K iMac.
We think of computers as a stagnant, even moribund category, but if you compare today’s computers to those of even five years ago, you will be amazed at how far they’ve come.
Let’s start with Retina displays. It took time for high-resolution displays to make it to the Mac. For several years it always seemed like they were on track for the next year’s WWDC, but it took until 2012 for the Retina MacBook Pro to premiere. Today Apple sells Macs with Retina displays in five different sizes—three in laptops, two in iMacs.
It’s easy to get used to a Retina display and forget just how amazing it is. But my laptop’s still an 11-inch MacBook Air, and every time I open it I’m taken aback by the low-resolution screen that used to be de rigeuer for Macs. Once a month I have to switch my iMac into low-resolution mode for a few hours for a very particular (and boring) reason, and for the entire session everything just seem wrong. Retina displays rule at sharp text and gorgeous images. I wouldn’t go back.
Then let’s move on to solid-state drives (SSDs), what Apple calls “flash storage.” For years, the slowest part of most computers was the hard drive. Spinning hard drives are slow and unreliable, but they’re cheap—and the slower, the cheaper. The moment I got a MacBook Air that only had an SSD inside, it was a revelation. Everything was quieter and faster. My iMac is equipped with a 512GB SSD, and it is similarly fast and responsive. Newer models are even faster, owing to increases in the transfer speed across the bus that the SSD is connected to.
The new MacBook Pros have USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3. There was a time when we needed different ports for different kinds of peripherals—USB for this, FireWire or Thunderbolt for that. (Old-school Mac users might even remember when we had different peripherals for ADB, Serial, and SCSI.) USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 boils that all down—there’s a single connector type, and it’ll do just about everything. It’s powerful and versatile enough to drive an external 5K display over one cable, while that very same cable is supplying power back to the laptop it’s attached to. And of course, USB-C is a port style without an orientation, so you don’t have to look at your cable and the port and make sure the right end is up before you plug it in. It’s so much better on almost every front than anything we’ve had before.
And that doesn’t even address something new like the Touch Bar in the MacBook Pro, which is a whole OLED multitouch display powered by its own custom processor and offering contextual controls for the apps you’re using. That’s new tech still a-birthing, but it’s an almost sci-fi addition to the catalog of Mac input methods. And right next to it is a Touch ID sensor, another big upgrade to the Mac experience imported from iOS.
So today’s computers are actually pretty awesome… when they can be. The problem is price. These new technologies all come at a cost, and Apple has margins to protect. Apple still sells iMacs with spinning disk drives in them—not even hybrid Fusion Drives!—as a cost-saving measure. The non-Retina MacBook Air remains in the laptop price list so that Apple can hit a $999 opening price for the MacBook line. The MacBook Pro with Touch Bar starts at $1799 for the base-model 13-inch edition.
What I’m saying is, the personal computer has actually improved quite a lot in the last few years. And even Apple, which largely avoids the low end of the market, has failed to spread those improvements across its entire product line. I hope it will in the next few years. Computers can still be awesome. But that awesomeness may be too dear for some buyers.