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By Jason Snell

Prioritizing the MacBook Hierarchy of Needs

MacBook 2015 keyboard
The keyboard that started it all.

This week on the Accidental Tech Podcast, John Siracusa floated the concept of a MacBook Hierarchy of Needs, a priority list of features for the next time Apple redesigns the MacBook line, as is rumored to happen later this year.

It’s a fun thought experiment, because it requires you to rank your wish list of laptop features. That’s important, because if I’ve learned anything in this wacky world of ours, it’s that you can never get everything you ask for, so you’ve got to prioritize.

The ATP hosts all made a “good keyboard” their top priority, an idea that would’ve been surprising a few years ago but now is almost a given. Yes, of course, Apple laptops need to be fast and reliable and have great displays and good battery life, but the past few years’ worth of MacBooks have made a lot of people realize the truth: a bad/unreliable laptop keyboard isn’t something you can really work around if you’re a laptop user.

This is why a lot of nice-to-have-features, like SD card slots, have to fall way down the hierarchy of needs. Any feature that can be rectified with an add-on adapter falls immediately to the bottom of the list. You’re stuck with a laptop keyboard forever, and if you’re committed to the Mac and every single Mac laptop that’s sold uses the exact same keyboard, there’s nowhere to run.

As I wrote back in 2017:

Apple’s mistake isn’t that it designed a clever new keyboard that decreases travel while increasing tactile feedback in order to make the MacBook ultra thin—it’s that it made a keyboard without broad appeal and then forced it into all of its new laptop designs. I love Apple’s tendency to make bold design decisions, but as the single hardware vendor on the Mac platform, Apple’s designers have a responsibility to create features that don’t leave users with nowhere to turn. Better to make a keyboard that nobody loves (but everyone can use) than something loved by a quarter of users, met with indifference by half, and despised by the remaining quarter.

If Apple designed a weird keyboard, or mouse, or trackpad for an iMac, it would be annoying, but you could just buy a replacement from a third party. You can add a DVD drive or a SD card reader or any other reader for a media type Apple has deemed uncool via USB. But a laptop’s keyboard is fundamental to its identity. It’s not the place for bold new directions, it’s a place for boring and reliable. Apple and its users are still living down a decision made several years ago now.

It’s a little unfair for me to even attempt to create my own MacBook Hierarchy of Needs, in large part because I no longer travel with a Mac laptop, instead opting for an iPad. But I think that decision says something about my priorities. My iPad isn’t limited to an Apple-supplied keyboard. I can use Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio, or a Brydge laptop-style keyboard (when they arrive this spring), or literally any other Bluetooth or USB keyboard I want. It’s a relief.

Still, if I were to rank a hierarchy of MacBook needs, it would start with all the things that users can’t change later, and that are important to laptop users. The keyboard, yes, and also the display. As the ATP hosts pointed out, there’s a possibility that this rumored 16-inch MacBook Pro might actually have a display capable of displaying true native Retina resolution, rather than the scaled default found on all Retina MacBooks.

I might love an SD card slot and a return of MagSafe and for Apple to keep the headphone jack around, but in the end, there are adapters that will bridge those gaps if need be. No adapter will solve the problem of an unreliable or unpleasant keyboard or replace a display. That’s where Apple must supply something that works for everyone—and if the needs of its users are varied, it should offer a variety of products that can fulfill those needs. A one-size-fits-all approach can work, but only if you’re really successful with the choices you make. With the 2015 MacBook keyboard design, Apple missed the mark—and still forced the result into every single new laptop it designed.

Here’s hoping that Apple has spent the last few years coming up with its own hierarchy of MacBook needs, and that it recognizes that it must tread lightly when it comes to the features that its users have no choice but to accept.

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