I used a MacBook for the first time

Hardware Mar 11, 2021

Until very recently I had never used an Apple Mac device. I had speculated previously that a MacBook might be the perfect development device, but was never going to buy one just to try it and hope I liked it. I remained fixed within my Ubuntu world, and eschewed Windows as far as is practical. My work machine is Windows, but I spend most of my time within Ubuntu Virtual Machines doing my development.

What changed? I hired someone onto my team who used Mac, and would prefer one for their work device. I'm a firm believer in giving people the tools they need to do the job, so that's what I ordered them ahead of their start. They wanted a 13" one, so I ordered the new MacBook Pro with the M1 chip for them. It was £100 cheaper than the same level one with the Intel chip, and I had read good things about the performance of the M1 chip. Because a few things needed setting up prior to the new team member's start, I got it shipped to me for prep; and for me to have a little play with.

I read the TechRadar review of the MacBook Pro M1 and was excited to see what the performance actually looked like in the real world. Benchmarking is one thing, but what it is like to live with? Well it probably isn't overly fair to base that on the feedback of a first-time Mac user, but I hoped my Linux enthusiasm would at least help.

Aesthetics

My daily-driver for work is a 17" HP Z-Book 'mobile' workstation. Technically it is mobile, but it is a very heavy beast. I wouldn't want to move it round a lot. My personal device is a Asus ZenBook 14". It is a lovely, shiny blue, fingerprint magnet. The specs are near useless for what I put it through - it was fine 2 years ago when I wasn't anticipating any heavy development on it. How does the MacBook Pro compare?

Despite it being the "same" size as the Dell XPS 13, the overall footprint is slightly larger. The main noticeable difference is the trackpad. Compared to most laptops, it is the size of a tennis court.  The printing on the keyboard also seem brighter than other laptop keyboards I have. That's not down to wear on the other laptops (I spend 95% of my time with an external keyboard).

The biggest visual bugbear to me is the huge bezel surround for the screen. It looks so out of place for a device at this price point. Riding a fine line between a cheap product, and a workstation. It is likely there to allow an increased size in the chassis which then allows a larger touchpad, but detracts from the whole package on initial opening.

Performance

Having never used a Mac, it is difficult to compare the performance against any previous version of the device. From what I had read, I was expecting blazing speed. Press the power button, blink, and there would be the login screen. Not quite, but still not bad. I can't fully remember the settings I used, but it is possible that I set disk encryption on, which would slow down the boot. If I did, then the on-boot performance is online with what I have seen with Linux on my ZenBook.

Whilst I never got a chance to properly use the device in any major capacity, such as running a project and testing performance, I did get to use it to install some software and see how quick that was. I didn't think it was anything special. Some things felt faster than running in Ubuntu, others didn't. There wasn't an overall clear-cut winner in terms of visual performance to me and my limited use.

Usability

The big thing which stands out as a negative against Apple devices over recent years is the lack of ports. They have removed port after port, to the point where I was expecting them to release a laptop device with no ports and just wireless charging. Put the charger on the table, sit the device on top of it, pick it up when you need to move. No clunky wires being shoved into the device.

My work machine has ports galore; 3x USB, 1x Ethernet, 1x HDMI, 1x Display port, 2x USB-C display ports, the power port, an SD card reader, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. My personal laptop has the power port, 2x USB, 1x, USB-C, 1x micro-HDMI port (uses an adapter), an SD card reader and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Regardless of which device I am using, my peripherals are all plugged in to an R2-D2 USB hub. It means I only have one cable to change over when I want to use another device.

The Macbook Pro has 2 USB-C ports and a 3.5mm headphone port. Both  USB-C ports are on the same side, with the headphone jack on the opposite side. It has the same ports (but different layout) to a Dell XPS 13. Very minimalist, but that's exactly what you would expect from a device of that size in the premium market. Fortunately I already have a USB-C.

Having spent my entire life not using a Mac of any sort, getting up and running was a bit strange. When I started setting it up I didn't notice the keyboard layout was different to what I expected. The @ key is on the 2 key, and # is over as a third choice key for 3. This was such a shock to me that I thought I had been sent the wrong device, one with a US keyboard layout. I also found the return key to be really narrow. Not unusable, but still narrower than I am used to.  Small differences, but enough to be frustrating, at least at first.

I got over the keyboard annoyances by using an external keyboard and setting the keyboard type to "British - PC" (courtesy of some furious Googling), which then outlined another annoyance to those of us plebs who have only ever used a PC. The external mouse scroll was inverted. I tried to scroll down, and nothing. Used the keyboard to scroll, fine. Use the mouse again, and it scrolled the "wrong" way. Another setting to change.

Niggles apart, the interface is actually usable and fairly pretty. The dock at the bottom is filled with all kinds of stuff which I went through and removed to start with, it just looked like the machine was filled with bloatware I'd come to expect from a Windows installation. Not to the same degree with all kinds of vendors involved, but it was a bit overwhelming to start. Once you get the options down to those you regularly need, it's easy to see how things might become far easier to work through.

Overall (Would I buy one?)

This has to be based on a very limited (few hours' usage), but no. I really don't think I would buy a Mac. There's too many little things which I've gotten used to using Linux (like a terminal closing when you type exit, and not having to fiddle around with keyboard settings) which annoy me. There's a lot of little fiddly config I would need to do before I became anywhere near productive. At the moment, I simply don't have that sort of time to spare.  I would need to move to a Mac as a full-time device, and don't think I would ever be able to swap easily between Mac and Linux desktop. I think Linux server would be fine as it's just a terminal (for the servers I run). If I was given one for work and needed to figure it out, I'd have to ensure I could use it as a personal device outside of work just to stop slipping into current habits.

There's also the cost to consider. Looking at an Intel MacBook Pro with an i7 processor, 32GB RAM, and a 512GB SSD, the cost is around £2400. A larger screen Lenovo Thinkpad with an i7, 32GB RAM and 512GB SSD is available for around half that, at £1240 (ok, it's in the sale at the time of writing). It's a device which is Ubuntu certified, so I would only need to install the OS and run my install scripts to get the software I use regularly.

Yes the device itself looks and feels nice but, unless you have the time to spend getting used to a completely new way of working, I don't see the value in switching for a personal capacity. Based on how long people are able to keep their MacBook devices in service (I've seen 8+ years mentioned by several people), then I can see why it would make sense as a business machine. The cost per year could be lower than a non-Apple machine. Resale values at the end of service will also be higher. Commercially they do make sense. If you are used to working with an MacBook, then they probably make sense. As someone who is used to the PC way of working, and has 25 years of ingrained expectations, I don't think they are as good as people make them out to be.

Slight follow-on

Okay, I'm updating this before this has even been published, but I've now had access to a 16" MacBook Pro to set that up for an additional new hire. I found that the bezel around the screen for that model was absolutely adequate for the purpose it served. The overall device is still nice to feel, and good to look at. My issue is absolutely with the keyboard. I've spent over a quarter of a century using a single keyboard layout, and my brain is pretty well wired to working that way. I know that 85% of my use of a Mac would involve an external keyboard, so it wouldn't be an issue. The remaining 15% of the time (likely in meetings or side projects on the sofa) would cause me enough issues to get frustrated.

Honestly, I think if Apple offered a MacBook Pro with a standard UK keyboard layout I would buy one. I can work past the @ symbol being in absolutely the wrong place, but back-ticks, ~ and # being in the wrong place is a nightmare for me (though after a third use of the devices, I seem to be getting used to it).

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