Continuing on the same subject as my last post from two days ago, I wanted to explain some of my usage habits as they relate to the new MacBook. I suspect that some of the negative impressions are strongly influenced by discordance in habits of the user versus the design of the product and are not actually reflections of objective problems with the notebook.
I am a touch typist, as many are. Are you aware of the history of typing? As far back as the manual typewriter, which I have personally used despite my age, user experience heavily influenced the design of the products. The old manual typewriters worked in a clever way. Each key was actually a lever that pressed a metal form of the letter onto the paper, squishing an ink paper between them and leaving the mark on the paper of the desired letter. It also drove the paper carriage one character width left. Some variations exist, of course.
One major problem with the original mechanical typewriter design was binding of keys. If you typed too quickly, the return of a key would interfere with the travel of the next key causing them to bind. The solution was to make a keyboard layout that was very unfamiliar for new typists. This caused a delay in skill development for pure speed that would, hopefully, be countered by a growing awareness of the binding problem prior to the speed bump being surpassed. Whether this worked or not clearly varied person to person, but, this is why our keyboards are laid out as inefficiency as possible. QWERTY was born.
The feeling of typing on a mechanical typewriter was very specific. You became quite accustomed to that feel and the tempo of your typing—which was very important to avoid binding—would be informed greatly by the feel of the key travel. So it is with no surprise that the move to electronic typewriting devices, this feeling was important to users. It was emulated within the design of the mechanical switches in newer electronic typing products. Whenever you hear someone raving about how much they love their buckling spring switches or whatever other variation, what they are actually telling you is “I am desperately attached to the specific feel of a weak emulation of 100+ year old technology.” They probably don’t know it. Odds are that they merely started typing on such a keyboard as they were incredibly prevalent all throughout the end of the 20th century.
In fact, only the lowest quality keyboards used anything without a major hitched, long travel click emulating the feel of an old fashioned mechanical lever typewriter. That is, until notebook computers began taking over the landscape. For a long time, notebook designers tried to emulate this feeling as much as they could. They never really managed to emulate the hitched click, but, they did often brag of their key travel, which was really only relevant when comparing to the emulated keyboards, as the real typewriter key travel was immense.
Still, as notebooks took over, most people stopped caring about these things. Other factors were far more important. And an even stronger trend was influencing notebook design: passive use. Many people were buying laptops and rarely typing on them compared to past computer use. The heavy favoring of the mouse in user interfaces, and the shift to consumption of data rather than the production of it as the primary use case for the modern personal computer allowed designers to begin to ignore the 100+ year old typewriter as a basis for good user experience design.
Keyboard keys became flatter, traveled less distance, and felt mushy all in an effort to reduce cost, as well as reduce the space they consumed.
Here comes the relevance to my habits. While I have been typing millions of keystrokes beginning in the late 1980’s, it was not until I had my first personal notebook computer that I truly began to lay down the letters at a rate where I would develop a preference for keyboards. It was this time in my life when I hit my stride for software development pace as well as interaction online. I was typing madly, and I was doing it on a cheap and awful Dell Inspiron laptop. I fell in love with the notebook keyboard in comparison to clicky desktop keyboards for one main reason: I was a touch typist. A touch typist. The less effort I had to put into performing a single keystroke, the faster I could move through the entire set of keystrokes I had to make.
Key travel had become my enemy and I was highly aware of it. I began to seek out notebook style keyboards for use on the desktop. And happily, at the same time, companies like Logitech began producing them usually in association with video game consoles and use on the couch. I didn’t care. I bought them and used them on my desktop computers. I was hooked.
Over the ensuing years, Apple pushed the limits on notebook keyboard module design, further reducing travel and spacing, while improving the general quality of the keyboard designs and enhancing my accuracy at the same time.
So here we are, 2015, and the first major bottom-up redesign of the mechanics of a notebook keyboard in over a decade has been made. It’s divisive, as you no doubt will have noticed by reading reviews of this notebook. I love it. They key travel is incredibly short while maintaining enough feedback with a positive, but quite efficient, click at the perfect point in the key travel. If it clicked, you pressed it and if it didn’t, you hadn’t. Simple as that. It doesn’t require significant effort to click the key, and thus, a touch typist can increase their efficiency and move even more quickly through the strokes.
I just hope it is as durable as Apple’s design video makes it seem. I also dream of a day when I can buy a new Apple Wireless Keyboard for my iMac which has the same design, including the excellent per-key LED backlighting.
As with keyboarding, my experience with pointing devices throughout the years differs somewhat from the norm. I began computing before the mouse had truly developed its mass market popularity. In the earlier days, there was actually quite a lot of experimentation in product design. Usually, the goal was to sell productivity and usability features, such as shortcuts for finding your mouse on the screen, changes to cursor appearance and programmable extra buttons. But, it was the touchpad that truly fascinated me the first time I had encountered it. Merely sliding my finger around on this strange, smooth surface caused the mouse to move about the screen effortlessly. It was beautiful and I was in love. To this day, I prefer to use a touchpad for nearly every mouse interaction. The only exceptions are gaming, and occasionally during photo editing.
Now that said, I have used many trackpad implementations and most of them are preposterously terrible. Even the very first trackpad I had gave us a way to vertically and horizontally scroll windows. So why, then, do so few trackpads on non-Apple notebooks fail miserably at this? Furthermore, the mounting design of many trackpads on Windows notebooks causes much of the surface to be unusable. Never mind that these trackpads are usually, ridiculously small.
So, anyone who uses trackpads regularly and has also used Apple notebook trackpads will have no trouble concluding that Apple makes the best trackpads. But, there are some usability issues one must learn to cope with. For example, drag and drop, as well as highlighting of text, can be cumbersome. This is particularly true if you do not use tap to click modes on the touchpad. Pressing firmly and dragging simultaneously is error-prone as well as limited in terms of how far you can actually move the cursor. It’s really difficult to get a good drag this way, even on Apple’s wonderful touchpads.
There are solutions, of course. One is to enable the accessibility feature of drag lock which detects a drag and locks that mode until you click again. This is kind of awkward and interferes with fluidity of use. Another option is to use tap to click which inherently provides a very short and adaptive delay on releasing of a click if you tap, release, then tap-and-hold to drag. But, that is an awkward gesture for many people as well, and can be misinterpreted if something interrupts your cadence.
A few years ago, however, Apple gave us the ideal solution though it does seem weird at first: three finger drag. With three finger drag, as soon as you put down three fingers, the system acts as though you firmly clicked the pad in and are holding it there even though you are merely resting three fingers on the touchpad. You can now drag around to your heart’s content. When you release the fingers, there is still a very short delay before the actual drag action is ended. This allows you a brief moment to quickly reposition your fingers to continue a long drag operation. This is how I use the trackpad. If not for this type of gesture, along with tap to click, I think I would probably go a little crazy.
Now, that said, with the new force touch trackpad in the new MacBook, I am finding it far more enjoyable than ever to actually “press” to click, since one can set the sensitivity to require only a light press and the pressure required to press is consistent across the entire trackpad. I still prefer three finger drag for most drag operations, but, a short drag can easily be accomplished with a regular click.
Between my habits with three finger drag, the far easier operation of clicking with the new trackpad, and the use of tap to click, my usage of the touchpad on the new MacBook is the most enjoyable ever. It doesn’t hurt that the trackpad on this notebook is very large.
I’ve been slightly obsessed with miniaturization of all kinds of products since I was young. Specifically, my fascination was born with the introduction of the Nintendo Game Boy. To my mind, it was a handheld NES. Even the cartridges were similar in their aesthetic. In some ways, the Game Boy was actually quite superior to the older NES. I must have spent thousands of hours playing games on that device. It cemented my love of all things shrunken. So it should come as no surprise that I have a strong appreciation for small versions of regular every day devices like a notebook computer.
In my subconscious mind, there is an aversion to carrying around bulk if it isn’t really needed. I have a small amount of romanticism, as well, for the Spartan approach to equipment for tasks. I like hearing stories of someone surviving months in the wild with nothing but a single blade knife, or discovering a photographer who seems to use just one camera and lens for nearly everything, particularly when that camera is something very small. Many other people seem to have some sense of respect for simple approaches to life. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and other times it is just plain stupid.
So it’s understandable that the appeal of the slight nature of Apple’s new MacBook is something that I both immediately coveted, and simultaneously questioned. My biggest question of it would be whether or not the difference in size and weight compared to other more powerful notebooks would cross that magical threshold that would make me desire to keep this notebook with me all the time, or, if it will simply end up living in a bag on a shelf in my office, seeing little use.
I can now say that it is definitely below that magical threshold. Perception is everything, and while the actual weight and size may be larger, it actually feels lighter and less burdensome than carrying an iPad with a keyboard case attached—and I used very minimal keyboard cases with the iPad.
The notebook slides easily into my every day carry bag. I barely notice the mere 2 additional pounds of weight. I don’t notice the added volume at all, it being lost within the various padded dividers and spaces within the bag. It’s just there now, coming with me to work daily. But, then that brings us to the next habit…
Can I do my daily work on this thing? It’s not why I bought it, of course. The actual reason I bought it was to replace my iPad. It had become quite clear that I wanted my iPad to be slightly more than it was. In my daily habitual use of the iPad, I had come to universally place it in its unfolded keyboard tray and use it like a tiny notebook computer anyway. I would perform my personal web browsing, and take breaks to toy around with my personal side projects and software developer curios. I would prefer to use it for communicating with my family and friends outside the office.
But wait, software development on the iPad? Well, yes and no. There are some limited tools for this. But, most often, it was a matter of using the iPad as an SSH terminal and working on my computer at home with it. That was hardly satisfying. I actually began designing what might be considered a thin client IDE for the iPad which would depend greatly on a remote computer for the heavy lifting, but, keep all of the files and a very responsive local editor in the programmer’s hands for efficient work on an iPad. But, seriously, have you any idea the immense amount of work that goes into developing and maintaining a text editor, let alone a programmer friendly editor—never mind a full IDE! I couldn’t possibly find the time and I don’t believe the world is ready to pay fair price for such an app yet either.
Luckily the MacBook was announced right as I was having this epiphany. I sold the iPad and waited months to get my hands on this small wonder. I focused on setting it up to offer me the best media, browsing, and communication experience as a sidekick on my desk at work and elsewhere. But, I had to see what it could do in terms of actual real work.
Yesterday I put it through its paces. I performed a full day’s efforts solely on the MacBook and I am happy to report that I am certainly able to do my job with this notebook. So comfortable was the experience that I intend to make this my primary computer for software development. I will still utilize my heavy duty machines for those tasks that are just not well suited to this ultraportable beauty. One day, I intend to put some serious effort into merging local and remote working spaces—essentially leveraging the endless power in the cloud—for enhancing my capabilities with this computer alone. For now, and for the projects I expect to work on in the foreseeable future, I believe I will actually be very productive with this computer alone.
That’s super exciting to me. I love being able to do my job on a ridiculously tiny device. Sure, it’s not like I’m writing massive data analysis frameworks on my iPhone, but, it still comes off as such a minimalist workspace that it tickles me merely thinking of getting work done on Monday. So much so that I may be tempted to work during the weekend—which I almost never do.
So there you have it. The reason this notebook is so great for me lies largely in the way its capabilities and physical attributes relate to my personal computer use habits. I suspect the same is the case of any other person and their products of choice. However, I also strongly suspect that in some cases, a person may benefit from really taking stock in their habits and maybe changing some to better fit the gear they wish to be using for the sake of greater pleasure in your daily life. I know merely using this notebook brings my mood up, and that’s worth whatever little compromises it requires.