Luke Carrier

Why I'm returning my new Retina MacBook Pro

Published 3 years ago

On the 29th of December 2012, I ordered a 15″ MacBook Pro, with the Retina display. It was the upper-specced model, with a 2.6GHz quad core i7, with the 16GB/RAM upgrade. Given that I'm an apprentice and am on constrained wages, it was a pretty large sum of money to shell out. It's easily the most expensive thing I own at the moment and -- indeed -- have owned my entire life.

About This Mac

It's a beautiful machine.

Even before you lift the lid, it stands out; that beautiful simplicity in the matte finish of the aluminium case. It's noticeably thin, only a couple of millimetres thicker than my Galaxy Nexus. Open the lid and you'll be amazed at how rapidly it resumes from sleep, or even boots from cold. You boot it up and almost instantly know your way around the OS -- it's really that intuitive -- and the machine is more responsive than any of my past computers.

That beautiful display really does ruin the experience of any other computer screen. As a software developer, I can honestly say that the extraordinarily crisp fonts really do help with fatigued eyes. Browsing the web and catching up on TV shows on a display of this quality really is a pleasurable experience.

So, why am I so intent on returning it?

Notification Centre is frustrating.

The premise is fantastic: a unified location for all of your applications to keep you up to date on the things you care about. We've already seen that this in beneficial both on iOS and Android, where notifications are the entry point for most of our smartphone use. I just can't help but look at the feature with a hint of disdain, though; it's such a missed opportunity. At present, it merely aggregates notifications from all applications and tells you that it's doing so.

The problem is that notifications from Facebook and Twitter are an unnecessary and unwanted distraction when working. The obvious solution, therefore, is to just disable notification centre while I work and enable it later. This works, but with two consequences: I miss important emails from my manager, and I usually forget to re-enable Notification Centre later, so it's only back again once I reboot. (Almost never.)

Time Machine just sucks.

I've been religiously backing my computers up as frequently as possible since I lost my GCSE history coursework a few years ago. I've used a variety of solutions to do this, depending largely on the operating system I've been working with at the time (Genie Timeline and Windows Backup on Windows; Deja Dup and rsync on various Linux distributions). I'm no stranger to hard disk failure and loss of work. For this reason, one of the primary uses for my home server is backups.

Time Machine looks, on paper, like the backup system from heaven. Silent backups of my entire filesystem taking place while I work in the form of shadow copies, and periodic synchronisations with some form of network-attached storage? This is what I've been looking for for years!

Time Machine taking an age to back up

Except that it just... isn't. Time Machine feels the need to prompt constantly about whether or not it's appropriate to continue with a full backup. It's barely completed the last backup before it just decides it's time to do another (full, extremely rarely incremental) one; it simply maxes out my wireless connection, leaving me unable to do even light tasks like retrieving my emails. And then there's the appalling Finder-esque interface for browsing backups, but we'll leave that for now. Maybe one day it'll actually be a usable backup system.

No thought has gone into the keyboard. None.

I've used computers regularly since I was seven years old, and have been writing software for around 5 years, so I'd like to think I know my way around the standard PC keyboard. The Mac adds a few keys into this mix and moves a few around, which has historically put me off all of Apple's keyboard layouts. I'll be honest: I've found it considerably easier than I anticipated to wrap my head around the MacBook Pro's seemingly bizarre keyboard layout and haven't found it to be an obstacle when going about my day to day work. The only real issue I've found is working with terminals, where the Ctrl-A key combination can be bound to screen and doesn't skip to the beginning of the line. This alone isn't reason to complain!

Then we consider the keyboard shortcuts. Oh gosh. Is it Cmd+Option+Shift+Esc or was it Cmd+Alt+Shift? How do you take a screenshot of the entire screen again? There's the lack of keyboard shortcuts in Mission Control which make navigating open windows and workspaces an incredibly frustrating experience. Given that the workspaces are linearly arranged, why can there not be a key combination for switching between them? Even Gnome Shell gets this right!

This issue isn't confined to OS X and its out of the box applications. It's rife within every application I've used. Even Sublime Text, which I've found (and continue to find!) an invaluable asset on my Linux systems, is nothing short of ass-backwards to use under OS X. Even simple operations like moving and deleting lines require totally different modifier keys. Switching layouts and jumping between open files becomes too taxing on my brain when I've already got 6 files worth of source code in my head and I just end up reaching for my trackpad, wasting time and introducing pointless distractions into my workflow.

I understand that there are times when using the mouse or a trackpad just makes sense. The trackpad is a pleasure to use for selecting text and dragging and dropping files and images around. When it comes to repetitive tasks in text-based applications, though, this just isn't the case. It's entirely unnecessary.

The casing isn't travel-resistant.

This is something I learned to be wary of following the absolute trainwreck of a system the MBP was to replace. My Dell Studio 1555 had been a quick purchase. It's held up quite well during it's three and a half year ordeal as my primary machine, when my desktop all but gave up on me. It's now got a plethora of scratches over it's matte-finished lid and plastic palm rest. Its bulky case just wasn't built to travel. From its numerous repairs and “freshen-ups”, ranging from keyboard to mainboard replacements, all performed under extended warranty, the plastic bezel around the keyboard has all but given up. It's at the end of its life.

The MacBook Pro is a beautiful machine; it really is. The problem is that it's beautiful in much the same way as porcelain: it's extremely delicate. In the time I've owned mine, the aluminium casing has already been blemished. Maybe this point is me being overly protective given that this thing is easily the most expensive thing in my possession, but I simple cannot justify spending so much money on a machine which is going to bruise like an out of date bit of fruit every time it leaves my sight.

It overheats incessantly.

This thing is packing. It's packing a hyperthreaded Core i7 quad clocked at 2.6GHz which can (and I can believe it) turbo boost up to 3.6GHz when necessary. Obviously I don't run it like this all the time (I usually run a couple of web browsers, Komodo IDE, Sublime Text, a few terminal windows, Skype, Mail and maybe a couple of database apps), but it sure has come in handy for compiling software with Homebrew.

Homebrew. For those not familiar with it, it's the package manager for OS X. It's that tool I literally could not do my job without. It's extremely similar to Gentoo's Emerge, compiling software from source on your machine. CPUs have a tendency to generate heat when heavily loaded, so compiling Apache, PHP and all of their respective dependencies causes quite severe heat production. Unfortunately, Apple appear to opted for a default fan configuration of “Silence over Sanity”; the CPU will reach temperatures in excess of 117C before the fans kick in. When they eventually do, it sounds like the machine's going to take off and begin hovering over the desk, so they're definitely alive and well.

To me, it's just a little unsettling that you'll burn your fingertips if you catch them on the aluminium spacing between the keys on your keyboard. (Incidentally, this was one major design flaw of the Studio range I never accepted: they placed the GPU directly beneath the trackpad. This essentially led to the skin on your fingertips drying and flaking off if you used the trackpad. You shouldn't have to deal with silly design flaws like this in a product that's been through QA and is on the market, no matter what you paid for it!)

It frequently fails to resume from sleep.

And this is the real kicker. One of the things I really, really loved about OS X was the super quick resumes from sleep. Being able to pick up my machine, switch straight to the workspace my application was on and begin working was such a blissful experience. It's without a doubt a major upgrade from the hellish experience of resuming from sleep on a Linux system, where the odds are 1:1000 of a successful resume with a functioning display.

But three times in less than two weeks, this hasn't been the case. Opening the lid yields no login window. It doesn't even yield a grey screen with a spinning wheel on it. Just eternal darkness. Closing and reopening the lid? Nada. Pressing the power button doesn't do anything, either. It's just a case of doing the Linux thing: forcefully shutting the machine down and booting it back up again.

Even though the boot up process is incredibly quick, and all of my applications reopened, albeit without any of my files and browser tabs open, it's an unnecessary disruption to my work that I've specifically paid to avoid. If I wanted the Russian Roulette startup experience, I'd buy another Dell.

Overall, it just doesn't feel like a machine worth £2,500 of my hard earned cash. And that's before you throw in AppleCare.

And this is where I am now. Disappointed and completely unable to justify the purchase of what's supposedly the best notebook on the market. The sad thing is that I genuinely do believe that the MacBook is the best notebook out there. It's the ultimate upgrade, but it just doesn't work. To end on a good note: I'd like to extend sincere thanks to Apple for having easily the most consumer-friendly returns process ever. The two-weeks, no questions asked return offer is incredible.

As for a replacement machine, I don't know. I think I'm going to hold out for the next MacBook Pro refresh around June/July time, and maybe give it another shot.