The Fruity Option pt. 2: Apple Pros and Cons

Having repaired Apple computers in my undergraduate Repair Center, I have some opinions on Apple computers that aren’t shared in the mainstream tech review community.

Fresh, Crisp Apple: The Good

Build Quality

Truly, Apple makes some of the best made computers on the market.  Nice and rigid frame, lid that closes with a satisfying “clunk”, and all the internals are nice and secure.

Don’t get me wrong, every manufacturer has design flaws sometimes.  Forcing a Hard Drive ribbon cable to do a 90° bend over a sharp machined aluminum corner comes to mind.1Ugh, I did so many hard drive cable replacements on non-retna 13″ MBP  But nothing felt flimsy, chintzy, or wobbly.  Which is a far cry from my similarly-priced VAIO.

Operating System

One of the perks of only offering a few hardware configurations every year is that Apple can make sure their OS and drivers run without conflicts.

One of the measures of this is latency, or the delay between when a program issues a command and when the system actually executes it.  Basically, every command goes to the back of the queue.  The more commands in the queue, the longer it takes to get executed.  One of the developers for the robotic platform I use in my research published an interesting blog post about latencies in Windows, MacOS, and Ubuntu Linux.

Plots showing the latency of fresh installs of Windows, MacOS, and Linux over a full 24 hours. Credit: Florian Enner and his Software for Robots blog

The results: MacOS has less of a delay and on average fewer “hiccups” than Windows.  I’m impressed!

Now, realistically, you’ll never perceive this difference in web browsing, word processing, or even photo editing.  The only time this matters is with programs that need soft real-time computing, such as live music effects or robot control.2  You’ll also notice that Linux does better than Windows or MacOS, which is why I personally use Ubuntu Studio for both these applications.  That said, it’s still impressive and, I believe, the reason you always see Macs at live music.

Ease of Adding a Windows Installation

It’s easier to install Windows on a Mac than on a PC, thanks to Boot Camp.  The utility bundles all the drivers Windows needs right into the installer, which saves so much time.  If you need to run a Windows-only program on your Mac, BootCamp makes it pretty easy.

Integration with other Apple products

Yeah, this is the thing about Apple that I like the most.  All of their stuff just … works together.  Making automatic backups wirelessly using the AirPort Time Capsule backup server.  Receiving text messages from your iPhone on your Mac.  Wireless screen mirroring from a Mac or iPhone to an Apple TV. I’m not a fan of how it’s specific to the Apple platform.  Once you buy into the walled garden of Apple toys, you can’t escape.  But oh boy, Apple does make it so easy to do useful things that would take me a lot of development work to do on my Windows/Linux setup.

Mushy, Worm-ridden Apple:

Form Factor

Wait, this should be in the benefits, right?  No.

Alright, Apple’s design is beautiful.  But in their quest for form, they compromised on function on all their computers.  And since I care about performance and utility, this is a major dealbreaker for me.

Thermal Throttling

When processors are computing, they generate heat.  If that heat isn’t dissipated away, the processor will get too hot for the tiny circuits to work properly, and it will fry itself.  So when processors start to get too hot, they need to produce less heat, which means they stop doing so many calculations.  Performance drops.  And continues to drop until the heatsink can keep up with the processor’s heat production.

When you have a beautiful thin laptop, you’re getting a heatsink that’s too small to handle long periods of full performance computing.  Linus Tech Tips did an interesting video a while back showing what kind of performance gains could be had with a MacBook by using better cooling.

Lack of Ports

Thunderbolt and USB type C are awesome.  They let you charge your laptop and connect to Ethernet, a second monitor, and a keyboard all with one plug.  But you need a special hub to do all that.  That would be fine if there were other ports on the computer, but guess what?  All MacBook Pros come with just two thunderbolt ports.  Need to use a USB flash drive?  Gonna need a separate dongle.  Give a presentation?  Dongle.  At least they haven’t gotten rid of the headphone jack yet.

I hate dongles.  I’ve seen so many presentations grind to a halt because someone didn’t bring their Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter.  Call me old-fashioned, but that’s stupid and unprofessional.  Get a computer with the stuff you need built-in.

Limited Lifespan

Lack of Upradability

13″ MacBook Pro mainboard from iFixit’s teardown. The CPU (red), RAM (green), and SSD (yelllow) are all soldered to the mainboard. No upgrades for you!

Super thin laptops means no room for bulky, standard components.  Apple takes this a step further and solders the CPU, RAM, and SSD straight to the motherboard.  If you need more performance down the road, your only upgrade path is a brand new computer.  I hate this trend.

Difficult/impossible DIY Repair

I mentioned above that Apple designs good, sturdy machines.  This is true.  But component failures and liquid spills happen.  And when they do, you should keep the good parts going by repairing the bad ones.  Apple makes this extremely difficult to do yourself.

First things first, Apple uses proprietary Pentalobe screws across all its models.  Want to open your machine?  Gotta buy a whole new set of non-standard tools.

But once you’re inside, you can’t do anything.  Why?  Because Apple is in complete control of their supply chain, and only sell genuine replacement parts to Apple Certified Repair Centers.  There’s a whole lot about this topic, and I’ll elaborate on it more next week.  But for now, suffice it to say the only parts you’ll see to do your own repair are used parts, parts illegally sold by repair centers, or sketchy 3rd party parts.  Not a fan.

tl;dr

There’s a lot of reasons to buy a MacBook Pro.  But in my opinion, unless you have a need that only MacOS can fill, the performance hit from a crazy thin design and limited options for repair outweigh the benefits.

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