Apple Watch and MacBook Retina – A Little Perspective/Hands-On Impressions/Few Data Points

Just a bit of insight, if you want to consider it that, and hey, you don’t have to read on.

Return of the Mac(Book)

Mav’s Theory of Expense Relativity

Back when Apple introduced its first under-4-pound laptop, the 2008 MacBook Air, it started at $1799 with such standard features as:

– 1280×800 resolution (fine)
– 2GB soldered RAM (adequate for the time)
– a frickin’ iPod PATA HD spinning at all of 4200RPM (…no comment)
– Intel GMA X3100 integrated graphics. Let Anand Lal Shimpi back in 2008 show you how bad GMA X3100/Intel G35 was compared to NVIDIA’s 9400M IGP.
– the great-for-the-time multi-touch trackpad.
– “5 hour battery life”

Wanted that nifty flash storage that’s common today? $999 for 64GB. That’s an entire 13″ MacBook Air today, which has 128GB of much-higher-performance PCIe-based flash memory standard.

Today’s MacBook, starting at $1299:

– delivers better than 5 hours of light-use work battery life (maybe 6-7 according to normal use tests I’ve seen)
– has a 2304×1440 display, provides scaled resolutions up to 1440×900
– has 8GB soldered RAM
– has 256GB of PCIe-based flash memory
– has the humblest, but most compact, Intel dual-core ultraportable solution short of an Atom (Core M) and just USB-C/headphone jack (look, I have an iPhone that I can’t charge from the MacBook with the stuff I currently have, and that bugs me too)
– has Intel 5300 graphics, which is low-powered, quite standard for this class of product, but can still drive a consumer 4K monitor in a pinch (read: worlds better than what the X3100 represented)
– weighs almost a pound less, is profoundly compact, has bigger keys, a force touch trackpad (which isn’t fixed, it just lets Taptic Engine basically leverage the slight range of motion/”give” in the trackpad), no-cost color options etc.

Is it expensive? Compared to a typical PC price, yes. What’s new. But per usual, is there ever anything quite like it on the market?

And are tech reviewers complaining about paying $500 less for a far more polished and capable first-gen non-workstation ultraportable a bunch of spoiled brats? Are all of us tech consumers just as bad? Maybe.

You’re never gonna get “cheap” with Apple, so better to acknowledge it than carp about it like it’s some unwelcome surprise. Anyway, there’s a bit of perspective.

Responsiveness. Well, a system isn’t just the CPU, so road warriors who aren’t editing the latest 4K blockbuster of the year or whatever should be just fine. If MacBook wasn’t Retina, it would be speedier still. I test-ran a bunch of apps at the Apple Store like iMovie, scrolled around (at the highest scaled resolution), observed launch times – hardly anything unacceptable. Oh, and for some reason, it seemed multi-level Force Touch worked better on the MacBook than the 13″ MacBook Pro Retina when testing with an on-board 2-minute movie clip.

Keyboard. Yes, “bad habits” (like typing on the edges of keys, etc.) will be “exposed”. Yes, if you thought Apple’s keyboards lacked key travel before, this is something totally different. On the other hand, I got used to things pretty quickly. And hey, the keys are bigger than they used to be.

MacBook Air had quite a few more compromises than today’s MacBook. And look where the MBA ended up.

Five or so years from now, you’ll be quite happy with the “mainstream” performance of the $999-1099 MacBook, I suspect (and it might even get a second USB-C port). Until Apple tries to make the MacBook’s successor thinner and more lightly featured than it already is…

Apple Watch

Reviews seemed largely positive to me (with a heavy dose of the expected, “do you really need this?”, “this is a beginning, albeit a limited one”, “the best smartwatch in a market with uncertain prospects“, maybe an old “my, this is expensive” chestnut, and so forth). So I think that’s it for my meta-review.

Now, the fun part! I’m not in the market for Apple Watch (I probably couldn’t have bought one at launch anyway), but I did get a try-on appointment and a good amount of time at those minimalist-yet-effective fixed-in-place Watch + not-an-iPad demo units.

Try-on Notes

I tried on:

(1) Stainless steel (regular) + Milanese band.

Was the band “fabric-like”? Didn’t feel like it to me, but it didn’t “feel like metal” either. It was comfortable to wear, and quite easy to re-adjust all day long once worn. I suppose you’re hosed if you manage to catch the magnetic tab on something during your day, but that would take some effort to do – unlike the common Casio (which I used to wear all the time), you can get a pretty secure fit. Speaking of security, if there’s a “flaw” it’s that you can’t, in “default” state, hide the magnetic latch under the band. But it’s not like that’s a problem unique to Apple Watch.

If you like shiny and all that implies for fingerprints, stainless steel is for you. In some ways it may remind people of the steel-backed iPod, and some nanos, they used to have. The case itself is as you’d expect from Apple, nice quality. Just…smaller. Blame the ads and larger-than-life product photos.

(2) Space Gray aluminium + Sport band

I could wear this all day. Which is helpful, because the Sport band (which has an awesome “band pocketing” design which takes the opposite design philosophy as the Milanese band, btw) isn’t as easy to whip off as more “disposable” watches you may have worn before (with weeks-later consequences for your cheapo rubber Casio/Timex replacement strap).

Sport case is destined to be the volume seller for a reason. One that slightly surprised me – it’s also a premium-feeling case. It’s just matte, and it’s hardly insubstantial. And hey, if all I’m giving up is fashion, which I don’t have much of anyway? Sport Band + 42mm case = good to go.

As someone who wore my Casio the “wrong way” for years (though many of you, I suspect, also wore your watches loosely due to irritation/fit considerations), I’m wondering how I would “adjust” to forcing myself to “tight-fit” Apple Watch to minimize the chances of it locking (and maximize my chances for actually noticing what the Taptic Engine is trying to do). Well, maybe next generation, or whenever I cave and just buy it.

The try-on really isn’t much more than that (pre-release software and Watch, after all), though the loop gives light-level haptics every so often. I think try-on sessions will could get much more interesting after launch.

Demo Unit Notes

Meanwhile, the fixed demo unit (with impressively-synced-up not-an-iPad display) gives you ample opportunity to try out the UI without any time limit.

Is it 60FPS smooth? Where it counts – the watch face, though maybe not Steamboat Mickey (who didn’t animate at 60FPS anyway, so). Sometimes more like 60FPS, sometimes more like 30 FPS depending on screen, but not too jarring. At 42mm, the fonts and images are more than readable even if you’re sight-impaired (yo!), and from a good distance. The Watch OS seems so much more alive than iOS 8. This has interesting implications for iOS 9+.

Could I get the S1 to bog down? I have a talent for that, I guess, so yes. Could I get it so tapping an element occasionally did nothing while the S1 caught up, yes. Was it crazy unacceptable, no, and I tried things like launching 10 apps in 20 seconds. If the app launch requires data sync first, it could be, but it won’t be the S1’s fault. Looks like, though, that Apple has determined the watch face process must always run smoothly. Smart choice, considering.

Could app navigation be better? Yes, but all of this is addressable in software. Say, allow higher max app bubble zoom. If you’re confused as to what you can do in core apps/glances/whatever, Apple can throw in UI guides just like it does for Apple Pay. Look, people, you have a crown, a side button, a screen, and a “more forceful press” modality – which, btw, is EASY to practice, because in some places the UI “bounces” where Force Touch doesn’t work, just the way you’d expect it to. It’s rubber-banding in the third dimension.

Now, I’ve had plenty of experience with iOS on a consumer level, but the only thing that “grated” on me from a UI standpoint is Apple’s “deprecation” of iOS swipes in certain contexts. With the Wheel of Contacts, you can use the crown (works great, smooth operation), you can tap a tiny-as-heck button to skip around, but you can’t drag the pointer around in a circle. Similarly, a UI item or two here or there that you think you can “slider bar” doesn’t seem to act that way. But again, all addressable in software. All in all, this is a Watch OS I think is more “discovery curve” than “learning curve”, to borrow a phrase from Kantar Worldpanel’s Caro Milanesi:

What Level of Success?

Given the current stock-outs (which are about 2 weeks less bad than they seem), it’s really just a question of how well Apple Watch will do. This is $200B Apple, people, so stop pretending there’s a “limited supply conspiracy”

or that “Apple has structural issues producing hardware in quantity” (to be fair, this was later corrected)

The long-term goal is the same as every company on the face of the earth – an overall arc of consistent growth, for now, measured in YOY terms. The medium-term “concern” is having Apple Watch “avoid the fate of iPad” – which really isn’t the worst marketplace fate in the world, either. That and I have a tinfoil theory as to why tablets aren’t doing better (it has something to do with PCs not exactly going extinct all that quickly).

Is the future in digital wearables, whether tethered (as it must be for now) or untethered (wake me up when either of 2-3x faster charging with no battery life impact or 2-3x energy density occurs)? We’ll see. It’s up to Apple to make the case, and luckily, it picked itself a market ripe for some change, and with a decent number of units – even if you define total addressable market in the strictest possible terms:

For now? Flaws and all, it seems like Apple Watch, just like MacBook, is off to a fine start.


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