5 months with a MacBook Pro: beautiful machine that just works
Five months ago, I decided to make the switch from my trusty old desktop computer, running Arch Linux, to a MacBook Pro. I picked the 2015 13" base model with an upgraded hard drive. The device is beautiful, and just works™, which is pretty important to me.
Mac as a UNIX® machine: nothing beats a terminal
What are the first things you should set up on a Mac, as a programmer? Homebrew (and Homebrew Cask). That’s a package manager that can install all software necessary to create an useful command-line environment, including Python, ffmpeg and sox for media needs, git, GCC (clang is wonderful, but I need plain old GCC sometimes), zsh, and a handful of other programs. And, of course, Vim.
And what Homebrew Cask can do for you? Install many GUI programs, without
needing to mess with
.dmg installers or stuff. Including web browsers, music
players, or iTerm2.
Did I mention UNIX®, with the registered trademark sign (belongs to The Open
Group; used for informational purposes only)? macOS has a fancy certificate to
prove it’s compliant with the relevant specifications. It runs the FreeBSD
userland, which is what you expect from a typical *nix system. (Linux converts
might get slightly annoyed at behavioral differences, for example
directory -rf will work on Linux with GNU coreutils, but won’t on
The GUI: beautiful, fluid, friendly
macOS is famous for its user interface. The macOS GUI is well thought out, even though there are some idiosyncrasies a long-time Linux/Windows user might consider weird. For example, sorting folders before files is something natural for Windows, but on macOS, it’s a brand new option — added in macOS Sierra, which came out in September 2016.
That aside, the macOS user interface makes one coherent product. You can expect consistent behavior between apps, and that often extends to third-party software. Apple has a document, called Human Interface Guidelines, which describes how a macOS app should behave. While there are some documents like this one for Windows, you can see many apps ignoring what it says — including eg. built-in software, which cannot even decide on which font to use (bitmap MS Sans Serif vs vectorized Microsoft Sans Serif vs Segoe UI — what is going on?!)
While the interface is friendly and coherent, it can get a little worse when foreign apps are involved — for example, Qt or wxWidgets apps can sometimes differ in behavior, but that’s not noticeable. X11 apps are another story, but most of their developers are not aware that someone is running them on macOS. (Excluding the Inkscape developers, which have a Mac “app” that basically runs it in X11 and they do not even care…)
Programming: old habits die hard
Did I mention Vim? Well, I’m still using Vim and a terminal emulator to get a lot of coding work done. Why? Because they are still the best ways to be productive. I tried many gooey solutions for coding, from the heavyweights (PyCharm, Visual Studio) to the laughable Atom editor (famous for being slow, and effectively a web browser) — and none of them was able to replace Vim and a Terminal. They are far too addictive.
That said, I sometimes use GitHub for Desktop, or other helper tools. Sometimes, they work well — key word here is sometimes. Unlike Vim (or NeoVim, or a GUI: MacVim/VimR), which boosts my productivity by a lot.
Honorable mention goes to Automator and AppleScript. They are a superb solution for automating common tasks in the GUI, something other OSes do not provide. With Automator, everyone can create a workflow to perform repetitive tasks faster. With AppleScript, you can get even more stuff done.
The trackpad: addictive
Apple is famous for their trackpads. Their newest generation of these devices does not really move when you click it, it uses the Taptic Engine and [insert smart-sounding words here] to simulate a click. It also supports Force Touch, for pressing down harder on something (eg. a word to reveal dictionary definitions), and haptic feedback for certain operations (in Soviet Russia, trackpad clicks you!)
Those trackpads also provide intuitive gestures. Working with full-screen windows or multiple desktops? Just swipe left/right to switch between them. Need to see all your windows? Swipe up with three fingers. Smooth zoom, scrolling and rotating can also be done with just the trackpad.
And recently I had to do some stuff on someone else’s Windows notebook. That notebook features a touchpad that does not click — it has two buttons on the bottom, and tap to click is enabled. I had to drag and drop some files between two windows. I tried doing it the way I got used on the MBP trackpad, which is basically the way you’d do it with a mouse: hover cursor above file, click the trackpad, move mouse to other windows, and release. That doesn’t work on those non-clicky touchpads. A software developer failing at drag-and-drop must be a funny thing to see. That’s just how addictive the trackpad is. (Of course, Windows notebooks with clicky trackpads exist, but are not as popular as the tappy ones.)
Walled garden: how can you NOT love our products?
Of course, there are some issues with living in an Apple walled garden. The main issue is: if you want to use something that is not an Apple product, good luck with that. Sure, you can use an Android phone, but you won’t get some of the nice Handoff features, and if you want to transfer files, have fun using a forgotten barely-working app from 2012. That phone also won’t be able to access your iCloud stuff, so put your data somewhere else.
Do you want to use an external hard drive, or a USB stick? With other operating systems? Well, you might have an issue with the file system. You can choose between ExFAT, which is not popular but kinda does the job; FAT32, which has a 4GB file size limit (virtual disk images are often larger than that), or NTFS, but for that you will need to pay a third-party company — and trust them not to do anything nefarious. Or use experimental built-in support, or an open-source project, both of which aren’t something one would normally trust with important data.
Speaking of external hard drives, here’s a hint: if you want to use a drive for Time Machine (a wonderful, foolproof, one-click backup solution), and you want it encrypted, make sure it uses GPT and not MBR. I had to reformat my drive twice, and that’s not well documented (you need to click the help button, then go through 3 pages to find a mention of this).
Do you want to play some games? Well, there is basically no support for gamepads, only some community beta drivers for the official PS3/Xbox 360 pads. Apple does not care.
And then we get to mouse issues. You see, even though the trackpad is awesome, I also want to use a regular mouse. So I started with my old PC mouse, as a temporary solution. The mouse was a Logitech M560, which uses the wireless Unifying USB connector. It turns out the middle mouse button is supposed to be a Windows button on one click and left mouse button on another, but Linux drivers seem to change that behavior. To fix that, I’d need drivers for macOS. Logitech believes this mouse is not worthy of a Mac, and so the mouse is not detected by their driver suite. I got rid of that mouse and replaced it with a Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse. The mouse has a real middle button, which is activated by clicking the scroll wheel, and a Windows button on the side (generally useless on macOS).
Sadly, macOS insists on scrolling in a weird accelerated way, where the number of pixels scrolled grows over time — which means scrolling by one step means scrolling by 5 pixels, but the longer you scroll, the larger the scroll becomes.
The future: I’m worried
I made the decision to buy the MacBook Pro in the middle of rumor season, after WWDC which left a lot of people disappointed. I decided that, if all the rumors about removed ports and touchy-feely screens were true, I would not want that device on my desk.
And boy did Apple deliver! The new MacBook Pro has only USB-C ports (and a headphone jack!), a gimmicky Touch Bar that only helps with emoji (the rest can be done with standard keyboard shortcuts, or on-screen toolbars — I thought that was a Pro machine, not a toy?), and a fingerprint reader (which I don’t care about). And then there’s the cheaper model, with two USB-C ports and no touch interfaces. My MBP, mainly a desktop replacement, is on AC power all the time, and runs an external HDMI display. With the cheaper model (worse CPU than 2015; same price as 2015 with the same 256GB drive), I would have zero ports for any other external devices. And I often have some thing plugged in, in which case the only unoccupied ports are the Thunderbolt ports (which I don’t have any devices for).
So, I hope this 2015 model will live on for years, and hopefully when it fails, Apple will have a more sensible machine out there. For now, I’ll keep my MacBook Pro (Retina, 13-inch, Early 2015) and will be pretty happy with it.
With just only one exception: two kernel panics in nearly 5 months. A bit unstable, eh?