Monday, January 25, 2016

Visiting the Dark Side (first part - MacBookPro)

After a very long time I decided to do a few quick posts regarding my latest visit to the Dark Side (or Apple as other people might call it) - for me from the freedom point of view Apple is the worst alternative when it comes to having technology-related choices, they are the Dark Side and compared to them Microsoft is just the Grey Side. I will mention here that there is exactly one aspect where Apple appears on the consumer side (actually leading the way on that aspect) and that is encryption on mobile phones, but that will be discussed in the second part.

On my current job we are now having some extremely ambitious projects that encompass highest-end custom hardware, device firmware and computer software, and part of the last bit now also includes some access from mobile-like devices = smartphones or tablets. And of course some of our best-paying customers are already using devices with iOS, so that means we have to start with iOS our entire line of mobile apps. Which in turn needs devices to run the apps and even more so devices to design, develop and test the apps, and the main platform to develop iOS apps is of course OSX so now you see where I am getting - my company provided the latest MacBookPro and the latest iOS device with the clear goal of getting accustomed to the platform and be 100% certain that our hardware devices and the firmware for them are not only fully compatible with Apple platforms but also that everything works in the smoothest way possible.

I can still remember that my previous experience on the Dark Side did not go as well as I expected (see ten years ago here and here) so it is easy to understand how I was a little uneasy about how things would go this time. The good news are that 10 years of technology advancement and being provided with the highest-end model really did make a positive difference, the bad news are that some things do not change THAT much - the lucky part for me on the MacBookPro is that the entire Apple walled-garden paranoia is now heavily focused on iOS so the OSX segment gets away with an almost decent degree of default restrictions and most of them can be somehow customized.

So what is my impression of the 15'' MacBookPro Retina late 2015 model? It is a well-built system, but that is something to be expected given the inflated price - the model was ordered for me around December 2015 and at that point it did cost around 3000 EUR for the 512GB SSD model or almost 3700 EUR for the 1 TB model, and at the same time there was a special offer on the latest Dell XPS 15'' with a newer/better (Skylake) CPU, 32GB RAM instead of just 16GB and 1TB SSD for under 2300 EUR, so the MacBookPro was about 60% more expensive in a slightly inferior hardware configuration. So if there was no XCode needed or I had to pay for it myself that aspect would have settled the matter and there would be no further post on Apple stuff.

But I did get it and I am writing this post on it, so things were not that bad after all. In fact other than the keyboard (which is inferior to the one in my Thinkpad T420s which is old but was very inexpensive by comparison) everything is generally OK, most notably the screen is good. And even on the keyboard the main problem is not so much with the keys as it is with the number of them - or lack of, since of course Apple is still more interested to cater to a segment of people they believe might become nervous if presented with too may keys, so instead of having separate keys the power users are just forced to use the same cumbersome multi-key combinations (so the Delete key still does Backspace and to do a true Delete you need to keep FN+Delete, and many other things like this). Also it is a little surprising how at this price point you don't get a fingerprint scanner and from Apple is not surprising at all that you have to pay extra (and quite a bit extra if you buy from Apple) if you need extra USB ports or a wired Ethernet port - but I got a good portable 3-port USB3 hub + Gigabit Ethernet for about half of what just the hub would cost from Apple so standardization definitely works for the consumer.

OSX itself is now to my surprise quite improved compared to 10 years ago and finally looks reasonably stable (even if I have seen some strange quirks in some of the settings dialogs). The part that I really like most is the Mission Control, which Apple now gets quite well and together with the 3-finger gestures on the large touchpad make windows and virtual desktops management quite pleasant and quick.

The software selection is still nowhere close to what I am used but for the most important things it is easy to find good programs (I definitely like Chrome or Firefox better than Safari, VLC is still the best media player, Tunnelblick seems a good VPN client, Double Commander is an open-source alternative to Total Commander and MacPass is a usable alternative to KeePass; I have also found Contexts useful enough to pay for it).

Last but not least Windows 10 (another significant extra expense, together with VMware Fusion which we also needed for some of our legacy Linux build systems for some older products) is also running quite well in both native Bootcamp mode and also in Bootcamp VMware mode, which in most scenarios improves productivity a bit since I do not have to reboot from one to another but instead just move to a separate desktop. And in VMware I also have various Linux virtual machines and of course some Windows 7 or 8 configurations (which are no longer natively supported by Bootcamp).

But as I said not all things changed for the better and some of the changes are just more of the same type of "milking the customer for as much as possible" which is such a constant of the entire Apple overpriced walled garden philosophy - the RAM is now soldered and you can not upgrade it and the battery also can not be replaced in any way by the user.

Almost all the other interesting features require to pay more money to Apple (with more and more stuff being pushed towards iCloud so you will be forever stuck with Apple and a monthly payment to them), but I was lucky enough to already have an excellent Asus RT-68U router, so I got a TimeMachine network backup basically "for free" and generally things work fine and (except for the price) the general impression is reasonably (I should probably say surprisingly) good. Am I now an OSX fanboy? Definitely not, but I can live with it (side-by-side with Linux and WIndows). And I still keep around my old T420s "just in case" :)