Some Good Old-Fashioned Speed Bumps for the MacBook Pro Lineup, and a Tweak to the Butterfly Key Mechanism

Apple Newsroom:

Apple updated MacBook Pro with faster 8th- and 9th-generation Intel Core processors, bringing eight cores to MacBook Pro for the first time. MacBook Pro now delivers two times faster performance than a quad-core MacBook Pro and 40 percent more performance than a 6-core MacBook Pro, making it the fastest Mac notebook ever. […]

MacBook Pro is more powerful than ever for compiling code, processing high-resolution images, rendering 3D graphics, editing multiple streams of 4K video and more. The 15-inch MacBook Pro now features faster 6- and 8-core Intel Core processors, delivering Turbo Boost speeds up to 5.0 GHz, while the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar features faster quad-core processors with Turbo Boost speeds up to 4.7 GHz.

Long story short, nice year-over-year CPU speed bumps for the entire MacBook Pro lineup, except for the 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar, which remains unchanged.1

The updates to the 13-inch models are relatively minor. The base model goes from a 2.3 GHz quad-core Core i5 with Turbo Boost up to 3.8 GHz, to a 2.4 GHz quad-core Core i5 with Turbo Boost up to 4.1 GHz. The fastest build-to-order option goes from a 2.7 GHz quad-core Core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 4.5 GHz, to a 2.8 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 4.7 GHz. Nothing truly major there, but I think it’s great that they speed-bumped them anyway — and the move from 7th-generation Intel CPUs to 8th-generation is apparently a bigger deal, performance-wise, than the clock speeds suggest.

The updates to the 15-inch models are more significant. And if you’re a pro user whose work is genuinely CPU-constrained, the 15-inch is the model you’re buying. The $2,400 base model goes from a 2.2 GHz 6-core Intel Core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 4.1 GHz, to a 2.6 GHz 6-core Intel Core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 4.5 GHz. That’s a nice year-over-year bump right there. The fastest configuration goes from a 2.9 GHz 6-core Intel Core i9 with Turbo Boost up to 4.8 GHz, to a 2.4 GHz 8-core Intel Core i9, Turbo Boost up to 5.0 GHz. This is the first time any Apple portable has reached 8 cores or 5 GHz.

The very best model you can configure — the high-end 8-core CPU, with 32 GB of RAM, 4 TB of SSD storage, and the Radeon Pro Vega 20 video card — costs a very professional $6,549.

One word that doesn’t appear in today’s announcement is “keyboard”. Seriously, when the announcement went live at 1pm ET, the first thing I did was search for “keyboard”: “Not found”. But Apple spoke on background to a bunch of folks in the media this morning, including yours truly, and they do have keyboard-related news.

First, these new MacBook Pros still have the third-generation butterfly-switch keyboard that debuted with last July’s updated MacBook Pros. But Apple has changed the mechanism under the hood, using a new material for at least one of the components in these switches. The purpose of this change is specifically to increase the reliability of the keyboards. Apple emphasized to me their usual line that the “vast majority” of users have no problem with these keyboards, but they acknowledge that some users do and say they take it very seriously.

The change to the mechanism is intended to address both problems people are seeing with frequently-used keys: getting stuck, and generating two characters with a single keypress. These updated keyboards look identical — there’s no change to the layout or to the amount of key travel. And according to Apple, the updated keyboards should feel the same when typing — although Apple acknowledged that keyboard feel is highly subjective, and some of us, like the princess and the pea, can detect minor differences and form strong opinions about those differences.

Second, all MacBooks with butterfly keyboards, including the new MacBook Pros released today, are now covered by Apple’s keyboard service program. If a key gets stuck or stops working or starts duplicating characters, you can get it repaired free of charge. No need to guess whether a brand-new model will be added to the program later — if it has a butterfly keyboard, it’s in the program. Also, for existing models with the third-generation keyboard — last year’s new MacBook Pros and the new MacBook Air — if they require a keyboard replacement, they’ll get the new tweaked keyboard with the purportedly more durable mechanism.2

Third, Apple stated that repair times for keyboard service have been greatly improved. How much improved, they wouldn’t say, but they realize it’s a great inconvenience to be without your MacBook for any time at all. Keyboard replacements are now performed in-store, so a process that used to take 4-5 days (or more) might now take just a day or two.

This is all good news. Sure, what many of us would like to see is a truly new keyboard design — something that re-establishes the MacBook lineup as having the best keyboard in the industry. Personally, I’d like to see them add more travel to the keys, go back to the upside-down T arrow key layout, and include a hardware Esc key on Touch Bar models (in that order).3 Apple is always working on new keyboards, of course. It’s just a question of when they’ll ship. Major keyboard redesigns coincide with major redesigns of the entire form factor, and those projects are on years-long time frames.

But of course the biggest issue with these keyboards is reliability. Will this updated mechanism fix or at least greatly reduce the number of reliability problems? Only time will tell, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Apple didn’t have to say anything at all about this mechanical tweak. I mean, if they hadn’t said anything at all about the keyboards, we’d all be asking about it, but Apple often ignores questions it doesn’t want to answer. The folks I spoke to today seem confident these updated keyboards will prove significantly more reliable.

You can also see why Apple decided to announce these updates today, not on stage at WWDC in two weeks. First, they are just speed bumps. Second, there’s simply no way they want to talk about keyboard reliability on stage. As I observed above, they didn’t even mention the word “keyboard” in their Newsroom announcement. Best to get this out of the way ahead of WWDC.

So on the keyboard front, these new models can’t be worse and are likely better. That’s good. The best that we could hope for while waiting for a true next-generation keyboard design — which for all we know might be a year or more out — is a mid-generation tweak. At the very least, talking about this material tweak and including all butterfly keyboard models in the service program is an acknowledgement that last year’s keyboards were not good enough. That was the worst case scenario — that Apple didn’t see a problem.

But what pleases me more is that Apple is updating Mac hardware on an aggressive schedule. I wrote “just speed bumps” a few paragraphs ago, but speed bumps are important in the pro market. Apple shipped new MacBook Pros last July, added new high-end graphics card options to those models in October, and now has updated the whole lineup with new CPUs. They also just updated the non-Pro iMac lineup in March. This seems like an odd thing to praise the company for — updating hardware with speed bumps is something a computer maker should just do, right? The lack of speed bumps in recent years naturally led some to conclude that Apple, institutionally, was losing interest in the Mac.

Last year, a source at Apple admitted to me that they had “taken their eye off the ball on Mac”. Regular speed bumps are a very strong sign that their eye is back on the ball, especially in the pro market, where artists, video pros, developers, and scientists really can use every CPU and GPU cycle they can get.

One More Thing

One Mac Apple hasn’t spoken about in a while — over a year in fact — is the upcoming new Mac Pro. In 2013, Apple previewed the current Mac Pro at WWDC (“Can’t innovate anymore, my ass”), even though it didn’t go on sale until later in the year. I expect Apple to do something similar this year, and I know a lot of other people do too.

In broad strokes, the new Mac Pro is in one of three states:

  1. Ready to ship.
  2. Not ready to ship, but ready to be unveiled.
  3. Not even ready to be unveiled.4

Apple is good at setting expectations in the lead-up to keynotes. Most people waiting for the new Mac Pro think it’s in state #1 or #2, and thus, we’ll get some sort of look at it at WWDC. If it’s #3, though, and it’s still not yet ready even to be previewed, I strongly suspect Apple would get word out in advance so that no one leaves the keynote thinking about something that wasn’t announced instead of all the various things that were announced. That’s Apple’s expectation-setting playbook.

One way to get word out would have been to say something today, on background, along the lines of, “We’re announcing these updated MacBook Pro models today because our WWDC keynote is going to be all about software, not hardware.”

They didn’t say that. Maybe a “no hardware at WWDC” leak is still coming. We still have almost two full weeks until WWDC, and perhaps Apple didn’t want to mix good news on the MacBook Pro front with disappointing news on the Mac Pro front. But they didn’t say anything today.

  1. What’s the deal with the no-Touch-Bar 13-inch MacBook Pro? It hasn’t been updated in well over a year, and occupies a very similar position to the new MacBook Air in the current lineup. For the base 128 GB models, the MacBook Air costs $1,200 and includes Touch ID, while the MacBook Pro costs $1,300, is a little faster, but lacks Touch ID. That’s the most confusing buying decision in the MacBook lineup today. My guess is that Apple has plans to update the 13-inch no-Touch Bar MacBook Pro, and when they do, it’ll be more clearly differentiated from the MacBook Air by performance. Pay a little more, carry a little more weight in your backpack, but get noticeably faster performance. But until it gets updated, this old model holds the spot in the lineup. ↩︎

  2. MacBooks with the first- and second-generation keyboard will not get the new keyboard, because it just doesn’t work that way. Apple can’t replace one generation of keyboard with another — they’re not swappable like that. And that’s why they’re calling today’s tweaked keyboard an update to the third-generation keyboard, not a new generation. ↩︎︎

  3. Reliability is objective — your keyboard either works properly or it doesn’t. That’s the essential problem Apple must fix. But on the subjective front, the things I dislike about these keyboards — low-travel keys, the full-size left and right arrow keys, and the lack of a hardware Esc key — all share one thing in common. These things all make the keyboards look better but work worse. That, of course, is in direct contradiction to the well-known Steve Jobs axiom: “It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

    Again, these factors are all subjective. In particular, I know some people truly prefer the feel of these low-travel keys. But I don’t know of anyone who prefers the full-size left and right arrow keys in place of the old upside-down T, and while most Mac users never even use their Esc keys, among those who do, particularly developers, I honestly don’t know if there’s a single one of them on the planet who doesn’t miss the hardware Esc key on the Touch Bar-equipped keyboards. A small minority of Mac users use their Esc keys all the time, and for them, having it as a soft key on the Touch Bar is downright terrible.

    I admit the full-size left and right arrow keys look better — the gaps in the old upside-down T layout are a little ungainly. And a lone hardware Esc key up in the corner next to the Touch Bar might look a little lonely. But if design is still how it works, Apple should bring these back in its next-generation keyboards. ↩︎︎

  4. If we want to cover all our bases, there’s a fourth possible state for the new Mac Pro: scrapped. Off to a grave next to AirPower in the “Announced but Never Shipped” cemetery. I know some people are worried about that — “How could it take Apple so long just to make a goddamn modular tower?” — but if that were the case, I think Apple would have broken the bad news today. ↩︎︎