The New Laptop

So, some time ago, I was wondering a) what new laptop to get and b) what to do with Krita on OSX. As for the laptop, I felt I wanted something fast, something with at least 16GB of memory and a largish screen. Preferably with a good keyboard. As for OSX, I felt it might not be worth either mine or the Krita Foundation’s money to plunk down the serious moolah that Apple is asking for their hardware… After all, how many people fall for Apple’s glamourie, in the real world, after all? Especially now that the reality distortion field’s progenitor is no longer among us.

Then I did an interview with CGWorld’s Jim Thacker, about Krita. He’s very much someone from the graphics software world, not the free software world. And he expressed his amazement at my dismassal of Apple. And then my bank account was getting seriously empty, and I had to take a temporary consulting gig to make sure I could continue paying my mortgage. And at the place I’m working now, and in the commuter train I’m travelling on, more than half of the people have Apple laptops.

I don’t know why… And I guess they don’t know why, either. Well, Windows has always been kind of ugly, especially Windows 7 and 10. Windows 8 I really liked, by the way — if you have a touch screen, the interaction design is simple, effective and efficient. Everything is consistent, easy and pleasant. The few metro apps I used, I loved. But, well, Apple. Apparently more people than I was able to imagine think getting an Apple laptop is a good idea.

So, all together, I decided to go and get an Apple laptop, too. Let’s try to make Krita 3.0’s OS X port a first-class citizen! It can only expand our community and make our next fundraiser stronger!

So we got a 15″ Macbook Pro Retina. Not the most expensive model, but it was still plenty expensive. More than a thousand cups of coffee. Here’s what I think of it, after a month or so.


What follows now is part hardware, part software review. I guess I need to state up-front that while I’m a long-time free software person, I’ve never been an Apple hater any more than a Microsoft hater. Or lover. I’ve used or owned three Apple computers before this one.

The first was a Powerbook Pismo I got when Tryllian went broke and the artist department was disbanded. That thing had a great screen, a great keyboard (apart from the missing keys), a great shape and style, ran OS 9 and OS X equally well. I had wanted one of the tiBooks, but they were all broken. The Pismo served me for a long time as a writing machine, as a holiday games, music and photo machine, as a Krita development machine (it dual-booted to Debian). I loved it, and then a clumsy daughter tripped over the power cable, causing it to drop nearly half a meter, onto the floor. It sparked and smoked whenever I applied current to it afterwards, so I discarded it.

Sadness! But when I started working for Hyves, I got a first generation 17″ macbook pro. Still a thoroughly respectable keyboard (apart from the missing keys), great screen, really fast. And using an Apple laptop was sort of inevitable, since at Hyves we were developing a cross-platform chat client for the Hyves social network. Hyves was the Dutch Facebook, by the way. It’s dead now. So was the Macbook Pro, after a year. After a year in my backpack the screen started developing vertical green, red and blue lines. Actually… It was the second device Hyves got me, the first one was dead on arrival. Still, it had a decent keyboard.

At KO GmbH, one of our less well-considered ventures was to develop a WebODF-based app for the iPad. To that end, we got an iPad and a 2011 Mac Mini. The iPad is still with Jos, but after a while, building Krita for OSX also seemed a good idea, so I got the Mac Mini. It’s got a nice amount of memory, 8GB, and the disk is exceedingly roomy, at 1TB. But… The disk is also really slow, and the Krita hack, build, deploy, test, hack again cycle could easily take an hour! Which is the reason I never really did much Krita on OSX hacking since the 2014 kickstarter, when I first ported Krita to OSX.

(The keyboard I use with the Mac Mini, by the way, is more than excellent. It’s a WASD custom-built keyboard, and I bought it for using with the Thinkstation desktop machine. It’s got a penguin key.)


So, time for the fourth Apple computer. My needs were:

  • Fast
  • Large screen
  • Good keyboard

Two out of three isn’t bad… Except for a laptop that costs more than 2000 euros. I got a 15″ Macbook Pro with a 256Gb SSD. For only about 500 euros more, I would have had a bigger disk, and the disk on this laptop is already fullish, what with two Linux and one Windows virtual machines and an OSX build tree or two.

So, what’s good? The screen is really good, sharp, clear, excellent color, unless you turn the brightness down. It’s not as clear and sharp as the Dell XPS 12 screen, but it doesn’t have the Dell’s ghosting problem. And if you turn the brightness down? The contrast goes down and the colors go down and it looks washed out.

Unfortunately, it isn’t a touch screen, which frustrates me, because I have gotten used to direct interaction in the past couple of years. I also don’t get the way Apple uses display scaling, but that’ll come, no doubt. It seems to me that if you just blow up ever pixel to four pixels the result isn’t really sharper, but somehow it is, for text at least.

It’s also fast. It builds Krita faster than my desktop workstation, which is really impressive. And useful, because apart from writing mail, handling bugs and irc, building Krita is pretty much what I do. Oh, and a little coding…

For the coding, I need a good keyboard, and that’s where this laptop falls down.

The keyboard is ghastly. Honestly. The only reason anyone can think it’s adequate is because they are too young to have used really good keyboards on laptops.

Not only does it still miss Home, End, PgUp, PgDn and Delete (the key Apple labels as Delete is Backspace), the keys have next to no travel. Yes, I get it, thin is the new black. But not when it impairs my productivity. The keys are little black squares of sharp-edged plastic with no shape. And they are also sort of wobbly.

As on Thinkpads, Fn and Control are reversed. Which makes the remarks you read now and then from people who’ve chosen to buy Apple instead of Lenovo because of the Fn key position rather silly.

Because of the lack of Home and End, and because of Apple’s confusion about what those keys should do, it gets really tricky to navigate to the start or end of a line, something which anyone who codes does all the time. You need a different key combination in the shell, in vi, in Qt Creator, in TextMate, everywhere! I am a fast touch typist, but I am having to look under my left hand at the block of Fn, Control, Option and Command all the time to hit the right combination. I still cannot switch between the browser and the terminal and remember the shortcut to move to the next or previous tab, they are different! Honestly, I am not making this up.

The other thing that’s below par, though probably related to the “really fast” bit, is the battery life. Two hours of coding and building will drain the battery down to about 40%. When building in a Windows VM and in OSX at the same time, the charger seems to have a hard time keeping up. I saw the battery drain while it was plugged in. No, I’m not asking you to believe me, I don’t believe myself either.

There are other niggles about the hardware: the laptop gets really hot (again probably related to the “really fast”…), the edges are sharp, the power button is where my little finger expects the delete button. The aluminum case is really prone to scratches, even the plastic zipper of my laptop bag manages it.

But actually, Apple’s design is one reason I didn’t want to wait another six months for the updated model. Just imagine a Macbook Pro that is remodeled after the Macbook redesign, with keys with all of two-tenths of a milimeter of travel! Better live for a bit with an older processor.

Now for the other part of the deal…

Software

The software. OSX. It’s an operating system. Not a particularly brilliant one, but it does run applications. And it’s got a gui with a a window manager. A particularly aenemic window manager that needs extensions to tile windows left and right, but that’s getting “modernized” by making it more like a tablet. In the El Capitan version, it really, really, really wants you to run your applications full-screen. Okay. It’s a bit stupid that from version to version the meaning of the title bar button changes, apparently randomly, too.

What is also quite irritating is the bunch of crap extra applications that take up space and are completely useless to me: safari, garageband, imovie, pages, keynote, itunes and so on. I wonder if I can just trash them…

As a development platform, OSX sucks, too, with limited OpenGL support, huge crippling changes between versions and horrible developer documentation. Oh, and a bunch of proprietary languages and API’s that nobody in their right mind would even consider learning, because they are bound to be deprecated just when they get established.

Conclusion

The short version: I still take the Dell XPS 12 with me on the train most days. It’s slow, small, the keyboard is lacking, and it’s still a more usable computer. If that isn’t a damning indictment, I don’t know what is.

The slightly longer version: the only valid reason to buy an Apple computer is because you need to write software for OSX or iOS, in other words, to provide the people who didn’t have a valid reason to get an Apple with software.

Coda

I bought this laptop from a website with a .nl extension. The website was in Dutch. It’s no doubt being maintained by people who live in the Netherlands and pay income tax in the Netherlands. After ordering it, it was manufactured in China, and shipped from Shanghai to Korea, from Korea to Kazachstan, from Kazachstan to Germany, from Germany to the Netherlands. And then to me. I paid VAT in the Netherlands. At no point in the buying of this piece of crap was Ireland involved.

Except that Ireland’s where the bill was ostensibly coming from.

Tim, me boy, you sell a crap OS on a crap piece of hardware and you’re cheating my country of the tax income it needs, which I and the other Dutch people then need to make up, just so you can sit on a pile of cash big enough to make all of Africa into an affluent continent. If you were an honest dealer, my tax burden would be lower and my laptop would, presumably, be better. And so would the world. Time to think different?