October 31, 2018
“The quck brosn fox…”
That’s the gibberish I ended up typing on Tuesday when I tried Apple’s brand new MacBook Air. I had intended to produce the usual typing test phrase “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs.” But as an admittedly poor typist, I was having some problems with the Air’s new keyboard.
The update to one of the most popular laptops of all time made its long overdue debut at an Apple event minutes earlier. And on stage before a crowd of a couple of thousand of (mostly) Apple employees and guests, the new laptop looked brilliant.
“Our customers…especially love one Mac in particular, one that they take with them everywhere they go, and use for everything they do–and that is the MacBook Air,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told the audience. “It’s time for a new MacBook Air.”
Last updated way back in 2015, the new MacBook Air starts at almost $1,200 and added faster Intel processors and more memory, as expected. It also finally got a high-resolution 13-inch retina screen, a couple of modern USB-C ports, and now comes in two additional colors (gold and “space gray”). Meanwhile, Apple eliminated the SD card slot, USB-3 ports, and the delightful MagSafe charging port, which detaches the cord if someone stumbles across it to avoid yanking the laptop off a desk. All of the changes were in line with what Apple has done over the past few years with its MacBook Pro laptops, the more expensive line that’s been updated more frequently.
After the keynote and a couple of delightful songs from Lana Del Rey, I waited in a long line to get into Apple’s hand’s-on area. And that’s where a big disappointment quickly became obvious. The prior version of the MacBook Air, which I use for work, has one of the best keyboards available. Fast and accurate with a firm feeling as each key noticeably depresses upon being struck, it’s always a joy to type on. I’ve had many, many laptops since starting with a unit called the NEC Ultralight in the 1990s, ranging from some cute purple Sony Vaio models to most of Apple’s offerings over the past decade or two. And the old Air’s keyboard was among the very best.
As I approached the new Air, sitting on a beautiful white display table in the gorgeous six-story atrium that was once a grand lobby of the Williamsburgh Bank, my fingers reached for the keyboard. And in place of the great version on the old Air was a new thinner keyboard, the third generation of the one that Apple first introduced three years ago on its MacBook laptop and has since migrated to the MacBook Pro as well. So it’s not a surprise, but surely a disappointment, that perhaps the most important feature of the laptop after the screen is now so degraded, in my view (Outside of Apple, the design has been widely panned from the outset, though my teenage kids tells me it’s just fine–your mileage may vary).
Still, Apple kept the Air’s iconic wedge shape even as it lightened the laptop by about 7%—it’s now 2.75 lb.—and the new screen is gorgeous and bright, as advertised. And…drum roll please…Apple kept the headphone jack (which it’s taken out of the iPhone and new iPads).
The new MacBook Air still has an escape key.
The new MacBook Air also still has an escape key, forgoing the touch-friendly screen of virtual buttons dubbed the Touch Bar that Apple added to some other models. The new Air does get a small fingerprint sensor for biometric unlocking, though.
Typing for a bit, I found the flatter, wider keys somewhat easier to hit accurately but I didn’t always register a letter when I thought I had hit the correct key and sometimes got my fingers misaligned. The new keyboard design has also been more prone to keys failing from crumbs or other detritus getting inside, though the third generation update may have fixed that issue.
Unhappy with the overall feel, I found myself wishing that Apple’s autocorrect feature, which fixes common typos automatically while you type, was even better than it is, intervening more often when my fingers went astray. Then I wished that some crazy hacker, like Scotty Allen who re-added a headphone jack to his iPhone 7 after Apple debuted the phone without one in 2016, could somehow tweak the new Air to add the keyboard from the older model.
Combined with the fantastic new features like the retina screen and lighter weight, it would make one of the killer laptops of all time.
Later, when I tried Apple’s updated iPad Pro models and the new snap on keyboard cover, called the Smart Keyboard Folio, I was even more disappointed. The new iPad Pro starts at almost $800 and the cover costs another $180 to $200, depending on size. For the record, the old Smart Keyboard that Apple made for prior iPads was not so great. But the new one seemed to have even less travel distance in the keys, in addition to a little too much resistance pushing back each time I struck a key. That made it even harder for me to type quickly and accurately.
The new iPads, however, are a joy to hold and look at. The new 12.9 inch model is noticeably lighter and smaller than its predecessor, even as the screen stayed the same overall size. The screen seemed, if anything, even brighter and crisper than on older models. Storage now goes up to a whopping 1 TB. And though Apple eliminated the headphone jack, the switch from Apple’s proprietary lightning port to an industry standard USB-C port means it’s easier to connect all kinds of different devices to the iPad without using a crazy array of dongles and adapters, including cameras and large 4K external displays.
An Apple expert demonstrates the features of the new iPad Pro.
As an Apple (aapl) iPad expert demonstrated the improved feature to connect to a desktop display made possible by the USB-C port, another shortcoming in the device’s design became obvious. While Microsoft (msft) and Google (googl) make software for tablets that can incorporate input from a trackpad in addition to just finger touches, Apple is sticking with touch only.
That means, first of all, that there’s no way for users to manipulate directly whatever is on the second screen connected to the iPad. My demo expert showed off how Adobe Lightroom could display a picture on the large, external screen while editing controls were shown on the iPad’s own screen.
But there was no way to touch or zoom in or out or manipulate the photo like you could if it was displayed on the iPad’s screen. And forget about using the external screen to display a different app, say by putting your email program on one screen and a web browser on the other for reference, as you might when connecting a laptop to a second monitor. For now, the feature only lets you use both displays to show different parts of the same app, like video footage being edited on one screen and the editing controls on the other.
And the limitations of typing and moving the cursor with no trackpad for the iPad create a bit of a quandary for Apple’s marketing pitch. There’s no touch screen on its laptops because, Apple says, people don’t want to interrupt their workflow and have to reach up from the keyboard and trackpad to touch the screen (I agree). And there’s no trackpad for the iPad because it doesn’t fit with the all-touch stance of Apple’s software for the iPad. So then how can Apple pitch the iPad as a true replacement for a laptop if it’s not great for writing and other apps where you’d like to move the cursor around?