Does the new MacBook Pro deserve the criticism? [Friday Night Fights]

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Are you pleased with the new MacBook Pro?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

The new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar might be Apple’s fastest-selling Pro machine to date, but a lot of fans are far from happy with it.

Friday Night Fights bugIt’s thinner and lighter than its predecessors, and it boasts the fastest storage we’ve ever seen on a Mac. But it’s also a lot more expensive, and it’s missing traditional USB-A ports that the vast majority of us still rely on every day. The SD card slot is gone, too.

But, does it really deserve all this criticism? Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we debate the new MacBook Pro and whether Apple messed up this year’s refresh.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke Dormehl: So the biggest news this week (aside from some presidential thing I’ve heard some murmuring about in the background) is the backlash against the new MacBook Pro.

Detractors are saying it’s overpriced and underpowered, and that Apple should never have ditched USB-A and the SD card slot. Frankly, I’m a bit baffled by the response — and I’m not alone. The reality is that, while people are framing this as a major backlash, it isn’t. It’s more like the backlash that accompanied Apple ditching the clone Macs back in the late 1990s: a storm in a teacup that, while it’s making a lot of noise, isn’t really telling the story for a large percentage of people. (Hmmm… maybe there’s an election tie-in here after all.)

The fact is that the new MacBook Pro has been astonishingly successful. According to analysis this week, it’s already broken Apple’s previous pro notebook records and generated more revenue than any other notebook released in 2016. It’s actually generated roughly 78 percent of the revenue the 12-inch MacBook has generated since April 10, 2015.

Do I sympathize with pro customers who would like a true pro-level notebook from Apple? Absolutely: I was sad when there was no new Mac Pro announced at the company’s recent event as well. Given Apple’s history with gaming (mainly from the Apple II era), I wouldn’t be opposed to a high-end Apple games computer, either.

But Apple’s in the business of making money, and — from the sound of things — the new MacBook Pro is a smash hit with consumers. It’s facing a backlash in the same way Hollywood blockbusters do: because it’s been so successful and there are a niche group of fans looking for something else. Apple’s been headed in this direction for years, though, and I’m puzzled that anyone would be surprised that they’re continuing this trend in 2016.

There are certainly aspects of what Apple is doing today that one can criticize. But it’s hard to say they’ve made a terrible mistake here, given that this is a computer that could well be the company’s most successful in years.

Killian Bell FNFKillian Bell: I know the new MacBook Pro is already a success for Apple, and I know that criticism of the laptop isn’t going to make a lot of difference right now. But I do believe it’s warranted, and I don’t think it’s something Apple will want to see so commonly (there were plenty of complaints about iPhone 7, too).

I’ve previously defended the MacBook Pro’s new Touch Bar, and I stand by that — I think it’s super-exciting. But when it comes to the overall upgrade, I think fans have a right to be unhappy with what Apple has offered up. There are a few reasons why.

First, it’s overpriced. An entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is a full $500 more than last year’s entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro. Apple clearly feels the Touch Bar is worth that $500, but when you consider you can get an iPad Air 2 for less than that, or even a Mac mini, the premium just doesn’t make sense.

I’m delighted with the graphics improvements this year, and it’s nice to see we finally get Intel Skylake processors, but a maximum of 16GB of RAM isn’t enough for some pro users. I know adding more would mean losing some battery life, since these Skylake processors don’t support low-power RAM above 16GB. But why can’t Apple offer more and let the consumer decide whether they want all-day battery life or more RAM?

Then there’s the sacrifices you must make when you get one. Like the 12-inch MacBook, the new MacBook Pro uses USB-C exclusively. Traditional USB-A ports are no more, and there’s no SD card slot for photographers, either. Almost no one is going to be able to use one of these machines without buying an adapter for something.

Yes, Apple likes to kill off aging technologies in favor of newer, better standards. And I get that. But when it killed off the floppy drive, the optical disk drive and FireWire, it chose a better time to do it. USB-A and SD cards aren’t ready to die yet. They’re nowhere near the end of their lifespans, and they aren’t holding us back. Why not give us just one USB-A port?

I wonder whether Apple feels forced into making changes like this because of the pressure it is under from fans and investors. The company hasn’t delivered anything truly revolutionary in years, and everyone’s calling for something big. I think Apple is worried that if it doesn’t make controversial moves — like ditching the headphone jack — it will be criticized for not doing enough.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: I don’t think you and I are worlds apart on this, but I still think you’re not looking at the big picture. For one thing, yes, it’s expensive — but preorders suggest that it’s not prohibitively so. As a customer, I obviously want to pay as little as possible for my devices, but market forces dictate the amount that’s acceptable to consumers. If Apple had offered a machine that was genuinely too expensive for the market to bear, it wouldn’t sell — simple as that.

The problem is that the complainers — while long-standing Apple customers and therefore more than entitled to make their voices heard — represent a level of professional consumer that has represented a shrinking minority for Apple over the years. These users simply don’t represent what the bulk of customers are looking for, for better or worse.

We live in an outrage culture, where people can easily whip up noise online, but Apple shouldn’t necessarily deviate to please those customers just because they’re making noise. The company’s in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation where it’s at once being simultaneously criticized for not innovating fast enough and for pushing forward too quickly.

Again, I don’t think these customers are necessarily wrong to be upset. I’d love to see Apple bring out a new Mac Pro to show it’s still interested in courting pro-level customers. But it’s hard to say that Apple’s wrong when all the numbers suggest otherwise.

Let me put it to you this way: Do you think most people are going to fall away from Apple if it continues on this course? If we revisit this conversation five years from now, are we going to view this as the moment Apple lost touch with its audience’s wishes? Because I don’t think so.

Killian Bell FNFKillian: I disagree that the new MacBook Pro is a good fit for “the bulk of consumers.” What happened to “it just works”? The new MacBook Pro doesn’t just work when you need to plug in your iPhone, an external hard drive, a display or an SD card. You have to buy an expensive adapter first — you might even need more than one if you want to connect a display and an SD card — and then it might just work. Is that the Apple experience we all grew to love?

I do agree that whatever Apple does right now, it’s going to be criticized. But so long as the company is doing the right things, it doesn’t matter. I just don’t think sacrificing something like USB-A was the right thing to do just yet. The new MacBook Pro is the perfect example of form over function, but I don’t think that should be Apple’s approach with a pro machine.

Yes, I think Apple could start to lose fans if it continues on this course. That’s what I was suggesting earlier when I said the criticism might not make a lot of difference right now — it could in the future.

I’ve seen photographers and video editors and other creatives on Facebook and Twitter who are switching to Windows machines that are more powerful and have additional features (like touchscreens) because they cost a lot less and require fewer sacrifices. It might not be a lot of people right now, but it could be in years to come.

Many believe Apple is too successful to fail now, but companies like BlackBerry have proven that’s never true.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: The BlackBerry comparison is completely fatuous. That’s a company that fell from prominence because it stopped innovating sufficiently — not because it tried new things. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I don’t think pro-level consumers are wrong to be upset, but maybe they should just decide that the MacBook isn’t for them. Apple’s got a larger Mac user base than ever, and appealing to all of them is going to be impossible. Do I sympathize with pro customers who have been Apple fans for years? Of course. Can I honestly say this is a mistake when Apple has a massive hit on its hands? No, I can’t.

But let’s turn this over to the readers. Has Apple made a terrible error with its new MacBook Pro that will come back to bite it in the years to come? Are you personally disappointed by the new MacBook Pro, or is this another Bendgate-style controversy? And can you really side with my Cult of Mac brother Killian, who once wrote an article on the features Apple should steal from Samsung’s disastrous Note 7? Leave your comments below. And have a good weekend!

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?