On the New MacBook

I’ve been using the new MacBook as a personal travel laptop for the last month or so. I’ve been coding and writing blog posts with it and I wanted to share my experiences.

If you care about these sorts of things, I’m sure you’ve read countless reviews of the device. So I won’t try to cover everything. Instead, I’ll hit on a few specific things that matter to me.1

This thing is liiiiight

So, I bought this sort of on a whim. I had to travel quite a bit recently, internationally and with a lot of luggage already2. I’m working on an app for myself, and using that to learn Swift. I couldn’t justify the weight of a second laptop in my carryon, so I couldn’t/didn’t want to bring my own MacBook Pro in addition to my work laptop.3

For this scenario – a second, lightweight companion laptop – this thing is perfect. Far better than an iPad with a keyboard, because it runs OS X, and light enough that it’s like carrying a book. I hardly notice the extra weight. It’s just awesome.

Yes, the keyboard is weird (trackpad, too)

The keyboard is a polarizing feature. Reviewers seem to love it or hate it. I love it. It does take some getting used to, but once I did, I am able to type on it as fast as I can on my MacBook Pro. Switching between the two keyboards is my biggest problem. I make a few more mistakes when I first get on the Macbook, but it goes away quickly.

The bigger problem for me is that the keyboard layout is actually subtly different. Arrow keys and the Fn keys are the big ones for me. I still haven’t figured out the arrow keys, and still stumble around on those regularly. Thankfully I tend to code in things with Vi keybindings, so it doesn’t mess me up as often as it could.

For what it’s worth, I typed up the Mobile in India blog post on my MacBook (and this post, too).

The trackpad is similarly uncanny valley-ish, but more easily ignored. I sometimes tend to crash down on the trackpad to click it (trying to stop the screensaver from kicking in, for example), but since it doesn’t give, the haptic feedback illusion breaks since it doesn’t match the force with which I hit the trackpad.

Performance is merely OK

The Intel Core M processor used in the laptop is Intel’s attempt to build a tablet/hybrid processor. The processor also limits the amount of RAM. It’s OK for most things, but the laptop does struggle with anything that’s pushing a lot of data around. Overall, I see the beachball a lot more than I ever do on my MacBook Pro.4

That said, I run Xcode, I compile apps, and for the smaller applications I’m working on, it’s fine.

On the other hand, for writing blog posts, emails, and that sort of thing… this thing is PERFECT. I love it so much that I reach for it now when I want to sit down to write. The small screen minimizes the temptation to have distractions visible, and the retina screen makes reading type easy on the eyes.

Should you get it?

Depends. If you prioritize weight over performance, this is perfect. In any other scenario, the MacBook Air or the 13” MacBook Pro is a better choice.

For the developers, this cannot be a primary development laptop, but you can get away with Xcode or Atom or the like running with little trouble. Expect build times to be a lot longer than whatever you’re used to.

Bottom line: I love it, glad I took a chance on it.


  1. Two reviews that I’ll highlight, in case you missed them: Marco Arment’s review (he hated it) and Rene Ritchie’s review.

  2. Ex-pat living note: when you travel back to your home country, it’s expected (neighbors will mock you otherwise) that you maximize your return luggage allowance with everyday luxuries that you can’t buy easily here in India. For example, my last trip I had a suitcase full of baby stuff from our attic, many boxes of mac & cheese, maple syrup, and Clif Bars.

  3. Yes, I like carrying a separate laptop for personal things. I’m always hacking on personal apps and ideas, and I do all my writing on personal gear so I don’t cross the streams. Work is work. Personal is personal.

    I recognize this is like the ultimate first world, self-inflicted problem.

  4. I also installed El Capitan on this, so performance has dropped a little as I’d expect with with a beta OS and working in a beta Xcode

Some Observations on the Mobile Market in India

Living in India has given me a new perspective on a lot of things. Professionally, I’m constantly learning a lot just by seeing how differently people use their phones, and how different the market and ecosystem around mobile is here.

Intex? Karbonn? Spice Mobile? Oppo?

The biggest eye opener has been seeing the number of India-focused brands here in the smartphone market.

In the US, there are global brands like Apple, Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and LG and then a spread of other smaller brands. Here’s IDC’s list of the top smartphone vendors in India last year:

  1. Samsung
  2. Micromax
  3. Intex
  4. Lava
  5. Xiaomi

The market is also full of up & comers like Spice Mobile, and Karbonn, & other Chinese manufacturers like Oppo among many others I probably haven’t heard of.

Windows Phone is still a factor here, and I do still see Blackberrys from time-to-time, though they don’t rank in any public market reports I can see.

And feature phones – J2ME, basic phones… still big in India, too.

I’m Developing Android First

Most of the smartphones sold in India run Android. Android has a 90+% market share in India. Nothing else really is worth talking about, when you’re talking about smartphones.

So, while I personally am a dedicated iOS user, professionally in India, our teams think Android first. This is not the case for our US development teams, where both platforms have roughly equal priority and resources.

In the U.S., Fred Wilson’s 2010 call for Android first was bad advice then (and probably still is now), but the realities of emerging markets like India means doing exactly that. It’s literally the only game in town that matters.

Price is King, But Technology Matters

India is a price sensitive market. Obvious, right? But what I’ve found living here and talking to coworkers is that it isn’t just price that matters, but affordable value. From Ben Thompson’s excellent blog, Stratechery, talking about Xiaomi’s (and others’) rapidly growing customer base in India & China:

These customers are not conservative, or even pragmatists: they are enthusiasts and visionaries who simply don’t have very much money. The proper way to reach them, then, is not to sell them trickle-down technology: they will see right through that, and dismiss it out of hand. Rather, the solution to is develop new business models – indeed, in the case of Xiaomi, a new company – that is built from the ground-up to serve their specific needs.

This, too, is a powerful opportunity: there are far, far more potential customers in developing countries than there are in developed ones, but just because they don’t have much money does not mean they are technological laggards. Indeed, many of these customers are even more advanced when it comes to being mobile first because of the lack of a PC legacy, and they will embrace a brand that lets them live on the cutting edge.

Specs and feature bullets are still huge here, and not just because so many people in India work in the technology sector.

Android is Different Here

That central point, that people want tech but simply can’t afford the flagship devices, means that manufacturers need to find creative ways to manage cost while still offering an overall solid device. This creates subtle differences in user experience that go beyond the speed or feel of the device.

For example, Rs. 10,000 (~$160) is a common marketing cutoff for “inexpensive” smartphones (all phones are sold unlocked and contract free here).1

So, I decided to pick up a Micromax Canvas A1, which cost me about Rs. 4800 (~$75) fully unlocked, got a SIM for it, and have been using it as my ‘free time’ phone when I don’t need work email or iMessage.

It’s not a bad device – performance is fine – and because it’s an Android One device, it runs the latest version of Android. It does have some limitations that impact how we need to develop apps.

First, it’s a 3G phone – no LTE or HSPA+ etc. Even though LTE is coming online here in the cities, the state of the networks, plagued by inconsistent coverage, make this a less significant limitation. App developers already need to think about bandwidth as a precious resource. I’m used to seeing my iPhone on 2G/Edge networks regularly, and I’m not alone judging from our user reports.

The bigger surprise was the limited internal storage. I always found Android fans’ focus on SD card slots odd, but now that I’m running a phone with just 2 Gigs of internal flash memory, I suddenly understand. I went to download an app yesterday and got an error that I was out of space. And all I had on the phone were about 10 reasonably sized apps (the biggest was Facebook, at 150 MB(!). Android does let you move apps and some data to the SD card, so moving apps (when you can2) is the only way to continue installing new apps without deleting other apps.

There are even more subtle issues, some of which are detailed in this blog post at NextBigWhat. It’s a good summary of some of the challenges if you want to target the broadest swath of Indian mobile users.

Of course, you do get what you pay for. While things like Twitter and Facebook run fine, the screen isn’t as nice as the flagship phones. My main gripe, though? The horribly inferior camera.

Photo taken on my Canvas A1:

Canvas A1 Sidewalk Shot

Photo taken on my iPhone 6:

iPhone 6 Sidewalk Shot

No contest, IMHO.

I’m still learning a lot about India, and writing software for Indians (and the world outside the U.S. more broadly – Cricket, rugby, & F1 are global sports). We’re getting close to a few new releases at work, so I’m sure I’ll have more to learn and share soon. And there’s still other things – missed call marketing, the SMS market in India 3, and so much more.


  1. Contrast that to a flagship Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, which runs for about Rs. 53,000 (~$833), or an 64GB iPhone 6 which runs around Rs. 56,000 (~$880), though on sale at Amazon for Rs. 43,499 (~$684.49) right now.

  2. So, I have an SD card installed, but not all apps allow themselves to be moved to the card (it’s a developer choice to allow this). Why wouldn’t apps allow this? Because moving to the SD card disables things like the app’s widgets. So… you need to focus on app distribution size, then you have to think about the user experience when the app is on the SD card, and parts of your app just stop working. Bottom line: not convinced SD cards are that useful, and rumor has it that Google is moving away from them anyway…

  3. Every company seems to send free text messages for everything. Seriously.

OK, I’m convinced… Must have headphones for heavy travelers

I can’t believe I’m recommending this, being a Bose-hater for most of my adult life, but the Bose QuietComfort 25 Headphones are now my favorite travel accessory. Overpriced, yes. Average-ish sound quality, sure. But the noise canceling is uncanny. Flip the switch and the silence is surprising. Unlike most other noise canceling headphones I’ve tried, these don’t give me a headache. I’ve used them on a few long haul flights at this point (17-20 hours in the air each trip) and they’re comfortable enough that I sleep with them on.

The Sony noise canceling headphones I used to own would give me a headache on a cross country flight. They were so annoying (and others I tried so poor at canceling noise), that I switched entirely to passive noise cancelation, using IEMs that just blocked sound.

That worked well enough, but on these long flights, enough noise gets through that my music needs to be loud enough that the music ends up giving me a headache after 5-6 hours in the air.

So, consider me a convert. If you have to fly as much as I have had to recently, these are worth the investment.

They work really well in the office, too. I’ll still use my PSB M4U 1 there, because the sound quality is better and I have an office with a door. 🙂