Thoughts on my New Work Computer

My daily-use work notebook (the trusty old MacBook Air) was replaced with a 2018 MacBook Air a few months ago.

The Good

  • “Looks like 1680 x 1050” means more space for seeing things. ✅
  • There is a physical Esc key. ✅
  • The keyboard lights up. ✅
  • Battery life is pretty good. ✅
  • Performance is fine. ✅

The Bad

  • The clackity-clack keyboard is already goofing up sometimes. There’s a chance I’ll get more than one “o” when I type one “o”. Anecdotally, this seems to happen most when writing email, which is both weird and exactly when I don’t want a goofy keyboard.
  • I now have a USB-C adapter that has become part of my life, mostly for connecting to presentation equipment. It’s one of those Dell hockey-puck devices, and it works, but the fact that it must exist and be with me is unpleasant. I put it in my pocket when heading to meetings and it looks like I’m carrying a can of dipping tobacco. (Unfavorable flashbacks to my retainer case in junior high.)
  • Touch ID worked for a while, now it doesn’t. I don’t know why, but I think it’s local to our environment. This one is weird and we’re working on it.
  • I would like to stay on our internal WiFi, but I have auth problems that are weird and totally disrupt the “minimum ceremony upon opening lid” requirement. I think I know why, and I’m sure it’s local to our environment. This one will be solved soon. Fixed! ✅

The Verdict

It’s a good computer, and definitely what most people should use unless they have specific requirements. Should Apple get it together and replace the keyboard on this model, it will be a great computer – as long as you don’t mind dealing with an adapter from time to time.

My Favorite Work Computer Ever

There’s a lot of hubbub about the state of Apple notebook computers these days. Here’s a fine list for those who want the details.

I have a job. Many people I know there rely on a notebook computer to get things done. I see plenty of shiny modern MacBook Pro models around the place. I can’t get excited about it.

  • Here’s a $2,500 computer that manages to be a half pound lighter than the previous model, but requires a two pound DongleBag™ to be useful for many people in a work context because there are no USB-A or HDMI ports.
  • I agree that Blu-ray was (and still is) “a bag of hurt”, but stable, reliable USB-C interoperability appears from my sideline view as a literal DongleBag of Hurt™. Maybe you have what you need in that bag, and maybe it will work most of the time.
  • The butterfly keyboard is prone to being damaged by dirt or just generally failing, causing a multi-hundred dollar repair because it’s not very serviceable. How this remains a topic of debate at this point is hard to understand. Nice design, bad in practice.
  • Don’t get me started on the Escape key. I use the Escape key all the time. I want an Escape key.

What I Want From a Work Computer

  • It should always work. No force quitting things all the time, and I should have to restart it only when updating the system software.
  • It should allow me to start working within five seconds of touching the keyboard, without ceremony or multi-step incantations.
  • I like to walk around and be productive with just a notebook computer. Light is good.
  • I never ever want to plug my computer into power during a meeting. In my view, this would be an admission of personal failure and a sign to my colleagues that I do not have it together.
  • Most of the heavy work I do runs in a very nice data center with very nice computers in it. I need to get to those things with near-100% reliability. Wireless must be frictionless.
  • It should have a physical Escape key.
  • I like macOS because it lets a suit be a suit, and a geek be a geek.

My Favorite Work Computer Ever

My absolute favorite computer I’ve ever used for work is the one I use every day for all of the above. It is the 13″ MacBook Air (Mid-2013). It features a cruddy plastic third-party shell I bought with my own money, being held together with dark grey duct tape. I have dropped it more than once. It still works.

The 13

I am a computer guy, and I could get a newer computer, right? Sure. I’ve been asked if I want to upgrade. But why? This is working, and the new models require me to give up things I want for things I don’t want.

The scene in Star Wars were Han Solo says, 'She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid.' “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”

After five years, I believe I have plugged it up to power in a meeting room perhaps four times. You would not believe the number of meetings I attend. The battery life remains magical. I don’t carry an AC adapter with me.

Side note: when I’m at my desk, I use a Mac mini (Late 2014) with two external monitors. I have lots of things happening all at once on that machine, and it is never the reason I can’t get work done.

Things I Might Change About the Five-Year Old Allegedly Obsolete Notebook Computer I Use Everyday for Work

I regret getting 512 GB of internal SSD storage. It’s about 400GB too much for me.

It does not have a Retina display. I have those on my personal devices, and it’s very nice, but I don’t really need it. I would take a Retina display if battery life remained amazing, even after five years.

It has a constrained screen resolution. I agree more would be better. If I had a Retina display, I would use it for more real estate, not crisper images.

I would like an HDMI port for the rare occasions I need one, because I am not going to carry around a DongleBag of Hurt™ 100% of the time just in case. I would trade the SD card slot for this.

Performance: Not much. There was a short period where I was getting intense PDFs to review, and this computer could not handle it running Preview. I just held my nose and started using Adobe Reader for those documents, and that short-lived problem was solved.

Yes, I Know

This is one of the many bits of writing these days about Apple notebooks and how they meet (or don’t) the needs of an individual. I know I’m just me, and I am different from a lot of people.

I think writing this has helped me decide what I need to do about my work computer situation. Nothing. It’s fine.

RANT: Cheap Server Rail Kits

This is a very specialized topic, but my hand hurts this morning for a very specialized reason, and I wish to rant about it.

Attention cheap white-box server manufacturers: the cheap, flimsy, rickety, ill-fitting, funny-smelling rail kits you continue to ship so you can save $10 are absolute garbage, and you should be ashamed of yourselves. I would so dearly love to name names, but as this post surely proves, I am too pro for that.

You can and should do better. The mechanism responsible for holding something heavy and important should not be made of materials as utterly not-resilient as (and unfavorably comparable to) plastic wrap, talc, or balsa wood. I would rather use duct tape, because at least I know what to expect from duct tape, and it typically does what I expect.

IKEA ships better rail kits to hold a two pound drawer.

I would shake my fist at you, but I am having trouble making my hand into that shape this morning because of an encounter with one of these travesties of engineering yesterday afternoon.

Please round up all such alleged rail kits and leave them out in the sun, where they will surely melt into a greasy puddle of sadness and embarrassment in under 15 minutes.

This is perhaps the leading reason I do not prefer cheap white-box servers, and have a moment of nausea whenever I know I will have to deal with one. It is never by choice.

Thank you for your time and attention. My soul feels better, but my hand still hurts.

OS X 10.10 Instant Hotspot

I finally upgraded to OS X 10.10 on my trusty work MacBook Air, after sticking with 10.8 because I’m just too busy and dependent on my laptop to do without it for the upgrade. 

(By the way: When you work at place like I do, you don’t just update your own OS; you have lots of security related tools involved and you leave it to the experts, per both policy and pragmatism.)

So anyway, I wondered in a waiting room today what it would take to get the fancy Instant Hotspot feature to work with the iPad I also carry around. Turns out, you just select the iPad from the WiFi list, then magic intarnet happens. Huh, that was easy. Nice!

Now I just need 10.10.4 so Molly can print reliably at the house, since that whole situation appears to be suffering from the discoveryd madness. 

OS X Mirroring and External Displays

I have a not-superfancy 21″ iMac at home. It’s got an old Dell 24″ DVI display attached with a Thunderbolt adapter. I’m generally a big fan of multiple displays on any computer I’m using, and this works out well when I want it, especially if I’m doing something with VMware Fusion that could use a full extra screen. But here’s the thing: In this particular setting, I don’t need or want the external display all the time. It’s connected via VGA to an old Mac mini that we occasionally use, which complicates things a bit more because of input switching. The display is from something like 2007, so it does nothing automatically.

No problem: If I don’t need it, I’ll just turn it off. However, the Thunderbolt adapter means that OS X always sees the display as present, even if it’s powered off. I find this annoying, especially when I launch an application that remembers it has windows on the external display. I have to turn the display on, make sure it’s on the DVI input, blah blah, just to move the window. It’s a small thing, but the grumpy accumulates.

Today, the obvious solution finally occurred to me: Just turn on display mirroring when the external display is unwanted. Command-F1, or Command-fn-F1 if you have media keys disabled.

This gathers everything to the internal iMac display and means OS X (and I) can just ignore the second display. Easy.