The MacBook Pro Kerfuffle

Just last week it seemed life was promising. There were new MacBook Pros with beefy specs, and life was good.

Then, this week, spurred in part by a Youtuber and more detailed reviews of the shipping machines, reality reared its ugly head.

The latest Apple snafu, as it turns out, is that several SKUs of the MacBook Pro throttle heavily under intensive workloads. In some cases this means they drop down below their advertised base core clocks, to say nothing of their turbo boost speeds, and as a result are in fact slower than the last-generation Intel CPUs in the 2017 models.

There’s blame to go around here. The problem starts with Intel, who is currently facing some troubles and renewed competition from AMD. With their original CPU roadmap now terribly late, Intel tried to compensate and bumped the core counts for the 28-watt and 45-watt chips the 13 and 15″ MacBook Pro models use. The result is a far more power-hungry chip that upsets the general computing trend of better performance-per-watt with each generation. Intel released a bad product.

Of course, Apple still had a role to play in this. At this point they’ve become famous for extremely tight tolerances on their products, so much so that they admitted they designed the Mac Pro into a “thermal corner” where they could not easily refresh the machine and ended up making the 2013 redesign of the product an evolutionary dead end. With the 2016 MacBook Pro refresh Apple once again made the notebooks thinner, and while its size and thermal dissipation solution was adequate for Intel’s previous offerings, placing the new chips in the same cooling solution has resulted in some bad results. It’s a bit naive to expect Apple to drastically redesign their product every year when it turns out Intel has released a dud, but at the same time they put themselves in a tougher situation than it needed to be. And at the end of the day, people aren’t going to blame Intel for this—they’re going to blame Apple.1

It’s not all doom and gloom. Early indications are that the new ‘quieter’ third-generation butterfly keyboards on the 2018 models actually do feature much more robust protection from paralyzing dust, and the keys themselves are easier to service without requiring a full top replacement. And the new MacBooks aren’t necessarily forever crippled; Apple could update their firmware to have more aggressive fan curves, for instance, which would help mitigate some of the throttling by anticipating the extra heat. But it’s still not a great look to have your most expensive SKUs on a product targeted to professional users turn out to have a big asterisk by their specs. People have been complaining about Apple prioritizing thinness and quiet performance over raw power and cooler temperatures for years now, and it seems like those complaints have caught up to them decisively.

The gentlemen at Accidental Tech Podcast are (uncharacteristically?) bullish about this news, arguing that Apple has already turned a corner and that a “Mac renaissance” is coming, albeit slowly to outsiders given the amount of time it takes to change course. Apple’s response to the MacBook Pro throttling issue, and whatever form the Mac Pro takes next year, will be the indicators to watch to see whether that prediction holds.

EDIT (07/24/2018): Apple released a supplemental update to address the slowdown, blaming a firmware issue. We’ll see if that quells the complaints.

  1. This is also more fuel on the fire that is whether or not Apple should ditch Intel and create their own Mac processors, as is rumored. It still remains to be seen whether Apple’s industry-leading A-series chips in their iOS devices could scale to adequate pro-level performance, but Apple controlling the stack and having a much better idea of where chips are headed seems like it would have presented a blunder of this magnitude.

Apple Updates MacBook Pros

Amid swirling rumors of new MacBooks and (maybe) the Mac mini being updated, Apple updated its MacBook Pro line. The big news is that with the move to Intel’s 8th generation processors, the entire line gets a core bump, with the 13in models getting quad core i5/i7 and the 15in models getting hex core i7/i9s. Along with this move comes DDR4 RAM and a boosted max of 32GB on the 15in model; the battery has likewise gotten larger to accommodate the power-hungry RAM.

The good:

  • People who use their MacBook Pros as desktop replacements and workstations now have more and faster RAM. Especially if you’re running use cases like rendering and virtual machines, this is a major upgrade. Likewise, the added higher storage options (4TB) make it a more capable machine.
  • The press release mentions an “improved third-generation keyboard” for quieter typing. Presumably there’s also additional design done to mitigate or stop the higher-than-normal keyboard failures that have cropped up. People will probably have to wait a year to see if it’s as problem-prone as its predecessors under the repair program. It’s probably also not going to mollify people whose issue with the keyboard was not its reliability but its feel, but early impressions seem positive.

The bad:

  • Not updated: the non-touch bar 13in MacBook Pro, and the 2015-era 15in model was also discontinued. This means Apple continues to have weird pricing holes in their lineup. The consensus seems pretty clear that for most people, even if they like the touchbar, they’d like paying a couple hundred bucks less even more, and now the base price of a 13in model has crept up to $1800, while the 15min model is $2400—that’s a bump in price of $500 and $400 respectively from the equivalent machines in 2015. Keeping the non-touchbar model around without updates is another “zombie Apple” problem as of late—there’s a lot of models to avoid because you’re paying high prices for outdated hardware, and that problem still remains throughout their lineup.
Screenshot of After Effects CC

The Joy of AEScripts

If you’re a motion designer, you’ve probably got a custom toolkit of third-party tools, plugins, scripts, and setups unique to you. The big appeal of them is time-saving—whether enabling you to achieve a look without a huge amount of effort, or to make quick projects that much quicker. Over the years I’ve assembled a kit that I pretty much always install on a new machine immediately, in no particular order. Most of these come from AEScripts, which is a pretty smashing site if you’re looking for After Effects mods.

  • Ease and Wiz: The simplest way to get motion keyframe style in a click or two. Especially when I just need to animate things quickly or don’t have time to massage keyframes for a bespoke effect, this fills in nicely.
  • True Comp Duplicator: After Effects’ composition duplication is in my opinion a bit non-intuitive, and on complicated projects with multiple nested compositions True Comp Duplicator saves oodles of time.
  • Reposition Anchor Point: A fantastically simple and fantastically important part of my workflow: I have no idea how much time I’ve saved with this far-more-intuitive method of dynamically changing anchor points of objects, but whatever it is, I probably owe the developer a lot of money.
  • Unmult: A really simple plugin from RedGiant that like Reposition Anchor Point, saves me a ton of time by knocking out black pixels and not requiring any blending modes to do it.

Looking at my AEScripts purchase history, I’ve been relying on some scripts and plugins I use weekly for more than seven years at this point. The amount of time they’ve saved me is probably incalculable, as is the new approaches they’ve enabled me to try.