The importance and unimportance of ports

In the week since the formal, non-Gurman introduction of the new MacBook, there’s been a lot of talk about the ports. The initial reaction of many people has been that its having only one port—and a non-standard one, at that—makes the MacBook a non-starter. The re-reaction has been that while it may not be for power users, it’ll be a perfectly usable computer for lots of people.

I think the lack of standard ports has less to do with the “power” of the user than it does with the company the user keeps. Do you often trade files using USB thumb drives? You’ll want a regular USB port on your computer so you don’t have to hassle with a dongle. Do you regularly give presentations in a conference room outfitted with a projector or a flat screen TV? You’ll want an HDMI port. Take a lot of photos with a DSLR or other non-phone type of camera? An SD slot will be pretty important to you. None of this stuff has anything to do with how adept you are at setting up Hazel rules or Keyboard Maestro macros.

You might also want a bunch of standard ports as a means of protective coloration. If you work with Windows users who come into meetings with their inch-thick laptops bristling with ports, you’ll want your computer to have at least some of those ports1 so you’re not dismissed as a child with a toy.

Luckily, I don’t work in that kind of environment, so although I fit the profile of a power user, I could get along just fine with a single USB-C port and an adapter dongle of some sort. And although Apple’s adapters are expensive, the advantage of having a port covered by a non-proprietary specification is that third-party vendors will undoubtedly start offering reasonably priced adapters soon.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll be getting a new MacBook, even though my 2010 MacBook Air is getting long in the tooth. My problem with the MacBook isn’t with its single port or its somewhat sluggish processor or its limitations on RAM and flash storage. My problem is with its 12″ display. I had a 12″ iBook G4 for several years and I loved that machine, but the display worked because those were the days of the 4:3 aspect ratio. Today’s 16:10 aspect ratio is just too squat for a 12″ screen.

My current notebook has a 13.3″ screen, which makes it just over 7″ tall. The new MacBook’s screen will be less than 6.4″ tall. You may think that’s too small of a difference to worry about or that the higher resolution will make up for it, but I don’t think so. If you do a lot of writing or programming, vertical space is the most valuable commodity on today’s wide-screen displays, and I don’t want to give up any of it. Even with smaller, sharper pixels, there’s a limit to how small I can make the default text size in my editor before it’s uncomfortable to read. I’m not 25 years old anymore.

So while I look forward to the influence the new MacBook will have on future Apple notebooks, I won’t be taking the plunge. I’ll either get a MacBook Pro or wait until the MacBook grows up a bit.

  1. I draw the line at VGA ports. I know lots of Windows notebooks still have them, but this isn’t 2005. I’d just as soon have a pair of PS/2 ports and a parallel port.