Apple makes a big deal about how it designs Macs for “pro” users. And yet, speaking as someone who has been working professionally as a writer, editor, and publisher in the Apple world for over 30 years, Apple doesn’t seem to be catering to pro users like me or most other Mac professionals I know—journalists, doctors, lawyers, accountants, consultants, and more. Just pulling from the most recent MacBook Pro press release, it would seem that pro users:
- Have pro video workflows that would benefit from dramatic performance improvements
- Need 64 GB of unified memory for their pro workloads, where it will be “game-changing”
- Care so little about macOS that they would previously have considered a PC for rendering their “extreme geometry and textures”
- Want to “grade color in HDR on 8K ProRes 4444 video on battery”
- Would be happy if they could “lock in a refresh rate that is optimal for their footage”
- Can afford to connect two or even three $6000 Pro Display XDR screens at once
- Understand performance benchmarks for apps like Adobe Premiere Pro, Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve Studio, Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, Maxon Cinema 4D with Redshift, NASA TetrUSS, and Vectorworks
Apple even lists out the sort of pro users for whom it’s designing:
MacBook Pro is designed for developers, photographers, filmmakers, 3D artists, scientists, music producers, and anyone who wants the world’s best notebook.
Don’t get me wrong. Even though I’ve never used any of the apps listed above, I don’t begrudge these people their expensive high-end Macs. Grade your 8K video all day long, folks! (Special thanks to TidBITS Talk user Vortech for responding to my request and explaining what “grade color in HDR on 8K ProRes 4444 video” means.)
What I am a little miffed about is the implication that if you don’t need all the power of a MacBook Pro with an M1 Max chip and 64 GB of unified memory, you’re not a pro user. And that extreme performance and massive storage are the only things that matter to professionals, such that those of us whose performance requirements are well served by non-Pro Macs could have no other wants or needs that would improve our workflows and productivity. I can’t speak for other fields, but I can think of plenty of hardware and product line enhancements that would make professionals like me more productive. And I’ll bet there are many more writers and lawyers out there than 3D artists and filmmakers.
So here are a few suggestions I have for how Apple could build Macs and supporting products that would better fit the needs of a lot more professionals.
Better iMac Screen Ergonomics and Connectivity
Since 2014, I’ve used a 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display. I like almost everything about it except the ergonomics, which are—put bluntly—lousy. The only adjustment Apple allows is screen tilt. You can’t raise or lower the screen, much less rotate it if your work lends itself to a screen in portrait orientation. Ergonomics are important, both for everyday productivity and longevity. You can’t work as many hours or as effectively if using your Mac is uncomfortable, and that’s even more true in the long term.
Working with USB devices is also awkward due to all the ports being in the back of the iMac. This doesn’t affect me all that much, but I’ve certainly heard lots of complaints from people who need to connect USB flash drives and other peripherals regularly.
The workarounds to these problems are commonplace—and often quite ugly, something that you might think would bother Apple. I’ve seen lots of iMacs sitting on books or boxes to raise them to an appropriate height for comfortable viewing. And a USB hub puts ports front and center, though I try to avoid UBS hubs because they can introduce instability. Satechi even makes the $89.99 Type-C Aluminum Monitor Stand Hub that addresses both limitations, albeit in a non-adjustable way.
I’d like to see some of Apple’s vaunted industrial design efforts put into making an iMac that conforms to the needs of professionals with different body types and work environments, and that offers easily accessible ports on the front, sides, or bottom of the iMac. If Apple can build a $1000 Pro Stand that allows height adjustments for the Pro Display XDR—which can also rotate from landscape to portrait—perhaps it could provide better ergonomics at an affordable price to the rest of us. It shouldn’t be that hard—remember this ad for the “desktop lamp” iMac G4?
Affordable Standalone Retina Displays
Speaking of the Pro Display XDR, I get that there is apparently a universe where a $6000 monitor isn’t seen as expensive compared to competing products. But in the real world that the rest of us—there’s that phrase again—live in, it would be insane to spend two to three times as much on a monitor as on a computer.
I own the last display Apple produced before the Pro Display XDR—the 27-inch Thunderbolt Display. It wasn’t cheap at $999, but at least it was in the same ballpark as competing screens. After Apple came out with the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display in 2014, many of us assumed that the company would release a standalone 5K display as well. That never happened, and to this day, my 27-inch Thunderbolt Display sits propped up on a book next to my iMac—it too lacks height adjustments and accessible ports. Apple discontinued the 27-inch Thunderbolt Display several years later (see “Apple Discontinues Thunderbolt Display with No Replacement in Sight,” 27 June 2016), and the only third-party 5K display still available is the LG UltraFine 5K Display (see “What Happened to 5K Displays?,” 16 November 2018).
So Apple, if you want to support Mac professionals who need perfectly crisp text but can’t even consider spending $6000 on a display, how about releasing a large Retina display that would integrate well with Macs both functionally and aesthetically? It should match the professional-level iMac in size and adjustability so it can serve as a second screen. And it should be designed to fit perfectly on top of a Mac mini as long as that industrial design lasts.
While we’re on the topic of displays, I’d like to see Apple—or someone—figure out how to repurpose older iMacs with Retina displays as monitors for another Mac. They remain some of the best screens out there, and it’s a crying shame that they can’t work as standalone displays. (I am aware of Luna Display from Astropad, and testing its recent addition of 5K support is on my list of things to do. But again, such a feature should just be built in.)
Better FaceTime Cameras with Face ID
I remain flabbergasted that the FaceTime cameras in even Apple’s latest Macs are so pathetic. Even the cheapest iPad and iPhone put the newest Mac cameras to shame, and quite a few iPad and iPhone models have Face ID support for authentication. We’re talking about technology that Apple has used numerous times.
So why isn’t it in Macs? Today’s professionals spend significant amounts of time in video calls using their Macs, not their iPhones or iPads. While PC users don’t have better cameras either, there’s no reason Apple couldn’t up the table stakes. Wouldn’t it be a selling point if the Mac users on every video call were crystal clear and all the PC users were fuzzy? Maybe it would require slightly thicker screens but that’s a trade-off I think most people would be willing to make.
A wide-angle FaceTime camera, such as is in the iPad Pro line, would also enable Center Stage, Apple’s auto-framing technology that enables the camera to track you as you move around during a video call (see “Center Stage Keeps You in the Video Chat Frame,” 23 September 2021). As with picture quality, it would seem to be a significant win for Apple if Mac users had significantly better freedom of movement on calls where it’s easy to compare against PC users.
Also, what’s stopping Apple from adding Face ID to Macs? All the reasons why Face ID is a win for iPhone and iPad users apply to Mac users as well, perhaps even more so, since most Mac passwords are harder to type than six-digit passcodes. Why make working professionals constantly authenticate when waking their Macs or coming out of the screen saver? Touch ID and Apple Watch integration are nice, but they’re more of an interruption than Face ID, and I still type my Mac login password multiple times per day. Microsoft has Windows Hello for facial authentication—I’d like to see macOS catch up with Windows in this regard.
Face ID, coupled with more sites supporting the WebAuthn specification for passwordless authentication, would also save many professionals even more time. Even beyond the additional dance necessary for two-factor authentication, logging into websites is a constant administrative interruption. If our Macs could use Face ID to authenticate those logins without additional interaction, we could spend more time working and less time playing “Mother, May I?” And that easier login process would come with better security, a flip from the usual scenario where better security requires more work.
Cellular Connectivity Option for MacBooks
You can get an iPad with cellular connectivity, so why not a MacBook? The lack of a cellular option for Apple’s laptops has been a glaring omission for years and is yet another example of how Apple doesn’t acknowledge the needs of mobile professionals.
Sure, you can connect your MacBook to your iPhone’s personal hotspot, and I’ve done that on numerous occasions. But it’s a workaround that doesn’t always work without fiddling, and it introduces yet another variable into what is often a stressful situation. When I need Internet access while out and about, it’s not to watch YouTube or diddle around on the Web; it’s because I have to edit the TidBITS issue on deadline or because our server is under attack.
There’s just no reason that the iPad—a perfectly nice device that still lacks the capability and flexibility of a full-fledged Mac—should have cellular connectivity when the MacBook doesn’t. Yes, it would add to the price of the MacBook, and yes, it would require an additional monthly data plan. Whatever. We’re professionals, and we’re happy to spend money that helps us do our jobs faster, better, and more effectively, just like the folks who ante up for a tricked-out Mac Pro.
More Comfortable and Consistent Keyboard/Trackpad Ergonomics
Another way Macs let down some types of professionals is in the comfort of constant use. At least those of us who spend our days at the keyboard no longer have to complain about the widely reviled butterfly keyboard, but there’s still room to improve.
Consider the sharpness of the metal edges on all Apple laptops. That doesn’t matter much on the sides or back, but on the front, where your palms naturally rest when you’re using the trackpad or during brief breaks from typing, the metal edges dig into your hands. I find those sharp corners a constant irritation, particularly during long work sessions.
Older Apple laptops, like the original clamshell iBook and the subsequent white iBook, didn’t suffer from this problem. Our blueberry iBook, which I still use on occasion to extract data from CDs, has rounded, downward-sloping palm rests. Sadly, I no longer have my beloved white iBook, which was one of my favorite laptop form factors because of its slightly soft surfaces, but I remember it having beveled edges in front too.
What I’ve always liked about working on Apple’s laptops is the positioning of the trackpad in front of the keyboard, with the palm rests on either side. From an ergonomic standpoint, it’s less disruptive than forcing the user’s hand off to the side to use the trackpad or mouse, as happens with nearly all desktop setups. It also enables more efficient use since you don’t have to move your hand as far to switch between typing and mousing.
I’ve tried for years to figure out a way to combine a standalone Apple keyboard and trackpad in the same center-focused layout for use on my desk with an iMac, but the way Apple angles them makes it impossible. My personal solution for many years has been a Das Keyboard Model S Professional coupled with a Contour Designs RollerMouse Pro in front of it, but I recognize that’s a truly odd approach. I do see some keyboard/trackpad combos on Amazon (see Adesso, Fintie, and IVSOTEK), but the tablet (or rackmount) focus and low prices don’t inspire confidence that they would be serious solutions for heavy use.
It’s not much of a leap from a keyboard/trackpad combo to a device that incorporates all the guts of a Mac into one package—basically the bottom half of a MacBook. That’s not fantasy, either. Patently Apple covered a recently granted Apple patent for a Mac ensconced in a keyboard, writing, “The keyboard could include a trackpad to eliminate the need of a mouse when in transport.” In essence, it would be a Mac mini with a built-in keyboard and trackpad, easily connected to a display on a desk or even used with a large-screen TV via AirPlay.
Whether it’s a standalone keyboard/trackpad combination or one that also incorporates the guts of a Mac, a device like this would help professional Mac users switch back and forth between laptop and desktop Macs without having to change their interaction methods. Less friction, more productivity.
Professionals of All Types
In the end, all I’m saying here is that if Apple is going to continue to push the concept that Macs are for professionals, it should expand its definition to acknowledge the vast numbers of professionals who rely on their Macs every minute of the day but don’t work with audio, video, or photos. We’re professionals, too, even if our tools—email, Web browsers, word processors, spreadsheets, databases, online meeting software, etc.—don’t require the ultimate in performance, memory, or storage.
How about you? If you’re a Mac-using professional, what could Apple add to its product line or design into a future device that would make you more productive?