Many readers have commented on the number of Apple products that appear on the site. The reason for this is simple. For the most part, Apple’s products offer an attractive package of quality and performance at an affordable price. The design choices made by Apple also tend to mirror the ones I would make, so the products are well-suited to my particular tastes. But, in case readers would like a more detailed explanation, I’ve decided to do a little case study.
Ever since the Apple II, general opinion has been that Apple products are better designed than those of their competitors. While I do believe that Apple’s industrial design is first class, thanks in large part to Jonathan Ive and his team, I think that the engineering build quality of the company’s products has only just recently become exceptional as well. While the iPod, iBook G4, Powerbook G4, and iPhone were strikingly designed, they all suffered from numerous flaws, including easily scratched plastics, surfaces that stained over time, peeling paints, and cracking plastics. Going further, I don’t think that these products were any more rugged than the less attractive products they competed with. Fans of IBM Thinkpads (now sold by Lenovo) and Nokia phones have long touted their reliability as a selling point, and I agree with them. However, I believe that in the past couple of years, Apple has begun to reconcile beautiful design with robust construction in a way that no other consumer electronics company has. To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at the design of a current generation Macbook Pro. (For brevity, any instance of Macbook refers to the Macbook Pro unless otherwise specified.)
Let’s start with what is most obvious. Since late 2008, Apple has manufactured the Macbook Pro using the unibody construction method first introduced on the Macbook Air. While the process has been around a long time for automotive and industrial applications, I can’t find any examples of it in consumer electronics before the Air. There are two parts to Apple’s unibody construction process. The first is easy to guess: the Macbook body base is one seamless piece, as the name suggests. Unlike previous Macbooks where a thin aluminum shell was placed over a frame, the unibody enclosure is both the skin and structure of the notebook. The same evolution took place in aircraft and automobile design. Instead of building a skeleton over which surface panels were placed, engineers came up with the idea of a monocoque that could perform both functions.
The second part of Apple’s unibody design is where people get confused. A car or airplane body is far too large to be sculpted out of one piece of metal, so multiple panels are welded together. Though a proper weld creates a joint that is as strong as the material itself, it detracts from the look of the monocoque construction. Since a notebook is a much smaller product, it can be milled out of a single block of aluminum. In a sense, the Macbook unibody is the truest monocoque you can make.
The unibody construction is the main reason why the newer Macbooks feel so much better than the ones they replaced. You couldn’t pick up an old Macbook Pro in one hand without feeling a slight bend in the enclosure. Resting your palm below the keyboard sometimes resulted in spurious clicks due to the case bending inwards and triggering the trackpad sensor. And anyone who had a Powerbook or early Macbook Pro knows that the lid became curved over time, resulting in an uneven gap between the two notebook halves when closed. Carving the notebook body from one material solved these issues. Aluminum is one of the lighter metals, too, so weight is kept in check. I should also mention that the massive increase in battery size with the unibody Macbooks is key in improving structural rigidity. A battery is extremely dense — perhaps even bulletproof — so tightly placing one or more between the enclosure walls definitely contributes to the Macbook’s solid construction.
There are a whole host of other benefits to the unibody enclosure. By choosing a material like aluminum and applying several finishing stages to it, the need for a coating is eliminated. Gone are the peeling paints of the titanium Powerbook. The alloy chosen by Apple is fairly scratch resistant and matte in appearance, so it doesn’t suffer from the swirl marks that plagued the glossy white Macbook or the greasy appearance of the black model. In my experience, the aluminum doesn’t stain like plastic and is easy to clean. The metal also has pretty good thermal conductivity. While I don’t know to what extent Apple currently takes advantage of this, I could imagine future enclosures having interior walls machined with grooves like heatsinks. Hot chips could be placed directly in contact with the enclosure, and the massive surface area would dissipate heat. Lastly, one can’t ignore the premium look and feel of aluminum. When you pick up a Macbook Pro, it feels cold and smooth, unlike other notebooks.
Many would think that using a solid aluminum enclosure limits what can be done in terms of expandability and aesthetics. This couldn’t be more untrue. Take the port design of the Macbook Pro as an example. On the first Macbook Pro, the cutouts for the ports were lined with plastic inserts. My guess is that they were needed to reinforce the hole cut through the thin aluminum shell. You won’t find these on the newer unibody Macbooks. Manufacturing is simplified down to a CNC machine cutting through the enclosure, so fewer parts are used, and the resulting opening is stronger — not to mention nicer looking. In fact, comparing the ports on a Macbook Pro and a competing PC notebook shows the vast gulf that exists between the two in terms of build quality. On a PC, the ports are made from thin metal and soldered to the various circuit boards. The ports are then placed through larger cutouts in the plastic enclosure. This method comes nowhere near the tight tolerance found on a Macbook Pro and puts far more stress on the circuit board each time a peripheral is connected and disconnected. And again, the smart engineering of the Macbook creates beautiful design. The ports line up precisely, grouped together smartly on one side, without compromising the strength of the enclosure.
The use of a strong metal for the enclosure encourages creativity and subtlety in design. Take a look at the battery or sleep indicators on any new Macbook Pro. They’re nearly invisible when not lit up. Rather than cut out a small whole for an LED — like on the underside of the Magic Mouse — many tiny holes are made using a laser. Unlit, the holes can barely be seen with the naked eye. When a status needs to be indicated, the dots light up and blur together, appearing as one. The process was first used on the Macbook Pro iSight indicator in 2006. Apple then began using it for all external status indicators. Even the power indicator on the relatively cheap aluminum keyboard is made this way. Slightly larger holes are used for the microphones on unibody Macbooks, too. As with the example of the ports above, this design touch flows from the choice of material. Plastic is too soft to allow such fine laser cutting.
The process of hiding external features until they’re needed is both aesthetically pleasing and functional. It means you can be as subtle as possible in notifying the user that something is happening. I fully support this, having owned an iMac G5 in my bedroom. The large sleep LED hidden behind the polycarbonate front needed to be covered with tape to keep it from lighting up the room. (At least it pulsated smoothly in sync with my average resting respiratory rate.) The evolution of this status indicator concept found on the Macbooks is so much better than what you get on a PC. An LED placed through a hole in the case disrupts the exterior surface, can be broken easily, and offers dirt or water another place to get inside. See Jonathan Ive talking about this in a short excerpt from Objectified.
Keyboard and Trackpad
Apple does some incredibly simple things to the keyboard and trackpad that contribute immensely to the look and feel of the Macbook Pro. For the keyboard, Apple adopted the same chiclet keys found on Sony Vaios. Indeed, a Sony Vaio from 2004 has a very similar keyboard to the ones used on all Macs today. (Older computers like the ZX Spectrum had keyboards with separate buttons, but it’s clear the Macbook inherits the most from the Vaio.) Here’s a perfect example of Apple "stealing" a design and refining it. Even on the later Vaios, the keyboard still looks a little too complicated. Apple aligns all the keys nicely, chooses a suitable typeface for the letters, and designs simple glyphs for the function keys instead of crowding them with full words. Apple took a design and went a few iterations further. And that makes all the difference.
Apple also addressed a design problem with the chiclet keyboard. On pre-unibody Macbook Pros and old Powerbooks, people complained that the keys pressed against the display when the lid was closed, which caused scratches. It took two design elements to fix the problem. First, when the chiclet keyboard appeared on the plastic Macbook, it was recessed into the base a couple of millimeters. This wasn’t enough to stop dusty key outlines from showing up on Macbook displays, though. The plastic lid wasn’t rigid enough, bending inward when held tightly in hand or placed in a backpack. On the unibody Macbooks, the lid no longer flexes easily, preventing contact between the display and keyboard.
When it comes to trackpads, almost everyone agrees that Apple’s are the best. Attention to detail in the design process is the only explanation for this. PC manufacturers have access to the same touchpad controllers as Apple, from companies like Synaptics and Broadcom. Trackpads are not a new technology. But the PC manufacturers go and make trackpads that are minuscule and mushy feeling, that don’t sit flush against the casing, that dip down more on one side than another, that have special strips to access different functions. On a Macbook, the trackpad is gargantuan relative to other notebooks, and it feels solid. Some say the Macbook trackpads click too loudly. With the unibody Macbook, Apple got rid of at least one unnecessary seam by removing the separate button for clicking. That’s one less place for dirt and grime to go, and that matters when it’s the one spot on your notebook that’s constantly being touched. If you’ve ever cleaned an old mouse’s scroll wheel or the famous Mighty Mouse nipple, you know what kind of gunk collects on your fingertips. Even better, the trackpad surface itself is glass. Apple says this improves the feel of it. I don’t think most people would agree with that, but I appreciate the improved build quality and the fact that it doesn’t stain and is easy to wipe down.
Aesthetically, it’s worth mentioning that Apple makes an effort to keep things symmetrical and properly aligned. The rounded corners of the keyboard surround match those of the key holes. The trackpad is centered horizontally between the edges of the notebook. Why do others insist on putting it off to the side? Last, I appreciate that the Macbook keyboards are identical to their desktop counterparts. Moving from machine to machine and retaining the same key layout and feel is convenient. It also helps with manufacturing and reduces component number and cost.
Some aspects of the Macbook Pro design have been around awhile, and competitors still haven’t stepped up. The best example is the slot-loading DVD drive. While I’d love for Apple to get rid of it altogether, it’s at least as unobtrusive externally as you can get. And yet, in 2010, almost every other notebook ships with a bulky plastic tray-loading drive. Every time I see one, it feels like I’m looking at some relic from the past. The mechanical pop of the tray as it ejects, the snapping of the disc onto the holder — it might as well be a tape player from the ’80s.
The hinge design of the Macbook Pro is another feature that demonstrates attention to detail. There are multiple patents for it. The engineers responsible came up with a design that allows for one hinge — rather than two separate ones — to run the length of the notebook, even in notebooks with extremely thin bases. You’ll also notice that it allows the keyboard to sit very close to the bottom of the display. The design looks simple and clean when the notebook is closed. The only downside I have found is that the hinge limits the maximum angle at which the lid can be opened. This isn’t ergonomically ideal for people who use their notebooks lying down. I never do, so I think it’s an acceptable tradeoff. It took a few tries to get it right, though. A search of the Apple support forums is an easy way to find lots of problems related to the hinge design, on all but the most recent notebooks. When you’re putting new designs into production, especially for mechanical components, the risk of failure is higher. Thankfully Apple has excellent customer service to fall back on.
Of course I have to briefly mention the use of magnets in the Macbooks. The most obvious use is in the MagSafe connector, which is magnetically attracted to its female socket. It’s only lightly held in place, so tripping over your power cable causes the connector to pull out cleanly, without dragging your notebook to the floor with it. Ingenious. Like most plugs, the MagSafe connector is only symmetrical about one axis. It works upside down, though, so it’s easy to plug it in correctly. (I can’t say the same for USB.) I would however like to see the shape change to something less angular. The magnetic pull of the connector causes it to insert abruptly, and the tight fit means that the edges of the connector tend to scratch against those of the Macbook’s port. The MagSafe’s other major design flaw has already been fixed. The first version lined up the cable with the connector. Given the plug’s small size, most people tend to pull it out by grabbing the cable itself. Over time, the repeated stress on the cable can cause fraying, and in some cases fire. Newer MagSafe power adaptors place the connector at a 90° angle to the cable, forcing you to grab the connector itself to remove it.
The less noticeable use of magnets on the Macbook is on the lid. Before the plastic Macbook, Apple notebooks used horribly flimsy latches to secure the lid to the base. Moving to a magnetic closing system removed a number of parts and a significant point of failure. All that's visible now is a small groove in the base to allow your finger to lift the lid up. I can guarantee that the depth of that groove was only settled on after a lot of testing. Too shallow and you can't comfortably lift the lid; too deep and the display is exposed to fingerprints and scratches. It feels just about right, and it’s a smart solution that PC makers are starting to incorporate into their own products.
A Few Words for Competitors
Every major tech company can source the same components and fund the most advanced manufacturing processes. There is no Apple magic. Apple follows industry trends, judging when new features make sense from a cost perspective and deciding when old features can be dropped. There is a clear effort to simplify and reduce. That’s it. Watching everyone else produce such inferior products is frustrating. The industry would be so much more exciting if companies would care a little more. The change doesn’t even need to be drastic. If Apple’s Macbooks are proof of one thing, it’s that complex products like notebooks require numerous design iterations to get right. And no Macbook has ever been perfect. Daily use by millions of people reveals design and engineering flaws that must wait until the next update to be fixed. There are still numerous ways to improve the Macbook. I see them every day.
I’m waiting for Apple’s competitors to wake up and try harder. I can’t think of another industry where the standard is so low. Every other product category, from cars to watches, has healthy competition between companies that devote huge resources to design and quality. For whatever reason, consumer electronics is different. Until there is a change, this site, whose purpose is to seek out the best products available, will continue to feature plenty of Apple products.