Tag Archives: macbook

Macbook Pro 2016

Having recently changed jobs (Fairfax/Stuff -> Sailthru/Carnival), the timing worked out so that I managed to get one of the first new USB-C 2016 Macbook Pros. A few people keep asking me about the dongle situation, so figured I’d just blog about the machine.

Some key things to keep in mind:

  • I don’t need to attach much in the way of USB devices. Essentially I want my screen and input devices when docked at the office, but I have no SD cards and don’t generally swap anything with USB flash drives.
  • My main use case is pushing bits to/from the cloud. Eg web browser, terminals, some IDE usage. Probably the heaviest task I’d throw at it would be running something like IntelliJ or Xcode.
  • I value portability more than performance.

If Apple still made cinema displays, this would be a fully Apple H/W stack


Having used it for about 1 month now, it’s a brilliant unit. Probably the biggest things I love about it are:

  • The weight – at 1.37Kg, it’s essentially the same weight as the 13″ Macbook Air, but packs a lot more grunt. And having come from the 15″ Macbook Pro, it’s a huge size and weight reduction, yet still extremely usable.
  • USB-C. I know some people are going to hate the new connector, but this is the first laptop that literally only requires a single connector to dock – power, video data – one plug.
  • The larger touch pad is a nice addition. And even with my large man hands, I haven’t had any issues when typing, Apple seems to have figured out how to do palm detection properly.
  • It looks and feels amazing, loving the space gray finish. The last generation Macbooks were beautiful machines, but this bumps it up a notch.

The new 13″ is so slim and light, it fits perfectly into my iPad Pro 12″ sleeve. Don’t bother buying the sleeves intended for the older 13″ models, they’re way too big.

One thing to note is that the one I have is the entry level model. This brings a few differences over the other models:

  • This model is the only one to lack the new Touchbar. In my case, I use the physical ESC key a lot and don’t have a lot of use for the gimmick. I’d have preferred if Apple had made the Touchbar an optional additional for all models so any level machine could opt in/out.
  • As the entry level model, it features only 2x USB-C/Thunderbolt-3 ports. All Touchbar enabled models feature 4x. If you are like me and only want to dock, generally the 2x ports only issue isn’t a biggie since you’ll have one spare port, but it will be an issue if you want to drive multiple displays. If you intend to attach 2+ external displays, I’d recommend getting the model with 4x ports.
  • All the 13″ models feature Intel graphics. The larger 15″ model ships with dual Intel and AMD graphics that swap based on activity and power usage. Now this does mean the 13″ is slower at graphics, but I’m also hearing anecdotally that some users of the 15″ are having graphics stability issues with the new AMD drivers – I’ve had no stability issues of any kind with this new machine.
  • The 2.0Ghz i5 isn’t the fastest CPU. That being said, I only really notice it when doing things like compiles (brew, Xcode, etc) which my 4Ghz i7 at home would crunch through much faster. As compiling things isn’t a common requirement for my work, it’s not an issue for me.

It’s not without it’s problems of course – “donglegate” is an issue, but the extend of the issue depends on your requirements.

On the plus side, the one adaptor you won’t have to buy is headphones – all models still include the 3.5mm headphone jack. One caveat however, they are now purely analogue audio, the built in toslink port has been abandoned.

Whilst there are a huge pile of dongles available, I’d say the essential two dongles you must have are:

  • The USB-C to USB adaptor. If you ever need to connect USB devices when away from desk, you’ll want this one in your bag.
  • The USB-C Digital A/V adaptor. Unless you are getting a native USB-C screen, this is the only official Apple adaptor that supports a digital display. This specific adaptor provides 1x USB2, 1x HDMI and 1x USB-C for charging.

I have some concerns about the digital A/V adaptor. Firstly I’m not sure about is whether it can drive a 4K panel, eg if it’s HDMI 2.0 or not. I’m driving a 25″ Dell U2515H at 2560×1440 at 60Hz happily, but haven’t got anything higher resolution to check with.

It also feels like it’s not going to tolerate a whole lot of flexing and unflexing so I’ll be a bit wary about it’s longevity if travelling with it to connect to things all over the place.

The USB-C Digital AV adaptor. At my desk I have USB and HDMI feeding into the LCD (which has it’s own USB hub) and power coming from the Apple-supplied USB-C charger.

Updating and rebooting for a *dongle update*? The future is bleak.

Oh and if you want a DisplayPort version – there isn’t an official one. And this is where things get a little crazy.

For years all of Apple’s laptops have shipped with combined Thunderbolt 1/2 and Mini-Display ports. These ports take either device, but are technically different protocols that share a single physical socket. The new Macbook Pro doesn’t have any of these sockets. And there’s no USB-C to Mini Display port adaptor sold by Apple.

Apple does sell the “Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adaptor” but this is distinctly different to the port on the older laptops, in that it only supports Thunderbolt 2 devices – there is no support for Mini DisplayPort, even though the socket looks the same.

So this adaptor is useless for you, unless you legitimately have Thunderbolt 2 devices you wish to continue using – but these tend to be a minority of the Apple user base whom purchased things like disk arrays or the Apple Cinema Display (which is Thunderbolt, not Mini DisplayPort).

If you want to connect directly to a DisplayPort screen, there are third party cables available which will do so – just remember they will consume a whole USB-C port and not provide data and power. So adding 2x screens using these sorts of adaptors to the entry level Macbook isn’t possible since you’ll have no data ports and no power left! The 4x port machines make it more feasible to attach multiple displays and use the remaining ports for other use cases.

The other option is one of the various third party USB-C/Thunderbolt-3 docks. I’d recommend caution here however, there are a number on the market that doesn’t work properly with MacOS (made for Windows boxes) and a lot of crap “first to market” type offerings that aren’t really any good.


My recommendation is that if you buy one of these machines, you should ideally make the investment in a new native USB-C 4K or 5K panel when you purchase this machine. Apple recommend two different LG models which look pretty good:

There is no such thing as the Apple Cinema Display any more, but these would be their logical equivalent now. These screens connect via USB-C, power your laptop (so no need to spend more on a charger, you can use the one that ships with the laptop as your carry around one) and features a 3x USB-C hub in the back of the screen.

If you’re wanting to do multiple displays, note that there are some limits:

  • 13″ Macbook Pros can drive a single 5K panel or 2x 4K panels.
  • 15″ Macbook Pros can drive two 5K panels or 4x 4K panels.

Plus remember if buying the entry level 13″, having two screens would mean no spare ports at all on the unit – so it would be vital to make sure the screens can power the machine and provide additional ports.

Also be aware that just because the GPU can drive this many panels, doesn’t mean it can drive them particularly well – don’t expect any 4K gaming for example. My high spec iMac 5k struggles at times to drive it’s one panel using an AMD Radeon card, so I’m dubious about the Intel chipset in the new Macbooks being able to drive 2x 4K panels.




So recommendations:

If you need maximum portability, I’d still recommend going for the Macbook 13″ Pro over the Macbook 12″ Retina. It’s slightly heaver (1.37kg vs 0.92kg) and slightly more expensive (NZ $2499 vs $2199), but the performance is far better and the portability is almost the same. The other big plus, is that the USB-C in the Macbook Pro is also a Thunderbolt-3 port, which gives you much better future proofing.

If you need a solid work horse for a DevOps engineer, the base Macbook Pro 13″ model is fine. It’s a good size for carrying around for oncall and 16GB of RAM with a Core i5 2.0Ghz is perfectly adequate for local terminals, IDEs and browsers. Anything needing more grunt can get pushed to the cloud.

No matter what model you buy, bump it to 16GB RAM. 8GB isn’t going to cut it long term and since you can’t expand later, you’ll get better lifespan by going to max RAM now. I’d rate this more worthwhile than buying a better CPU (don’t really need it for most workloads) or more SSD (can never get enough SSD anyway, so just overflow into iCloud).

If you some how can’t live with only 16GB of RAM and need 32GB you’re kind of stuck. But this is a problem across most portable lines from competitors currently, 32GB RAM is too power hungry with the current gen CPUs and memory. If you need that much memory locally you’ll have to look at the iMac 5k (pretty nice) or the Mac Pro series (bit dated/overly expensive) to get it on a Mac.


So is it a good machine? I think so. I feel the main problem is that the machine is ahead of the rest of the market, which means lots of adaptors and pain until things catch up and everything is USB-C. Apple themselves aren’t even ready for this machine, their current flagship iPhone still ships with an older USB 3 connector rather than a USB-C one, which leads to an amusing situation where the current gen iPhone and current gen Macbook Pro can’t be connected without first purchasing a dongle.

Thunderbolt and other Macbook hardware issues with Linux

Having semi-recently switched to a Macbook Pro Retina 15″ at work, I decided to give MacOS a go. It’s been interesting, it’s not too bad an operating system and whilst it is something I could use on an ongoing basis, I quickly longed for the happy embrace of GNU/Linux where I have a bit more power and control over the system.

Generally the Linux kernel supports most of the Macbook hardware out-of-the-box (As of 3.15 anyway), but with a couple exceptions:

  • I believe support for the dual GPU mode switching is now fixed, however the model I’m using now is Intel only, so I can’t test this unfortunately.
  • The Apple Webcam does not yet have a driver. The older iSight driver doesn’t work, since the new gen of hardware is a PCIe connected device, not USB.
  • The WiFi requires a third party driver to be built for your kernel. You’ll want the latest Broadcom 802.11 STA driver in order for it to built with new kernel versions. Ubuntu users, get this version, or more recent.
  • If you’re having weird hangs where the Macbook just halts frequently waiting on on I/O, add “libata.force=noncq” kernel parameter. It seems that there is some bug with this SSD and some kernel versions that leads to weird I/O halts, which is fixed by this option.
  • Thunderbolt support is limited to only working on devices connected at boot up, no hotplug. Additionally, when using Thunderbolt, Suspend/Resume is disabled (although it works otherwise if there’s no Thunderbolt involved).

Of all these issues, the lack of Thunderbolt support was the one that was really frustrating me, since I need to use a Thunderbolt based Ethernet adaptor currently on a daily basis and I always rely on Suspend and Resume heavily.

Thankfully two kernel developers, Andreas Noever and Matthew J Garrett have been working on a series of kernel patches that introduce support for Thunderbolt hotplug and thus allow it to work on suspend and resume.

Sadly whilst this patch is awesome, it doesn't yet do wireless Thunderbolt for when the ethernet cable you want is too bloody short.

You too can now enjoy the shackles of a wired LAN connection like it’s 1990 all over again!

It doesn’t sound like it has been easy based on the posts on MJG’s blog which are well worth a read – essentially the Apple firmware does weird things with the Thunderbolt hardware when the OS doesn’t identify itself as Darwin (MacOS’s kernel) and likes to power stuff down after suspend/resume, so it’s taken some effort to debug and put in hardware-specific workarounds.
It will surely only be a matter of time before these awesome patches are merged, but if you need them right now and are happy to run rather beta kernel patches (who isn’t??) then the easiest way is to checkout their Git repo of 3.15 with all the patches applied. This repository should build cleanly via the usual means, and provide you with a new kernel module called “thunderbolt”.I’ve been testing it for a few days and it looks really good. I’ve had no kernel panics, freezes, devices failing to work or any issues with suspend/resume with these patches – the features that they claim to work, just work.  The only catches are:

  • If you boot the Macbook with the Thunderbolt device attached, it will be treated like a PCIe hotplug device… except that when you remove it, that Thunderbolt port won’t work again until the next restart. I recommend booting the Macbook with no devices attached, then hotplug once started to avoid this issue. I always remove before suspend and re-connect after resume as well (mostly because it’s a laptop and it’s easy to do so and avoid any issues).
  • The developers advise that Thunderbolt Displays don’t work at this time (however Mini DisplayPort connected screens work fine, even though they share the same socket).
  • The developers advise that chaining Thunderbolt devices is not yet supported. So stick to one device per port for now.

If you’re using Linux on a Macbook, I recommend grabbing the patched source and doing a build. Hopefully all these patches make their way into 3.16 or 3.17 and make this post irrelevant soon.

If you’re extra lazy and trust a random blogger’s binary packages, I’ve built deb packages for Ubuntu 13.10 (and should work just fine on 14.04 as well) for both the Thunderbolt enabled kernel as well as the Broadcom WiFi. You can download these packages here.

Jethro does Mac: The Apple Input Devices

With a change in job, I recently shifted from my primary work computer being a Lenovo X1 Carbon running GNU/Linux to using an Apple Macbook Pro Retina 15″ running MacOS.

It’s not the first time that I’ve used MacOS as my primary workstation, but I’ve spent the vast majority of my IT life working in a purely GNU/Linux environment so it was interesting having to try and setup my usual working habits and flow with this new platform.

I’m going to do a few blog posts addressing my thoughts and issues with this platform and how I’ve found it compared to my GNU/Linux laptops. I’m going to look at both hardware and software and note down a few fixes and tricks that I’ve learnt along the way.


Part 3: The Apple Input Devices

I’ll freely admit that I’m a complete and total keyboard snob and I’ve been spoilt with quality desktop keyboards (Das Keyboard, IBM Model M) and the best possible laptop keyboard on the market – the classic IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad keyboard (pre-chiclet style).

Keeping this snobbery and bias in mind, I’m bitterly disappointed by the quality of the Apple keyboard. It’s a surprising slip-up by a company that prides itself on perfection and brilliant hardware design, I fear that the keyboard is just an unfortunate casualty of that design-focused mentality.

I have two main issues with this keyboard. Firstly, the shallowness and feeling of the keys, and secondly the layout and key selection.

The shallowness is the biggest issue with the keyboard. Laptops certainly aren’t known for their key travel distance, but there have been a few exceptions to the rule – IBM/Lenovo’s Thinkpad series is widely recognised as featuring one of the better keyboards in the market with decent sized keys, good layout and enough key depth to get a reasonable amount of travel when typing. (Side note: talking about the classic Thinkpad keyboards here… I’m undecided about their new chiclet style keyboards on recent models…)

On the Macbook, the key depth and travel distance is very short, there’s almost no movement when pressing keys and I lose the ability to effectively bounce between the different keys. I personally find that repeatedly doing the small motions needed to type on this keyboard for 4 hours or more causes me physical discomfort in my hands and I fear that if I were to use the Macbook keyboard as my primary computer, I would be looking at long term RSI problems.

Having said that, to be fair to Apple I probably couldn’t handle more than 6-8 hours a day on my Thinkpad keyboard – whilst it’s better than the Apple one, it’s still fundamentally a laptop keyboard with all the limitations it suffers. Realistically, for the amount of time I spend on a computer (12+ hours a day), I require an external keyboard whether it’s plugged into a Macbook, a Thinkpad or some other abomination of typing quality.

The other issue I have with Apple’s keyboard is that despite the large size of the laptop (mine is a 15.6″ unit), they’ve compromised the keyboard layout and removed various useful keys – the ones that I miss the most are home, end, insert, delete, page up and page down, all of which require the use of key combinations to be achieved on the Macbook.

The Thinkpad line has always done pretty well at including these keys, even if they have a VERY annoying habit of moving around their positions with different hardware generations, and their presence on the keyboard is very appreciated when doing terminal work – which for me, is a fast part of my day. It’s a shame that Apple couldn’t have used a bit more of the surface space on the laptop to add some of these keys in.

Overall, if I examine the Macbook keyboard as something I’m only going to use when out of the home/work office, then it’s an acceptable keyboard. I’ve certainly used far worse laptop keyboards and it sure beats tapping away on a tablet touchscreen or using something like the Microsoft Surface foldout keyboards.

And of course both the Thinkpad and the Macbook pale in comparison to a proper external keyboard – as long as I have a decent home/work office external keyboard it’s not too much of a deal breaker, but I’d certainly weigh in the keyboard as a negative if I was considering a machine for a role as a travelling consultant, where I could be spending weeks at a client site with unknown facilities and maybe needing to rely on the laptop itself.


Despite the insistence of some people that the keyboard is the only thing a computer needs, you’ll probably also want to use some kind of cursor moving thing if you want to effectively make use of the MacOS GUI.

The Macbook ships with a large touchpad centered in the middle of the laptop beneath the keyboard. This is a pretty conventional design, although Apple has certainly been pushing the limits on getting the largest possible sized touchpad on a laptop – a trend that other vendors appear to have been following in recent years.

Personally I hold a controversial opinion where I vastly prefer Trackpoint-style pointers on laptops over touchpads. I’m sure that a case could be made to accuse me of Thinkpad fanboyism, but I’ve used and enjoyed Trackpoints on Toshiba, HP and Lenovo computers in the past with great success.

The fundamental reason I prefer the Trackpoint, is that whilst it takes longer to get used to and feels weird at first, once it’s mastered, it’s possible to rapidly jump between typing and cursor moving with minimal effort.

Generally my fingers are resting on keys right next to the Trackpoint, or sometimes even I rest my finger on the Trackpoint itself whilst waiting, so it’s easy to jump between typing and cursoring. Plus on the Thinkpad design, my thumb rests just above the 3-button mouse, which is fantastically convenient.



Whilst the Macbook’s large touchpad is by far the best touchpad I’ve ever used, it still has the fundamental flaw of the layout forcing me to make a large movement to go between the keyboard and the touchpad each time.

This is technically a Macbook air, but the keyboard and touchpad is the same across the entire product line.

This is technically a Macbook air in the picture, but the keyboard and touchpad is the same across the entire product line…. this laptop was closer to my camera. :-)

It also has the issue of then sitting right in the way of my palm, so it took me a while to get used to not hitting the touchpad with my palm whilst typing. I’ve gotten better at this, although it still happens from time to time and does prevent me from resting my palm in my preferred natural position.

Admittedly I am nitpicking. To their credit, Apple has done a far better job of touchpads than most other vendors I’ve ever used. Generally laptop touchpads are too small (you can see how tiny the one on my Thinkpad is – I just disabled it entirely in favour of the Trackpoint) and even vendors who are busy cloning Apple’s design haven’t always gotten the same feel of sturdiness that Apple’s touchpad offers.

The gesture integration with MacOS is also excellent – I’ve found that I’m often using the three-finger swipe to switch between workspaces and the two-finger scrolling is very easy to use when doing web browsing, nicer and more natural feeling than using the cursor keys or a scroll wheel even.


Overall it’s a decent enough machine and beats most other laptop vendors in the market. I’d personally still go for the Thinkpad if all things other than keyboard were identical, simply due to how much I type and code, but the Macbook keyboard and touchpad is an acceptable second place for me and a good option for most general users.

See other posts in this series via the jethro does mac tag as I explore using MacOS after years of GNU/Linux only.

Jethro does Mac: Retina Display

With a change in job, I recently shifted from my primary work computer being a Lenovo X1 Carbon running GNU/Linux to using an Apple Macbook Pro Retina 15″ running MacOS.

It’s not the first time that I’ve used MacOS as my primary workstation, but I’ve spent the vast majority of my IT life working in a purely GNU/Linux environment so it was interesting having to try and setup my usual working habits and flow with this new platform.

I’m going to do a few blog posts addressing my thoughts and issues with this platform and how I’ve found it compared to my GNU/Linux laptops. I’m going to look at both hardware and software and note down a few fixes and tricks that I’ve learnt along the way.


Part 1: The Retina Display

Apple is known for their hardware quality – the Macbook Pro Retina 15″ I am using is a top-of-the-line machine with a whopping Core i7, 16GB of RAM and 512GB SDD, Nvidia GPU and the massive 2880×1800 pixel Retina LCD display. Whilst the hardware is nice, it’s something that can be found with other vendors – what really makes it interesting, is the massive high resolution display.

Shiny shiny

Shiner than a Thinkpad. But is it just a showoff?

Unfortunately for all the wonderfulness that Retina advertises, it’s given me more grief than happiness so far. My main issue, is how Apple handles this massive high resolution display.

Out of the box you get a scaled resolution that looks like any standard MacOS laptop, rather than the full native resolution of the display. Apple then does some weird black magic with their UI layer, where the actual display is rendered on a massive virtual 3360 x 2100 resolution virtual display and is then scaled down to the actual display size of 2880 x 1800 pixels.

The actual resolutions available to the end user aren’t real resolutions, but rather different modes that essentially look/feel like 1920×1200, 1680×1050, 1440×900 (the default for Retina), 1280×800 and 1024×640, but in the background MacOS is just scaling application windows to these sizes.

There’s some more details about the way the Retina display and MacOS work on the AnandTech review here.

If you come from a Windows or GNU/Linux world where the screen resolution is what it says on the box, it’s a really weird mindshift. You’ll quickly find this approach is common to the Apple ecosystem – so much stuff that I understand about computers is difficult to figure out with MacOS due to the way Apple hides everything and instead of using the technical terminology, hides it behind their own terminology designed to make it “easier” for normal users. And maybe it does… but for me, it’s more of a hindrance, rather than a help.

Apple's Settings window isn't that helpful at explaining the real resolutions underneath. Use

Apple’s Settings window isn’t that helpful at explaining the real resolutions underneath, in my case I had to get “screenresolution” from Brew in order to figure out what resolution this machine was actually displaying.

So which size and mode do I use? The stock screen resolution is OK for a laptop and maybe you’ll like it perfectly if you’re using Retina optimised applications (eg Aperture) where having a lower effective resolution, but high DPI for the content is useful.

Default scaled mode - effectively 1440x900

Default scaled mode – effectively 1440×900

However for me, where most of my use case is email, terminal and a browser, I wanted the ability to fit the most possible information onto the screen, so I ended up using the “More Space” resolution, which drives the display at a 1920×1200-like scaled resolution.

The "More Space" mode is handy for fitting decent amounts of console output.

The “More Space” mode is handy for fitting decent amounts of console output.

Whilst the Retina display is an excellent equal to a 24″ monitor (which have a resolution around 1920×1080, almost the same as the “More Space” mode), it doesn’t quite meet my dream hope which was that it would equal a 27″ monitor.

27″ monitors are the holy grail for me, since they have a resolution of 2560 x 1080, which is big enough to fit two large A4 sized windows on the screen at the same exact time.

Good, but not as good as a nice 27" panel.

It’s functional, but not as natural-feeling as doing the same on a 27″ monitor – still feels like trying to squeeze everything in.

It is possible to bypass Apple’s limitations on resolution get a higher resolution using third party tools, but I can only just read the 1920×1200 comfortably. I tried DisplayMenu (as suggested by Kai in the comments), but whilst the resulting resolution is amazing, I find reading text on it just a bit too small for prolonged periods.

The full 2880x1800 is lovely, but I might need glasses to read it...

The full 2880×1800 is lovely, but I might need glasses to read it…

The other issue with the Retina displays, is that due to the way Apple does the scaling, some applications just end up looking bad and fuzzy due to bitmap stretching and other nastiness – this impacted me with KeepassX, as well as some company-internal web applications.

But when you do get a properly Retina compatible application, things do look beautiful – Google Maps both in vector map and also satellite view look incredibly sharp and clear.

Vectorised graphics were made for Retina

Vectorised graphics were made for Retina

If I was choosing between a laptop with a high resolution display like this and one without, I’d be choosing the former all other factors being considered equal. But I’m not convinced that it’s worth splashing lots of cash on for my particular requirements of terminals and browsing – the Retina screen probably wouldn’t add much for me over a laptop that features a resolution like 1920×1200 native instead of downscaling.


See other posts in this series via the jethro does mac tag as I explore using MacOS after years of GNU/Linux only.