So now the topic that prompted me to create this blog: the asymmetrical blades on the new MacBook Pro.
I’ll say this right up front: I’d love to have a new MacBook Pro. If I were still earning paychecks that allowed me to buy one, I’d have ordered one immediately after they were announced. But I’m not in that position right now, and I’m not in a position where I would use such a laptop professionally. So my interest in it is primarily as a self-admitted Apple fanboy.
The one thing that blew me away about the product was the discussion of its fan. The video, which you’ve probably seen already, is available on Apple’s web site, and the discussion of the fan is about at the 3:30 mark. The distinguishing aspect of the fan is that its blades are asymmetrical, which I understand to mean that the space between the blades varies. This, according to Apple, makes the fan seem quieter by spreading the pitches created by those blades across different wavelengths.
“Neat,” you may say. “But how many people would buy a machine based upon a fan?”
Not many, I suspect. But consider it for a second. Is there any computer company on the planet who would think to do this? Is there any other computer company on the planet that doesn’t just order fans from stock parts, identical to the fans made for any other laptop? My sense is that a computer company like Dell thinks “No one buys a computer based upon the fan, so let’s stick the cheapest thing in there we can so we can compete better on price.”
My feeling is that the fan, more than anything else, makes me want to buy this computer. It’s not the fan itself; it’s a neat feature that’s very nerdish to care about. What it is, however, is a signal. It’s a signal that Apple takes an approach to the computer that every single component of the computer, from the fan to the batteries to the power connector to the processor, is carefully designed to give the maximum benefit to the user. Every little bit counts. And that’s incredibly appealing to me.
Two examples will illustrate the point. First is one of my favorite car stories, about the third generation Mazda RX-7. Mazda then understood better than anyone else that the lighter a car was, the better it would handle and the more you would get out of an engine’s power. One very visible but seemingly nutty example of this approach was that they drilled holes in the pedals of the machine. This saved, on the whole, perhaps three ounces from the car’s weight, a seemingly insignificant amount. But what you could tell by learning that they did this is that they took this fanatical approach to everything. Thus, you knew, in ways that you couldn’t see, that everywhere in the car they minimized weight. If they cared about a few ounces in the pedals, they cared about a few ounces in the trunk, and those added up. The RX-7 was not without its problems, but at the time it had an insane horsepower to weight ratio, at the same level as exotic cars costing five times as much money. You could not get a better pure sports car for the money.
The other example is from Warcraft, a game I play too much of. In that game, there are end game objectives that challenge the skills of a player. Players have “gem sockets” which they can use to add gems to make their gear better, and improve their chances of completing one of the end game challenges. You can insert gems of varying quality into those sockets. For a mage, for instance, an “uncommon” gem, which costs about 30 gold in the game currency, you would get an additional 30 intellect. A “rare” gem would set you back 250 gold and grant you 40 intellect. An “epic” gem might cost 1500 gold and grant you 50 intellect.
What’s the difference between 30 and 50 intellect? Well, 20 extra intellect, by my calculations, would increase your “damage per second” by about 60 to 90 points. A typical mage might do 30,000 damage per second in a given fight, so the difference between a cheap uncommon gem and an expensive epic gem is about 0.2% to 0.3%. Someone I knew figured this out and figured that 0.3% would rarely make a difference, so he might as well save the money and go with the cheap gems.
I hated this approach. The problem with it is that you don’t just have one gem socket; you might have 15. If you’re talking 15 times that difference, you’re now up into the 3-4.5% range, which can make a difference. But it’s also a signal. There are other things you can do to optimize your gear, by buying “enchants”, “reforging” stats, or even selecting the appropriate piece from different pieces of gear. If you use uncommon gems, it’s a signal of an approach, an approach which might reduce your effectiveness by upwards of 10%. This is a huge amount, and if you take that approach I don’t want to be in your group, at least not if we’re trying very difficult challenges.
So that’s what the asymmetrical blades signal to me. They tell me that Apple takes this stuff seriously, and that like the Mazda engineers, they’re looking for every single little thing they can do to make this computer better.
Which is why I absolutely hate posts like this one, from TUAW. In it, Richard Gaywood essentially argues that you shouldn’t buy a MacBook Pro with the retina display because all of the parts are custom, none are replaceable, and so forth. He gives a slight nod to the idea that doing so would make the machine heavier, and so forth, but it seems from the article that he really doesn’t understand the approach.
There are tons of computers on the market that use stock parts. (The older MacBook Pros are examples of such.) But that’s not the approach Apple took and I wouldn’t want them to take that approach. They took the approach of making the best computer without compromises. Using a standard SSD would increase the weight and thickness of the computer and that’s a tradeoff. Using upgradeable RAM would do the same. Taking that approach bit by bit and all of a sudden you have something that’s indistinguishable from a Dell. Better built, certainly, but not a computer with uncompromising design.
If he wants a computer that is designed like a Dell, there are plenty of them out there. But there’s nothing like the new MacBook Pro. It’s a product only Apple could make, and only Apple would make. And that’s the sort of product I want Apple to make, because it makes them a different and better company. (How many people wailed about the iPhone’s lack of a removable battery, or the iPad’s lack of a USB slot or memory card slot? Most geeks pretend these things can be added without affecting design and usability, but they can’t.)
In any case, those asymmetrical blades are a signal. They’re a signal that Apple thought about everything, thought about the little things that would make the computer slightly better. And I have confidence that those things add up to a truly incredible user experience.