By Rick Sutcliffe

First Impressions of the Spy’s brand new 16-inch MacBookPro from a strictly hardware point of view are mixed but generally positive as it stacks up very well in comparison to his older 2015 portable–the one he is now wary about taking into any airport in case the employees are too lazy or uninformed to verify that its batteries have indeed been changed. He will keep that machine for some purposes, as explained below.

Space grey and a much larger trackpad do give the machine a nice appearance. The keyboard is essentially the magic one with black keys–look and feel (more travel) is excellent, and these keys are far less likely than the ill-fated scissor ones on previous machines to jam. The Spy had taken one look when he got that machine and bought a membrane to protect the keys from crumbs and dust. (Why wasn’t the potential for problems obvious to others? Why was Apple in denial for so long on that and the battery issues?)

He may do the same thing again when protectors become available for this model, but his eyes and gut tells him a better story this time. Besides, he usually places the portable on one of his desks, screen below a pair of large monitors, and pulls out a full size keyboard in a drawer underneath, then uses a trackball to navigate. The portable’s own keyboard is for meetings (Who uses paper agendas?) and travel.

Thus, his way of working and other preconceptions makes him predisposed to regard the touch bar as more or less useless, though the word completion feature could at times have some utility in his word and text processors at the times when he is not having to reach past both keyboards. The Touch ID button is now separate from the touch bar, though it would be more ergonomically placed lower, either beside or incorporated into the track pad as its use is awkward in the present location regardless of where one is typing.

The screen is bigger, brighter, sharper, and renders a more robust colour palate. Set amidst an array of secondary monitors, the difference in clarity is noticeable. Resolution is 3072 by 1920, and brightness is 500 nits. It is one of the most readable screens the Spy has ever seen. He could imagine, however, that some people would prefer a touch screen, though he would not care (check Apple later this year). The slightly larger size is not, however, all that noticeable, and had the machine come in a seventeen inch package, it would definitely have a more “Pro” look and feel. As it is, the package is so slightly larger than the fifteen inch models that one fails to notice.

Speed is an obvious plus, though the Spy has not run any detailed tests as yet. However, the machine is noticeably faster than its 2015 ancestor, and this is obvious when browsing, fetching email, printing, and rendering the screen. The Spy bought the 2T SSD version, and only hopes the storage device will outlast the rest of the unit, though he rather doubts it. SSDs are fast and reliable for a time, but do eventually fail. The Spy did not open the case, but there are no replaceable or upgradable components inside, including the SSD and memory. Recommendation: If you buy, buy big to last long. Why “if”? Read on.

Sound quality on the built-in speakers is also much improved over previous iterations, though the Spy generally keeps sound off except when he has to check a phone message.

Even by macOS Mojave, Apple was fully committed to the APFS file system. Because the Spy likes to have separate volumes for his own apps and utilities, and for his own files, the convenience of being able to add and delete volumes without re-partitioning the drive is a great time saver. Each volume takes whatever space it needs, and nothing is wasted on partially filled partitions. 

Catalina adds a little twist, however. To the user, the boot volume appears to be singular, but at a lower level, the OS is kept on a separate volume from the user files (same name but with ” – Data” appended). You write to the latter, but for security reasons (Apple is fanatic about those) the volume with the OS is read only. Seems to work smoothly. No complaints here–so far.

Of course, as with every iteration of Apple’s products, by the time the Spy buys in, another few hundred kopeks have to be spend on docks, dongles, cables and chargers because Apple changes I/O requirements like a star(let) changes partners or clothes. There are four Thunderbolt-3/C ports, nothing else. (Ghost of iSteve.) Note that the 95W charger in the box comes with a C-cable to deliver the juice, but any separately purchased Apple chargers do not, and one must buy another cable. 

The machine also does not come with any Thunderbolt-3 cable or TB2-TB3 adapter (more money spent). Because he has three offices, the Spy purchased two such adapters and two more chargers for fixed installation from Hyper Juice, and the latter did include wired-in power delivery cables (plus an A-style charging port), though the units were mistakenly shipped with EU plugs. Kudos to that company for shipping new ones out right away when the Spy let them know. Recommended. Now, if there were a MagSafe adapter…

There are some issues that could originate with either the hardware or Catalina when it comes to peripherals. Either the MacBook or the OS has difficulty maintaining a connection to two external monitors at once–especially if one is physically connected via an adapter or mini-dock and thence to a switch via HDMI. A monitor so connected tends to disconcertingly blink on and off from time to time. Also, the existence of an Apple Thunderbolt-2 monitor tends to get forgotten when the machine sleeps. (That was in retrospect a bad purchase–a very nice monitor but too proprietary; works with nothing else.) 

Upon the machine awakening, the TB2 monitor stays black, though cursor moves show that the software still “believes” the screen real estate is available. First cure: eject the drives on that line, pull the dongle and re-insert. Lest drastic fix discovered later: close the lid, count to three and reopen it. Voila! The monitors are suddenly remembered. Bug in Catalina most likely.

What is more, Catalina, at least on this machine, and like many previous iterations of Apple’s OS, has episodes of sleep apnea. Every once in a while, it stops breathing and reboots the machine while sleeping, for no obvious reason but digital confusion. One (but not both) of his old Mac Pro towers (the 2012 not the 2010, though they are essentially identical) did the same thing when running Mojave.

It also disconnected the external drives every so often, resulting in hundreds of notifications showing up. It finally had to be admonished that it was allowed to turn off the screen but not to sleep. Yes, that mode uses more electricity, but it was the only viable solution. The 2010 machine running a cloned copy of the same boot disk does not have that problem. The Spy has learned that this problem does commonly arise on some machines and not others. No one seems to know why. Perhaps your sweet sixteen machine is just fine, thank you very much.

And moving on to Catalina Apple has finally cut the cord for all 32-bit applications. They run with warnings on Mojave, but not on Catalina. No doubt this is good for some–Apple no longer has to maintain compatibility code in the OS, which ought to make life easier for its developers, and ought to result in a sleeker and faster boot, plus (or is that minus) a smaller memory print. But for some consumers, this is not so good. Venerable old standby applications like Online Bible will not be maintained and are now defunct. Others will undoubtedly fall into the same pit through the default of neglect.

With respect to the latter, OTOH, developers have had years to address this issue, and the failure of some to do so is nothing but foot dragging incompetence. But OTOH, in some cases, users have been left with nothing, as all applications in some categories are unusable on Catalina. Case in point: Equation editors. Neither MathMagic nor MathType are 64-bit; the MathMagic people have not plans to produce a new version (!!), and the MathType people are at least another year away from a partial rewrite.

The only workflow to keep old or create new mathematics exams is to keep a machine running Mojave, and either do all the work there, or use MathType to change old equations to Tex and then use a (much less convenient) Tex editor in Catalina subsequently, ditching the commercial programs entirely. C’mon. There’s an opportunity here, folks. The Spy suspects there may be graphics processing arenas where similar problems could arise, but does not work in that field.

Although these are the only two 32-bit application issues the Spy has faced so far, he also notes that as with all major MacOS upgrades, there are other issues that cannot be partially blamed on possible hardware interactions or foot dragging. Said Math exams are maintained in Nisus Pro files. These have a variety of sections with differing numbers of columns and most cells contain one or more equation PDFs. Both the text and the equations display perfectly in Mojave, but in Catalina the same files display with no content whatever in the sections containing equations. Only the header sections with just text display. The rest is an empty screen. The Nisus folk are looking into the issue.

While writing this, the Spy had the rare inspiration to open the same file on both machines and their respective OS in that other word processor, you know, the one he never uses, the one made by that little outfit near Seattle, the one that cannot read large files and is a nightmare to keep included graphics in the right places. What’s it called again? On Mojave, the file opened and everything was there, but of course the images containing the equations were incorrectly displayed about thirty times the size they should be. 

On Catalina, the equations were simply missing. The Spy now suspects there is a 32-bit issue here. There are however, no new issues known here with the aforementioned company’s spreadsheet or projection program, excepting the obvious that the 2011 programs no longer run. 

Bottom line: If you do equation editing, either don’t make the switch to Catalina or use a Tex editor. The Spy will not recommend one yet, however. They seem to be a mixed bag, and are all much less convenient to use.

The more enterprising of you might suggest, “why not create a Mojave volume on the new machine?” Won’t work. Apple prevents any older OS from booting on a newer machine. Only the OS that shipped with it, and (some) newer ones will boot (eventually not). Oh, of course there is a hack to get around this, but on a machine under warranty, the Spy would rather not fiddle with the boot ROM. (Astonishing! What happened to the old hacker who once modified the hardware on his Apple ][s to accept lower case characters, DOS 3.3 to read and write 3.5 inch disks, and wrote machine language to incorporate 73 utilities in under 5K of RAM on those machines, and who still resurrects old Mac Pro towers to run Mojave?)

The bottom bottom line 

If you have to fly and are worried about whether your MacBook Pro will be allowed aboard, get the new machine, but be wary of its limitations. Otherwise, give it a pass until the 2020 edition with the touch screens arrive. If you have to deal with equation editing, don’t upgrade to Catalina on any machine for at least until sometime in 2021. And for all those old MacPro towers that Apple has disallowed to Catalina for no reason whatever other than to boost sales of the new cheese grater towers, yes, there is a hack for running Catalina there too, but don’t bother unless you are absolutely sure you don’t need any of your 32-bit programs. The Spy awards an A- for hardware design on the sweet sixteen, a C+ for Catalina and an F- to developers who flubbed the transition. 

The last word: A computer is not an appliance. It is a tool. It’s not a toaster, but a compound sliding (or articulating–see the Bosch product) mitre saw. Iterations should always smoothly add functionality, never subtract it wantonly.

And there’s just one more thing and it’s the most important of everything said here. The two of us will be attending a cross-town church for the parents of David Allan Joseph Sutcliffe (aged seven weeks) to dedicate him and themselves to the service of the Lord.

–The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics, Interim Dean of Science, and Chair of the University Senate at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he’s a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce just celebrated their fiftieth anniversary and have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. since 1972. 

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises: 

The Northern Spy Home Page:

opundo :

Sheaves Christian Resources :

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nameman :

General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books: 

Author Site:

Publisher’s Site:

The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ):

URLs for items mentioned in this column

MacBook Pro:


Hyper Juice: