Is Form Over Function Ever a Real Choice for Computing Equipment?

Ally Winning, European Editor, PSD



Apple is a company that is not a stranger to this column. The company’s design methodology and choices are often market-leading and deserve the praise they get. Then again, some of those design choices tread the line between genius and madness, and over time, some decisions really have turned out to be genius and others to be madness.  One thing that has stood out about Apple products is that no matter the design choices made, the performance of the product doesn’t suffer. That has made the company’s computers a favourite with people who have tasks, such as video processing and 3D rendering, that need every ounce of power available.

That is until now. Apple’s latest MacBook Pro range has been found to throttle performance excessively because of the company’s drive to encase the electronics in smaller, thinner form factors. This time, the main offender is the top of the range choice, which features Intel’s latest i9 processor. It appears that the small form factor of the case is not able to dissipate the heat generated by the processor and the protection system quickly starts to throttle the processor speed, which in turn, brings the overall performance of the laptop down to a similar level to some of the cheaper options available in the range. It’s a phenomenon suffered by most laptops at some point in time, when the cooling system just can’t keep the processor to a safe operating temperature, but higher cost computers are expected to suffer much less, and not as regularly as the Apple top of the range laptop does.

With thinner laptops now in vogue, throttling is becoming more and more common. It is annoying enough when it happens on a cheap laptop, but when it happens on a multi-thousand pound/euro laptop that is specifically intended to cope with almost any task flung at it, it becomes all the more frustrating. In the past, Apple has made many of its most risky choices with the company's laptop range, and many have paid off, but until now, none have handicapped its products to the extent of strangling the performance of its flagship computer, which is targetted at its heaviest and most loyal users. Do these users really care about shaving another millimetre off the casing, especially if it costs them a good deal of the performance they need.

It also raises the question, how thin is too thin? Are we asking too much from the designers of our electronic equipment? Laptops have replaced desktop computers almost completely for most people who use the computer as a work tool. As even some desktop tasks become more demanding, should we be asking for an option that is capable of performing the role adequately, or should we be happy to accept pencil thin cases, brushed aluminium and mediocre performance?