Four Days with the Macbook Pro

Well, I did it. As I said in my earlier posting, Iím switching to an Apple Macbook Pro. Well, this week I placed the order and went ahead and bought myself my first Mac laptop.

So after four days with the Macbook Pro, whatís my feeling so far? Well, itís a really nice little machine. I love the wide, bright and easily readable screen as well as the keyboard that illuminates in low light conditions. Although Iím an experienced touch-typist itís nice to have a frame of reference when it gets dark. This is especially true when youíre getting accustomed to a new keyboard youíve never used before.

But letís start with first impressions, shall we? Note that I have a work laptop which is a Dell C610; a 1.6Ghz Pentium M thatís pretty nice; integrated wireless, 40Gb hard drive (small by modern standards, but enough for most stuff I do at work) and generally just a nice machine. I liked it; it was lighter than the D640 I upgraded from, ran cooler and generally just did everything the big old black beastie did, but did it with more subtlety. With that in mind, I was nicely surprised when I opened up the box of my Macbook Pro and found inside a machine that had a metal case rather than plastic, weighed less than my C610 and had a lovely clean design that I really appreciated.

The case is hard to describe to people whoíve not touched it. Itís a nice matte metal casing that covers the entire machine including the screen. This makes the screen quite resistant to flexing. I opened up the catch along the front of the machine. It opened smoothly with only a modicum of feeling. This is a magnetically activated catch that is actually pretty slick. It closes up neatly and when opened leaves no sign that it exists except the holes where the catch itself stows. Very nice, and leaves you with nothing to catch anything on. Nice feature.

The screen itself is large, very bright and easily readable. I like that a lot and I can see it becoming extremely useful. The power adapter is pretty slick, tooÖ and something I donít see much written about. Itís a small box, smaller generally than my Dellís power supply. Whatís slick about it is that itís really designed for the traveling user. The power cord that attaches into the laptop itself has a pair of stowing hooks that flip out of the power supply, and this is really easy to use. Whatís also slick is the way the power supply provides two different connections on the other side. When you need the reach, you can plug in a long cord to go to the wall. This gives you a more than sufficient reach to plug in just about anywhere. However, the slick part is that they also provide a small plug that replaces the cord. This plug folds away into the power supply itself when not in use, reminding me a lot of third-party travel adapters. When this is attached obviously the reach of power is not that bad, but itís not great either. However, for the average road warrior I can see this being incredibly useful.

Also on the power supply is the well advertised and covered ďMagSafe adapterĒ. This is a magnetic power adapter that plugs in to the laptop. Supplying a straight pull on the adapter results in quite a significant amount of pulling to get it to come disconnected. However, if you pull it at an angle then it comes free very easily. Whatís this for? Well, as anyone who has kids or has used their laptop at a coffee shop can tell you, someone will trip over your power cord eventually. This MagSafe adapter is designed so that it will break loose and provide your laptop with the security of not flying off the table at the behest of someoneís legs. Very nice. Hopefully I wonít need to test it ďin battleĒ for a while, but so far itís nice.

So the first boot up experience? Well, in one respect itís similar to Windows; the first boot seems to take forever, and even once youíre run the gamut of registration screens (far fewer than Windows XP I might add) youíre presented with a remarkably clean desktop, the OSX dock and thatís about it. Pretty bare, and to be honest I have to say for a switcher this might be a little intimidating. My experience is most people donít want to randomly click on things for fear theyíll break their new computer. However, once you open up the apps on the dock or go into your hard drive to browse for applications it all becomes pretty self explanatory quickly. Not sure, maybe a paper or digital tour of features would be a nice idea? Iím a technical person myself, so I knew there was nothing I could breakÖ but I could think of people who might have an issue with it.

Ah well, moving on. The amount of integrated and included software with the machine is quite impressive; a 30 day trial of Office 2004 is quite handy unless youíre planning to use open source alternatives like OpenOffice. I didnít spend much time with the included ďiToolsĒ like iPhoto, but I did spend a little time playing with ďPhoto BoothĒ. The Macbook Pro has a built in camera just above the screen, mostly intended for video conferencing. However, a built in utility called Photo Booth allows you to take pictures and apply a number of effects and filters in real time. Something fun to play withÖ

So far I have to say the only negative thing that Iíve had came up on day one. That is that my OSX CDís were DOA. This normally wouldnít be a big deal except that I wanted to install X11 from the CDís. Thatís a UNIX extra thatís not installed by default. Instead you have to install that after the fact. Of course, I couldnít. Sort of annoying, really ?

Well, I lied there a little. I did have a little disappointment a day or so after I got the laptop. That was the battery life. I know that with modern technology, I canít complain too much. The dual-core 2ghz CPU chows down a goodly amount of CPU, and the 667Mhz front size bus architecture canít help. Basically out of a full charge I get just shy of 3 hours of pretty solid use with the wireless on. For many thatís acceptable. Hell, to me itís acceptable but quite a change from the 6 hours I could pull out of my old Toshiba. Now granted, that was an older machine (PIII-700) with an extended battery pack, so the comparisonís not really fair. The LCD was also about half the size of the Macís so that has an impact, too.

For a recent generation laptop thatís acceptable, though a little lower than friend of mine who bought a Dell C620, roughly equivalent in specs to this Apple though without the ďstyleĒ or the wide screen. Iím willing to give Apple the benefit of the doubt here; Dellís been doing Intel architecture for years and Appleís just started. As a result, I can believe the operating system itself may stand for some tuning to get it up to the level that other manufacturers are with Intel architecture machines.

Now, turn off my wireless and Bluetooth and I end up with my battery life exceeding 3 hours, but thatís not a typical configuration for me. Thought it might be in future.

So how does this Intel Mac compare to the PowerPC Macs that have gone before it? Well, running native binaries (called Universal Binaries because they run on Intel and PowerPC architectures), the speed is blinding. In fact, thereís few Macs that can really match it for out and out performance when running a UB app. Against a multi-proc multi-core G5 it might have itís ass handed to it, but hey, weíre talking about a $2000 laptop against a $4000 workstation here. Not really a fair comparison. However, running PowerPC native applications slows things down considerably.

Now, in my opinion Iíll let a lot slide because having been an assembly programmer at one point or another, I know the problems of getting one architecture emulated within a completely different architecture. Itís not easy, or prettyÖ and the surprise is not that it runs slowly but that it runs at all. The upshot of all the technical talk youíll find around is that the old PowerPC architecture is so radically different from the newer Intel architecture that thereís not even a comparison. Functions that exist in the PPC world just donít even have a comparable function available with IntelÖ but somehow they make it all work. Thankfully, this translation layer called ďRosettaĒ is extremely solid and completely invisible to the user. Hell, Iím typing this on Word 2004, and if it hadnít been for the fact that I have Performance Monitor up as well I wouldnít even have been able to tell it wasnít a native app. Canít wait for the UB version of Office to see what performance gains they make ?

I think itís safe to say Iím impressed so far. The operating system has had no crashes so far, and the only time Iíve rebooted it is when I had to update all the OS components right after first boot. Of course, you have to do this in Windows as well so thatís not unusual. The laptop goes to sleep when I tell it, and wakes up when I tell it. I did have one surprising awakening, but I quickly figured out that I had a function turned on (by default) to wake up on Bluetooth activity. My BT cellphone and BT mouse both tried to wake up my laptop. And succeeded. My advice? Turn this offÖ thereís FAR too many BT devices in your average coffee shop these days and if you donít want your laptop constantly waking up in your laptop bag then you might want to turn it off.

I will post more soon. Just wanted to get up my opinions of this great new tool I have.

Switching Gear(s)

This is it, I’m finally going to do it. I’m going to switch.

For those unfamiliar, Apple had a big marketing campaign about two years ago now to “switch”, i.e. to change from the Windows platform to the Mac platform. This campaign actually met with a modicum of success, at least in part based on the integration Macs have with the very successful iPod. Sure, you’ve got iTunes on Windows as well for a similar interface, and I use it today with my black iPod Nano that I bought about a year ago. It’s OK, but clunky. Add to that it takes forever to start up on Windows XP pro for reasons I have still yet to explain.

Now, I’m not one of those who switched two years ago… and I resisted switching a year ago when I bought my iPod, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Macs. Hell, I have one at home; it’s a seriously upgraded Power Computing PowerCenter 120… now sporting 256Mb of RAM and a G3-400 overclocked to 500Mhz. The old SCSI drives are still a sore point, but I’ve never really seen much need to upgrade it because I tire of it heating up my study with alacrity every time I turn it on. Hell, I even ran OSX on that hardware up until an update around 10.2 screwed something up and it wouldn’t boot into OSX any more. I did a reinstall, but to be honest my heart wasn’t in it; the PC120 was a good machine for its time, but about 18 months ago I retired it to my closet. It’s peering out the open door as I type, looking over my shoulder jealously as I tickle the keyboard of my PIII-700 laptop typing this little missive.

This little laptop, a Toshiba 3490CT laptop with extended battery pack has been a little workhorse. As a pro-grade laptop it has taken beatings that many consumer-grade laptops would have given up the ghost… and it was a little champ during my England vacation last year when I carted it across England and Ireland, then back again. Its compact size, light weight and nice efficiencies made it the perfect biking companion (motorbike!)

It doesn’t run Windows very well any more. It’s got a legal license for Windows 2000 Professional… which is all fine and good until you start adding Service Pack 4 and all the post SP4 hotfixes, then the strain of the circa 2000 hardware starts to really show. The 256Mb RAM limit makes XP a bear… it’s a hardware limit that annoys me to no end. So when I took it on my vacation I put Fedora Linux on it. Worked pretty well, but was not the most efficient use of the harware. Fedora’s nice, but it adds a lot of “weight” to the OS in terms of software I didn’t really need. Earlier this year I put Gentoo 2006 on the box in order to squeeze the last little bit of performance out of the box. It’s been a rock. I only install the software I need, and it gets the job done. It’s still small and light, and boots pretty quick.

So where’s the problem? Well, there are two major problems I see with this laptop today:

(a) Increasing Requirements: In the time since I started using a laptop, I have really expanded in my requirements. Sure, this Toshiba is pretty decent for running Firefox and Evolution (for email), but I’ve pretty much got to shut everything else down if I want to run OpenOffice and actually use it. The 256Mb RAM limit becomes problem numero uno.

(b) The Tinker Factor: The only problem I have with Linux is the desire to tinker is great. Sure, I could stop and get my work done… but I tend to fail because I find something to fiddle with or tinker with. Sometimes it’s because I try to do something new and find I don’t have the software installed. So I start an “emerge” for the software if it’s in Portage and sit back and wait for it to compile. Then while it’s compiling I think of something I can do while I wait, I go off and fiddle with some other part of the operating system (like tuning the power management interface), and by the time the emerge compile has completed I’ve completely forgotten what it was I was going to work on in the first place.

For someone with ADD, that second one becomes a real problem rapidly.

Similar problems exist in Windows. I don’t like the fact that in Windows the user is always a privileged user, and that’s primiarly how viruses spread so easily in that environment. On the Mac, it’s a UNIX-based OS, so the user is a standard user who has to authenticate to a root level to do anything truly significant. Sure, it’s not as tied down as a true UNIX or even Linux, but it’s better in security than Windows. As a result of this, the tinker factor comes back into play, because I spend a lot of time on Windows boxes fixing perceived and known problems, patching, upgrading my virus protection and so forth. As a result, I still don’t get work done.

Add to that the hardware requirements of Windows these days are pretty high; I can’t effectively run Windows on my Toshiba because XP is unbearable, especially once you stick XP SP2 on the box. I’ve tried it, I don’t like it.

OK, so these are my software requirements. How about a cheap, newer Windows box like the Acer I bought Rebekah? Well, the problem is Rebekah is primarily a home user. Consumer grade laptops are usually good for someone who uses their laptop around their house… maybe a local coffee shop. They’re not really designed for the “mobile professional” who beats his laptop around frequently, throws it into a duffel bag, occasionally drops it off a hotel desk while trying to get comfortable in the chair without tangling in the power cord… that sort of stuff. That puts consumer-grade laptops pretty much out for me, which means about 80% of the laptops you buy at Best Buy aren’t an option for me.

I love this Toshiba because it is a pro-grade laptop; it’s sturdy, has a very bright and usable screen and has a 5 hour battery life. I kid you not. OK… so it’s 1.5hours with the built in battery and another 3.5 on the external battery pack (which I pretty much leave permanently attached), but that’s an awesome amount of usage. Especially when you consider these numbers are with a PCMCIA wireless/g card installed. Most consumer-grade laptops you’re lucky to get 2 hours out of… you’d be tied primarily to places you can plug in. Even places with free WiFi Internet access rarely have power sockets you can use.

So again, battery life and sturdiness drive me into the pro-grade laptop market. The laptops start in the $1300 range and rise from there depending on options.

For work I have a Dell Latitude. That’s a good laptop, but not really what I’m looking for. I have no intention of running Windows except as a secondary OS, but obviously that legal license then plays a part; that’s one plus of buying the Dells. However, I’ve never been overly enamored with Windows, and of course if I put Linux on a Latitude then I have the “Tinker Factor” in play again. Kinda defeats the object a little.

As I said, I’ve always had a soft spot for Macs, but why didn’t I switch two years ago? Well, quite simply; although I don’t much like Windows I do have a need to run Windows applications. As such, I need a machine that can handle both. Dual-boot is one option, and virtualization is another. I’m a firm believer in virtualization, but the best the classic PowerPC-base Mac could offer was emulation of Windows… quirky and slow at best. However, this year something radical happened; Apple switched their product line to Intel processors, dropping the PowerPC like a hot potato.

I’ll admit, when it first happened I was a little taken aback. The PowerPC was one of the reasons I liked the Mac; it was a nice architecture and spiritual successor to my favorite CPU architecture to work on; the Motorola 68000 architecture. Sure, it was flawed as hell to program in assembly, but it was also a very slick processor with a nice memory-mapped device interface that was incredibly flexible. I coded for these on the Atari ST, Amiga and Mac in the early days… nice CPU.

However, I analyzed why I liked Macs and realized the operating system (being the part you really use and see every day) was the part that really made the difference. And as operating systems go, OSX is easily the best operating system on the market right now.

Sure, disagree if you like… but consider this: OSX is already widely recognized as the easiest-to-use and gives the best out-of-the-box experience of any operating system currently available. Plus, it’s also UNIX-based… and getting “down and dirty” with the OS is as easy as launching a command window. But you don’t need the command window to run the OS… genius.

I already know I’m more productive in OSX than I am in either Windows or Linux. In fact, I’d say that I’m least productive in Windows because I spend much of my time fighting with the logical inconsistencies or bizarre behavior of Windows. I used OSX for some time, and once the initial “wow factor” wore off (which was significant), I was far more productive than I am in either Windows or Linux.

As a side note, a desktop Mac would be nice, but to be honest I’m tired of being tethered to my desk every time I want to work on stuff. I want mobility; I want to take my computer to a coffee shop like I do with my Toshiba… but instead of tinkering, upgrading or surfing the web I actually want to be able to sit down and just start working… and get stuff done. Maybe I’m growing up, but I have insufficient spare time as it stands… being able to be flexible and productive is going to be a far greater use of my time.

So what am I doing? I’m going to buy myself a Macbook Pro. My ideal specs are a 15 inch model, 2Ghz with 1Gb of RAM and 100Gb HD. Ought to be more than enough for now. In fact, I want to buy this laptop to try to get 6 years out of it; same as this Toshiba has survived (though I’ve not owned it that long). I can expand it to 2Gb of RAM if I need it later, and I can change out the hard-drive if I get a real yearning for speed. Plus, a quick look on Ebay tells me that Apple machines in general maintain their value well.

So what does the MBP give me? Well, a Mac with OSX Tiger (10.4) for a start. It also gives me a modern machine with EFI instead of BIOS, plenty of storage, a dual-core CPU and some really nice features like the illuminated keyboard. Believe me, I can see a need there. I can also pick up a copy of Windows XP (or use the retired license from a machine I broke down recently) and install it using Boot Camp (dual-boot software for Mac to boot Windows on the hardware). Alternatively, I can use Parallels Desktop (virtualization software) to run both OS’s concurrently and get the best of both worlds without having to reboot. I can have Windows running, switch over to use my Windows apps and then go straight back to OSX for my regular work. Priceless.

So why not buy a base Macbook? They’re a lot cheaper, and have the same CPU… but the video chipset is not as advanced and frankly although the Macbook is a damned nice little machine it’s still just a high-end consumer-grade laptop… and all that entails. I’ve played with one and was impressed… but I don’t like the glossy screen (a real pain in the arse in environments with fluorescent lighting) and I think the Macbook Pro has more longevity value for me.

Now, a part of me wonders if I should do it now, or wait until the 64-bit version comes out (rumors are flying about a September launch). However, I need to upgrade my laptop now realistically in order to really start using it properly, and really there’s no advantage now to going 64-bit. It’ll be next year before the OS itself will take advantage of the 64-bit power, but even then applications will take another 6-9 months. Add to that the fact that the 64-bit Merom chip has been released in a package that’s pin-compatible with the 32-bit Yonah (currently used in the Macbook and Pro) in order to provide a “drop-in upgrade”, but the chipset to really unlock the features of this chipset won’t be released by Intel until 2Q 2007. Hell with it, there’s always going to be something new on the horizon.

Maybe I’ll end up buying when Merom-based units come out… maybe I’ll get one. There’s a possibility that Merom-based MBP’s won’t be released until January’s big Macworld show… I don’t feel like waiting that long.

Besides, in my opinion, the 64-bit Merom will buy maybe another 6 months of longevity… because clock-for-clock the Merom is only about 5-10% faster than the Yonah. And given Apple’s history, they’ll support the Yonah architecture for many, many years. It takes a speed increase on the order of 20% for most people to notice… I think I can survive. Besides, going from a PIII-700 to a dual-core 2Ghz monster machine? I’m gonna be too blinded by the light to care.

Of course, I’ll post more as I have an update.