Four Days with the Macbook Pro

Well, I did it. As I said in my earlier posting, I’m 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, what’s my feeling so far? Well, it’s 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 I’m an experienced touch-typist it’s nice to have a frame of reference when it gets dark. This is especially true when you’re getting accustomed to a new keyboard you’ve never used before.

But let’s start with first impressions, shall we? Note that I have a work laptop which is a Dell C610; a 1.6Ghz Pentium M that’s 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 who’ve not touched it. It’s 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, too… and something I don’t see much written about. It’s a small box, smaller generally than my Dell’s power supply. What’s slick about it is that it’s 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. What’s 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 it’s 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 “MagSafe adapter”. 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. What’s 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 someone’s legs. Very nice. Hopefully I won’t need to test it “in battle” for a while, but so far it’s nice.

So the first boot up experience? Well, in one respect it’s similar to Windows; the first boot seems to take forever, and even once you’re run the gamut of registration screens (far fewer than Windows XP I might add) you’re presented with a remarkably clean desktop, the OSX dock and that’s 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 don’t want to randomly click on things for fear they’ll 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? I’m a technical person myself, so I knew there was nothing I could break… 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 you’re planning to use open source alternatives like OpenOffice. I didn’t spend much time with the included “iTools” like iPhoto, but I did spend a little time playing with “Photo Booth”. 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 with…

So far I have to say the only negative thing that I’ve had came up on day one. That is that my OSX CD’s were DOA. This normally wouldn’t be a big deal except that I wanted to install X11 from the CD’s. That’s a UNIX extra that’s not installed by default. Instead you have to install that after the fact. Of course, I couldn’t. 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 can’t complain too much. The dual-core 2ghz CPU chows down a goodly amount of CPU, and the 667Mhz front size bus architecture can’t help. Basically out of a full charge I get just shy of 3 hours of pretty solid use with the wireless on. For many that’s acceptable. Hell, to me it’s 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 comparison’s not really fair. The LCD was also about half the size of the Mac’s so that has an impact, too.

For a recent generation laptop that’s acceptable, though a little lower than friend of mine who bought a Dell C620, roughly equivalent in specs to this Apple though without the “style” or the wide screen. I’m willing to give Apple the benefit of the doubt here; Dell’s been doing Intel architecture for years and Apple’s 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 that’s 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, there’s 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 it’s ass handed to it, but hey, we’re 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 I’ll 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. It’s not easy, or pretty… and the surprise is not that it runs slowly but that it runs at all. The upshot of all the technical talk you’ll find around is that the old PowerPC architecture is so radically different from the newer Intel architecture that there’s not even a comparison. Functions that exist in the PPC world just don’t even have a comparable function available with Intel… but somehow they make it all work. Thankfully, this translation layer called “Rosetta” is extremely solid and completely invisible to the user. Hell, I’m typing this on Word 2004, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I have Performance Monitor up as well I wouldn’t even have been able to tell it wasn’t a native app. Can’t wait for the UB version of Office to see what performance gains they make ?

I think it’s safe to say I’m impressed so far. The operating system has had no crashes so far, and the only time I’ve 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 that’s 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 off… there’s FAR too many BT devices in your average coffee shop these days and if you don’t 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.

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