MacBook Pro: Initial thoughts and impressions

Here’s a weird thing: I’ve always thought Apple’s hardware design was excellent. Up until now, all of my laptops have been from Sony (first an SR11k, then a Z1RSP – both from before everyone realised how evil Sony actually are) whose design quality is generally very high (and with excellent keyboards on the models I bought) – so the bar is set very high.


But I don’t think that’s it: It’s Apple’s fault.


Just before I ordered my MBP Chris showed me his new white MacBook laptop. If it weren’t for the underpowered integrated Intel graphics, I think the MacBooks would be the best machines on the market right now, bar none. However, since my first laptop had 8Mb S3 Savage graphics followed by a 16Mb Radeon Mobility M6 in the Z1, I’ve decided that my next machine must be able to make at least a passing attempt at 3D… which rules out integrated chipsets entirely.


(Just to see how much performance Apple had managed to coax out of the Intel chipset, Chris tried running the Second Life client – and it was painful, with many textures missing and a frame-rate that struggled to even approach double-figures)


In light of this, I opened my new MacBook Pro, and it looked surprisingly… retro. Bear in mind that little has changed between the new Core2 Duo MacBook Pro, and the original PowerBook G4 from January of 2001, and that the 2003 15″ PowerBook G4 Firewire 800 is, visually, essentially the same machine.


After the finely moulded lines and compact dimensions of the MacBooks (especially the tragically overpriced black variant) the proven design of the MacBook Pro looks almost, dare I say it, old-fashioned… I suppose that it’s just that there’s nothing new in the design of this otherwise cutting-edge machine. It’s a testament to the strength of Apple’s design that they can still get people to buy 3 year-old designs – but look to the plight of SGI for the dangers of relying on past triumphs (and, indeed, the parallels between Apple and SGI are many).


So, let’s get the bad things out of the way first:

  • Although the machines are all soft-edges and curves, the two straight edges are those which meet when the machine is closed, around the screen and the keyboard. And here lies the problem: because of the depth of the trackpad, your wrists come to rest directly over these edges. And, whilst certainly not sharp, they are very unforgiving and can be uncomfortable.
  • Apple’s keyboards take a great deal of getting used to – and the alleged UK layout is simply the US layout with a silly-sized return key and no hash key at all. This makes using terminal emulators a hassle, as you can have a meta key or you can type hashes – take your pick.
  • Now a problem, per-se, but certainly a missed opportunity: On the MacBook, remove the battery, unscrew a retainer, and the hard-disc slides straight out. On the MacBook Pro, the only way to remove the disc is to disassemble the entire machine, including removing the bluetooth and wireless antennas and tape from the top of the drive!
  • Finally, a plea to Apple: The MacBook Pros have a, pretty much unused, ExpressCard slot. They also have an IR receiver and a remote control which is almost guaranteed to be lost within minutes. The remote needs power, and the ExpressCard slot provides power. Most significantly, they’re almost identical in size. Please Apple, exchange the half-hearted IR remote for a Bluetooth model which docks and charges in the ExpressCard slot.


So why not just opt for the much cheaper MacBook then?


Aside from the aforementioned graphics issue, the insanely great things about the MacBook Pro are:

  • The screen. Even the standard “widescreen” non-glossy screen is a wonder to behold, and with nary a dead-pixel in sight. Editing photos from iPhoto in full-screen mode is just stunning.
  • Compared to every portable machine I’ve ever used, the battery life of the MacBook Pro’s is just amazing. Even with the screen at full brightness for several hours, five hours battery life seems easily attainable… compared to the 1.7GHz Centrino system of my last laptop, which might have just scraped three hours at a push.
  • If I pick up my Sony laptop in certain places with one hand, especailly around the area where the DVD drive is mounted, the entire chassis flexes. Apple’s build quality is rock-solid: do matter where the chassis is suspended, it doesn’t flex at all.
  • The MagSafe connector is another “Why didn’t anyone think of this before”-moment. It just jumps into its socket, and will work in whatever orientation it’s inserted… I just wish USB worked this way too.
  • The original MacBook Pros are infamous for getting thigh-burningly hot. Luckily, that’s been solved in the Core2 Duo – although the machine certainly isn’t the coolest thing around, it’s never become uncomfortably hot… which is another benefit over the Sony,
  • Finally, a laptop which can hold its own in terms of graphics power. For more details, read on…