Apple’s portable line has had a spotty history. Starting off badly with the Macintosh Portable, the later PowerBook introduced the modern form-factor of a laptop. Things looked up for a year or two—at least until a combination of factors, like John Sculley’s obsession with the Newton, followed by the dominance of Windows 95 and the complete lack of a coherent response from Apple meant that most of the early PowerPC notebooks from Apple were less than stellar.
After Steve Jobs returned, however, things got back on track with the PowerBook G3, which evolved over five models to the “Pismo” variant, a well-remembered, reliable workhorse.
Apple’s follow-up to the G3 PowerBook was such a classic that its influence is still seen in its laptops today: the Titanium PowerBook G4. Unfortunately, most people remember these machines only by the faults (peeling paint, faulty keyboards) present in the initial revisions.
The Aluminium PowerBook line took this reputation away, with anodised aluminium replacing painted titanium. The 12-inch model, my previous portable, is rightly remembered as one of Apple’s high points.
Though the form factor of Apple’s professional portables was initially largely unchanged with the Intel switch and the move to the MacBook Pro name, the 12-inch model was inexplicably dropped from the line-up. It wasn’t till 2009 that a similar form factor of MacBook Pro was introduced, this time with a 13-inch screen.
Since the MacBook Air was revamped in October 2010, however, I don’t think there’s much of a case for buying the 13-inch Pro any more. It’s a niche model for people who need a compromise between portability and expandability. The specs of the 15-inch model are considerably better: four cores as standard, a real graphics processor (with up to 1 GB of VRAM, no less), and a screen upgradable to 1680×1050. (A resolution which not so long ago graced the 20” Cinema Display.)
Hence, my new computer: a 15-inch MacBook Pro.
As much as I would have liked a model with 1 GB of video memory, I can’t justify £200 more for it. (I don’t believe the 0.2 GHz difference in clock speed would affect much of my work, either.) So I got the base model 15-inch MacBook Pro, with one built-to-order addition: the high-resolution screen.
I also took advantage of the back-to-school promotion for education—a free £65 iTunes gift card, supposedly for buying educational apps on the Mac App Store, but it also works in all of Apple’s stores that take iTunes payment.
The MacBook Pro comes in three containers: a brown cardboard box, used for shipping, which contains a protective plastic sleeve covering the white box that contains the notebook itself. This system protects the package incredibly well; the white box didn’t have a blemish on it when I received it.
Inside the white box is the laptop itself in a transparent plastic sleeve, with a thin piece of foam inside protecting the screen from the keyboard. Underneath the computer are two envelopes (discs, instructions, legalese) and the power adapter’s transformer and MagSafe connector; the three-pin plug is in a separate box alongside, presumably for easier internationalisation.
The design is clearly descendent from the aforementioned Titanium PowerBook G4, in the same way that Vignelli’s New York Subway map is descendent from Harry Beck’s London Underground map; they’re visually quite different, but the influence is obvious.
The only trace of the Apple brand anywhere on the notebook is the logo on the lid, and the company name in the small print on the bottom of the computer. They don’t need to splatter their brand all over; good design is Apple’s brand.
Another point about the bottom: it’s a perfect, flat piece of aluminium, with the only decoration (such that it can be called) being that legalese, and four plastic bumpers at each corner for support. In contrast, most PC laptops are equipped with battery locks, grilles, and Windows licence key and warranty stickers on their underside. The bare bottom makes the MacBook noticeably pleasant to support with one hand on the base.
One nit about appearance is the order of ports on the left-hand side: on my PowerBook, the ports were in size order from back to front. On the MacBook Pro, they are mostly in order, but the Thunderbolt (née Mini DisplayPort) port is between the FireWire and the USB ports, but its size dictates that it should be between the USB ports and the SD card reader. This slight interruption in the pattern is obvious when looking at the left-hand side of the computer.
Opened up, the keyboard and trackpad are well-placed and occupy the perfect amount of space each; the grilles either side of the keyboard are a nice size. (Compared to the 17-inch MacBook Pro, on which they look absurdly large to my eye.) One way in which the unibody MacBook is closer to the design of Titanium PowerBook than the discrete model which preceded it is that the keyboard has returned to being black in colour. I think this looks far better, as the silver plastic keys looked like an attempt to make plastic look like aluminium. (A general rule of good industrial design is tha the appearance of the materials should be celebrated, not disguised; e.g. if you’re so ashamed that you’re using plastic that you want to make it look like wood, why not just use wood? Or, just make plastic look like plastic instead of trying to hide its appearance.)
It feels incredibly sturdy; there’s no flimsiness in the build at all. The only seam you’re aware of in normal use is around the edge of the bottom, where ten Philips screws hold the base on.
Opening it up is delightful with the magnetic lid. Compared to the PowerBook’s locking latch, the MacBook Pro is far easier to open. My only complaint is that the magnet seems a bit too strong, though I’ve noticed it less over time. Unlike my old PowerBook, it doesn’t try to slide away on any surface when I open it, and opening the lid never takes the rest of the computer with it.
The keyboard is excellent; easily the best laptop keyboard I’ve ever used. I’m not quite used to the positions of the keys yet, so I keep missing the command key and getting the option key instead, and likewise with tab and caps-lock. I’ll get used to it over time.
In use, the keyboard’s backlight is a great idea that works well. It seems to be optimised, though, for viewing the keyboard from a dead straight top-down perspective, the angle at which the leakage of light around the edges is least evident and the light apparent through the letters is at its maximum. One solution could be to recess the keys further into the body; given that part of the appeal of the feel of the keyboard is that it has a well-chosen travel distance, this doesn’t seem like the best option. Another is to give each key an individual LED, but this would probably be expensive and power-hungry. Given these challenges, I’m happy to accept the leakage of light. Another problem viewing from a low angle is that it’s possible to see bits of printed circuit board pattern under the keys, which seems quite un-Jobs-ian, but again difficult to eliminate.
The power button, like all of Apple’s buttons, feels perfect to press. (As does the battery indicator toggle button, which is perfect for just tapping with your left pinky.)
The screen is bright, vibrant, and well-calibrated out-of-the-box. The pixel density on the high-resolution display was jarring at first, but after just half an hour of usage, I was already used to seeing everything at 130 dpi instead of the usual 100. If you think it might be a problem for you, go and see it on the 17-inch Pro or the Air at an Apple Store, both of which have displays with comparable dpi resolution. The glossy screen is not a problem for me, but if you think you might have one, go and see an anti-glare MacBook at an Apple Store.
Wireless reception seems good. I can only say that it’s better than the PowerBook, the iPhone 3G and the iPad, because these are the only devices I can compare it with at my house.
The Mac comes with the usual set of standard OS X software, plus iLife, FaceTime for Mac, and a disc with Xcode 4 on it.
The latter two were something of a pleasant surprise for me, as I had thought that Apple was charging everyone for them on the Mac App Store, but new Mac buyers are apparently not included in this scheme, and get them for free. (I had expected to get Xcode 3.2 on my disc.)
perl is actually a chooser tool bundled by Apple to choose between Perl 5.8.8 and 5.10.0, and whether to run the latter as a 32- or 64-bit program. If you use any MacPerl scripts, you’ll want to run the
defaults diddle mentioned in
man perl to use 32-bit mode, because MacPerl scripts won’t run in 64-bit mode.
Ruby is still 1.8.7, which is sad, and apparently this isn’t changing in Lion. Updates to Ruby 1.9 can be had through Homebrew.
Ruby 1.9 didn’t take long to compile at all. I compressed a ripped DVD in about 50 minutes. Portal feels pretty snappy at a full 1680×1050 resolution, with only an occasional graphical flicker.
Note, though, that while the MacBook Pro is generally very quiet, each of these activities caused it to sound like an aeroplane take-off. It also got hot, but it’s very good at expelling heat, because it was back at normal temperature again only 3 or 4 minutes later.
More formally, Geekbench gives it 8679, which is impressive (at least to me). It certainly feels incredibly snappy.
My computer has the standard 500 GB 5400 rpm HDD with 4 GB of RAM. Apple says it can be taken to 8 GB, but Mactracker tells me that 16 GB is really the upper limit. Once I can find two 8 GB sticks to put in the slots, I’ll certainly try this out. Another thing I’d like to do is put an SSD in, and maybe if I win the lottery I’ll do it.
If the engineering trade-off is Good, Cheap, or Fast (where Fast refers to development time, not hardware speed), Apple chose well with Good and Cheap. (‘Cheap’ is not the best word; ‘Value for Money’ would be better. ‘Cheap’ implies netbook-range pricing.) I’m looking forward to Lion on this computer.
The packaging, the design, the experience, the speed—all are perfect. This is Apple at its best.