Product Name: MacBook Pro (Rev. E)
1.5 GB RAM
80 GB Hard Drive
Mac OS X 10.4.6
Rating: 3 Bounces – Lustworthy
AppleLust doesn’t commonly review hardware, but with the ongoing transition from the PowerPC processor to the Intel ones, I think it it’s worth taking a look at these new machines in the context of day-to-day work and play. One of the things that stands out when you read many of the hardware reviews is the use of benchmarks. I’m all for benchmarks; they’re objective tests of speed that allow the reader to see clearly how one machine compares with another. But there’s more to using a computer than speed.
Perhaps a good place to start is the new magnetic power supply connector. Ironically, it’s because of power supply cables that I even got the new MacBook Pro. I’ve been using a Titanium 1 GHz PowerBook since late 2002, a machine that has stood me in good stead over the years. About a month ago, while taking the PowerBook from one room to another, the cable caught on a door handle and pulled the machine to the floor. On the plus side, the electronics worked fine, but alas, one of the hinges was broken, making it impossible to close the display properly. Luckily, my PowerBook was insured for accidental damage and with a declared value on my household insurance policy, something I recommend any Mac owner to consider. Within a couple of weeks, my insurers had assessed the PowerBook, decided it was uneconomic to repair, and sent me a brand new MacBook Pro.
The magnetic power supply connector is supposed to stop this sort of accident from happening. It’s difficult to tell if it really would. The magnet is surprisingly strong, and while a neat gimmick, I wouldn’t call it a big-ticket item as far as selling the MacBook Pro goes.
Lots of reviewers have commented on the fit and finish of the MacBook Pro. The hinge is certainly much more sturdy than those on my old G4 PowerBook, being a much larger chunk of plastic and metal than two spindly little things. Only time will tell if the paint job is significantly better, but there are some reassuring plastic trimmings at the edges where the paint most quickly got scuffed on my old PowerBook.
Two high profile additions to Apple’s new hardware is the built-in iSight camera and the remote control. The iSight camera works nicely, and delivers really nice pictures, but to be honest I only use webcams as imagers for use on telescopes, and so don’t have much need for the iSight. The remote control, on the other hand, is a thing of sheer joy. I love listening to podcasts and talking books at night before dropping off to sleep, and being able to control iTunes so easily from my bed is wonderful. The remote seems to have considerable range and although using infrared beams, seems pretty tolerant about not being pointed in the right direction, so it “feels” more like a radio control.
A lot of the other stuff on the MacBook Pro doesn’t feel that different though. The keyboard lights up in the dark, like those on the Aluminium PowerBooks, and likewise has a metallic finish instead of being translucent plastic, but otherwise feels similar to the one on my old G4. The trackpad feels about the same, though it does have some “cool” new features like horizontal scrolling. To be honest, I found the horizontal scrolling much more awkward than simply clicking the window scroll bars.
Finally, while the overall size of the machine looks about the same, it is sufficiently larger that G4-sized goodies like carry bags and screen protectors might not work. My Tucano Second Skin sleeve certainly didn’t fit, and the the Radtech screen protector seems slightly too small to provide full protection.
What’s Missing, Or At Least Different
There are a few things reviewers have fussed over that don’t bother me in the least. The replacement of the PC card slot with the smaller ExpressCard slot, for example, is no big deal. While I have quite a few such cards for my old PowerBook 3400, they were either unnecessary or incompatible with my G4 PowerBook. Since the MacBook Pro comes with wireless and Ethernet networking already, those cards aren’t needed. A 56k modem might be something some users will miss, since these Macs don’t have one, but there isn’t yet an ExpressCard modem available for the Mac, leaving an external USB modem the only option for that functionality. PC card adapters for digital camera memory cards are popular, but I admit to using the slow USB adapter that came with my little Nikon, so again, this issue doesn’t really bother me either way.
Another supposedly big deal is the lack of a two-button trackpad. Am I really the only person who doesn’t care? Trackpads are not nice input devices at the best of times, and it’s their clumsiness for doing graphics work or playing games that leaves me thankful I can plug in an external mouse. For typing e-mails or editing word processor documents on the go, the trackpad with one button is fine.
Most of the ports on the machine are the same as those on my G4 PowerBook, except that they’re distributed along the left and right of the machine instead of all being at the back. There’s a single FireWire 400 port on the right, for example, along with the DVI video port and a security socket for one of those chains that supposedly keeps your PowerBook from being stolen. Incidentally, it’s worth noting the absence of a FireWire 800 port. Quite why it is missing is a mystery to me, since the 17-inch MacBook Pro has one. Either way, if you need high-speed connectivity beyond the specification of USB 2 or FireWire 400, the absence of FireWire 800 will be an annoyance. The USB 2 ports are distributed one on each side, while the audio in and out ports are both on the left. A surprise is the lack of a restart button. When my MacBook Pro did freeze, and wouldn’t respond to the reset keyboard combination, I had no choice but to pull out the main adapter and remove the battery. Not nice. It turns out there’s a new keyboard sequence: Shift-Function-Control-Power, to be held down until the machine shuts down, and then after 30 seconds, press the Power button.
One obviously missing thing that does matter is Classic. You can’t run OS 9 software on the MacBook Pro. The trade-off presumably is that you can potentially install and run Windows XP.
Perhaps a funny thing to start a list of improvements with, but the first thing I noticed was that the loudspeakers appear to be much louder, and the stereo effect when playing movies is distinctly better, perhaps because of the increased volume. I always found the loudspeakers on my G4 PowerBook a bit anaemic, significantly worse, for example, than those on my PowerBook 3400.
The screen has slightly more pixels than my old PowerBook (having a resolution of 1440 x 900 compared with 1280 x 854). Curiously, this PowerBooks immediately preceding the MacBook Pro featured resolutions of 1440 x 960 in the 15-inch screen format, so the MacBook Pro is a slight downgrade in that regard. On the flip side, the screen is wonderfully bright, and whatever the actual improvement in percentage-points, it’s certainly noticeable.
Wireless reception is distinctly improved, and seems closer to that of my iBook than the old G4 PowerBook. In my usual workspace, my PowerBook would often drop one or two “bars” in the reception strength menubar icon, but so far the MacBook seems to get onto my network at full blast each and every time.
I got the machine sent to me with 512 MB of RAM, and while not optimal, I was surprised how well the machine performed. I could comfortably run Safari, Word, Mail, Photoshop, and Freeway Pro, for example with only the occasional sign of spluttering. Having said that, ramping up the RAM to 1.5 GB did help, and I can basically run as many programs as want without any noticeable memory issues. Installing the RAM, incidentally, wasn’t difficult, though first time round I didn’t push the memory module in far enough and the computer failed to start up at all.
While the RAM allocation is perhaps adequate out of the box, the hard disk size is definitely uninspiring. My old PowerBook had a 60 GB drive, and the MacBook totes an 80 GB one. Okay, that’s an improvement of 33%, but there’s also a good 3 year age difference between the two machines. I’d like to see Apple bump up the hard drives on these things pretty quickly, iTunes and iPhoto alone gobble up gigabytes of storage before you even begin to think about video and high-resolution images. There aren’t many applications that don’t requisition a few hundred megabytes either, and games are even worse. Partition your hard drive to install Windows XP (or Linux, for that matter) and your need for hard disk space will become even more severe.
The MacBook Pro comes with OS X Tiger. That’s fine with me, but I have to say I didn’t upgrade from Panther on any of my other machines simply because I wasn’t all that impressed with Tiger. Admittedly, it works as well, if not better than any previous version of Mac OS X, but there just wasn’t anything about it that compelled me to buy the upgrade. After a week or so of using Tiger, I remain unconvinced. Spotlight doesn’t do much for me (perhaps I organise my files just too carefully?) and I find Dashboard completely useless (I don’t like applications that monopolise the user interface to the exclusion of any other apps I’m already running). Mail does seem faster, though I think I preferred the old interface, but if it doesn’t corrupt my mailboxes and rules as Mail in OS X 10.3 did, then I’ll definitely be a happy bunny.
OK, this is where we get serious. So far we can say that the MacBook looks good, enjoys a few small improvements over the G4 PowerBooks, and runs the new Mac OS perfectly well even with its default RAM and hard disk allowance. But what about performance.
My basic impression is this: provided you’re using software optimised for the Intel processor, things run swimmingly. Freeway Pro, for example, really shines on the MacBook. The operating system itself flies (it boots up in a fraction of the time the G4 did) and stuff like Mail and Safari really do sing. The iLife ’06 programs are likewise optimised for the Intel processor, and performance is pretty impressive.
However, when it comes PowerPC applications, then things don’t look so good. MS Office runs about as quickly on the MacBook Pro as it did on my 1 GHz G4 PowerBook, and Photoshop 7 slightly slower. Smaller applications, like TextWranger and GraphicConvertor, run just fine, without any obvious performance issues. On the other hand, some applications simply don’t work at all, most notably Virtual PC 7.
The problem for the MacBook Pro is that PowerPC applications need to run in an emulator (which Apple call “Rosetta”). A program with a lot of calculating to do is the worst-case scenario, and many games fall into this category. A real challenge is SimCity 4, a dog of a program as far as performance goes even on G4/G5 Macs, and frankly I was disappointed by how the MacBook handled it. It’s sometimes about the same as the G4, but other times very obviously slower. On the other hand, Tenebrae Quake, which wasn’t at all playable on the G4, works quite well on the MacBook. Presumably it is the improved graphics card, with 128 MB of memory, that makes the difference.
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The MacBook Pro is obviously a better machine than a three-year old G4 PowerBook. Or is it? The short answer is it depends. The absence of Classic mode is a big deal for some people, and if you still use software that doesn’t exist in an OS X format or you hadn’t planned on upgrading, then you’re stuck. The absence of FireWire 800 and S-video output (at least, not without adapters or expansion cards) might be a problem, but I think they’re pretty trivial ones. Performance is very good with Universal Binary programs, but often insipid with PowerPC ones, and whether or not now is the time to jump to the Intel platform depends a lot on how much PowerPC software you use. The option to run Windows XP is a tempatation of course, but really, if I wanted a Windows laptop, I’d have bought a Dell. But I didn’t, I got a Mac.
In short, the MacBook Pro remains a difficult machine to review, it’s good in some ways, but less good in others. Its problems are primarily to do with the the PowerPC to Intel transition, so as the months pass, it should be easier to obtain software written specifically for Intel Macs. As that happens, the subjective performance of the machine will improve. But if you use mostly PowerPC software, and your existing PowerBook does everything you ask of it more or less competently, then upgrading from the Titanium or Aluminium G4 PowerBooks offers little real advantage.
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