I’ve now been a Mac user for two months. Since I switched primarily to get access to Apple’s excellent hardware, I thought I would issue an update on my observations about it at this point. I should note that I’m limiting this post to the hardware (maybe I’ll cover OS X some other time), and that I’m using a maxed-out Late-2007 2.2 GHz MacBook Pro.
Although some shortcomings have appeared, I’m pleased with the Mac overall. It definitely met my expectations and continues to meet my needs, mixing portability and performance in an excellent package. I am impressed by Apple’s hardware design and component choices, especially when compared to other computers with similar specifications that I have used. And, as noted by Tom’s Hardware, the specification of the machine was reasonably priced, especially since I purchased it at a substantial discount and upgraded it myself.
This post is part of my series focused on switching from PC to Mac.
- The Value Quotient is High
- Performance rocks
- The Display is Gorgeous
- The Chassis is Sturdy
- Input is Solid
- The Apple Remote Could Be Improved
- Battery Life Isn’t Great
- Upgradability is Mixed
- It’s Hot and Loud
- Light Sensors are Confounding
- USB is a Disappointment
- The AC Adapter Is Obnoxious
My biggest complaint is the “elegant” MagSafe AC adapter. Count the flaws:
- The poor strain relief on the thin cable is known to fray and burn
- Third-party replacements and alternatives are not available thanks to Apple patents
- The cord-wrap “ears” aren’t large enough to actually hold the entire wrapped cord
- The fact that there are three different identical-looking adapters with different wattage outputs is a nightmare waiting to strike the unwary
- The iPod-like on-brick plug just barely hangs on when the weight of the brick is hung from a vertical wall outlet
- Glossy white?!?
The value of a computer system is determined by two elements: Its specification, in terms of the components used, and the net price. Macs are known to be pricey but often include high-end components and materials in their construction. Focusing solely on the core interchangeable components of my Mac, evaluating it as a generic PC, the overall value for the money is very high.
My MacBook Pro contains a high-spec NVIDIA 8600M GT graphics card with 128 MB of dedicated GDDR3 video memory, an Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 “Merom” CPU, Intel’s “Santa Rosa” PM965 chipset, built-in FireWire S800 and USB, a slot-loading 8x DVD-RW drive, gigabit Ethernet, Wireless-N Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, webcam, and slick features like an LED-backlit display and keyboard and infrared remote control. My system’s MSRP was $2000, but I purchased it for $1524 (after receiving the rebate check).
Although PCs are available for less (I bought a family knockabout laptop for $435 recently!), a similar spec laptop from any major manufacturer would cost at least this much, even a year after this model MacBook Pro came out. In my case, I am comparing the Mac to the Dell XPS M1330 laptop I use for work, which arrived the day before the Mac. The Dell is a “thin and light” model with a 13″ screen, but feels almost the same weight as the Mac and is actually somewhat fatter with its 9-cell battery. The Dell retailed for $1700, including the inferior 8400M GS graphics and no gigabit ethernet.
Judging by these objective observations, the Mac was clearly a good value and features a strong set of components. Note that both machines feature the flawed NVIDIA graphics chips, as do nearly all high-end notebooks, so I can’t fault anyone for that particular component choice.
Even though my MacBook features the Merom CPU clocked at a modest (by 2008 standards) 2.2 GHz rather than the latest 2.4 GHz or more Penryn, the system as a whole just flies. Mine is packed with 4 GB or RAM instead of the stock 2 GB, and my upgraded 320 GB hard drive is slightly quicker than the stock, both of which improve overall performance somewhat. But even tasks that aren’t memory-intensive are super-quick, thanks to the 800 MHz front-side bus and solid system design. The system is snappy in OS X, encodes video with ease, and is subjectively faster than my similar Dell when using Windows Vista Ultimate in Boot Camp. The Dell has the same chipset and CPU, but is clocked at 2.0 rather than 2.2 GHz and has only 2 GB of RAM, so comparisons are not exactly apples-to-apples, but the Dell is noticeably slower.
The wide, LED-backlit 15″ screen is just gorgeous. The off-angle performance is so good, even with the backlight turned all the way down, that the Mac suffers from serious over-the-shoulder “eavesviewing” issues. My Dell is pretty much invisible off-angle, even without the privacy screen supplied by my company, but the Mac shows your photos and documents even at extreme angles. Not that I’m complaining, though – this performance just makes it that much more beautiful when I’m alone. There’s no need to constantly adjust the screen angle for optimal viewing.
The Mac really shines when one compares its sturdiness to the competition. The Dell is flexy and plasticky, as is just about every non-ThinkPad PC notebook I’ve used recently. But the Mac raises the bar even compared to my favorite laptop of all time, the brick-strong HP OmniBook 800.
The only poor spot is the nifty magnetic latch. Although it works well most of the time (and exists – the Dell has no latch at all), it doesn’t lock closed as cleanly as I would like. There is a gap around the edges, and lifting the closed Mac from one side tends to make the latch disengage.
I’m a stickler for a good keyboard and can’t fault the Mac here. It’s not exactly a Model M, but the keys feel good and are arranged and sized reasonably. Even adjusting to the Mac keyboard layout hasn’t been much of an issue, since most functions remain in similar positions between Mac and Windows.
The trackpad is especially strong. PC notebooks normally have perplexingly tiny trackpads, so I’m always running out of space, but the Mac’s is generously sized and highly usable. It’s easily four times larger than the Dell’s! I do wish there were two “mouse” buttons, though. Although OS X and Windows in Fusion supports two-finger-tap as a right-click, Boot Camp frustratingly does not!
Let’s start by stating that I have never owned a PC that came with a remote control, so the Mac deserves kudos for even including one, though the 2008 models don’t. But the remote is just odd. Although it’s usable enough, it’s not integrated, hardware-wise, with the system. It’s clearly a throwback to the glossy white plastic Apple look of a half-decade ago, so like the power brick and DVI adapter it seems totally out of place next to the brushed aluminum MacBook Pro. And, judging from its size and shape, I expected it to dock in the ExpressCard slot of the Mac like a MoGo mouse, but it’s slightly too fat for that. Also, an IR remote seems out of date in these Bluetooth days. So, Apple, how about a dockable, Bluetooth, matching remote next time?
Battery life has been about three hours in my hands, which isn’t terrible, but isn’t as good as I hoped. I ended up buying a second battery for the Mac for transcontinental flights. I did the same for my last Dell, of course, so this isn’t news. On the bright side, the Mac battery was cheaper and far more readily available than the Dell – I just dropped by the bright, cheery Apple store in Palo Alto during my last trip and picked one up instead of waiting for Dell to deliver one to my home. I still can’t get hot-swap to work, though, since my Mac refuses to suspend to disk.
Upgrading the RAM on a MacBook Pro is just right, but swapping out the hard drive was much more difficult than it should have been. Disks should be user-replaceable, even in laptops, and the regular MacBook gets this right. The Mac also has poorer expandability than most PC laptops, since its Wi-Fi (sorry, “AirPort Extreme”) card is buried inside and it lacks a slot and antenna wiring for a 3G cell card. The fact that the Pro only has an ExpressCard slot isn’t that novel in today’s world, however, but the regular MacBook’s lack of one was a major factor in my choosing the Pro.
My first impression was that the fan was deafening and the bottom was toasty. After using it for a few months, I have either gotten used to both or they aren’t as bad anymore. The machine still gets pretty hot on the bottom under heavy use, and the fan still makes a loud “whoosh”, but neither is unbearable or unusual when compared to other PCs, like my previous Dell XPS M1210.
I was intrigued by the idea of the MacBook Pro’s ambient light sensor, which would dim the display backlight and unique keyboard backlight under changing light conditions. But this was the first feature I disabled after actually using it. The sensor is located under your left pinky when typing, so the display suddenly dims and brightens as your hand passes over it. So I just adjust the backlight manually.
Then there is the keyboard backlight. The key cap markings are dark enough to be difficult to see in bright light, but the sensor won’t let the light come on, even when you press the hotkey to turn it on manually! I ended up installing Lab Tick to turn it on manually within OS X, but I expected more from Apple engineering. The light sensor is worse than useless.
As I noted in another post, the lack of a full-power dedicated USB port is a special disappointment. The 15″ MacBook Pro has just two ports, like most modern PC notebooks, but both are compromised. The one on the left lacks the power to spin up an external hard drive, and the one on the right is shared with the internal iSight camera. At least the FireWire is blazing fast and fully-powered! But I expected a better design from Apple.
The AC adapter is a perfect example of the form-over-function flaws always cited by Apple critics. I expected better, and Apple refuses to admit the defects even as these things spark and burn.
Again, I’m happy overall with the Mac and would definitely buy one again. In fact, I think it’s about the best computer purchase I’ve ever made, even including the iPhone and my beloved OmniBook 800 and Portege 3010 subnotebooks. The flaws are minor compared to the overall strengths!
(Ok, there are twelve pros and cons, but ten rolls off the tongue better!)