Apple, 2009
Miscellaneous review
MacBook Pro
Multitouch is cleanly implemented and extremely useful. Insane battery life. Aesthetics. Dead silent.
Learning curve to getting used to OSX. Keyboard is not the greatest.
Form over function on the screen
6


Last week, I did something I thought I'd never do. I sold my old laptop--a piece of shit Hewlett-Packard tablet--and found myself waiting, on a Tuesday morning, for something else to come in the mail:

A Mac.

To be precise, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, at the low end of the line. I bought it refurbished, which knocked $200 off the price, and there is literally no sign that the computer is anything other than new. For anybody who is in the market for a Mac, Apple's refurbishment center is by all accounts one of the best hidden secrets in the universe.

Now. I've been a "PC" person since I bought my first computer in 1999 with money from a summer job. In part, I suspect, this is because my experience with Macs growing up was with the IIes in the library computer lab and the early iMacs, which were garishly-coloured and had an operating system that was simply terrible. I liked Windows Vista, I like Windows 7, I like the new version of Office. My desktop is a PC, and to be honest I cannot really imagine that changing any time soon.

But.

After using it for a week now, I can say: the MacBook Pro is good. Like, amazing. Like, when I've gone back to using Windows on my desktop I find myself wondering why anyone would choose to do that. Like, as far as laptops are concerned suddenly I understand why everyone has one.

To start with, I'm in love with the design; in part, actually, I bought the MacBook after viewing the documentary Objectified, about industrial design. I finally understood--having read Cult of Mac, having written whitepapers about Apple, having worked in a Mac office for two years--the genius behind their product design.

Some of it is simple aesthetics; it's not for everyone, of course, but I love the brushed aluminium look. I love the contrast of black on silver, and the way the power button is recessed to lie flush with the body of the laptop. I love that, when you turn the computer towards you and are working on it, there is literally nothing that you do not need present. It's just a keyboard and screen. No gimmicky hotkeys that require inexplicably massive drivers from the manufacturer. No switch for the wireless, nothing. Just you and the computer, there.

There are PCs conceits that Apple, for the most part, manages to avoid completely. My HP laptop had succumbed to what I would have to describe as "LED cancer". For reasons I do not entirely grasp, it had something like 17 of the damned things, lighting up things literally everywhere. In some cases the same status would be conveyed by multiple LEDs in different places. Absolutely bonkers.

By contrast, right now the Mac has none. None! When the power cord is plugged in, there's a light on the cord--orange when the machine is charging, green when the battery is full. When the computer is off and unplugged, there's a discreet bar along the side that shows how much battery is remaining. When it is plugged in and off, that bar defers to a dim white light on the machine's front. That's it.

No light for the Bluetooth. No light for the wireless Internet. No light to show that the volume is muted. There's nothing to distract from the essence of what people use computers for. There's a PC paradigm that suggests that the blinkenlights are necessary; that you need something that flickers when your hard drive is in use. By contrast Apple has decided--recognised, I would say--that for the vast majority of people the flickering is irrelevant, or even distracting. They have recognised that people are capable of turning their wifi off and on from the computer, not from a flimsy switch on the case. It's a very effective sort of minimalism, and I'm intensely appreciative.

The minimalism extends to the OS, which also meshes with my personal conceits--I use blackbox for my Windows shell; leaves no taskbar or anything else to take up screen real estate; my programs list is pruned back and minimalistic. You install applications by simply dragging them into an "applications" folder. That's it--no start menu cluttered with "!!READ ME FIRST!!" or links to the company website, no additional crap that nobody ever looks at. The exception, of course, is Microsoft Office, which feels compelled to glut up the applications directory with a few other folders containing a whole crapton of files. But whatever.

There is, really, a sort of demureness about the whole affair. Take something that is gimmicky and useless: the keyboard has a light sensor hidden somewhere on it; when the ambient light darkens, the monitor darkens along with it so as not to burn out your retinas (and to save power). This causes the display to constantly flicker say, say, you lean over the computer--completely useless. On a PC, this would be emblazoned as a bullet point, probably finished with an exclamation: "Screen automatically adjusts to lighting as you work!". On the MacBook, it's just something you go into "display" and turn off with one click, because it's right there: "automatically change brightness as ambient light changes".

It is a terribly unselfconscious laptop.

Anyhow, back to the review. The trackpad is large and supports "multi-touch," which is Apple's way of getting around adding a second button to their mice. I used the multitouch trackpad for perhaps three hours before becoming completely used to it, and perhaps another six before becoming outright reliant on it. When I reboot into Windows 7, I'm consistently disappointed that Microsoft has utterly dropped the ball on something so useful, so organic, and so simple (Windows 7 supports "multi-touch", but with little of Apple's panache; the gestures are weak, palely imitative and devoid of smoothness).

The computer itself is solidly built, or at least gives every impression of it. Well-designed, I think we could say. It's scarily quiet--almost completely dead, making no sounds at all. The battery charges almost instantaneously, which is nice because I left work at 6:30 last night, spent half an hour writing on the train, finally finished up my novel at about midnight, wrote some more on the train (the start of this review) in the morning, and finally plugged the computer back in again after about an hour at work. The battery life, for a full-sized laptop, is absolutely insane.

So. I'm kind of in love.

Of course, I'm not a Mac person completely. I've installed Windows 7 through Boot Camp, and it seems to run alright. I intended that to ease my transition over, but I've found since that it wasn't really needed--I've only booted into Windows a couple of times, and one of those was to show someone else how it worked. On the other hand, when a program locked up (Word, quelle surprise) my first thought was not "right-click its icon in the dock" but rather "open terminal, get process ID, /kill". So I'm not all the way there.

Nor are things all roses in Cupertino. The keyboard, for instance, is decidedly uninspiring. The backlighting is useful--more than I'd imagined it would be--but the keys themselves are of what is essentially a chiclet design, and tap uncleanly. There's not auditory response--the keys are nearly silent--and they don't seem to press cleanly down, wobbling a little. I wrote a sections of my novel on the keyboard, and I'm writing this review there, but by and large I prefer my Model M or, for that matter, most other laptop keyboards.

By far my biggest complaint, however, is with the screen. Now, this isn't a deal-breaker. On my old laptop, it was; the HP TX2 series has a weird matte filter that provides more resistance for the stylus at the expensive of being covered in little RGB speckles, like you get when there's some moisture on the screen. It's every bit as terrible as it sounds, and it was terrible to try and stare at for ten hours a day at work.

On the MacBook, the screen is clear and crisp, with a wide colour palette--it's simply a joy to look at; very beautiful. It is also covered with a shiny, reflective coating I cannot fathom a use for. In brighter light, it turns the screen into a mirror; it's also uniquely suited for picking up fingerprints, and considering how gorgeous the computer is you find yourself wanting to scrub them off constantly.

Other problems come in the applications. I use essentially the same apps as I do on my Windows PC: Opera, Thunderbird, Word, Excel, GIMP, Inkscape; I've swapped RealVNC for Chicken of the VNC and mIRC for Colloquy, but aside from this my palette is pretty much the same. Opera works ok (well, as well as it normally does); GIMP and Inkscape haven't given me problems so far. Thunderbird suffers from graphical corruption and was a pain to set up, however, and Word is simply terrible. It's dog slow, hangs constantly, and has locked up with complete document loss on two occasions inside a week. If anybody knows of an alternative, I'm all ears; Excel and PowerPoint haven't been nearly so temperamental. I've tried reinstalling to see if that helps, but otherwise Word is a strong disappointment.

Beyond this, though, I'm incredibly happy with the purchase. The MacBook line is competent, slick, and eminently recommendable. In very narrowly-aligned areas--if you work in a business using proprietary, PC-only software, for instance--it may not be appropriate, which is unfortunate for people in those positions as they miss out on what is probably, by leaps and bounds, the best laptop out there for its price. If you haven't before--particularly over some silly aversion to Cupertino's products--I'd suggest finding one and taking it for a test-drive. It only took a day for me.
TsujiWolf
26.03.2010 - 12h01
Comrade Alex
26.03.2010 - 12h09

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