Home > Geeky, hardware > Apple computer review part one: hardware

Apple computer review part one: hardware

March 24, 2007

Update: My review of the operating system, OS-X, is up.

You know those magazine reviews that claim to review “Mac Vs. PC”?  The ones where they have a bunch of benchmark tests and comparable programs under “laboratory” conditions conducted by people who are stone-cold experts in both platforms?  This isn’t one of those reviews.  I’ve made my living repairing and supporting Windows™ computers for well over a decade and always hated Macintosh computers.  And I’ve struggled with Linux so the only useful thing about this review might be addressing; “Is there hope for platform migration?” (which is another way of phrasing “Can an old dog learn new tricks?”)

First I got a day-long briefing at Apple’s expense in their fabulous Chicago office on the something-somethingth floor of some big building there.  (My bad memory provides them with far more disclosure protection than the NDA I signed) They covered the basics of the OS-X interface, integration into Windows environments, and the iLife suite of goodies that comes with every Mac now.  And they promised to loan me a Mac – any model I wanted for a whole month. 

I’m a laptop person.  Sure, I have an office but I really think of my office as three pounds of carbon fibre composite and titanium that is my Thinkpad X40.  It goes everywhere I go and takes a pounding from my insane bicycle riding, when I’m not wearing the matte-finish keys to a high gloss.  So I chose the closest thing, a Macbook.

Hardware description:

Apple finally made a laptop that didn’t look like a Fisher-Price toy, and it’s about time.  The Macbook was full-sized (and about 7 lbs with the adaptor) with a big, gorgeous screen and a full-sized keyboard.  They even moved the keyboard locator dits to the same location as the PC, on the F and J keys.  (Apples used to have them on the D and K keys, I think, which drove me nuts.  Whenever I heard “Think different” I always wanted to add; “… just for the sake of being different”)

All the cable connections were on the left side of the Macbook.  This is fine unless you are left-handed or unless like me, you got used to using a mouse with your left hand when you broke your right shoulder, and never went back.  I would have appreciated at least a USB connection on the right side of the laptop. 

Farthest left in this picture is the power connector, a clever bit of which Apple makes a big deal.  It does not insert into the laptop, it just sticks onto the side with magnetic force.  That way, if someone trips on your power cord in a coffee shop, the connector just releases instead of pulling your pride and joy off onto the floor.  I like it a lot except for one thing; the magnet is so strong that I had trouble disconnecting it without pulling on the cord, which makes me uncomfortable.  I finally got to tilting the connector up or down to break the connection without damaging the cord, but most people will just yank the cord so you’ll see a lot of these break.  All because Apple didn’t put any gripping surface on the connector block.

Next is the RJ-45 Ethernet connector (gigabit speed! This puppy is future-ready.) I would have liked a little lip around the opening for tactile location. 

Then a digital video output.  This is fine, if you are one of the tiny minority of users who connect your laptop to a digital projector or monitor; the rest of us would prefer a plain old DB15 SVGA so we don’t have to carry around (and keep track of) a digital adapter dongle.  Many times I have had presenters come to our college toting a Macbook and ask; “You wouldn’t have an adapter, would you?  I left mine back at the hotel.”

Then a firewire, and a couple USB ports, and the mic and earphone ports.  Will someone please tell Steve Jobs that there’s a color-coding convention for those last two?  It’s green for earphone, red for microphone.

On the right-hand side of the Macbook is a skinny slot for CD’s and DVD’s.  Having no flimsy tray is a real plus – you just stick the disk into the slot like a car player.  Very nice, and although I wonder if it makes the drive vulnerable to dust, you can expect all laptops to start doing it this way soon.

Nowhere on the Macbook will you find a PCMCIA slot.  Apparently that’s passe’ due to accessories now coming with USB connectors.  Expect PC notebooks to stop having them soon. Rest In Peace, PCMCIA.

Nothing on the front of the Macbook but featureless plastic.  On the back is the screen hinges and speaker grilles.  That seems odd until you realize the clever engineers at Apple are bouncing the sound off the screen itself.  The sound itself is surprisingly good though obviously you’ll want to use headphones if you’re doing serious media work.

By the way, the screen won’t open all the way flat – Apple has decided for you what the maximum opening should be.  Great, unless you like to work in unconventional positions for some reason, plus it’s an invitation to a broken hinge.  Think different, Steve.

The keyboard keys are perfectly flat rectangles.  They have a fairly noticeable collapse force for tactile “make” feedback but the flat surface is annoying.  I prefer dished keys.  No doubt Apple will have some long-winded explanation of why flat keys are better but I didn’t find it suitable for long periods of typing.

The front edge of the open laptop is an uncomfortably sharp edge.  Granted my hands are a bit sensitive but I found it annoying.  If it were my laptop, I’d be rounding off the plastic with a small block plane.

There are no hardware controls for sound, and the power button is difficult to detect by touch alone. Tactile cues, Steve, tactile cues!

This is a recurring theme in all the Apple hardware I looked at; ergonomics is consistently sacrificed to visual esthetics.  I can imagine the designers at Apple standing this book up on edge like a black monolith and gathering around it holding hands and humming the theme from 2001, A Space Odyssey

As with all laptops, the built-in pointing device is pretty useless.  I tried it and my hands were in serious pain in nothing flat.  You will probably want to use an external optical mouse as I wound up doing.  (Enter tirade about Apple’s refusal to make real two-button mice here.  Yes, I know their new mouse has ESP or something but there’s no tactile feedback from spooky sensors.  Just give me a damn button I can click, OK Steve?)

The screen is just sensational.  it is bright and crisp without being garish and was a joy to use for editing photographs.  It did a great job of presenting text clearly so reading long documents was easy.

With the laptop closed, there are few clues to which long edge is the hinge, and which edge opens.  It was like an overly symmetrical door that you keep running into because there’s no push-plate.  I finally put a piece of electrical tape along the hinge side on top to provide a tactile cue.  If you turn it round so the Apple logo appears upside-down to you before opening it, that is the correct orientation.

There is no lid latch; instead the lid is held closed by a pair of strong embedded magnets.  Here you see a small pair of pliers held up on the corner of the screen by the magnetic force.  These magnets are nifty unless you work in an industrial setting where there might be iron filings; admittedly that would not be a common problem.  (I prefer the lid-lip on my X-40.  When the lid is closed, it becomes one mechanical piece with the base so external force cannot act upon the latch). 

The body of the laptop is polycarbonate plastic. This is really good stuff (think of those tumblers they use in restaurants) but not as rigid as I’d like.  Granted I’m used to one of the most durable laptops on the market but I’d like to see Apple make an enhanced-durability model.  Aside from that observation, the quality of the hardware is absolutely first-rate and that extends to all the Apple hardware I’ve looked at.  There are no accidental details on anything Apple makes, even if they didn’t have the foresight to hire me as a consultant. 

I didn’t measure the battery life but I did run it dry a few times and that almost never happens with my Thinkpad (for which I don’t even bother to carry an adapter). 

To some extent this is an operating-system observation, but speed-wise this puppy is fast on the Decrepit-speed benchmark.  Subjectively it is way ahead of the Windows-running core-duo laptops I have used.  It also boots up faster, and goes in-and-out of sleep mode, faster than any Windows laptop I have used including core-duo.  If you don’t like waiting around for your hardware, you probably will like the Macbook.

The Macbook comes with a little remote control (which closely resembles an iPod Shuffle)  for giving presentations.  Neato.

The wireless connection is also worthy of note, but again that is an operating-system thing because the most important thing about it is the interface (it’s the same protocol we all know). 

Well I’m out of time, I’ve got to go to the gym.  There’s lots of interesting stuff to say about OS-X, the new Apple operating system.  I’ll put that in my next post, which should be tomorrow evening.  Tonight it’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the local theater.

Categories: Geeky, hardware
  1. Jonathan
    March 24, 2007 at 23:25 | #1

    One question, on the Macbook, there seems to be A LOT of space between each of the keys on the keypad. Aside from the keys being flat, was the amount of space between the keys noticable?

    Hope you had a great time watching Holy Grail. I COMPLETELY forgot that was playing this evening. I’ll check and see if it is still there tomorrow!

  2. March 25, 2007 at 09:07 | #2

    Yes, Holy Grail is playing tonight!  Tickets went on sale last night at 6:15 for the 7:00 showing.  It sold out but we did get in.

    I didn’t really notice the space between the keys – it appeared to be a standard-size keyboard other than being somewhat odd-looking.  I prefer dished keys with relatively small tops but of course that is a subjective preference. 

  3. March 25, 2007 at 10:22 | #3

    I like MACs, and your post here makes me want one a little more, but the only thing that continually stops me from buying a MAC of any kind is their lock down on hardware.  BOOOOOO Steve!

  4. March 25, 2007 at 10:36 | #4

    Well I would love to run OS-X on a Core-duo Thinkpad.  But then you’d have OS-X on every piece of junk on the market and Apple’s reputation for stability would suffer.  The high quality of Apple hardware is a little-appreciated part of that reputation, and so is the relatively small number of video subsystems that Macs have to work with.

    But yeah, there are definitely arguments to be made on both sides of that question.  I hope to not get off on that tangent.

  5. March 25, 2007 at 12:00 | #5

    Sooner or later Apple will learn that the money to be made is in the software and not the hardware.  The instant the open up OSX to anyone is the instant we say goodbye to M$ and their crappy Vista.

  6. REB
    March 25, 2007 at 14:02 | #6

    I hear many of your complaints from other long term PC users when new to Macs.  I also hear from those who unlearned old habits and came to prefer their Mac.  Often, differences are attributed to Apple’s think different attitude when in reality it was Microsoft who, after licensing OS interface elements from Apple wanted their rendition to be different.  The sheer volume of PC users makes the Microsoft way seem a “standard”.  The video adapter problem will go away once digital takes over the TV world.  Apple’s sometimes frustrating when adopting new technology early.  As to “the money to be made is in software, not hardware: that’s pure bunk derived from Microsoft’s monopoly success.  Look to RoughlyDrafted.com for enlightenment.  Look at Apple’s profits vs. Microsofts in light of their total sales.  Apple’s profit rate is much higher!  Apple can’t hope to achieve monopoly status in OS sales that Microsoft has.

  7. March 25, 2007 at 14:36 | #7

    Well I really haven’t said anything about the operating system yet; that’s a different post.  As for the hardware, if you think I’m hard on the Macbook, sometime I should review one of those $800 Toshiba or Dell laptops for comparison.  I can be fairly brutal with badly-designed hardware.

    I may not be able to get the OS post out this evening as planned; I’ve spent a lot of time cleaning up water that leaked into my basement and that’s time I intended to use writing.  But soon, and hopefully we can get input both Mac and PC fans without it turning into the usual religious argument.

  8. Heath
    March 26, 2007 at 02:05 | #8

    Thank God Apple would never be so stupid as to hire a decrepit old fart like you as a consultant! I have rarely read such a moronic bunch of retarded drivel as a review in my years on the net. You rate in the most abysmal 1% for sure. It’s way past time for retirement grandpa. You simply wouldn’t know good design if it was sitting on your desk starring back at you. Return the Mac to Apple, you deserve to be saturated in the virus platform – Windows.

    Ever wonder why the all computer software and hardware companies copy Apple if they are successful at all? It isn’t because Apple is following them and their non-existent ideas or pathetic products. Vista another crappie imitation of decade old Apple stuff implemented in the usual non-functional way. Six years, six billion dollars and 70,000 employees to produce an unusable implementation of old Apple ideas and they can’t even make them work. Windows is like an elephant perched on a flagpole.

    Apple created the most useable interface and when Microsoft STOLE it they reversed everything to avoid a slam dunk loss in the certain subsequent lawsuit. That’s why everything is counterintuitive on Windows. Once you get over the stupid interface ingrained in muscle memory from years of enslavement you will learn what elegant ease of use means. In your case I see no hope to overcome your past so please move along you decrepit fool.

  9. March 26, 2007 at 08:01 | #9

    Sweet, it’s an Apple troll.  I haven’t seen one of these in ages…

  10. March 26, 2007 at 08:04 | #10

    … so, Heath, apparently you missed the part where I said; this post is about the hardware.  I haven’t mentioned the software yet.  You can call me a retarded old fart then.

    I’d be interested to know what hardware design observations you specifically disagreed with.  Would all all laptops be better with sharp edges on the front?  Am I wrong about the fact that I prefer dished keys?  Are tactile cues unnecessary to physical objects?  Do tell.

  11. March 26, 2007 at 12:05 | #11

    And also, Heath, it’s an excellent example of the platform-centric view that often pervades IT today. Just because a product is made by x doesn’t mean that it’s a standard, yes, but also because a product is made by y doesn’t mean that’s useful for every application.  You buy marketing hype like the good little consumer that you are when you say things like that. 

    Self disclosure – I own an iMac at home.  However, unless Apple comes up with answers to some of these issues, and drops the price of their hardware by half, they’ll never be a large corporation buying their equipment in mass. 

    I don’t disagree with you on Vista, but I think we’re looking at MS that is in the exact same place as IBM was in the mid 80’s – near total domination of the market, ubiquitous presence in their markets, in essence they were ‘the standard’. Then they got their butt handed to them because they were just simply too large.

    You see this a bit with MS today and Apple – Apple’s sales have been up the last couple of quarters because MS has been losing footing with Vista.

    But here’s the thing with IT; it’s like a giant king-of-the-hill game.  No one is on top forever, and certainly no one *deserves* to be on top just cause they’re one of the ‘beautiful people’.

    Here’s what I think dof is trying to say; you wanna piece of these, then strap on some balls and try and take the top.

  12. james old guy
    March 26, 2007 at 13:02 | #12

    I am betting Heath is a gamer.

  13. March 29, 2007 at 21:48 | #13

    A Mac is definitely in my future, and probably a Macbook/Pro.  Nice review; I can’t appreciate some of the points, specifically about the sharp corners, key surfaces etc., as I haven’t laid my own hands on one.  As you pointed out, it’s about preferences.

    BUT … as for the price of the hardware, I really don’t care that much.  It’s like cameras for me … if I go cheap I end up spending more because I have to rebuy to get what really works for me.  It’s the same for other such durable goods too, of course.  Yeah, there’s a point at which something may be totally out of reach and I am forced to compromise, but if I can get what I really need by waiting and saving, I will.

  14. Lucas
    March 29, 2007 at 23:31 | #14

    I’ve had an iMac for the past five years (yes, that’s five years for one computer).  I still have no problems with it other than the low availability of video codecs for Macs that old, but I worry that it might start to work less reliably in the future.  Indeed, the integrated CD-R drive has lost its ability to write CD’s successfully.  Also, it’s a little slow when I have six applications open, with 30+ tabs in one browser window.

    Other than the CD-R, the hardware and software have been supremely reliable—I can only remember *one* time ever that the operating system crashed, though even there I’m not sure that the kernel actually crashed.  I think the video driver crashed while switching modes, and the kernel might have righted the problem had I waited.  I love the OS X interface in most ways (a few changes, which might have been included in newer versions would be nice), but I hate the keyboard.  A lot. 

    Apple decided to make the keyboard look nice and compact and sleek at the expense of ease of typing (also it was fragile and broke after about two years of usage).  The cord was also less than three feet long (?!).  The mouse that came with it had only one button, and broke after less than 18 months of usage—completely idiotic!  And don’t hit me with that “M$ changed Apple’s great vision crap,” because even if they had MS would have changed it for the better, but also the original mouse had three buttons on it.

    The operating system rocks my world consistently, though.  As a mathematician, I usually don’t want to worry about how my computer works, but I occassionally need to geek out.  It took me less than 10 minutes to set up an anonymous ftp server, but it took me almost an hour to figure out how to share folders on a Windows 2000 computer (I had never done either before).  The LaTeX mathematical document formatting system has a much better and more integrated editor than any available for Windows (or Linux, for that matter).  It has all the geeky UNIX advantages of Linux, with fewer troubleshooting headaches.  It has more ease of use than Windows, without the assorted problems of Windows.  In short, I love my Mac.

    Regarding price, though, if my father (DOF) weren’t subsidizing my next computer purchase at least somewhat, I probably wouldn’t buy one.  I’m just too close to broke for it to make sense to buy one.  (Though, in the long run, it’s not that expensive to own.  In 2007 dollars, my computer cost $1281, or about $0.71/day.)

  15. March 30, 2007 at 08:41 | #15

    Lucas:  Your comments are very useful to me, and they confirm my “value over the long haul” thinking.  Fortunately, there are 3rd party solutions to some of the issues.  For example, you can buy a different/better keyboard, and the same for mice.  Yes it does add to the expense, but again over the life of the machine it’s minimal.  Hope you can afford a Mac for your next computer.

  16. March 31, 2007 at 11:58 | #16

    My review of OS-X, the Apple operating system, is up for anyone interested.

    Maybe it’s my background in electronics talking, but I wouldn’t be too quick to open OS-X to any old hardware.  PC computers are commoditized precisely because the same software runs on all of them, so there’s little incentive to use top-quality hardware.  No one asks about the capacitors in the power supply when they buy a PC, but it matters a lot – some machines are terribly unstable for hardware reasons and the user never knows it. 

    Apple knows this, and since it’s the only hardware that runs their flagship product, they have a strong incentive to keep their hardware quality high.  So I have no problem with them restricting their OS to their hardware.

    The down side is their hardware will tend to be expensive, and I recommend any Apple buyer get the AppleCare extended warranty.  It isn’t like you can bop on down to Computer Deli and get a motherboard for your Apple, after all.

  17. April 14, 2007 at 14:22 | #17

    I understand your dislike of mouse track pads – however, I think it is unfair to completely leave it out of this review. I personally feel that Apple has cretaed the smoothest moving trackpad of any laptop out there. Also, because of the two finger scrolling option I now prefer using the trackpad. I used to carry around an extra mouse with me and now I don’t even bother. 

    I am still a fairly new convert to Mac products. I purchased an iBook about a year and a half ago. I was DESPERATE for a laptop at the time but i wish I could have waited until the MacBooks were released. Hopefully there will be oone in my future – although I will probably now wait until October when Leopard comes out.

  18. April 14, 2007 at 14:40 | #18

    I didn’t leave it out, lastcall; I just didn’t like it.  I used it for about a week and my hands were killing me.  But I have a rather painful chronic muscle condition so minor static strains often end up that way for me.  If you are using the trackpad successfully, great!  One less thing to carry around. 

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on the OS-X review I posted (link above).  How long did it take you to get used to Mac after using Windows?  If you are so inclined, you can answer in the comments of that post.

    Right now I’m reviewing a Linux computer (in fact, the machine I’m using at this moment).  Planning to post in about two months.

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