Apple computer review part one: hardware
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.
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.