Back to the Mac Part II: The MacBook

Apple 13″ White MacBook 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo, 60 GB Hard Drive

In Part 1, I detailed how the lure of a Mac Mini led me to purchase my first Macintosh in almost a decade. That was in March of this year. And now I’ll detail how I have faired in changing my portable environment to the machine I’m writing this on, a MacBook.

The Mac Mini was (and is) a fantastic little computer. But in its chosen use in my home – as a living room media hub – it was not very convenient for me to use as an actual working computer. Unless I was in the living room, keyboard on my lap, wireless mouse balanced on the arm of the sofa, I really didn’t use it as a “computer” very often. After the initial setup and installation of some basics, I pretty much used it through the Front Row interface for listening to music or watching videos.

I wanted a Mac that I could actually sit and type at. I almost ordered a second Mac Mini, but I knew that sooner or later, Apple would come out with an Intel desktop machine to replace their aging G5 tower – and I would, of course want one of those as well (that will be detailed in the upcoming Part III, The Mac Pro).

So, when Apple announced the MacBook, that seemed perfect. The MacBook Pro didn’t really thrill me much, mainly because I have always favored small (some would say “tiny”) laptops. To me, if a laptop is going to have a 15″ or a 17″ screen… what’s the point? That’s a desktop machine in my book. A “laptop” to me means literally that: a computer that I can place on my lap, while sitting in a chair or lying in bed, and use comfortably. I have never owned a laptop with a screen larger than 12″ for this very reason. As an example, one of my favorite laptops was the original Sony Vaio X505, which had a 10″ screen.

My current laptop was a Dell Inspiron 700m, a nice widescreen 12.1″ portable that weighs just under 4 pounds. Now, I still wished Apple had dropped the size a bit more, but after they announced that this was it – the Mac Book was the smallest laptop they were going to ship, at least anytime in the near future – I decided to take a look at one in person and see if I could live with it. So, one evening after work, I headed up to Boca Raton to the Apple Store to get my hands on one.

A side note about Apple Stores: These places are completely inconsistent! This past June I was in NYC for a weekend of broadway shows (“Wicked” and “Avenue Q”), and stopped by the new Apple Store on 5th Avenue. If you have a chance, definitely visit this store, even if you have no need for anything in it. It’s that cool. A glass cube with glass stairs and a glass elevator, the interior of the store is row after row of cool hardware, with dozens of computers all up and running. Just about every software application that can run on a Mac is installed somewhere on those machines, and helpful staff members circulate through the crowd, answering any and all questions. Light filters down from the giant glass cube above… Neat!

Me outside the Apple Store in New York City
June 2, 2006
Me outside the New York Public Library
June 2, 2006

On the other hand… the Boca Raton Apple Store (a closer drive for me than the Miami store) is a very run-of-the-mill mall store. It occupies a space that could have been a beauty parlor or a book store in years past. It’s a nice clean store, don’t get me wrong, and the people there are just as helpful as the staff in the NYC store. But the space itself? *yawn*. I guess my visit to the NYC store led me to expect that every Apple Store would have some coolness to it, and this one just don’t have it.

End of side note. So, architectural observations notwithstanding, the Boca Raton Apple Store did indeed have eight new MacBooks out on counters for hands-on playtime, both in white and black. It took about 10 seconds before I turned to nearest salesperson and said, “OK, I want one. Gimme”. Five minutes later, I was walking out to my car with another white and blue box under my arm.

Within a few days, I packed up the Dell and got ready to sell it. Within a few weeks, I started hooking up the Mac Book directly to a monitor and keyboard and using it as my primary computer, awaiting the release of a new Mac desktop. After a month, I had a second power supply so I could have one in a permanent location and another in my backpack. And, I ordered all three varieties of monitor connections.

Based on a tip from a friend, I bought my MacBook with only 512MB of RAM in it, and then order 2GB myself from Newegg. It’s quite easy to put in memory yourself, and a heck of a lot cheaper than paying Apple’s price for memory. I’m using Kingston memory in mine, and it works like a champ.

There are lots of reviews of the MacBook out there, so I want to concentrate here on some aspects that I think are only appreciated after using the machine for for a while, and also in comparison to the many other laptops I have used in my life. The short answer is that the MacBook is my favorite, hands down. The only thing I can complain about is that it’s a little bit too big and a little bit too heavy. If only it could loose an inch in width and height, and a pound in weight, then it would truly be perfect.

So what’s so great?

The Screen

Although the same resolution (1280 x 800) as my Dell Inspiron 700m, the MacBook looks a lot sharper. I don’t know who makes the screen for Apple, but it’s a damn good one. The slightly larger size make text and graphics more readable. (I realize this contradicts my criticism about this computer being too large. Life is full of contradictions. Get used to it). Some people dislike the glossy, almost reflective, quality of the screen – I am not one of those people. In low light, it’s fantastic. In bright light, it’s annoying. However, I am much more likely to use my laptop in low light than in bright sunlight. If you’re outside in the bright sun using your computer, please put it aside and go enjoy the weather. A nice sunny day should be treasured.

The Keyboard

Since their first PowerBook (the venerable old PowerBook 100), Apple has almost always made good keyboards. The keyboard on the MacBook is a little unusual; to save space, the keys do not protrude nearly as much as most other laptop keys do. Instead, they ‘sink in’ more. Personally, I really like the feel of the keyboard. This is actually what sold me on this computer when I test-drove it in the Apple store. I’m a fast touch typist, and for me, a properly responsive keyboard is very important. This one feels great.

The Trackpad

The trackpad itself is nothing special, other than being aesthetically pleasing. What is special is the controls using by the OS. My favorites are the gestures such as touching two fingers on the trackpad at a time to initiate a “right-click” (very important when running Windows in Parallels), and dragging two fingers to emulate the scroll wheel on a regular mouse. I got used to these gestures so quickly, that whenever I use a different laptop at work, I keep trying them before I remember that they only work on a MacBook. I predict that these two gestures will become widely adopted by every laptop maker over the next year or so.

The Case

The case itself is completely smooth, very much like an iPod. The monitor, USB, and FireWire ports are all recessed neatly. The screen latches shut magnetically, so there are no buttons or levers to push or press; you just lift up the screen. There are no little doors covering up various ports that can break off. There are no dongles to plug in (well, except for when connecting to an external monitor). There are no external switches. When I put the MacBook next to my Dell 700m, it was like putting a steam engine next to a Ferrari. And the case is not just pleasing to the eye, it’s pleasing to the touch. The smooth curves and cool, glossy plastic mean there are no hard edges when carrying it. Even moving the laptop around with one hand is much easier, since absolutely nothing protrudes or pokes out anywhere. It’s so simple, I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before.

The Power Supply

This has always been a sore spot in every laptop I’ve owned. You have a nice, thin laptop… and then you have to lug around a giant black brick to run it or charge it. Apple has made two innovations that really help this. The first, and the most important, is that the power supply is small and light. It also comes with two snap-on plug adapters: One lets you plug it directly in to a two-prong outlet, very much the same as the iPod charger, and the other lets you plug it into a three-prong outlet via a longer cord.

The second innovation is the magnetic latch. Rather than plugging the charger into a jack, it adheres to a magnetic jack. That way, the cord just drops away if you jerk or pull on either the laptop or the power supply. In addition, it makes it a lot easier to plug in the charger; you don’t have to even look at the jack, just aim the plug in the general vicinity. The magnetic pull takes care of the exact location and fit. This is another thing I predict will be adopted by every other laptop maker over the next few years.

The WiFi

It just plain works. It even works on the very secured, LEAP-only wireless network at my office. Tip for Parallels/Windows users: Use the MacBook to connect to your secured wireless network, then just let Windows connect generically to the host OS.

The Monitor Adapters

The MacBook has a DVI monitor out – but it’s a “mini-DVI” plug that won’t work with anything else out in the wild. You have to purchase adapters (currently only Apple makes them) to connect the MacBook to any kind of monitor, even an Apple monitor. They sell 3 adapters: VGA, DVI, and S-Video. I bought the VGA and DVI ones. The DVI one is best; it picks up the resolution of whatever monitor you plug in, and works instantly. The VGA one is good, but really shines when you’re running Windows in a conference room.

Parallels

OK, this last one’s a cheat. This is a separate, $79 software application that lets you run a VM (Virtual Machine) of Windows. If you’re not familiar with VMs, basically they are software emulators that let you run another OS in a window. For those of you who are familiar, Parallels is basically a clone of VMWare Workstation running on a mac. One very cool feature of Parallels is that you can switch to fullscreen mode, and Windows XP automatically switches to the 1280 x 800 resolution of the MacBook display. This is very cool to watch, and even cooler to use. You really, truly get 2 OSes running at the same time, and you can flip back and forth between both. If you have any need (as most of us in the corporate world do) to run Windows, this is the way to do it. I’ve used this in meetings at work, connecting my MacBook to the conference room projector, and no one has any idea I’m actually using a Macintosh.

If it’s not apparent, I really like this machine. If you have the means and the need, go get one. I’ll wait.

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