The MacBook Pro: Two Years On

May 1st, 2008

Two years ago, I bought my first Intel-based Mac, a 17-inch MacBook Pro, to replace a similarly-outfitted PowerBook G4. Yes, I have an affinity for larger screens. In fact, I’d spring for a 20-inch model if I could afford it and it wasn’t too heavy — and that may be why Apple isn’t producing any.

As part of my company’s two-year plan, that MacBook Pro was replaced a few weeks ago with the newest model sporting Intel’s Penryn processor.

Now I won’t go into the raw performance benchmarks of the current systems versus the originals, since a Google search of the Web will reveal lots and lots of tests of that sort, and you’ll soon know all you want about how the latest model performs and then some.

So I’m going to give you my subjective conclusions about a few of the diffferences, and I’m not relying much on objective information, except as background as a point of reference.

We’ll start with the similarities. As most of you realize, all generations of the MacBook Pro look mostly the same, and the differences won’t be apparent unless you look real close, particularly at the keyboard. But I’ll go into that in a moment.

When the original MacBook Pros came out, many of the early adopters, and perhaps some of you, complained about the fact that it put out an awful lot of heat, particularly on the bottom and just below the screen bezel. Yes, you know it was powerful, that battery life was decent, but how can you call it a laptop computer when your lap fees like it’s burning up?

Well, I have to tell you that I also regarded that PowerBook G4 as rather a hot-running note-book, and I didn’t observe a vast difference with the MacBook Pro. I didn’t mind the warmth, even though I live in Arizona, where it gets 120 in the shade in August. But I can see where the heat might have been a little objectionable to some of you. In fairness to Apple, they released several updates that were meant to make the twin cooling fans run more efficiently — probably longer in most cases.

Now the 17-inch model came out a few months after the original, so perhaps it benefitted from further development, so maybe I missed the worst of the problem. It also performed reliably, except that the original battery wouldn’t take a charge after a few months, but Apple replaced it quickly under warranty.

Over the next two years, moving from Tiger to Leopard actually sped up this computer. The biggest shortcoming was, at least in my particular setup, lack of sufficient hard drive storage space. My MacBook Pro came with 120GB installed, and within months, I got an upgrade to 160GB, which, after adding a Windows virtualization data file, left me with a tad over 40GB of free space.

Later, I added an 802.11n card to replace the built-in AirPort component. No, it wasn’t Apple’s product, but a third-party equivalent from our friends at FastMac that performed extremely well. So that MacBook Pro’s new owner is doubtfully extremely pleased by these extra added attractions.

The new MacBook Pro has some notable differences, other than having a faster 64-bit Intel processor, compared to the previous model’s 32-bit chips. The first is the glossy screen. I had debated the benefits, which include a brighter, richer-looking picture, versus the negatives, such as the greater vulnerability to screen reflections.

I realize glossy screens, which first appeared on Windows note-books, are controversial. I realize some of you do not like the fact that the iMac doesn’t offer a matte option. However, after looking at one over the other, I prefer glossy. For one thing, the black levels are deeper, closer to that of a plasma TV, which also has a shiny screen and a known vulnerability to reflections.

The other difference went almost unnoticed, simply because some of the media coverage didn’t mention the fact that the keyboard layouts of the latest MacBooks and MacBook Pros have changed. The top layer places media controls at the right, and groups screen, keyboard, Expose and Dashboard keys at the left.

The Enter key is now shared with the Return key, which seems more logical. There is no Num Lock key and no way to emulate a numeric keypad, which I consider a small shortcoming, although others might disagree.

The MultiTouch trackpad and its iPhone-like features are neat, but take a little time to get used to. Really, the trackpad needs to be larger.

The revised keyboard also seems more solidly built than previous models, and my typing abilities are also enhanced, with fewer mistakes and somewhat greater speed.

All in all, the MacBook Pro’s subtle improvements by themselves are as important as the performance improvements. And they are clear in every way, from application launch times to the ability to move through your documents in a snappier fashion. It’s also nice to see battery life increase from roughly two hours and forty-five minutes under normal use to approximately three-and-a-half hours, at least with my particular workflow. That’s the welcome consequence of having a speedier processor that is more stingy with electrical power.

Yes, I realize the changes are evolutionary, and that some of you wonder why Apple hasn’t made a significant alteration in the case design of its professional note-books since the Titanium PowerBooks were retired a number of years ago. Frankly, my friends, that doesn’t make any difference to me.

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3 Responses to “The MacBook Pro: Two Years On”

  1. Kaleberg says:

    Actually, it’s kind of nice the way Apple is always tinkering. They sometimes come a cropper, but too many computer companies are only concerned about what’s inside the box, not how you use it. Maybe Apple hasn’t gotten it right, to which I will add, yet.

    Sometimes the problem is performance. Front Row was awful. It took forever to make up the previews. Now, it is almost snappy. Spotlight was wretched. It was often quicker to use grep. Now, Spotlight is quicker, so I use it all the time, and I like the Applications, Calculator and Dictionary features. I can imagine all sorts of plugins to enhance this, for example, calendar and stock table lookup. (Now, if they could synchronize the Dictionary and the spell checker it would be great).

    I find the whole Stacks thing worthless, but it has the germ of a good idea. I can’t use this for my Applications folder because the folder is too big, and too many applications are in subdirectories. Maybe stacks should be smart folders instead, more like playlists, so I can have my 32 most recently launched applications or the like.

    Smart Folders also need work. Why can’t I create a smart folder by selecting a set of dates or months from iCal? And, speaking of iCal, it is now much harder to use for a journal now that one has to double click for a pop up, rather than just stepping through dates with a side panel inspector.

    It gets awkward at times, and sometimes things seem to move backwards, but at least Apple is moving.

  2. Spencerian says:

    Apple’s successes generate user demand for performance and stability. Far more often than not, Apple engineering and software quickly evolve and improve within the existing lifetime of the product. That’s notable to say as compared to its competitors, who usually sell a box, support what’s inside it hardware-wise, but don’t evolve it further, leaving the computer to obsolesce faster than it should. Microsoft adds the double-whammy with even slower OS innovation, confusing changing interface and security updates with ways to simplify the operating system and make it not only usable, but functionally enjoyable.

    In short, Apple’s “whole widget” philosophy is a winner to everyone.

  3. Dana Sutton says:

    We’ve already had discussions about Apple’s policy of “perpetual beta” in connection with software: they will issue an item of software, such as an OS, before it is 100% perfect. The downside of this policy is that puts nearly every individual Mac user in the position of being an involuntary beta tester, and bad things do happen. The upside is a.) fixes come out frequently and rapidly, b.) this way the users’ opinions can be taken into account (look at what happened to the translucent menu bar and Stacks). Anyway, this is i. m. h. o. far superior to the MS strategy of getting it all perfected before putting it out the door, both because things go much slower in the MS world and because in this vale of tears perfection is impossible anyway, so MS screws up too and takes a lot longer to clean up its messes. Well, okay. The question is whether you can say that Apple follows a similar “perpetual beta” policy in the manufacturer of its hardware. Certainly it does in one way — it will put out models of computers where not all features are fully functional with the OS currently available at the time of their release, and that only become such when the next OS is released. But is it true in other ways as well? Some of Gene’s observations make me wonder.

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