First Impressions: Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro
Dec. 26, 2007
There is a great deal of history between my Titanium Powerbook and me. It began life in July of 2002 as a 667mHz DVI-equipped model. Unfortunately, it soon hit its first bump - involving a cup of hot chocolate of unfortunate inclination - and required nearly 50% of the original cost of the computer to repair. Thankfully, once returned, it served me faithfully for the rest of my years in college and several to follow. It was my first real experiment, although not really successful, with over-clocking, and it benefited from a new logic board (upgraded to 867mHz), a larger, faster hard drive, several iterations of RAM upgrades, and two replacement batteries. But, as all technology does, it eventually failed to meet the expanding demands placed on it by newer and more powerful applications. It was with great regret, then, that I decided I must replace it. I initially thought that I could avoid spending a considerable amount of money by buying a used computer. I bought a 1.2gHz 12-inch iBook G4, having always fancied one of the smaller 12-inch model ‘Books. But it failed to address the very issues that had caused me to buy it in the first place. It lagged nearly as far behind as the Titanium in virtually every way, and I soon sold it.
My decision-making process in choosing the computer that now sits on my lap was fairly straightforward. The idea that I had essentially wasted the money I spent on the iBook helped me determine two things: 1. Used was not going to be an option, and 2. Cost needed to play a much reduced role in the decision if I expected this thing to last for any length of time. Indeed, durability and longevity now topped my priority list. Also, although I have heard very good things about Apple’s refurbished program, I crossed this off my list on principle. Certifying something doesn’t make it any less used in my book, and I needed to know that I was starting with a rock-solid base.
Logically I started with the MacBook. I instantly hated the keyboard, but that was not the deal-breaker. While it provides tremendous value right out of the box, as the heir to the iBook, the MacBook inherited its predecessor’s primary drawback: value through compromise. Although there are several, the most glaring example of this is its use of a relatively weak video card that utilizes system RAM as video RAM. In layman’s terms, at any given time, a sizeable chunk of your system memory is being used simply to display things on the screen, not to open or run programs. Since I wanted a level of efficiency that would allow me to keep from being bogged down as the machine aged, this would be a hindrance to me right out of the box in that sense alone. Add to that the demands on the video card of some of the programs I run, and the MacBook’s practicality was looking a bit more suspect.
With the MacBook off the list, that left just the MacBook Pro. In all honesty this is the machine I wanted from the beginning, but prudence dictated that I listen to my practical side, even if only fleetingly. As the generational successor to the Powerbook it would be replacing, the Pro offered everything I had become used to and, being more than 5 years newer, now brought a host of new features to the table as well. The only question that remained was which one? Well, I have never liked the idea of a 17-inch laptop. While many people need that kind of screen real estate, it just makes it too big to be any kind of practical for me. The idea of a minimalist unit still intrigues me a great deal, but Apple eliminated the 12-inch Powerbook with the introduction of the Intel machines. It’s too bad too; I would have leapt at the chance to buy one. If Apple launches one any time in the next few weeks I will be furious, because without it I was left with only one option: the 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Every piece I had read listed the 2.2gHz model as being the better value, but it had half the video RAM, a smaller hard drive, and less system RAM. I decided that longevity dictated that I go with the higher end model. In the end the machine I bought from the Apple Store spec-ed out as follows:
2.4gHz Intel Core 2 Duo
160GB SATA hard drive
NVIDIA GeForce 8600MGT video card with 256MB of video RAM
So now that I’ve wasted all sorts of time and space telling a boring story of how I came to buy the computer that I’m supposed to be using this space to comment on, what say I actually give you my early impressions?
The first thing I noticed, just taking it out of the box, is that this computer is bigger than the Titanium. Although they both share the same “15-inch” namesake, the 15.4 inches of the Pro as compared to the 15.2 inches of the TiBook seems to be much bigger than the two-tenths of an inch difference implies. Another reviewer commented that he had to double-check himeself to make sure they hadn’t mistakenly given him the 17-inch MacBook Pro by accident. I don’t typically tend towards exaggeration, but I have to agree in this case. The screen is large and beautiful and I continue to be amazed at the quality of the display Apple is able to maintain in its laptop lines. However, the Titanium was at the limit of the size with which I was comfortable, and, as I said before, I would have been perfectly happy with an overall downgrade to a smaller model. The Pro is slim, trim, and elegant, but its physical footprint is going to take some getting used to.
I had one early, big complaint, and responsibility falls squarely on Apple’s shoulders. They advertised this machine as coming with Leopard, OS X version 10.5, and the sales associate assured me that this was the case. However, when I got it all home and unpacked I turned it on and was greeted by an OS X 10.4 setup procedure on the screen and a 10.5 upgrade disc in the Apple software pack. If Apple’s goal is to keep the customer experience classy and simple, they may have missed the boat on this one. I can’t imagine that most of the people who are targeted by the “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” commercials are especially eager to spend the hour-plus it took me to complete the upgrade install. Nor do I think anyone uncomfortable with installing it themselves, having just gotten their brand new Mac home, is going to be all that keen to take it back to an Apple store and stand around while they let someone else do the upgrade. It is simply a waste of the customer’s time and, given the expense of this particular machine, money.
Griping aside, however, the MacBook Pro is impressive. It is fast and effortless, handles everything I ask of it easily, and does so whisper-quiet and without getting hot. I have had to restart a few more times than I would have liked because of quirks in Leopard, but overall the transition of all my files and applications has been seamless. Audio clarity actually seems improved over both the TiBook and the iBook G4 and I can finally run full-screen video without any of the minute frame skips I had gotten used to on the other machines. Indeed, video clarity is crystal. The screen is, as I mentioned earlier, one of the best I’ve ever seen on a laptop and its resolution allows me to have more working space than I’ve ever needed. Although the same reviewer mentioned earlier found the button on the newer, tighter latching system too deep for his tastes, I find that the latches, combined with the deeper release button, hold the closed postion much tighter and keep the screen from popping out of the latched position much better than the feather-touch, single-catch piece on the TiBooks.
Apple’s pro line of notebooks has always been gadget and feature heavy as well, and this one is loaded with them. My personal favorite is the backlit keyboard. It illuminates the keys in a manner you would see in a car stereo, and adjusts the brightness depending on ambient light. Very cool, and very useful for someone like me who likes to write before going to bed at night. The display has a similar feature that adjusts the backlighting depending on ambient light levels. This one, though useful as well, gets on my nerves sometimes. It has a tendency to over-compensate for brighter-light situations, turning the backlight up so high that I have trouble focusing. It’s easy enough to turn it back down, but I think I may just disable this feature, as I spend more time adjusting its adjustments than letting it be.
In the end though, it is simply a Mac, and exactly what I paid for. When I ask it to do something, it does it. When I do not need it, it shuts down or goes to sleep quickly, and when I demand its presence again, it starts and wakes up with equal immediacy. It is a machine that runs flawlessly, without compromise. It is interesting that, in achieving this, it was I that ended up compromising. I compromised my want for a smaller laptop when that laptop itself fell short in certain areas. I certainly compromised my wallet, paying for a much more expensive computer than I had originally planned. But I got what I paid for and I expect it to be around for quite a while.