MacBook Pro Reviewer's Notebook

After two weeks away from the office, I returned to a brewing storm: our first MacBook Pro models arrived just as I did, and I was tapped to review them. After 24 hours or so, I had enough experience to make some initial judgments; after four days (and a huge amount of lab testing courtesy Jim Galbraith and Jerry Jung!), we’ve finally got a full review.

Weighing in at approximately 2,500 words, my review is not exactly a haiku. Of course, neither is it a massive nine-page opus that goes into immense detail about every new port and relocated screw on the MacBook’s case. Here at Macworld we try to strike a balance, providing depth without bringing the majority of our readership to tears.

However, for every person who thinks that 2,500 words about a new laptop is 2,400 words too many, there’s another person who feels I shouldn’t have stopped until I hit 5,000. So for those of you who won’t find the answers to your questions in my review, here’s a second helping — stuff that, for whatever reason, didn’t really fit at full length into my review.

Migration and Console catches

Apple’s Migration Assistant utility did a really good job of bringing my data over from my PowerBook G4 to the MacBook Pro. It brought over my user folder items, all my apps (unless a newer version existed already on the MacBook Pro) — the works. The result was that I was up and running in no time — well, no time plus the time it takes to transfer five gigabytes via FireWire.

However, Migration Assistant did migrate some stuff that I wished it hadn’t. After I got up and running, I was still noticing the occasional slowdown (and the appearance of the hated spinning pinwheel of death). Clued in by my wise boss, Rick LePage, I popped open the Console utility and discovered approximately a zillion error messages, most of them attributed to items in my

/Library/InputManagers
and
~/Library/InputManagers
folders. I tossed those items overboard (goodbye, Menu Extra Enabler, SIMBL, Smart Crash Reports, and Chax!), pruned my PreferencePanes folders as well, and everything seemed to stabilize. I can’t say for sure if those items were truly causing slowdowns, but starting fresh certainly seemed to help. (In related news, MacFixIt reports that Migration Assistant also brings over unwanted PowerPC printer drivers. So beware.)

One of the most clever things that Migration Assistant does is copy everything into a folder that’s marked with the extension “.noindex”, which cleverly excludes it from Spotlight’s prying eyes (and slow indexing features). Unfortunately, once the copying process is done, Migration Assistant moves all the data out into the open — and the MacBook Pro becomes incredibly sluggish for a few minutes as Spotlight does its business.

So if you do use Migration Assistant, be prepared to wait out Spotlight before you can take full advantage of your new Mac. (And if you don’t use Migration Assistant, but opt to copy files over yourself, I still recommend that you outwit Spotlight by copying files into a folder that’s been dragged into Spotlight’s Privacy window, so that your copy isn’t slowed down by Spotlight’s aggressive indexing.)

How does it feel?

Two of the most important applications I run are not available in Universal form: Eudora and Word. Both of them ran like champs in Rosetta, although when I tried to scroll using the Scrolling Trackpad, Word’s scrollbar jumped around like the proverbial woodchuck who drank too much espresso. (Okay, I admit, I totally made that proverb up.)

Of course, not all of my applications worked. Virtual PC is a goner. Apple Remote Desktop was completely non-functional. Neither is a deal-breaker, but if you count on either one, the MacBook Pro may not be ready for you yet.

Otherwise, everything ran well and felt speedy. Safari generally felt quite responsive, but the biggest change I noticed was with iCal. On my PowerBook G4 it’s an absolute dog most of the time; on the MacBook Pro it’s actually responsive .

Unlike the last time I reviewed an all-new Mac laptop, I refrained from using a kitchen thermometer to measure the heat coming from the MacBook Pro when it sat on my legs. But I will say that it was quite warm. I found it bearable, but a few degrees warmer and I might have changed my story. If you think the PowerBooks are too hot, the MacBook Pro won’t change your mind.

Video issues, TVs, and Front Row

I’ve heard a couple of people gripe about how the MacBook Pro doesn’t have the S-Video port that the PowerBook has, and it surprised me: I didn’t know even a couple of people were using that port. Of course, now that the MacBook Pro has built-in Front Row and an infrared remote control, having built-in a TV-style video port finally makes sense. Sigh. In any event, for $19 you can get a lovely DVI-to-S-Video adapter from Apple that does the trick.

I used one of those adapters to attach my MacBook Pro to my TV set, and after a few false starts it worked well. While the laptop was open, I attached the adapter. The computer immediately went into mirroring mode, so I could see the same information on the laptop’s screen and on my TV screen. I adjusted the resolution to a widescreen ratio (I have a widescreen TV), turned off the MacBook Pro’s screen backlight, and sat down on my couch to play back music and videos via Front Row. It worked pretty well, although my home speaker system picked up some processor noise from the MacBook Pro — not a problem when things were playing, but annoying when everything was silent.

My next attempt was to connect the MacBook Pro to my TV set with the lid closed. So I closed the lid, putting the computer to sleep. No problem — I pressed the center button on the Apple remote, which woke up the computer… for about 10 seconds, before it went right back to sleep. This is consistent with the behavior I’ve seen on PowerBooks, but it’s a little frustrating. It should be easy to run the MacBook Pro in lid-closed mode via the remote control. Instead, in order to wake the MacBook Pro up and keep it awake, I had to attach a USB mouse. Pretty silly on a system with a built-in remote control.

That said, the picture quality on my TV set was fine. I watched a little bit of a TV show downloaded from iTunes (the free pilot of “Conviction,” if you must know), and it was watchable, but I definitely noticed the reduced picture quality.

Unfortunately, Front Row’s still got all the same annoying limitations as it did when it was released. Time for a Front Row 2.0, guys.

MagSafe and batteries

I don’t have a lot more to say about the new MagSafe power connector that isn’t in the review. As someone who uses a laptop at home and at work, I own two power adapters — and of course, every time Apple releases a new adapter style, that means it’s time to buy a spare adapter. And that nifty third-party adapter that also charges my iPod and cell phone via USB and FireWire? Worthless. Oh well. Such is the price of progress.

Last weekend, while chasing my one-year-old son, I almost tomahawked my PowerBook G4 into my carpet or, depending on the angle of inflection, the bricks in front of my fireplace — all by tripping on the power cord. Now, my PowerBook G4 is not a shrinking violet. It’s a veteran of the wars, as Macworld’s new IT guy noticed the first time he saw it. (“Wow, it’s pretty beat up,” was how he put it. What, you mean all those scuffs and dents? You should see my living room wall!) But this would’ve been a catastrophic disaster, especially since the lid was open. I managed to stop in time, but if ever I became a believer in MagSafe, that was the time. May it live a long and happy life in the Apple product line.

Speaking of power, there’s been a lot of hubbub in the Mac world about the battery life of these systems. When I talked to Apple about it, the attitude seemed to be this: most other computer vendors don’t quote battery-life figures, so we aren’t going to play the game either. Fair enough, but it’s led people to assume that this was Apple’s attempt to hide some terrible battery-life results.

In reality, the MacBook Pro’s battery life seems to be on par with the PowerBook’s. If you bleed it dry playing a DVD, you’ll get a couple of hours. If you use it like a normal human being, you should get well more than three hours on a charge. (But the MacBook Pro uses a new battery type, so if you’ve invested in spare batteries for your PowerBook — d’oh! — there’s another new duplicate investment to make.)

Let me quote from Rick LePage, a true 15-inch PowerBook hound, here: “I’ve been playing with my own MBP for more than a day now, and I’m getting 3 to 4 hours of life out of the battery on a full charge, just doing normal stuff - Entourage, Safari, Excel, etc - without any special power-optimization settings. Occasionally, I’ll close the lid or walk away (go get a cup of coffee, visit the loo), but that’s generally with me working solid. And it’s a little more than what I’ve been getting on my 1.67GHz PB 15”, but not by much.”

What’s that humming noise?

Many MacBook Pro users are reporting that their computers make a noticeable humming noise. Some of them claim it’s dependent on the brightness of the laptop’s screen; others indicate that it happens when the Core Duo processor isn’t doing much work.

I’m not quite sure what to make of it all, but I can confirm that my MacBook Pro has this hum, while my aforementioned boss’s does not seem to. Adjusting the display brightness had no effect whatsoever on my system’s hum; however, I did find that the hum seemed to only be present during periods of processor inactivity. (This noise, incidentally, is the same one I reported as coming over my speaker system when the MacBook Pro was attached to my home stereo system.)

The sound reminds me of the noises I’ve heard in Power Mac G5s before: weird, processor noises that seem to be related to a processor’s wait cycle. I am clearly no chip engineer, but something odd is going on. While the e-mails and forum posts that suggested that the sound would abate if you launched Photo Booth sounded like old wives’ tales, I gave it a try — and what do you know? They were exactly right. Very, very weird.

So what does it mean? This is where reviewing a product gets tricky, because it’s unclear how many models have this problem, it’s unclear where the problem really originates, and it’s unclear how the problem can be fixed. Adding to the lack of clarity: how many people will even notice the noise? I didn’t notice it until I listened very, very, very carefully for it. Of course, now I hear it all the time. (I left a voice mail message about this topic with an Apple representative but, as of this writing, haven’t had a response.)

So, I will say this: If you are sensitive to annoying little noises, you may want to make sure about the return/replacement policy in effect at wherever you’re planning to buy a MacBook Pro. Beyond that, we just don’t know yet.

You’ve gotta have wireless

Numerous people wrote in asking about the wireless range of the MacBook Pro. That information is in the review, and thanks to everyone who wrote in. Basically, reception in these laptops is better than in the PowerBook, and better than the new Core Duo iMac, too. But not as good as the venerable white iBook, which is still the king of the Wi-Fi mountain.

However, I’ve seen some reports that the MacBook Pro can’t successfully connect to LEAP wireless networks. So look before you — er, well, you know.

Wrapping up

Put the review, my first look, and this story together and I’ve blown past that 5,000-word mark. And as it’s Friday evening as I write this, and the sun is setting with some lovely oranges and pinks over San Francisco, I think perhaps I’ll end my time on the soapbox for this week. But, as always, the conversation continues on our forums, including the threads attached to both this story and the review. It’s your turn, so feel free to talk amongst yourselves, ask me more questions, question my parentage, compliment my fine liberal-arts education, or debate the finer points of metallurgy.

I’ll leave you, for a third time this week, with this overarching concept: the MacBook Pro, despite its mouthful of a name, is a PowerBook. More specifically, it’s a 15-inch aluminum PowerBook. Yes, there’s an Intel processor in there. Yes, a few apps don’t yet run and several more are going to run slow for a while until a Universal version appears. Yes, this MacBook Pro has a few quirks that will turn some people off. Isn’t that always the case? But if you want reassurance that this isn’t some strange pod-PowerBook inhabited by the soul of an alien, you’ve got it. It’s a Mac, through and through. Even though there’s Intel inside.

Thanks for reading this far, and for all the feedback this week.

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