First Look: MacBook and MacBook Pro

The new MacBook and MacBook Pro are here. No, not just “here” in the sense of “publicly acknowledged by Apple and being shipped to arrive in Apple Stores tomorrow.” Here in the sense of, in my office right now. So in advance of our full reviews and lab tests of these products, let me give you a quick tour of the products.

The look

The big physical differences between the MacBook Pro and MacBook lines are gone with this update. The MacBook looks like a 13-inch version of the 15-inch MacBook Pro. Both of them have the aluminum enclosure and a black screen covered from end to end with glass. Both have the same black keyboard found in the MacBook Air. Both of them are curvy around the sides and bottom, making them easy to grip.

Basically they both look like the bigger brothers of the MacBook Air. The Air was clearly the first product in a wave of new laptop designs from Apple, and now we’ve seen the second and third versions. They feel rigid and sturdy, despite their light weight.

Display matters

At first glance, the screens of both models appear to be quite similar—and similar to the MacBook Air’s as well. The LED backlighting is remarkably bright, meaning these laptops are going to be quite usable, even in very bright conditions.

Users who are fans of the matte finish on the MacBook Pro are going to be quite disappointed about these new systems’ standardization, iMac style, on a glossy glass-covered display. In my extensive time with the MacBook Air over the past few months, I’ve found that the bright LED-lit screen could overpower just about every bright, glaring location you could think of.

However, since the displays are a single span of glass, there’s an easy solution for fans of anti-glare-coated displays: if they don’t already, companies will no doubt begin to make screen protectors, like those already available for the iPhone, that you can apply to your display in order to remove the shine and return an old-school matte finish. Yeah, it’ll be more work and more cost, but it’s not as if there isn’t an option out there if you just can’t stand the glossy look. (Me, I love it.)

The sound

The MacBook Pro’s prominent speaker grille holes on both sides of its keyboard are now much smaller, owing to Apple’s new production process. And the MacBook continues to have its stereo speakers embedded right next to the display’s hinge, so that the sound can bounce off the screen. So far as I can tell, the speakers are more or less the same as in past generations.

The ports

The MacBook Pro, which previously offered most of its ports on its left side—but with a few ports on the right—has joined the MacBook in offering ports on only one side.

Both models use the same MagSafe connector found in previous generations; unlike the MacBook Air, which sports a redesigned power adapter due to its unique shape, these models appear to use the same adapters as they did before. The MacBook Pro comes with a larger, 85-watt adapter; the MacBook comes with a smaller 60-watt adapter.

Both offer an Ethernet port, two USB 2 ports, audio in and out, and the new Mini DisplayPort monitor port. (DisplayPort is an emerging display-connectivity standard; it’s unclear if Apple’s the first company to offer the “mini” version of DisplayPort, and if it’s an Apple-invented proprietary variation or if it’s something we’ll see in many other computers and displays to come.) Apple says there will be Mini Display Port-to-DVI and Mini-Display-Port-to-VGA adapters available; it’s unclear if support for composite and S-Video connections has been dropped with these systems.

In addition to the ports shared by the two systems, the MacBook Pro offers a single FireWire 800 port (yes, you can buy a FireWire 800 to FireWire 400 adapter) and an ExpressCard slot hidden behind an aluminum door. Both models offer a slot-loading SuperDrive on the right side. (Previously the MacBook Pro’s slot was on the front.) Yes, this means that the new MacBook joins the MacBook Air in not offering any sort of FireWire connectivity.

The trackpad

Two new preference panes. Note the compact-fluorescent bulb.

One of the most ballyhooed new features of these MacBooks is the new clickable glass trackpad. So, about that button. Longtime users of Apple laptops will find it quite a bit disconcerting to reach below the trackpad with their thumbs, only to find no button there. However, it’s a pretty easy step to just slide your hand up on the trackpad so that you continue to point with one finger and click on the pad with your thumb. The trackpad is smart enough not to get confused by the presence of a finger and a thumb on the trackpad. And of course, those who are adventurous will get used to pressing with their index finger as they mouse around, giving their thumbs a break. (For clicking and dragging, you’ll basically still need two fingers.)

The new trackpad looks pretty much like the old trackpad. It’s painted the same color as the MacBook’s aluminum body. But it’s smoother than an old-style Apple trackpad. The sensation of moving your fingers across it is a little disconcerting; there’s friction but not a lot of texture. It definitely doesn’t feel like you’re running your finger across a pane of glass, though that’s what it is.

With the new trackpad come a new set of supported multi-finger gestures, all configured via the new Trackpad preference pane. The gestures supported by the past generation of laptops are still there, including two-finger scrolling, pinching and spreading fingers to zoom in and out, and swiping three fingers to navigate forward and back.

The new Trackpad control panel.

But the new trackpad has a few new tricks up its sleeve. You can program either the bottom right or left corner of the trackpad to act as a secondary mouse button. In other words, if you click in the bottom corner of the trackpad, it can be registered as a right-click. So the no-button laptop can act as a two-button laptop after all. (There’s no support for any additional button mappings, however.)

The laptops’ new four-finger gestures are built into the system and can’t be customized, but they’re still pretty cool. Place four fingers on the trackpad and flick them up, and Expose hides all your windows and exposes the desktop. Flick down with the same four fingers, and Expose shows all windows. Swipe left or right and the application switcher appears.

The weight

At 4.5 pounds, the new MacBook is half a pound lighter than the old version. With its new complement of previously-Pro-only features and its lighter weight, people who have been considering the MacBook Air will probably want to give that purchase some more consideration. The new MacBook isn’t close to the three-pound Air on weight, but it’s noticeably lighter than its predecessor and it’s cheaper and faster than the Air. As a MacBook Air user, I will have to seriously consider switching back to the MacBook now that it’s gained these new features and lightened its load by half a pound.

The MacBook Pro, on the other hand, is two-tenths of a pound heavier than its predecessor. In practice you probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but the Pro definitely didn’t go on the same diet as the MacBook.

The graphics

The new MacBook Pro has two separate graphics subsystems inside of it. One, the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M, is the same one found in the new MacBook and MacBook Air models. It’s less powerful—and uses less power. The other, the NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT, is a much faster, higher-performance graphics processor. To choose which one you use, you must go to the Energy Saver preference pane, fresh with its new icon. (The Energy Saver icon used to be an incandescent light bulb; Apple has replaced it with a compact fluorescent as a part of its quest to reduce the energy consumption of its icons.)

Within the Energy Saver preference pane, you can choose between “Better battery life” (the 9400M) and “Higher performance” (the 9600M GT) for graphics. However, this isn’t a switch you can do on the fly—nor can you set the system to use one when you’re on battery power and the other when you’re attached to an outlet. In fact, to switch between the two cards requires you to log out of your user account and log back in.

iPhone headphones

Yes, it’s true—these new MacBooks work with your iPhone headphones. If you click the button on your iPhone headphones, iTunes pauses. Click again, and the music resumes. A double-click advances one track, and a triple-click moves back a track—just like on the iPhone. What’s more, the headphones’ built-in microphone appears as the input device “Microphone port” in the Sound preference pane.

The keyboard

Both models use the same keyboard, the one that debuted on the MacBook and then made its way to the MacBook Air. If you love it—or hate it—you probably already know. As for me, I find the feel identical to other recent Apple laptops, even though the look is a bit different.

Migration and Target Disk Mode

The new MacBook, like the MacBook Air, lacks a FireWire port entirely. What this means is that the old laptop data-transfer standby known as Target Disk Mode—enabled by holding down the T key upon startup, allowing your laptop’s hard drive to appear as an external hard drive when plugged in to another computer—is gone. And there’s no USB equivalent of Target Disk Mode. What this means is, if you’re using Apple’s Migration Assistant to move your data to the new MacBook, you’ll have to transfer your data over the network from your other computer. (The fastest solution: attach via an Ethernet cable and do it direct at full speed.)

Look out below!

When the original MacBook came out, one of my favorite features was the easy access it provided to its hard drive and RAM, both of which lurked behind a few screws under the laptop’s battery bay. Sadly, the MacBook Pro remained extremely hard to upgrade—until now. These are the most upgradeable Apple laptops yet.

Both models are identical in this respect. On the bottom side of the computer there’s a switch you flip up, which releases a metal door.

 

 

Lift it off, and beneath you’ll find a battery and a hard drive.

 

 To remove the battery, just pull up on the plastic tab attached to it and it’ll lift right out. To remove the hard drive, you’ll need a small Phillips screwdriver in order to remove a single screw from a small plastic locking mechanism that sits between the main laptop case and the drive. Then lift the drive out and disconnect it from the drive cable.

 

Reaching the RAM’s a bit more involved: you need to use that same screwdriver to remove eight screws at the top and bottom of the undershell of the MacBook case. The entire bottom shell lifts off, and you’ll see two RAM slots right above the battery bay, dead center. (The MacBooks both have two SO-DIMM slots for a maximum RAM total of 4GB.)

 

An important note about the battery: it no longer comes with its own battery-level light. (Which would be tricky, since it’s hidden behind the removable door.) Instead, on the left side of both models there’s a small button that you press to see the capacity of the currently inserted battery. You’ll get a more detailed look than in previous models, too: eight tiny battery lights make up the battery-status display.

Color schemes

It’s worth noting that while the old MacBook line (still kicking around as a $999 low-end MacBook) let you choose between white and black models, with these new MacBooks you can have any color you like, so long as it’s silver. However, in line with the latest iMac models, it’s a definite silver-and-black look, thanks to the keyboard and the solid black glass face of the display. Even the display’s hinge is black, as opposed to the gray found in the Macbook Air.

Out of the box

Not five minutes out of the box and already a software update.

Apple crows about the reduced waste in the packaging of these products, and it’s true. They follow the MacBook Air approach: it’s a tiny box with not a whole lot in it. (Not even any video adapters.) But it’s definitely less wasteful packaging.

Once I got the computers out of the box, I was immediately slapped with a Software Update notice. Between the installation of software on the systems at the factory in China and their arrival in the United States, Apple’s software engineers evidently fixed some bugs. I was immediately prompted with an alert to update to Version 1.2 of the MacBook, MacBook Pro Software Update for “precision aluminum unibody enclosure MacBook and MacBook Pro notebook computers.” Whew!

First impressions

After a few hours with these systems, I have to say that I like them a lot. The new trackpad takes some getting used to, but I think most users will like it. Lovers of matte displays will be angry, though that anger might be mitigated by third-party anti-glare overlays. And the displays themselves are bright and beautiful, which is a good thing. The new graphics performance of these systems—especially the MacBook, which previously used Intel’s integrated graphics—should be good, though we’ll have to wait for Macworld Lab to weigh in to know for sure.

Thus ends my rapid-fire hands-on look of the MacBook and MacBook Pro. Stay tuned later this week for Macworld Lab’s tests of these systems, followed by complete reviews. And when the new MacBook Air arrives in November, we’ll take that one for a spin as well.

Jason Snell is Macworld’s editorial director. You can follow him on Twitter. Jason thanks the good folks on Twitter for suggesting so many of the questions he answered in this story.

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