The book of MacBook

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared at MacUser.com.

People keep asking me about my new MacBook. The machines came out about a month ago, but that clearly hasn’t been enough time for people to get their fill of Apple’s latest portable lineup. I have to remind myself that these are, for the most part, civilians: people who don’t eat, drink, breathe, and immerse themselves in all things Apple. Still, I’ve fended off envious looks and an assortment of questions, ranging from whether the performance is a huge improvement to whether the screen is too reflective.

In the week that I’ve been using the new MacBook, it’s been my full-time all-purpose computer, just like its predecessor, and I’ve had to learn its ins and outs, collecting observations the whole while. What follows is a catalog of my assorted thoughts and musings on the experience. There are a lot of them. Like, “brew a cup of coffee and settle in a for a long winter read” lot. You have been warned.

Let’s start with the baseline here. My previous laptop was an original MacBook acquired way back in May 2006, shortly after the line was introduced. After two and a half years, I decided it was time to trade up. I could tell you it was the lure of the 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, or the 4GB of RAM (twice as much as my old MacBook), but those would be foul, foul lies.

It’s the shiny case.

No, really.

Read more ...

The aluminum unibody is the defining feature of the new MacBook. That’s kind of obvious: it’s the first and most obvious difference between it and its polycarbonate-sheathed predecessor. Previously the distinguishing feature of the high-end Macs, the metal case has now made its way to pretty much every part of the Mac family. And it’s a beautiful thing.

The unibody’s key advantage can be summed up in two words: build quality. The new MacBook feels solid in your hand, and there’s little trouble imagining it being hewn from a single block of aluminum. Put it this way: do you remember the first time you held an original iPhone and realized how surprisingly solid it felt compared to, say, your average cheap plastic phone? Yeah, it’s like that.

If anything, the design of the machine is even simpler than its predecessor. There’s no button on the trackpad, the iSight is practically hidden behind the black bezel, and even the sleep light is tucked away behind an aluminum facade, invisible until it becomes active (though the big honking IR receiver to its right kind of ruins the smooth exterior); the speaker grilles are gone, too, moved from their spot on the back of the MacBook’s case and now integrated in the display hinge.

In fact, the case design is so clean that I keep trying to brush away an errant speck of dust over the top left of the keyboard only to realize that it’s actually the microphone. That’s a nice change from the plastic case of the MacBook, which seemed to acquire unsightly scuffs and other marks almost daily.

The whole machine is also, amazingly, lighter than its predecessor. My original MacBook weighed a hefty 5.2 pounds (later models dropped that to an even 5), while the aluminum model weighs in at 4.5. That means a net savings of almost three-quarters of a pound for me, which is not insubstantial when you’re talking about something I carry around every day. At just over 3 pounds, the MacBook Air may still be the king of slim, but the gap is narrowing.

The new MacBook is also a little smaller than the original, as well, though some of this perception is attributable to the more dramatically beveled edges, which certainly make it look smaller in profile. Also, the top lid is significantly thinner than the old MacBook, presumably a testament to the amount of space saved by ditching the old fluorescent backlight.

Likewise, Apple’s slimmed down the packaging of the new MacBook, which is surprisingly small—barely larger than the computer itself. It’s also slimmed down what’s in the box: you’ll find the computer, a power adapter, and…well, that’s about it (besdies attendant discs and a cute little chamois for cleaning the display). If you’re searching for included display adapters, you’re out of luck: they’ve become a thing of the past.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one-hand, it seems like a cheap nickel-and-dime tactic on Apple’s part, and one that it’s used before (remember when the iPod used to come with a power adapter?). On the hand, I can see the attraction for Apple of streamlining what’s included in the box. Simplicity has always been Apple’s watchword, and let’s face it: how many of you take the adapter from and immediately toss it in a drawer somewhere, thus ensuring that when the moment comes that you actually need it you can’t find it? And, if you’re anything like me, even those moments are increasingly rare. Better, from Apple’s perspective, to make it an option for those who really need it, and save manufacturing a bunch of adapters that end up lost in people’s closets. Call it environmentally friendly, if you wish. Hopefully, the need for adapters will be obviated by the eventual widespread adoption of DisplayPort, but that’s only assuming the video industry doesn’t feel the need to create yet another new standard next week.

Either way, I didn’t find myself using an external display on my old MacBook very much, so I imagine I won’t miss the adapter too much. The built-in monitor serves my needs very well, thanks, though that’s a point of contention too. With this model of MacBook, Apple has eliminated the option for a matte screen finish, apparently offending certain vocal factions of the Internet, who seem to think that either a) Apple has it in for them or b) at some point, a matte finish did something horrible to Steve Jobs and, as revenge, the CEO has vowed to wipe non-glossy screens from the face of the planet. I think the answer’s simpler than that: 1) Steve clearly is a fan of glass used in construction where possible (cf. Apple Stores and the new trackpad—more on that later) and 2) perhaps more importantly, removing the choice between the two screen finishes means your average consumer has to make one less decision when buying a computer.

Yes, the screen is reflective. Yes, when you turn it off, it’s like a fricking mirror—it’s glass, after all. But if that’s the tradeoff I need to make in order to get the sweet, sweet LED-backlighting, then so be it. Simply put, the display is gorgeous. It’s bright as hell, especially sitting next to a two year-old MacBook. Yes, I do get reflections, especially if there’s a light source behind me, but I can either usually crank up the brightness far enough that it’s not an issue (and this sucker gets bright), or move the laptop (or myself) in such a way to avoid the reflection. Either way, I’ve been living with a glossy display for two and a half years and the new model doesn’t strike me as substantially worse than the old one. Plus, as I’ve said, the instant-on super-bright LED tips the scales in its favor.

Besides the unjustified murder of the matte display, the other change that had users honing their pitchforks was the removal of the MacBook’s FireWire port. Don’t get me wrong, I love FireWire as much as the next person—presuming, of course, that the next person is not the chapter president of the “I Love FireWire” Local 457. I’ve got several FireWire drives at home and the speed and convenience of FireWire is unmatched by USB. That said, when I unpacked the MacBook, the first thing I did was migrate from my Time Machine drive (which sports both USB and FireWire) and it went like a balmy summer breeze. Granted, I started it running and walked away from the computer for around an hour, so maybe it took longer than FireWire would have, but the point is that it wasn’t noticeably longer.

(Aside: This was my first experience doing a full migration—in the past, I’ve just started clean and transferred relevant data files. The simplicity and effectiveness of the Migration Assistant is just awesome, and yet another of those things that, in my experience, you would be hard-pressed to accomplish in Windows. A handful of things needed to be tweaked after the move, namely my printer settings (which had to be set up from scratch), some of the menu bar preferences (the Bluetooth icon had appeared), and one application had to be reinstalled (Cisco’s VPN client, which depends on some low-level files that apparently didn’t make the jump). But besides those very few cases, it was literally like booting up the same exact computer in a sexy new case with better hardware. So, yes, you might say that upgrading a Mac is brutally seamless.)

My belief on the FireWire issue is that with the changes under the hood, there simply wasn’t the space to fit the FireWire hardware—I mean, you really think they’d take it away if they didn’t have to? Compromises had to be made and Apple probably presumed—rightly so, if you ask me—that the FireWire port was the most expendable. The two primary uses of the protocol are storage and digital video. And while transferring files may not be as good over USB2.0 as it is over FireWire (and yes, I’ll show up at the Target Disk Mode funeral with the rest of you), where most consumers are concerned, it’s plenty good enough. Likewise, DV-based digital video cameras are starting to be supplanted in the consumer realm by ultra-compact devices like those by Flip and Kodak.

You’ll note I emphasized consumer in both of those places, and that’s key. In the latter case, I believe that the consumer who’s buying a video camera for the purposes of, say, shooting video of their kids, is going to increasingly opt for those ultracompact devices rather than a more traditional camcorder: they’re cheap, they can shoot HD quality, they plug directly into the computer, they don’t require tapes, and above all they’re compact and light. It’s a no-brainer. And if you’re doing prosumer or professional level video-editing, then, frankly, you probably are—or should be—working on a MacBook Pro anyway.

Enough about FireWire: let’s talk input methods. First, the keyboard. I loved the original MacBook keyboard, and if anything, I think the aluminum MacBook’s is an improvement. It feels a little less cheap and clacky than the original MacBook’s, though I think this may have been a more gradual change on the in-between models. Also, having long coveted the MacBook Pro’s illuminated keyboard, I had to opt for the high-end model, and I haven’t been disappointed. I’m not saying it’s practical—I’ve been a touch-typer since I was a lad, so I hardly ever look at the keyboard anyway—but damn if it doesn’t look cool.

I do have two gripes with the keyboard, though both are pretty minor: one is the rearrangement of the function keys. My muscle memory is used to having the volume controls on the left side, on the F3-F5 keys; now they’re all the way at the other end, making it harder for me to find them quickly, and ensuring that for the first few days I ended up adjusting the volume every time I wanted to use Exposé. Likewise, relocating Exposé and Dashboard to F3 and F4 might make them more prominent for new users, but it’s taken re-training on my part. The new playback keys F7-F9 are kind of useful, but I’m naturally resistant to hard-wired keys that tie into application functions.

More to the point, though, I had mapped at least one or two of the F-keys to specific shortcuts, meaning that I either had to hit the Fn key and the appropriate F-key, or I had to flip the functions in the keyboard preference pane and then use the two-key move for all the special functions. Neither of these were satisfactory solutions, but fortunately I stumbled upon the handy FunctionFlip which allowed me to have the best of both worlds.

The slightly more irritating problem with the keyboard—psychologically anyway—is that my keyboard suffers from the “angled key” issue noted by some forum posters, which is to say that some of the keys are not quite level—they tilt left or right (especially the small function keys). It’s a subtle problem and it doesn’t impact the use of the keyboard at all, but it’s one of those niggling little details that just makes me hem and haw about whether I should take it to an Apple Store and have them fix it. But I can’t be hassled to spend that much time without the computer, so I’m willing to live with it. For now.

That leads us to the bigger input device change: the glass trackpad. For the life of me, I still can’t figure out where the glass part of it comes in. It looks (and, for the most part, feels) pretty much identical to the old MacBook Pro trackpad. Okay, it’s smoother. But don’t expect something that looks like the front of the iPhone, or one of those crazy mockups.

Here’s what I like about the new trackpad: it’s big. It’s smooth. The multi-touch gesture support is very, very cool, and I firmly believe that this is Apple dipping their foot in the water of touch-sensitive interfaces on the Mac. I keep having conversations about touch-screen interfaces and, as anybody who thinks for thirty seconds about ergonomics can easily figure out, the idea of holding up your hands to work on a touch-sensitive display is a bad idea. Try it. Your arms get tired. Putting gesture support into the place where your hands already are is much, much smarter.

The biggest problems with gesture support right now are their limitations. They’re usable almost exclusively in Apple applications and there’re—as of yet—no API hooks for third-party developers. The gestures are also not re-mappable—all they do is exactly what Apple has told them to do. You can, however, still turn certain gestures on and off, such as single-tap for click and double-finger tap for secondary click. While I’m disappointed that I can’t change the gestures to suit myself (for some reason, I constantly want to do the exact opposite of Apple’s four-finger swipe, going up for Show All Windows and down for Show Desktop), I think I understand why they chose to lock it down at present.

Touch-screens are a new interface for most computer users. The iPhone has brought the idea of the touch-screen into the mainstream, but as any iPhone developer can tell you, the way you use an iPhone is very, very different from the way you use a computer. The last thing I think Apple wants at this point is a proliferation of gestures from third-party developers: they want to keep the experience consistent for now, so that people get used to the idea of gestures period. How confusing is it going to be if pinching zooms in-and-out in most applications, but is used for some totally different function in another program? The problem is there’s no way of easily labeling what gestures do on the computer: keyboard and mouse commands are explicit—you’re clicking a button or a clearly defined point or button, selecting a command from a menu, or using a keyboard shortcut that’s labeled in a menu. But what if you accidentally trigger a gesture that deletes something? I think Apple will eventually loosen up on gestures, but right now it’s still kind of an undiscovered country. This is, after all, the company that still kind of thinks that most users don’t want to deal with the difference between left and right clicks.

And there are quirks to work out, both in hardware and software. The idea of the new trackpad is that the whole thing is a button you can click. That was initially off-putting to me, until it became clear that it’s an actual, tactile button that really does click, just like the old button did. And it works pretty well, too, as long as you don’t think about it, and just keep clicking in the same place you’ve always been clicking. The trouble is that it’s wonky. As our own Scott McNulty noted, sometimes clicks just don’t register. I often have to click two or three times on the same spot to get a result—that’s a problem (rumor is a forthcoming software patch will fix this). I’ve also noticed flakiness with two-finger scrolling, where the trackpad will sometimes fail to register that I’ve actually got two fingers down, and think I’m just trying to move the cursor when I’m really trying to scroll.

There’s also the matter of accidental input. Because the trackpad is bigger, and you’re not locked into having your thumb on a separate button, it’s easier to end up with part of your hand accidentally on the trackpad, which can make it think you’re trying to right-click (if you have the two-finger option enabled). That may be a matter of re-training more than anything else, but it’s something to think about. In general, I’d say that the new trackpad is a solid 1.0, but is in need of refinement.

And what of the MacBook as a whole? You often hear the phrase “evolution not revolution” bandied about when describing new Apple products and though the new model represents arguably the most radical redesign of Apple’s consumer portable since the original white iBook, it’s still an evolutionary change.

Is this, then, the ultimate evolved form of an Apple notebook? It’s clearly not perfect, but despite the complaints about the lack of FireWire and the glossy screen, it seems clear to me that Apple’s notebook lineup is continuing to move forward and, more importantly, continuing to improve, even if those improvements take the form of subtle refinements of concept rather than sweeping overhauls. As with many of Apple’s current products, I think the best description of the the new MacBook is that it’s the company’s best consumer portable…until the next one.

Subscribe to the MacWeek Newsletter

Comments