15″ MacBook Pro Review

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This document will cover my overall impressions of the recent unibody MacBook Pro, released in October 2008.

2.53GHz Core 2 Duo (Penryn), 6MB cache, 1066MHz bus
4GB 1066MHz DDR3 RAM
nVidia GeForce 9400M / nVidia GeForce 9600M GT
320GB 5400rpm HDD
8x Superdrive

The unibody design is a very cool process, as Apple has detailed on its site.  The idea of machining a product from a solid block of material (in this case, aluminum) isn’t entirely new, although this is the first time it’s been applied to a notebook computer — at least, that I’ve heard.  In fact, I’m unaware of any electronics product made this way, save for the new MacBook and MacBook Pros.

As Apple claims, the case does feel sturdier than one produced from multiple parts (that are often riveted together).  Torsion-wise, the MacBook Pro has very little give and seems like it could stand up to a beating before actually giving up the ghost.  That said, it is aluminum, and everyone should be aware that it is dent-able (compared to plastic notebook computers, which are crack-able).  Fortunately, I’ve protected this well so far, so that hasn’t happened to me.

Metal is a material I find easier to clean than the polycarbonate used by Apple for its earlier MacBook designs (which I owned one of, from 2006).  The polycarbonate required you to find a Mister Clean Magic Eraser, gently dampen it, and then apply it vigorously to the MacBook’s case.  Plastic, by its nature, seems to absorb dirt.

Aluminum, on the other hand, is easily wiped off with a cloth.  This is a great boon, especially on the palm rests — which is the part that gets messed up on most people’s notebooks (along with the trackpad and keyboard).

Aesthetically, the anodized aluminum also looks professional and, indeed, elegant.

Also impressive is its thinness and lightness, both afforded by that unibody design that doesn’t require extra reinforcements which make those features difficult to achieve.

One of the most touted features for these new notebooks is the glass trackpad.  Apple eliminated the discreet button, instead turning the entire trackpad itself into the button, freeing up more space.  Which is good in a way, since it affords more space for multitouch, which would appear to be one of the reasons it was constructed from glass.

One of the more important aspects of using glass, at least to me, is that it’s incredibly easier to maintain versus the old plastic ones.  Those inevitably get very shiny due to your finger removing the finish (and sullying it with oil).  Glass is immune to this.

Now, is glass a durable material to use?  Principally, yes.  The perception that glass is fragile is slightly wrongheaded.  Glass is actually incredibly hard, and can only be cut with material harder than it (such as quartz or diamond).  That’s actually the reason it can shatter (or snap): because it’s so rigid.  It has no give, and thus will not bend.  So, if an object impacts it hard enough (or if enough torsion is applied), the glass will crack.  However, I’m not remotely concerned about this, since plastic has so many other deficiencies, I’d rather take this one risk with the glass.  And of course, I don’t possess the habit of dropping heavy objects on my trackpad.  This opinion applies to the display as well, which I detail further below.

Regarding the trackpad click, I actually like this a lot.  I know there were problems initially with the click’s responsiveness, but that would appear to have been resolved by a firmware update.  The only criticism I have is that this kind of click is quite audible and not video conferencing friendly as a result, so I normally resort to touch-click.  (You can enable gentle taps on a trackpad to register as clicks.)

I loved the chicklit keyboard on my original MacBook, and I’m glad to see that Apple has maintained this style through the line.  The action on this keyboard feels slightly better than my previous Mac, and I do greatly appreciate the the illuminated keys.  My only complaint is that they are plastic and are doomed to eventually becoming worn.  I try to stave this off by cleaning it every night, and I’ve actually ordered a product called iKlear to help with this prevention.

Here is an overview of the major ports on the MacBook Pro (not counting the audio jacks).

MagSafe – I think this is one of the most brilliant innovations I’ve ever seen for portable computers.  For the uninitiated, the power cable is held in magnetically — so, if you trip over the cord, it pops off effortlessly from the MacBook Pro rather than jerking it down to the ground and, you know, breaking it.  This feature is across all MacBooks, going back to 2006.

Gigabit Ethernet – Great if you’re hardwiring yourself to the Internet.  If you have a router that supports Gigabit speeds, then transfers across the network can be very fast.  Should be standard across all computers made by all manufacturers, but this is surprisingly not the case.

FireWire 800 – I’m of mixed feelings about this port.  I love the speeds it affords (unbelievable faster than USB), as well as the CPU pressure it alleviates — USB is actually fairly processor intensive, believe it or not.  That said, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been better to give us an eSATA port, since I’m beginning to believe more and more that this is the future.  Indeed, since FireWire is now more or less the domain of premium hard drives, supporting eSATA makes even more sense.  Alas, I nevertheless appreciate it.  (FireWire, incidentally, has been discontinued on the consumer MacBook line; this signals its eventual death to me.)

USB (2) – I find two USB ports to be plenty, though many notebooks of this class feature three or four.  I believe Apple is minimizing the port coverage here in favor of a smaller case, realizing that USB is daisy-chain ready anyway.  My only true complaint is that the two ports are very close together.  This works fine in most cases, but my USB flash drive is a bit wide, and so it makes plugging in an additional USB device a little difficult.

Mini-DisplayPort – This is the new standard across all Macintoshes, replacing DVI and mini-DVI.  Why?  Well, the DVI wasn’t giving them the power they wanted, and indeed, Apple claims you’ll be able to run two displays off one of these DisplayPorts.  Impressive.  I guess they didn’t turn to HDMI because of the copyright licensing and all that, but I know this will frustrate some who want to hook up their notebooks to their HDTVs.  (This can still be accomplished, but with an adaptor.  I’ve done this and it works well.)

Much better than my old MacBook.  I find these to be some of the best I’ve heard on a portable computer, but I’ve never done a side-by-side before.  I will say this much: they are more than serviceable.  And I dig that the speaker holes are made with lasers.

Stunning.  The LED-backlit display is absolutely the finest I’ve ever seen.  We own a 42” Sharp Aquos and a 24” iMac (both of which use a fluorescent lamp), and the richness and brightness of this display blows them both out of the water.  Some will criticize the glossiness factor (which you can mitigate with aftermarket screen protectors), but I like it.  This is entirely a matter of taste, though, so each person will need to make his or her own determination.  Lastly, the glass is awesome.  It’s so much easier to clean, and it will be difficult to scratch.  Enough said.

I love Mac OS X Leopard, which I find to be a lot snappier, lighter weight, and more reliable than a certain competing OS.  The big addition that most consumers will love is the iLife suite.  I think the best applications in Life are iPhoto and iMovie, with a special nod to GarageBand.  There are a bevy of great features in all these, but let me just say this: content creation is so much easier with iLife than it is with anything else I’ve used.

Powerful.  Video rendering is pretty quick, especially for a portable, and it’s completely unfazed by most other things.  That said, Flash has run like crap on the Mac for a long time, and by that I mean that it pegs the processors hard — which results in extra heat.  Generally speaking, this MacBook Pro runs so much cooler than my 2006 MacBook — on the order of 40 degrees or so.  (Processors run hot: this MacBook Pro usually sits 109〫- 120〫Fahrenheit.  That may seem high to someone who doesn’t look at the processor temperature a lot, but it’s very much not the case.  The 2006 MacBook routinely ran in the 160s.)  The surface of the MacBook Pro still feels pretty cool regardless of the temperature, so I don’t expect it to ever burn me or anything.

In any case, I look forward to the day that Adobe writes a Cocoa version of Flash, which I would expect to run very well.

Battery life is good, considering how powerful the processor is and size of the display.  You can even sacrifice some of the battery life for even more performance by using the discreet video card (the 9400M GT) instead of the integrated one (the 9400M).  Yes, that’s right: you get two video cards to choose from depending on your need at any given moment.  That’s rocking.  (Compare this to the consumer MacBook, which only has the 9400M integrated video.)

I don’t believe this product is perfect for everyone, even people looking to get a Mac.  It’s expensive for one (more than $2,000), and I think it’s way more powerful than most people need.  I think the standard MacBook will run iLife very well, and that it’ll take care of the people who only want to do stuff casually.  If email and the Internet is your primary use of the computer, then you most likely don’t need a MacBook Pro.

Heck, you can get a more powerful iMac for less money, with a much larger screen (though not LED backlit, which is actually a deal-breaker for me).

That said, if the price isn’t a concern, and you like the idea of a large screen and a lot of power, then this machine might be just right for you.  I don’t see myself ever wanting to go back to anything else, save the possibility of my adding an iMac in the future when Apple implements LEDs in those.

If the MacBook Pro was something you were seriously leaning towards anyway, then get it.  You won’t be disappointed.

Written by Michael

8 April 2009 at 10:33 pm

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