Regular readers of this site — hi, Dad — will know that I’ve just purchased a MacBook Pro, a high-end Apple laptop of the swanky ‘ooh, get him’ variety. There has been some demand — hi, Sian — for my impressions on the new MacBook. So, brace thyselves for a post that may push the envelope of geekiness for blog about writing. Well, I do write using my MacBook. And what wonderful things I can write on such a shiny new computer!
Just so people reading this know, my MacBook Pro is the 15-inch (glossy), 2 GHz Intel CoreDuo, 512 Meg RAM (DDR2). It runs Mac OS X ‘Tiger’ 10.4.7. It was assembled the week of 16th June 2006 in Shanghai. Full specifications are available here.
Aesthetically, the MacBook Pro is a well designed piece of hardware. It looks breathtaking open or closed, and its matte aluminium (aluminum) finish is sweet.
Backlit Keyboard and Trackpad
The keyboard is full-sized and firm to the touch. It is backlit too, so in low-lit conditions (or when you put your hand over the light sensor beneath the speaker grill) a bright glow appears between the keys. Looks fantastic! And is useless. If you use your computer in a room so dark that you can’t see the keyboard, you’ll get migraines on top of migraines, and it’ll be your own fault. The trackpad is much wider than I’m used to, and has the brilliant feature of two-finger scrolling: put down two fingers, move them left and right or forwards and back and contents of a window will shift accordingly. This is a great interface enhancement. No longer will I have to aim for fiddly scrollbars. The matte metal either side of the trackpad makes for a great place to put one’s wrists — hands can slide easily and don’t get clammy.
This is extremely bright, and I often find myself (like now, late evening) turning it down to work. The glossy finish is fantastic and makes it easier to work for longer periods. The glare, which some see as a distraction, is negligible on my screen. The colour saturation is richer than my iBook, and indeed richer than the flatscreen display I used to have as my main display (it’s now boxed).
Is good. Comparable to the iBook; it picks up the same 10–12 networks available in my neighbourhood. When woken from sleep, it connects to my WPA-encrypted hidden-SSID network faster than the iBook.
I have, right before I was due to submit my PhD, walked through the power cord of a laptop and watched it spin beautifully through the air. Ah, happy days: that laptop was unhurt but for the power supply, and it was a race to get back to my office and backup my files to the network before the battery failed. So I appreciate an adapter that promises to make this kind of drama a thing of the past. I haven’t experienced any heating issues at the point where the MagSafe connects, as some others have reported.
Memory and Rosetta Emulation
With the shift to Intel processors, software written for the old PowerPC architecture is not going to work. Fortunately, Mac OS X uses an on-the-fly translation technology called Rosetta (Chompollion lives on). This works as a layer between an old PowerPC application and the Intel architecture. Generally speaking, I haven’t had any issues with this. However, I have noticed that the process ‘translate’ (which is the name of the Rosetta daemon) can take up a huge amount of paging file space. There have been reports that, due to the nature of Rosetta operation, the paging file can get bigger and bigger. As of right now — and, OK, I’m running a few apps — my virtual memory size is 7.32 GB, which seems a little large. Mind you, I’ve just checked the VM size on my iBook, and it’s 5 GB. Maybe that’s just par for the Mac course. My main employment of Rosetta is for Microsoft Office. They run faster on my MacBook Pro than they did on my MacBook Pro.
On first boot of the MacBook, I took the opportunity to pull all of my applications and settings from my external Firewire hard drive. Big mistake. Once the transfer was done, I fired up the MacBook and wondered whether I’d wasted my money: the system was slow and my hopes that the new system would be a stranger to the spinning pizza of death (POD) were dashed. I used this sluggish system for a few hours and thought hard about sending the bugger back to Apple. Then I came to my senses and did a complete reinstall of the OS. This time, the MacBook was very responsive and a pleasure to use (there’s something indescribable about having a GUI that responds in nanoseconds to user input; it starts to generate the illusion that the windows are real…) From that point until now, I’ve been manually transferring applications and settings. Why? Well, it turns out that there are some issues with migrating all your gubbins from a PowerPC Mac to an Intel Mac. There are various applications and preference panes that might be culpable, but if you get a new MacBook and find it is sluggish after using the Migration Tool, you might want to go ‘old school’ about transferring your files.
Yeah, this was another irritation, and another downer on my first day as a MacBook Pro user. When the CPUs idle down, there is a definite buzz that comes from the left side of the computer. It sounds like a buzzing fluorescent light. “Christ,” I thought, “a buzzing, sluggish machine. [Tony The Tiger voice:] Grrrreat!” Well, I sorted out the sluggish problem (see above para), and I found a quick workaround to the CPU whine. Because the whine results from the interference of idling processors (supported by the observation that disabling one core eliminates the buzz), you ‘just’ need to make sure the CPUs are under constant load. The load doesn’t have to be much. The best solution I found was by this guy (who, in a saintly fashion, packaged this work-around so that even a newbie like me could download it). His program, which you can run in the background and forget about, will load the CPUs just slightly; buzz vanishes! Presto! Well, I like it, but not a lot. Apple need to fix this with a firmware update.
Installing Windows XP Pro
Because I’m interested in running Windows XP natively on my MacBook, I’ve been arsing around with BootCamp, the beta version of an application that creates a hard disk partition for Windows XP and helps you burn a handy CD of drivers for use with Windows. At startup, you get the choice of which operating system you want to boot into. So far so cool. But my Windows XP CD doesn’t contain Service Pack 2, which means that it gets halfway through the installation until at a critical point — i.e. the point you need to use the keyboard — the bloody keyboard stops working. Right. So, how do I get Service Pack 2 onto my Windows XP disk? Well, through an arcane art known only as ‘slipstreaming’, it is possible — given the right conjunction of celestial bodies — to combine Service Pack 2 with your Windows XP installation CD to produce a Windows XP SP2 CD. With me so far? How sad. I haven’t quite completed this process because I’m using Parallels desktop to run XP as a slipstreaming environment. Describing that will take another article altogether.
Well, it’s a fantastic machine and, despite its quirks, it is measure of my attachment to it that, even on that depressing first day, there was no way I would send it back. Now it runs like a dream, the screen is so beautiful I don’t need to span the desktop across to my Philips TFT (because it looks too dull). A note on battery life: It isn’t fantastic. My iBook G4 outperforms the MacBook Pro by almost an hour; then again, the iBook doesn’t have an Intel dual-core processor inside, and the screen is much dimmer. I can write on the MacBook Pro even when I’m in the conservatory at the back of our new house, which gets very sunny. The outlook, then? Fair. Ooh, I love my preeeecious MacBook.