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Sun, 02 Apr 2006

Finally Got My Dual Core Mac Laptop

I finally got myself a MacBook Pro. This is the first Mac I've every owned or spent any serious time on, so I guess I'm what the Mac folk call a "switcher". Given that I've spent a lot of time on Windows and Linux boxes, I thought my impressions might be of interest to others thinking about this new Intel Mac platform.

Let me first say that it's decently fast but not blazing... but let me qualify that statement. I'm very picky about what I call fast. Compared to a G4 Mac laptop, it's blazing. Compared to my now dormant 1.8 ghz Celeron HP laptop, it's a speed demon.

Compared to my existing desktop, it's decent. My desktop, which I planned to replace with the MacBook Pro, has dual 1.4 ghz Opterons, 2 gigs of memory, and an Nvidia 6800 GS video card. And compared to my desktop, the MacBook is decent. It doesn't blow me away, but it holds it's own. In my mind, that's a serious endorsement for a laptop.

The GUI isn't as snappy as I'd like, but that's probably due to all the eye candy I haven't learned how to turn off yet. :) A fresh install of Windows XP is the same way. On the other hand, it doesn't really get bogged down either.

I bought the box with the stock 512 megs of memory and I could see it drag when I had too many programs open. Then I dropped in another gig of memory (obligatory plug for Crucial.com. They guaranty compatibility.) and all the dragging went away. I've ordered another gig so I'll have an even two gigs. I'm told having matching memory sticks lets the Mac double your memory bandwidth. At any rate, I think it needs at least a gig just for standard usage. It was dragging for me with email, web surfing, and tinkering.

Having the dual core process in place means that you really have two processors in a laptop. And it shows. At any time you and I are running dozens of programs. We've got an operating system, graphics drivers, anti-viral software, network stacks, and the list goes on. A modern computer has to do dozens of things at a time. Having a second CPU (or core) lets the computer devote one of them to you. This translates to a very responsive computer. Software doesn't hang or drag even if another program is pegging the processor.

If you buy a laptop this year and you intend to anything beyond mail and web surfing on it, I'd suggest you shop for a dual core system. I don't think you'll regret it.

Let me speak to the Mac experience for a moment.


The first I always do after installing Windows is start fetching utilities. Adobe Acrobat. WinZip. A DVD player. We all have our list of favorite apps we refetch. On the Mac, all the apps were already installed. It can read PDFs, play DVDs, handle MP3s, and so on. The list of pre-installed software is impressive, but it doesn't wander off into what I call "junk software". That's the garbage that most computer manufacturers stuff onto your computers in the hopes that you'll think it's a better PC. The Mac has enough to use the computer but not tons of junk. It reminds me of a Kubuntu install, but better. It's got more programs and everything is already configured.

I did have to add a few things. X11 isn't installed by default but it's on your install/restore DVDs, so that was easy. I had to install a newer version of Ruby as well.

I love the ability to have all the eye candy and then drop to a terminal and type "ps aux | grep ingres" or "kill -9 1827". That's just amazing. Visually it's where I was never able to get Linux. I think it's possible but I never invested the time to tweak everything "just right".

All the hardware works out the box. The bluetooth even talks to my cell phone! I'm used to installing Linux and then having to tweak a few things. It's very nice to just turn it on and use it

The remote. This laptop comes with a remote. I thought this was silly at first. Now I keep my music playing through the laptop when I'm in my home office and control it from the remote. It can skip iTunes forwards and backwards through songs, adjust the volume, and pause. I've been shocked at how much I love this single feature. I never thought I'd use it but now I'm hooked.

It has a built-in camera and some nice software to tinker with the pictures called Photo Booth. My daughter (age 7) loves playing with the "silly pictures". It's truly a blast.

The built-in wireless has a much better range than either of my PC wireless cards. Areas that my laptop would drop connectivity in don't slow me down on the Mac. I don't even notice a slow web experience. It must have a very decent built-in antenna.

I really like the wide screen display. I'm used to having two monitors and I like my screen real estate. However I'm finding I use the wide screen format of the laptop as if it's two monitors. Instead of maximizing everything like I do on a square monitor, I'm actually using the windows paradigm. Nice.

The MacBook Pro also has an external monitor jack. It's an LCD output but it has an adpator for us old-time CRT users. When I plugged in an external monitor I expected some sort of configuration screen. I started clicking through various system configuration utilities. Then I looked over and realized that the second monitor was on and my desktop had been extended on to it. Just like that. No configuration or set up. It just saw it and set it up. Nice.

On the dual monitor note, you can set the relative position of the two monitors in a GUI configuration utility. Unlike Windows though, you can put the two monitors anywhere you want, not just left or right. I set up my external monitor about 20 degrees above the laptop screen. This approximated the difference between the actual positions of the two monitors. It felt weird to actually move the mouse to where the screen was instead of just moving right until I showed up on the next screen. Another nice touch.

I plugged in a USB printer and had it configure itself the same way. Silently and in the background. I'm used to seeing a hardware dialog. I think I like this way better.

The flip side was that the driver for my HP printer wasn't the best one available. I couldn't set print quality, check ink levels, etc. I ended up going to HP and downloading 96 megs of OS X utility goodness. Now I can specify paper type, print quality, and so on.

The magnetic power plug works just like advertised. It's difficult to pull straight out but if you pull it sideways (simulating a three year old's feet kicking the cord), it comes right off. And it attaches with a very satisifying "Click". I suspect every vendor will have something similar inside of a year.

The laptop is very thin. An inch (at most). It's light. The design is very elegant. I can't tell you how many co-workers have commented on how good the thing looks.

And it's quiet. Absolutely quiet. It doesn't seem to have any fans in it.

What about downsides? There are a few.

Remember my comment about how quiet it gets? No fans? Well, it gets quite hot. On a flat surface it will get too hot to comfortably touch on the bottom. The feet on the bottom simply aren't tall enough. I keep it propped up half an inch when it's on my desk to let the heat escape. At the moment I have a small (and quiet) fan blowing air over it sideways. I've seen no problems with the heat, but there's a hard drive in there. I've never seen a hot computer with a hard drive that didn't fail.

On the other hand, when I use it as a laptop, it's fine. As long as you keep set it on your legs and let the bottom have plenty of air, it doesn't get too hot. I used to sit on the sofa and rest my Windows laptop on a pillow in my lap. That doesn't work with this laptop.

I still hate the default key mappings. For me copy is "Control-C", not "Apple-C". The keyboard isn't laid out to make that an easy keystroke. I've been using it heavily for a week and I still can't do a one-handed copy. Cut, paste, and undo (Ctrl-X, Ctrl-V, Ctrl-X) are the same, as are "select all" and save. So far I've resisted remapping those keys (can I do that on a Mac?). I'm trying to learn the "right way" to work in the Mac environment but it's frustrating. It's obvious that the two OSes are copying one another. (Who was first? I don't know or care. It's like Sun's refusal to put a ".txt" extension on their Readme files. When you're different just to be different, it's the users who gets annoyed, not your competition. Sorry... that rant just jumped out!)

All-in-all, it's an incredible machine. It's not perfect, but I think it's worth the money. I plan to use it to replace my desktop so that I can be productive when I'm on the road, I'll have a full development environment with me whether I'm in the hotel or the airport. And this box will do that easily.


posted at: 21:58 | path: | permanent link to this entry