The Apple MacBook, three months on

After using my black 2,0 Ghz MacBook for three months, I thought I should write up a short review with the main positive and negative points this laptop has to offer.

I will contrast my MacBook experiences with those Margrethe has had with her Dell Inspiron 6400, which has similar specifications at a lower cost. The Dell is a much larger machine (15,4″ vs 13,3″ screen and a lot thicker) but I still believe it is a useful comparison. Most of my thoughts here would apply to the cheaper MacBook models, too.


WEAKNESSES
1) Average battery life
Knowing that Apple laptops have been a bit less power-hungry than their Wintel counterparts, I hoped that this trend would continue with the MacBook. Unfortunately, this is not the case. When using wireless networking and with the screen set to 50% brightness, my battery rarely lasts more than 3 hours when typing, web-surfing and listening to music.

The Dell Inspiron 6400 can be delivered with a 9-cell battery, which lasts for more than 4 hours doing similar tasks. Considering that these laptops use the same chipset, same CPU (the Dell is clocked at 1,66 GHz, the MacBook 2,0 GHz), same type of disk drive, and that the Dell has a larger screen, I am disappointed by the battery life offered by the MacBook. Size is obviously a constraint here, but if a higher capacity battery for a small laptop such as the MacBook would be expensive, it is still something Apple should offer as an option.

Some people would say that buying a second battery alleviates this problem. Partly, yes, but only to a small extent. There is no charger available for these batteries, and the MacBook must be switched off when the battery is removed (sleep mode depends on power from the battery). These mean that getting the most out of a second battery requires serious logistics – which I have decided to stay away from for the time being.
Update: Thanks to Matt for correcting me on this issue. As OS X writes the memory to disk when going to sleep, you can continue where you left after inserting the second battery. Resuming will be a bit slower, that’s all. See Matt’s comment below for a longer explaination.

2) Weak screen construction and relatively small minimum viewing angle
The screen is too flimsy for my tastes. Its plastic is a bit creaky, and it is easily bendable. This is easily felt when extending the screen to its maximum angle, which unfortunately isn’t all that large. This means that if you keep the laptop close to you, say because you are shortsighted, you will not be able to view the screen at an optimal angle. Inspiron 6400, like many PC laptops, has a screen that can be adjusted between 0 degrees (closed) and nearly 180 degrees (fully opened).

3) OS X annoyances
Personally, I think Apple’s OS X is great. It does however have a few annoying characteristics, compared to Windows XP. Of course, it is possible to run XP on the Mac, so this is not an objection to the hardware, but it is something a first-time Mac buyer should be aware of. After all, a copy of XP costs extra.

– Windows cannot be maximised automatically – you have to manually resize the window by dragging its corner to make it cover the whole screen.

– Mouse acceleration doesn’t exist, unless you use a third-party mouse with its own drivers that support it. To users accustomed to Windows’ mouse acceleration, this means that the trackpad or mouse will feel sticky. The problem is alleviated but not eliminated by third party utilities.

– Weird and hard to find key combinations for certain keys, like {}|. This is a very minor annoyance, but the default keyboard mappings does make it less convenient to code in OS X (I’m speaking for the Norwegian keyboard layout here), as curly brackets, for instance, are availble through a two-key combo in XP (AltGr + 8) versus three keys in OS X (Alt+Apple+8). Keys such as | are hard to locate – I haven’t been able to find any page listing keys and characters for the Norwegian keyboard layout. Also, some keys are just not there on a Apple laptop keyboard, like Delete (can be performed with Fn+Backspace instead).

– No resolution independence. As a shortsighted user, I always cranked up the dots per inch setting in Windows XP to 120 DPI (from 72 or 96 DPI, can’t remember). This made everything larger. In OS X, you depend on your applications explicitly supporting setting the fonts of the interface. Example: Skype does let you control the font size of the chat window, but the message composing window, where you type new messages, is always a fixed, small size. Not a problem in XP – a significant problem in OS X. This could be fixed in the next major release of OS X, 10.5 Leopard.

4) OS X wants 2 gigs of memory
If you ever run more than a couple of programs, and especially if you run old software that needs to be run through the emulator software Rosetta to work, I think 1 gigabyte of memory is the least any MacBook should have. I just upgraded mine to 2 gig, and it made a big difference. I can’t point to any specific benchmarks, but I feel pretty confident that OS X is more of a memory hog than XP (I never had more than 1 gig on my XP laptop and was happy with that).

5) Heat
It gets really hot, even after the lastest firmware upgrade. (However, even though it is a lot bigger, with more space for thermal cooling, the Dell is about as hot.) Some manufacturers are probably able to stuff a dual core CPU into a laptop and still keeping it cool – Apple and Dell can’t. I would’ve liked to see an option to throttle the CPU waaaay down, and trade performance for a laptop I can have on my lap.

6) Lousy speakers
The speakers on the MB aren’t good at all. They don’t play very loud (I have to have the sound set to max in order to listen to netradio when working in the kitchen, and even then it is only just loud enough) and the sound quality is poor. This contrasts with the Inspirion, which has really powerful speakers for a laptop and provides decent sound quality.

STRENGTHS
1) Awesome design and small size
You can tell this from looking at it in the store. It looks fabulous. Miles better than the Dell. For me personally I think only the Sony Vaio laptops could compete. And a MacBook Pro, of course.
The size means it is easy to carry and very useable on public transportation and on aircraft.

2) OS X
– Wireless network configuration is a lot more stable than XP’s (but still far from perfect).
– OS X looks awesome and feels next-gen – yum!
– … and you can more or less forget about using an antivirus scanner.

3) Great screen
Bright, crisp, the right resolution for the size – at least as long as you can adjust font sizes in the programs you are using.

WHAT ELSE…
– Some people were worried that the new keyboard design would be a problem. I really like it.

– The screen is of the glossy kind, meaning lights behind you will be reflected in it. In practice, this has been a very small problem for me, and I feel the increased clarity the glossy layer provides far outweighs the increased reflections.

– Overall stability has, for me, not been better on OS X than on XP, probably due to me running beta software (specifically VLC and Azureus) that’s able to crash the OS. Also, I have been using an external harddrive with a big (100 gig) NTFS partition, and experienced several crashes caused by the NTFS disk drivers. (The drive has since been reformatted to FAT32.)

– 2006-era 3D gaming is not a possibility on this and other laptops with the Intel GMA950 chipset. It’s sad, but that’s why you have a dedicated gaming PC under your desk!

– I’m using Boot Camp to run Windows-only software that I need at school. It’s annoying to dual boot, but it works, and with the latest Boot Camp update, the MacBook is fully functional in Windows, webcam and all. And installing Windows on it is actually easier than installing Windows on a standard PC, since Apple’s Boot Camp installer lets you burn 1 CD with all the drivers Windows needs for your Mac.

CONCLUSION
A Windows laptop can give you the same performance for less money in a less reliable and less elegant manner. However, if you like computers that look good, are portable, reliable and free from viruses and worms, then a Mac is the way to go. Besides, with Boot Camp, you can always keep Windows on the side, if you need it.

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10 Responses to “The Apple MacBook, three months on”

  1. Margrethe Says:

    I prefer my Dell laptop:) I agree that your Mac looks nicer and I like that it’s slim, but the size of the Dell hasn’t been a problem for me, and I like the battery time and the speakers on my machine. But I’m probably incompetent in this case, since I would always prefer my machine/laptop over yours;)

  2. Matt Says:

    Regarding your point about not being able to switch batteries without completely shutting the machine down:

    The MacBooks (and the recent Powerbooks) utilize a safe sleep feature. Meaning, right before it goes to sleep, OS X writes memory to disk (kind of like windows hibernate). So, when you pull the battery out and turn it back on, everything will be fine. The memory state will be loaded from disk. It does take slightly longer than waking up from a normal sleep, though. Probably about 10 seconds on my MacBook.

  3. Are Wold Says:

    Thanks for the tip! Actually, just a couple of days ago I think I noticed this feature – my battery died while the Mac was sleeping, so I thought I would be booting a clean OS X session when I plugged it in. Not so. What you describe happened – it loaded the memory from disk.

    A very nice feature, one that makes it a lot more interesting to get a second battery – and one my Mac retailer wasn’t aware of… :p It also explains why going to sleep can be slow sometimes.

  4. airrunner Says:

    I’m using a MacBook Pro and I have to agree on a few similar points. The main part is the heat issue. The MBP will also get very hot (especially when you push it to it’s limits). Being a Windows to Mac switcher, I also hate the little annoying things like minimising/maximising of the windows. Obviously games are not the Mac’s strong point. However, I am very happy with my MBP. I love the look/design and functionality. I really like OS X. I have not had any issues so far even while using VLC and Azureus. The only thing that ever crashed on me so far was Firefox (but it has not happened again).

  5. themonkman Says:

    Even after the latest SMC Fan firmware update for OS X, I do have to admit that it runs a little too hot for my tastes. I found a way around this, though, and it’s by using a little free utility called SMCfancontrol, and I found it here: http://www.versiontracker.com/dyn/moreinfo/macosx/31029

    It states it’s for the Macbook Pro, but it works just fine on my black Macbook. It allows you to set the minimum fan speed up to 6400rpm or so. It certainly helps cool things down a little by overriding the systems pre-set fan speeds for particular temperatures. The only downside is that if you’ve got the fans ramped high up, it can get fairly loud and your battery life isn’t quite as good. I mainly use it for when I’m flying and prefer to have it on my lap (and plugged into AC power).

  6. Are Wold Says:

    Thanks for the comment! I’ve downloaded the fan control program, but haven’t tried it yet, as I’ve actually started to grow accustomed to the heat, and implemented “workarounds”, such as always placing the Mac on top of the sleeve I transport it in. It would be great for the scenario you describe, though. If only all jets could have AC power in all seats!

    That’s what civilization is all about – AC power and wireless internet!

  7. miaow miaow Says:

    I bought a new Intel MBP bout 2 months ago and haven’t had any of your issues. universal access sets global font sizes for your shortsightesness, the anodised aluminum case is very sturdy. OSX is super stable except for when I play DDR games in OSX and put it to sleep – same problemo, but force quit fixes that. i haven’t had any issues with wireless, though I have my CCNA so I understand all the jargon. my only real gripe is itunes inability to play wma formatted songs – no codecs available. true the MB and MBP get really hot – esp. the MBP with the Aluminum case, the day I got my stm bag for it I put it in with the vent facing down – BIG MISTAKE. MBP must have reached about 120 dedress F!! case, everything!!!
    Overall its a beautiful piece of hardware, the 256 MB ATI X1600 comes in real handy :)

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