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MacBook 2

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Continuing yesterday’s report on first impressions of the MacBook. This time with focus on some of the details. And starting with an important one.

Speed

The MacBook feels fast. Faster than I expected. Some things like window resizing feel much smoother than they were on the iBook. And copying things to and from the hard drive appears to be faster as well. It’s this thing about computer speed: From time to time I thought my old Titanium PowerBook (G4 @ 400MHz) was a bit slow. But it never mattered that much unless I was compiling things or so. Most of the speed problems seemed to be I/O related anyway. Then I got the iBook (G4 @ 1330MHz) which was quite a bit faster. And while in each everyday task of its own this apparently huge speed bump didn’t make a big difference, everything just felt smoother.

And the MacBook gives another step in that direction. It’s really surprising. Things which started being a bit slow in iTunes like scrolling through my >10000 tracks iTunes library finally go smoothly again. It’s little details like these which make things feel a lot faster.

Perhaps it’s the second ‘core’ which gives the greater smoothness? At least when trying to turn it off, things starting feeling more sluggish again. (No real testing, though, just my impression.)

One thing that really bugged me for a whole day is that running Activity Monitor suggested that the computer is using about 50% of its CPU cycles at all times. However, I couldn’t actually see any process eating up those cycles. A really odd thing. And one that kept the fan running at its lowest speed almost constantly. When poking around a bit I noticed that my process numbers seemed to have cycled all the way through their 216 range in a few hours. So I guessed some process must be starting and quitting so quickly that it doesn’t appear in Activity Monitor with its long update intervals. And only then I remembered that a friend with an Intel iMac asked me about pretty much the same processor usage problem but he luckily saw that nmbd was running wild. So I suggested to him to turn off Windows sharing which solved the problem immediately. — — Thus I applied my own solution to the problem and idling processor usage almost immediately sank to pretty much zero with the fan turning itself off. Much better. Googling suggests that others are seeing this problem as well.

Heat & Ventilation

There has been a lot of talking about the MacBooks’ temperature. And from what I can tell after a day, people are right. The machine runs rather hot. Compared to my old Titanium Powerbook at least. The iBook ran quite hot as well and I’d say the MacBook runs even hotter. But not much. Particularly in the region beneath the W key there seems to be a hot spot.

The fan did go on quite a few times and kept running then. But at least at its lowest level (of three?), its noise is tolerable. Sound-wise better than the iBook, which also liked turning on its fan. But worse than the Powerbook G4 which had a loud fan that almost never came to life.

DVD drive

The DVD drive appears to be more quiet than the iBook’s. Which I welcome. What is a bit odd, though, is that pressing the eject key when no disk is inserted will trigger the ejection mechanism nonetheless. Imperfect.

Keyboard

I like the new keyboard’s clean look. But I had some difficulties finding the right keys at the beginning. While typing this text, I got quite used to it though. And it’s not bad. Personally I’d prefer it to be a bit harder and the keys to lift more. The space bar and backspace keys sound a bit cheap, I’d say. (According to my office-mate, the sound is en-par with the iBook but it’s louder than the Titanium Powerbook was – an interesting comparison that hadn’t come to my mind.)

Usage of the keyboard is slighly harder than more traditional keyboards. At least for exotic keyboard operations – which I love to do. In particular, due to the very strict separation of the keys by the little bars in the iBook, it is harder to hold down two keys with one finger. On traditional keyboards, for example, it’s rather easy to just slam your thumb on the Command and Option keys and then press ‘W’ or ‘I’ or whatever you want. With the MacBook’s keyboard doing that is possible as well but requires more coordination because of the little bar between the two keys which can make your thumb drop a little on one side and reduce the pressure on the other key. As the keyboard’s touch is quite soft, it’s easy to not notice this as well.

What’s great about the keyboard, apart from the extra F12 key that is separate from the eject key as on all newer Apple lapburners, is that Apple finally cleaned up the inner logic of their keyboard as well. Not only does it appear as a USB device together with the trackpad, this also means that the caps lock light isn’t hard-wired anymore. In particular if you prefer to deactivate the caps lock key (via the Keyboard preference pane), the light won’t come on when you accidentally hit it. That just used to drive me mad on the iBook where the light would be on for no good reason and it’d even stay on across restarts of the machine (meaning that you’d fail to enter your password properly when trying to log in after the restart).

Trackpad

I still haven’t got used to the trackpad properly yet. It’s so huge that I keep thinking it’s too huge. I’m a bit scared about that as this increased the chance that a finger may accidentally rest on the trackpad. E.g. when I’m typing and need to do some mouse click in between I usually leave my left hand in the typing position on the keyboard and quickly do whatever I have to do with the right (or even just the right hand’s thumb if it’s just a single click). In these situations it’s essential to not accidentally touch the trackpad with the heel of the left hand as that would interfere with the intended trackpad usage.

I’m optimistic that I can get used to the large trackpad, which is a great idea otherwise, but I’m not totally convinced that a larger trackpad is actually better to use. In a way I suspect that they chose the trackpad’s size just for looks. As things are in the MacBook, the proportions look rather nice.

Finally, let me mention the trackpad key. It’s worse than any trackpad key I had before. Its material is a little too soft and bendy and it doesn’t have a clear ‘click’ point when being pressed and isn’t engineered well enough for its width. When pressing the key on one side, I expect all of it to move down in a clear and straight way and give a clear tactile response once the click is done (like in the Titanium Powerbooks, say). Unfortunately this isn’t the case with the MacBook at all.

Camera

I was looking forward to the camera. Just for the fun bit of it. I never had a video camera on a computer before, so it’s great fun. Yeah, PhotoBooth is a bit crap but it’s still a fun way to show off. People just love looking ugly and distorted for some reason. Sure, the camera’s quality as bad as you know it from mobile phones and while it tries to adjust to ambient light, that adjustment isn’t too good, particularly with my desk lamp. But I suppose all of it is good enough for the video chats we’ll be able to have now and in the close future, so it’s not a big deal.

My first tries with the camera suggest that it’s made with people sitting very close to the computer in mind. Sitting at my desk using an external keyboard made me look quite distant and small. I quite like the thinking that leads to iChat displaying a mirror image rather than what the camera actually sees. So simple, so intuitive such a good idea! And best of all – it’s one that’s so natural that many people won’t even notice it’s happening.

I’ve seen people claim that the camera is better than a proper iSight. Can that be true? I mean the iSight looks like a proper camera with an actual lens and all.

The next thing to do is trying to find out whether that green light next to the camera is hard-wired to camera activity or whether it’s controlled by software and open to all sorts of abuse.

Remote Control

And while I’m at the gimmick side of things, let me mention the remote as well. Yeah, Front Row is shiny but it’s not particularly useful if you hardly ever watch DVDs and have too many songs in your iTunes library to make scrolling through the list anything but tiresome. However, the flatmates were impressed by the remote and the slick Front Row effects, so – for Apple at least – this may be wisely wasted money.

Actually, I quite like having the remote control myself. If not for the whole Front Row goodness, but just for iTunes control. The thing is that the lowest volume my stereo lets me set up is still a bit too loud for me fall asleep to it (this results from both the stereo wanting to produce full quality sound even at the lowest level and me having the habit of wanting extremely quiet music to fall asleep to). Hence I like to listen to music from the computer to fall asleep to as I can simply reduce the input volume that way and get a more quiet sound.

The bad thing about that is that with the computer sitting on my desk it’s hard to quickly adjust the volume or restart a track (when listening to audio books, say!) without having to get up. And that’s where the little remote control can shine for me. Testing that it works across the room was one of the first things I did.

Unlike the iMac remote control, this one isn’t magnetic btw.

Speakers

I used to have a first generation Titanium Powerbook, which always sounded as if it were the computer with the tinniest speakers ever. Things improved considerably with just the following generation of Titanium Powerbooks later in the same year. And it was reasonably good in the iBooks including the one I just sold. And the MacBook’s speakers sound even a bit richer with a surprising bit of bass for such small speakers. Particularly for such invisible speakers.

I thin the speakers emit the sound out of the computer’s back and it is then reflected back towards the user by the opened lid. Quite clever, good sounding for a portable computer and a very clean look. I like it.

Case

So what about the MacBook case? It’s nice and sleek and rather shiny. It has too many holes for my taste – owing to the remote’s IR sensor, the sleep light, the camera, its light and the microphone. While these are invisible on the rich kids’ black iBooks, they are clearly visible on the white one. Couldn’t they have hidden the IR sensor somehwere else? And did they really need to make the sleep light an old-fashioned light which requires a hole in the case? I thought the iBook’s sleep light which shone through the plastic was just perfect.

One interesting thing about the new sleep light is that they seem to have changed its meaning a little. While the light will still breathe or pulse when the computer is sleeping, it also has a new state in which it is constantly on. That seems to happen when the computer is semi-asleep, having turned off the screen but still running. I have seen people not understand that the machine is running on old Powerbooks when the screen was in energy saving mode because there was no light coming from it in that state. From that point of view the new light looks like a good idea. On the other hand, I find it confusing to have a light that goes off once you move the mouse and the screen is turned on.

The MacBook’s case plastic seems to be a new thing as well. The glorious times of the first generation iPod or G3 iBooks are long gone. Back then Apple used this fancy method of putting a transparent cover on top of a white shell to get a distinct look. With the G4 iBooks much uglier white plastic was used for the lid. similarly the iBook G4 lacked the shiny finish on the handrest but just had plastic instead. All in the same colour for the case and the keyboard.

The MacBook gives us a bit more contrast again with the keys being lighter than the rest of the case and the outer sides of the MacBook looking the same all the way around in pure white while the plastic on the inner side is a bit greyish. That plastic which is also used for the handrest feels nice and smooth and slightly soft. It feels quite nice – a bit too touchy sweaty perhaps on hot days – but I really hope it stays this way and doesn’t wear off quickly because of its softness. Let’s just hope that this or this is just an exception (or a hoax).

Unlike the plastic on the inside of the MacBook, the plastic on its outer side is quite hard. And its edges are rather hard too. When trying to use the MacBook with the hands firmly resting on the handrests and the arms coming from below (think sofa or bed…) I found that the hard edge of the outer case will stick quite uncomfortably in my wrists. The design isn’t too good in that respect.

In addition the case’s plastic is quite smelly. Returning to my office after lunch, it smelled like entering a store full of cheap sports clothing. Whether this is the smell of sweatshops or that of poorly chosen cheap plastic remains to be seen. It’s not pleasant and I really hope it vanishes soon.

A final good point about the case are the MacBook’s ‘feet’. Traditionally many iBook and Powerbook users had trouble with the feet falling off at same stage if they didn’t take a lot of care every single time the device was moved. Those feet just fell off too easily. The MacBook finally has nice and large feet which on the first sight look like they might be attached well enough and not easily be torn off.

'Foot of a MacBook

Ports

All the ports including the electric one are now on the left of the computer. And the port alignment has been changed to a vertically centred one from the iBook. But the most welcome change from my point of view is a very tiny one which many people won’t notice: In the iBooks the FireWire port was the wrong way round. Not only did it feel unnatural to insert the FireWire cable with its ‘edgy’ side pointing towards rather than away from you. When using the iPod cable, you’d always see the Apple logo rather than the FireWire logo on the plug. Which means the orientation was just the opposite from what it usually is. And this has been fixed in the MacBook. Hooray:

Photo of MacBook ports on the left hand side

Even better, I finally have a portable Mac with an audio input. In their insanity Apple saw it fit to omit these from many of their computers in the past years. Meaning that the machines I bought in 2001 and 2005 had less audio capabilities than those bought in 1996 or 1993. There’s even something optical and digital going on in those sound jacks. But I prefer not to care at this stage.

The only thing I don’t like about the MacBook’s ports is the fact that the little hole where you can fix the computer lock is very far at the front of the machine. This means that the biggest and ugliest thing you’ll attach to your computer will also be the frontmost and most visible one. The fact that it is on the left hand side which makes the combination locks harder to use because the numbers are upside down doesn’t help either.

More?

That’s it for my first day hardware observations and commentary. I hope things will work out well in the long run and there won’t be the breakage, discolourings, or other ‘within spec’ effects that made Apple famous. I am tempted to add some notes on the software and the Universal Binary situation tomorrow.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

June 14, 2006, 0:48

Tagged as hardware, Mac OS X.

Comments

Comment by d.w.: User icon

My experience with a dual G5 is that a machine with a second processor seems to be less likely to “hit the wall” performance-wise in the course of typical, not-intensive usage. In other words, the sort of temporary activity spikes that can sometimes, irritatingly, bring things to a screeching halt on a uniprocessor system (scrolling a huge list, opening iCal (heh)) are less likely to hit you.

The optical digital audio output is potentially nice, as it means that, say, for a party, you’d be able to plug directly into a proper stereo receiver with a digital input (my bedroom stereo has one, so I just use the digital output from my Airport Express and everything sounds nice with just a single thin cable, rather than messing with a pair of RCA jacks.) This is a fun, albeit motly uselsss, application of that digital output in conjunction with a 5.1 sound system.

June 14, 2006, 16:09

Comment by ssp: User icon

The dual core/processor thing seems to be a good idea then :) Have one of them do the housekeeping chores while the other does the real work or so.

I’m not into the digital audio stuff. Basically I was convinced that the (affordable) digital amplifiers just can’t match their analogue siblings. And the whole world of digital audio connections seems to be messy and not particularly well-standardised from what I’ve been told.

June 15, 2006, 11:06

Comment by Ray: User icon

Hi, The remote control for Macbook is also magnetic. Stuck it on the leftside of your screen in the middle et voila!

June 20, 2006, 13:03

Comment by ssp: User icon

Thanks Ray. Seems like I didn’t look for the MacBook’s magnets in the right place.

June 21, 2006, 11:38

Comment by fox-orian: User icon

I just bought my MacBook. I gotta say I agree with the trackpad button the most, it’s too squishy. I’m wondering if I can unscrew the trackpad to add some reinforcement under the button…

I dont tend to think the MacBook has a ton of holes on it. I used to have an IBM ThinkPad for a portable computer, and those ugly things have holes every which way. I welcome my macbooks tastefully planned and minimal “holes” — I do agree I would’ve liked to see an INTENRAL power-light, though. I like that it dosen’t stay on while the screen is on. It makes sense because if the screen is on — the computer is quite obviously running, and you dont need the white light in the corner distracting you since it’s closer.

I also like how the DVD-Drive tries to eject a disc regardless of if there’s one in there or not, it actually shows that apple WAS thinking about the possibility of a disc being inserted without the MacBook realizing it. If it dosen’t realize there’s a disc in there, it won’t eject it easily, and the drives have no manual eject to make things more frustrating. I’ve had friends iBooks eat discs and we’d have to find elaborate ways to eject them. On the macbook, just hit eject and chances are it will make an honest attempt anyway — I like that.

July 9, 2006, 22:14

Comment by ssp: User icon

According to this report the squishy trackpad button situation can be improved putting a bit of paper between the trackpad and the battery.

That looks promising, but it hasn’t worked for me yet as somehow my folded paper seemed a bit too thick and the button wouldn’t click at all after I inserted it.

July 9, 2006, 22:54

Comment by fox-orian: User icon

Forgot to add:

Also, I love my MacBook for almost everything, EXCEPT that the rubber feet are exceedingly SHALLOW. They stick out from the bottom of the laptop MAYBE 1mm. That’s not very good. If you move the macbook, [which is very hard to do to begin with — I dont like how GRIPPING the feet are, I wish they could allow a little bit of slidingness,] the laptop is so close to the surface it’s sitting on that if there’s a peice of dirt or a crumb or something, the poor macbook is gonna grind itself up real nice. I’ve already gotten a pretty bad scratch on the battery just from sliding the macbook a few iches on a hardwood table. I’ve been slowly removing it with Brasso, which works, SLOWLY, on macbook plastic. So for now, I went to the local store and picked up some gray felt funriture pads. The’re only slightly bigger in diameter, but are MUCH deeper. With these things applied, my MacBook stands JUST high enough to allow the MagSafe cable to travel beneath — but nothing thicker will. At least with these, I can slide my macbook around to show people whats on the screen without having to pick it up or worry about destorying its underside. [At an art college, you can understand how alot of the workspaces dont exact have the cleanest, most even surfaces.]

July 10, 2006, 1:34

Comment by fox-orian: User icon

Whoa, thanks for the link to that paper trick! It works beautifully.

It worked for me. The paper definately dosen’t have to be tick at all. If the strip IS about 1/8 to 2/8ths wide, all you have to do is fold it 90 degrees first, then fold it over only a few times into a tiny square — then cut off the extra and stick down there. You know you have too much if the edge of the battery near the coin latch isn’t flush with the rest of the case. Once the battery becomes flush with the paper applied, then you’re good.

Such a simple little mod, and my mouse button is clicky like my friends powerbooks.

July 10, 2006, 10:23

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