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MacBook Sound

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Some more notes on the MacBook and the issue of sound.

The Sound we want

First of all I still find the speakers surprisingly good for a portable computer. No Hi-Fi, mind you, but quite excellent, if with a little too much bass and ‘warmth’, for a long-time owner of a Titanium Powerbook owner.

What I find a little creepy, though, is the volume control. While on the iBook I usually needed to turn the volume all the way or nearly all the way down for things to to be too loud, on the MacBook I need to turn it at least two thirds up to be reasonably loud. The whole volume level curve feels quite different, rising slowly at the low level and giving significant differences for the last three steps or so. Quite distinct from the iBook (and PowerBook) where the scale ‘felt’ much more linear.

All this is even more noticable when using headphones or hooking the MacBook up to the stereo. That said, I find the sound output (which is labeled line-out on the MacBook and IIRC was supposed to be for headphones on the iBook) to give much clearer sound on the MacBook. On the iBook I could easily hear some background static when using headphones and even more static when the hard drive was busy. None of those were too noticeable when using the hard to drive iPod headphones, but the static was very – annoyingly when there was a moment of quiet – clear when using the much more sensitive Sony headphones I recently got. As I’ve come not to expect any decent engineering in that area from Apple (even my PowerMac 8200 put hard drive activity out to the line-out, so this is not exactly a new problem), I was pleasantly surprised that, with respect to static, the quality of the sound output seems to be much better on the MacBook.

The sound coming through the line-out also sounds a little different than it did on the iBook. A bit ‘flatter’ perhaps – if I have to pick one of those meaningless words. While I’m generally not a fan of a ‘warm’ or bass-loaded sound, this sometimes feels a little too flat for me. (Any other opinions? I can’t really compare here.)

The only thing that’s bad about the line-out connector is it’s placement. Or rather the placement of the hole in the case to put a lock in. Whoever designed or approved this, should be forced to insert and remove a headphone plug – particularly one of the typical angled ones – while the computer is secured with a lock on a daily basis. It’s just very fiddly.

Lock and headphones plugged into the MacBook

And – finally – after many years of Apple’s dumb-assedness of having to save a cent or two in manufacturing – I have a portable computer with a line-in connector again. Nice.

Sounds we didn’t ask for

First of all there are the mechanical activities of the machine: Most prominently the hard drive and occasionally the DVD drive. The hard drive is very quiet. I can’t tell whether the MacBook’s case is better at keeping the sound inside or whether the drive – identifying itself as ‘ST96812AS’ – just is much quieter than the drive I had before. I don’t care too much either, as long as everything is nice and quiet.

I do have the impression, though, that the machine’s temperature balance is very sensitive to hard drive activity. A heavy copying operation seems be a good way to get the fan running at non-trivial levels. And while the fan seems to have a number of different speeds and tries to regulate itself clevery, you can easily turn it on by generating a significant load on the machine. Thanks to the MacBook’s general speed, however, I find that I rarely use more than ‘50%’ (out of 200%, that’s what the system displays, no idea where they learned their maths) of the CPU resources, so it’s not too much of an issue in average use.

Then there is the DVD drive which I also find much quieter than the slot-loading drives I had on both my old PowerBook and last year’s iBook. That again is very welcome. However, the computer or the drive have the strange habit of triggering what sounds like the eject mechanism when launching an application that wants to access the drive and no disk is inserted. That may be a rare occurrence, but it’s definitely new and I find it very irritating (I’d also classify this as an ‘idiotic’ feature that I’d expect to not find in a Mac but only in idiotic hardware).

On to the less positive topics. First there’s the processor whining. Luckily it’s not too bad on my machine. I can only hear it if it’s really quiet and even then it only appears when the load is really low. Seeing that I am living next to a street and playing music most of the time, it even took me a while to notice this. Bad engineering? For sure. It may sound overly conservative, but I don’t think that you should be able to play scales on your computer’s circuitry. Luckily, this time around, the audible effect of the defect isn’t as bad as it was with my PowerBook’s screen lighting, so I’m going to spare myself the pain of having to deal with Apple’s customer service (who’d probably declare the phenomenon to be in the unpublished ‘spec’).

Finally there is the mooing sound problem. It’s described and discussed in detail at Pierre Igot’s site and seems to vary from MacBook to MacBook. I’ve had it about a handful of times (particularly when the computer wasn’t sitting on the desk perfectly horizontally while running on a low load), but it’s not a common problem for me. Doing what sounds like the fan going on and off and on and off and so on ad nauseam, certainly isn’t perfect engineering, but luckily I’m not really affected by it (however, I don’t want to consider myself ‘lucky’ for being spared of that on a regular basis, it’s what I expect - if people claim that’s ‘within spec’, I’d say their spec is wrong and whoever approved that is a moron who should be forced to ‘eat his own dogfood’). As I doubt that this behaviour of the machines is implemented purely in hardware, there’s still hope for the affected people that some system or firmware upgrade will solve it. Not that I’d recommend holding your breath…

In total, I’m quite happy overall with the MacBook’s sounds as I experience them today. But the fact that some of the widely reported problems do exist on my machines as well in a minor fashion, makes me a bit uneasy about what the future will bring.

July 6, 2006, 0:14

Tagged as hardware.


Comment by dan: User icon

I find that I rarely use more than ‘50%’ (out of 200%

I wrote a little app to show off the dual cpu. The first time I ran it I was gratified to find that it was running at ‘100%’ cpu (my code never usually works first time). I showed this to other biochemists and they laughed and pointed out that ‘100%’ was obviously only half my capacity - obvious? My arse!

My MacBook’s ‘line-out’ is labelled with a little pair of headphones.

July 6, 2006, 13:16

Comment by ssp: User icon

My MacBook’s ‘line-out’ is labelled with a little pair of headphones.

Yeah, that’s odd. I seems like the MacBook is a bit schizo on that one. The icon and the manual call it a headphone port while the software (e.g. the Sound control panel) call the output ‘Line Out’.

July 6, 2006, 14:42

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