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MacBook ho-hum

1100 words on

The Apple PR machine did their little dance again and introduced almost a full line of new laptops. Apparently they are all cut from a single block of aluminium. With a bit of luck that could mean that they’re less likely to break than Apple’s plastic or Titanium machines. But luck usually isn’t with me when it comes to things not breaking.

Many people will be delighted that MacBooks now come in metal as well, and finally getting a case for the MacBook Pro that doesn’t look like ass (two friggin hinges and a hole in the bezel) probably doesn’t hurt. On the other hand, having a whole line of laptops with pimpy looking glass display makes you question Apple’s sense of æsthetics. Or not, they’re mostly known for their business acumen these days anyway.

Personally I have been thinking about replacing my MacBook yet again just to make sure I’m rid of it before it will break down completely. Totally anti-social behaviour of course but - hey! - according to Apple authorised service personnel there’s nothing wrong with the machine! With the back-to-school iPod promo still running, this may be an opportunity.

And not just an opportunity to get rid of my current machine but also one to get a machine that can handle 4GB of RAM. Somehow those 2GB which sound like they should be plenty - I’d say I’m doing less with the machine than I did two years ago - always feel seriously cramped and my hard drive regularly is a swap file haven.

Of course a question when (and if) buying a new machine would be whether to go for another of those plastic models with their built-to-crack handrests which have a rather attractive price now or whether to go for an item of a first generation Apple product. One which has a nicer case than its predecessor but sounds a bit like it isn’t actually faster or can do more.

In fact, the new model seems to come without a FireWire port. Now isn’t that interesting? The point that my 3G iPod requires FireWire to be charged may seem minor. But on a bigger scale isn’t this strange? Is this just an indication of the inability of Apple engineers to put a FireWire port with all its implications on power consumption in the machine? Or is it a stronger sign that DV is considered dead (I suppose you can Always get an EOS 5D Ⅱ for high quality video via USB these days…)? And what about the wonderful target disk mode, no news about its replacement seem to be available yet.

The odd thing about FireWire is that USB-2 trumps it in numbers and that in casual usage like the occasional Time Machine run you’ll rarely notice a difference. But somehow - possibly also because of OS X rotten-ish USB implementation (?) - when you need to copy a load of data quickly, FireWire always seems to win hands down.

A further turn-off is the fact that Apple elected to introduce yet another video connector on their machines, Mini Display Port, a custom tiny version of a connector which may or may not become accepted in the market - along with a series of overpriced and most likely incompatible adaptors of course. Is anybody still able to list all video connectors and adaptors that Apple shipped in the past years? That’s pure user-hostility. [Old-schoolers may even find it ironic that back in the early 1990s people bitched about Apple’s ‘incompatible’ video connectors, even though things weren’t less compatible than they are today.]

On the other hand there’s nice stuff. Like the no-button trackpad. Woot! I’ll be first in line when it comes to ridiculing multi-button mouse proponents and here we go: no buttons at all. It’ll be interesting to see to which extent multi-touch stuff can be used by applications and to which extent it will actually be useful. My guess is that it will mostly be used for gimmicks as - unlike in the iPhone - many people will have to run software on machines without those features. Also, from a usability point of view I’d say that multi-finger gestures can at most be an optional way of using software both for discoverability and accessibility reasons. Still a nice toy! I’ll also be interested to hear how people deal with that huge trackpad. I already find the old MacBook’s trackpad to be a bit on the large side - meaning the hard- and software will have to be really clever when it comes to distinguishing intended and unintended trackpad touching.

What I find disappointing is that Apple aren’t bolder when it comes to optical media. Apple seem to hate Blue Ray (all in the interest of the customer of course) and I suspect they don’t see much use for optical media when you can buy all the music and films they think you should enjoy on their internet store. Furthermore there are cheap high-capacity USB sticks around which are much more convenient than optical media. Which to me looks a bit like many people simply won’t use their optical drive much [when did you last use yours] and that simply kicking those out of the normal notebooks would have been a bold but reasonable step (just as shipping a machine without SCSI or ADB back in the days was).

Finally, Apple offer a redesigned screen. Does anybody care? I don’t know. All I know is that on the one hand it’s a neat idea to put a laptop charger into the screen (and a slightly less neat implementation of that idea with a bunch of cables coming out of the screen), but on the other hand it’s a rather expensive device which probably won’t appeal to people who actually need a good screen. So it’s hard to see the point of it besides not needing to buy the overpriced adaptor those new MacBooks require to drive other screens. Well done.

That said, wouldn’t it finally be a good time if all those manufacturers of electronic junk could simply agree on a standard power connector or two. Many - but by far not enough - small devices can be charged on USB ports already which is good. But this needs to go further. And the next step will be that the higher powered portable devices should all have standardised chargers as well. Perhaps we need some regulation there… now that people are crying for it in banking, it may be an opportunity to force companies to be more user-friendly as well.

Dreaming on…

October 14, 2008, 22:19

Tagged as apple, macbook.

Comments

Comment by carl: User icon

I’m not a “switcher” b/c I still use Windows (via VMWare) (and I’ve been using Macs for about two years), but you make a number of very valid points about how Apple does business — points which have me seriously debating whether my next purchase should be a Dell or something (I’ve used Dell before and it’s always been great). When I examine the new MacBooks, I am underwhelmed by all the focus on the new manufacturing process; the process might be a great advance, but I don’t really care how a company does the work as long as the machine works. It seems that the price increase — other than the new video chips — is mainly due to the new manufacturing process (as far as MacBooks, not MB Pros, are concerned) … and while I’ve read some people rejoice that the 12-inch Powerbook has returned in the form of the new MacBook, the lack of Firewire belies such a belief … your point about yet another video connector is well-taken: I find myself a bit confused, having to wonder what’s the purpose of the new connector and why it’s needed. I like my Mac and some of the Mac-only, third-party software; but I find myself worrying that the deeper I get into the Apple world the more likely I’ll be trapped by some change that simply makes it more difficult to use anything but a Mac or transition smoothly to the next generation of Mac. One final point: Macs are a product and if you can’t afford it then don’t buy it, or if you think it’s too expensive don’t buy it … BUT … the MacBook price increase, to me, almost feels like a slap in the face (I don’t count the $999 b/c, let’s face it, everyone now knows that that’s the old model, the discounted older version). $200 or $300 increase? I was not one who bought into the $800 rumor; actually, I thought they’d try to keep the price the same. Anyway, that’s my .0002 cents.

October 15, 2008, 12:25

Comment by g: User icon

Don’t go for the big burn, again. Go for the small flaws… Revision B. Always.

October 15, 2008, 12:53

Comment by maurits: User icon

The Chinese actually require USB-compatible chargers for mobile phones these days:

http://www.wirelessnetdesignline.com/howto/broadband/202800278

Regarding the video connector — DisplayPort is not something that Apple cooked up just for fun, it’s instead backed by major industry players, and there are sound technical reasons why one would want to replace DVI by something more capable. So while your bitching about user hostility is understandable from a superficial point of view, I doubt that it’s justified if you look at the issue in depth. See, e.g.,

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DisplayPort#AdvantagesoverDVI

http://www.edn.com/index.asp?layout=article&articleid=CA6594089

October 15, 2008, 14:18

Comment by LKM: User icon

The two main reasons for the new connector are probably that it costs Apple no licensing to use it, and that they don’t need dual-DVI to drive high-res displays. I’m pretty sure that within a few years, most computers will use DisplayPort instead of DVI.

I don’t mind the lack of Bluray. Not having Firewire on the MacBook, though, that sucks.

October 15, 2008, 16:25

Comment by bec: User icon

“when you need to copy a load of data quickly, FireWire always seems to win hands down”

this isn’t because of the OSX implementation, it’s actually based in the architecture of USB 2.0 and Firewire. There are bunches of benchmarks supporting you here :)

October 15, 2008, 17:44

Comment by ssp: User icon

@maurits:

The Chinese actually require USB-compatible chargers for mobile phones these days:

That’s great. Now the ‘developed’ world just needs to catch up :)

Regarding the video connector — DisplayPort is not something that Apple cooked up just for fun, it’s instead backed by major industry players, and there are sound technical reasons why one would want to replace DVI by something more capable.

I guess there will always be a better potential future standard. Still, it seems unclear why Apple managed to use ‘mini-DVI’ on the MacBooks, ‘micro-DVI’ on the MacBook Air and now ‘Mini DisplayPort’ on their new machines. One would expect a company with a bit of foresight to have found a better way there.

Also, Google suggests that the ‘Mini DisplayPort’ Apple use is in no way a standard that is publicly documented and available in a wide range of devices of different companies. All this while the DisplayPort web site suggests that the normal DisplayPort connector has already been designed to be particularly small so it can be fit into tiny devices. Which suggests that either the DisplayPort design isn’t all that great – if they have to be second-guessed to get a reasonable result in the first generation of machines already – or that Apple just needlessly invented an incompatible adaptor.

So while your bitching about user hostility is understandable from a superficial point of view, I doubt that it’s justified if you look at the issue in depth. See, e.g.,

I guess that depends on your interpretation of the term ‘justified’. I can’t judge the technical details, but I suppose you mean ‘technically justified’. Which is at most half of what justified means. Particularly when it comes to screen connectors, the last time I checked everybody but Apple was still using VGA, not even digital ports on their portable machines. Is there really any practical advantage that the DisplayPort connector gives people?

@bec:

this isn’t because of the OSX implementation, it’s actually based in the architecture of USB 2.0 and Firewire. There are bunches of benchmarks supporting you here

I certainly read such reports, but my – very limited and vastly unscientific experience also suggests that OS X’s USB support seems less than idea speed wise. When having to transfer some large files to a Windows machine, my impression was that FireWire won speed-wise but that on a USB connection Windows’ speed with the same drive was significantly higher than the Mac’s speed on that drive.

(lovely icon, BTW)

@LKM:

The two main reasons for the new connector are probably that it costs Apple no licensing to use it

Interesting point, never thought about this. (Cheapskates!)

I’m pretty sure that within a few years, most computers will use DisplayPort instead of DVI.

Let’s hope you’re right about this. People said the same about DVI a few years ago. Apple just seem to be a bit too keen to bet their customers’ money on such future speculations. If it’s going to be a big standard it would still have helped if Apple used the standard connector as well.

October 16, 2008, 14:16

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