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MacBook #3

1508 words on

With the yearly computer shuffle bringing a new MacBook to my desk, I have the ‘opportunity’ to judge yet another machine. Of course it’s essentially like the previous two MacBooks I had. It looks the same and doubt I could tell them apart performance-wise. Yet, there are differences.


memory usage diagram from Activity Monitor My previous machine could only handle 3GB of RAM. So I stuck with the 2GB I had all the way through as 2GB chips were much more pricey back then and I wasn’t too sure how well mixing different sizes of chips worked. I used the opportunity of getting the new machine to upgrade to 4GB from the measly 1GB it comes with. Not only is RAM for these machines ridiculously cheap these days (if you don’t buy with Apple), having the 4GB actually makes a big difference. I won’t claim that I actually understand why this is the case as Unix memory management remains a mystery to me (and, I claim, to everybody else). In particular I don’t think that I am using the machine so heavily that I should actually require 2GB of RAM. But OS X prefers to disagree.

So I gave in and now I can actually run a crappy photo management software, a music player, a web browser, an e-mail application, a text editor and a virtual machine while still having free memory. Fan-fucking-tastic! While I don’t really care about free memory per se, having it seems to make the system less sluggish. And I certainly care for that.

Shitty screen

Back in the mid 1990s everybody moved from 8-bit 256 colour graphics to the full glory of 24-bit with ‘millions’ of colours. Apple was always a bit ahead of the curve and people using Windows could enjoy less colourful icons a a bit longer. How times change. Apparently Apple don’t give a damn about graphics quality anymore and they seem to design their machines with crappy displays which cannot display the full range of 24bit colour - or anything close to it - anymore. My machine has one of those displays. It renders some photos blatantly ugly and, more significantly, it makes gradients look like shit.

Now of course that wouldn’t need to be a huge problem if only both the hardware and the software were ‘crafted’ by the same company and they cooperated to minimise the ugly looking effects of this (oh well… too much hope there). Instead, I keep seeing ‘dithered’ images on screen which make presumably smooth areas or gradients look pixelish or give plainly coloured rectangles a slightly grainy look. I frequently see the effect in the stuff I see through the transparent menus, or in the light areas of gradients. Once I move my head away from a perfect 90° angle to the screen, they become painfully obvious.

I tried taking photos of this and it turns out to be quite difficult because the camera will resolve all the fine detail of red, green and blue pixels, thus giving an image with many many little lines and elements instead of what I actually perceive. Putting the camera slightly out of focus removes that, but going too far in that direction also blurs away the pixelish dithering.

It looks quite pronounced to me in a vertical linear gradient from black to white which should have two pixels per level of brightness:

Photo of black to white gradient on the MacBook screen

A ‘real life’ example of this can be seen in Safari’s navigation buttons, say…

Photo of gradient in a Safari button on the MacBook screen.

The menu bar in the image also highlights how very sensitive the screen is to changes in the vertical viewing angle - a fact that, btw, I’ve always found extremely stupid: All my Apple laptop displays have had screens with relatively wide horizontal viewing angles - to ensure whoever happens to be sitting next to me on the train can indulge in reading my stuff - but relatively narrow vertical viewing angles - to ensure that even a slightly suboptimal screen angle which may be forced on me by the tray table will lead to an illegible screen.

Even a slight vertical deviation of the viewing angle makes OS X.5’s window shadows look distinctly un-subtle and ugly:

Photo of window shadow on MacBook screen


New keys on the MacBook keyboard This isn’t exactly new but new to me: Apple changed their keyboards a little for the umpteenth time in 2007. One thing they did was to move the volume buttons from F3-5 to F10-12 and adding a set of iTunes control buttons along with those on F7-9. Of course this breaks a decade of muscle memory; well done. I assume one could get used to that if Apple hadn’t introduced Exposé and the Dashboard in the past years, which used the F9-12 keys by default, and now put extra buttons - with what must be the silliest key cap icons in their history - for a subset of their features on F3-4. And those buttons they arranged in a stupid™ way with Exposé being F3 and the Dashboard F4, meaning that you can’t really assign all the three Exposé functions to adjacent buttons now.

The iTunes control buttons seem like a nice idea and the rest wouldn’t be a big deal if they let you swap their order (I don’t care too much about what’s printed on my keyboard, the muscle memory seems to take care of that). Now what will happen when you are using Macs of different ages? Hilarity ensues. A particular question to ask is how you can make all these functions work consistently between both the MacBook’s built-in keyboard and an Extended Ⅱ (or any other USB keyboard that’s not a current Apple one). In case you figure it out, be sure to let me know and to count the number of steps.

I doubt that it’s possible to do that, btw, because the only way I can see to do it would be to turn off the ‘special’ functions of those keys and simply map the brightness, volume, Exposé and Dashboard settings to the corresponding F-keys. Which will probably render those F-keys useless otherwise.

In addition to that the iTunes control keys utilise the remote control demon (rcd) process to do their job and seem to be non-remappable. Hooray for yet another completely different way of using keys which seems to be totally hard-wired!

A nice touch of the new keyboard is that it comes without a NumLock key. I never figured who actually used it and it did have a habit of getting into the way. Other things I noticed, besides the widely reported decease of the Apple logo from the command keys was that the text on the escape key is now centred. I always liked the old left-aligned design a lot (but then I also disapproved of the typeface change for the keyboard labels). It seems more bland this way.

A final stupid change is the removal of the enter at the right of the space bar. Well, this one has actually been travelling a lot, from being the first key to the right of the space bar, to being the second key to the right of the space bar to oblivion. Consistency is different than this. But even more so, that key is - used to be -  extremely useful because it let you quickly dismiss annoying dialogue boxes with a single finger move while you were using the trackpad. I am using this all the time and hit the newly acquired option key many times in the first days of having this machine. Googling then found me the tool Double Command which lets do plenty of key remappings including the one I want.


Unfortunately the new machine’s fan seems to be much louder than the old machine’s. That’s really annoying. I suspect it may not be installed correctly, if that’s possible, because it occasionally seems to transfer a slight vibration to the MacBook’s case as well. I guess I’ll have to keep an eye on that.

DVD writer

Usually Apple are annoyingly stingy when it comes to providing machines with adequate optical drives. While every other computer maker on the planet will give you an optical drive with all the acronyms there are in the standard package, Apple always tried to use those acronyms as an ‘incentive’ for upselling. Amusingly this latest model of the white MacBook, which may well be the cheapest laptop they ever sold, includes a fully fledged DVD writer. Not that I’d really need that, but it’s about time… Now we can perhaps just ban optical drives from portable computers?

Apple’s newer slot-in drives (the one in the TiBook was still OK) have the annoying habit of making a sound when the computer is powered up (or in fact any other occasion when the machine may want to access the drive). I always considered that on the annoying side of useless, even embarrassing in quiet environments. The sound is still there, but it’s shorter and sharper on this drive.

Fingers Crossed

Now let’s hope that this machine isn’t as keen on needing repairs as its predecessors were.

Want one? [Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

December 1, 2008, 0:52

Tagged as macbook.


Comment by Julian: User icon

You can press apple+expose and control+expose to show desktop/all windows of the current app. (Just in case you didn’t know.)

December 1, 2008, 9:16

Comment by ssp: User icon

Yeah, I had guessed and tried that already. But to me it doesn’t seem to be nearly as convenient as the previous setup was. Particularly as I am quite definitely an F11 type person this means too much finger acrobatics for me.

December 1, 2008, 10:18

Comment by sjk: User icon

For me activating Exposé with screen corners is superior to using the keyboard, partly because my right hand is often already on a mouse at the time and reaching the default Fn keys with my left is awkward. And whenever I temporarily used someone’s Mac with a trackpad I’ll instinctively shove the pointer cursor to the top-right corner expecting it’ll reveal Desktop, temporarily forgetting it’s not enabled.

I’m still curious to see someone using Exposé as heavily and proficiently as I do (most frequently to reveal Desktop) with keyboard shortcuts, especially the defaults.

December 2, 2008, 5:59

Comment by ssp: User icon

I tend to use screen corners for Exposé as well. But there are situations when I prefer using the keyboard. Particularly when having a second screen attached to the computer the ‘hot’ corner may just require too much mousing to reach. Also when I want to reveal something on the Desktop while typing I tend to hit F11 and then take the hand off the keyboard and use the mouse.

I feel the same awkwardness about using the F-keys with the left hand and wonder why that is the case. In principle having the Exposé keys on the left sounds like it should be more efficient (for right handed people) as they can invoke Exposé with one hand while the other is grabbing the mouse.

December 2, 2008, 10:02

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