A Windows expert weighs in on the 17-in. MacBook Pro

Is it that much better than the smaller 15.4-in. version?

If you've been reading me closely in recent months, you know I'm becoming more and more interested in Apple Computer Inc.'s impressive Mac OS X operating system -- and its notebook hardware.

My colleague Ken Mingis has written recent reviews of both the MacBook Pro 17-in. model (see " Hands On: The New MacBook Pro 17 'a Hunk of Dual-Core Goodness' ") and the even newer MacBook (see "Apple's New MacBook: What Price Beauty?").

I took the 17-in. MacBook Pro after Ken and have been working on a long-term review for the past three weeks or so. A couple of months back, I broke down and bought a MacBook Pro 15.4-in. Intel Core Duo 2-GHz machine, so I'm very familiar with the particulars.

Nitty gritty

For me, the best aspect of the 17-in. version of Apple's new MacBook Pro line is the additional vertical screen real estate it affords over the 15.4-inch display. The almost 1 in. of added height of the LCD and the larger 1,680-by-1,050-pixel resolution (as opposed to the smaller MacBook Pro's 1,440-by-900-pixel resolution) cuts way back on your need to scroll documents and Web pages. With its wide aspect ratio, the 15.4-in. display always seemed plenty wide. But it becomes a necessity to move the Dock to one side or the other. Even though the vertical resolution increase is only 150 pixels, it makes all the difference.

By the same token, the biggest drawback to the MacBook Pro 17 is the QE II expanse on your lap and the 6.8-lb. heft. The mitigating factor? The darn thing is still a scant 1 in. thick, and it still fits just fine in my briefcase. I've been commuting back and forth with three notebooks in my briefcase (a Microsoft WinHEC bag) for the past few weeks, so I know exactly how portable the MacBook Pro 17 is. It's actually easier to tote around than my new 15.4-in. Dell Inspiron E1505. In fact, stacking the MacBook Pro 15 atop the MacBook Pro 17 beside the Dell Inspiron, only the MacBook Pro 15 LCD assembly pokes up above the height of the Inspiron -- just the base of the Dell (not including its LCD, is higher than the MacBook Pro. For me, that's a profound difference.

Besides its lack of IBM's TrackPoint UltraNav eraser-head pointing device with its slick vertical scrolling feature, literally the only additional nit I can pick about the MacBook Pro 17 is the tendency for the lid to close too easily, especially as you're carrying it around. My guess is that Apple used the same friction-hinge assembly for the heavier 17-in. display that it uses for the 15.4-in. MacBook Pro. I examined the LCD of an older 17-in. G4 PowerBook, and it was balanced properly for the weight of the screen. It's a minor point, though.

Let the love fest commence

The MacBook Pro represents an excellent value, at least compared with the 15.4-in. MacBook Pro. My test unit from Apple is configured with the 2.16-GHz Core Duo, 256MB ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 video, a 7,200-RPM 100GB hard drive and 2GB of RAM. In other words, it's loaded. The only thing it lacks is the new glossy screen, which hadn't even been announced when we received this test unit. On the MacBook Pro, Apple makes the glossy screen -- which emphasizes color saturation and crispness when you're playing DVDs and Web video -- available at the same price as the standard matte screen. I really like the look of the glossy screen. I adore my Inspiron's glossy UltraSharp display, even for business applications, so that's the only thing I would change about the test unit.

Other advantages of the 17-in. MacBook Pro model include an 8x double-layer SuperDrive (as opposed to the 15.4-in. model's 4x SuperDrive), a FireWire 800 port and three (as opposed to two) USB 2.0 ports.

As configured by Apple, the 17-in. test unit prices out at $3,099. You can save yourself some money by buying it with a single 1GB small outline dual in-line memory module (SODIMM) for $2,799 and adding 1GB from a reputable third party. The comparably equipped 15.4-in. MacBook Pro is $2,599, so there's a $200 delta in price.

To add a 1GB SODIMM to your MacBook Pro, you'll need a jeweler's screwdriver (inexpensive sets are available from most hardware stores). Simply power the unit off, remove the power cord, remove the battery and unscrew the very small Phillips head screws you'll find inside. Lift off the cover plate and insert your new SODIMM. Then reverse your steps. It's a good idea to wear an antistatic grounding wrist strap when you do this. The entire operation takes less than 10 minutes. I performed it without a hitch on my 15.4-in. MacBook Pro.

New two-finger context menu feature

The 17-in. model also offers a slightly different version of Mac OS X 10.4.6 (Build No. 8I2032). It provides an updated Keyboard & Mouse Preference pane with a Trackpad setting that delivers the right-click functionality of a two-button mouse. I found the feature to be in need of some tweaking by Apple. It's a two-finger affair -- like Apple's excellent two-finger scrolling Trackpad feature. And it takes two forms, depending on whether you use Trackpad's tapping functionality.

Tapping to select or open is a feature also offered by many Windows track pads. Instead of clicking the left button, you tap the Trackpad itself. Tapping works just fine on the MacBook Pro, and I use it.

When you work this way, Apple gives you the option to two-finger tap the trackpad in order to simulate a second-button (or right button) click, opening a context menu. That sounded very convenient to me, but it's not reliable; it's just got too small a range of pressure sensitivity. You have to two-finger tap very lightly for it to work. And it's also possible to tap it too lightly. I found the feature frustrating. Apple may need to fine-tune the feature or offer a slider bar for tapping sensitivity.

If you don't use the Trackpad's tapping feature, then the appropriate gesture is to rest two fingers on the Trackpad and click the button once. That works fine, it's just a little awkward. If the two-finger tap worked correctly for me, I'd use it. The way it stands, I prefer an inexpensive Mac utility called 1 Finger Snap by Old Jewel software. It lets you accomplish the same task by holding down the mouse button and tapping one finger. 1 Finger Snap also offers an adjustment for the slight delay before the context menu opens. Apple's delay is too long.

I give Apple points for working on right-mouse-button functionality. Some Macintosh power users like this too; it's not just us Windows guys. But more work is needed to make it work the way it should.

Getting down to it

So I've picked on the 17-in. MacBook Pro, and I've praised its resolution and slim design. And I've toted it back and forth to work. What do I really think? My colleague Mingis just bought one straight out. And it's hard to argue with the gorgeous screen, rip-snorting performance and the many extras this model offers over it's smaller MacBook Pro brethren. The only question becomes: How big is too big for you?

I have a ready answer to that question. My next computer is a 17-in. MacBook Pro with a glossy screen. Because as far as I'm concerned, you can never get too much screen real estate. And the fact that I can run 1,680-by-1,050 on a bright, easy-on-the-eyes 17-in. display like this one is, well, notebook perfection. You gotta grab that when it comes along.

Scot Finnie is online editorial director at Computerworld and has been an editor for a variety of IT publications for more than 20 years. This article originally appeared in Scot's Newsletter and is reprinted by permission.

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