Hands on: A few days with the new MacBook Pro

Apple’s latest laptop builds on the company's reputation for innovation

In my first look at Apple Computer Inc.'s new MacBook Pro (see "A hands-on look at the new MacBook Pro"), I promised a more comprehensive look at the laptop once it began shipping. I spent last weekend using this 2.16-GHz Intel Core Duo machine, and while I am still not fond of its name, I have grown to love the hardware.

This particular model is the 15-in. version now trickling into users' hands, and came courtesy of Apple for review purposes. It was stuffed with 2GB of RAM and an ultra speedy 256MB of video RAM. More is better.

As the owner of 12-in. and 15-in. PowerBook G4s (circa 2004), I haven't been able to take advantage of some of the features introduced in the PowerBook line last year -- until now. The most impressive of these are the sudden-motion sensor, which locks the hard drive to prevent damage in case you drop your laptop, and my current favorite: the two-finger track pad for scrolling. This feature is (pardon the pun) really handy. Using two fingers to scroll a window up and down is easier than moving the cursor to the right, hitting scroll arrows and moving back to my page. Sure, it sounds lazy, but do that several hundred times in a day and you appreciate the innovation.

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For those of us used to a two-button mouse, having to put two hands on the keyboard to bring up contextual menus is a real drag. I found this awesome utility called One Finger Snap from Old Jewel Software that invokes the "right-click" if you hold down the trackpad clicker (or one-button mouse) for a definable period of time. One Finger Snap, combined with the two-finger scroll, leaves my other hand free for drinking coffee at all times!

Speaking of innovation, it looks like Apple's engineers really got it right with wireless reception this time around; The all-metal hinge attaching the screen to the frame has a rubber inset that increases antenna sensitivity exponentially -- yes, exponentially! Unfettered by the reflective metal surface that had limited Wi-Fi reception in earlier models, the MacBook Pro found WLAN access points everywhere I traveled last weekend, access points I had never seen before from the same location. Also, Wi-Fi signals that had dropped out before are now constant -- with full or almost full strength signal.

Other immediately noticeable improvements are the feel of the keys and the imaging on the speakers. Yes, the stereo imaging sounds better to me, and at one point in my life, I was a mixing engineer.

And then there is the screen. The 15-in. screen on this MacBook Pro is bright and sharp, and offers pretty much the same resolution as the last generation 17-in. PowerBooks. It is significantly brighter than my PowerBook and appears to be the same as the brightness level on the 23-in. Apple Cinema Display that I use with my Power Mac G5. More importantly, it appears that this increased brightness does not come at a cost of battery life. I noticed a slight improvement in battery operating time in comparison to my 15-in. PowerBook G4.

In routine off-line use, I had battery times on the MacBook Pro of about 3.5 hours. Of course, battery life is a metric for which your mileage may vary. Memory-resident programs like the Palm Desktop and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s all-in-one scanner will kill your battery life. I also found that using the Airport card for Wi-Fi access drained the battery a bit faster, and certain applications that thrash the hard drive used even more battery life. (Can you say PowerPoint?) I believe that Apple's translation software, Rosetta, also affected battery life a bit as the processing power required to handle code translation used power.

I would not have noticed Rosetta for any other reason. Using PowerPC applications written for Apple's older G3, G4 and G5 chips was seamless. My hog barometer from the prototype test, Photoshop, operated significantly faster and within the parameters of normal use -- some of that owing perhaps to the improved graphics display on the new hardware. It is worth repeating: This is not the 68000 code emulation environment that we lived through during the move to the PowerPC processors in the 1990s. I doubt 90% of users will even notice a slowdown when moving over from older PowerBooks. They will, however, see a significant speed boost when they install the universal versions of whatever programs they're using.

Most of the applications I use are already universal binaries, meaning they have been rewritten to take advantage of the new Intel Core Duo processor. In fact, there are now more than 1,000 universal applications. Still, some biggies like the Adobe Creative Suite, Pro Tools and even Apple's own Pro Apps are not yet universal binaries, although the Pro Apps upgrades are expected within the month. System administrators should also know that Apple Remote Desktop (ARD) Administrator is not functional on the Intel machines, although the client software works, and ARD Admin running on a PowerPC machine can control an ARD client on an Intel Macintosh.

The integrated iSight camera is another nice touch, eliminating the need for yet another peripheral device, and because of the processor in the MacBook Pro, you can now initiate and host a four-way video chat session from this laptop.

Another addition to this model is the ExpressCard/34 expansion slot. In a conversation with Brad Saunders, chairman of the PCMCIA trade association, I learned that the ExpressCard Standard is the successor to the PC Card Standard. It is based on the PCI Express serial bus, so the throughput is much higher than CardBus, and it does not require the additional controller chip needed for PC Card slots. That makes it cheaper and simpler to design, and it uses less power. It also requires a smaller chipset to build devices, making them less expensive, and it allows for a low-power design that can accommodate the longer battery life expected by today’s mobile users.

For those bemoaning the loss of the FireWire 800 port, an ExpressCard/34 FireWire module is not available yet. But a module is expected to be released soon. Check the 'Where to Buy' page if you edit hi-definition video and need the throughput of FireWire 800.

Additional planned devices include TV tuners and, when the need arises, WiMax cards; 3G wireless cards are also planned, but 2.5G devices (which involves GPRS and EDGE CDMA1) are proving to be difficult to make, since the technology requires higher power. While this is fine for PC Cards, the ExpressCard module is expected to operate with lower power levels.

A few other tidbits from my short time so far with the MacBook Pro:

  • Noise and heat: The MacBook Pro seems to be quieter than my PowerBook G4. The drive is quieter, the fan is not noticeable and, subjectively, it runs cooler.
  • Screen "flutter": I read about this online and replicated the issue. Looking at a screen in a dark room, the screen will appear to pulse. This happens on the MacBook Pro, the PowerBook G4 and my desktop Cinema Display. I think it is an optical illusion generated by the eye's attempt to adjust to the lighting differential; of course, I am not an ophthalmologist, nor do I play one on TV.
  • Power Supply brick: The new power adapter is almost twice the size of the one used by previous models. OK, it’s not quite approaching "brick" size, but it's getting there.

All in all, this laptop offers a welcome improvement in speed and performance and would be an excellent purchase for PowerBook users looking for the next bump up. That is, if you can find them. They're still scarce, and if you order one today on Apple's Web site, you'll see that the delivery times are still two to three weeks out. That's the price of popularity.

Speaking of price, Apple's MacBook Pro sells for either $1,999 for the 1.83-GHz model or $2,499 for the 2-GHz version. You can also order an upgraded model with a slightly faster processor running at 2.16-GHz for an extra $300.

Did I miss something? Do you have feedback? Send your questions, comments and curses to y.kossovsky@ieee.org.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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