Pros: Excellent industrial design, ease of use, customer support
Cons: High price, lack of built-in HDMI port or Blu-Ray support, sealed-in battery
When my old Windows desktop machine at work neared the end of its useful life, I decided to migrate to a Mac laptop for two major reasons: 1) I was very impressed with the Mac's design and ease of use; and 2) I anticipated having to do basic video editing, which the Mac does very well with its iLife suite.
After speaking with our IT folks, I settled on the 15.4" Macbook Pro (MBP). I souped up the memory to 4GB and hard drive to 320GB (Author's note: This review is based on a late-2008 MPB with an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU running at 2.4 GHz. Newer models have introduced some subtle changes and updates, which will be addressed later in this review.)
One of the things someone new to Apple products quickly realizes is that the company takes the user experience very seriously. Even the box the MBP comes in is very well thought out. The laptop comes in a small, suitcase-like box and when you open it, you're greeted with the top of the laptop and its white Apple logo. Frankly, opening an Apple product's package is like reliving Christmas morning all over again.
The MPB itself is carved from a single block of aluminum in what Apple refers to as its unibody construction. It's amazingly light but strong and very, very sexy when compared to other laptops. My particular unit was equipped with an Ethernet port, two USB ports, a Firewire port, MagSafe charging port, audio in/out ports, ExpressCard slot and MiniDisplay port. (Note: Newer MBPs have since added an SD card slot and ditched the ExpressCard slot.)
The laptop features a full-sized, backlit keyboard, glossy 15.4" screen, built-in Web camera, DVD drive and oversized multitouch trackpad.
The machine is a joy to work on for the most part. Typing on its keyboard is fun, especially compared to the stock keyboard issued by Dell for its desktop machines. I've grown so used to the feel of the Apple keyboard that I actively despise typing on the mushy Dell keyboard.
I thought that I wouldn't like the MPB's glossy display, but I've grown to really enjoy it as colors seem so much more vibrant compared to the matte equivalent. My major concern was glare, and though that does tend to be a problem from time to time, it's not as big an issue that I originally thought. For those who really hate glossy displays, Apple does offer a matte option for an additional $50. Actually, the biggest issue with the glossy display is its ability to pick up dust and fingerprints.
Windows users new to the MBP will be slightly confused by the multitouch trackpad, which banishes any buttons. Instead of having left- and right-buttons at the foot of the pad, the whole trackpad is a button and users can right- and left-click as they normally would. It's not a huge deal and it's easy to quickly adjust. Going back to the traditional smaller trackpad with physical buttons is difficult, however.
When compared to the Windows-based equivalent, the MBP (as well as the majority of Apple products) simply just work. It's extremely rare to deal with a lot of the same issues as Windows users do. Worries like bloatware, device drivers, software conflicts, etc., aren't as major an issue for the Mac. The MBP comes with its excellent iLife suite, which include iTunes, iMovie, GarageBand, and iPhoto. The learning curve for the programs isn't steep, so newbies should be able to get rolling rather quickly.
I take a lot for granted these days with my MBP. It automatically remembers the wireless networks I've been on and logs me in. It's fast to start up and shut down. Though no operating system is foolproof, it has few crashes and lockups compared to its Windows equiavalent and requires fewer periodic updates than Windows.
Apple does such a nice job with integrating its products. The function keys at the top of the keyboard are used to control brightness for the screen and backlit keyboard, as well as playback and volume for music and movies. I can't remember a time when a Windows-equivalent keyboard's function buttons did the same out of the box. People who own iPhones can use their included in-ear microphones with microphone and remote to control the volume or pause/play as they listen to music on iTunes.
Another nice touch that's emblematic of Apple's attention to the user experience is its MagSafe power adapter. Instead of the tradition power jack, Apple uses a magnetic plug to secure the power adapter. The wonderful thing about this is if a pet or child runs by and trips up the power cord, the plug is designed to detach, rather than dragging the laptop off the table and damaging the unit. Two other nice things about the MagSafe adapter: It allows the user to wrap the cord around itself and includes an optional extension.
Small touches abound in the MBP. Curious to know the laptop's current battery strength? Push a tiny button on the edge and a series of eight pinhole-sized green lights will tell you how much juice is left. A magnet helps keep the MBP closed, rather than a conventional snapping mechanism.
Working on the machine itself is a pleasure. Programs showed no lag, even when running iTunes, a browser, Adobe InDesign and virtual version of Windows (more on that in a minute). Bear in mind that 4GB of memory is now standard on MBPs, as it was only an option at my original time of purchase.
For people who want to move to Apple but can't bear the thought of completely abandoning Windows, the MBP allows users a number of options including Boot Camp, which starts the Mac up in a Windows environment, or virtualization software in the form of Parallels or VMWare Fusion. I use VMWare Fusion 3 with Windows 7 (and in the past, Windows Vista) with no problem whatsoever in terms of slowing down the machine. My preference is for the virtualization software so I can toggle back and forth between OS X and Windows, as Boot Camp requires the user to be doing one or the other, but not both. Remember that if you decided to add Windows to your Mac that you'll need to have a Windows license and software, which will add to your cost.
Frankly, I only use the Windows VM because I prefer Microsoft Outlook to the Mac's Microsoft Entourage and I use Microsoft Money to balance my books. The Entourage issue will go away later in 2010 with the introduction of Office 2011 for the Mac which will include Outlook instead of Entourage. Most software is available for Windows or Mac, with the exception of very specialized software. Hardcore gamers might also want to stick to a dedicated Windows machine.
Of course, no machine is perfect and I have some quibbles about the MBP. As much as I love typing on the laptop, the sharp edge at the foot of the keyboard can be uncomfortable. I understand why it's there -- so when the clamshell closes, the MBP has a seamless edge. Still, there are days I have to shake my head at it.
The aluminum can also feel cold on the lap, at least when the machine first starts up.
One thing potential customers should know about the unibody construction of the MBP is that it's extremely expensive to repair, since any body damage essentially means having to put the unit in a new body. The aluminum is very durable, but isn't indestructible. I accidentally dropped the laptop from my chair, significantly denting the body. Though the unit functioned fine, replacing the body cost a few hundred dollars. Scratches can also be an issue and users can opt for any of a number of third-party protective sleeves and cases. I did not opt for one and aside from the drop, have never suffered any other type of damage or wear.
One really nice thing about Apple is their wonderful Genius Bar at their Apple Store. They do a nice job of customer service and there simply isn't an equivalent in the Windows world.
Apple made a few changes recently to silence some of the critics regarding some of the things included in the MBP. A major addition was an SD card slot, which is a step in the right direction. Users who own other memory card formats like CompactFlash or Memory Stick are still out of luck, however. Still missing from the MBP is an HDMI port and a Blu-Ray option, two things that come standard on most higher-end laptops these days.
The MBP only features a MiniDisplay port for outputting video. It works wonderfully with the 24" LED Cinema Display Apple sells (in fact, the 24" LED Cinema Display is really designed as a docking and charging station for the Macbook Pro), but if you're looking to hook up the MPB with your existing monitor or HDTV, you'll have to purchase an adapter to make it happen.
One of the most controversial changes in the MBP that Apple made was the move to a sealed-in battery. The company claims that the seal-in battery offers longer life between charges and allows the laptop to be lighter. I can't verify these claims, but I know the decision has caused some angst among power users. On my own year-and-a-half-old unit, I can easily get a few hours of use before having to recharge. Keep in mind that my MBP is the older, interchangable battery and it spends most of its day hooked up to the 24" Cinema Display.
And at 5.5 lbs., the MBP certainly isn't the lightest laptop around. Traveling with the MBP is generally fine, but it always seems to weigh more when attempting to travel by air! Though I love the big screen, I will most likely go with the 13" MPB for my personal machine once my home desktop machine is retired.
Despite all of these perceived shortcomings, I have to say that I love my MBP. Some folks will be put off by the higher price and argue that you could get more for your dollar by going for a similarly equipped machine from Dell, Asus, or HP. That's certainly true, and I think Apple's products are expensive, but I believe you get what you pay for.