Pros: Compact, long battery life, solid construction, excellent display, backlit keyboard.
The new MacBook Pro 13.3" computer is a pinnacle of squeezing the most performance possible into a small space. That description seems to entirely miss the point of this computer. It is an all-out conquest of making a full function computer small and portable, but it is also trim and well designed. I left an iBook G4 behind for this computer, and already I am certain there is no going back.
The aluminum MacBook computer was just updated in June 2009, and the new version became a MacBook Pro and regained the firewire port along with a bump in speed. But that simple description leaves out everything interesting about this story. Apple has a history of being a groundbreaker for mobile devices. Yet, here there latest notebook computer looks a lot like the last. Where is the complex flip-around display? No touch screen? So what's the deal?
Well, the answer is in the goal; practicality. Apple has a history of debuting features based on how useful they are; not by how much they look like bling on a system:
The old powerbooks introduced trackball pointers and putting the keyboard at the back where there was room for a hand rest. They followed this up with the first touchpad controls.
The iBooks introduced a design where the only I/O device was an optical drive.
And the Macbook Pro now has a glass touchpad mouse with gesture support, and LED display, built in camera, lit keyboard, and a solid aluminum chassis. The drive reads and burns CD and DVDs, and loads through a slot (whereas my new HP Elitebook at work has a clunky carousel popping out the side). The new MacBook Pro MB991LL/A computer has a 2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and comes standard with 4GB of memory and a 7 hour battery. What is here is very carefully thought through.
The MacBook Pro fits together seamlessly. The body is cut from one block of aluminum, so the top surface and keyboard don't bow when you rest your palms on them. The entire machine is one big heat sink, and only rarely does it need to use its fan. Instead of the funny sort of aircraft panel fasteners in the bottom like the last iteration of MacBook Pro, the back comes off with a set of screws to directly get to the hard disk, memory, and battery.
I chose this version of the 13.3" MacBook Pro computer because it comes front loaded with RAM, USB, Firewire, an SD card reader, fast graphics, and the fastest processor available in a computer this size. I upgraded to a 500GB drive because I have been doing astrophotography, and that just eats up drive space. The processor is a somewhat expensive upgrade, but it can only be done at the time of the initial order. In comparison, going from 4 GB of memory to 8 GB was an additional $900, so I let go until sometime later.
Description and Usage
The 13.3" screen Macbook Pro is a very small computer. Even, the box it comes in is minimalist (previous computers came with a lot of foam in comparison)- the box only has has enough room for the computer and its mag-safe connector power supply with a package of DVDs and simple setup instructions. with a half inch of foam. There is a pull tab to get the computer out of its plastic tray in the package, since it would mean dumping the box to get the tightly packed computer out.
When it comes out, the computer is under an inch high. It isn't quite in the netbook range, but is quite small, indeed.
The aluminum shell is a matte silver. Turning it on starts a short movie with images of the Orion nebula, but what seems to be missing is any sort of evidence of where the speakers are. After looking around, I noticed something on the top left of the silver case which looks like the spot where a drop of water dried. It turns out on close inspection to be a tiny array of laser drilled holes. But I'm a mechanical engineer and I can't decide what is serving as sound holes for the rest, unless it is the spaces around the keys in the keyboard.
The first task for me was to migrate from my last computer, and that meant I had to move about 140Gb of data from my old iBook. And this is where the first problems began. The migration program lets you set up from another Mac, but you need to have either a firewire cable with one end with 6 pins and the other with 9, an ethernet cable, or an airport WiFi hookup. I didn't have the firewire cable, and wasn't sure the ethernet cable would be very fast, so I tried out airport.
That was a mistake.
It took 30 hours, and with less than a minute to go, the automatic software updater on the old transmitting computer came up and asked if I'd like to install an update to Java. It crashed the data transfer in the process.
So, I called Apple and they said it should be able to resume from there, if I just restarted the computers. And for future reference, the ethernet cable was actually the fastest way to do the transfer. I tried the restart, and the new computer appeared to process my command to start up correctly.
But, alas, this was not the case- it had instead closed out my account on the crash, and set up an empty account with root access and the transferred files were in a bizarre phantom account no one had access to, but with 100GB of stuff in it. By this point, the Apple folks had signed off for the day. And that was where I made a decision: There is a reason why these things come with backup DVDs. So I erased the disk and reinstalled the operating system. The computer came up like new, and this time I used the ethernet cable to transfer all data in about 5 hours.
And that was where it was surprisingly transparent. Anything which would run native on the old G4 runs on the Intel processor with great speed. This new version of OSX doesn't include support for my old OS 9 and earlier applications. Instead of just leaving them inert, now each icon is accompanied by a little circle with a line through it in front to warn it will not work.
So, for purposes of using some of this older software, I installed an emulator for older Macintosh computers named Sheepshaver, and after a few false starts, was able to start a little session of MacOS9 running in a window on my new OSX 10.5 dream machine. And to be honest, I had forgotten just how clunky the old days were. Most old OS9 programs seem to run in the sub-window, and if something goes wrong and it crashes, it doesn't take down the computer.
The movement of 140 GB from the old computer left me with 300 GB on the maximum sized drive I could get on the new computer, at 500 GB. This leads me to conclude in our modern world of digital photography, getting a small hard disk is probably a mistake. We all need storage, it's cheap, and if it comes in the computer when new, it's even under warranty.
The unexpected other results have been a great boost internet download speed on the new computer using Safari. Complex web pages like Yahoo News download with 4 seconds.
Small things like the screen controls work remarkably well, where the system monitor setup utility gives the ability to control linearity in response across the brightness scale if you use the Expert mode. The screen really does come on instantly with the LED backlight. I find myself noticing how a cold start can go straight into full use since there is no delay for the screen to brighten. This also means the system has the final apparent color immediately as well.
The system also has a backlight brightener/ dimmer which adjusts with ambient light, and also adjusts the backlit keyboard to keep from being blinded in a dim room or washed out in bright light. In short, the computer lets you set it up, then gracefully steps out of the way.
The battery power indicator is a set of fine drilled holes on the left hand side with tiny green lights which come on when you trigger the nearly invisible battery check button. In the front right it has a white LED power indicator to show the computer is on when the screen has gone dark. This indicator brightens and darkens in an steady "Snore" when in sleep mode. The left side contains all of the interface ports for USB, DVI, firewire, ethernet, and headphones. The magnetic power port at the rear left side of the computer has five pins inside which match with the five of the charger. Though not a new feature on Macintosh computers, it is clearly a better way to attach compared to normal power plugs which are vulnerable to damage if yanked out.
The gesture trackpad has the ability to zoom and twist objects. On a web page, this means the ability to zoom in and out on a web page to get it to fit better in the window. Touching with two fingers lets you scroll up and down the page. You can choose whether you would like to click the trackpad as one big mouse button, or instead touch to click. I found I tend to touch the pad periodically while typing, so having touch clicking is out for me. But the scroll ability means being able to move up and down a page without having to precisely move to the tiny arrow on the scroll bar on the side, or having a silly little roller to slowly zip back and forth.
The backlit keyboard has what look like chicklet keys, but in fact they function as well as any full-sized keyboard. There is no flex thanks to the solid aluminum chassis, and the backlight makes them easy to see in any light. If you can touch type on any computer, you will be able to touch type on the MacBook Pro. The only ding I can come up with is the space bar makes a little bit of a squeak sound when I hit it with my right thumb. But that may go away as it breaks in- I'll update if there is a change.
Graphics performance is absolutely fluid on this computer, with files from Hulu playing seamlessly in any scale. I'm afraid I am not a serious enough gamer to have a stack of first person shooters available for it. But as it is, the main work I will be doing will be with astrophotography. Here I will update as I collect photos and make the computer work for a living.
The 13.3" MacBook Pro is a very potent computer with a complete set of capabilities in a very compact package. The integrated assembly functions very, very, well. The system is clearly designed for going "Wheels up" and leaving desktop computers behind. I had done that eight years ago, and had some performance capabilities to work around. My previous computers have travelled all over with me. This one has the distinction of being the easiest to transport with the most capability of any of them. I expect there to be a few adventures in this one.