posted by Eddyspeeder on Tue 6th Oct 2009 22:01 UTC

Review: MacBook Pro 13-inch, 2/2


Lights

I only realized how beautiful this machine's design is when I saw other laptops again. I used to find the blue (or orange and green) LED carvings in front of laptops fascinating; now I find them obnoxious. This machine does not show HD activity, but for on/off and battery status, there are some really subtle solutions.

At the front of the laptop is a light hidden behind the metal casing. It is a bright white rectangle that slowly brightens and dims whenever the laptop is asleep. It kind of makes you feel that it's breathing in and out (or snoring, if you will).

The battery indicator is a row of eight tiny dots and a small button, positioned on the left side of the laptop. Touching the button or (dis)connecting the MagSafe connector makes them light up for a few seconds, one light standing for 12.5% of battery left. Connecting the MagSafe connector will also cause the lights to indicate that it's charging, in the way you often see on mobile phones.

Perhaps the most impressive lights make up for the backlit keyboard. I can type blindly, so I wondered why on Earth I would ever need a feature like this. Well, imagine you're watching a movie in the dark and you want to find the button to lower the volume, or you realize you want to do something else simultaneously and you need to switch to a different space. The brightness can be set in 16 discrete stages, though at night the first stage is sufficient and will not distract you.

The backlit screen can also be set to 16 different levels of brightness, allowing for much more contrast and vibrant colors than that of average laptops (especially when raising the gamma level, which is supported up to 2.0). Depending on the condition in which the laptop is used, the glass screen is either brilliant in its light emission, or painful and annoying. Even if you do all you can to keep it clean, dirt and dust does pile up, which becomes excruciatingly clear when light falls on it.

Let me just go into the screen issues a bit deeper. You open the laptop's lid by just pushing it upward, but in order to exert enough thrust you just can't avoid touching the top of the screen, leaving a row of fingerprints there. As a result, the screen needs a thorough cleaning at least once a week, requiring the machine to be turned off. The glass plate sometimes also tends to act more like a mirror for your hands and face than as a computer display. Clearly this laptop has not been designed for sitting outside in the sun. It is an ongoing compromise between turning the screen's power-intensive lighting way up versus saving battery power to be able to work longer. But just when you thought you got it right, the cooling fan starts blowing, which manages to drain the battery within an hour (more on the fan later).

Besides changing the light intensity for the keyboard and screen using F1/F2 and F5/F6, respectively, Mac OS includes a setting that dynamically changes the brightness for you, quickly becoming brighter when exposed to a lot of light. This is very convenient, although it does get annoying in variable lighting conditions. If someone walks past me when I sit behind my computer desk, the light coming in through the kitchen windows briefly gets reduced, causing the screen to darken and brighten up again.


Other

The microphone is an extremely small circle, measuring perhaps only 1/10th of an inch, but it is very sensitive with people complaining about the clock's ticking when I talk to them on Skype. The laptop speakers are completely hidden underneath the surface. They have the same narrow range as that of other laptop speakers, except their volume beats that of many others. The built-in webcam, too, is very small and hardly noticeable, but providing adequate video feed.

The keyboard types wonderfully. It has just the right amount of counter pressure to help you feel you are pressing the keys with relative ease. Other people whom I have allowed to use my Mac, for instance to check email, all somehow feel obliged to comment on this. Furthermore, the keys are slightly separated from one another with the light grey aluminum unibody being the backdrop. This makes the keyboard area less intense than that of many other laptops, which is usually one large black array. Sadly though, the lovely matte finish of the keyboard quickly disappears, especially for the keys used most frequently. My space bar had become a matte bar with two glossy ovals within a month! Placing a special layer over the keyboard can avert this process. The keyboard layout has been properly thought-through, but I must admit that I had to get used to replacing single-button operators like home, end, page-up and page-down with cmd+left/right and fn+up/down, respectively. The F1 through F12 keys are primarily set to controlling among others backlighting, sound volume and media playback, though it is possible to set it to act like function keys instead. I'd rather not, but that does mean the Apple menu keyboard shortcut is the not very ergonomic "fn+ctrl+F2".

I started with the one thing that set the Pro apart compared to the MacBook; the multi-touch trackpad. I also wish to finish with that other highly marketed feature; its aluminum unibody. It's great ‘cause it's strong. Then again, while typing, its hard and pretty sharp edge continually cuts into the flesh just below the wrist. It's not painful, uncomfortable at best, but I expect a callus to form there in time. The metal generally has a nice temperature, but just like with any other laptop it gets hot after a while, most notably on the left side. A very silent cooling fan should bring some relief, but as mentioned above it does more harm than good. It has happened several times now that I glance at my battery status and discover 25% of its charge just vanished.


Conclusion

I bought my Mac at a premium reseller. It still puzzles me why (a) they cannot offer all that the Apple Store has to offer, and (b) why I could not just get Snow Leopard from them rather than through some strange online procedure. As a result, I don't really see what's "premium" about their status. Perhaps if I were ever to run into any trouble such as failing hardware, it will pay off. But for now I think I might as well have got it from Apple straight away.

I study Cognitive Ergonomics and I loathe bad design. My parents made the mistake of buying a Samsung TV as it was offered for about half the price of a Philips TV. When I'm with them, I always get into fights with the remote, with its on/off button right above the "1" and the ridiculous way one must close teletext. In much the same way, I sometimes fail to see the logic in the design of Windows. For example, try to avoid it from taking some seconds to open the "Programs" menu when all you want is to select some other option in the Start menu.

Philips and Apple both spend a lot of time on research and development to obtain the most optimal user experience attainable, and that costs money. Did Apple's efforts succeed for this machine? Yes, absolutely. I will have to get to terms with not using it much outside the house; I think AirPort should be more sensitive, and I risk calloused wrists. But that's all. So no, I have no regrets for paying well over 1000 Euros for "just a laptop", considering all the features that I dearly appreciate, including this year's epitome of usability, the multi-touch trackpad. "Beauty" is in the eye of the beholder and the definition of what is "expensive" is a personal matter. I got what I wanted and am happy with what I got. For me, the MacBook Pro 13" is an ideal computer.

Table of contents
  1. Review: MacBook Pro 13-inch, 1/2
  2. Review: MacBook Pro 13-inch, 2/2
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