Review: Apple’s MacBook Pro

Earlier this year, Apple, after a long wait, updated its pro line of laptops by introducing the MacBook Pro, the Intel-powered equivalent of the PowerBook. MacSupport, together with Apple Netherlands, was so kind as to provide OSNews with a MacBook Pro for review purposes. Since Adam bought a MacBook Pro for himself only a few days earlier, we decided to review the machines together. Here are our findings.

Thom has the 2.0Ghz version of the MacBook Pro, 15″ (1440×900), 2.0GB (Apple-branded) RAM, and a 90GB harddrive. Adam has the 1.83Ghz version, also 15″, but with 1.5GB of RAM (of which 1GB is after-market), and a 100GB harddrive.

We decided to focus on a few specific areas of the machine; we will each give our thoughts on these topics, and at the end, we will both come to our own conclusions.

The Screen

TH: I find that the MBP screen has very bad viewing angles, which is extra annoying because it’s a laptop (you have to adjust the screen angle all the time). The screen on my ‘cheap’ Dell Inspiron 6000 is much better in that respect.

AS: I disagree. Everyone seems to go ga-ga over “Brightview” or whatever they’re calling it these days. While it does make the picture crisp, it also adds glare from virtually every other angle. I have no issue with the screen position or angle.

TH: I’m not talking about the glossy thing; my Inspiron does not have a glossy screen either. What bothers me on the MacBook Pro is how the colours change even when you tilt your head slightly away from the ideal viewing angle, causing me to adjust or my head, or the screen, continuously; this especially reveals itself via the shadows underneath the windows in the MacOS. The Dell does not have this problem, or at least, not as bad as the MacBook Pro.

AS: I haven’t noticed this. I actually find the display to be very bright. I’m in love with the widescreen.

TH: That’s for sure, the brightness and wideness are very much appreciated. I just expected a better viewing angle on a ‘pro’ laptop.

The Speed & Boot Time

AS: The boot time on the MBP is awesome. I go from zero to logon in mere seconds. It’s no BeOS, but it’s fast. Especially if you’re coming from a PPC Mac.

TH: Oh yes, agreed. The boottime has increased majorly due to the switch compared to an iBook G4 or even the latest iMac G5.

AS: Thom, did you notice the application launch time? The freaking apps launch in a jump or two from the dock. The speed is significantly faster than the iBook. Now, I still get beach balls – frequently when loading a big webpage like Gmail’s inbox and sometimes when moving around in a video in Quicktime – but overall, application launch speed is a big step up.

TH: Yes, agreed. Especially and new Safari windows pop up almost instantly. It is still no BeOS (which I consider as the ideal when it comes to responsiveness), but it has indeed improved a lot since the PowerPC era. still comes to a crawl quite easily though, i.e. when opening a large email folder.

AS: Mail coming to a halt is probably due to the limitations of POP and IMAP, not to mention the mbox format [Ed. note: currently uses a format based on mbox, not BSD mbox proper]. I don’t know that I expect my mail client to jump open in an instant when I have 10000 messages in it. Incidentally, I have Mail set to download my Gmail account as a backup, and it launches in about 3 seconds, which I might mention is faster than my Gmail account loads.

The Speakers

TH: The sound quality of the speakers is appalling. Again, I’m sorry to say, but my cheap Dell has better speakers. Seriously better speakers.

AS: I can’t argue with you there. The speakers on the Macbook Pro suck. On top of that, the volume is way too quiet. Plus, even with normalized music files the speakers sometimes distort with maximum volume. That’s not unacceptable, but for a computer aimed at excellence in audio processing, this is a shortcoming, plain and simple.

TH: However, don’t forget that the machine does have the ability to connect to other audio equipment via digital (optical) means. So you can get good quality audio from the MacBook; you just need to hook it up to other equipment.

The Keyboard

TH: The keyboard is a classic example of form over function. The ‘enter’ key is too narrow, which sucks seeing you hit the enter key with a vertical movement; therefore it is much better to have a wide enter key. Now I miss it too often, hitting either the backslash key, or the right speaker.

AS: I haven’t had any problems with the keyboard. I find it about as usable as my old iBook. In general, portable computers suffer in the keyboard area, and if they don’t, they’re probably too big. I’m a very fast typer, and I often found that on iBooks, I had trouble hitting the spacebar consistently. On the MBP, I’ve not had this issue.

TH: Here it is strictly related to the ‘enter’ key. Well, the arrow keys are way too small as well. Again, this seems like form over function (Apple wants a square keyboard).

AS: I’ll concede that the arrow keys are small. The enter key is also small. Neither is unacceptable for a portable, neither is especially desirable either. It does appear that Apple wanted to preserve the rectangular layout at all costs.

TH: Yes, as there is more than enough space to expand the keyboard to better fit larger keys. Another annoyance is the keyboard lighting; it is really cool, but annoying when it’s on its threshold of turning on; it will turn on/off continuously, due to the ambient light sensor which controls the lighting.

AS: Hmmm… I haven’t had that problem at all. I find the keyboard backlight to be one of the coolest little perks of the MBP. I frequently use my computer in the very early morning, and I have noticed that the keyboard lighting is invaluable. I have a bluetooth Apple keyboard connected to my MBP, and in the morning, I often use the onboard keyboard just because of the backlight.

TH: Yes it is indeed very handy; however, I would have preferred an option to set it on always-on, instead of it being handled automagically.

AS: F8 turns it off, F9 and F10 adjust the level. For me, that’s more than enough.

The Airport

TH: I noticed that wireless reception on the MBP is a lot worse than with the iBook G4.

AS: I haven’t dropped connection once with mine, and mine is a very first generation MBP.

TH: Well, it surely is not my wireless router, as my Dell has no problems whatsoever with connections. Even my PocketPC has better and more stable reception than the 2500E MacBook Pro!

AS: To be honest, I’m skeptical of wireless technology as a whole. I don’t buy into the security that most people use, I don’t see reliability in the majority of routers on the market, etc. Airport has been more stable than any other 801.11 product I’ve ever used, and I’ve never dropped off my network here, using a pretty standard DLink router.

The Heat

TH: The MacBook Pro should’ve never passed the Q/A stage. The heat is simply too much to be considered acceptable. After a short while of browsing, mailing, and IM’ing (all I really do), the laptop’s underside is almost too hot to touch. Whenever I do something more intensive, I’m almost scared it’ll actually burn me. The “this is not a lap laptop”-talk is a silly argument. Look at it: it’s a laptop alright. I don’t care whether Apple calls it a notebook or whatever; this is a portable machine, but the heat prevents it from being really portable.

AS: Frankly, there’s no real defense for this. Certain spots on the MBP are simply roasting. Letting my fingers rest on the top portion of the keyboard for more than about 1 second results in a painful heating, and I’m certain that I would be burned if I left it for much longer. Apple gets a D for this part alone; this is a confirmed design defect software bug problem! [Ed. note: you can’t make everyone happy. Whatever the problem is, the MBP is too hot]

Rosetta Emulation

TH: Rosetta is awesome. It’s completely transparent, and i.e. Office:Mac loads as fast on this Intel Mac as it did on the iMac G5, and it even loads a lot faster than on my iBook G4. Great work from Apple; hats off. It is also appreciated they allow you to force applications to use Rosetta, in case of troubleshooting and such.

AS: Rosetta is nothing short of amazing. Apps such as Office and Toast run in near-real time. This kind of thing, in my opinion, transforms my expectations of what can be done with computers; it’s truly amazing to download old apps last compiled in 2003 or so and run them on the Macbook.

That said, it’s really time for some companies to get off their butts and release universal binaries. I’m thinking of Roxio, specifically.

The Build Quality

TH: The MBP sports decent build quality, comparable to that of the iMac G5, and much, much, much better than the iBook G4. I have one gripe though: the hairs on my arm (sorry for the visual, folks) sometimes get stuck between the plastic rim surrounding the machine. Ouch!

AS: I find the entire package extremely attractive, and I’ve not had any issue with the setup. In fact, it’s smaller and lighter than a very comparable Dell I use at work. My one complaint is that I’ve noticed that USB hubs have to be well built, or else you’ll be facing a slew of Finder errors and issues with your devices. This machine needs additional USB ports. Badly.

The Battery

TH: The battery is… Odd. My iBook’s battery could survive for weeks when asleep– the MBP’s was completely dry after only two days of sleep!

AS: Either way, a Mac’s battery life is usually pretty poor. I get much less battery time with the MBP than with the G4 iBook — almost an hour less. On top of that, comparable laptops from other manufacturers can last much longer, in some cases in excess of 6 hours! Luckily, I use mine plugged in 99% of the time.

TH: After more unplugged usage, it has become clear to me my MacBook Pro suffers from battery failures of some sort; it has had more wake-from-sleep errors the past week than my iBook G4 had in the 18 months I had the thing! And with errors I mean the screen does not come up, or the machine shuts itself down while asleep (very odd, I thought it was broken, and panicked, as the machine is not mine, but Apple’s).

Waking from sleep also seems slightly slower than my iBook G4.

AS: Eh… By how much? Because mine is completely negligible. Like maybe 2-3 seconds.

TH: Yes, indeed 2-3 seconds. I have this thing for details, so it caught my eye.

Running Windows

TH: Running Windows on the MacBook Pro is a breeze. It’s not something I personally need, but the ability to run Windows (or Linux) natively or via Parallels is a welcome addition for anyone contemplating a switch.

AS: Haven’t tried it, and won’t in the form of Boot Camp. I would like to demo Parallels, but I’ve been too lazy to set it up. Frankly, I don’t really see the need for Windows right now.

TH: Me neither (the Dell runs Windows XP/Vista when I need it), but it is a thing to mention that the MacBook Pro, as well as other Intel Macs, can run Windows in two ways, so easily.

AS: Absolutely, given that this is a great fallback for those who want to experiment, but don’t want to be “stuck” on OS X if they can’t figure it out.

The Conclusion

TH: This is a mediocre laptop overall, and definitely not worth its hefty, hefty pricetag, especially now that the MacBook has arrived. It is astonishing to see that on three fronts, namely speakers, screen, and keyboard, a 2489E machine (my configuration) gets beaten on these important fronts by a 700USD Dell.

AS: If you dissect the machine and compare the hardware bit by bit, I get your point. In fact, why not go the extra mile – what the hell are we doing with 32-bit chips in a “cutting edge” portable? How come our hard drive choices are so small? And why are they still defaulting new laptops to 512 MB of RAM, when the OS clearly is a different animal with 1GB+? The hardware is not the sole sales point.

TH: Clearly Apple’s way of trying to squeeze money from its customers. I don’t blame them, it’s how the world works; however, that does not make it less true or upsetting to financially lesser-fortuned people who would also like to own a Mac.

My advice: if you are in doubt between an ‘ordinary’ MacBook and a MacBook Pro and your use for the machine does not include heavy Photoshopping and the like; stick with the MacBook, it will save you a pretty buck. If you need the MBP’s better videocard, then it becomes a different story, obviously.

AS: That’s a dead on assessment. If you have no need for the Pro portion of the Macbook Pro, stick with the more affordable Macbook.

TH: To sum it up, in one sentence: not a bad laptop, but the heat, screen, speaker, and keyboard issues prevent it from being worth its hefty pricetag– for me.

AS: See, I would argue that this is the best laptop I’ve ever owned. While subsequent generations may leave impatient people like me with lacking 1st generation prototypes, I think it’s been worthwhile. The biggest competition the MBP has is Apple’s own Macbook, which is good enough for about 90% of potential Apple switchers. That said, if you run heavy apps and use a Mac for professional design, music, or video, the MBP is the only real portable for you.

TH: I’d like to add, the heat issue apparently also exists on the MacBook. As such, I will not buy a MacBook. I set money aside for it, but my experience with this MacBook Pro has made me stop and think twice– and wait for future revisions. I’m now skimming the internet for a nice used PowerMac G4 (I already sold that iBook G4). My email address is…

AS: My closing thoughts: the transition to Intel is nearly complete. As such, our next decision is whether or not to act now and buy these portables or wait for the next generation, which will inevitably bring further improvements. This is the timeless computing paradox: if you wait just a little longer, the price will drop and the power will increase and the bugs will be worked out. Of course, if you buy now – you get it now! The Macbook Pro certainly has its shortcomings, many of which I suspect will be “fixed” or improved in future versions. But it’s good enough now, good enough to serve as the primary computer for most people I know without issue.

TH: Rests me to say that I would like to thank MacSupport and Apple Netherlands for supplying us with a review machine.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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