At last Tuesday’s notebook event, Apple released a new set of MacBooks and MacBook Pros. The reviews and the press so far have skewed toward the MacBook, and deservedly so; the high-end MacBook is now significantly closer to the low-end Pro, and the aluminum models boast far better on-board graphics chips. On the MacBook Pro, specifications have changed, but part of the deal with the switch to Intel chips in 2006 is that hardware upgrades are incremental and predictable. What makes the new Pro interesting is what’s on the outside.
Being a Pro user myself, I have waited a long time for a revolution in Apple’s high-end notebook line. While hardware has steadily moved forward, the casing hasn’t changed much since the titanium Powerbook days, and despite staying current, I’ve always felt like I was using the same computer. I’ve heard really positive things about the Air, and had considered making the switch before Tuesday’s announcements. However, the case redesign, faster CPU, and standard 4GB memory have prompted me to stay on the Pro line.
I love a matte screen. Aside from my fear of trying new things — I’ve never owned a glossy-screened notebook — the glare factor has always kept me away. With the latest generation of iMacs, the new cinema display, and now the entire notebook line going glossy, Apple is making it clear that I won’t have a choice in the matter for very much longer. If this is a change I will need to get used to, I may as well do it now.
But while there is a little bit of glare in certain lighting conditions, this screen is simply amazing. A great benchmark for any screen is reproduction of blacks. Funny that the screen would be framed in black, giving me an excellent point of comparison. To my eyes, the MacBook Pro screen produces the blackest blacks I’ve ever seen on a computer display1. My old matte screen, as much as I love it, always felt a little dull and lifeless in this arena.
Beyond black, color reproduction in general is vibrant without feeling unnatural. And the LED-backlighting seems to have gotten brighter since last generation — a huge plus for working outside.
Some people are keyboard snobs, clinging desperately to the familiar touch of their favorite keys. I might fall into this category, but only because the Powerbook/MacBook Pro keyboards are absolute perfection. The idea of giving up those silver keys for good is a little scary. There’s a marked difference between the keys on my old Pro and those on a MacBook. The MacBook keys are too smooth, inviting slips and errors. The keys on the Powerbook-style keyboard, on the other hand, have some grain to them, keeping my fingertips in place as they land.
As I type this review, I am happy to report that the keyboard quality of the new MacBook Pro is outstanding. This is difficult to describe, but these new keys have a slight tacky quality. Apple improved on the design from the MacBook keyboard with the desktop version, and again with the Air. Not having spent a significant amount of time using the Air keyboard, I can’t offer a direct comparison, but this may be my new favorite keyboard. The keys feel more sturdy than even my precious silvers, and the bounce-back responsiveness as I type is gratifying. Plus it’ll be a hell of a lot easier to keep clean.
What’s weird about the new trackpad, with all of the major changes and new features, is how familiar it feels. While it has obviously learned some new tricks, it still performs the old tricks remarkably well. I still rest my thumb at the bottom, where the button used to be, and the trackpad is smart enough to ignore it. And clicking with my thumb while my finger is still touching the surface yields a primary click, not the secondary click one should expect from having two fingers on the pad. I’m not sure what logic the driver uses to make this determination, but it feels like magic.
The glass feels slightly different to the touch, but isn’t quite the same as running my fingers over the screen of my iPhone. The texture is somewhere in-between, and ensures that skin oils don’t cause stutters in movement.
Time will tell if I continue to use the new three- and four-finger gestures, but the gesture for switching applications (four to the side to bring up the alt-tab display, then use two-finger scrolling to cycle through icons) may provide a small speed boost to my workflow. Overall, I would call the new trackpad an improvement with no real downside.
Apple made a big deal about the new manufacturing process at Tuesday’s event, and I think I know why. Increased rigidity and structural integrity means that they can make everything smaller, reducing the visual clutter for a cleaner, more attractive aesthetic.
The speaker holes on either side of the keyboard are dramatically smaller, hopefully reducing the amount of crap that gets stuck in them. More than being practical, this change is visually pleasant, and underscores the new design philosophy. The battery indicator light, now moved to the left side, also features smaller dots. And the LED receiver for the remote is now a thin line, as is the snore light, which remains invisible unless actively, er, snoring.
Then there’s the relocated optical drive, or the much smaller power button, or the minimalist port array, or the hidden iSight in the display. Everything has either been hidden or scaled down, making the previous Macbook Pro seem downright gaudy by comparison. Even the lettering of “MacBook Pro” has been toned down, no longer stealing your attention with every ambient lighting change.
The black border and keyboard are eye-catching, and the lack of plastic edge borders or needless buttons keep everything looking clean and solid. Visually, there is simply no contest. The new MacBook Pro handily steals the iPhone 3G’s title as the most beautiful product Apple has ever designed.
While I haven’t run any benchmarks or put the new Pro through any kind of rigorous Photoshop challenges, I have noticed that it runs at around 45 degrees Celsius, compared to my old machine’s 60 degree average. The new Pro is also significantly quieter, possibly because the fan isn’t kicking on as much. I’ll speculate that the new case design offers better air flow.
The optical drive, now SATA instead of IDE, is also quieter, and no longer produces that familiar wonking sound when the machine boots or wakes up. In its place is a less obnoxious sound, somewhere between a grind and a vibrate, like a machine tearing paper.
Ever annoyed by the latching mechanism of the Powerbook/MacBook Pro line, I am thrilled that the latest model moves to the MacBook’s magnetic latch. It’s smarter, cleaner, less likely to break, and doesn’t get in the way.
At one fifth of a pound heavier than its older brother, this is a far cry from the MacBook Air. Don’t get me wrong, the new Pro isn’t exactly heavy, but added weight is an annoyance, especially when the smaller MacBook managed to lose weight in this transition.
The two on-board graphics chips are nice, but Nvidia has clarified that only one can be used at a time. It is unclear whether this is a hardware or software limitation, but the expectation is that Snow Leopard will at least allow the idle GPU to be tasked with general processing. A little bit of information up front would be nice.
Speaking of the dual GPUs, switching from one to the other (high performance versus better batter life) requires logging out, then back in, reducing the chance that I’ll ever even use the faster chip. Again, the hope is that this is fixed in Snow Leopard. For gamers who crave the ultimate in graphics performance, it may be best to wait and see how this plays out.
Batter capacity has been reduced, while battery life has remained the same. Sure, the GeForce 9400M uses less power, but why not pack in a higher-capacity battery and make it that much better?
I understand removing the Firewire 400 port, I really do. Firewire 800 is backward-compatible. But would it kill Apple to throw in the $30 adapter? I tried doing the data migration over the network, but waiting 18 hours didn’t seem like a lot of fun. I wound up using Time Machine backups to get everything moved to the new machine. A cumbersome process, in place of what used to be one of my favorite things about being a Mac user.
More than another speed bump or hardware refresh, the new MacBook Pro is both a small step and a major leap forward. While interface design and user experience have always been Apple’s forté, the notebooks have remained stagnant for far too long. At the end of the wait, however, is a machine that looks like something out of a science fiction movie, yet still manages to feel organic.
Regardless of your stance on the Apple revision A hardware myth, the new MacBook Pro is not revision A hardware, but the culmination of everything Apple got right with the latest iMac, the Air, and the iPhone. I only wish Apple could bottle that new Mac smell.
- incidentally, I would advise against a Google image search for “black” with SafeSearch turned off [↩]