Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Geek Wednesday: Stevie's Wonder

Santa must be a Republican, because I didn't get a damned thing from him this year. So I decided to take matters into my own hands: on Friday evening after work, I walked over to the Soho Apple store and bought myself a MacBook, the middle-of-the-line model with the white skin, 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo 2 processor, 80GB 5400 rpm HD, and 1GB of RAM. I had wanted to upgrade the RAM to 2GB, but the helpful salesman there told me not to bother—Apple charges $300 extra for the service, and I could get the chip myself over Crucial's website and install it myself. Now that's a good salesman.

I also received an excellent demonstration in how to run a retail store at holiday time: the place was packed, and there was a long but nicely moving line at the main registers. But my salesman directed me to another counter in the back, where they sold standard-configuration Macs as long as you were paying with a debit or credit card. The sale took me less than five minutes, from the moment I walked into the store to the moment I left. Then I took it home and duly recorded the opening of Steve Job's wonder (click the graphic above to see the show). Now, for the review...

The Good:

Display: Easily the clearest, most luminous and pleasing display I've ever seen on a laptop. It's not that mushy TFT stuff that makes dimples when you touch it; the surface is a hard, crystalline screen that places nothing between your eye and the image. As you can see, the quality of the image exceeds the beautiful TFT screen on my iMac desktop. I also have an outstanding Trinitron CRT for the Wintel machine, and it actually looks rather faded compared to the MacBook's display. Astonishing.

Keyboard: An ingenious piece of design. Again, I have to resort to superlatives: it's the most natural and comfortable keyboard I've touched on a laptop, and it beats most full-sized ergonomic boards. The spacing, location, and action of the keys has obviously been carefully thought out and rigorously tested. Apple design genius at its very best.

Processor speed: Intel Core Duo 2 heaven. It handles complex OS, graphical, and processing tasks with snappy aplomb. On my iMac PPC machine, just right-clicking a file to bring up a menu, or opening an application like Firefox or Word, would mean waiting through a delay of several seconds while the processor struggled with the request. On this machine, the spinning beach ball, bouncing dock icon, and winding wristwatch are very rare indeed. Some applications (see below) that have not made it into Universal Binary Land will strain the processor a bit, but this is a situation that can only improve with time and future development.

Two-finger scrolling: It's one of those "how-did-they-do-that" moments: you put one finger on the trackpad and the mouse arrow moves around as usual. You put another finger down and slide them left to right or up and down, and you're scrolling whatever window you're in, horizontally or vertically. Put down 3 or more fingers and the scrolling stops again. Very cool, and very useful (see below for my one complaint about the trackpad).

Heat Management: This machine is now my desktop Mac (I gave the iMac to my daughter to use at her Mom's house). So it's on for hours at a time, and it does get warm under the power supply. But I was impressed at how long it stayed cool, and even at maximum heat it still can sit on my lap without causing discomfort (though I don't make a habit of it, nor should you for numerous long-term health reasons). The battery scarcely gets hot at all, even after over two hours. This bodes very well for the endurance of the machine as a whole.

Weight: The MacBook is barely over an inch thick and five pounds light. It's easy to carry around the house or inside a bag (I have a backpack-style bag for it, and recommend this type of sack for any portable).

The Cool:

Photo Booth: My daughter's favorite application. It uses the iChat camera at the top of the display to take and happily distort photographs of self and/or self's cat.

iLife '06: If you've got a PC, then you probably know that Google created a great photo management product in Picasa (for either Windows or Linux). Nevertheless, iPhoto is a step ahead of Picasa for versatility, ease of use, and graphical quality. The rest of the iLife suite stands firmly on its own: Garage Band, iMovie, iDVD, and the new iWeb. My only complaint with them has been their extravagant system demands—they really take a toll on a PPC processor, but run like a breeze on this Intel machine. Here's an example of what I mean (and a demonstration of the might of this little machine): I opened iPhoto to choose, crop, and size the photos for this piece, then started Garage Band to make a brief podcast-style sound demo. Meanwhile, I also opened MS Word, to read from my Tao of Hogwarts book for the demo. Then I realized that I'd need a printout; but I hadn't installed the printer drivers for my Samsung Laser printer yet. So I inserted the driver disk and loaded the files while Word opened my book, a 290 page document with lots of graphics and formatting. I made the recording in GB and then opened iTunes to preview the file there and convert it to AAC format. As this was going on, I opened Transmit, the Mac FTP utility, and uploaded the graphics files. If you click on the picture of Professor Dumbledore, you can hear the result (credit goes to my daughter Maria for the lovely drawing).

The Challenging:

Mactel is cutting its teeth: I kept having to remind myself as I set this machine up, that Intel Macs are very new—just short of a year young. So you need some patience, because a lot of the hardware-software interface issues involve a "neither-fish-nor-fowl" dynamic. I noticed that some of Apple's own applications (Mail, most notably) worked better on the PPC machine than on this new Intel beauty. It took some work (and one crash of the app) to get Mail looking and behaving normally on the new machine.

It is also to be noted that third-party software is still transitioning. Freeway, my favorite WYSIWYG web editor that I use for the other site, is an unfortunate case in point. Their version 3.5 wouldn't load on the new Mac, and when I checked with their Support people, I was told that I'd have to upgrade to their version 4, at a cost of $100. Looks like it's time for me to brush up my rusty html skills. Or give iWeb a try—you don't need a .mac account to use it, especially now that there's Scott Finney's EasyiWeb Publisher available.

Neither Adobe (Photoshop) nor Microsoft (Office for Mac) have made their products universal binary-friendly. For me, that means that Photoshop Elements, though it loads and runs just fine, isn't any faster on the Intel Mac than it was on the PPC iMac (though Word and Excel fly along much better than they did on my iMac). You may run up against universal binary issues, and will have to do a little research to bone up: begin with this page at Apple's support site, which is a guide to what applications have made it to UB Land.

The one thing I haven't tried yet is loading Windows onto the Mac. I did it at work, at my last job, on an Intel Mac Mini running Parallels, and everything went fine. But this laptop is my Mac—why would I want to screw it up by loading Windows on it? Maybe someday...

The Reality:

Not Alienware: The video on the MacBook comes from an onboard Intel chip, which borrows RAM from the system memory to deliver graphics and video. It does it very well for ordinary applications like browsers, Quicktime files, Photoshop and iPhoto processing, and the like. But I suspect this is not a gamer's machine. For one thing, after playing a game with rapidly moving parts for a few minutes, the hard drive starts revving like a jet engine, and that's not a sound I prefer to hear coming out of a computer. That means the video chip has exhausted its supply of RAM and is hitting the swap file pretty hard. So if you're a rabid gamer, I have the following advice: (a) get a life; and (b) if (a) is not possible for you yet (I understand, I've been there), then pick up an Alienware box or, if you need a Mac, a MacBook Pro or one of their desktop machines, which have freestanding video cards with 128MB or 256MB of VRAM fueling them. This advice would also apply to video or graphics professionals, but without the "get a life" part, of course.

The Annoying:

Everybody's got to have a beef, right? I'm no different. I have two very minor complaints: the setup and file transfer utility, with which you move files and configuration arrangements from one Mac to another, needs a FireWire cable. I didn't have one, but I have a router connected to a cable modem, and lots of Ethernet cable. It all went well in the end, but I had to figure some things out along the way. It would have been easier if Apple had offered the option to transfer files via Ethernet rather than only with a FireWire cable.

Finally, you would think that with all of Apple's design and techno-genius, they'd figure out how to get a right-click mechanism into the trackpad. Thanks to the beautifully designed keyboard, this is less of a beef than it might otherwise have been. I just thought that once they'd gone to the two-button mouse with the "Mighty Mouse," they'd think of adding the same functionality to their laptop trackpads.

Well, if that's a deal-killer for you, then good luck with your Dell. But remember what we say, "you buy a Dell, you go to Hell..." Just go over to Buy Blue and compare: Dell, 88% of PAC contributions to the GOP; Apple, 99% to Democrats. Mind you, Apple's got its problems: the stock dating fiasco, one of their two blemishes in 2006 (the other being the odious alliance with the globalist child labor tyrant Nike), is bound to unravel further in 2007. But they invented the PC, and now, in the era of the Intel Mac, they've taken it back. Now, as it is with all of us, the only thing that could defeat Apple is for it to allow ego to take over. If it can avoid corporate complacency and market arrogance, then its future is secure.

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