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The MacBook Pro Review and Why Mine Went Back to Apple

After some "umming" and "arrring" I decided I needed a new laptop - my 17" Rock is a beast, and rips stuff up, but it is heavy, and noisy. I asked some questions, read a lot of reviews, and decided finally that a MacBook Pro 15" should do the job - it had numerous glowing reviews, including from Windows biased developers like myself.

So I ordered my MacBook Pro from Apple, top of the line spec - and was very impressed by their speed of delivery - it was with me 2 days later. Damn efficient!

First Impressions

Opening the box I found a typical Apple experience (I own an iPhone too) ... plenty of designer packaging, pure minimalism, sleek, shiny and all around impressive.

The first surprise was the power adapter. It was very very light, and very compact. For a machine of this spec, it was ridiculously light. A really pleasant surprise, as the adapter is often what makes a laptop non-portable - lugging it around is no fun.

In a few minutes all was unpacked, and all was up and running. OSX was simple to setup and Bootcamp was setup with Vista not many minutes later.

The Screen

When ordering the MacBook Pro I was aware that the screen resolution wasn't the greatest, 1440 is a little limiting, but I was prepared to go with it for the saving in weight. The screen was actually superb quality, though it was very reflective, even for a gloss screen - mostly noticeable when I was watching some movies. The worst thing about the screen though was something I hadn't expected - it was Apple's equivalent to ClearType for smoothing fonts - it was terrible. I have seen this commented on before, as the Windows version of Safari uses the same renderer - I had just expected the one in OSX to be better. Pehaps on massive screens it is good, but on the MacBook screen it looked ugly. When I switched to Vista in Bootcamp (using ClearType) the quality was perfect, beautifully readable. I struggled on for a week, but never really got to like their font smoothing, every time I went back to Vista the difference just hit me.

Software

The general user experience of OSX was much as I remembered from the last time I used Macs (and that was a LONG time ago) - although OSX has gone through many evolutions, it was still very familiar.

I loved Expose (quick application switching) and the Dock (a much better variation of the Windows taskbar) in OSX - very user friendly. And Spaces on the Mac is simply brilliant - multiple desktops are SO much better implemented than on any Windows version I have ever seen.

I needed to be able to run Windows apps quickly without resorting to a reboot to Bootcamp, so at first I downloaded VMWare Fusion. Fusion was pretty good as a virtual machine manager, but it's integration with OSX (called Unity) I found to be clunky. After a day or two I decided to try Parallels, a similar product, and found it was nearly the same running a VM, but it's OSX integration (Coherence) was infinitely better than Fusion.

Parallels and Unity made it possible to run Windows apps inside OSX, but it still wasn't perfect. It was "fast enough" but not the speed I like in a development environment. Basic use of MS Office would have been fine - using VS was a little slow for my liking - for anything more than code tinkering I was going to have to reboot into Bootcamp and lose OSX.

I downloaded 10 or 15 open source and demo applications, but nothing was any better than the Windows equivalent.

The one killer app on the MacBook though was a surprise to me - Front Row. Front Row is like Windows Media Centre, a full screen media experience, play music, TV, movies, or whatever ... but the killer part of the application was that Apple shipped a remote control with the MacBook - one press on "start" and the screen faded to black and let me get straight to the media. A brilliant idea- and I seriously considered this when I was deciding if the MacBook was for me - and I'm not really a media freak.

Keyboard Woes

The other thing I hadn't counted on was the keyboard. I guess I was expecting it to be better than other laptop keyboards I had owned (it was Apple after all), but I never really gelled with it. Firstly the key spacing, all that space wasted - they could have made bigger keys, or laid them out better.

Then a peculiar quirk, as a developer I am used to using CTRL, ALT and SHIFT a lot, in various combinations - but on the MacBook keyboard these keys just sit in the wrong place for me, I sort of have to twist my thumbs to use them effectively, which was gonna lead to pain eventually. The MacBook function key was where CTRL should have been, and the ALT key was where a Windows key would normally have been. Of course I am sure I could have soldiered on with these issues and got used to the layout, but I have to use PC keyboards on a regular basis, a lot of different ones, and getting used to the MacBook and then switching would certainly have slowed me down - I type pretty fast, and I don't need the hassle. No Delete key, and odd key combos for Home, End, Page up and Page Down added to my woes.

And another quirk - the " and @ were reversed (with the @ above the 2 and the " above the '). This is the American keyboard layout, but on a UK machine. I don't know if I got sent a US machine, or they all come like that but it was confusing. I tried and failed miserably for days to figure out how to remap those the right way around - and while I am sure there is a way, it wasn't obvious!

The trackpad was a pain to get used to at first, and drag/drop was always a pain, but the multiple finger gestures it allowed were great, and using 2 fingers to scroll a window, or 4 to bring up Expose was absolutely brilliant.

The Pros and Cons

So I was faced with a decision, do I keep the MacBook or send it back?

On the plus side for the MacBook was:

  • Build quality was superb
  • Weight, amazingly light, and the PSU was phenomenal
  • Front Row was da bomb!
  • Power was pretty darn good (2.8 processor and 9600M graphics)
  • It cost around the same as a similarly specced PC laptop, which would be heavier

But on the down side:

  • Mac OSX didn't offer me anything I couldn't do on Vista (Expose and Dock excluded)
  • OSX font smoothing
  • The keyboard was driving me nuts
  • The trackpad was a pain in OSX, but under Vista I never even figured out how to right click, and all the shortcuts I was used to in OSX only worked in OSX.

Conclusion

Eventually I decided to return the MacBook to Apple - it just wasn't for me. As a developer I want the fastest damn thing I can get my hands on - and that left me with the option of using the MacBook almost exclusively as a Windows machine. As a Windows laptop it is pretty impressive, but you lose all the nice parts of OSX (Expose, Dock, Front Row), and are left with a well built machine, with a cool logo, and a quirky trackpad and keyboard.

Maybe I didn't spend long enough with the MacBook - others think it is the best laptop ever for Windows development - I only had 6 days with it,  but had to make a choice.

I look forward to a future generation of MacBooks, because if they can sort out some of those minor annoying niggles, I'm sure I could get to like the MacBook.

So What Now?

For the moment I'm back to using my 17" monster. It's not exactly portable, but it is luggable. And I'm feeling more comfortable already.

I decided to see if Windows could be made a little friendlier, and managed to find Switcher as an alternative to Expose - it is a brilliant clone, and if anything is a little better. The one thing I miss is the 4 finger drag on the trackpad to bring it up.

And for a replacement for the Dock I found two Windows options that shined - RocketDock and ObjectDock. I went with RocketDock for the moment, and it has made Vista a little more usable - again if anything it is a little better than the OSX Dock.

New Laptop

I have a new laptop on the way, it's actually a gaming laptop, a fair bit heavier than the MacBook, a fair bit more powerful too. It has a higher resolution on a 15" screen which will be welcome, and it has a good old fashioned Clevo keyboard (which I know and love). The MacBook beats it on 9/10 features, but unfortunately the 1/10 is the bit that matters most to me.

I may get a much much lighter laptop for mobile stuff (I use a laptop mostly so I can change room in the house, or go in the garden), which leaves me with the best of both worlds, just not at the same time.


Posted 12-04-2008 7:14 PM by Jak Charlton
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Comments

DotNetKicks.com wrote Macbook Pro Review
on 12-04-2008 3:25 PM

You've been kicked (a good thing) - Trackback from DotNetKicks.com

Ryan Roberts wrote re: The MacBook Pro Review and Why Mine Went Back to Apple
on 12-04-2008 4:55 PM

Both fingers on the trackpad and click for right mouse button. It's also the scrollwheel gesture though, which can be problematic.

You are stuck with the US keyboard layout. I have had Macs around the house for a while though so it's less of a stretch.

Jeff Harrington wrote re: The MacBook Pro Review and Why Mine Went Back to Apple
on 12-04-2008 10:23 PM

I was in your same situation. I am a professional .NET developer and wanted a solid laptop, so I went with the Macbook Pro. I had almost all the same complaints (and observations) that you had. Although, after a few months with it, all of my qualms were squelched.

The keyboard layout is very natural for me now and I've become very accustomed to using the Apple key for everything. Switching between work (Dell - Windows) and home (Macbook - OSX) wasn't a problem.

The trackpad took a little bit to feel natural, but now I feel that it is superior to all other trackpads I come across.

Although your new laptop is no doubt going to be great. I feel like you would've loved the Macbook if you gave it a little bit more time.

J.P. Hamilton wrote re: The MacBook Pro Review and Why Mine Went Back to Apple
on 12-05-2008 8:59 AM

I remain highly skeptical of everyone doing Windows development on a Mac. It's one of those trendy things going on right now that I just don't get. There, I've said it...in public.

Macbook wrote re: The MacBook Pro Review and Why Mine Went Back to Apple
on 12-06-2008 10:49 AM

Ryan thanks for explaining this all. This is so cool.

Ned wrote re: The MacBook Pro Review and Why Mine Went Back to Apple
on 12-11-2008 6:10 AM

I'm a .Net developer who's moved over to Apple hardware. I've bought so many "high brand" PC/laptops only to find they're the same cheap taiwanese components, and something goes pop only months later. The build quality of the Apple stuff is in a different league.

The MacBooks also give you Mac OS X as a freebie - it will stay connected to wifi access points when XP can't and it just does what it says on the tin.

You should have stuck with those minor niggles Casey - your MacBook Pro would still be giving you great service five years from now! I can't say that of any of the PC laptops I have bought.

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