15" MacBook Pro review

I have always been a reluctant laptop user and always more of a desktop kind of guy.  Sure laptops can be quite useful for there portability, but they always feel like so much compromise when using them.  Over the years I have used multiple laptops associated with work and pretty much always attached external keyboards and mice to them.  The interface to use them is what really gets in the way and you kind of defeat the portability purpose when you have to carry external peripherals to go with them.  Some time back I had a Dell Duo-Core machine with a good amount of memory and a 17″ screen, but I just hated typing with it and using the trackpad and trackpad button was always a chore.  It just never melted into the interface background.  My wife’s 17″ inch HP laptop is much the same and the trackpad would drive me to frustration in short time as the cursor would seem to go pretty much willy-nilly.  The actually processing of laptops have though quite advanced over the years and there is much less compromise in this area.

Having given my Dell laptop to my daughter a year ago I have been without a laptop and would just resort to using my wife’s when I needed one.  But using that HP trackpad has me offering it up in short order.  So last week while at the Navy Exchange I decided to look at getting one of the new Mac laptops.  I had originally planned on getting a middle-0f-the-line MacBook.  I was trying to exercise the virtue of prudence by thinking that all I needed was a MacBook and not a Mac Book Pro. Though I have to admit that just adding Pro to the model name made it more desirable for me. But I was all set to go with the MacBook, the only problem was is that they had it sitting right next to the 15″ MacBook Pro.  This is where all of the rationalizing started to kick in.  First I noticed that the MacBook Pro and the MacBook I had wanted had less than a $400 price difference.   Plus a 15″ screen suits my tastes much better than as 13″ one.  So the rationalizations continued as I thought “hey I plan to keep this machine for several years so why not get the one which has Firewire and and Expresscard/34 slot which the Mac Pro does not.  Throw in the fact that it has two (count em two) video cards the $400 price difference quickly becomes moot or so I justified.  The one nice thing about being able to shop in a Navy Exchange is that the prices are slightly lower than in an Apple Store and it is tax free.

Now onto the review.

The  Mac laptop line now uses the aluminum  unibody enclosure (except the white MacBook). This gives the laptop a real solid feeling while at the same time being quite thin.  The magnetic latch is an improvement over previous MBPs.  Since it was carved out of a solid block of aluminum the solid feeling is more than skin deep.  The LED-backlit widescreen display is really quite beautiful and the colors quite vibrant.  The glossy screen can be disconcerting at first, but I had already grown use to a glossy screen on an iMac and so now don’t even think of it and in fact now prefer it.  When it comes to aesthetics it is hard to surpass Apple.  The machine looks more like a piece of art with the metal body, black keys, and glowing white Apple log.  But the reason to have a computer it to be able to do something with it.

The true test for me was usability when it came o the the keyboard and trackpad.  I must admit to being rather shocked at how fast I was able to use the keyboard and to type at normal speed.  I have used plenty of laptops with full sized keyboards, but they just never felt right.  For me the MPB keyboard is just about perfect, though this is quite a subjective area.  What blew me away was the trackpad. Apple has gone to a larger trackpad with no buttons where the whole trackpad is a button that you can click.  This is a trackpad that I was able to use immediately with hardly any learning curve at all.  Now I realize Steve Jobs mission to remove every possible button to excess and when it came to Apple mice I always considered this a fault.  This no button trackpad is simplicity itself, but actually usable.  I can scroll by using two fingers anywhere on the trackpad.  I can right click by pressing down with two fingers (or clicking in a selected bottom corner).  Then there are the variety of other multitouch gestures to zoom, rotate, bring up expose, etc.  I love this trackpad so much that I actually want a keyboard with a trackpad for my desktop machine.  While if they had such a keyboard I would still use the regular mouse, I would also use the trackpad a lot.  I tried out the beta version of Firefox 3.1 which supports multitouch and it really was a great way to browse.  I had been a been a reluctant laptop user, but the MPB is really a joy to use.  Plus the fact that the keyboard is backlit is quite a plus in many situations.

The hardware inside includes and Intel Core 2 Duo running at 2.4 ghz with a 1066MHz frontside bus.  2GB of DDR3 SDRAM memory which Apple says is expandable to 4, but some have gotten 6GB to work fine (though others with problems).  A 250GB hard drive along with a NVIDIA GeForce 9400M and a 9600M GT with 256 MB.  The dual video chips are pretty cool since if you are running on battery you can switch to the less capable card to preserve battery life.  Though it is quite annoying that to switch video chips you have to go to the preference panel to do so and then log out and back in.  This should be made much easier and hopefully software can address this in the future.  The MPB is also available with a 2.8 GHZ chip, but I did not see the price tradeoff/benifit as worth it.  Other standards include 802.11n draft specification, Bluetooth, and Gigabyte Ethernet, but this is pretty standard for modern laptops.  A bottom cover allows you to easily access the battery swap out the hard drive or add memory.  This is an improvement over previous generations of the MBP where changing the hard drive took much more disassembling and was not for the casual user.

As with previous Intel Mac laptops the MagSafe power port is use.  The power connector uses a magnet and quickly attaches to the side of the laptop.  I have already found this to be a great feature since it easily disconnects if you trip over the cord and it won’t bring the laptop down crashing along with the cord.  Plus there is just the juvenile fun of connecting it and having the magnets pull it together.  One nice bit of design is that the power brick end  of the power has a couple of ways of connecting to electrical power.  The little white brick itself has 2 prongs that pop out to plug in.  You can pop this off of the power brick and connect a longer 3 pronged cord to use instead.  I found this invaluable to use in a hotel room to be able to connect up farther away.  Nice bit of design for portability and having the ability to add an extension.

One real surprise was the sound quality.  On either side of the keyboard are speakers with hundreds of tiny drilled holes for the grill.  Best sound I have ever heard come natively out of a laptop.  Though as you would expect there is not much bass sound.  The new 17″ MBP is probably even better since they have allowed even more space for the speakers.

So the hardware is quite capable and previously PC Magazine had rated the last generation MBP as the fastest Vista machine available.  No doubt the latest MBP would also make quite a capable Vista machine, but I wanted a Mac laptop primarily to run OSX in the first place.  When my wife and I would go traveling and we would take a Windows laptop I felt like I had lost so much capability.  There are so many Mac programs I have grown to love that just don’t have a Windows counterpart or an inadequate one.  I am not a MS Windows hater, it is just that I actually enjoy using OSX and the Mac shareware community turns out some really amazing software.  I find this laptop to be speedier and more responsive than my iMac which also had a 2.44 GHZ core duo.  So I definately do not feel like I have lost power when using this machine.  Though I will probably add more memory later just so that I can run VMWare Fusion and Windows 7 or Ubuntu when I need to as a Virtual Machine.  The MacBook Pro can easily be a desktop replacement machine.

Since I started using this machine I have been using Spaces a lot more.  Spaces is a virtual window program that is part of OSX Leopard and really makes handling multiple windows a snap.  I don’t use Spaces on my main machine simply because 3 monitors provide quite enough screen real estate. But for a laptop Spaces is quite excellent.  I setup programs to always run in a certain space so I always know what Space a loaded program is in and makes switching between windows quite easily.

Now I come to the part of the review where I come out of Apple fanboy mode into a more critical mode.  When it comes to ports Apple seems to be always looking for the next best thing, unfortunately they do it before anybody else heads that way.  To hook up an external monitor you need to use the Mini DisplayPort.  Yes Apple could not even use the fairly small DisplayPort connector that is slowly being adopted, they had to make it smaller.  While Apple has said they will license this smaller port for free to other manufacturers it has quite a long ways to go before it will be supported by monitor manufacturers.  To add insult to injury Apple does not include a Mini DisplayPort to DVI adapter which you have to buy separately.  I guess they want to encourage you to buy a $799 24 ” Apple Cinema Display that supports Mini DisplayPort (along with pretty much acting as a dock ).   This annoys me even though I am unlikely to hook up an external monitor to the laptop anyway since I have the Mac Pro desktop.  The machine also has only 2 USB ports which is less than most Windows laptops you will find out there.  The fact that there is only 1 Firewire 800/400 port doesn’t bother me though and the number of USB ports is not a concern for me  either.  Right now I can only foresee using USB for a backup hard drive and a thumbdrive anyway.  Apple goes quite minimal on ports, but considering just how thin the MPB is it is amazing how much they do manage to get what they have in.

When I had previously gotten an iMac it came with an Apple remote which I came to use quite often.  So does the MPB come with one?  Why of course not.  After forking over the money for a MBP in the first place you have to buy a $19 Apple remote separately. Apple does this sort stuff all the time.  The iPod use to come with a dock and a little powerbrick to charge the iPod using a regular socket.  With each generation of iPod you got less and less external peripherals which of course are sold separately.  Come on Apple what does the Apple remote cost to make – 2 or 3 bucks?  Or how about a year of MobileMe with the purchase of a new Mac or at least at a discounted price? How about iWork with a Pro machine. Apple at times wants to nickel and dime you to death after you have already put out some serious cash for a Mac.  Though on the bright side OSX with iLife really provides a lot of capability and software that you would have to pay extra for in the Windows world.  Not only that you don’t get all the crapware that comes with almost all Windows machines.

So I am quite happy with the Mac Book Pro and find it the first laptop that I can really enjoy and most of all can use constantly without feeling the laptop compromise.

A couple of days after I bought this machine Apple announced at Macworld the new 17″ Macbook Pro.  At close to $900 dollars more than I paid for the MPB I bought, I am not feeling any buyers remorse.  Plus I think the 15 inch is just the right size for both portability  and still having sufficient screen real estate.  The 17″ does come with slightly faster CPUs and can handle 8 GB of ram.  The new technology battery is suppose to get 7 to 8 hours of battery life (whatever that is in the real world), though it is not user replaceable.  I must admit that the 17″ MBP is a pretty serious machine for those who need the size and it is pretty amazing that is is only 6.6 pounds which is only 1.1 pound more than the 15″ model.