Thursday, November 23, 2006

MacBook Core 2 Duo: My Amazon Review

Below is an edited and updated version of my Amazon review of the Core 2 Duo MacBook. In brief: good product, some odd choices, I'm not all that impressed with Intel, and I had a mediocre experience with Parallels. Apple MacBook MA701LL/A 13.3" Notebook PC (2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 1 GB RAM, 120 GB Hard Drive, DVD/CD SuperDrive) - Black: Computers & PC Hardware

I bought a build-to-order version of this machine from Apple educational with 2GB of RAM. If one uses the Macintouch link to purchase this from Amazon you get a better deal and help out a web site that provides great Mac tech support.

Thus far I've gone through user migration, several days of light use, and one test of Parallels (which was disappointing). It's worth the money and it's one of the best laptops I've bought (I do miss my 1990 vintage PowerBook 165 though!). I've been nursing my broken-hinges G3 iBook so I could get the 2nd rev of the MacBook, it was worth the wait. I don't see any evidence of the serious heat problems that afflicted the first MacBook and I assume they've mostly fixed the abrupt shutdown problem. The odd looking keyboard is fine and the large trackpad works well -- though I'm not sure the tap-to-click is worth the occasional errant clicks. The accompanying documentation is extremely minimal but very well done and sufficient for most users. Those who need more probably wouldn't read a bigger manual anyway.

You should be happy, especially since the rest of my review will prepare you for the minor annoyances.

Now that I'm done saying nice things, here are the nits. Firstly, it's too sharp. Some whacko at Apple design figured 'sharp' was in this year, and the edges of the case annoy wrists when typing and fingers when carrying by the base. This is not all bad; it ensures good wrist position because it's uncomfortable to type wresting your wrists on the front edge. Overall though, dumb.

The screen is the DVD-friendly widescreen form factor, so the 13.3" is less useable for computing work (photos, etc) than one would wish. Annoying, but hard to escape these days. It comes with a remote for watching DVDs and listening to music, but really I'd rather have had the original iBook form factor. Compared to my older 12" iBook the machine is thinner, longer, wider and about the same weight. The fans run often, are very audible, and can be very noisy, but the base is not excessively hot. PowerPC (legacy applications that invoke Rosetta when used) cause fans to run and the battery to decline quickly.

The battery is twice the size of the G4's and yields comparable or less battery life. I'm unimpressed with the power/heat/performance ratio of Intel's hyped architecture; I had to significantly drop the screen brightness to get a reasonable battery life. The conversion from PowerPC to Intel has thus far underwhelmed me, especially since I was disappointed with Parallels (see below). The machine, for example, takes longer to sleep -- making it much too easy to run off with with a spinning hard drive. You have to shut the case and look for the cycling sleep light.

In terms of connectors I don't miss the modem. The video connector seems proprietary, but I'm used to that from Apple. The VGA and DVI cables are reasonably priced and I bought both (check what comes with this machine). The ability to support two desktops is the one really big improvement over the G4 iBook.

The built in camera is silly. It's low resolution with a tiny lens and awful performance with ambient indoor light. The MagSafe power connector is impressive, even though it means there won't be non-Apple licensed chargers for this machine. Apple has retained the rest of their power adapter design, which has been the best in the industry. (I'm big on power adapters as a leading indicator of product excellence).

The MacBook comes with much less bundled than my G5 iMac. In part that may be because Apple probably wants to avoid non-"universal" (intel-compatible) apps and in part to reduce support costs and product cost. You get Apple's superb iLife apps, some simple games, OmniOutliner, and a "comic" generator. No encyclopedia, etc.

I used Apple's user migration to move 3 user accounts, software, files, etc from an old, old iBook. This requires a firewire cable, so IF YOU WANT TO DO USER MIGRATION BUY OR BORROW A FIREWIRE CABLE. The firewire cable is not included with this MacBook. The migration process is well integrated into initial setup and, all by itself, probably pays for any price difference between the bottom-of-the-barrel Dell laptop and the MacBook. I did run across some minor cleanup tasks, but the iBook had very old stuff. Migration takes longer than you expect and periodically pauses for long minutes; it's not frozen, just thinking. Start it and come back in a few hours.

I bought the InCase neoprene sleeve to protect the MacBook when it's carried in a bag or backpack. It's a handsome, well made case, but it desperately needs some thin, lightweight strap-type nylon carrying handles. Sigh. I guess they omitted them for price and aesthetic reasons, but I recommend looking for something with straps. Not recommended.

Also not-yet-recommended is the famous Parallels Windows emulation environment. I downloaded the trial version and attempted to install Windows 98. Ugh. Awful. Wasted hours. I don't know if it's this bad with every machine or if they've not tuned it to the new MacBook. Flawed documentation, flawed auto-configuration. slow, huge power drain, didn't work, etc. I may try XP with Parallels once I recover. I recommend testing Parallels before you buy. If you do install XP and enable network access you are paying for XP, Parallels, and an antivirus solution.

The bottom line is that this looks like a good OS X laptop without some of the flaws of the first MacBook. Since any OS X laptop is an improvement over an XP laptop it's an excellent choice for everyone. If you intend to run Windows software I think Apple's Boot Camp (separate download) may be more reliable and elegant than Parallels.
Update 11/25/06: The MacBook is almost fast enough to run Aperture. If Apple ever fixes Aperture, it might be a decent platform for smaller projects. It takes longer to go to sleep than my G3 iBook -- it's easy to pick it up and start moving before the lazy blinking light begins.
Update 11/26/06: Adobe/Macromedia Shockwave doesn't run natively on Intel. Since it uses Rosetta, the browser has to use Rosetta too. This rules out most kids game sites.

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