Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Trying out the Macbook Pro Unibody 15.4"

I recently purchased (on Craiglist) a Macbook Pro (late 2008) Unibody 15.4". I've been using Windows PCs for the last 15 years, but I started with Mac for several years before that, so I thought I would give the Mac a try again, especially considering the Mac can now run PC applications with Boot Camp and in virtual machines using Parallels and VMware Fusion.

So I am going to do a series of blogs on my experiences attempting to switch to the Mac, and in the end, whether I decide to keep it or sell it.

The first thing I did after getting the laptop was upgrading the Ram to 4GB, and upgrading the 250GB hard disk to 500GB. It was relatively painless, and there are plenty of YouTube videos available to guide you through the upgrade.


My previous laptop (which I'm going to hold on to for a while still) was a Thinkpad, 15.4" non-glare high resolution screen (1680 x 1050 - aka WSXGA+). That has been the perfect resolution for me for about 5 years now -- it has a very high pixels per inch count, and when looking at spreadsheets you can see a lot of information on one page.

Unfortunately, this resolution isn't available on the 15.4" Macbook Pros, so I had to go with the lower resolution 1440 x 900 screen. Some might say it's a just a few pixels different, but I must say I noticed the difference right away, particularly in the way fonts are rendered, and how much I can see of particular web sites. Fonts on the Mac look a lot more choppy, and less like paper than the higher resolution screen. On the other hand, everything is larger, which means I strain my neck a little less looking closely at the screen, so there is an upside.

I was concerned about the glossy screen - I'm a fan of anti-glare (matte) finished laptop screens. But it really hasn't been a problem. The LED backlight on the Macbook Pro is amazingly bright, and as long as you keep it bright, it pretty much washes out reflections.


The chicklet-like keyboard on the Macbook Pro is quieter, and a little easier to press (less mechanical force required) than the Thinkpad keys, but I must say the flat tops to each key make it a little strange to type on for me still, compared to the curved contours of the Thinkpad, and the overall tactile experience of the Thinkpad keyboard is superior to the Macbook Pros.

Update: After months of using the Macbook keys, I'm finding that I don't mind typing on it that much at all. But I do definitely miss several keys that I used all of the time in the PC world: forward delete, home, end, page up, and page down.

Multimedia Hardware (Camera, Speakers and Mic):

The iSight camera is nice, but honestly, when comparing Skype video call performance between my Thinkpad with its built-in camera and the Macbook Pro with the iSight ... the Thinkpad wins, by about a 20% quality improvement. I thought that it might be due to the Thinkpad running the 4.x verison of Skype, versus the 2.7.x.x version running on the Mac (the Mac version is behind in features and capabilities), so I tested Skype running in Virtual Machine, and got the same results. The video was slightly out of focus and a little more fuzzy than the Thinkpad, which was putting out nice, in focus, crisper video.

The Mac built in speakers are definitely superior to the Thinkpad - the bass and treble are richer, and watching a movie on the Mac is a far more pleasurable thing.

I was using a Shareware program called Reaper on the PC to do simple multi-track recording for song ideas that I had. GarageBand on the Mac fills that need just fine. The interface took a moment to get used to, but it works simply enough, and the microphone on the Mac is definitely a good quality Mic, and better than the Thinkpad.

The relative silence of the Mac (no whirring fans) is also a welcome change from the constant droning of the fan on my Thinkpad. The only sound the Mac makes when running is the faint vibration of the hard disk. But when I have done some more CPU intensive things, or changed the video card from the 9400M to the 9600M, then the little fans on the Mac have kicked in. There are pretty quiet, but have a more annoying high pitched whine than my Thinkpad.


I installed Microsoft Office 2008 - not quite what I was hoping for in a native Mac app. Office 2007 on the PC launches incredibly fast, is easy to use, and looks great. Office 2008 applications take a lot longer to load when you click on them, and just don't look as good, nor are the functions and menu options in places that you would expect.

The built in Mac apps - like iMovie, iPhoto, etc - these are great fun, and I am still enjoying playing with them more.

I will write a more detailed review of VMware Fusion vs. Parallels - as I have been testing both of them with Windows Vista SP1 (and just updated to Vista SP2).


I have a Windows Vista Ultimate machine running as the file server in our house, with a RAID 5 array as the main file repository. I have an 802.11G wireless network with WPA2 encryption running, and a Gigabit LAN wired up to most of the rooms in the house. I must say that I was impressed with file copy times from the Mac to the server and back (once I figured out how to connect to the Vista machine - which wasn't the easiest thing in the world). I think the file copy times are twice as fast with the Mac, versus my XP Thinkpad to the Vista machine -- with the same hard disk in both machines (so the hard disk wasn't the limitation). I am getting around 55MBytes/sec (440 Megabits per second) over the Gigabit lan with the Mac, and more like 25 to 30MBytes/sec when moving files between the Windows XP laptop and the Vista Server.

The wireless LAN proved to cause some problems - I had periodic disconnects when using the Macbook Pro Unibody with my Tomato Version 1.23 equipped Linksys WRT54G router. After doing some research, it turns out there is a strange incompability between the Macbook and this particular router running the Tomato firmware, if 802.11B/G is enabled, and the Macbook is running on battery. I disable 802.11B so it ran in only 802.11G mode, and things seem to be working fine now.

Update: With Windows 7 now on the Thinkpad, file copy times are almost identical between OSX Snow Leopard on the Macbook Pro, and my old Thinkpad z61m. After updating the Macbook to Snow Leopard, the periodic wireless disconnect problem is back. Also, with Snow Leopard, I can't put the Macbook to sleep with a file open from the server -- when the laptop wakes up, it loses the connection to the server and I have to save the file locally and then copy it back over -- very annoying. So I've started just leaving the laptop on all of the time if I'm in the middle of something -- which isn't very earth friendly.

Fit and Finish

The Macbook Pro looks great, but it's made of soft aluminum, and I could see that just tossing it into my backpack without some kind of cover would quickly result in scratches that could never be removed. The lid over the screen flexes worryingly when you push on it, and I could see that if I packed my backpack full of things, something might smash the screen in or at least dent the lid (which many people online have reported happening already to their macs). I found a simple plastic shell on ebay called the iPearl mCover that I got for around $25 with shipping -- it's working great so far, but it adds almost another pound to the weight of the laptop, which is kind of lame.

Having only two USB ports is pretty lame, and they are too close together. My Thinkpad has 3 USB ports, as does the 17" model of the Macbook -- but I couldn't bring myself to pay quite that much for a laptop. I purchased a Firewire 800 to 400 converter, and it works great with my Motu Ultralite for portable recording -- it can power the Ultralite through the firewire cable, meaning one less wall wart to carry around.

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