Why my MacBooks have been my best notebook computers ever

History

I used many borrowed notebook computers of just about ever brand to make presentations. When I finally got company permission to get a notebook computer in 2000 I settled on either a Toshiba or IBM. Because of the higher price of the IBM, I ended up with the Toshiba. I had a terrible time with the trackpad of most notebooks so wanted one with a stick. It worked fine, but I basically would only use it for presentations.

Early in 2003 I was watching QVC's Dell Computer Workshop and they were showing this notebook computer that they were able to take all around their large set and it continued to communicate on the Internet, wirelessly. I thought this was fantastic -- I could have a computer I could carry around the house, use on vacations, and in the classes I teach. Not knowing what I should get I opted for a notebook with everything -- a Dell Inspiron 8200. 15" high resolution display. Stick and trackpad. Two PCMCIA slots. CDBurner DVD drive (DVD burners weren't available yet in notebooks). USB 1.1, IR, Modem, 10base-T, 801.11b, firewire, serial, parallel, and VGA ports. Way too much and too heavy, it turned out! But it was a lovely if not bulky and eventually sluggish system.

Two years later, after buying my wife an iMac for Christmas, I bought the right computer for travel and keeping photo images on the road -- an iBook. It was the first notebook computer I actually enjoyed using (and still enjoy). It had two problems that forced me to keep using the Inspiron. First, it could not run the CAD programs I needed for my classes, and second it didn't have enough power to process the 10 megapixel raw images I was producing on the road.

So in February, 2008, I bought a MacBook, white with 4GB RAM. It became my fastest computer, at least CPU-wise. I could retire the iBook to guest browser use and retire the Inspiron for classes. Since then there has been a fair number of students (about 20%) in my classes who have also switched.

In June 2009 I killed my MacBook by getting it wet. The new 13" MacBook Pro just came out and I bought the unibody Aluminum MacBook for $500 off, making it an excellent buy even with its alleged shortcomings. So I have revised this page reflecting my new MacBook as well as the old White model.

In March 2012 my daughter needed a replacement for the white MacBook I got repaired and gave to her. So I gave here the Aluminum MacBook and bought a 15" MacBook Pro. See additional comments about this one at the end of the page. It's VERY good!

Why it's good

Packaging -- the case is smooth and high quality plastic. It can be easily tossed into a suitcase for travel and won't snag clothing. It's small enough to be easy to carry around. It fits into an office envelope and it's not even the MacBook Air. The charger is small and you can use it without the AC cable, it converts to a "wall wart", to save space. The cord from the charger to the computer can be wrapped on a cord winder that is built into the charger. A "Magnasafe" plug keeps the computer from flying if you trip over the cord. A light on the plug tells you if it is charging, charged, or disconnected, and you can view the battery state on the outside of the case.

The new Unibody Aluminum design is a marvel of engineering, the tolerances are exceptionally tight. However there is little functional difference between it and the older plastic model. They are essentially the same size and weight and have the same feel. The aluminum is cold to the touch while the plastic feels more organic. The unit feels stronger, especially the display portion. Nothing flimsy in this design!

Trackpad-- I don't know what there is about the Mac trackpads but I can actually use them with no trouble. Both my old iBook and new MacBook are just fine. And it isn't a matter of the old trackpad technology (?) in the year 2000 vintage systems I useded because I still have problems with every recent notebook I've navigated of the students in my classes.

The buttonless design of the trackpad in the aluminum MacBook is scarry at first, however if you pretend the button is there and use it normally, pressing at the bottom of the pad, it works just like it used to! The glass surface is easier to control and less tiring than a conventional trackpad, and the new multi-finger gestures are a nice improvement in functionality. I'd find it hard to go back. Great design!

Remote Control-- Seems like a crazy idea to have a remote control for a notebook, but it lets me connect the MacBook to a TV set and view my pictures using Front Row. This was standard through January 2008 and is now a $20 option. Front Row was removed from Lion, but I had switched to Plex for various reasons, and it works fine with the remote control as well.

Projector recognition-- It is a long standing joke about how difficult it is to get a PC to connect to a projector. The MacBook just detects it and switches to mirror the display. It also remembers what it was connected to so it can select the previous resolution settings and even color calibration. It's a real joy to use.

Easy networking-- At school there is a multiple page document on how to connect to their wireless network. Separate instructions exist for Windows XP and Vista. No instructions exist for the Mac. No instructions were needed -- it detects the wireless and automatically goes through the connection dialog. Couldn't be easier. I never had trouble with any wireless network. And it works peacefully with Windows networking.

Spaces-- This screen switcher wasn't worth messing with on my iMac, but really shines with the small screen MacBook. Works nice for presentations where I have one screen running Parallels/Windows XP for demonstrations, and others displaying PDF files and Keynote presentations. I can instantly switch among them as needed. Add to that control-scroll to zoom in and it makes for nice presentations.

Quiet-- It's quiet. What else can I say?

Keyboard-- Is less more? It has far fewer keys than a Windows notebook yet nothing is missing. Hmmm. My iMac, MacBook, and iBook all have different keyboard layouts, which gets confusing on occasion, but Apple is consolidating the design so all keyboards are the same except for the wired desktop keyboard which is similar to the original PC-AT layout but with extra function keys. I expect that will shrink in the future as nobody uses those keys.

My prognostication was correct in that the standard wired desktop keyboard is the same as that in the notebooks. I'm typing on one connected to my iMac now. While I feel it has too few keys, it is a pleasure to use and I don't have to think twice moving between my MacBook and iMac.

It could use improvement

Two USB ports are not enough, and they are needed on both sides. Not all creative people are left handed. Internal speakers are too weak (not enough volume). It needs CF and SD memory card slots. More resolution in the built-in iSight camera. Matte option for the display. iWork should come free, like iLife does. How about some real documentation? Until then, bundle David Pogue's Missing Manual.

The Aluminum MacBook I've bought is missing Firewire as well, something that Apple corrected in the new versions. They also added SD but not CF slots. But all of my complaints above still apply.

Ergonomics

All notebooks are bad, and they are worse if you use them on your laptop instead of on a table. There is no way to make them as comfortable to use as a desktop computer without attaching an external keyboard, mouse, and display. Apple does not offer docking stations for their notebooks, but they are designed to run with these plugged in and the lid closed. I strongly recommend this approach if the MacBook is one's primary computer.

Thoughts on the new Unibody MacBooks

I had a critique here about the Aluminum Unibody MacBooks, particulary critical about the $200 price increase since scaled back to $100 on the entry model, and the top end is back at the old black MacBook price. However the black MacBook carried a price premium over an otherwise identical white version, so you decide on the price parity here.

They had a real fire sale price on the old MacBooks when the latest ones came out, so I opted for the old, which has no Firewire.

I don't find the display objectionable. In fact I think it looks quite good. But I don't really like any notebook displays because of their limited viewing angles and reduced color palate make them second rate for photography. The latest (Summer 2009) model has a bigger palate and is considered fine for photography, but the limited viewing angle makes a desktop monitor still desirable. For my travel use and for classes, it will be just fine.

DisplayPort is the way of the future, but now there is no way to connect to composite video inputs of most older televisions. I use that feature on the road so am concerned about the new models. And I've had three Apple portables, each using a different, and non-standard, video connector. Everybody talks about Firewire being removed. Not a problem for me since I never used it.

I said back in January MacBook has fairly much become a 13" MacBook Pro as there was little difference between the two, and especially between the MacBook and the obsolete 12" Powerbook. Sure enough, now they call it a Pro. The white MacBook has since been revised with an aluminum bottom shell and non-removable battery. They have bumped its performance and is a real bargain in the Apple line.

 

August 2011 Revision

Two years later and the Unibody MacBook is still performing fine. I did replace the hard drive with a Seagate Momentus XT 500GB hybrid drive for increased performance and space. And I had the battery replaced under Applecare last month. But it looks as good as new and should do fine for another year until I replace it.

I've upgraded it to Lion for the coming year. My Lion thoughts are here.

July 2012 Revision

I've used my 15" MacBook Pro for four months now. I bought it with the high resolution, anti-glare display, and immediately swapped the hard drive for a Seagate Momentus 750GB hybrid drive and brought the memory up to 8 GB. The drive is interesting in that it consumes less power than the drive it replaces, increasing battery life as well as giving faster performance. This is a great notebook. It has the same feel as my older MacBook, but is much faster. It's about the same speed as my 3 year old iMac. The quad core processor has been a boon for running virtual machines and capturing video footage, and it now processes video fast enough so I can get an evening's lecture to my class website the next morning.

The built-in SD card reader has proven useful, now that all my cameras (but one) use SD cards instead of CF. I've got the Firewire port, but still don't use it, and a new Thunderbolt port that I haven't used either (except for DisplayPort). The system is getting heavier use now than my old ones did. I even wrote a 200 page manual on it a month ago.

January 2014 Revision

Still using that 15" MacBook Pro. The 750GB Hybrid drive failed within the first year. I now have the 1TB version which has been working fine. I'm taking the computer to my "day job" every day where I use it instead of the company provided Xeon-based Windows workstation for documentation and some development work. FileVault II keeps everything secure. Later in the year I replaced the 1TB Hybrid drive with a 500GB SSD, and boy is that fast. While I retired from teaching June 2015 and from my "day job" January 2016, I've still got that MacBook Pro as my portable computer. I really have no reason to replace with the Retina MacBookPro, although that does have a nicer display.