In Search Of Laptop Perfection

Some months ago the hard disk in my relatively ancient PowerBook G4 12" gave out and I've been without a laptop since then. This hasn't been a problem since my development work is focused almost exclusively on my iMac. But, with the prospect of WWDC looming and the chance of laptop updates before then seemingly slim, I figured it was time to plump for a new MacBook Pro 15". What follows is my thoughts on the lappie; hopefully they may offer something useful to prospective buyers elsewhere.

Screen

Clearly, one of the first things you notice with any laptop is the screen. I chose the matte option (can't stand the glossy screen's glare) and can report that it is crisp and bright. Indeed, even better in full sunlight than my Core 2 Duo 20" iMac.

My only nitpick is that in certain lighting conditions, and if you have a mostly-white window at the bottom of the screen, the backlighting shines through oddly creating a sort of ripple effect. Apologies that I have no photo to demonstrate this.


Performance & Connectivity

I'm finding the 2.4 GHz processor very pleasant to work with and it certainly seems to edge out my 2.16 GHz Core 2 Duo iMac. £1300 is a pretty steep opening price for a laptop, but considering the 2 gigs of RAM and other specifications this is certainly not extortionate.

The early MacBook Pros garnered something of a reputation for running uncomfortably hot. I can report that this is certainly not the case with the latest generation; mine runs noticeably cooler than my mid-generation 12" PowerBook. Even compiling hefty chunks of code (as I do regularly for Sandvox) it has never become more than a little warm.

Building on this, the battery life is great. I'd say my PowerBook averaged 3.5 hours under normal conditions, and that the Pro gets 3.45. Only a small improvement, but based on previous reading I was expecting to instead receive a decrease instead. Certainly the system appears to be excellent at winding down when under no load. I had the screen turned off to run the machine as a simple jukebox at a party the other night and in just over an hour it only used 15% or so.

The laptop comes loaded with a great range of ports (not sure I'll ever need Firewire 800, but still…), all decently spaced. A USB port on either side is a nice touch, and I'm always pleased to see a laptop with no connections at the rear.

Keyboard

The MacBook Pro/PowerBook keyboard is quite simply the best I've ever used, desktop or laptop. It just somehow has exactly the right amount of resistance when pressing a key, and so I'm hugely relieve that Apple hasn't messed with it since the early Aluminium days.

Probably the biggest change is the rearranged function keys. There are now playback controls (very welcome thank you), dedicated keys for Exposé/Dashboard, and everything else has been rearranged to cope. It's certainly time Exposé got its own key! Some quick points of note on the function keys:

  • Command-Exposé shows the desktop but I cannot find any equivalent for Spaces. Option-Exposé perhaps would be nice.
  • It would be neat if the volume controls mimicked the Apple remote by turning up application volume when the system volume can go no further.
  • Small volume adjustments can be made by holding Option-Shift at the same time. This should really apply to the brightness controls also.

For a long time I reckoned that with the extra space afforded by a 15" display, Apple could add a dedicated number pad in as well. However, I now think that this wouldn't work as it would force the centre of the keyboard over to the left, making the whole experience unbalanced. You could even it out by moving the trackpad too, but then either left or right-handers get upset!

The Caps Lock key now acts just like the latest Apple keyboards whereby a light tap on the key is not enough to actually engage the lock. You have to hold the key down for just long to indicate you mean it. I'm not sure how well this will work out in the long run and I may end up simply disabling Caps Lock as I do on the iMac (it has an older style keyboard).

One thing I miss most on a laptop keyboard is the lack of forward delete. At some point (I'm fairly certain my old PowerBook didn't support), Apple has made Fn-Backspace perform this task. It's definitely a help, but feels kind of clunky to me.

When typing, one can use Option-2 to insert a Euro sign, and Option-3 to insert a hash (the latter applies only to UK keyboards I believe). Why, oh why then, have Apple chosen only to indicate the Euro sign? I actually had a friend call me up from London recently to ask me how on Earth he could type in a hash sign that was desperately needed as part of a password!

Finally for this section Apple has at some point replaced the Enter key with a second Option button; a much welcome change.

Trackpad

Of course what review would be complete without a mention of the new multitouch trackpad support? On the whole it works fairly well. The original 2-finger scrolling behaviour works a treat and is nicely supplemented by the 3-finger "swipe" that can navigate within certain apps such as Safari. However, the trackpad has not been enlarged compared to previous iterations and makes the "pinch" gesture feel rather cramped. This might be partly a performance issue though; in my tests both iPhoto and the Finder have been rather slow to respond.

Clearly, what is needed to complete the picture is an API for 3rd parties to use. For example, zooming in OmniGraffle would be incredibly handy, and we'd like to offer similar controls to Safari within the Sandvox web view.

Casing

Occasionally people complain that the MacBook Pro case design is "dated" and "sorely in need of a refresh." I disagree. It is almost a design classic now, "feels" just right to use, and is still streets ahead of the competition. The only suggestion I really have is that the magnetic latching system of the MacBook is nicer to work with; copy that over and you're pretty darn near nirvana. Not that somehow making things lighter and stronger is ever a bad area for improvement!

Battery & Charger

I have used a MagSafe charger before at WWDC 2007 and can quite safely say that this thing is genius; it is a big improvement over the previous design. But let's get some decent licensing on this thing! Allow third parties to build their own chargers, and, more importantly, I'd like a single charger design to work with whatever brand of computer I buy. Let's do the right thing for the consumer and consolidate around the best the market has to offer; clearly at this time MagSafe. One day I can even see the technology being taken further for such items as the iPod's dock connector.

The system Apple's chargers use for packing away the cable works pretty well (certainly compared to competing products that I've experienced), but I remain convinced that better can be achieved. Since many ageing hoovers are perfectly capable of using a spring-loaded cable retracting system, I would love to see if something similar could be accommodated into a portable laptop charger.

Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find that battery removal is much nicer compared to the MacBook and 12" PowerBook.

© Mike Abdullah 2007-2015