MacBook Pro, here I come

Matthew JC. Powell
24 October, 2008
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It’s been a long while since I’ve owned a new Mac. In fact the last one I bought for myself was a 667MHz PowerBook G4, nearly seven years ago. I’ve used subsequent models (my job affords me the luxury to try before I buy) but haven’t been prepared to put down my money. Until now.

It’s not that I haven’t thought the various PowerBooks and MacBooks were worth the money. It’s just that I, like everyone else in the technology-buying world, have been hesitant to part with my money for fear of something better around the corner. Yes, there is always something better around the corner – I know that as well as you. And I know it’s true now as well. It’s just that this time I don’t feel that a huge refresh is around the corner any time soon. I could be wrong.

Last time I bought a new Mac it was superseded by something almost identical but including a SuperDrive — within weeks. That’s the risk you take.

Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke about a tour guide at the Tower of London who points to an exhibit and tells the assembled tourists “that is the axe that took off Anne Boleyn’s head. It’s had three new handles since then, and two new blades, but it’s the same axe.” Now, before the history buffs start writing in I know that Anne Boleyn was executed with a sword not an axe, and that the sword in question is not on display in the Tower. It’s a joke, folks — chill.

Anyway, the point of telling you that was to tell you this.

When Apple changed the PowerBook G4 from a Titanium outer to Aluminium, the internals were largely the same. Faster CPU, bigger hard drive, so forth, but nothing really “generational”. Given that the 64-bit G5 was right around the corner (oh but it is to laugh) I decided to wait.

The PowerBook G5 didn’t happen, but the MacBook Pro did. On the inside it was as different as it could possibly be — it had a freakin’ Intel processor! — but Apple quite deliberately made the exterior as similar to the PowerBook G4 as possible in an effort to avoid “scaring the horses” as it were through the CPU transition.

(Add to that the fact that those first MacBook Pros were not well-supported with native software and performance for much of what I do was actually slower than the PowerBook G4 that preceded it, and I was not an early adopter.)

Since then there have been internal changes, and even some external adjustments, but for the most part they’ve been incremental. The MacBook Pro that was available up until last week was a totally different beast to the PowerBook G4/667 in every conceivable way, but to my eye, it was the same axe.

Not anymore. Internally the CPU hasn’t changed but for a speed bump, but just about everything else is as different as when we switched to Intel. The Nvidia chipsets aren’t just about the graphics processing (though that is an impressive improvement) — it’s a radical adjustment to the way the computer communicates with itself internally.

Externally of course we’ve got a whole new way of making a computer. You might not really get how the “unibody” enclosure makes any kind of difference until you actually hold one in your hand. The previous MacBook Pro — and indeed the PowerBook before it — was an elegant design. But the unibody makes it look clunky and old-fashioned.

And I have to admit here I’m a bit of a sucker for precision engineering, so there are bits of this thing that seem designed just to appeal to my personal sense of style. Your mileage may vary.

For example, the sleep light on the front. As with the previous models, there’s an LED mounted at the front of the machine which “breathes” when the machine is in sleep mode. Except this LED isn’t mounted on the outside of the casing, it’s mounted inside. You see the light through a series of microscopic perforations in the aluminium. When the light isn’t on, you can barely tell the holes are there. I’m not ashamed to say, I think it’s nifty.

Likewise the holes for the speaker grille on top of the MacBook Pro, and the battery-level display on the side, are extremely small and elegant. It’s these kinds of detailed touches that separate a company that cares about design from, well, everyone except Apple.

One such design decision that I do have a question-mark over is the trackpad. It’s clearly a generational improvement, as no laptop before has had a trackpad like this one. Unlike the trackpads on the older MacBooks, it’s glass. The reason given for this is durability — after a year or so of use, your old trackpad probably developed a shiny bit in the middle, which was where your finger spent most of its time. That has the effect of making the rest of the trackpad look grubby, even if it isn’t. That won’t happen with the glass.

So far, so good. But Apple wanted the trackpad to match the rest of the casing, aesthetically. Painting it would decrease the conductivity necessary to its operation, as would bonding a plate of aluminium on top. Instead, Apple has coated the surface of the trackpad with a layer of epoxy resin two microns thick, with microscopic particles of aluminium in a sort of colloidal suspension. The effect is that it looks like aluminium but doesn’t interfere with the capacitance of the glass. A ridiculously complex step to have taken, for what am ounts to a cosmetic touch.

The question mark I have is, how do we know the epoxy won’t wear in much the same way as the metal trackpads on previous laptops? One presumes Apple has tested this. I’ll let you know whether mine wears out, in a year or so.

I’m placing my order today.

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