Friday, May 22, 2009

My Mac Story – 006: Design – The “Smaller Bits and Pieces”

Last time I had a fairly close look at what the new MacBook looks like. This time I am going to take a closer look at some smaller, yet quite important parts.

The ports on the MacBook are all grouped on the left side of the unibody. There is the MagSafe power port, one LAN port (should support gigabit Ethernet according to Apple), two USB 2.0 ports, video adapter port (aka Mini DisplayPort), mike and headphones/speakers ports, and a Kensington lock slot. The front side of the computer does not contain any ports, just a thin slot that with blue light which goes on and flashes slowly when the computer sleeps, and there is the DVD drive on the right side of the body. There are no ports at the back of the notebook. When the screen is opened, the bottom part of the lid covers the back part of the body, so any ports there would be pretty useless, I guess.

The ports: Well, two USB ports are not exactly many. I would expect 3 or even better 4 on a notebook in this price category. OK, I can live with just 2 USBs, I had that on my previous notebook, but that one was bought when USB was still version 1.0 and a new thing generally. Since I have seen cheaper and smaller notebooks with more ports than the MacBook has, I can only say, it is not a serious downside, it is survivable but definitely not nice.

But what really annoys me, is the missing Firewire port, not even the miniature one. Come on, this is an Apple, or? If I remember computer history correctly it was Apple together with Sony who brought this technology to life, and it was Apple who touted it as something you do not get on a regular PC, but only on a Macintosh. What happened? Saving money, are we? It is quite strange, even my old Windows-only notebook has Firewire. Why is this important, well, simple, even Firewire 400 is faster than USB 2.0, so external drives work faster through Firewire. Anyway, guess I have to cope with it.

The MagSafe power port is a nice innovation. Well, it's not exactly a new feature on Apple notebooks, it has already been present on the previous version. The MagSafe power port serves connecting the MacBook to power mains. The power plug from the power adapter connects magnetically to the receptacle on the MacBook. Then if someone accidentally trips over the power cable, it just pops off without pulling the computer off the table and thus helps preventing partial and/or complete destruction of the computer or its parts. Overall this feature works nice and almost as intended. I have already managed to trip over the cable few times, and it got released. What does not work 100% fool proof, are the supports described in the previous post (No.: 005). They offer very little friction almost on any type of surface, so even though the MagSafe power port works, I always managed to pull the notebook with it, if only a little.

Plus, if the power cord is pulled perpendicularly to the body of the notebook, it has the tendency to pull the notebook with it. If it is pulled under any angle, then it works much better. I guess this is not a big issue generally, since when someone trips over the cable, it is almost impossible to pull it in a direct line from the body, so I guess the feature should work, and help.

There is one more feature of the MagSafe power port worth mentioning. It has rectangular shape, there are four small connectors visible inside it. The receptacle has the same shape, and there is no top or bottom side of the adapter. It does not matter which of the longer sides of the rectangle are placed on top or bottom, it works. On both longer sides of the adapter there is miniature diode light which glows when the adapter is connected. It shines amber/orange when the notebook is charging, and green when the battery is fully charged. This is one of the features that let user check the battery status at a quick glance without even turning the computer on, i.e., the user does not have to start the OS to display the battery charge status.

The MagSafe power port only shows two states: charging (amber)/charged (green). However Apple went even slightly further. On the left side, the notebook offers a designated small round button with eight miniature diodes that indicate the remaining battery charge after pressing the button. This feature works even when the notebook is closed and off. Like I have pointed out before, Apple really knows how to design things.

The diodes here indicate full battery charge.

Video port is not the standard DVI or VGA. They probably would not fit on/in the body. Apple uses a different format for which the user has to purchase either a VGA adapter or a DVI adapter for the so called Mini DisplayPort, or both. The price of each is approx. 29  Europe wide (well at least in its Western part). The question remains if a mini-DVI port would not really fit, and if this is just another way of earning a bit more revenue. Anyway, I am getting the VGA version soon, so we'll see how that works. For the time being, this feature leaves me fairly indifferent.

The DVD drive (RW) is a nice thin slot on the right side of the body. It is actually the only feature there. Apples have had slot-loaded drives ever since I can remember. Must have been a design thing initially, now it seems like a tradition. I just wonder, how well this design accumulates dust.

Well, the aesthetic side of the drive is very nice, until one decides to use it. Never in my life have I ever heard so much noise from a drive when loading or ejecting discs. It sure sounds like a CD/DVD shredder that cuts 1.5 x 4 mm stripes out of disc I decide I no longer need and want to destroy beyond use. It really is that horrible. The sound I mean. So, far the drive has returned all of the disc inserted without any obvious or visible harm. But the crunching noise it makes, is really spooky, if I ever wanted to give any advice here, this would be it: Try using it with the least important and the least valuable disc you have, and learn not to panic when you hear the sound. Took me a while getting used to, and even now, it scares the hell out of me when I hear it.

One more point of interest, mine seems OK, but friend who bought the MacBook some three weeks before me, had to have the drive replaced. When loading a disc, the disc went in, and immediately got spat out. Which reminds me that I should probably thoroughly test the functionality of mine. Would be horrible to find out that something is wrong when the warranty is out.

Disclaimer: Nothing in this blog constitutes in any form any advice, recommendation, guide and/or guidelines. If you use, imitate, implement and/or follow any of the actions described, you are and will be the only person responsible and/or liable. The author of this blog does not guarantee and/or recommend anything!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Mac Story – 005: Design – The “Big” Parts and Surfaces

As I have probably pointed out before, the Apple design is really very nice. Plus this time, Apple added few more improvements. One, that is right in front of the user's eyes and at the same time not so obvious, is the so called aluminium unibody (or rather aluminum unibody to use the original US version). This means that the main and by far the largest part of the MacBook, i.e. the part with the keyboard, is ground from a single piece of aluminium. I must say, I was very pleasantly surprised by this innovation. The MacBook feels very solid in the hands, and also if held with just one hand, I don't have the feeling that the notebook is going to snap into several pieces as I have with any other notebook. One word: Nice.

The only real disadvantage of this design is that since it's made of metal, it can get quite unpleasantly cold (depending on the ambient temperature) before one manages to warm it up by his/her hands and with the help from the heat coming from inside.

The picture of a part of the keyboard and the touchpad, both nicely incorporated into the aluminium unibody.

Speaking of heat, while most notebooks I have ever used were trying hard to cook my hands, not this one. Yes, the palmrests get warm, but not unpleasantly so. Same is true for the bottom of the notebook. The heat does not seem to be a problem even when the notebook is used in the lap. Even more surprising is the lack of any openings and/or slots for cooling. It seems Apple relies heavily on the heat conducting properties of aluminium, instead of using the “traditional” ventilation approach. As far as I had the opportunity to see, when I had the hard-drive and the memory replaced, there is a single ventilator inside the body serving mainly the processor (it would seem). This also makes the notebook very quiet.

The picture above shows another new feature, the single piece trackpad. Apple claims it's made of glass, and that the whole surface is the button and therefore clickable (notice, no buttons near the trackpad in the picture above). I don't know about the glass, but although the trackpad is clickable, not its whole surface is (as the adverts would want one to believe). The closer one gets to the keyboard (the upper part of the trackpad), the harder it is to click (i.e., more resistance), and approx. 1 cm to 0.5 cm near the top of the trackpad, the clicking gets impossible. What seems to be true, is the information that the whole surface is touch sensitive. This is important for rightclicking (to righclick both in Mac OS X and in Windows, the user has to place two fingers on the trackpad, and click with one of them while keeping the other one on the trackpad) and the so called “swipes” (more on this later). Overall the impression is nice, it works, its feel and sensitivity in Mac OS X and Windows differ slightly, but so far it's the largest and comfiest trackpad I have ever used.

However, I have read stories on the Internet of the glass trackpad causing problems if exposed to direct sunlight and heat for a certain amount of time, i.e., if someone choses to work outside and enjoy the sun at the same time, the trackpad then reportedly causes the mouse cursor to go crazy. What exactly is meant by that I don't know, and don't intend to follow it. The summer in the region where I live comes for approx. 2 days in July or August, and I might as well miss it, so don't expect any testing.

The picture shows the MacBook turned upside-down. And, yes, that's a Windows XP sticker there in the middle. As I have pointed out in the previous posts, I cannot use Mac OS X exclusively, and need Windows for most of my work (mainly for the tasks that earn my living), so running Windows on my Mac is very important.

The bottom part of the MacBook seems to be made of plastic, but it also feels quite solid and nice. It's almost featureless. There are 4 round supports, latch for releasing the battery/HDD/RAM cover and the battery/HDD/RAM cover itself.
The 4 black supports are made of softer plastic, not really rubber, they are almost flush with the surface, and do not offer much friction when the computer is placed on almost any type of surface. The other day I was trying to push aside my old notebook and being already used to how easily the MacBook can slide on the surface I almost broke my wrist (OK, I admit a bit of exaggeration for a more dramatic effect, yet, the difference is substantial). The difference is – my old notebook has rubberized supports that offer much more friction and resistance almost on every type of surface. Apple really could have paid more attention to this detail and make the MacBook rest on the surface more safely.

Detail of the bottom part of the MacBook with the battery/HDD/RAM cover latch released.

The lid (which also contains the screen) on the new MacBook is much slimmer than what I am used to from other notebooks I had the opportunity to use, and it also feels solid. When I say very solid or solid it does not mean that I would dare to hit other objects with the computer and/or try to punch through a wall with it, but compared to other notebooks I used, I don't get any squeaks or creaks, and also don't feel much flex when handling the computer.

When opening the lid of the MacBook (to unveil the screen and use it), just don't look for any latches, release buttons or anything of that kind. There are none. The lid is kept in place, when the computer is closed, by a magnet. So far this works very nicely, and I don't have any complaints. Well, I have to hold the computer with my other hand to prevent it from sliding on the surface when opening the lid, but this is due to the “not very supportive” supports described in the previous paragraph. Also, the magnet seems sufficiently strong to keep the lid closed, and does not yank the lid out the hand when closing it. The lid closes with a barely audible

The recessed part in the unibody that facilitates opening of the lid.

After opening the notebook, the beautiful glossy screen is revealed. I do really think that the screen is very very beautiful. And this just about concludes any praise it is going to get from me. From here on, things get worse. I do understand that the next few lines depend heavily on personal preferences and taste, but for me personally, there is not much to be excited about.

The screen has the nowadays very popular wide aspect ratio. While I can see how this can be great for watching movies, I don't find it particularly useful and/or friendly for working. Contrary to the “older” 4:3 aspect ratio this screen loses 224 lines of real estate (1280x800 vs. 1280x1024). I never thought it would make so much difference for me, but sadly, it does. On the other hand, this size certainly contributes to the form factor of the notebook as such, and makes me happy, since this was the size I was looking for when shopping for a new notebook.

What is really bad for me, is the glossiness of the screen. When the computer is displayed in a store or when one views the advertising on the Internet, the glossy screen gives it an absolutely “must have–must buy–oh my god–it's so sexy” look that it leaves the person addicted and ready for detox. In use however, there is not much worse in terms of computer displays and screens than a glossy one nowadays. It is so reflective that I cannot include the intended picture here, I could have just shot a self-portrait and posted it instead. Ladies might find it useful for adjusting their hairdo and/or makeup. Not all lighting situations cause the display to reflect so badly, e.g., (fortunately) when working in a text editor with black text on white background (which I do most of the time), but still, it does not make me happy.

There are also other features related to the screen worth mentioning. This time, however, features that deserve at least some credit, if not praise. At the top part of the lid, just above the screen there is the iSight camera which can be used both in Mac OS X and Windows for video chatting (I haven't tested it yet though). Plus next to it, almost invisible is the light sensor (according to some posts online, some users have mistaken it for a dust speck, and tried cleaning it, it is so minute). It is used for automatic regulation of brightness of the screen and on models with the backlit keyboard also the brightness of the keyboard. It seems to work fine in Mac OS X, but the functionality in Windows XP seems slightly less refined.

Part of the screen, keyboard and the power button and media eject key.

After opening the lid, one also unveils the keyboard and trackpad. The trackpad was described above, so now, the keyboard. It's no good. But wait, actually, it is great.

Before anyone asks what sort of nonsense this is, a brief explanation. I am a Windows user, and I am used to something quite different in terms of number of the keys, and also types of the keys. There are keys on the MacBook keyboard one does not find on Windows oriented keyboards, and there are keys that are missing on the MacBook keyboard completely.

The keys one does not get on a Windows keyboard are, e.g., the cmd key and the media eject key (it's the key with a small underscore and arrow pointing upwards in the top right hand corner in the picture above). The command (cmd) key servers similarly to Ctrl in Windows, i.e., Ctrl+C Windows is Cmd+C in Mac OS X. The media eject key servers for ejecting CDs and DVDs from the disk drive. The disk drive on MacBook is slot-loaded, does not open, and there is no special button next to it for ejecting the media. As far as I can remember, the eject button has been present on Apple keyboards since the introduction of floppy drives.

The missing keys are aplenty. Just from top of my head without doing direct comparison: Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, Delete, any representation of Numeric keypad (not even through Fn+something), Insert, ... have I missed any? Well, yes, a few. Anyway, this design has one downside and one advantage.

The downside, and I feel it badly quite often, is that the missing keys often have some functionality assigned to them beyond the obvious one in Windows software. For example the CAT (computer aided translation) tools which constitute the standard for the industry have quite a handful of functions and keyboard shortcuts centered around the Home, End, Pg. Up, Pg. Down, numeric keys + Alt and/or Ctrl (no problem with Alt and Ctrl, both are available on the MacBook keyboard). So when translating (which is the main use of all my computers) I have to resolve to mouse and menus and that is a great impediment to speed and smoothness of my workflow. So in Windows I often have to either grind my teeth and use the mouse/trackpad or use an external keyboard. Does this impediment make me wish I did not buy this computer? No, I have never expected it to be the main tool, plus, I never expect to achieve any considerable performance when working outside in public places, caf├ęs, airport lounges, or in any means of transportation. Since such places kill my concentration, I use the comp there for translating only in cases of utmost emergency.

The advantage is a less cluttered keyboard with nicely spaced full-size or almost full-size keys. The keys have the right amount of travel, feel nice to touch, and although the keys are not soft, they don't feel flimsy and the keyboard is quite silent. This, for me at least, makes it probably the most comfortable notebook keyboard I have ever used. Therefore I think, it's great.

As can be seen in the pictures, the space for the keys is slightly recessed which makes the top of the keys flush with the surrounding surfaces. The power button is also flush with the surface of the unibody, easy to spot or find with the fingers, and does not emit light. There is also a built-in microphone in the top left-hand corner just above the Esc key (not visible in the pictures). The microphone also looks like a speck of dust, so one has to resist the temptation to clean it off of the surface.

Overall, the computer is very nice, feels very solid, and I must say, I am already contemplating the iMac as a future replacement of my desktop rig. Finally I have a notebook that is not as heavy as a pile of bricks to carry around, does not buzz louder than an airplane engine, and is still large enough to work on in relatively high comfort both on the desktop as well as on the go. It certainly seems that working and living with MacBook is nice despite the few complaints about the glossy screen and slightly different keyboard.

Next time it's going to be about ports, disk drive, battery, and other “small” but important things found on and in the unibody.

Disclaimer: Nothing in this blog constitutes in any form any advice, recommendation, guide and/or guidelines. If you use, imitate, implement and/or follow any of the actions described, you are and will be the only person responsible and/or liable. The author of this blog does not guarantee and/or recommend anything!

My Mac Story – 004: Unboxing – Pictures

The box front.

The box top.

The box after opening. Notice the broken seal - when you buy a new comp, and don't have any extras installed in the shop, this should be intact, of course.

The computer is out of the tray dividing the top and bottom layers of the box.

The tray is out, comp is out, cables are peeking through, and the small box with the media and guides is waiting to be opened.

The last treasure box opened.

The power cables and adapter. Notice the clever possibility to switch the type of plug very easily.

The unibody aluminium MacBook in its full glory (note that the back of the notebook is at the bottom of the picture, so that when it is opened, the Apple logo faces the world and distinctly shines with its bluish light).

Disclaimer: Nothing in this blog constitutes in any form any advice, recommendation, guide and/or guidelines. If you use, imitate, implement and/or follow any of the actions described, you are and will be the only person responsible and/or liable. The author of this blog does not guarantee and/or recommend anything!