Icons, Status Symbols, and the MacBook
- 2006.08.03 - Tip Jar
You've seen them everywhere, products that define success, give their owners pride, and generally make life a little more pleasant.
It doesn't matter if your looking at the latest video iPod, a Rolex watch, or a Ferrari - there are certain products that have a style all their own, and even when they belong to someone else, they make us smile when we see them.
Most of us spend our lives without extravagant things like Ferraris, and if we do somehow obtain one, we find it to be every bit as wonderful a sports car as we imagined - though it makes a very poor daily driver. Other status symbols, like the iPod, while a bit too expensive to be an impulse buy, are readily attainable and are extremely practical in their field.
As my MacBook spent more of its brief five week life in Apple's possession than my own, I thought about items I've wanted over the years and how they've lived up to the hype in actual use.
No, I don't own a Ferrari or a Rolex, but I have other examples, including the MacBook itself. I don't define success by material possessions, but as a gadget freak and car nut, I do get pleasure from snazzy computers (especially laptops) and quality cars.
I started driving 22 years ago, and on the day I received my driver's license my father took me to the local BMW and Mercedes Benz dealers to test drive the base models from those brands. No, I wasn't so lucky as to be spoiled with such a wonderful car at so tender an age; rather he wanted me to know what quality felt like so that when I chose lesser used and new vehicles over the coming decades I would have a benchmark with which to compare them.
The cars we drove were the 1986 BMW 318i and the 1986 Mercedes Benz 190E 2.3, and those two cars had profound, but very different, impressions on me. The BMW was everything my youthful soul craved in a car, while that 190E was the epitome of solidity and class.
I spent the next 21-years dreaming of buying such cars, alternating between them depending on my mood at the time. And my father's wisdom paid off with such solid - though lesser - vehicles as a Toyota Corolla (solid like the Benz) and Mazda Protégé (sporty like the BMW). Last year, I finally bought the real thing, a Mercedes Benz C240, and despite the higher frequency of problems (minor electrical mostly) compared to the Japanese cars, it has fully lived up to my 22-year-old memory of that 190E.
Like many icons, there was substance behind the image.
I decided instead to purchase a laptop, and I have never looked back.
Computers are like that as well. I remember back in 1993 when I received an employment offer in South Korea. I was a PC junkie back then, with a 386 PC that, while a few years out of date, had gone through a few upgrades and was chugging along nicely. It was a premium machine (an actual IBM rather than a clone), and I was saddened that I couldn't bring it to Korea with me because of duties and tariffs higher than the cost of a new computer. I decided instead to purchase a laptop, and I have never looked back.
I knew next to nothing about the Mac back then, but I'd been seeing the PowerBook ads since 1991. Like the Mercedes, the PowerBook was clearly the machine to have. Where PC laptops had clunky design and clip-on mice, the PowerBook already had the modern ergonomic package down with a palmrest and center-mounted pointing device. Actually, it was ahead of its time in its use of a widescreen display - if you can call 640 pixels wide.
As a recent grad with a small wallet and a new wife, I bought the cheapest PowerBook Apple offered, the 145B, and it served me well for six years. It wasn't fast, had a puny 80 MB hard drive, and topped out (the day I bought it) at 8 MB of RAM, but it ran Word and Excel (through version 6) well, was quick enough to not be annoying, and was very reliable.
Like the Mercedes, that PowerBook lived up to the hype. It was conveniently small and light for its time, powerful and comfortable enough to get real work done, and just exuded a style and class that belied its low price ($1,500) and specification (monochrome 640 x 400 screen, no video out, etc.).
It was my only computer for two years, my only laptop for two more, and remained my primary writing machine for yet two more thanks to its great keyboard and outdoor-viewable screen. I wish I still had it.
Subsequent PowerBooks have come close to the mark or missed it entirely, and while all have been far faster and more capable, only the 12" PowerBook has come close to giving the same pride of ownership and overall feeling of quality - until the MacBook, that is.
In between I've owned a 520, 5300c, 3400c, a Lombard, a 15" aluminum G4, and two 12" aluminum G4s, but none of them felt natural in the same way the old PowerBook 145B (or to a lesser extent the 12" aluminum PowerBook) did. The MacBook is a revelation in that regard - with its textured black shell and tight build, it may just be the best of the lot, but more on that in a bit.
I've owned portable Macs for the last 13 years and have owned IBM ThinkPads, which are also icons in the computing world, for the last nine. For many years these were seen as the only "premium" laptops around, and they have always been marketed as such.
PowerBooks were always my primary computers, while ThinkPads had become my writing machines on account of their superior keyboards and eraserhead pointing devices (I'm a trackpad hater). I've been through a number of them, starting with a ThinkPad 600 in 1997 and moving up through a T20, X22, X32, and now X41. ThinkPads always satisfied my need for an ultralight laptop that retains full-sized comfort, something that Apple lacked until the 12" PowerBook - and lacks again with that model's discontinuation.
The difference is that where PowerBooks started out as the machine to have, something happened along the way. We grew apart spiritually as I looked for lighter and lighter machines with compact dimensions while Apple went to larger and larger screens and cases.
Somewhere along the way Apple also became more about style than durability. The aluminum PowerBooks were arguably more durable than their titanium predecessors, but a 3" drop of my last 12" PowerBook cost me hundreds of dollars in a new case bottom and the labor to install it. That's three inches, not three feet, and while the electronics were fine, the dented bottom was both unsightly and prevented it from sitting flat on a table.
Yes, the iBooks were more durable, but their keyboards were inferior - very inferior - to their delicate aluminum cousins. The one real constant in PowerBooks is that there was no real constant, with radical changes to the aesthetic every few years and litte continuity.
The ThinkPad, in contrast, has remained remarkably consistent over the years, much like the Mercedes Benz car, the Rolex watch, or, to date, the iPod.
I still see my old 1999 ThinkPad T20, which I sold to a friend during law school and is now her primary PC as a working attorney. Its 700 MHz Pentium III is slow by modern standards, but it runs Windows XP just fine and surfs the Web beautifully with a 3Com wireless 802.11g PC card. Its keyboard is still one of the best ever. It's been dropped, bumped, and even sat on, but it just keeps chugging along looking almost as good as the day I bought it.
Place that 7-year-old T20 next to my 3-month-old X41, and they are more alike than different. Yes, the X41 is much smaller - it's an ultralight compared to a mid-size, after all - but the design is the same. They even take the same AC adapter. The same hotkeys control the same functions, and despite seven years and a totally different size and weight class, they feel the same in use.
Return to Greatness
The MacBook is a return to greatness from a form-factor perspective. It actually makes me think of the current Ford Mustang, which captured the feel and spirit of the great Mustangs of the 1960s while presenting it in a thoroughly new and modern form.
The MacBook brings back the best of the PowerBooks of old and the recent iBooks, but in a fresh and new way. While I avoided WallStreet and other G3 PowerBooks (my wife used the Lombard more than I did) on account of their bulk, the black rubber-like case was simply to die for (a ThinkPad tradition as well). The black MacBook brings it back.
The glowing white Apple logo always set apart the G3 and especially G4 PowerBooks, and set against the black case it's even more alluring. The huge touchpad is a serious improvement that recalls the trackballs of old, while the tight build quality again recalls the much larger and heavier Lombard.
I even love the strange keyboard, which while looking like a 1980s toy and feeling unlike any other laptop I've ever used, is as fast, accurate, and comfortable as the very best.
Where many (myself included) complained about the MacBook design is in its weight of 5.2 lb. This, too, I have I reconsidered.
Yes, it's heavy compared to the 12" PowerBook and iBook it replaced, but in use the 13.3" widescreen replaces a conventional 14" laptop. The MacBook is considerably lightly and trimmer than any 14" G3 PowerBook or 14" iBook, and it actually comes closest in bulk to the current generation 14" (widescreen Z series and conventional T series) ThinkPads.
That's the true competition for the MacBook, the so-called "thin and light" class, rather than the "subnote" class that the 12" PowerBook and, to a lesser extent, 12" iBook called home. As a thin and light, the MacBook is design perfection: a bit heavier than the 14" widescreen ThinkPad, but slimmer and smaller to compensate.
The 15" and 17" MacBook Pros can also be considered thin and lights, but they are considerably bulkier (if not a lot heavier).
As you can probably tell, I'm quite smitten with the MacBook design.
My MacBook was an early production model and is in the process of being replaced by Apple. I'm hoping they got the bugs out, as the design is truly inspired.
Sadly, if reliability doesn't match function, the product will be a failure. I've not had use of my MacBook for the last three weeks, which, while annoying, is just an unavoidable fact of life and mass production. (In the PowerBook 145B days, there were no such things as laptop components generating temperatures high enough to force a shutdown. They didn't even need fans to keep them cool.)
Apple Not Alone
Mercedes uses cheap plastic switches for the power windows. I've broken it twice already. That old 190E had power windows, too, but the switches, like everything else in that car, felt indestructible.
I guess every icon loses a bit of its luster over time.
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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