Mac Musings

MacBook Pro a Revelation

Daniel Knight - 2010.02.08 -

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Over the weekend, I spent several hours using a MacBook Pro, and it was a revelation.

Living in the world of low-end Macs (my newest Mac is a 2004 1.25 GHz eMac, and the two Power Macs I use daily are a dual 1 GHz Mirrored Drive Doors from 2002 and a dual 1.6 GHz upgraded Digital Audio from 2001), I'm used to a certain level of performance. I constantly reiterate that these Macs are sufficient for the work I do.

They can be a bit slow on some websites, and they can be challenged by some YouTube videos, but for the most part they work well enough. They're also reliable and paid for. Even if I had the money to buy an Intel-based Mac, I don't need to - but I definitely want to someday.

A MacBook for School

A niece contacted me several weeks ago. She is continuing her education and was ready to throw her Windows laptop into the trash. She wanted a Mac, and who better to come to for advice than Mr. Low End Mac himself?

Unless budget were an overriding concern, at this point I wouldn't recommend a PowerPC Mac for anyone coming to the Mac. Apple moved from PowerPC CPUs to Intel in 2006, and the Intel model have the huge advantage of being able to run Windows if you need to without a performance robbing emulator.

Heather and I discussed the 13" MacBook vs. the 15" MacBook Pro, and she decided that she really wanted the bigger 1440 x 900 display on the Pro model. Then I did my research, checking our Best 15" MacBook Pro Deals for a bargain. I gave her a few suggestions, and the best one we could find within her budget was a 2.16 GHz Core Duo machine, the top-end model from the first MacBook Pro generation.

This is a stock machine: 1 GB of RAM and a 100 GB hard drive. We'll talk about upgrades later.

The machine was ordered from TechRestore and arrived here on Friday. I gave it a couple hours to reach room temperature before unpacking the computer, and I was impressed with what I saw. This machine showed few signs of use - just a faint dot pattern on the display and one of the tiny rubber feet missing.

It was loaded with Mac OS X 10.5.7 "Leopard" plus the iLife suite, and the first thing I did was run Software Update while giving the battery a full charge. Three rounds of Software Update later, we had it at OS X 10.5.8 with the latest firmware, security, and software updates.

Next up was installing some excellent third-party software for Heather: browsers (Firefox, Camino, Opera, and Google Chrome), Adium (a great multi-service messaging client), the latest version of Flash Player, NeoOffice (OpenOffice for OS X), OnyX, and a few other utilities to strip unnecessary localizations and PowerPC code. All told, this used up about 20% of the 100 GB hard drive leaving plenty of room for Heather's photos, videos, GarageBand projects, etc.

Color Me Impressed

I've played with modern Macs at the Apple Store and tinkered with other people's MacBook Pros now and then, but I hadn't spent any extended amount of time with them until now.

One Small Headache

The only frustration I ran into was a "feature" introduced with OS X 10.5 that warns you each and every time that you run an app downloaded from the Internet using Safari. Every time I launched Firefox or Camino, the two browsers I installed first, I got the blasted warning. I logged out and logged back in - no change. I rebooted the MacBook - no difference.

I researched the problem and found the Unquarantine script by Henrik Nyh. After downloading this, installing it in ~/Library/Scripts/Folder Action Scripts, and logging out and back in from the user account, the warning message went away for new downloads - but not Firefox or Camino. I had to download a fresh copy of the installer and replace the previously installed versions to eliminate the reoccurring message.

As someone who rarely uses Safari, I never ran into this issue on my Power Macs, as I already had my favorite browsers (Camino, followed by Firefox) installed when I migrated from OS X 10.4 "Tiger" to 10.5. Never using Safari for downloads, I wasn't aware of the issue until now.

A New Favorite?

Living in the world of PowerPC Macs, I'd never been able to try Google Chrome, the new browser that many predict will eventually displace Firefox as the #2 browser. With traditional browsers, each tab or window runs as a thread within the application, so they all share the same resources. Chrome introduced running each tab or window as a separate process, essentially treating each one as a separate program. That means when one window crashes or is bogged down running JavaScript, the other windows are unaffected.

You can achieve the same result by running different browsers, each with just one tab in one window. Or you can run Chrome. (Other browsers are adopting Chrome's process model.)

Chrome has a minimalist interface, brings some fresh thinking to browser design, and has only two strikes against it: It won't run in OS X 10.4 and it won't run on PowerPC Macs. Those only matter to low-end users, as Intel Macs have been around for over four years now (about 35 million sold to date) and over 80% of Mac users have moved on to OS X 10.5 or the Intel-only 10.6 "Snow Leopard". (According to January 2010 stats, 43% of them are running 10.6.) Only about 15% of the Mac installed base is still running 10.4, and the remaining 5% are divided among earlier versions of OS X.

Anyhow, if you have an Intel Mac and are running 10.5 or later, you owe it to yourself to download the latest beta of Google Chrome and give it a test drive.

It Really Is Faster

Honestly, I didn't expect to be blown away by the power of dual-core Intel processing. After all, the bottleneck is the speed of your Internet connection. How much difference could more processing power really make?

A lot! For text and static images, my old Power Macs are fine. For streaming video, there's not a whole lot of difference, as bandwidth is the big factor there. But for websites that use Flash or JavaScript - the vast majority of the Web these days - the difference is huge.

I regularly visit two sites that make a lot of use of Flash: Facebook and Geni. I was completely blown away at how much faster my farmer moves in Farmville, which has become a bit of a late night vice for me, although I'm learning to plant more crops that take 2-4 days to grow, which reduced the amount of harvesting necessary on any given day.

All the work of planting, harvesting, and plowing goes a lot faster on this nearly four-year-old MacBook Pro than on my dual 1.6 GHz Power Mac G4. It could probably cut my work time in Farmville in half. If you're into Mafia Wars or any of the other Facebook games, migrating from PowerPC to Intel could make a huge difference for you.

Geni, an wonderful genealogy site, isn't too slow for most screens, but when you display a visual family tree, there's a world of difference between between PowerPC and Intel Macs.

I've been happy with my G4 Macs for a long time, but now I'm lusting after Intel power. I would absolutely love a refurbished 21.5" iMac or a used 17" MacBook Pro (the 900 pixel height on the 15" feels tight compared with the 1024 pixel height I'm used to), but even a used Mac is 100% out of my price range in the foreseeable future.

Heather's MacBook Pro

There are pros and cons to buying a first generation Intel Mac. The original Core Duo CPUs do not support 64-bit mode, and memory expansion is more limited than with newer models. Then again, 64-bit mode only matters if you're running OS X 10.6, and even there you can be completely productive in 32-bit mode.

The 15" Core Duo MacBook Pro doesn't have FireWire 800, but FireWire 400 is adequate. Perhaps the biggest limitation is that this model supports a maximum of 2 GB of RAM. The Late 2006 Core 2 Duo model has a faster, more efficient CPU; includes FireWire 800; can use 3 GB of RAM; and has some 64-bit support. For about $100 more on the used market, that's the way I'd go if financed allowed.

Finances didn't allow, and even with its stock 5400 rpm hard drive and 1 GB of RAM, this is a perky machine. We could double RAM for under $50, which would help if performance seems to be bogging down at some point, and you can replace the hard drive with a faster on quite economically today should you need more space.

Heather's MacBook Pro came with a pretty good battery - a least two hours of use with a full charge. Not at all bad considering its age. $100 will buy a new battery when she needs it, but she plans on running from the power adapter most of the time.

She's Lovin' It

I brought the MacBook over Sunday afternoon, along with the Willow Design case and Podium CoolPad that I used for my late Titanium PowerBook. I also gave her my old copy of MacBook for Dummies. We set her up, temporarily connected to a neighbor's unsecured WiFi network (my sister wasn't home to provide the password for the home WiFi network), and began Macintosh training.

Macintosh 101

Heather had used Macs at school, but I felt it important to let her know some of the differences between Macs and Windows:

  1. Closing a window usually doesn't quit the program, which is the opposite of the way Windows is designed. A light blue lozenge-shaped dot below the apps program in the dock lets you know the program is running.
  2. Command-Q will quit a program, as will choosing Quit from the application menu. (Command is that key next to the space bar. It is not marked Command or Cmd on her MacBook.) Quitting programs you no longer need is important with limited RAM.
  3. Removing an icon from the dock does not remove the application, just the shortcut for launching it.
  4. When using a notebook, you should always run it from battery at least once a month and give it a good drain. If you don't, when you want to take it in the field, you may have seriously degraded battery life.

I explained the five browsers I'd installed, told her how impressed I was with Chrome, and let her play around. She soon removed Safari from the dock and made Camino her default browser (we use Camino by default).

Having Fun

Then I pointed out one of the fun apps that Apple provides, Photo Booth. Photo Booth works with the webcam and includes all sorts of filters to modify and distort images such as sepia, comic book, fisheye, and putting backgrounds behind you - all of this in real time. But that's just the beginning.

Next we checked out iChat and Adium, and then Heather downloaded AIM from AOL. She managed to connect to a friend for video chat, and then started experimenting with the Photo Booth filters. Heather was having a great time distorting her face, and we all got a kick out of watching her friend crack up.

I don't know how many more hours she spent on the MacBook Pro, but I suspect she didn't leave it alone until bedtime. Not only is she thrilled with this four-year-old Mac, but both her sister and my sister want Macs as well. When they're budgets permit, we'll have two more switchers in the family.

Looking Ahead

And for the first time since I got my first G4 Mac, I'm feeling underpowered and left behind. My dream is to someday get an Intel-based Mac with a widescreen display, such as the 1920 x 1200 resolution of recent 17" MacBook Pro, the 1680 x 1050 resolution of earlier MacBook Pros, the 1920 x 1200 resolution of the current 21.5" iMac, the 1920 x 1200 of the discontinued 24" iMac, the 1680 x 1050 resolution of the discontinued 20" iMac, or a 2009 Mac mini with a 22" to 24" 1920 x 1080 display.

Of these options, the 21.5" iMac and Unibody 17" MacBook Pro are the dream choices, the 20" iMac and earlier 17" MacBook Pro are more practical considerations, and the Mac mini is probably the most affordable, as 1080p displays are getting very affordable. Of course, by the time finances turn around here at Low End Mac, everything will have gone forward another generation or more.

Now that I've experienced the difference, I very much look forward to eventually making the move to Intel.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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