Apple MacBook Pro

I’ve been patient enough to wait for the second revision of the MacBook Pro. Following on from my article on the PowerBook G4, I have since replaced it with the second revision, MacBook Pro featuring an Intel Core Duo 2.0GHz processor. I’ve had the pleasure of using it for several weeks now and despite its issues, I’ve found it to be a rapid machine when it comes to processor intensive tasks.

When Steve jobs lifted this up, I thought, that’s just a PowerBook! Slightly disappointed that they didn’t try to re-design the chassis but the signature PowerBook design has obviously survived the test of time since its very, very first introduction with the Titanium PowerBook G4.

Without any question in mind, this is the best Pro portable you will find on the market today. Of course, the transition from the PowerBook to the MacBook Pro hasn’t gone as smoothly for Apple as they probably would have hoped for.

The first models were plagued with issues of whining noises, excessive heat, keyboard backlight and screen flickering problems. As some people advised, avoid getting the first revision considering the new hardware architecture that Apple have opted for.

I think it’s necessary to outline the major issues and identify whether they really are design defects or if they’re unavoidable design flaws.

Whining Noises

Their is definitely a distinct and significantly high pitched noise emanating from the left hand corner underneath the speaker grille. Research shows that this is where the CPU is. At first you’ll find it hard to identify what this noise is. Like I said, it’s a high pitch noise so you don’t immediately think it’s a fan and the noise demonstrates intermittent behavior. It goes on and off very rapidly but rarely continues for more than several seconds. However, if you put your ear right up to it, you will most likely hear that it is a fan coming on and off in an attempt to keep the CPU temperature down.

This is probably the most common and most discussed issue with the MacBook Pro and one that has brought itself along for the ride in the second revision. To make sure that this was not a defect with my particular unit, I did have my original one exchanged but the replacement has had the exact same problem.

Their are third party applications that you can use to remove this rather irritating noise (only audible in quiet environments) and these applications keep the processor busy but as a result you lose some CPU cycles and your battery life naturally decreases.

I also found that when you’re in Firefox and you hold down the mouse button, the whining noise goes away. Haven’t been able to discover why this is but I’m guessing holding the mouse button down causes some kind of activity to occur? Still think it’s a bit odd however.

So unfortunately, there are no definitive hardware fixes for this problem. Apple have refused to admit this issue is a problem and say that this noise is a normal part of the units operation. We could argue this with Apple until the cows come home but they’ll never admit that this is an issue. I personally think that this issue should be fixed and is a genuine Q/A issue.

Excessive heat

It’s unfair to compare the PowerBook to the MacBook Pro when it comes to heat dissipation but it’s for sure that the latter can get significantly warmer than the PowerBook. Thankfully I have mine sitting on a desk the majority of the time I’m using it, otherwise I don’t think I’ll be able to have children anymore. The underside of the unit gets so hot that it becomes uncomfortable to touch, even on the areas near the keyboard. The areas that get the warmest are towards the top left hand area and the area directly above the function keys at the top. This is where the heat is dissipated and the vent holes are located and again, thankfully these are areas that you seldom touch but should you ever touch these areas after you’ve used your MBP for say half an hour to an hour, you’ll find the temperature to be higher than what you would consider to be acceptable and normal.

The heat issue has been controversial and one that has been discussed in depth and had several possible solutions thrown at the problem. First of all, Apple do admit that the MBP will get warm during use and they recommend that you do not use it on your lap or against any exposed areas of your body. They also state that the MBP temperatures that users are reporting are within normal limits. They advise that you should use it on a flat and solid surface. So for example carpets are not recommended since it can block the vent holes and prevent air circulation around the unit.

First of all, the MBP is a powerful machine, packing a lot of fast hardware in a chassis only 1-inch thick. This is only the start of the problem. The anodized aluminium chassis has very few vent holes in comparison to its predecessor. The vent holes at the left and right hand side are gone and the only real exit for heat dissipation is at the far end of the unit, near the screen and the Airport Extreme antennae. The material itself conducts the heat much more than say a conventional laptop made out of plastic. However I don’t think I’d want to give up the aluminium as it just gives the classiest finish to the overall look of the MBP, but the same material is used for the PowerBook and that never really posed as a problem.

The above two issues still plague me today. The whining noise is probably my biggest annoyance, the heat problem haven’t been that much of an issue but the problem does exist.

The other problems that I talked about before are no longer problems anymore as Apple have managed to stamp these issues out in later build models.

Now that we’ve got the major issues out, I’ll move on to this products highlights.
I’ll start of with the processor as this is probably the biggest change from the previous generation. Now sporting an Intel Core Duo processor at either 2.0GHz or 2.16GHz both with 2MB of L2 cache, you get the absolute top of the range performance with enough throughput to number crunch your iMovie HD videos, scoring your soundtrack or editing your photos in iPhoto. If you’re coming from a PowerBook G4 background you’ll definitely welcome the performance improvements, even if you were using the 1.67GHz G4 chip. The outstanding 30 second boot up and nippy OSX response means you’ll rarely see the spinning beach ball. That’s not to say that you won’t see it pop up every now and again though…but I’ll talk about that later.

The whole architecture has been overhauled to bring it up to date and plays catch up with Windows equivalent laptops like Sony and Dell. Other new enhancements include faster DDR2 memory, ExpressCard/34 slot, ATi Mobility Radeon X1600 with 128MB or 256MB on the 2.16GHz model, built in iSight, Front Row, Lithium Polymer technology battery, MagSafe – magnetically attached power adapter and wider touch-pad.

The default memory configuration for the MBP is 512MB of DDR2 667MHz RAM. With a starting price of £1399 you would expect at least 1GB, which isn’t found until you move up to the £1699 model. I decided to buy my own memory and install it myself rather than pay for Apple to do it. I was able to pick up a 512MB stick for £45 from my long time favourite memory manufacturer and reseller at www.crucial.com/uk

Some of the features that were found on the PowerBook have made its way to the MBP and some features didn’t quite make the way. The 8x Dual Layer SuperDrive is no longer available unless you move up to the 17-inch model which goes for £1899. You will also discover that their is no FireWire running at 800Mbps. Just the standard 400Mbps version. The PC Card slot has made way for the latest ExpressCard/34 slot which as I write this has very few devices compatible with this slot. However with such a fully featured notebook already, I have never used either the PC Card slot in the PowerBook and even more unlikely to use the new ExpressCard/34 slot on the MacBook Pro.

Features that did make it across from the PowerBook include the useful and ingenious idea of a backlit keyboard and ambient light sensor for the display. The high resolution 1440 x 900, 15-inch, widescreen display with an increase of 67% in brightness is able to produce natural colour reproduction and is great for photos, and multimedia content such as DVD playback. Some people criticized Apple for decreasing the Y axis resolution ever so slightly but I don’t find this to be an issue since I was using a 1280 x 1050 resolution display previously on the PowerBook. It also more closely mimics the 16:9 aspect ratio required for many movies. These days though I’m mostly connected up the 20-inch 1680 x 1050 resolution Apple Cinema Display which offers even more screen real estate. Having played back the 1080p High Definition trailers from the apple.com/trailers site just proves how smooth and powerful this machine is.

The quoted 67% brighter display by Apple is likely referring to the generation previous to the last gen of the PowerBook. They increased the brightness of the display when the very last PowerBooks came out and so I find it unlikely they put another 67% on top, or am I wrong about that?

Either way I really did struggle to see the display in outdoor day light conditions, especially when the sun was out. The display could probably do with even more brightness as my latest tests proved that it was still very difficult to see the display during very sunny days (when you’re most likely to be outdoors!). Perhaps the glossy screens would fare better? I hear some people say that the Matte finish is better for outdoor sunlight conditions but others say that the glossy finish is better?

Front Row on the MacBook Pro is a delight to use, especially when I’ve either got it hooked up to my High-Def LG TV or my Apple Cinema Display. I make most use of it for Video, DVD and Audio playback and it’s an idea that was probably taken from the Windows Media Centre concept but slimmed down in features, simplified and more concentrated. This is probably why it works so well and the finish of the application is superb. Upon activation when pushing the Menu button on the remote, your entire desktop floats away in to the distance as the Front Row interface rotates in to view.

The impossibly thin iSight camera is built in to the display right above the screen. Given the dimensions of this area, you would be hard pressed to believe that the quality of the camera would be any good. Load up Photo Booth or iMovie and you will be amazed by the quality of the picture. It creates nice pictures and smooth videos even in dim lit conditions. The refresh rate of the picture from the iSight is surprisingly smooth. Yet again Apple have shocked us all and if anything this camera whilst lacking in flexibility for movement, it either equals if not betters the stand alone iSight camera (now discontinued in European markets).

Graphics acceleration comes in the form of the PCI Express based, ATi Mobility radeon X1600 processor with dual link DVI support. Not only does this mean you can play your games in full 3D motion, you can also hook it up to the 30-inch Apple Cinema Display and output at full resolution. Sporting 128MB of DDR3 on the 2.0GHz model and 256MB on the 2.16GHz model, the graphics performance from this chip is not by any means inferior. Performance of the OSX interface is fully accelerated as expected from a chip of this calibre. 3D gaming (depending on the game) does still lack for those games that haven’t made it across to Universal binary. Those that have however really do look fantastic on the Mac. And if you use Boot Camp to run XP, you will find that the performance is good enough to run games like Half Life 2. Graphics performance has finally be brought to the level of the Windows market and for the price of a MacBook Pro, it is absolutely necessary.

MagSafe has had its fair shares of complaints but I personally have had none. It’s a unique idea that I’ve not seen implemented on any other laptop or portable device. I’ve had no accidental break offs from yanking too much nor have I had issues of the cable breaking apart either. For me it’s perfect as I very, very often tripped over the cord of my PowerBook. Luckily it never flew of its desk! However, I dare not risk it on this model, and of course with MagSafe I don’t have to!

If you look at the battery underneath, the first thing you’ll notice is the incredible size of the battery. Coming in the form of a 60-watt/hour Lithium Polymer battery the battery life of this Mac is rated at 4.5 hours. In reality, this is never achieved and tests have shown this. Whilst using my Mac for email, instant messaging, word processing and web browsing via wireless I was able to achieve about 3.5 hours of operation time with the ‘Better Performance’ mode selected and screen brightness at 25% with no peripherals attached. For the kind of tasks that I was doing and the frequency that I was doing it at, I think 3.5 hours for a battery of this type and size is rather poor. If anything it’s going backwards. I managed to get a solid 4 hours of use on my 1.5GHz PowerBook G4 doing more or less the same thing, and it used a smaller and less advanced Lithium Ion battery.

The only time I was able to achieve past the 4 hour mark was when the machine was left on the same mode and with wireless turned off with the screen on at all times. A tedious task none the less but one I had to do to see just how close it could get to the quoted 4.5 hour running time. The achieved time was closer to 5 hours. Whilst this is a great figure, it’s a useless one because you can never achieve that when you’re using it to perform any sort of task no matter how basic. Not to put too fine a point on it. The MacBook Pro battery life sucks! A professional on the go is definitely going to need to pack a second battery with them if they want an average days usage out of it.

I cringe at the thought if they had included a Lithium Ion battery instead? In case you are considering getting an extra battery, they are £99. Apple pricing is strange on this because the £99 price is the same for the 17-inch model and the 13-inch MacBooks. PowerBooks are £59 for both the 85 and the smaller 60 watt model. Go figure.

I am told that the 60 watt power adapter will work on the MacBook Pro, however during more energy intensive periods, the battery will not be charging whilst plugged in. I guess this is fine for those who want to pack a power adapter with them whilst on their travels. You might be wondering why I’m bothering to talk about this but if you saw the size of the power adapter compared to the MacBook and PowerBook adapters, you’ll understand why. Those of you who travel with smaller bags that struggle with accommodating room for a power adapter will also find this handy tip useful.

Not much else can be talked about with the hardware aspect. At the end of the day, it’s a thinner, lighter and more powerful PowerBook. With the same award winning and extremely durable anodized aluminium chassis.

Software wise, the Intel Core Duo really does inject steroids directly in to the heart of OS X. With over 2300 applications now compiled in Universal Binary format, you can expect great performance on the Intel architecture. The good old days where we used to knock Intel for its products are behind us now as we invite them to join us in the Mac community.

For those that have yet to reach across to the Intel architecture, OS X has a hidden trick up its sleeves. The very least talked about secret of OS X is Rosetta. This under-appreciated and least talked about feature of OS X has definitely proven to be useful for myself and I’m sure many others.

Rosetta is essentially a translation engine that runs silently in the background. It sits waiting for you to load a PowerPC compiled application and on the fly translates the code to work on the Core Duo chip. No emulation required! This is important for speed and performance. And we all know, emulation in any environment and any hardware is always painfully slow. This is the likely reason why Apple decided to create Rosetta.

Since Rosetta translates rather than emulates, the performance hit whilst still slightly noticeable in some applications, the majority of the time works flawlessly. The OS X engineering team have done a great job with this because OS X has always been written to be platform independent.

We’ve all heard about the performance hit that some of the more CPU intensive applications have but for applications like MSN Messenger and Office 2004 for Mac run great. Rosetta has been implemented so well that the translation engine behind it runs transparently so that you don’t notice that you’re running an entirely different architecture in the background. Photoshop users however should not expect performance to be all that great under Rosetta, so expect to see that spinning beach ball more often. I’m not a Photoshop user myself so I’ve got no complaints in that area. All Pro applications are Universal binary so for Final Cut Studio owners expect even faster rendering times from the Core Duo engine.

You’ll be glad to hear that the iLife suite is Universal binary. iLife 06 really shines when it comes to video, photo and audio rendering. I remember the days of finalizing my 1 hour Garageband podcasts and having to wait a good 30 minutes before I could do anything else. This isn’t the case anymore. Those long waits and system performance drops have come to an end. I can be finalizing my audio or video podcasts whilst continuing to write my show notes or browsing the web. I don’t have to worry about taking CPU cycles away from the other applications because the Core Duo chip multitasks so efficiently that the OS X performance remains the same in any situation. This is in thanks to the dual core technology with 2MB of cache and DDR2 memory.

TechCast Recommended?

The MacBook Pro more than makes up for the lack of performance in the PowerBook. The new Intel platform makes the entire Mac experience much more pleasant and brings the professional line of portable Macs up to date with the rest of the industry.

The compatibility side of OS X means that you will rarely run in to performance issues with the Core Duo chip and the new features such as Front Row, MagSafe and iSight makes the deal just that bit sweeter.

I can’t forget to mention that Boot Camp works well for Windows XP with impressive performance and no slow down since the architecture is more or less the same and driver support is also mature. I’ve had the pleasure of putting both XP Pro and Vista Beta 2 on my MacBook Pro but after using it for a few minutes on each version, I’ve always gone back to OS X. Windows no longer resides on my MacBook Pro so that I could free up the space for my OS X stuff. As a technical exercise it proved that it works and works very well. I can’t wait for Leopard to put an end to Boot Camp.
With the recent price drop and bump in processor speed (for the second time now) you can get a 2.0GHz model for a ‘Mac’ reasonable price of £1399. For those who want the faster 2.16GHz chip, double the DDR2 system RAM, double the video RAM and an additional 20GB of hard drive space, the extra £300 is rather wallet unfriendly.

I recommend getting the 2.0GHz model and then adding an extra 512MB of memory yourselves to take advantage of the Dual Channel memory feature and increased performance from your applications. The Tiger within gets unleashed when you throw 1GB at it.

The 2.0GHz MacBook Pro gets the TechCast Recommended award.

2006-06-28 Onwah Tsang

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