Back to School – what should you get?

The back to school buying season is fast approach if not here already with college kids starting in a few weeks time and University academics in a little over a month. So the question you’re probably asking is what kit should you be considering for the classroom this year?If you’re thinking that it’s going to be another year of boring PowerPoint presentations or Times New Roman documents then you’re reading the right article, because this feature is all about the Mac platform and how it is going to transform your educational experience, especially when it comes to writing those boring reports. Step up to the plate and see what you can do.The MacBook is considered ideal for students who need something portable yet powerful at the same time.The range starts with a 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo and 1GB of RAM, so already it’s more powerful than many of its PC counterparts in the same price bracket which typically offer sub-2.0GHz dual core processors. The entry level notebook for Apple is the 13-inch 2.0GHz MacBook with its 1GB of DDR2 RAm and 80GB hard drive. For those that require a DVD burner, moving up to the mid-range model is probably the wisest of choice. The price does get bumped up but with that price bump you get a 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 1GB of RAM, 120GB RAM and of course the Dual Layer SuperDrive. What’s impressive about this specification is the generous helping of GHz and massive 4MB of cache from the Intel chips which are seldom found in notebooks of this price bracket.There’s real performance to burn here and with the speed dual core processor, you shouldn’t find any speed bottlenecks with this system with a healthy 1GB of RAM. Movie, photo and audio editing will be a cinch with this machine and anything less demanding will be a breeze for its hefty dual core offering.With Boot Camp as an optional installation (providing you have a copy of Windows XP or Vista), even on older generation MacBook models can run the ‘other’ operating system of choice. XP and Vista works seamlessly with MacBook hardware, especially with the latest version of Boot Camp offering enhanced driver support.The 120GB hard drive on the mid-range MacBook will offer plenty of storage for your music and video collection and of course your work but of course you’re going to have some sort of external back up right?Connectivity comes in the form of a Gigabit ethernet connection and even the Draft-N wireless standard is included alongside the Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR module. For local connectivity, you get two USB 2.0 ports and one fireWire 400 port.The extras that come with the MacBook we’ve all mostly become familiar with now. In case you’ve been living unplugged online and offline for the past twelve months, the MacBook features an integrated iSight camera, MagSafe power adapter, a Lithium Polymer battery capable of running for up to six hours and all this weighing in at 2.31kg in a 1-inch thick chassis.A glossy display is the only option you get with the MacBook. It has a native resolution of 1280 x 800 offering rich and vivid colours. Videos and photos being displayed on the 13.3-inch widescreen display come out beautifully.Driving that display is the Intel GMA 950 graphics processor with 64MB of shared RAM. Naturally, this is not an ideal machine for playing the latest video games but it will handle HD video playback as well as video out via the mini-DVI connection for the 24-inch Cinema Display or any other display up to a resolution of 1920 x 1200 via DVI or VGA.If you prefer the smaller screen and don’t mind not having a dedicated graphics chip, the MacBook offers performance, longevity and portability. A very good all rounder that delivers a real blow when it comes to number crunching tasks, the MacBook represents the ideal choice for students on the move, it’s hard wearing design and portability will make this one a keeper.Starting life as the award winning PowerBook, the MacBook Pro has continued the tradition by continuously delivering incredible performance without compromising on battery life or the physical constraints of its original design. Whilst this is perhaps on the expensive side, the MacBook Pro represents an ideal choice for those that have budgeted for a £1000+ system to last them their time in academia.As the name suggests, this is a Pro machine with some real high end performance. Starting with a 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo processor backed by 4MB of cache, this 15.4-inch powerhouse puts a new meaning to rapid. The 2GB of RAM is a welcome standard in the MacBook Pro range along with the awesome power of the Direct X 10 compatible, NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics card with 128MB of dedicated SDRAM. Storage comes in the form of a 120GB hard drive and 8x dual-layer SuperDrive. These are all big improvements from when the range launched last year and in fact bests my second-gen MacBook Pro by quite some margin.Moving in to the higher end of the two 15.4-inch MacBook Pro models you get a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, same 2GB of RAM more hard drive storage at 160GB and double the video RAM with a 256MB 8600M GT. This is perhaps more than what most typical students are going to need and given the price difference and what the lower MacBook Pro model offers it’s not one that I would recommend. Put the spare change in to a second display or accessorise.The usual assortment of connectivity is included with FireWire 400 and 800 as well as USB 2.0 for external connectivity. Wireless comes in the form of an 802.11n chip (also compatible with 802.11 a/b/g) and Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR. The FireWire 800 port is perhaps the most exciting feature here with more external storage devices now offering this port (which we cover later on in this review) it really does make a difference if you have this port for shifting large amounts of data or backing up.The 15.4-inch MacBook Pro has a native resolution of 1440 x 900 and now runs with an LED backlit display in support for the company’s new ‘green’ image. The LED backlight doesn’t offer any real visual improvements over the previous generation of displays but it does minimise power consumption and is only available on the 15-inch model.Apple does have the 17-inch MacBook Pro but that really is going to be beyond the reach of most students and probably most people who read this review. There’s not many occasions where you really need a 17-inch notebook to start of with but the real deal clincher for this model is its 1680 x 1050 default display or you can opt for the 1920 x 1200 resolution display, offering full 1080 resolution in a 16:10 ratio, this of course further proves that it’s more for the pro industry with video editing applications rather than running YouTube videos.The entire line of MacBook Pro notebooks are offered with two options for the displays. you can opt for the glossy or antiglare finish, ensuring that both consumers and pro users are kept happy.The keyboards have a fibre optic backlight system which activates when lighting conditions in the room fall to a certain level. This light sensor that is built in to the speaker grille also controls the automatic brightness levels of the display so that you always get the most suitable settings for the environment you’re in as well as improving your energy consumption.Backlit keyboard for when you’re working in the dark or dimly lit conditions and also handy for when you just want to show off to your mates.Built straight in to the top bezel of the screen there is the iSight camera which operates at 1 mega-pixel allowing you to video conference or just have some fun taking snaps using Photo Booth with a decent picture quality at a clear refresh rate – a world apart from those notebooks that integrate these cameras but do it with a cheap and nasty one.Using Lithium Polymer batteries in the MacBook Pro means better battery life both in the short and long term since it takes longer for the cells inside to degrade and it also promises to hold more charge, which explains how it manages to achieve up to five hours of use.Ever since the PowerBook G4 entered the world stage it has had the DVI connection which is able to output up to resolutions of 2560 x 1600, making it suitable for the 30-inch Cinema Display or any other display that uses DVI. This is seldom found on PC-based notebooks and typically you will only find the use of a VGA connection and rarely will it be able to support resolutions of that nature.MagSafe is my life-saver. So many times has it saved my MacBook Pro from flying of the desk. This handy invention that Apple innovated back at Cupertino ensures that should you, anyone else or it trip or snag on the power cable, your laptop thankfully won’t be flying in to the air. Once a certain level of pull is achieved on the cable it simply pops out. However when plugged in it’s a decent enough strength to make sure it doesn’t fall out unnecessarily.The MacBook Pro has remained my favourite notebook ever since I laid hands on the 12-inch PowerBook and I can see myself buying future revisions as well. At the moment it seems inevitable that the next revision and with Leopard I will be once again searching for an upgrade path.With a winning combination of performance and ergonomic styling, the MacBook Pro and past revisions is the ‘it’ laptop of this decade, further cementing its place as the notebook of champions. The fantastic use of aircraft-grade anodised aluminium as its chassis has ensured that it looks good despite its ageing design and makes even newer notebooks look outdated. With the recent switch to LED backlighting for those conscious of the environment this new technology is a definite bonus point and for those that aren’t, well expect to get battery life (which in turn is kinder to the environment).

2007-09-06 Onwah Tsang

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