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Review: MacBook

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Review: MacBook Intel Core 2 Duo Laptop

MacBook closeup

I'm not a huge fan of PCs, and so I was pretty late getting into laptops. I bought my first one (a secondhand IBM Thinkpad running W2K) mainly because it had a great DVD player, and I thought at the time that I might have started to watch some movies. I never did, but the machine proved to be an excellent development machine for Java projects such as the Gallery.

Then I needed to exchange Word and Excel documents with my co-founders of a start-up, and I bought my first new laptop, a Sony Vaio Windows XP ultraportable to make working on the move easy, especially flying economy class which I had to do a lot of with our R&D 'factory' 2000km away from home. I ran that one and a further Vaio into the ground over time. Though using Java as my primary development language means that I can use tools such IDEA and Eclipse to develop everything on a laptop for later production deployment on Linux/Solaris, Windows is maddeningly inefficient and insecure and generally even at XP, a major pain to do real work with.

When the start-up no longer needed a CTO, I was suddenly freed from the need to work with Microsoft document formats, and thus from Windows too! (Note: I use the free and good NeoOffice suite to look at Word/Excel/etc files on the Mac.) I'm really a UNIX man, and used to have a hulking UNIX workstation on my desk at home. So rather than buy another Windows machine, possibly being forced to use "version 0" of Vista, I jumped at the chance to switch to the (BSD) UNIX-based OS X MacBook, and I've been delighted with it! I did consider running Linux on a laptop, but getting it all working and supported, especially things like power-management, didn't fill me with hope.

(The news that Dell may sell laptops pre-loaded with a (semi-)supported Linux, having ensured that the right drivers are available ans installed, and that power-management works, etc, offers some viable and cheaper alternatives for the future. And Sun releases Java for Linux itself, including frequent early-access builds.)

Almost the first thing that you notice that you don't have to do with the Mac is answer a blizzard of unanswerable security pop-ups from the anti-virus and firewall: "Is it OK to let the XXYYZ have a nice chat with Microsoft LDAP widget about the Internet?" I'm an IT professional and feel quite comfortable setting up routers and firewalls and tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of top-end computer equipment, and I don't know how to answer those questions, especially when trying to concentrate on something else. The Mac comes with a firewall built-in, and the nature of a UNIX-based system makes viruses much less of a threat than for Windows, since UNIX has been consciously dealing with security from the get-go in the 1970s. It's no reason to be smug, but you can lower your blood pressure a few notches and save some time and money not forking out for extra security tools for the Mac.

I'd like to be able to say that you don't have to reboot the Mac at all, but actually after system software updates you often do, and Windows XP has gotten so much better compared to older Windows versions that I'd say that the Mac isn't much better, though there have been far fewer Mac patches/upgrades for me to download and install while I've had it compared to my Vaio. There's also an annoying Mac bug that sometimes when you open the lid the Mac wakes up and then goes straight back to sleep, so you have to shut the lid, wait a bit, and try again. Sony/Windows had a similar problem but fixed it years ago.

MacBook closeup

The MacBook is powerful and efficient; I configured my system with 2GB of memory and 160GB of disc (to handle a backup of the Gallery, and editing its multimedia files), and I can build Java code several times faster than on my Vaio. (And it doesn't take tens of seconds for the machine just to wake out of sleep and start working with email for example.) That cost me £1133+VAT direct from Apple by phone (though with a couple of annoyances such as them not getting my phone number right, and omitting a small part of the order).

The Mac also seems to handle devices much better than Windows XP. For example, the Mac can take a high-resolution (2400dpi) scan in a minute or so with my Epson Perfection 4990 flatbed scanner, whereas the Vaio that I bought the scanner for takes as much as an hour per scan, doing nothing much more than twiddling its thumbs for most of that time. Also, for example, the Mac works well with a Bluetooth headset that I bought to work with the Vaio, but which Windows just wouldn't support.

The Mac's mail program is also the first time that I have used content-based SPAM filtering. I get upwards of 10,000 SPAMs aimed at me each day (don't the SPAMmers realise that there's only so many drugs that you can take in a day?) and about 1% of them get through the filters at the mail server. The Mac mail program correctly identifies 95%+ of the rest, almost never binning anything that I actually want to see. Bravo!

For Java development purposes, the Mac is great. Because Java releases for OS X aren't done by Sun they are a little behind Sun's release schedule for Windows, Linux and Solaris (especially intermediate early-access builds), but they've been fine for me so far, with only small OS-X-related glitches. And I can use the dual cores just fine: indeed having them helps me test my Java code for concurrency since most of my servers are multicore and heavily threaded.

For connectivity, the MacBook comes with a fast wired Ethernet connection which I've used once or twice. It also has decent WiFi, which I use all the time at home (right now for example) which works without fuss. I also use a 3G wireless connection from Vodafone with a USB dongle, which is up to broadband speeds anywhere in the world with 3G or GSM phone connectivity. I use it all day when I'm with a client in London, or when I'm more generally on the move, and as a backup to my home DSL. The Mac seems to handle Internet connections better than XP.

I'm just getting into exploiting the multimedia facilities. For example, there is a built-in camera and simple software to operate it (PhotoBooth). I use USB to talk to my cameras, and the "Image Capture" application makes it all very smooth, and the simple "Preview" application is good enough to check and even tweak images before upload to the Gallery. I'm now using the free/simple/good Audacity audio editor to trim and mess around with audio files. The QuickTime player lets me view quite a number of formats (though not the Microsoft proprietary ones; no big loss). I even listen to my old music with iTunes.

I'm very happy with the MacBook: if Apple returns to producing the smaller ultraportable format in the future then I'll consider getting one of those!

My machine's spec:

Hardware Overview:
  Machine Name: Mac
  Machine Model: MacBook2,1
  Processor Name: Intel Core 2 Duo
  Processor Speed: 2 GHz
  Number Of Processors: 1
  Total Number Of Cores: 2
  L2 Cache (per processor): 4 MB
  Memory: 2 GB
  Bus Speed: 667 MHz

All pictures of the MacBook.

Buy a MacBook online from Amazon.com (USD1225 as at 20070302).

Buy a MacBook online from Amazon.co.uk (GBP875 as at 20070302).

Damon Hart-Davis, March 2007.

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