The MacBook That Apple Got So, So Right

We don’t write much about Macs at iLounge, but I wanted to make an exception today to pat Apple on the back for doing something very right: the new aluminum MacBook. No pictures for this article; you can see the machine here.

Say what you will about the economy, the need for a Mac netbook, and Apple’s iterative approach to new product releases; in quick summary, the economy’s rough, a cheaper Mac would have been really smart, and the company definitely has become Machiavellian about dragging out user-requested feature bumps. If you can look past all of those things, the new 13” MacBooks are staggeringly close to the ideal portable Mac—so much so that three or four iLounge editors have either bought them or are planning to do so as we speak. All of us have Macs, but we never upgrade simultaneously, let alone to the same machine, which should be a sign that Apple has accomplished something amazing with this product.

It is, as Steve Jobs mentioned, the metal 13” that we’ve all been waiting for. It is, as history shows and the economy requires, a lot more affordable than the $1799 PowerBook 12” that people such as us lusted after but never purchased due to price and overheating problems. And it is, most importantly, a totally awesome computer. I’ve been using mine for the last day and completely loving it. The reasons:

Obvious things: the design. I’m not going to tell you that the new MacBook is amazing physically, because Apple introduced most of the new design touches in the MacBook Air, and thus most of this machine’s improvements appear derivative. But it’s obvious that everything about the past MacBook has been vigorously and wisely reconsidered for this model.

In a video, Jony Ive talks about making the machine as simple as is possible. It’s entirely true. The Pro’s old magnetic latch? It was a nifty design trick, but ultimately a non-useful moving part, and worthy of elimination here. The old battery indicator on the bottom? It’s much better on the side of the machine, and looks nicer now, too. MacBook’s IR sensor and sleep light are now subtle, rather than glaring, as are the iSight and microphone. Everything just seems so smart.

Obvious things: the size and weight. The new MacBook is lighter than its plastic predecessor, and correspondingly much lighter than the 15” Pro, which actually got a little heavier with this year’s update. And while the footprint isn’t as small as I would prefer—I could live with a 10” or 12” screen—I’m okay with it.

The trackpad. You would never, ever know that this was made from glass unless someone told you. It feels like a slightly smoother version of the prior trackpad, save for the shift of the button to the pad’s undercarriage, both changes highly welcome. There are issues with the pad—I find that it randomly causes text on web pages to scale upwards in size—but I’m convinced that they can be remedied in software. Multitouch remains a gimmick for now, but fun to play with.

Speed, drive, and screen. I went from a 2.4GHz MacBook Pro to a 2.4GHz MacBook. I haven’t run benchmark tests, but the new machine feels at least as fast as the old one, and has an extra 90GB of hard drive space. While Apple would have hit the hat trick on this machine by bumping the screen resolution up, I am actually very pleased with the glossy display, which I had resisted across several prior purchases and unnecessarily feared would impact my productivity. Apart from the lost pixels, it actually looks better than the screen on the Pro.

Of course, there are a couple of bummers. The absence of any non-USB expandability, namely FireWire connectivity or an ExpressCard slot, will definitely bother some users. Speaking for myself, dragging around the 15” MacBook Pro was so tiresome that I started formulating my escape plans months ago. No more ExpressCards, which I really never liked, and always found hot to the touch on removal. Any external hard disk I bought had to have multiple interfaces, including USB and FireWire. Et cetera. I’m disappointed that I can’t at least make a FireWire 800 connection from my big drives to the MacBook, but I can live. Maybe this Ethernet port can be put to some good use…

The other one is the Mini DisplayPort as a replacement for the old DVI connector. It’s no shock, given Apple’s history of choosing obscure connectors and going for things that are small, but for the time being it means that my 23” Cinema Display is useless, at least until Apple releases that adapter cable. I’m not planning to buy the new LED 24” as a replacement for my 23”, but as soon as Apple gets the 30” out the door—if the price is right—I’ll be there.

Overall, I’m extremely satisfied with the new MacBook. Having owned a number of Apple laptops in the past, starting with (seriously) the Macintosh Portable, I think it’s the company’s best portable computer ever. Check back with me in a few months and we’ll see if anything catastrophic has gone wrong, like the hard disk or video card problems (yes, a faulty nVidia 8600M processor, it seems) I’ve been dealing with in my MacBook Pros, but I have a really good feeling about this machine.

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