MacBook: First Impressions

It’s here!

Originally uploaded by MikeOliveri.


The MacBook arrived today. I’m tapping out this blog post on it right now, in fact.

I have to give credit to Apple, they certainly know how to handle product presentation. White isn’t my first color choice, but though it pervades everything from the packaging to the laptop itself, it gives the product a very sharp, clean, almost futuristic appearance. The laptop was wrapped in a protective sleeve and laid out in a nest of Styrofoam eggshells, and the extra parts and little bundle of manuals and CD’s were waiting patiently beneath it.

When you open a new Dell or Lenovo, meanwhile, you get some cardboard boxes and plastic bags. The accessories rattle around the box and you end up with six pounds of inserts littering the floor when you’re done unpacking everything.

Those are little things, certainly, but they show Apple’s at least trying to provide a little bang for the buck. And it’s pretty cool they included a nice cleaning cloth with it, because the glossy chassis is prone to fingerprints.

The drooling didn’t last long. I’m a function over form guy so I pulled her out and opened her up. I was surprised, at first, by the lack of a latch. Instead, Apple’s got a nifty magnet that holds the lid shut. Nothing to protrude and snag or break, and no puzzle to figure out. It complements the magnetic power connection, which I think is nothing short of brilliant. In fact, the power supply magnet already came in handy twice: first the Squirt stepped on it while climbing on me on the couch, and then I turned to one side and the cord snagged on a table corner. A regular connector would probably have survived the latter, but the former may well have resulted in my ordering a new power supply.

Three things surprised me when I opened the lid: the buttons, the lid hinges, and the touchpad. The buttons are larger and spaced farther apart than I expected for a 13″ laptop, and they’re very comfortable and easy to type on. The lack of extraneous media controls was also nice, as I never use any of that crap anyway. I was still leery of the single mouse button at this point, but I felt the huge trackpad would come in handy. I find it kind of amusing the enter key is labeled both “enter” and “return”; it makes me want to hunt for the “any” key. I see there’s also a nice “alt” label on the option key for us PC folk, and then of course there’s the squiggly box thing us PC folk tend to sneer at. The light on the caps lock key is a nice touch, though I just now realized there’s no num lock or faux number pad. I can’t imagine I’ll miss it as I never used it anyway, but it’s suddenly weird not seeing it there. I don’t see other PC standbys like scroll lock, print sreen, or pause/break, either. I never use scroll lock and print screen and pause/break are once in a blue moon, so I guess it makes sense for Apple to ditch the clutter. Finally, the hinge mount gives the user an extra inch or so of distance from the screen, making me feel at least a little less like I’m sitting too close to the screen. It also frees up some chassis real estate for the power button, which in turn probably gives the user a little more room for the touchpad and on the palm rests.

This is the entry-level MacBook, though we did get it bumped up to 2GB of RAM. However, even at entry level it’s got the built-in iSight camera, 2 USB ports, a Firewire port, an Ethernet port, a VGA output (albeit with a proprietary Mac connector — our rep tossed in an adapter), headphone and (I assume) line-in jacks, wireless, and Bluetooth. I’ve got the DVD player/CD burner combo, and it’s the Apple self-loading style rather than the pop-out drawer you get on PC laptops. And, of course, I can’t forget the light-up Apple on the lid. All told, I have to agree with John and others that for the specs and hardware it’s at least comparable to most PC laptops at the same price. I do wonder if the lack of a PC card slot will be a problem for some users, but it won’t be for me.

Time to take a look at the real guts, OS X. The rep gave me the option of Tiger (10.4) or Leopard (10.5), and I told him I want the latest and greatest. Leopard started with a welcome movie and then started asking me the standard account-setup questions. The first notable point here was it used the iSight camera to take a picture of me for my account button. Little more than glitz, of course, but kind of cool. The Midget and I mugged for it together, and I later saw that same picture/avatar appear in Mail and iChat.

The second notable point was the wireless setup. My WAP at work filters by MAC address, and there’s no sign of the MAC address on the laptop itself (most manufacturers put it on the bottom). Apple ditched all of the extraneous labels you find beneath a PC laptop, thus leaving me on my own. My options were to select another network (like Ethernet or Bluetooth) or tell it I don’t connect to a network. I selected the no network option so I can see how tough it would be to get this sucker online later.

Moments later I was up and running. First task? The wireless. I found a wireless icon on the desktop, and it showed me it had found my WAP. Another click into Advanced and voilá, there was my MAC address. I half wondered if “AirPort Address” actually referred to my access point, but I guess Apple calls both the cards and the access points AirPort devices. No big deal, because the moment I keyed it into my WAP I was surfing the Net in Safari.

I watched a few YouTube videos and found I had Flash support out of the box, no plug-ins required. I also had PDF support. Sound is decent, but hey, it’s a 13″ laptop. I still can’t find the speakers, but it almost sounds like they’re behind the display. The remote control for Front Row (think Media Center, Windows people) works like a champ and Front Row itself is easy to get around in. I’ll probably put it through its paces at another time. I then surfed to Apple Trailers and watched a couple. 1080p videos were bigger than my screen, but let me tell you, 720p on this baby was nothing short of gorgeous. I aimed the screen at the Wife across the room, and she was similarly impressed by its clarity. It also played the HD video and the audio with no sign of chop. Similarly impressive was the machine claims it will get over four hours out of the battery. I’ll test that another time, but if it’s true I’m going to need to change my pants.

While Safari is kind of cool, I did find out the hard way that it doesn’t cooperate with WordPress, which powers my blog. A little digging and I found out I was screwed because Safari uses the Gecko rendering engine rather than the Mozilla or even IE engines. No matter, I wanted Firefox so I could continue using Foxmarks if nothing else.

Getting up to that point was where I did my initial wrestling with the differences between Macs and PC’s. The delete key debate question did prove invalid, but I do see a few other areas of adjustment. And I best start by saying none of these are showstoppers, they’re just the Mac way of doing things.

First, copying and pasting are accomplished with Command-C and Command-V, respectively. I found this out by browsing the Edit menu and looking at the shortcut keys. Here’s where I missed having a right mouse button, and I’ll probably fix it with a three-button USB mouse. Yes, I realize I can also copy with Control-Click, but if I’m going to be clicking an extra button I may as well use Command-C. I’ll further admit I’m spoiled by Linux’s automatic copying of highlighted text to the clipboard. Highlighting and then middle clicking just plain rocks.

Second we have the menu and window placement. In the Windows world, almost every app runs in its own window and gets its own menu. In the Mac world, the menu across the top of the screen changes to become the menu for whatever app you’re actively using. This is not a problem. What I do miss already is a taskbar, or at least an easy way to access running apps. Yes, I realize this is what Expose is for, and it is very pretty, but it’d be able to get a listing via the mouse. I’d even be happy if it was in a stack like the Documents and Downloads buttons on the Dock (and if there’s a way to accomplish this, do feel free to leave me a comment). I’m going to have to get used to this quick, because chasing windows around was a pain.

Next we have the Dock itself. I don’t really have a comment here, other than I guess it’s pretty snazzy. It’s just a different way of doing things, and I don’t feel I have a preference for it over a Start button setup. I played with it in the System Preferences and whipped it into what I suppose is a reasonably functional shape.

Which leads me to System Preferences, which is the same as the Control Panel for Windows folks. Easy to browse and navigate, with all that you need right there. Much better than Microsoft’s goofy category view, and a hair more straightforward even than the classic view.

This is also where I tweaked mouse behavior. Out of the box, I couldn’t tap the touchpad to click icons or buttons or sweep a finger across it to scroll within windows. That became the first thing I had to fix after the networking. There wasn’t much I could do about the single button, but I did discover I could scroll both horizontally and vertically simply by using two fingers to do the sweep.

I may have to tweak the touchpad’s sensitivity a bit, but I’m impressed by two-finger scrolling. In Windows, maybe you get scroll space along the side and/or bottom of the touchpad. In Linux, it will reserve the side and/or bottom of the touchpad for scroll space even if the hardware wasn’t set up for it. This can become a nuisance because they both often misinterpret what you’re trying to do when your finger accidentally strays into these spaces, and you also get accidental clicks rather than scrolls. The Mac is not prone to this because it knows you’ve got two fingers on the pad and that you intend to scroll, not click. I also didn’t have the problem where the mouse stops on videos (or worse, Flash-based banner ads); it scrolled right on through them, even if I started right on top of them. Kudos, Apple!

I set up a Mail account and connected it to my server at work. This was a fairly straightforward process, and I was presented with my email from work. It dutifully downloaded my Inbox first, then politely went about downloading the rest of my mail in the background so I could get to work right away. Rockin’.

After that I set up iChat. Very straightforward, nothing remarkable. I opened the Address Book, iCal, iPhoto, and iMovie, but I didn’t play with them much. I’ll have to play with them another day, and I especially want to get my hands dirty with iPhoto.

The last thing I tackled, and the last thing I’ll cover in this post, is software installation. I downloaded Thunderbird to manage my home email and to see how it would look on a Mac, and I also snagged Firefox and a FTP/SCP client called Cyberduck. All three came in the .dmg disk image format. There was just one problem with that:

I had no idea how to handle the damned things.

I haven’t felt this helpless behind a keyboard in years. I expected the system would lead me through the install process when I clicked the files, but not so. Instead I got a window with a big application icon in it. I clicked the little oval in the upper right corner of the window border and got a bigger window with some folders and such on the left. I soon figured out I was inside the .dmg file, but still wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing with them.

Obviously this was just a fundamental lack of understanding of the Mac world, so I hit Mozilla’s site. Unfortunately they offered no hints. Then I hit Cyberduck’s site, thinking they’d have an install guide. Nope. Google came to the rescue. After a few searches, I learned I needed to copy the big icon — which was the application itself — to the Applications folder. I did so and then had a working program.

Advantage one of doing it this way? No registry.

Let me say that again: no expletive deleted registry! In fact, no extra files, period. Nice. It’s tough to gauge it against Windows because I can install exe’s in my sleep, but I suppose a newcomer with a little guidance may find it more convenient because they can drop it wherever they want rather than blindly accepting Windows defaults.

On the downside, I think I prefer Synaptic. You don’t have to surf anywhere to find an app, it takes care of all the installation for you and you return to the same place for updates. It’s also more intuitive to click “Add/Remove Software” and get a full software catalog than to download a file that you first have to find on the system and then have to open and copy its contents to somewhere else. Cyberduck threw me a little because it had several files and olders within the image, not just the application, and I’m going to have to learn to manage the Dock before it gets too bloated with installed applications.

As I said above, none of these are showstoppers, they’re just a matter of learning. I only mention them as comparisons to the PC world and so you can point and laugh at the dummy with the shiny white laptop.

I’ll continue to fiddle around and I will soon attempt some work-related tasks for both the day job and the writing. OpenOffice.org is definitely in my future (or at least NeoOffice, anyway), I’ll be installing some printers, connecting to Active Directory, and of course I’ll fiddle with the iLife apps and the Unix guts of the system.

In the end, I like this sucker. I can’t say I want to run out and by my own, but I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from purchasing one. In fact, I feel more confident than ever in saying a person can sit down in front of any machine and quickly become productive. I’ve spent more time writing up this post and watching videos than I have trying to figure out how to do something. If you can surf with IE or Firefox, you can surf with Safari. If you can set up mail accounts in Outlook Express or Thunderbird, you can set up Mail. And finally, even if the controls throw you for a loop, you’ll get used to them in no time.

It will be fun to find out if the users I support feel the same way.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

No comments

  1. Anon says:

    Have a closer look at the “Trackpad” panel on the “Keyboard and Mouse” system preferences. You can configure a “two-finger click” to act as the right mouse button, so there actually *is* something you can do about the 1 mouse button.

    I believe num lock and keypad should be there too. (They are on mine…) Check around the U I, and O keys.

  2. Nice write up; and I mean that. Many new users writing about getting a Mac don’t go further than your first three paragraphs.

    Two quick comments: the reason the return key is labelled both as enter and as return is that the keys can do different things. By default you get “return” and when holding the FN key down (bottom left) you get “Enter”.

    E.g., in a chat program return will insert a hard line break while enter will send the message.

    Secondly, you can set up the trackpad button to “right click” when you also have a finger on the trackpad. Sounds weird, works great. It might do it by default, or you might have to go into System Preferences…

    I know other people who have trouble with the .dmg thing. No idea who thought it was a good idea.

    Have fun,
    Will

  3. Paul says:

    Nice review. Here are a couple of tips that should make life easier.

    1) Under mouse preferences, click the “two finger plus click equals secondary (right) click” option. Surprise! You won’t ever need a two button mouse.

    2) Spotlight is the way to go for finding both files and launching apps. For example, start typing “saf” and safari pops right up. Hit enter immediately to launch. Type “fi” and enter you’ll note that Firefix is launched. Try that on windows!

    3) Use command-tab to quickly switch between apps. Command-tilde will cycle through multiple windows within the active apps. While command-tabbing, hitting a “q” will quit that app.

    4) Try depressing command-shift-4. Notice how the cursor changes. Select an area of the screen. Instant snapshot, saved automatically in PNG format. Command-shift-3 does something similar, try it.

    There are hundreds of other hints and shortcuts that make OS X the most productive platform, bar none. Even years after using the Mac, I find it still surprises me almost every day with its power.

  4. Eytan says:

    Go to Apple Menu>System Preferences…>Keyboard & Mouse
    Then clicx trackpad
    You should find an option there to select right click (secondary click) by having 2 fingers on the trackpad and tapping the mouse button (note there is also 2 finger scrolling).
    This is a feature which SHOULD be on by default and is not. I would recommend turning it on….
    For getting through applications you can command-tab (like alt-tab in windows). If you want more granular control you can download the free and useful “witch” from here: http://www.manytricks.com/witch/

  5. Swissfondue says:

    You can also enable right click on the trackpad in system preferences. This allows you to tap both fingers on the trackpad and then click with your thumb: This allows a right click with only one hand.

    Command (i.e. Apple/Clover) and tab allows you to switch and browse running apps. You can also quit apps when in this view.

    Deleting programmes is as simple as dragging the application into the trash.

    When in doubt try drag ‘n drop. You’ll be surprised by how often this works.

    Also you may want to try out the services menu. For example when highlighting text in a safari window, go to menu then services then text edit then open selection in new file. This will automatically import the highlighted text including images and links into a rtf document.

    I love quick look. Try this: click once on an excel document in Finder and then press the space bar. You can then browse this document including the tabs without opening excel. This also works with Word, PDFs, presentations etc.

  6. Kevin says:

    Welcome to the Mac world. Long before Windows 95, the Windows 3.1 shell environment performed as Macs still do and always have, and mentally it takes a bit of getting used to for long-time Windows users. Macs are icon-centric computers. Icons represent actual objects: programs, virtual disks (like the .dmg files you’ve encountered), files and the like. You dig through folders to click icons to open programs as well as documents (or, you drag icons to the Dock, which serves as a launcher). While shortcut icons (Apple calls theirs “aliases”) exist, most icons on a Mac are the object of your desire, as opposed to a menu-centric OS like Windows, which often has you clicking through a series of menus of shortcuts to the programs.

    It’s good that the overall ease of Macs is working for you, although as an IT guy (like me, 10+ years in Mac support, more so in overall PC work) I can understand the confusion about ease of understanding how applications install or uninstall. Mac OS X has no uninstall mechanism, per se. In most cases, except for, strangly enough, Apple’s own iLife (iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes) and iWork office suite, as well as Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac, you can uninstall an application from the Applications menu (or wherever you put it) but just dragging its icon to the Trash. (Most Mac programs keep everything it requires, particularly its binaries and dynamic libraries, in that single application “icon”. It’s actually a special folder known as in the code monkey circles as a bundle).

    Did you know you can run Windows on your Mac as well with the Boot Camp utility? That alone will double your investment by allowing users to run whatever is needed. All that’s needed is a Windows install license.

    Sounds like you’ve got most of what you need. When in doubt as to the specs of your computer, click on the Apple menu and choose “About this Mac”, then click the “More Info” button. This brings up System Profiler, which gives exhaustive detail on your Mac’s hardware and software, like Device Manager, only you can’t change settings there.

  7. Wolf Ledermann says:

    Hey Mike

    I use a mouse with my ‘book, but you can do a right-click by tapping the trackpad with two fingers. First, you enable clicking in the ‘Keyboard & Mouse’ Preference Pane. Next, ensure that the checkbox for ‘secondary clicks’ is enabled. Then just try it. Tap the trackpad and up comes the contextual menu.

    Also, you can easily switch between applications by using the keyboard. Hold down the Command key and hit tab. Hit it again to move through the listing that shows. It may not be as good as you want, but it works pretty well for most people.

    Finally, IMHO it’s best to try printers before you “install” them. Usually, you plug a peripheral into a Mac and it ‘just works’. Try connecting your printer and then try and print something. You will probably find that the printer shows up and you can print right away. It doesn’t always work, but it generally does and the drivers in Leopard may even be newer than the ones that came with your printer.

    Have fun with your MacBook :)

  8. Wolf Ledermann says:

    I second the comment above about Spotlight. There are also alternatives that expand on this idea (or actually probably instigated it). Check out LaunchBar (my personal choice) and Quicksilver. If you are a keyboard man, then one of these is a must have.

  9. Mike says:

    Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the posts! This is great stuff. It often makes me wonder where all the Vista enthusiasts and apologists (are there any real ones or are they Astroturfers?) are when I slam the Microsoft products. I rarely get comments at all, and here I’ve got 8 in less than 9 hours. And they’re thorough, not just “W00t! Mac rox0rs! Windoze sux0rs!1!”

    As to specific comments:

    There’s definitely no num lock, but I won’t miss it.

    Will Robertson, thanks for the comment about fairness. I try to keep an open mind to tech, even with Vista. I’m finding the Mac makes itself easy to love, while Vista requires a bit more work.

    Thanks for the enter/return clarification, too. Windows and Linux will do the same, you just do shift-enter to get a single line break in chats and in WYSIWYG editors like the ones in WordPress and Mambo/Joomla.

    You pretty much all addressed two fingers to right-click, and I found the setting. “Secondary click” must not have registered with me when I saw it last night. Two-finger clicking works like a champ. And I’m still amazed the trackpad has yet to misread attempts to scroll as attempts to click.

    Re: spotlight — I’ll definitely have to play with this more. I’ve heard of it, but not much about what it actually does (probably because until now I haven’t made it a point to read up about Macs).

    Command-Tab to cycle through windows. Got it. I’m used to Alt-Tab. I’ll be experimenting with Command-key shortcuts. It’s just like I learned Command-T opens new tabs in browsers, not Control-T.

    Thanks for the additional power tips, too, like space previews and screen shots. All good stuff to know. I’m assuming there are shortcuts for Home and End as well? I just realized I don’t have those keys, either. Or an insert key. Weird. Not worried about them because I don’t use them often, but I find it odd they’d be missing for the people who do use them.

    For printers, I’m more worried about my network printers at work. I’ll probably print to them directly (via TCP/IP — I don’t configure AppleTalk) at first, and then later worry about printing to them through my print servers and Active Directory.

    Finally, I have heard of Boot Camp, and also Parallels. I’ll probably play with both if we get serious about installing a lab of iMacs.

    Good stuff, everyone. Thanks again.

    Mike

  10. […] I expanded my computing horizons by picking up a MacBook at work. I’m sure I’ll be talking more about it in the future (and I’m writing […]

  11. […] become more and more impressed with the MacBook I’ve been evaluating. Between tips folks have provided online and the things the Apple rep I’m working with have […]

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  13. Ranec says:

    ManyTricks have abandoned their software.
    Their web site has (c) 2008 (in late 2009) and they ignore all emails.
    There’s a bug in Witch that causes a HUGE delay (~10 seconds) between you pressing ATL-TAB and you actually getting the list of windows.
    ManyTricks don’t care and you won’t get your money back if this affects you.
    Avoid like the plague!!!