Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Notebook Unlike Any Other For Serious Travelers: 17" MacBook Pro!

The Good: Light, Good software, Nice monitor, Easy to use, Security
The Bad: Battery strength unimpressive, Extra space up front, Color choice, Price.
The Basics: Despite the prohibitive pricetag and lack of color options, the MacBook Pro is a fast, easy to use laptop that seems pretty durable.

Sometimes, I find myself wondering what the point of computer hardware reviews are. Honestly. So many of them end up focusing on software or simply regurgitating the technical specifications that can be found either in the product description or on the manufacturer's website. Or, there's my favorites; the reviews that are criticized because they don't compare the computer being rated with every other computer on the market! Alas, such is not the case and if you're looking for that from my MacBook Pro review, I'm afraid you'll be seriously disappointed. I am not a technically-oriented person, so this review is about what the 17" MacBook Pro does for a common person.

First of all, I found myself in the market for a MacBook, which is simply Apple Computers' name for a laptop computer when I started going on excessively long trips. I have a small business and in the last two years, I've done cross country trips each year in my Civic Hybrid and this year, I found I was away from my business far too long and finding reliable internet service can be a real challenge. As a result, a few months ago, I purchased the MacBook Pro with he 17" monitor.

Second, I went for an Apple because I knew one of the primary functions of my MacBook was going to be connecting to the internet while traveling. This meant I was looking for a computer with a WiFi connection ability and I decided to start and end my search with Apple because of virus protection. Quite simply, no one writes viruses for Apple based computers. As a lifelong PC user, this might have seemed strange, but with Microsoft products trying to emulate the basic Apple platform anyway, I suppose it makes sense for us to start crossing over. Besides, the idea that my MacBook Pro would be hooking up to networks around the country made me uneasy and when I read extensively about how few viruses there are for Macintosh computers, I decided that a MacBook would mitigate some of the risk of tapping into weird wifi networks around the country.

The other thing that made me start out with choosing Apple and the MacBook was that with all of the attention on iPods and Apple's peripheral products, as I've begun to move off compact discs for traveling, I wanted to be sure I was buying something that was 100% compatible with whatever mp3 player I eventually purchase when I enter the 21rst Century. In all seriousness, burning c.d.s and extracting music from my physical music collection to make into digital copies is becoming more important to me. Because Apple is arguably the leader in technologies that work with multimedia sources, it made sense for me to give the MacBooks a serious look.

As for the 17" monitor and the whole top-of-the-line thing, that's just ego. No, in all seriousness, on this occasion, I wanted something that had a big screen, that I would be able to see well in the dark. I work in low light often and as a result, the big screen - I have it with the optional glossy screen as well, which renders much more vivid colors - is very helpful to reducing eye strain. It also means that the movies I am making can be rendered larger, which is very handy as I've found I am able to catch details on the first pass that need correction or reshooting that I would overlook on a smaller monitor.

The glossy display is a real tradeoff. It produces very vibrant, realistic colors with shading and depth that is much more lifelike than the standard monitor display. As well, it makes it very easy to see in low light or darkness. The standard displays I saw did not seem as bright or vivid, especially in low light. The tradeoff here is that in normal light, especially fluorescent lighting, the monitor has some pretty severe glare. As well, it can be very distracting when someone else is using the MacBook Pro while I am driving. The colors are so bright and vivid, in the darkness they draw the eye. The lighting issue was not a serious or severe problem for me. I've yet to be in a situation where by simply adjusting the angle of the monitor the glare is not dealt with. In every case, a simple movement makes it once again visible to the user, though if anyone is looking over your shoulder, it's quite possible that they will not be able to see what is on the screen. Personally, I've found for my needs the glossy screen works better and whenever friends have used my MacBook Pro to look at pictures, they have been astonished by the quality on screen.

The MacBook Pro is the top-of-the-line Apple laptop computer and, as such, should remain relevant and usable for at least the next two years, which considering the $2799 price tag, I'm hoping it lasts quite a bit longer than that! It comes standard with the actual laptop, an adapter/recharger, the battery, the Apple remote, software CDs to install the software, and the books for the computer and its software. For those concerned about style, this product only comes in the steel gray standard color. I was disappointed that it was not available in black and joked that when I'm at home, the only room it would be appropriate to use it in is my kitchen, whatwith all of the other stainless steel appliances. This has the look of stainless steel, thought it is a significantly lighter material. The MacBook Pros all look the same, as a result, making it very important to pay attention to which MacBook is your when out with others with the same model.

The MacBook Pro is quite light, just under seven pounds and as someone who is in shape, I've never had any problems toting this around for days on end. It does not come with a carrying case and - just to date how long it's been since I've had any form of laptop or portable computer - there is no built in handle either. It is intended to be carried like a textbook. Or like the tablet the Statue of Liberty holds, though that might look a bit melodramatic walking around with it like that. The 17" refers to the diagonal measurement of the monitor. The actual measurements of this MacBook Pro are approximately 15 1/2" long (left to right when facing the monitor), 10 1/2" wide (front to back when facing the closed laptop) and 1" deep, when the laptop is closed. This makes it very portable and light, which are the ideals for a laptop computer. Like most all laptops, the computer has a slightly thicker base portion and a thinner monitor portion that flips up from a back joint, like opening a book.

When set up properly, the MacBook Pro may be plugged in using an adapter that comes with the computer. This also recharges the battery. The keyboard is on the base potion of the laptop opposite or below the monitor. The keyboard on the 17 inch MacBook Pro is decently roomy. In fact, it's as big as the crappy Logitech keyboard that I recently picked up for my P.C. On the MacBook Pro, there is the option for a backlit keyboard (no additional charge). Again, because I work in low light or darkness frequently, I took this option. This lights up the letters on the keys so one may see the keyboard even with the lights off. A shorter companion of mine had a problem with this function when we were driving; she was hunched over and the screen was catching the reflection from the backlit keyboard. As a taller person, when driving, I find I am often looking down on the computer and in order to see the monitor properly, it's angled back away from the keyboard (so the MacBook Pro is opened over 90 degrees) and I have never had that trouble. The backlit keyboard is convenient, though it does result in faster draining of the battery.

There is also the trackpad below the keyboard. The trackpad takes the place of a mouse and my only honest comment on it is that it takes some getting used to. I'm used to speeding through multiple web pages at a time, often involving moving forward and back between web pages. The track pad is far less convenient than a conventional mouse in this regard because the active field used to move around the cursor is not as large as the monitor's field. In simpler terms, if the cursor is in the bottom right corner of the screen, it takes at least two finger-swipes of the keypad to get it to the upper left corner. This is a bit irksome to me when surfing web pages because that is precisely the type movement I need to make when moving between multiple screens. Outside that, the trackpad requires a period of adjustment for those trained previously on a traditional mouse. This is not a huge thing - there is an infrared port available to use a wireless mouse instead of the trackpad, though I did not purchase a mouse so I would be forced to adapt to the trackpad - but it does require a period of adjustment.

On either side of the keyboard, there are two-inch speakers. The speakers produce reasonably good stereo sound, though obviously they will not be the best speakers you've ever heard music from. Given the size, angle, and relative quality of the speakers, they are adequate for basic communications - i.e. receiving voice files/playing media clips results in no serious loss of range - and simple music appreciation. The full range of musical clips will be somewhat muted as compared to, say, car speakers or a home stereo system. In short, the speakers are adequate for listening to music while you're on the go, but it won't be like having an opera on your lap. As well, there is a headphone jack in the computer for when projecting your sound would not be appropriate.

As well, the microphone for recording sound for video clips is housed with the left speaker. I'm not sure how that works, but it seems to work fairly well. As a matter of fact, I noticed no significant difference in recording sound with the MacBook Pro as opposed to recording the sound on my Digital Voice Recorder and uploading it to the MacBook. Because the MacBook Pro's microphone has decent range - it captures voices at normal volume up to six feet away and theatrical projecting to camera from about ten feet away - this makes creating messages easier and less time consuming than with the multiple steps of creating a soundtrack and trying to integrate it with a video message.

For those who are making video messages using their MacBook Pro, there is a built in camera right above the center of the monitor. The tiny lens - it's about the size of a decent orange seed - manages to capture pretty wonderful images that get a decent field of view. The further away objects or people are, the worse the resolution, but for the most part, the MacBook Pro takes decent photographs or movies of subjects standing approximately ten feet away from the top of the monitor. That field of view is enough to capture three average-sized people talking with one another.

I am told the monitor has millions of colors and it looks pretty lifelike, but I've never tried to count all of the colors. There is nothing I've yet seen on the monitor that did not look good (or at least as good as the source material). The MacBook Pro has the ability to present images simultaneously on screen and on a connected screen or monitor, though I've never done that so I am unable to speak to how well that works. Similarly, I don't know what it means that the built-in display has a native resolution of 1920 by 1050 pixels (please don't bother trying to explain it to me) but I can say that when I play a DVD on my laptop (sometimes, I'm traveling and the hotel has crappy cable stations and nothing is on, don't judge me!) the picture looks great and as good at least as good as my mother's 30" non-HD tv when sitting twelve feet away from it. More importantly, the MacBook Pro seems to have no problem with presenting film quality digital images from movies when I render them on the MacBook pro. The monitor's look and graphics capability should be enough, more than enough, for basic users and most moderate moviemakers.

I do not play computer games, so how this handles graphics from video games I cannot speak to.

Which reminds me, the battery. Battery life on the MacBook Pro can be a real pill. After two and a half months of use, I've found that my MacBook Pro has enough juice to operate for four and a half hours in daylight, four hours at night, before the battery goes dead. Those times are based on consistent use - the MacBook Pro has a wonderful standby mode that offers genuine powersaving options and can extend that time -, usually attached to a wireless network, with me operating at least two applications (usually Safari, the Mac internet access program). The battery recharges to full capacity within six hours without use or eight to ten hours while plugged in and I am operating programs. After two months, the battery has illustrated an ability to retain charge without problem even when it is recharged cold back to full capacity.

The MacBook Pro is Bluetooth compatible (there is something built in) but as I refuse to join the Matrix enough to have a cell phone, I have no idea what that means or how well it works. My tumor-free body suggests there's someone else out there better able to evaluate that function.

My PC is about two years old and running on one of the chips that is equivalent to a Pentium IV with a 74.5 GB hard drive that is less than a quarter full. My MacBook Pro has 160 GB storage space (it's getting filled quicker because I'm doing intense video projects on it), 2GB RAM (I remember when RAM was $25/Mb!), and a Core 2 Processor. Not sure how the Core 2 stacks up in technical terms to my outdated PC, but this is what I do know; I connect to a neighborhood wifi network and I can reload four to six listings on eBay per minute as opposed to the 1 - 2 listings I can reload on my home's crappy dial-up (which is 58.8 baud). Graphics load far quicker - about the same speed as my neighborhood library's broadband - and sites that are becoming much more graphic intensive for their basic operation, like eBay, load and reload far quicker on my MacBook Pro than on my home PC.

Those who make movies and use computers for editing and rendering digital images know that video cards are very important. As an amateur (I'm currently just working on a music video), when the friendly Apple salespeople came at me with numbers for increased video RAM, I just went blank-faced. This system can be upgraded to increase the amount of RAM on the video card. It comes standard with 256MB of video RAM so it's not incredibly fast with rendering images from a digital video camera, but it does seem to be very fluid when it comes to playback and editing. Often, I'll do a preliminary viewing on my digital video camera, narrow down some of my options or truncate clips there, then upload only what I am most likely to use to my MacBook Pro for rendering. As a result, most nights the MacBook Pro works at rendering while I sleep and in the morning the job is done (honestly, I don't know how soon before I wake up this happens, but with 6 1/2 hours, the MacBook Pro has the ability to render quite a few minutes of raw footage.

That is actually the most extreme use of my MacBook Pro, but also the reason I went for something that was as good as this. For average use, I am driving around, connecting to wifi networks and using the internet when I'm driving. This computer works amazingly well for that and I've had no problems with things like crashes (the Microsoft-based laptop I used a long, long time ago was constantly crashing or freezing up). At worst, I may lose my internet connection because the wireless network the computer was on has been interfered with or I have gone out of range.

As for the software, as a PC user, the Mac OS is exceptionally easy to use, probably because Microsoft Windows and its descendants have all been trying to emulate what Apple had from the beginning. As a lifelong PC user, I found the platform very intuitive and easy to navigate around. I was able to adjust my MacBook Pro's file sharing capabilities, firewall settings and other security features without having to look anything up in the help menu. As well, I was able to do things that I don't even know how to do on my PC - like make my MacBook Pro invisible to other people on the network - within hours of first getting the computer. The MacBook Pro comes standard with the Mac OS 10.4 Tiger, which is where Safari (the internet access program), Quicktime, Spotlight, the DVD player, Dashboard, Mail, Address Book and Xcode Developer Tools are. As well, there's iLife, which I haven't gotten into as I don't have any other Apple products yet, Photo Booth and Front Row. As with any computer, more software can be added and loading software onto the MacBook Pro was at least as easy as loading it onto my PC (though it was arguably quicker loading it onto this newer system!).

The MacBook Pro does have DVD/CD/CD-ROM drive that is like a car's c.d. player. It's trayless and that was something I've not worked with outside my car's c.d. player. None of the discs I've put in have been scratched or damaged as a result, so it seems all right by me. DVDs play fine without skipping or delays and I've had no problems with CDs or extracting music from CDs and making them into MP3s (again, the system is remarkably intuitive with graphics that makes sense). I have not yet burned any c.d.s.

There are three USB ports for connecting printers, scanners, digital cameras and the like. The MacBook Pro comes with a one-year limited warranty and 90 days of telephone customer support, neither of which I've had to exercise yet. I was surprised that there was no modem in the computer, but with the prevalence of wifi networks and ethernet connections (it does have an ethernet card), I found opting against the expense of having one added did not significantly alter my experience, save that now people can reach me when I'm on the computer at home.

The final aspect of the MacBook Pro that I found worthwhile was that Apple seems to be going out of their way to market their products toward those of us with an environmental conscience. The MacBook Pro is Energy Star rated and rumor is that at the end of its life, I'll be able to recycle it. My hope, of course, is that that is something I will not do for many, many years. Indeed, when I bought the MacBook Pro, I told the salesperson that I was looking for something that might last me ten years, at least. The response was that while this will - naturally - get outdated by then, the basic product ought to last at least that long and provide me with a reliable, efficient system that can be upgraded in the future.

So far, it's providing me great benefits as far as working while I travel and making my art and business better and more efficient. This is a winner in my book! Er, MacBook.

For other laptop computers and Apple products, please visit my reviews of:
IPad (64 GB)
IPod Shuffle (3rd Generation)
Acer Aspire 5532


For other computer and electronics reviews, please visit m index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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