A Beautiful Machine: Two Months On the Unibody MacBook

After two months of getting configured and acquainted, I’m pretty much comfortably settled in with my first Intel Mac — a little jewel of a 13″ unibody MacBook — and thus far it’s pretty much all good.

It’s been an adjustment going down from the 17″ display on my previous workhorse system, a 1.33 GHz PowerBook, to the MacBook’s 13″ screen, but I’m used to getting along with limited display real estate as I still use an old Pismo PowerBook as a utility and road work computer.

Rock-Solid Stable

What I’m most impressed with is the MacBook’s stability, and thus far I’ve experienced zero flakiness or reliability issues. It seems rock-solid, and while with the congery of applications I keep open for production work, I found that on the 17″ PowerBook, with its 1.5 GB of RAM, I had to restart roughly once a week as swapfiles built up and performance degraded, I’m able to go twice that long with the MacBook, even though the Intel version of OS X is more RAM-hungry than the PowerPC variant. The Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chipset annexes a fair chunk of system memory, and I still haven’t upgraded from the standard 2GB memory configuration. I deduce that Intel Macs must do a better job of memory management than PPCs.

Cool Running a Pleasant Surprise

Another pleasant surprise has been how cool the MacBook runs. Ever since the Intel shift, I’ve heard horror stories about hot-running MacIntel laptops, but this machine hasn’t demonstrated anything like that. In the more than two months since it arrived, the MacBook’s internal cooling fans have yet to cut in, even when doing heavy multitasking like running Time Machine backups in the background while dialed up to the Internet and engaging other tasks in the foreground. Temperature Monitor tells me that the 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo processor typically runs about 5°-7° hotter than the G4 in the 17-incher does (although it has occasionally spiked higher under heavy processor activity), but for some reason that doesn’t manifest in heat buildup at the palm rests or case bottom, or the frequent fan activity that was my main complaint with the big PowerBook, especially running later builds of OS X 10.4 Tiger and with OS 10.5 Leopard.

Actually, I had expected a more dramatic sense of increased speed with the Core 2 Duo compared with the G4. It’s definitely faster, quite significantly so, which means doing things like booting up and graphic editing (the latter presumably boosted by the efficient Nividia graphics as well as the faster processor), but not as different for Finder navigation and application startups as I had been led to expect. On the other hand, voice recognition performance with MacSpeech’s Dictate software is in a whole different dimension from that developer’s older iListen application that I use on the PowerBook, although that may be attributable to Dictate’s more efficient speech engine as well as the Core 2 Duo’s processing muscle. Whatever it is, it’s a delight.

I’m also quite happy with the glossy display, and am not sure I would opt for matte even if it were available.

Some Aggravations Experienced

There are some aggravations, but so far only ones I had anticipated. The lack of FireWire is frustrating at times, especially when doing large data transfers such as cloning the hard drive to external media. USB 2.0 is much slower than FireWire in real-world terms, and not really an adequate substitute. I also miss FireWire Target Disk Mode. Being obliged to connect to the web via dialup, I also miss the convenience of an internal modem, but that’s in common with all post-PPC Mac laptops. I’ve had to add a second four-port USB hub to my office workstation setup to compensate for the Apple USB modem clogging up one of the MacBook’s measly two USB ports. A minor niggle is that I’m not enchanted with the machine’s “helpful” attempts to adjust screen brightness to ambient light, which I find doesn’t work very well and obligates frequent manual adjustment.

I also didn’t expect to like the “chiclet” style keyboard much, and I don’t, although the multitouch trackpad, with its integrated “button” function, turned out to be more agreeable than I had anticipated and I find it quite satisfactory. However, neither of the built-in input devices are getting very heavy use anyway, because the MacBook’s production workhorse role keeps it perched on a stand and hooked up to an external keyboard and mouse and a bunch of other peripherals most of the time.

A Beautiful Piece of Work

Aspects that I like even better than I thought I would (and my expectations were high) are the look and feel of this MacBook. It really is a beautiful piece of work, and the precision machining, component and panel fits, and tactile pleasure of handling it really have to be experienced over a period of time to be fully appreciated.

It’s still early days, of course, but thus far the MacBook is on track to become one of my all-time favorite Macs I’ve owned and that bar has already been set pretty high by my experience with the 17″ PowerBook G4 and three Pismos.

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