MacBook Pro – One Week Later

A week ago today, FedEx dropped off my shiny new laptop, direct from China.  Since then, I’ve been hurriedly prepping it and setting it up to see how well it would fit into my digital world – especially since that world is mostly Windows-based.

The “too much text, didn’t read” version is that Windows 7 and Mac OS X coexist very nicely.  There are certainly frustrations in doing so, however – you have to be willing to work through the issues.  I also don’t think MBP is the ideal solution if Windows is the only operating system you plan on using. But as a laptop, the machine is stellar.  And for running both Windows and OS X, the choice is obvious (not that there is much of a choice).  Read on for the nitty gritty.

I’m going to split this into three parts: the setup, the pros, and the cons.

The Setup

I knew from the start that I wanted to run Windows on the machine, so I didn’t spend much time in OS X before I fired up Boot Camp. (Side note: I decided to do Boot Camp since it is the best option when running games or other graphics-intensive apps. If this isn’t much of an issue for you, it is actually best to just run Windows in a dedicated VM, and has less headaches down the road.)

The Boot Camp install couldn’t have gone more smoothly. I split the MBP 500GB drive 50/50, and Windows 7 installed without a hitch. It defaulted to generic drivers, so I had to use the included MBP OS X disk to get the proper drivers set up.  This, too, went perfectly.

I then switched back to OS X to try out the VM.  I downloaded the trial of VMWare Fusion and pointed it at the Boot Camp install.  It was only a few steps before it was booting up. The longest part of this entire process came when VMWare proceeded to install its VMWare Tools software.  But once that was taken care of, I was up and running.

The only other major headache was Windows activation.  It proceeded normally the first time under Boot Camp. But the problem is that the VM presents itself to Windows as completely different hardware – virtualized hardware.  This sudden change triggers the Windows activation to think it has been switched to a different computer, requiring re-activation.  The automatic online activation didn’t like this, and forced me to call Microsoft to manually activate.  Luckily it was all automated, but it put a kink in what was otherwise a smooth process.  (Side note: Once you do these two activations, you can switch back and forth between VM and Boot Camp without a problem. I have worries about what will happen if I ever need to re-install Windows in one or both of these scenarios, but I guess I will cross that bridge when and if I come to it.)

The Pros

Let me start with the software, since this will be quick: both OS X and Windows run like silk on this computer. It’s the fastest machine that I’ve used either operating system on.  Of course, Windows is more sluggish when run under VM, but it is still responsive enough to do all the work I’ve needed to do so far.  In fact, I’m writing this blog post under WIndows 7 VM with Windows Live Writer.  The coolest part? I can run Windows full screen on its own virtual desktop (“Spaces” in OS X parlance), so with a quick keyboard shortcut, I can flip between OS X and Windows as if it were all one system.  Very slick.  Very awesome.

But, without a doubt, most of the positives stem primarily from the hardware. As I had hoped, this is a beautiful machine, and it boggles my mind that no PC hardware company has been able to reproduce it.  Where do I start?

The overall industrial design is as you would expect: thin, light, clean lines.  Perhaps too clean: the edges can almost be sharp, and if you rest your wrists on it the wrong way, you’ll find red marks left behind.  I won’t go into too much more detail on the actual design, since what you see in photos is what you get.  The only difference in my particular model is that my screen doesn’t have a black border.  The non-glossy screen has a silver border instead.  This looks a bit more tacky and old-school, but it’s not a major disappointment.

But the screen.  Holy crap the screen.  I’ve always loved Apple’s displays, and this one is no different.  Even without the glossy coating (which supposedly makes the image look better), colors are crisp and sharp, blacks are dark and rich, and the viewing angles are generous.  Honestly, there is no way to describe this.  You have to see it.  Some sufficiently high-resolution desktop wallpapers – especially the bundled Windows 7 wallpapers, ironically – are simply gorgeous.

The trackpad is so close to being perfect.  It is certainly the best trackpad I have ever used.  It is as sensitive as Apple’s touchscreen devices, meaning swipes, taps, pinches, and other gestures work well and almost always accurately. Being able to click with one finger while dragging with another finger instantly makes this trackpad the best thing ever. Perhaps the only disappointment is that the whole trackpad is a button, and it’s easier to push at the bottom than at the top.

The battery is – well, it lasts forever, and it’s amazing to be able to use a battery for six hours (on average) without having to plug in.  And that’s six hours of real work, while running OS X AND Windows in VM.  By comparison, my old laptop got a maximum of four hours if I was lucky – and that was if I did very light work, with the screen brightness turned way down.

The backlit keyboard, the light sensor that automatically adjusts the screen brightness, the relatively impressive built-in speakers – they’re all little touches that make this machine a pleasure to use.

The Cons

A pleasure – if you use OS X.

The first major drawback of this system (if you plan on using it the way I’m using it) is that you only get the real benefits of the machine if you’re willing to work under OS X. When I first researched getting a MacBook Pro, I had the intention of running Windows 7 all the time under Boot Camp.  What I learned, though, is that certain drivers aren’t available under Windows – like the light sensor for automatically adjusting screen brightness – or the drivers had terrible power management, reducing battery life.

So to get the full benefit of the hardware, you have to run OS X, and you have to run Windows under OS X.  This perhaps isn’t an ideal solution if you’re a Windows guy, but so far this arrangement has worked out okay for me.

I’m also not a fan of the MBP keyboard.  I’m not a fan of Mac keyboards in general – the keys seem to have slightly different spacing, which can take a bit of getting used to.  The keys also seemed to be a bit “spongey” when I first got the laptop, but that has since eased up.  The only real remaining problem is the lack of “home”, “end” etc keys, which isn’t too bad under OS X, but can get annoying under Windows.

Another problem with running OS X and a VM Windows is the file management.  OS X only has rudimentary ability for working with NTFS, and Apple only provides rudimentary drivers for reading HFS under Windows.  If you want to share files between the two OSes, you either need to set up network shares that are seen under both OSes when Windows is running virtually, or you need to use a program like Dropbox which automatically syncs files.

VMWare has worked well, but isn’t perfect.  While the performance has been generally excellent, I’ve had a couple of graphics-related blue screens when doing some more obscure stuff with the VM.  For example, VMWare has a feature called “Unity” which strips away the Windows desktop and shows Windows programs next to OS X programs all together.  This works well for the most part, but if something funky happens – such as trying to shut down Windows – it blue screens.  This is why I’ve ended up running Windows full screen on its own “space”; it has proven to be the most stable way to use Windows so far.

The remaining drawbacks were mentioned earlier – namely, Windows activation issues, a few trackpad niggles, and so on.  There is also the consideration that the battery is sealed inside MBPs now.  While the life of the battery is phenomenal, at some point its performance will deteriorate, and getting a replacement isn’t a simple task.  The machine can also get pretty hot under heavy load.  I wouldn’t recommend using it on your lap if you’re playing a game, for example.

Conclusion

Luckily so far the problems have been minor, and overall I’m very pleased with the machine.  Especially the hardware (in case you couldn’t tell).  Time will tell if this is truly an ideal setup, but I am at least not ready to return the MBP to Apple.

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