February 25, 2011

∴ The Switch, First Take

Apple Moves Christmas, Only Costs $1500
Apple introduced this year's lineup of MacBook Pros yesterday. The rumored changes boiled down to three factual items: much faster processors, a new, blindingly fast input/output connection technology (think major upgrade from USB and FireWire), and the option to equip the machine with a solid state drive (SSD) in place of a traditional mechanical hard drive. Note that Apple touts advanced AMD Radeon graphics as item number three on the Pro 15- and 17-inch models, but I don't give a rat's ass about gaming, so the integrated graphics of the 13-inch Pro are just fine. The MacBook Air's SSD vaulted that model's late-2010 refresh far above the previous model's performance, so the MacBook Pro's SSD becomes important item number three for me.

The chassis design remains the same as last year, despite rumored Liquid Metal replacement and rumored Intel-leaked black chassis image. Who cares? Apple's industrial design is inarguably the finest in computing technology, so the existing chassis is good enough.

It's time to mull the choice between the new 13-inch Pro model and the two late-2010 MacBook Airs, now that all details are known. (The 15- and 17-inch models are just too big, a slab of computing aluminum, and too expensive. Pass.) My first pass through the Apple online store reveals a pleasant surprise: similarly-equipped 11-inch Air, 13-inch Air and 13-inch Pro laptops are priced within $25 of one another. That neatly, and happily, takes price out of the decision process. It's always a downer when you find you'd really like model A rather than B, if only A didn't cost so much more. No such trouble, this time.

My requirements are simple: get as much memory as possible while not wasting money on the fastest processor. Unless I'm rendering a lot of video, which I'm not, it won't be missed. And the main storage drive must be solid state. As John Gruber attested on The Talk Show, it's not worth buying a new machine with a mechanical hard drive after experiencing an older MacBook Pro upgraded to SSD.

The Air models' memory tops out at 4 gigabytes, which is completely adequate, but the Pro allows for 8 gigabytes. I'll occasionally make use of Parallels to run Quickbooks for Windows and other Windows-only software, and virtual machines take a LOT of resources. Apple wants $200 for the memory bump to 8 gigabytes, but that can be cut in half by buying memory from crucial.com and installing it myself. This isn't a clear win for the Pro, but could be a tie-breaker later.

The base CPU on the 11-inch Air model is a little anemic, a Core 2 Duo at 1.4 gigahertz compared to what's available on the Pro (Core i5 at 2.3 Ghz, base). That Dell laptop I had years ago, the one that required so much warranty work that only the original palm rests were left, came with a single-core 1.2 Ghz processor. Fortunately there's an upgrade to 1.6 Ghz available, which will do. The 13-inch Air comes with a 1.8 Ghz Core 2 Duo processor, which is better. Advantage, Pro.

Side Issue - Display
Every Apple machine I've seen has a beautiful display. It's as if Apple invented LCD technology, they're that good at producing bright, high-contrast, reliable panels. Given that they're all excellent, I can only pick-over minor details. The 13-inch Air bests the 11-inch with a superior display. Not only bigger than its little brother, but with more resolution than the Pro. Looks like the 11-incher is getting muscled out, huh?

All three machines come with an SSD; the Air pair don't offer a mechanical hard drive option at all. The Pro comes with an SSD as an option. 128 gigabytes is the sweet spot for me; with all my music and movies residing on a storage array in the basement, or on my iPhone, I don't even need that much. No advantage to any machine, here.

What's missing, and where? The Airs don't have an ethernet port. If I'm in a hotel room that offers a choice, or offers only a hard-wired network connection, I'm using an ethernet connection and the Airs require me to purchase a USB adapter. Not a big deal unless I'm trying to use that ethernet port to connect the machine to my home network for a full backup to the storage array...a USB ethernet adapter tops out at 100 megabits per second, one-tenth the bandwidth of the standard gigabit ethernet port on the Pro. Real-world it works out to about half speed, but it's something to think about. Extremely small advantage to the Pro.

Also MIA: no internal optical drive on the Airs. The Pro comes with a Superdrive, Apple's name for a drive that reads and burns any format short of BluRay. This is a deal-breaker for some, but having used a Thinkpad without an internal optical drive for nearly three years it doesn't make much difference to me. I found that I only use an external, USB-connected optical drive about once a year and that drive will work with any MacBook. I'd rather give up the weight and bulk needed for an internal model, though I have a project in mind for the internal optical drive's space if I end up buying the Pro. No advantage here.

The new Pro model includes Intel's new Thunderbolt (previously known as Light Peak) connector, which promises to connect peripherals at speeds double the fastest USB technology. Sounds great. No products I'm interested in currently exist, and about the only one I'd contemplate for a laptop would be a simple external hard drive. USB2 will suffice for that. Thunderbolt will be an awesome, does-everything connection technology for my NEXT MacBook. So no advantage here.

Apple doesn't leave much room for further configuration; most of a Windows clone machine's options are standard on these laptops. Advantage, Apple. Anyway, everything else on the online store page is software and I have plenty of that.

Inconclusive Conclusion
I like the 11-inch MacBook Air's size, it closely mirrors the 12-inch display of my existing Thinkpad and that display is a good size for my use. I like the 13-inch display on Kelly's machine quite a bit, and the 13-inch Air's display is a step better than that. If I give up the small size that I like, I gain a higher-resolution display, and a slightly quicker processor, and a half-pound of weight. If I'm stepping up in size to a 13-incher, though, the Pro adds an optical drive (that will likely be moved out for a second storage drive), a significantly quicker processor, and about a pound and a half of weight. So I give up slim and light for...built-in optical or backup storage. Clearly I haven't made up my mind. And clearly, too, Apple has thought through all of this before me.