Just about three weeks ago, I was happily going about my business, doing work on the MacBook Pro that was forced upon me when I joined Imperial. I had actually resisted the temptation for a few months, but when the lights went out on my Thinkpad (i.e. the VGA output died and I couldn't connect to my external screen anymore), I made the jump. Much to my surprise, I've been quite satisfied – a big change from my earlier, exasperating experience with a true lemon. I came to like my Mac so much that I recommended it to others.
Now the situation has changed again, drastically. It started a week ago when I found myself without a working computer but a pet cemetery of three nearly useless Macs. A colleague preparing to leave the lab had entrusted me with his dying iBook. Hours later he also bequeathed his wife's PowerBook G4 upon me. This machine still looks great and works passably but carries the heavy burden of old age. My own Mac was aging rather gracefully and worked flawlessly, but then one day when I came back from a run in the park, it had fallen into a coma and wouldn't wake up. It booted neither from the hard disk nor a stick nor from the DVD. (Thanks to a missing mechanical ejector, the DVD remains trapped to this day.)
Luck had it that another colleague had left the lab a while ago, leaving his Mac behind. After sitting idly in a drawer for a good year, it now came to my rescue. The new computer is a simple MacBook compared to my old MacBook Pro, but it's newer and the specs are very similar. I was excited to make the transfer, primarily to get a working computer but also to see if the highly regarded Time Machine would copy my data, applications and settings as promised.
Time Machine is Apple's back-up solution. It works quietly in the background and backs up changes pretty much as they happen. (My computer's death entailed no loss of data.) I had restored files before without problems, but an entire hard disk transfer is a different game. In the end, after less than an hours of churning, the new computer looked and felt as the old one had. The only problem was related to Adobe's requirement to deactivate Creative Suite on one computer before transfering it onto another – which is impossible when the one computer is not working anymore. I couldn't be bothered to deal with Adobe customer service and reinstalled/upgraded the suite.
The similarities between my old Mac and the new one are vast, a sign of the frightening homogeneity of the Apple universe. Most differences that I see have to do with what Apple would undoubtedly (and misguidedly) call technical progress between different generations of their notebook families.
Before I start moaning, I admit that some progress is real. There is the kind that's standard everywhere else but which Apple's marketing department nevertheless manages to introduce as brilliant innovations. The MacBook, for example, has now reached the level of upgradability of my 12-year-old Sony Vaio: The hard drive can be removed at the simple flick of a mechanical lever. No tools required. Having changed hard drives in my MacBook Pro (21 screws) and, surely the worst box imaginable, the dying iBook (about 35 bolts, and 40 steps before you even see the drive), I can say that this will make a difference.
Some other changes are for the better as well. The computer is smaller and weighs less than the clunky Pro. It feels much more solid too – the unibody is structurally sound. The rest, however, are changes that cause me to wail and complain: Why, oh why, must a computer be so rubbish?
Take the screen. It's covered with a glaring coating that causes one to see with more clarity the things that go on behind one's back than those on the screen. That's probably a lifesaver for those working incognito for the CIA or undercover for the London Met, but why is there no civilian version where one can focus on the screen without distraction? Distinguishing between background reflections and details on the screen is no easy job and quickly gets extremely annoying.
Besides being as reflective as a supermodel's bathroom mirror, the screen is also smaller than the Pro's. This comes with the laptop's smaller size and weight, but why does the frame around the screen take up nearly an inch in all directions? A sizable chunk of the MacBook's footprint goes to waste this way.
The keyboard isn't much better. It was shit on the Pro, at least when compared to its counterpart on the ThinkPad, the epitome of ergonomics. The keyboard on the MacBook doesn't even deserve its name. They keys form one flat, featureless and feedback-free surface that's not unlike the onscreen typing aid on an iPad (for which the MacBook must thus be a stepping stone – the devious work of Apple marketing, no doubt). Great for updating your twitter feed, I'm told, but useless for work.
Despite these shortcomings, the keyboard marks in one important aspect a significant advance over the Pro's: You can identify the keys, black with white labels. The Pro's keys were silver, the labels translucent white, and they would fade into each other at the slightest bit of light shining from an angle.
The touchpad is truly abysmal. It's horrible. It's the worst thing I've ever laid my hands on. It's bigger than an iPod Touch's screen and as much in the way as an iPod Touch would be, were it lying on the MacBook when you're trying to type. It's inevitable to touch the touchpad by accident. There is software that deals with this, but at the expense of functionality in the bottom part of the touchpad, as I discovered when I tried to carefully move a label in Illustrator. (As it happens so often, a frustrated engineer has come up with a simple solution that I'm going to give a try.)
Apple also managed to completely fuck up one of the touchpad's essential capabilities. Double-tap-and-drag lets me move windows, extend selections or highlights, and change the volume. On every other laptop in the world, I release the drag by briefly removing my finger from the touchpad. When I put it back, I move the pointer, it's job of dragging done, where it needs to go next. On the Mac, the dragging is sticky for a second or so, and when I move the pointer to its next appointment, the window or the highlight come along. Bloody hell, and there's no way to fix this.
Over the last ten years, Apple has worked hard to improve their computers, shedding, successively and bravely, a crap CPU (PowerPC), an atrocious operating system (OS 9), ridiculous hardware (an upside-down glowing apple on early PowerBooks), and stone-age peripherals (one-button mouse), and making them useful tools. At this point, I'm happy with the cumulative benefits of Apple hard- and software. To me, the Mac presents the best of the two worlds of Linux and Windows, and I can do most aspects of my work with the machine on my lap. (For hardcore computing there's a cluster in the basement.)
Unfortunately, I'm not sure that this development will last. It seems to me as if laptops, arguably Apple's greatest strength over the last decade or so, are not getting much attention anymore. The company's focus seem to lie on the various iPods (iPod Phone, iPod Giga ...) and on entertainment at the expense of productivity. Mac desktops, those fearsome beasts, are already critically endangered.
Then there is the question of durability. My MacBook Pro died without suffering injury or external trauma after just 40 months. Obsolescence cycles are notoriously short at Apple. This keeps profitability high and cult followers blissful. But it's not something I would buy into, and I'm not sure I can still recommend Apple hardware to my friends.