The StealthBook


So, earlier this week I stopped by Apple IMC Portugal and picked up a sleek, black Merom MacBook. Yes, a consumer MacBook, and yes, one with a glossy screen (as if I had a choice).

I've been setting up the machine piecemeal during the past week, and only now had the time to post my notes. You see, my current activities at the office are at the long-meetings-with-endless-discussion phase (wherein we debate how many consultants can dance atop an UMTS mast, draft never-ending PowerPoint presentations, or try to do both at once), and as a consequence I've gotten home pretty late and only had the occasion to use the machine a few hours at most.

I am very pleased with it indeed - the machine is quick, responsive, very easy on the eyes, and feels solid in many ways, although there are a few kinks here and there.

But let's take it from the top, shall we?

Apple's Power Mistake

The first thing that struck me about the MacBook was... outside the box. The nice lady that took my order put atop the counter a sealed shipping carton and a 0.5 Euro power plug adapter. My wife asked why, and the lady told us that the machine shipped with UK power cables.

Now, picture this: it's shortly after 9:30, we were both late for work (and pretty far from it), I've been waiting for the machine for nearly a month (the Merom models were launched on November 8th, I ordered on November 14th and picked it up almost exactly a month afterward), and traffic everywhere was gridlocked thanks to the Xmas season.

In retrospect, I ought to have filed a written complaint right then and there (Portuguese law requires you to have a complaints book), but I wasn't going to quibble, not if the alternative was not to take the machine.


I say, old chap, aren't those like the ones we have back home?

So I got the thing home, unpacked it, confirmed that it did, indeed, ship with UK power cables, and sent in an e-mail asking for a set of replacement cables - which arrived yesterday, although I won't be picking them up until after Xmas (not with my crazy schedule).

All in all, not bad.

Physical Attraction - and Reflection

First impressions were great - the machine is small, light, and tough. Picking it up with a single hand gives a comforting feel - it's hefty, yet not unwieldy. My immediate impression was that it is (proportionally) as slim as a Pro, and comfortably sized despite being wider than my iBook.

The screen is the main reason for that, of course - and the resulting working area is positively spacious when compared to my iBook.

The reason I chose black was pretty simple: Black looks worn when dirty, whereas white will look dirty even when merely worn. Psychologically, there's a big difference.

The iBook has clear plastic around an opaque internal coating (which prevents the white from getting scuffed, stained or otherwise noticeably dirty), but the MacBooks are matte throughout, and I intend to carry this laptop around occasionally, so I wanted something that would look good for a good while.

Now, as to the screen...

Everyone who wrote in saying that the screen has amazing contrast is perfectly right, and the evenings during which I set up the machine helped drive home that point - everything was crisp and readable, and I had to push the brightness down to one third to feel comfortable.

However, everyone who wrote in saying that the screen gloss is tremendously irritating is also right. Like I wrote before, the glossy screen is the MacBook design flaw people will complain about for years to come, and, like I expected, it is a big issue for me.

The running joke at the office was that this was because Steve Jobs only wears black turtlenecks - if he wore white shirts, he would never have given the thumbs up to the glossy screen.

While setting up the machine in the evenings, reflections were fairly muted and the brain tuned them out easily. But sitting on the couch with my shoulders and neck silhouetted against a whitewashed wall that gets direct sunlight, it becomes a major pain.

Even with the backlight punched to the max, it was tough to deal with the reflections, and I eventually gave up on using the machine there. It's ridiculous to consider moving around furniture to compensate for a laptop screen, so I'm resorting to sitting in different places as the day progresses.

Hey, it adds a bit of spice to life...

The keyboard feels a bit strange, too bouncy for my liking but quite good compared to my iBook's. The only annoyance so far (besides the novelty of slightly different spacing) is that they didn't remove the mostly useless Enter key between the right Cmd key and the left arrow/Home key (right where Alt Gr usually is in a full Portuguese keyboard layout).

I'm considering remapping it for other uses using fKeys (a second Alt key would make it a lot easier to get at stuff like curly brackets, which we have to get from the 8 and 9 keys), but haven't gotten around to it yet.

As to the MagSafe plug, I honestly don't care much for it. In fact, I'm concerned at the way it seems to collect lint in the relatively short space between the prongs and the magnet.

You won't find metallic pieces that small in the average office, but I've been in some pretty odd environments, and I do recall one particular office where the cleaning ladies used wire brush disks in the floor waxers...

We only found that out when hooking up a machine to a dusty socket resulted in a flash, a jarring "bzzzap" noise and a dense puff of smoke. We all got into the habit of blowing dust out of the sockets with a rolled-up magazine before plugging in anything...

But I digress - let's move on.

Setting Up

Setting up the machine is an ongoing process, but a familiar one. I gawked at the UK power plugs, hunted about for a way to plug in the bulky plug/adapter combo without causing a minor accident, fired it up, skipped the registration via Cmd-Q, and set up the machine with an "Administrator" account (my usual approach, which invariably results in less of a system-wide mess).

I then downloaded whatever updates there were, created my own user account (with FileVault enabled) and proceeded to pluck all the iLife nonsense from the dock and get down to business.

I immediately came across one little problem: the Software Update icon was corrupted in my (personal account's) System Preferences display. Going after the preference files and issuing rm .GlobalPreferences.plist cured that, but it was kind of odd.

Next up, I did three things to keep myself sane while I set up the machine:

  • Disabled the stupid "Open "safe" files after downloading" option in Safari.
  • Enabled pop-up blocking and a custom CSS I have that blanks out most banner ads.
  • Added my personal account to /etc/sudoers (to make it easier to set up the UNIX userland to my liking).

Only then did I migrate my data across. I have grown distrustful of Apple's migration utilities (they tend to move across geological layers of preference junk that ultimately ends up causing trouble), so I did it old school: I rsynced my development and document trees across, which took but a few minutes.

Setting up Mail.app and moving my Address Book using Apple tools was an entirely different experience. .Mac (which I have a lot of niggles with) was less than useless at helping me migrate: I fired up my iMac, triggered a sync, and (get this) all my contacts were corrupted.

I then reverted to the backup I had done 30 seconds before (what, you think I trust it implicitly?) and forced an update of my contact data to .Mac.

From then on, syncing the whole shebang to the MacBook was painless - but contact corruption is a major bug, and I advise you to back up regularly and do spot checks of your data if you sync it through .Mac.

Goodies

Well, there aren't that many. Sure, there's the Apple Remote, but I would gladly swap that for a VGA (or DVI) adapter (you guessed it, Apple doesn't ship one in the box). All you get is the machine, the remote, and the power adapter. This strikes me as somewhat of a blunder, since the machine makes for a pretty good travel laptop and the built-in video is more than up to the task of rendering the typical business presentation - especially a Keynote-powered one.

And no, the iBook's adapter won't do, so I'll be grabbing a suitable one at the earliest opportunity.

Which reminds me, I don't get why Apple doesn't include an iWork license with the MacBook. Sure, I get iLife, a few board games, Comic Life, and an Office tryout, but if Apple isn't bundling an iWork license because of Office, they're missing out big time, especially given the price of other free bundled items such as OmniOutliner.

Ah well, I'll wait until we get the '07 versions. Shouldn't be long now.

Blazing Speed, Somewhat Stealthy

I haven't yet tried my usual benchmark, but the machine feels pretty snappy, even when set to "Better battery life". The speed really hit me not when I launched applications "in a single bounce" from the dock, but when Spotlight actually worked as quickly as in the demos.

Against 4GB of my mail, just like that: Boom! And again: Boom! OK, nevermind.

There's a lot of debate about the graphics chipset (which was one of the things pushing me to the Pro), but so far I haven't really had time to stress test the machine. The most graphics-intensive thing I threw at it so far were a couple of fun screen savers and Earth, and those were more than snappy enough for my taste.

I don't find it in the least bit funny, however, that the fan starts up just because I visit YouTube for a spot of Raving Rabbids. It dies down soon after the movie is played, but... what the hell?

Setting up an iChat video conference with Melo also made the bottom of the machine noticeably warm, but nothing beyond what I had experienced with other machines. iChat's video quality wasn't too hot (we both had bandwidth restrictions), but the audio (and the built-in echo cancellation) was great.

During the call, I also found out that there is an independent audio volume setting for earphones (a nice trick indeed). I have yet to use standards-based, H.323 video conferencing software like XMeeting with the MacBook, but I'm very interested in trying it out with our Tandberg conference room setups.

Besides the great audio, I found that the MacBook buzzes. Not too much, but noticeably enough for me (I still retain the ability to hear and locate extremely high pitched sounds). I have yet to ascertain if the buzzing is related to the display power inverter or to other power circuitry, but I am positive that removing the MagSafe connector stops it, so I'm blaming it on the power circuitry for now. Either way, it's tolerable for it to buzz while charging. Annoying, but tolerable, and my iBook does the same (although I have to push my ear against the keyboard to hear it).

As to battery life, so far it's lasted three hours, tops. But installing (and compiling) stuff isn't my average usage pattern, the battery probably needs a couple of complete charge cycles to settle, and I have to factor in my using FileVault (which is bound to consume more than just a few CPU cycles, and hence more power).

So it's more or less in line with what I need at home, although I'd find it annoying to have to recharge that often at work.

The Obligatory Application List

I know people are curious, so here's what I set up from scratch, in rough chronological order, and why:

Beyond Mac OS X, and since I completely refuse to even consider setting up Boot Camp (I still find it somewhat heretical to run anything else but Mac OS X on a Mac), I went the Virtualization route.

Virtual Boots

Given that VMware isn't shipping Fusion yet, I hopped over to Parallels' online shop, took advantage of their "one year of free upgrades" promotion, and grabbed a license key. I had originally intended to wait for VMware to get their act together, but I wanted to have something that worked right now.

Time will tell if it was the right choice (I have a feeling that Fusion is going to be available real soon now, not that I know any closed beta testers or anything...), but it feels right so far.

The main reason I will keep wishing for VMware is that I would love to be able to simply drag and drop virtual machines from my Ubuntu box to the MacBook (i.e., just drag the files about and double-click on them, no conversions required), but, again, I wanted to have something that worked right now.

Since I'm using FileVault, I put all my virtual machines in /Users/Shared (which is where I used to put my Virtual PCs) to avoid killing the machines' performance. I then set up three VMs: a CentOS 4.4 minimal server to do staging for this site (still under construction), an Ubuntu 6.10 to do OpenWRT builds (if I ever find the time again) and Windows XP - which Parallels installed automatically for me, complete with VM extensions.

I then installed Office inside XP and, as a result, I've been mulling whether or not to actually set up Mac Office 2004.

This will annoy purists to no end, but bear with me.

The Office Conundrum

It's not as if I need Office much on a Mac (remember, I have been working remotely via Citrix for eight months now). I also actually paid for XP and Office (both for Windows and the Mac). But most Office files I come across at home are either old enough to be trouble, or funky enough for me to not want to bother with round-trip conversion errors, so using Windows Office seems like the path of least resistance.

For new stuff I write at home, however, I'll stick to my Data For The Ages plan and take yet another look at the OpenOffice variants. Plus iWork can display most Word and PowerPoint stuff I come across.

Actually, Keynote has, on occasion, done a better job than PowerPoint at opening .ppt files, so that basically means that Excel and Visio are the two apps that I'm missing on a Mac environment right now.

Yeah, I've known about Tables for a few months now, and I have OmniGraffle in my WishList. Honestly, for home spreadsheets, I'll just wait and see what Apple does and make do with Parallels.

Which reminds me, Parallels's new "Coherence" feature (actually called "Illusion" in their docs) is quite nice. Buggy as hell (if you suspend/resume either your virtual machines or your physical one, the VM screen will be corrupted), but quite usable.

I found that the "blue screening" that they do had trouble with XP's rounded corners in its Chicco-like theme and notification bubbles, but forcing it to use the "old" Windows theme (which is faster anyway) made most of the visual annoyances go away.

I'm looking forward to the release version, and highly recommend it.

Closing Thoughts

All in all, I'm pretty happy with the MacBook, and hope it will help me zip through my hobbies and step into the golden age of Leopard without any hitches (then again, I hope my 20" iMac G5 will be able to run Leopard properly too).

The only thing that I really need to test right now (it only just hit me) is whether it will fit any of my laptop bags - my iBook and my M100 both fit into a great little bag that is only just big enough for a 12" laptop, but I have a feeling that my MacBook is a touch on the wide side...

Ah well. I suppose I'll sort it out eventually.