Apple released an updated product line for their consumer-grade “Macbook” computers and their professional “Macbook Pro” computers on Tuesday. For the first time, I found myself joining in on various forums around the world with excited Macophiles in the days preceding the launch, speculating on what new features the redesigned systems would bring the world. Although I certainly have never drank the Apple Kool-Aid, I will probably be in the market for a new laptop when I return to the states, and I can just run Windows on it if I want to anyway. It’s amusing to watch Macophiles obsessively banter on their forums about Macs, ridiculing PC users at every opportunity and snarling at anyone who would dare to question the silvery alter of their chosen hunk of metal and plastic.

Apple, what were you THINKING? was the thought that seemed reverberate around the world when we all saw the new computers. Although there seems to be general agreement that the new systems are solidly-built and attractive, for the first time on I saw that the number of “negative votes” on the launch stories outnumbered positive ones by triple or quadruple numbers. As a hardware technician for both Macs and PCs, here’s my thoughts on the new systems.

  • Firewire: The big kicker. The new Macbook completely does away with it. For the first time in almost a decade, part of Apple’s lineup doesn’t have the familiar connection that Apple itself made famous with its original iPods back in 2001. Almost all digital camcorders in the past decade support Firewire as the preferred method of video upload to computers. The old Macbook had one Firewire port of the 400 megabit per second variety, and the old Macbook Pro had one of those, as well as a newer type, Firewire 800, that transmits at twice the speed. The just-released Macbook Pro has only one Firewire 800 port on it. Why this is bad: No more Firewire means that Macbook owners can’t utilize their external hard drives, camcorders, and any other high-performance periphrial at their full potential. They might try to tell you that USB 2.0 is “just as good” and that the loss of Firewire is not a problem, but this is a lie. USB 2.0 was simply not designed for high-volume video transfers, and although it will work, it is far less convenient. Wikipedia can sum it up better than I can, and provides some links for further reading. The Macbook does not offer an expansion card slot either, so there’s no way to simply pop in a card that adds Firewire functionality. No – this is clearly a case of Apple trying to gouge their customers into paying twice as much money for something that until three days ago was offered on every one of their computers. “If you want portable Firewire, you need to pay an extra $1000 for it on our Macbook Pro.” Simply ludicrous.

    It’s bad for technicians too
    because of a wonderful little bonus of Firewire, a technology called Target Disk Mode, which allows anyone to boot a Mac up while it’s attached (via Firewire) to another Mac and access its hard drive like an external hard drive. This is ridiculously helpful to technicians to perform quick diagnostics and data recovery for customers, and therefore save them money.
  • Keyboard and Trackpad: The new systems sport an all-new, all-glass trackpad that is sans button. Why? The whole thing is a button! I have to agree that this is a neat concept, and since all Apple’s laptops have had “right-click” capability in their firmware for years now (allowing a user to “right-click” by tapping the pad with two fingers at once) it has effectively silenced any complaints I used to have about the Mac laptops only having one button instead of two. I never use buttons anyway; I just tap: the less wear and tear on mechanical systems, the better. However, the keyboard is the problem: Apple chose to emulate the Macbook’s style of keyboard across both of their new systems, and I don’t think it was a choice for the better. Aesthetically, the black keys do not appeal compared with the sleek silver body, and the “chiclet” style of keys provide less surface area for fingers while typing, compared with standard keyboards. Compare the two pictures to see what I mean.

    It’s bad for technicians too
    because of how Apple designed the new systems to come apart. I’ll explain: what are the parts of a laptop that most often need replacement? The keyboard and hard drive. People were always coming into DoIT asking to have their laptop keyboards replaced because they spilled something on them, or the keys broke off, or any number of reasons. Always make your keyboard easy to remove! Everyone else understands this; why not Apple? The new Macbook and Macbook pro both require every other component to be removed from the system before the keyboard can be replaced. Technically, Apple is not even going to be selling the keyboard as an individual part; on their technician’s website they are listing both the keyboard and palmrest as one unit for replacement. This isn’t so much of a big deal when the computer is under warranty and the customer pays nothing to the service center, but expect to see dramatically increased labor costs to take apart your computer to simply replace your keyboard. And the fact is that you’re automatically buying a new aluminum top case, even though you only need to replace your broken keyboard. A keyboard that would have cost you approximately $40 with previous models of computer will now cost you approximately $200. This price estimate comes from three years of selling Powerbook keyboards (~$40) and top cases (~$190) and the original Macbook’s combination Keyboard/top case, which I didn’t complain about because a) it was all plastic, so it was comparatively cheap at ~$140 and b) it was reverse-designed that the keyboard could be removed first, instead of last, resulting in fast take-apart times. So once that warranty of yours runs out – be careful with your drinks around these computers, because a keyboard-killing spill will cost you about three times what it used to.

    Fun fact! There are 56 screws holding that non-replaceable keyboard onto the Macbook Pro’s top case! In comparison, there were about 12 on the previous model. Tiny, hard-to-work-with screws. Thanks, Apple! We technicians can’t wait to charge your customers more labor time for your insane design choices! </sarcasm>

  • LCD Display: Apple’s previous Macbook was glossy only, and the previous Macbook Pro had options for either matte or glossy. Matte is great (read: slightly better) for working outside in the sun, but I can attest that glossy, which is what I have on my Dell, is much better for watching movies and other media functions. This is more a matter of preference and opinion than anything else. However, Apple decided to limit your options: you can now only get glossy on either computer. That’s it. End of story. At least, until my fellow technicians and I figure out how to modify an old 15″ Macbook Pro matte LCD from previous versions to fit into the new Macbook Pro’s casing! (heh heh)

    Other changes: changing the bezel color around the screen from silver to black. Apple claims that this makes the screen “blend” better, and they could be right that it will be less distracting and make the screen look like it’s “floating” when you’re looking at the computer in a dark room. However, I frankly don’t really spend much time looking at my Dell laptop’s bezel (which is also silver) in dark rooms, but maybe Apple customers are different? Personally, as with the black keyboard, I feel that having this two-color setup is unattractive. I wish they would have either stuck with silver, or gone all-black, but this is another matter of personal preference.

    It’s (possibly) bad for technicans too because if the construction of the Titanium Edition Powerbook from five years ago is any indication, Apple may have attached the glass screen over the plastic LCD in such a way that will make any LCD replacements a two-part task: if you drop your computer, you’ll need to not only replace your shattered LCD, but also the shattered glass panel that Apple put over it. Even if it doesn’t raise technician labor time, it will almost certainly be yet another more-expensive part because of that glass pane. I bring up the Tibook because it’s infamous among technicians as having a thin, attractive bezel needed to be practically snapped off the LCD in order to put in a new screen. It may be the same with these new computers, and time and reviews will tell.

  • Display Output: This is my frustration with Apple: when will they stop requiring people to constantly be purchasing new adapters to fit their constantly-updating standards? The entire PC world, with few exceptions, uses VGA output connectors. This is the standard that can be found on almost ANY computer monitor, either LCD or CRT (if you can still find those). Then, Apple decided that it would use DVI output connectors instead. That’s fine; almost all LCD’s use that at least, that’s only one adapter we need to buy. Then, Apple decides to create “DisplayPort” on its smaller machines, like the Macbook, Powerbook 12″, and iBook. In both VGA and DVI flavors! Double the adapter-purchasing power! Now, with both new computers, Apple has done away with any pretense of caring about standards and has released “Mini DisplayPort” which requires yet another adapter to make it work with ANY screen, including all of the displays Apple has ever released! Guess what – none of these computers INCLUDE these adapters; they all have to be purchased separately!

    “Mini DisplayPort! It’s Cute, Small, And Utterly Pointless!”

    Each different adapter is in the $20-$30 range. You do the math. I started to froth on that one there, sorry about that. This particular problem of Apple’s has been around a long time, but I never thought that they would ditch DVI at least, which is part of every single LCD with any quality. How wrong I was.

  • Miscellany: The Macbook Pro’s connection ports have now almost all been relocated to the left side of the system, to make room for the fact that they moved the optical drive from the front of the machine to the right side. In reading forum posts from people who actually own these systems, it seems like there’s a general frustration about this; people seem to prefer the front-loading drive because apparently the side-loaders (like on the Macbook) eject their disks directly into coffee cups and mousing hands, whereas front-loaders just eject into laps. This doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me, but since my Dell has a side-loading tray drive, I’ve always liked the futuristic look of front-loading drives which seem to be “handing” your drive to you, like a credit card machine or something. Just another matter of personal preference here. I’m sad to see the Pro model get its drive relocated to the side.

    Kudos to Apple for removing the latches on all their laptops. Previously, Macbook Pros still used a latch which dropped down from the display assembly into the top case when closed. Most new laptops these days, especially lightweight ones, have done away with them; they’re just one more part that can break and cause your lid to snap open unexpectedly. With the magic of magnets, you can completely eliminate a need for mechanical latches, and this is definitely one design choice that is welcomed to be carried from Macbooks into Macbook Pros.

    And of course, all of the new systems have greatly enhanced graphics systems, which was par for the course for Apple to upgrade in order to not fall behind their competitors. Ironically, their addition of an Nvidia 9400M graphics chip to their Macbook really would make video editing much more snappy – if only you could still connect your camcorder to the Macbook!

So that about covers my thoughts on the new Apple computers. As you can probably tell, I’m a little bit disappointed in their design choices. Although they look beautiful (with the exception of that black keyboard and display bezel) and have that screaming video system, they were apparently designed by Jonny Ives after a wee bit too much Scotch one night. I’m sorry, but removing features unnecessarily is not a step forward. Some people are saying “this is what technology does; we must adapt.” But Firewire 400 is STILL the standard on almost all top-tier hard drives and camcorders. At what point in the future though, will people stop asking “how high?” when Apple says “jump” and start asking – “why did you do this?” Put the Kool-Aid down, folks.

As it says right on Apple’s website on the Macbook Pro page:

New design. New features. New technologies. All engineered to standards that don’t even exist yet.

You read it there first, folks. Apple is inventing new standards, disposing of the old, and dang it, and if you’re not on board with them, you might as well keep using DOS.

If you liked the older revision of Macbook Pro or Macbook – now’s the time to buy, as I’m sure there will be closeout prices on them now. And if you wanted the 17″ Macbook Pro, never fear – it’s been left safe from Apple’s unnecessary meddling for the next few months at least.

Note: If you’d like to “petition” to Steve Jobs and Co about the lack of Firewire in the new Macbooks, you can do so at this link.