Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Back to the Future.

Thoughts on upgrading.

I have been slow to come to the laptop thing -- I had a 400mhz Winbook for awhile, from the era when networking was thought of as an option, and required a card with a terrible dongle on it. A few years later, I swapped a turntable for an obsolete orange iBook. Just a few days ago, I went whole hog (well, mostly) and shelled out for a brand-spanking-new MacBook, freshly updated by Apple to Intel's newest CPU architecture, and with a decent (though hardly top-of-the-line) graphics processor.

These two computers have nearly a decade of computing advancements between them. In that time, Apple has rolled out a completely new operating system, changed its processor architecture to industry-standard x86, and gone through an entire generation of products, along with several update cycles.

That's a lot of progress. The new MacBook runs a slick, modern OS, is almost two gigahertz faster in terms of clock speed (not to mention the extra core) and has built-in Airport "Extreme," Bluetooth, twice the USB ports (for a total of, um, two) Firewire, Dual-Layer DVD burner, 3d-accelerated graphics. It also has more than twice the total pixels, with a 1280x800 widescreen display. It really outclasses the old machine in every way.

Save one, and it's a doozy.

Take a quick look at that top picture again. Check out those surfaces where your palms rest, and the keyboards on each laptop. Orange iBook: nice, curved surfaces, and actually quite a decent keyboard. All the surfaces of the machine are curved, and it's comfortable in almost any position. New, white MacBook: it's square, with a sharp 90-degree edge right where your wrists are. This means it's decently comfortable if you're sitting at a desk, but it really doesn't feel good in many positions where the old one felt just fine. Also, the chiclet keyboard is really pretty bad. The key travel is small, and it's large enough, but the tops of the keys are flat, which is not as good as when they're curved, at least in terms of comfort and usability.

In a lot of ways, the design of the MacBook is a big step backwards. In the years in between these two computers, Apple went square. For desktops, where a human isn't in constant contact with the main cpu portion, this is fine. Square is pretty bad for laptops, particularly when it's taken to the extreme that Apple brings it to. Does it look cool? This is always arguable, but yes, even the bottom-of-the-line MacBook is a fairly slick-looking computer. But it's given up some serious ground in terms of ergonomics, which is a real shame.

More thoughts later -- I'm still in the process of learning Mac OS X and installing Ubuntu (which runs quite nicely on the iBook, by the way) on the machine. My feelings are really still quite up in the air, and we'll see if the MacBook really wins a place in my heart. It's got a ways to go.
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