A Mac?

Thanks to a friend, I had a chance to try two Apple laptops, a MacBook and a MacBook Pro over the weekend. The reason for this is that I wanted to try a Macintosh system for some time now, but I never had a chance until now. I mean, I saw the commercials, the web sites and the blogs, had a chance to tinker with the occasional demo system but I never used them for more than 5 minutes.

I'd first like to vent some acid about the availability and pricing of Apple computers in this sorry little excuse for a country. It seems there's only one Apple partner/reseller in this country, and the prices they have are very unreasonable. The MacBook costs (when directly converted back to USD) around $2100, and the MacBook pro costs close to twice than that, around $4100. Compare this to regular Apple prices (in US) and you'll see the local prices are doubled! I know Apple computers are traditionally priced up to 25% more than equivalent PC laptops but this is ridiculous.

Hardware

By the feeling of it, both laptops seem to weigh about the same (I didn't measure it with scales), which is suprising for the smaller one. The MacBook is too heavy for its size, especially when compared to similar PC laptops. I don't know who designed the keyboard on the MacBook nor why he designed it like that, but he should be shot for it. Not only is it ugly, but it's also unergonomic in several ways: the keys have an awkward shape and angle (totally parallel with the surface of the laptop), and the space between the keys is too large for comfort. The keyboard on the MacBook Pro looks small for the size of the laptop surface, but the keys are actually large enough. There's plenty of empty space around it could maybe be filled with more buttons or controls (the "function" keys are half-height and double for hardware control keys like audio volume and screen brigthness - they could have been larger and the hardware controls could have been separate). The quality and feeling of it is much better than that of MacBook but it's still behind that of quality PC laptops. The lid of the MacBook Pro is opened by a small narrow "button" which is tedious to push as it's too narrow for my fingers. Overally, both models "feel" more robust than average PC laptop hardware, with the only exception being the CD loader, which emits strangely screeching noises when loading and unloading CDs. The location of the CD/DVD slot drive on MacBook Pro - at the front of the laptop - is a bad joke. The only hardware-related thing I'm impressed with is the magnetic power plug - it's much cooler that I thought it would be.

The screens on both are reasonably good but again not as good as on high end PC laptops (especially Sony's). On the MacBook the colors seems somewhat washed up (noticable while playing DVDs).

The connectors on the MacBook are badly placed - all of them are on the left side of the laptop, placed too close together, which is again unreasonable as there's plenty of empty space on that side alone. The MacBook has only two USB ports, one next to the other, which creates problems if you have bulky USB devices or connectors. MacBook Pro, though much larger, has almost the same number of ports. There are still only two USB ports, but luckily this time placed on both sides. The network port (RJ-45) is on the right hand side now, which is better since most people are right handed. There's no VGA port (there's an adapter), which makes both models unreasonably tedious to use for giving presentations over a projector.

Software

Keyboard layout deserves a special mention. As a person that's been using PCs and PC laptops "forever", I think some of the choices Apple made are simply not reasonable. It's a special problem for me as I'm using non-US layout (Croatian), and while the layout is close enough to that used on PC laptops, there are three big problems with it: the first is that the "Y" and "Z" keys are switched (this is a special local problem here as they have been switched before by the industry in early nineties and people have just gotten used to it - it's a small matter but it creates stupid typos). The second is that the "special" keys or puncuations that have been replaced by local diacrytic characters on the keyboard can be accessed by completely different key sequences than on PC keyboars. For example, to type the "@" character on a PC keyboard, the sequence is AltGR-V, but on a Mac it's Ctrl-Shift-2 (three keys!), which is almost impossible to type with one hand. The "|" character on PC is AltGr-W, and on the Mac it's Alt-Shift-, which is not consistent with the sequence for "@". The third problem is that the "Enter key" is much too small (most of it is about 1 cm in width). All these problems are related to the local version of the Mac keyboard and probably don't exist for US users on the US keyboard, but are very annoying for people who work with both PCs and Macs over here. As I do a lot of writing (both programming and "normal" text), this is simply a handicap.

After a short time to get used to it, MacOS X (10.4) seems much better than the hardware it runs on. Though it doesn't look as impressive as it does on commercials and demos, it's decent and pleasent to work with. I have the feeling that its graphic capabilities are underused. Maybe it's because of new developments in Linux and Windows, but it looks somewhat simplistic in comparison. I can find four major things I dislike in the UI: the buttons don't have enough visual feedback when they are pressed, it looks like there's a bug that "locks" windows in drag mode even when drag-lock is disable, the mouse pointer controlled by the track pad doesn't continue to move in the same direction when you reach the end of the trackpad with your finger like it does in Windows and Linux, and applications are incisistent in how they look ("brushed metal" vs "light-gray gradient" skin). Overall I'd say these are really minor problems and I think I can get used to them. The Spotlight feature is very neat, but I didn't create nearly enough documents to test it fully.

The overall philosopy of the UI is fine, I'd say the applications I've tried behave more consistently than on Windows or on Linux, so this is a definite good point. Unfortunately, I didn't try XCode as I hoped I could because the keyboard layout is just depressingly hard to use for programming.

I managed to find all applications I'd need in normal use, either as bundled or on the web (the fact that OS X is Unix underneath has helped this a lot). At first I thought I would have objections to the "single-mouse-button" policy, but I got used to it very quickly. I'd still recommend getting a two-button mouse for real work but it's not that bad even with the single button.

Hmmm...

At the end, I decided not to buy any of them. The MacBook Pro is so expensive that it's silly (at local prices), and the MacBook has too many hardware issues (bad placement of ports, keyboard that seems to be designed to make your hands hurt while using it, unusually heavy weight) to be usable. I think I can see myself using a MacBook Pro if, for example, someone bought it for me or I win it at a lottery, and I find a way to fix the keayboard layout issues, but I just don't feel like buying it for my own money. The "wow" effect is practically nonexistant.