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TUAW Review: MacBook Pro (Late 2008)

As many TUAW readers know, I was dealt a bad hand with the last generation MacBook Pros, so I met the new MBPs with open arms. My first impression of the new machines: the new MacBook Pros are absolutely amazing, but not all of the changes are good (we'll get to those in the second half of the review). Read on as I tackle each of the new features.

The New Design
I think Apple made a big improvement with the new laptop design. Overall, it is sleek and beautiful – the design is reminiscent of the MacBook Air, only thicker. Previous MacBook Pro generations had a physical latch mechanism for opening/closing the screen, but Apple has moved to the newer magnetic latch that can be found on both the MacBook Air and MacBook models.

Earlier generations of the MBP had two USB ports, but on opposite sides of the case. When you have cables coming out of both sides, it makes the system almost unusable as a notebook, and makes it look less attractive. Apple has changed this by moving all the ports to the left side of the machine, while the SuperDrive has been moved from the front to the right side. This is a big improvement.

How many people do you know who have successfully upgraded their MacBook Pros hard drive? On previous generations, this task was almost impossible due to the fact that you needed to disassemble the entire machine to reach the drive. Apple now has a door on the bottom that, when opened, gives you instant access to the removable battery and hard drive. You do have to remove the back of the machine to reach the RAM, but it only has a couple of screws.

The new casing feels sturdier when you pick it up; you can definitely feel a difference in the quality of material used to make the new MacBooks. This is largely due to Apple using the new "brick" manufacturing method. In addition, this casing makes the entire computer run cooler ... in previous models, you could (almost) fry an egg on the back of the machine, but I haven't noticed much heat being produced on the new machine.


Continue reading for the full review and pictures...



The Screen

This is where most of the fuss has been about the new MBPs. Apple has decided to stop manufacturing matte screens in favor of the new glass/glossy screen. Many imaging and video professionals who prefer matte screens feel that the glossy screens don't do their work justice (they don't provide accurate color, or accurate contrast). Before upgrading to the new MacBook Pro, I was a matte screen guy – I had never owned a notebook with a glossy screen before, and I was a bit skeptical about upgrading with the X-factor of the glossy screen. That being said, I've grown to like the glossy screen over time. It reminds me of the old CRT monitors that everyone used before LCDs were popular.

There are still problems with the glossy screens. Depending on the environment that you are in, you might occasionally see a reflection out of the corner of your eye. The screen doesn't work the best when you are using it outdoors, or indoors with a lot of light. However, the new screens definitely make the colors "pop." If you are in a low-light condition, the screen looks beautiful. The black bezel around the screen also makes things look brighter.

If you are a pro user and need a matte screen, Apple is still selling the matte Cinema displays – however, that will set you back even more money. When you look at the MBP screen, it gives you a sense that you're using a smaller iMac, so if you're used to that look, you might have a better time adjusting to the MB/MBP glossy screen.

The Trackpad
If you are accustomed to using trackpads on older Apple notebooks, then you probably already know how to use the new trackpads. However, if you are a new Mac notebook user, then you might have to adjust to the new feel of the trackpad. The trackpad is definitely slicker than the previous generations – your finger slides a little more easily across it, which makes it easier to use. In addition, the trackpad is also larger, which is due mainly to Apple removing the hard button in favor of the 'button is the trackpad' click-sensitive surface. Yes, the button is gone, but as other reviews have noted the clicking experience is still the same -- if you have muscle memory of a previous MacBook Pro trackpad, your thumbs will know what to do with this one.

The nicest thing about this trackpad is the ability to wipe off dirt without the possibility of ruining the trackpad. The 'trackpad is the button' concept is quite nice, because it allows you to drag and drop files easier. You can also depress the trackpad anywhere to perform a click; the closer you are to the top of the trackpad, the harder it is to press, which encourages you to keep the same click habits as you would use on the older models.

Apple has provided a ton of useful gestures that can be used on the new trackpads. Some of the gestures were available on the previous generation MBPs, but most of them are new. For instance, you can use four fingers to swipe upwards -- this will activate Exposé and allow you to see your entire desktop. These gestures are nice time savers.

The New Keyboard

If you haven't tried out Apples new "Chiclet-style" keyboards, then you must, because they are a pleasure to type on. If you have used the wired/wireless aluminum Apple keyboards then you will feel right at home; otherwise, you will probably have to get adjusted to the new look/feel. Despite the new keyboard design, Apple kept the backlit keys – the "new" MB/MBP keyboard is basically the same thing as the MacBook Air keyboard.

The keyboard is recessed so that it's flush with the base. This keeps the keyboard from touching the screen while the lid is closed – a nice design feature that will keep the glossy screen from becoming smudgy.

MacBook Pro Missteps
Apple definitely took a few shortcuts on the new MacBook Pro that might end up being deal-breakers for some pro users. Here's a couple of them:

  • Apple has done away with FireWire 400 on the MBP, leaving one FireWire 800 port. Apple has left MacBook users without any FireWire ports, so if you use FireWire, your only upgrade path is the MacBook Pro. Cables to connect FW400 devices to an 800 port are readily available; however, if you previously segregated your 400 and 800 devices onto their own busses for maximum speed, you can't do that with the new model anymore.
  • There is no longer a matte option for the MacBook Pro. This misstep is huge, considering how many creative pros demand matte screens for color accuracy. Giving users the option on the pro line would be a nice touch, but it looks like Apple will not be giving into customer demands any time soon.
  • The new MiniDisplay port is now the only option you have for connecting an additional monitor. Apple says that they will be moving the entire line of computers to this new "standard." Apple claims that it can power a 30" Cinema display. But what if you don't want to purchase a new display for your new notebook? Well, you must purchase one of the three new adapters for the MacBook line. That's right, Apple wasn't generous enough to include a VGA or DVI adapter in the box – even though there is a cut-out space for them inside the box (maybe for orders that include a display or display adapter, or maybe a last-minute cost cutting choice).


Final Thoughts
Overall, the new MacBook Pro is amazing – if you can get over the caveats. It is slowly winning me over to become my favorite Mac notebook I've owned. If you are thinking about purchasing one of the new machines then I suggest you test-drive one in an Apple (or third-party) store. If you want to see more in-depth pictures of the MacBook Pro, check out our gallery.



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