BitDepth 566 - March 03

For the first time, I don't buy the biggest, most powerful laptop I can find...
Finally, a downgrade

Speck Products makes this polycarbonate shell for Apple's new MacBook laptops (seen here in red on a MacBook Pro). The shell fits neatly over the casing of the laptop and becomes a protective case that never needs to be removed. Photo courtesy Speck Products.

For most of the last nine years, my working life revolved around picking up my laptop from my desk at home and taking it to my desk at work, where we would both spend the day chained to the furniture.
Now that I've joined the ranks of the gainfully unemployed, there's just the desk at home and everywhere else; and the big laptop with a lush 15 inch screen (and a broken trackpad button) was starting to feel like just a bit too much.
Four revisions to Apple's laptop line later, the performance of this once premium portable was also starting to feel like just a bit too little. 

Two weeks ago I got myself a new laptop, not a big change in approach, since mobile computing has been my preferred way of working for a decade now, but a change in style, since for the first time, I looked at everything that was available and "downgraded" my usual choice in equipment.
The confluence of larger RAW files from my digital camera in larger quantities, the high cost of replacing my trackpad button and the attractive specs of the second generation of Apple's MacBook proved too much of a value proposition to resist.

What's in the box?
The MacBook inherits the iBook's mantle as the cut-down, affordable version of the pro line of laptops. It doesn't have the MacBook Pro's dedicated graphics processor with its own video memory, but it's got pretty much the same Intel processor; a Core 2 Duo and it's absurdly easy to upgrade.
On the day it arrived, I booted it once to confirm that all was well, then removed the RAM and hard drive, doubling the shipped capacity to 2GB with a 160GB SATA drive.

Planning for my first experience with an all-white laptop, so I added a Speck shell to my shopping list. Speck's hardshell covering for Apple's Intel based laptops adds a close-fit protective layer of hard plastic to the computer, with liberal ventilation and cutouts for the power and peripheral ports. 
I have to confess that I chickened out on the colour, opting for the clear shell over the vivid red edition. There's now also a model in bright blue.
So what has the experience been like, upgrading not just hardware, but making the transition from PowerPC to Intel based software?

Intel inside
There were a few hiccups to Apple's most recent hardware transition, most of them ironed out with surprising speed. The essential issue is that while the Macintosh operating system looks just the same on computers made just fourteen months ago, the core of the code is now very different.
The new Intel based Macs run best with software that's been rewritten to take advantage of the new chips and their very different way of reading code, in techspeak, the "byte order."
Apple brands these new versions of software Universal, and software authors can slap a spiffy ying and yang symbol in shades of blue on these products, which run with the appropriate code on both older PowerPC Macs and on the new Intel powered hardware.

The experience
The MacBook is white. Really white. And it's a magnet for dirt. I've had to repurpose some old Palm screen film to act as a buffer for the unsightly grime that builds quickly on the palm rests. The glossy screen is new to Mac laptops and it's bright and contrasty, but traditional screen cleaners like KlearScreen leave a filmy residue on it.
More positively, this Intel Mac is fast, really fast. I'm running Adobe new beta of Photoshop CS3 on it, and the comparison with the old G4 PowerBook is unflattering. Converting 80 Canon RAW files with custom actions to JPEGs took 45 minutes on the old PowerPC chip, on the MacBook, the dual 2 gigahertz chips powered through the job in less than ten minutes. I had to check twice to make sure that something hadn't gone wrong.

I also tried a demo of Parallels Desktop, a virtual machine for "alternative" operating systems on the Macintosh. My old copy of Windows 2000, marginally usable in Virtual PC on the G4 runs crisply on this new Mac.
I'm scrupulously keeping older software off this new Intel-based Mac, which keeps the Rosetta translation software from starting up and minimizes potential performance issues.

Bottom line
I spent a long time comparing the new Mac laptops and there are only marginal differences across the line. Your choice, if you're in the market, really comes down to how many ports you need and the size of screen (and accompanying computer) you're comfortable lugging around. The iBook might have been the runt of Apple's portable litter, but the MacBook is a surprisingly enthusiastic pitbull, nipping at the heels of the aluminium clad portable pack that make up the rest of the company's mobile offerings.
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