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Bemoaning a black MacBook.

(A story from the archives, circa 2006, lightly refreshed in 2022)

Black MacBook laptop from 2006 with a grinning Spitfire skateboarding sticker covering the Apple logo

Probably should have stayed with the PB12

For years, my PowerBook 12” had been my trusty sidekick. I carried it everywhere, treated it relatively gently, and it was rock solid. Absolutely, unequivocally the most solid computer I had ever owned, and the most solid computer anyone I knew had ever owned - and I ran across a lot of laptops in my years on the road.

I'd frequently go for 20, 30, even 40 days without rebooting. My power button even died on my PB12 (requiring me to open the case and touch two points on the motherboard to boot it), and I still managed to use the computer for another six months or so without ever shutting it down.

But then, the siren song of the new 2006 MacBooks) started calling me: the Intel processor, DVD burning, better WiFi range, integrated webcam, all the goodies. Sure, I had my reservations - overall size, battery life, that shiny screen, and the general newness of the whole Intel transition - but I was willing to suspend disbelief in anticipation of the new machine. I even went so far as to convince my wife to buy one, too, as we started our business.

Big mistake, on multiple counts

Unfortunately, right out of the box they were the source of a number of disappointments - from bad design decisions to faulty hardware - that made me yearn for the carefree days of me and my PB12 (and my wife and her IBM ThinkPad addiction, fed by her previous employers).

Since I'm no Apple apologist, so here's the list of problems:

01 Ooh, a gig of RAM! (Go buy some more)

I used to run Office, Virtual PC, Mail, Safari, and a bunch of other stuff on my PB12 867 with 640MB of RAM, and never once thought twice about how much RAM I had. It just worked.

But last week I finally relented and bought a second GB for my MacBook, maxing it out at 2 GB of RAM. It's no longer swapping furiously to the hard drive all the time, at least. I'm hoping that the Intel-native versions of Office will reduce the memory footprint, but I've already bought the RAM, so it's pretty much a moot point.

02 Core 2 Duo my butt

I dunno, maybe I was just a little too eager, like a puppy dog imagining just how big that treat is that you're hiding behind your back. I mean, c'mon man, it's got two freakin' cores! Put that in your pipe and smoke it! Yee haw, cowboy!

Truth be told, three times since I bought the MacBook I've sat down to do a head-to-head speed comparison with my old PowerBook 867Mhz, wanting to see if it really is any faster than a three-year-old Mac.

Sure, it's faster. But not neck-snappingly sinus-clearingly faster. The Safari icon still bounces on aimlessly while loading, iPhoto still coughs and stammers along while scrolling through my photos, and Office still takes forever to do pretty much anything (okay, okay, it's running under Rosetta, fine). I did notice, however, that when I boot into BootCamp it's wicked fast. If only Vista wasn't so damn ugly.

03 That boxy keyboard

Black MacBook keyboard with flat keycaps
^ Black MacBook keyboard

PowerBook 12 keyboard with deeply scalloped keycaps
^ The (much better) PowerBook 12 keyboard

I could absolutely fly on the deeply scalloped keys of the PB12 keyboard, with very few mistakes even after a long day of typing. And my wife on the ThinkPad - she'd make a court stenographer ripe with jealousy. But the MacBook keyboard is average at best. I mean, key travel is fine, and the layout is familiar, but there's something about these flat-topped keys that makes me lose my rhythm in the later hours of the day.

04 That razor edge wrist rest

The edge at the front of the case, on the near side of the wrist rest, has a nice sharp 90-degree edge on the plastic. When the MacBook is closed, it looks fantastic. But when it's open, it's grinding away at the skin on my wrists the whole time I use the computer.

05 That glossy screen

Have you ever seen those articles about the people that put a computer display in a bathroom mirror? When the computer is off, it's a regular mirror, and when you turn it on, it becomes a display. Same here, minus the bathroom and some creepy guy putting a computer in the mirror. Oh, but it's supposed to make your photos and DVDs look better. That's fantastic, during the eight minutes in an average day when I'm doing media.

06 That ever-smudge case

Black MacBook lid covered in fingerprints
Image source

Just moments after I took my black MacBook Core 2 Duo out of the box, I knew I had problems. I'm a clean kind of guy, wash my hands from time to time, don't eat Doritos while working on the laptop, you get the picture. But good grief, this thing will suck the fingerprints off of you from six inches away and leave word of every time you've touched the case in the last week. I assumed I was going to get a nice matte black case like the old PowerBook G3s, but it's more like a CSI investigator's toolkit.

07 While we're beating up on the case, how about some cracks?

Yup, never dropped the MacBook, but there they are, long hairline cracks at four or five stress points on my wife's white MacBook: especially between the hinges on the back and next to the hard drive. They seem to be surface cracks, for now, but disconcerting for a laptop that's less than 90 days old.

08 Well, at least it didn't explode

My wife did something absolutely shocking recently. She closed the lid of her MacBook on Friday, when it was half-charged, and put it in her bag. When we opened it up on Sunday evening, the battery had died. Not 'out of juice, plug it in and be happy' died, but 'good god, where did these people study physics' died. "Big black 'X' on the battery icon" died.

I did a little Internet research on the topic. The answers vary, but they can be clumped into two general groups: (a) it's borked, take it to an Apple store and they may give you a new battery, which (a.1) may or (a.2) may not solve the problem in the (a.3) near term or (a.4) long term, if you're lucky ... or (b) you're an absolute tool for ever letting your battery drop below 20%, and it's your damn fault for not treating your battery charging cycles with kid gloves.

Update: walked into Apple store with my MacBook, walked out with a brand new battery 15 minutes later. Annoying, but decent.

09 Not exactly random reboots, but close

Ah, the random reboot. The juicy little snack in the middle of a long working session where you were completely in the flow and just streaming thoughts out into that document, not even pausing long enough to park them in your synapses, where time flies by and you don't think about things like lunch, bodily functions, whether or not the sun is rising yet ... or when was the last time that you saved your document.

And then there's that brutal little moment when you hear the 'whir-whir' of the DVD drive trying to eject as the screen goes black and the MacBook dumps your unsaved work into a digital black hole - that sinking feeling in your gut as you wait for the reboot, to see what's left of your document after going through the bit shredder.

So I've taken to saving frequently, and leaving applications closed. Guess I don't need that extra gig of RAM after all.

Update: I think I may have figured out what the problem is. I think it's related to setting off the hard drive motion sensor while the machine is in the middle of the process of going to sleep. I can now repeat the problem somewhat at will, but not entirely. Guess it's off to the Apple store for me this weekend.

10 What's next?

I know something is looming on the horizon. I can feel it in my bones.

Update: I was right!

10.1 Woke up this morning and dotMac (n.b.: the precursor to iCloud) had eaten all of my contacts across four machines. Luckily, I had a backup so I was able to restore them.

10.2 Oh, and there's no phone number to call for dotMac ... the automated 1-800 number for Apple support actually hung up on me after telling me the URL for web support.

But now we're in limbo-land. We like the shine of the Mac. The Mac works the way my brain works. My hypertasking wife lives for the 'one fewer click' mantra of the Mac interface. And our company is dependent on the Mac environment, from .Mac for information sharing to iWeb for building our website.

We don't want to go back to the PC, but the Mac is giving us fits. What ever happened to the AS/400, the greenscreen, the halcyon days of glass houses and hard-wired VT-100s? What ever happened to the build quality of the PowerBook G4s and the IBM ThinkPads?

Maybe it's time for a Dell.
Yeah, no.
We're stuck.


Sanding off the edges of the MacBook wrist rest
The Ledge, a product to protect your wrists when using the MacBook


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