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Deciding on a Laptop

October 18th, 2008

So I went to Akihabara today, after visiting some electronic stores in Ikebukuro, to see what I could find out about my alternatives for buying a new Macbook Pro. This was the first time I saw the units in person, and, as expected, the monitors were glossier than ever. I never really liked the glossy displays used up until now, but this one was even more reflective. The upside was that it protects the LCD screen better–the glass used makes it hard to disturb the picture by poking it–and the new LED backlighting makes the display a lot brighter than even the previous bright monitors, partially canceling out the glare issue. It’s not good, but not quite as bad as I’d feared.

Newmbp01The trackpad, on the other hand, is great. Very sensitive, very smooth, very large. I never liked having it in touch-tap mode before, but on all the units I played with it was active–and it worked a lot better than I remembered. I could get pop-up menus just by laying two fingers on the trackpad, very natural. And the click-anywhere feature is very nice, meaning you don’t have to aim and reach for the button location. Finally, the new gestures–three-fingered swipes to go to the next image/page, four-fingered brushes up and down to activate Exposé–felt easy to remember and execute. I would definitely miss having this new trackpad.

In fact, I also was pleasantly surprised by the keyboard; when I tried it out, it was smooth and effortless; I have problems with some keyboards, but I loved this one.

The Firewire port issue is not so bad; I even bought an 800-400 FW cable from a cable shop in Akihabara whether or not I wound up buying the new Macbook, figuring it could be used in my old Powerbook anyway.

The TV-out thing still burns, but there is a solution for me. I use my computer at work mostly in a lab, and can hook up via a VGA splitter box that’s in the lab under the teacher’s computer station. I’ll need to lug around a VGA cable, a long one in case I need to set my computer at a distance, but I found a fairly lightweight 5m cable at the same shop I got the FW cable from. For other situations, I can use the new LCD projector the school got if I really need to use a display in any other room. I won’t like not being able to plug into any TV I like, but I should be able to live with it.

All that, plus Apple claims that battery life is better–five hours, they say, but we all know that computer makers always pad that spec quite a bit. Still, the battery looks pretty easy to swap out, and now the HDD can be swapped out as well.

Nevertheless, I was still attracted by the thought of saving a bunch of money on a previous-model Macbook Pro priced down. However, that didn’t work out like I’d hoped. Despite being out of date and in clearance-sale mode, the old MacBook Pro still has a set price–everyone sells it for ¥184,800 ($1819), which is not all that great a savings off the Apple Store education price of ¥218,800 ($2153). Yeah, it’s lower, but not by as much as I’d hoped. Plus, swapping out the 2GB of RAM for my desired 4GB was more expensive than the Apple Store charges for the built-to-order model.


But here’s the kicker, which I didn’t think about earlier: the previous-version Macbook Pros on sale in stores now only come with the Japanese keyboard. And I really dislike that keyboard, a lot. I’d much rather deal with a reflective screen than a Japanese keyboard.

I played around with the idea of buying a refurbished 17-inch Macbook Pro with a U.S. keyboard currently selling on the Apple Store Japan site; it sells for the same base price as the new 15“ Macbook Pros at education prices. But they won’t swap out the RAM for the usual prices, and that would hike the cost higher–pus, although I’d love the huge screen, I don’t think I would be able to fit it in my backpack, and it might be heavier than I would like to schlep everywhere.

So it came back to the new Macbook Pros, with the screen problems. I was mollified by seeing it in person, the glare not being entirely as bad as I’d expected–but still bad–and the brightness overcoming that some. Using it as-is, I would definitely have to position it right to avoid having parts of the screen blocked out. In my current office situation, there’s a large window behind me, and that would be a deal-killer; however, in a week, we redesign the office layout, and I’ll have a wall behind me. Classrooms are similarly not a problem, as I’ll always have my back to a whiteboard and a wall. At home, it won’t be a problem, and I don’t use my laptop outdoors much.

One more possible solution: matte screen films. Just like the ones that take the glare off the iPhone, there are films for monitors as well. Having seen some displayed a stores, I can see it’s a bit of a risk: on some monitors, the film produces a gritty, grimy appearance in bright areas that are otherwise perfectly smooth and bright without the film; on other monitors, it’s perfectly acceptable. Finding a store where they could show me different brands was a chore, and at the best one, the floor guy seemed not to have a clue as to which films on display were which. So I might have to buy one or two before I find one that works–not too cheap, at about ¥1500 a pop or so. I’ll also have to buy a 17” film and cut it down to match the Macbook Pro’s screen size. I’m still not even sure I’ll wind up keeping it–I’ll use the Macbook for a week or two and see if I can live with the reflectiveness as-is.

So, in a few minutes I’ll put in my order–with options for 4GB of RAM and a 7200 RPM HDD, not to mention the U.S. keyboard. I’ll also get a video adaptor, probably Mini DisplayPort-to-VGA; Apple claims that you can’t add on other adaptors to that one, such as a VGA-to-DVI. They even claimed that a Mini DisplayPort-to-DVI cannot accept a DVI-to-HDMI adaptor hooked on.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that Apple just says all of this stuff to avoid being responsible for wiggy connectors. No one on the Apple discussions site claims to have tried this. I’m buying, of course, on the presumption that the adaptors won’t work… but I will still try all of them anyway.

Update: OK, the order is placed. They say 1-2 weeks shipping time (grouse), but it often comes on the early end of the estimate, if past experience is a guide here. I got the 4 GB of RAM, 7200 rpm hard drive, the Mini DisplayPort-to-VGA adaptor–and the U.S. keyboard as well. I even went in for the Mobile Me subscription, priced down to $60 with the Macbook Pro purchase. Naturally, you can bet that I’ll blog on it when it comes.

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  1. October 24th, 2008 at 08:23 | #1

    I bought the new Alum Macbook on day one and I have to say that I think it’s just about the most beautiful thing that Apple has created to date. The more I look at it, the more I like it.

    I never liked the glossy screens either but after using glossy screens on my previous Macbook for a year I’ve learned to prefer this screen over the matte one. The color and contrast is just more vivid and usually at home I usually keep the light down anyways so I never have any reflection. However, wait til you see the display when it’s not on, it’s like a mirror, seriously. I don’t think you will be disappointed in the new Macbook/Macbook Pros.

    Unlike you, however, I prefer the Japanese keyboard to the English one. Mostly because I’ve owned most of my computers in Japan and am just used to it. The most irritating thing about English keyboards for me is the smaller/shorter ENTER key. I always end up hitting the backslash key above it by accident.

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