We spent some time this week poking and prodding the new MacBook Pro laptop Apple unveiled at MacWorld Conference and Expo 2006, as well as test-driving Apple's nifty new iWeb web site management software. Here are some first impressions:
While we use both Windows and Mac systems here about equally, the superb design of the 15 inch Powerbook G4 has meant that we've favoured it for road use, as long as what we're doing doesn't include RAW conversion or other heavy-duty image processing that needs to get done in a hurry. That's because, for all of the strengths of the current Powerbook line, they're slow. There's no getting around the fact that a G4 processor, even running at 1.67GHz, is a performance dog in 2006. For plowing through email or surfing the web it's not a problem, but for converting D2X NEF’s in Capture or EOS-1Ds Mark II CR2's in Digital Photo Professional, the lack of processing muscle is a deal-stopper that sends us straight into the arms of the Dell and Toshiba laptops we also own.
Enter the MacBook Pro. It is for all intents and purposes a 15 inch Powerbook with a CPU transplant in the form of an Intel Core Duo processor running at either 1.67GHz or 1.83GHz. Sure, Apple has added a few features and taken a few away also, and we'll get to those in a moment. But the core goodness of the 15 inch Powerbook, including what we expect will be the best screen for photo work that's available in a laptop, is intact (the 1280 x 854 pixel screen in several generations of 15 inch Powerbook has been our gold standard for notebook displays).
Note: The MacBook Pro contains a 15.4 inch, 1440 x 900 pixel LCD display, rather than the 15.2 inch, 1440 x 960 pixel one introduced in the 15 inch Powerbook G4 in October 2005.
MacBook Pro (Photo courtesy Apple)
In fact, if it weren't for the cycloptic eye of the iSight video camera in the bezel above the screen, the new model could easily be mistaken for any of several earlier generations of aluminum-clad Powerbook 15 inch models, so similar is the look and feel of the new machine. And that's a good thing. What we've been hoping for from Apple, since the company announced in mid-2005 their plan to move to Intel, is a Powerbook 15 inch with a dual-core Intel processor.
Judging by how the new, Intel-optimized applications in iLife '06 and iWork '06 zip along on both the MacBookPro (and the new Intel Core Duo-based iMacs), there's every reason to be optimistic about the performance of the MacBook Pro for the working shooter. iPhoto, iMovie, Keynote and Pages: these are all applications we've run on a 1.67GHz G4 Powerbook, and have a pretty good sense of how fast they aren't for certain tasks (at least the previous iterations that are part of iLife '05 and the original iWork suite). The whole feel of these programs is so much snappier on a MacBook Pro; Pages in particular acts like it's an entirely different application, even when documents with oversized pictures are being manipulated. Keynote has a spring in its step we've not experienced before on a Mac notebook, it's more like running it on a dual-processor G5 desktop. In iPhoto, scrolling through vast reams of pictures and converting RAW files to 16-bit TIFFs (a new option in iPhoto 6) happens promptly and with conviction.
Combine the Intel Core Duo processor with the new laptop's ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics card and we're optimistic - giddy, even - that as pro imaging applications get the Intel-optimizing Universal Binary treatment, that a MacBook Pro is going to be an exceptional tool for the photographer who works in the field.
That's the good news. But the story of the MacBook Pro is not all sunshine and blue skies. First, there are some curious changes to the hardware. While the addition of a built-in iSight videoconferencing camera and IR sensor for the included Apple Remote is all good, the decision to not include a FireWire 800 port, internal modem or S-video out capability may impact the usefulness of the new laptop for some.
Solving the modem and video-out limitations are easy enough:
First, Apple makes a diminuitive and relatively inexpensive external USB Modem (shown at left) that should be adequate for those few times when dial-up is needed these days.
Second, a DVI-to-composite/S-video adapter is or will also be available (we're not clear on whether it's the same adapter that works with certain other DVI-equipped Macs).
Reinstating FireWire 800 will be as simple as purchasing an aftermarket PC Card. Oops, scratch that: a PC Card slot has been scrubbed in favour of a 34mm-wide ExpressCard/34 slot (the MacBook Pro doesn't support 54mm-wide ExpressCard/54 cards). The ExpressCard specification was published in the fall of 2003, is a melding of PCI Express and USB 2.0 technologies and is the follow-on to the venerable CardBus PC Card.
But its adoption in computers has been slow. As such, neither our questioning of Apple representatives at the show, nor querying a number of accessory makers, nor even a Google search turned up a shipping ExpressCard/34 that would help plug the FireWire 800 hole in the MacBook Pro's specifications (and the only upcoming FireWire 800 ExpressCard we could locate is for 54mm slots). In a recent interview with DigiTimes, the head of the organization that developed the ExpressCard specification pegged broad acceptance of the new expansion card format as coming in the latter half of 2007. It seems unlikely, then, that there will be many ExpressCards to choose from during the product cycle of this first MacBook Pro.
We did stumble upon one glimmer of hope: Belkin is displaying a prototype single-port FireWire 400 ExpressCard/34 in their MacWorld booth. It's expected to ship in March 2006. The Belkin FireWire Express Card (shown at left) isn't Firewire 800, but it will at least provide a second FireWire port on the computer, with a benefit akin to the addition of a second FireWire bus as well. For high-throughput applications (simultaneous import of pictures from multiple CompactFlash cards in multiple FireWire readers out to an external FireWire mobile drive, for example), splitting data traveling over FireWire across more than one data bus could well be a performance booster, even without a Firewire 800 port in the mix. It would be more convenient to have two FireWire ports on the computer, but the Belkin product may go a long way towards filling the gap.
For those wedded to their Cardbus CompactFlash adapter from Delkin or Lexar, that 54mm-wide PC Card obviously isn't going to be compatible or even fit inside the MacBook Pro's 34mm-wide ExpressCard slot. Moreover, it's not possible to create an ExpressCard/34 version of it that would hold a CompactFlash card entirely inside the slot, since CompactFlash cards are a bit more than 40mm wide. We may see an ExpressCard adapter in which the CompactFlash card inserts into a reader housing outside the slot (attached much like the black plastic extension of the Belkin card shown above). But at that point it may well be more convenient to use an external FireWire or USB 2.0 card reader.
And finally, our ExpressCard search wasn't able to unearth much about when we might see wireless products in ExpressCard/34 size. ExpressCard/34 cards that support GPRS/EDGE, EVDO/1X and other mobile data transmission protocols, as well as Wi-Fi, appear to be in short supply. In short, Apple's decision to go with an ExpressCard slot over a PC Card slot appears to be a bit too cutting edge.
Perhaps the most significant limitation of all – at least in the near-term - is the dearth of Universal Binary applications for professional photographers. Camera Bits Photo Mechanic, our longtime photo browsing application, may be one the first non-Apple programs we depend on to ship in Intel-optimized form. Dennis Walker from Camera Bits says that most of the work has been done to make the application a Universal Binary, though the company has not committed to a release date.
Other browsers, RAW converters, image editors and plug-ins: it may be months before they’re released for Intel, while Photoshop isn’t likely to emerge in Universal Binary form until CS3. Many of these applications may work in the seamless emulation mode known as Rosetta that's part of the Intel version of the Mac OS. Plus, the sheer speed of Intel Inside may partly compensate for the performance drag of translating PowerPC instructions for the Core Duo processor. That’s also assuming that all important software not yet converted for Intel will run on the new machines; Apple’s own Aperture won’t. (A Universal Binary version of the program and other pro applications like Final Cut Pro are slated for release in March 2006).
Despite the lack of certain features in the MacBook Pro that are present in the 15 inchPowerbook G4, as well as the inevitable wait for certain important applications to ship as Universal Binaries, we're excited about Apple's first Intel-based laptop. The MacBook Pro looks to be a fine start to a new era in portable Mac computing.
Other random MacBook Pro observations
Upgrading the RAM in either the 1.67GHz or 1.83GHz models with aftermarket modules is made slightly less costly by the fact that Apple is shipping the stock configurations with a single RAM module in one of the two available RAM slots (the 1.67GHz comes with 512MB; the 1.83GHz, 1GB). For example, upgrading the 1.83GHz model from 1GB to 2GB is a simple matter of installing an additional 1GB module into the second RAM slot. If Apple had followed the more-common practice of shipping the 1.83GHz model with two 512MB DIMM's, for a total of 1GB of RAM, upgrading to 2GB would mean purchasing two 1GB RAM modules and tossing aside the two 512MB RAM modules already inside. The modules themselves are 667MHz PC2-5300 DDR2 SDRAM SO-DIMM's, and they are user-installable. As with recent Powerbooks, changing RAM is simple: the slots are located behind a small, easily-removed cover on the bottom of the laptop.
The 1440 x 900 pixel screen in the MacBook Pro appears to be free of the thin black lines problem reported by some users of the Powerbook G4 15 inch released in October 2005 (which, incidentally, has not been replaced by the MacBook Pro in Apple's laptop lineup). At least this is true of the MacBook Pro's we examined at MacWorld 2006, when viewed under the somewhat harsh overhead lighting of San Francisco's Moscone Center.
There is no battery life specification for the MacBook Pro and its 60-watt-hour Lithium Polymer battery yet. Demo staff in the Apple booth at MacWorld seemed to be delivering the same message: the specification is still being developed but that it will be "decent," in the words of one.
The MacBook Pro's on display at MacWorld 2006 were hot. Literally. The bottom of the laptop, in the area roughly opposite the f-keys, felt every bit as warm as a Powerbook G4 running full tilt.
The MacBook Pro is skinny. It's remarkable how noticeable a 0.1 inch reduction in height is, compared to the 15 inch Powerbook G4.
MacBook Pro (Photo courtesy Apple)
The MagSafe power connector is a great idea. We've not had a computer or AC adapter damaged by someone hooking their foot on the power cord, but there have been plenty of close calls. So, the new all-magnetic linkage of the power connector to the MacBook Pro is a welcome design change. It does mean, however, that third party adapters and other power sources, such as the Digital Camera Battery we use, won't be able to power the MacBook Pro until these makers develop MagSafe-compatible cables.
Gone is the Processor Performance control of the Energy Saver System Preference. The power-saving features of the Intel Core Duo, including its ability to switch off one of its two cores when performing lighter processing duties, are managed automatically.
The video streaming from the built-in iSight videoconferencing camera looks to have the same level of clarity and non-fisheye appearance as the external iSight model, which is great. As a road warrior with two young boys, the iSight/iChat combo has been a fabulous way to stay in touch with family back home. Having the iSight built into the laptop itself only sweetens the deal.
The included slot-loading SuperDrive has a maximum write speed of 4X for all support DVD formats, and lacks the ability to burn double-layer DVDs. By comparison, the most recent 15 inch Powerbook G4 offers 8X writing of DVD+/-R discs (4X for other single-layer DVD formats) and can do double-layer DVD writing. This is an odd reduction in the capabilities of the SuperDrive, relative to the Powerbook model the MacBook Pro otherwise closely emulates.
Will the MacBook Pro do Windows? That's an open question. The guidance from Apple booth staff was non-committal: it might, but Apple will not be providing support for this. Look for the definitive answer to come from the world of computer geekdom in the days after the first Intel Macs are in customer's hands. Figuring out stuff like this is what hyper-caffeinated, sleep-deprived 15-year-old males do best.
The MacBook Pro is slated to ship in February 2006.
The new Intel-based Macs are the stars of MacWorld 2006, and will garner the most attention we expect as machines are delivered to photographers in the weeks ahead. The sleeper hit of the show, however, is iWeb, a new application that's part of Apple's iLife '06 suite. Meant to be a web design application for the rest of us, this seemingly humble little app is not to be underestimated. We were fortunate enough to be able to try it out for about 30 minutes, as well as pepper an Apple staffer involved in its development with questions. Our preliminary verdict? This application has the potential to make the melding of words and pictures on a static web page easier and just plain more fun that we've ever experienced before, without sacrificing the need for a sharp-looking and readily-modified layout in the process.
For example, the program is built around included web site layouts, or templates. But once a template has been selected for a given page, almost every aspect of it can be altered. From basic stuff like fonts and colours to the precise positioning of text and graphic elements, where automatically-generated navigation links will appear and more, it all can be changed. Building pages in iWeb is more like working in a simple but smart page layout program than it is a typical web page editor or even blogging software. And that on its own is something of a breakthrough.
iWeb's picture handling capabilities are equally impressive. A picture on an iWeb page can be resized, rotated, have a border, drop-shadow, a soft-crop (called a mask) and even a reflection added. This all happens dynamically in the layout, and in real-time on fast Mac, with a level of control over things like the colour and width of the border or the width, softness and angle of the drop shadow, that mirrors Keynote and Pages. In fact, if you're familiar with the basic picture controls in those applications, you already have a good idea of what can be accomplished in iWeb. Including the ability to add a reflection to the photo, which is a new feature in several iLife '06 applications.
But wait, there's more. Select a picture, click on the Adjust button and up pops an Adjust Image palette with controls for brightness, contrast, saturation, temperature, tint, sharpness and exposure, as well as a histogram and basic Levels control. For making last-minute tweaks to photos for a web site, including sharpening, having this functionality built right into iWeb looks super duper.
When iWeb publishes the site, the various adjustments applied to a picture in the layout are rendered on the fly and built into a new image file that is then uploaded to the web server. We don't know yet if iWeb can handle RAW files directly or whether the program performs certain essential behind-the-scenes tricks like converting pictures to sRGB for browser display. Assuming there are no wacky gotchas in its picture-handling pipeline, however, iWeb sure looks like a powerful way to prepare simple but attractive web sites, including ones that are laden with photos.
iWeb is part of iLife '06, which is shipping now.