Hands-on with the new MacBook Pro

Getting a few minutes with the new MacBook Pro at a local Apple retail store reveals quite a bit about the design and feel of the machine.

When Apple announced its new notebooks on Tuesday, it said the new machines would be in the company's retail stores the next day.

So I went to the Apple store at the Westfield Valley Fair mall in Santa Clara, Calif., after work on Wednesday. I got there a few minutes after 6 p.m. and discovered that an Apple technician was in the process of replacing an old MacBook Pro with the first one of the new models.

I positioned myself authoritatively about a foot from the tech's left elbow, so when he was done, I was the first customer to get my hands on the new machine.

Apple's new MacBook Pro
Apple's new MacBook Pro. Apple

It looked as good in real life as it does in the pictures. The tapered edges make it look thinner than it really is, considerably more svelte than the older MacBook Pros like mine.

A few things struck me about the new design. There's no latch for the lid, but some kind of cam in the hinge keeps it snugly closed unless it's opened on purpose. I don't think this would work as well with the old lid style because there's enough of an edge on there for incidental contact to overcome the hinge tension. But with the new extra-thin edge, the lid seems to resist accidental opening.

Unfortunately, like older MacBooks and PowerBooks, the machine starts to turn on when the lid is opened only slightly. I've never understood why these switches are so sensitive. It seems to me it would be better to wait until the machine is opened more like two or three inches to avoid accidental actuation, especially when there's no latch.

The trackpad was very nice, easily the best I've ever used. It also doesn't look or feel like glass. I can confirm that Apple thought of the same thing that I did in my previous post --a click with one finger generates a left-click, and a tap with two fingers generates a right-click. Awesome. So now Apple has the world's only two-button mouse that doesn't have any buttons at all, and it isn't even a mouse!

(I also tried three- and four-finger taps, but I couldn't see any difference in the behavior of the Finder. I wonder if that's something applications can detect, though.)

Too glossy
As for the new glass-face display: I'm sure it'll be great for watching movies in a dark room. I'm sure it'll be fine for most purposes, if you're in a dark room. And wearing dark clothing, and nothing shiny. But wow, I really don't like to see windows or lights or my clothing reflected in glossy displays, and the only way this new machine's display could be any more glare-prone is if it were mirrored like a highway cop's sunglasses.

I picked the machine up and turned it around in my hands, somewhat constrained by the attached power and Ethernet cables. It felt good in my hands. The surface finish is good-- not slippery, but not rough either. I gave the machine some light tweaking between my hands--both the lid and the base separately, as well as the whole machine with the lid closed--and in all tests, the new machine seemed to offer more torsional rigidity than my old MacBook Pro. So that says the new manufacturing techniques have paid off, at least in that respect.

The bottom covers for the battery/HD and RAM felt very securely attached, not rattly, and the seams were remarkably tight. I hope they stay that way over time, always a difficult thing to achieve with sheet aluminum, which is not the most stable material. (Cars, for example, could be built with even smaller gaps between doors and frames, but makers don't do that because the inevitable shifts over time would then be more conspicuous--and most cars are made out of steel.)

Apple used its snazzy technology for nearly-invisible indicator lights on the sleep indicator; you basically can't see the light unless it's on. (The same technology is used for the "on the air" light next to the Webcam on older MacBook Pros like mine, and it's really almost like magic.) Oddly, however, there's a short slot next to the indicator on the new machine that compromises the clean look Apple was presumably seeking with this design feature. I don't even know what the slot is for! My only guess is that it might have the infrared receiver for the Front Row remote control behind it.

Out of respect for the store, I didn't pop the battery cover off, though I am curious how that latch works. The latch is at one side, but it has to seal tight across a very long edge. That's usually difficult to arrange.

Sharper feel
The edge of the aluminum around the keyboard and palm rests does, indeed, feel sharper than the plastic on the older MacBook Pros. Not physically sharper, but the low friction of the old plastic makes the edge feel smoother because skin is less likely to hang up on it. Skin doesn't slide over the new aluminum edge nearly as easily.

Since the new machine had accumulated quite a crowd within just a few minutes while I examined these elements, I turned to a couple of guys on one side who had arrived shortly after I did, rubbed my palm across the edge of the new MacBook Pro a few times, did the same on the older model next to it, and asked them to do the same. Then I asked "does the new one feel sharper?" Both said yes. But we all also agreed that visually, they appeared to be about the same, so I think the answer is that Apple ought to round over this edge just a bit more.

And with that, I stepped back and let the rest of the crowd fight over the new machine. I didn't see any new MacBooks on that visit (and I couldn't get my iPhone power adapter replaced under the recall; they were out). But seeing the new Pro was enough to justify the visit. I love the looks, but I can't justify buying a new laptop right now. So I'll wait for the next refresh and hope those machines still look this good.

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About the author

    Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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