Saturday, October 18, 2008

To buy, or not to buy...

For about the last year I've been thinking about a replacement for my 2005 model 12" PowerBook G4, so I was eagerly awaiting Apple's notebook announcement on 14th October. Hoping an irresistible new Apple laptop would come along that was a worthy successor to my 12" PowerBook, the hard drive of which is rapidly filling with photos and video, and the battery now only lasts a few minutes.

Unfortunately Apple put the cat among the pigeons with the new Aluminium 13" MacBook. While it is undoubtedly a sexy looking piece of kit (although I have yet to see it in the flesh - or more accurately, in the aluminium and glass), I have a number of concerns that make me a bit apprehensive over the potential purchase.

First the good things...

Apple are touting the video chipset in the new MacBook as being 5x faster than that in the plastic MacBooks. Mac OS X always has been, and no doubt will continue to be, taxing of graphics hardware. The more juice there is there the better. (And if there's any chance of hardware assisted video decoding, that would be nice too).

Replacing the hard drive in the new MacBook looks like it will be supremely easy. Having read the disassembly instructions required to replace the HDD in the PowerBook I've been put off replacing it myself.

The unit certainly looks nicely built. Machining the entire case out of a single piece of aluminium is supposed to give the case more rigidity. And as a side-effect makes the machine look like it's just beamed down from an alien space station.

The weight of the new MacBook (2.04kg) is almost the same as the 12" PowerBook (2.07kg), and is 10% lighter than the previous MacBook (2.27kg).

Now the not so good things...

The most obvious drawback is the omission of the FireWire port that was present on previous MacBooks. I have FireWire on my PowerBook, and I do use it on occasion. Mostly to do DVD burning - the PowerBook only has a combo drive, so I have a external disk enclosure with a DVD-Everything writer in that I use when I need to burn a DVD. The new MacBook comes with a internal SuperDrive, so DVD burning shouldn't be a problem. Even so, the enclosure I bought has both USB and FireWire interfaces, so I should be able to continue to use it anyway. We also have a 500GB external drive - mostly connected to Caroline's iMac by FireWire - but that also has a USB connection, so that should work OK. (Although I always liked the idea of having a separate bus for an external drive that was receiving serious use). The only peripheral I have that is FireWire or nothing is my DV camcorder. Although I don't use it much, I have knocked up the odd video in iMovie, and being able to do the whole thing on the PowerBook was very neat. In the future I'm more likely to make the odd little film assembled from clips captured on my digital camera. I am very unlikely to follow Steve Jobs (reported) compassionate advice and just buy a new camcorder.

The loss of the FireWire port does make me feel uneasy though. One of the pleasant things about the PowerBook has been the connectivity it has. Most things (with the notable exception of a couple of SCSI devices I have) just plug in and work. And when I have done audio recording on it with an external drive both the USB ports and the FireWire port have been in use, and the captured audio (on the USB bus) has no impact on the disk activity (on the FireWire bus). I wonder if an entirely USB solution will work as well. (There may be separate USB busses, but I would have to put a hub onto one of the USB ports to be able to connect everything - overall the new model has fewer ports).

As I have said, the connectivity of the PowerBook has been very useful. When I got the PowerBook it came with VGA and DVI adapters (both of which I have used), but I had to buy a separate composite video adapter (which was another story). The new MacBook comes with none of these. The VGA and DVI adapters are £20 each, and there doesn't seem to be a composite video adapter, so I fear that it may not be possible to connect this machine to an analog TV (or video mixer), which would mean I wouldn't be able to use it as a PVR in the way I use the PowerBook. Unless I buy a new TV of course (which I have been meaning to do for some years, but never quite get around to doing).

I always thought the white acrylic iBook G4 was a rather fetching machine, and I even owned one very briefly (the 14" model) before trading up to a 12" PowerBook G4 (which always seemed to fit better at the top of the iBook line than the bottom of the PowerBook line). The new MacBook is machined out of a single block of aluminium, with a glossy glass display. It certainly looks sexy in the pictures, but I wonder if the WiFi reception is as good as the plastic MacBooks, and how viewable the glossy screen is. (Certainly I would like a wider viewing angle for the display than my current PowerBook can manage).

Another big disappointment is the price. Before the announcement I had specced out one of the white MacBooks (2.4GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB HDD) for £829, plus £100 to upgrade the RAM to 4GB from Crucial. The closest equivalent for the new MacBook (2.0GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB HDD) is £949, again you can upgrade the RAM to 4GB for £100 from Crucial. That's £120 more for a computer with 20% slower CPU, no FireWire and no composite video out. If you add in the cost of extra video connectors the price is almost the same as I paid for the PowerBook more than 3 years ago. (And this is without the additional cost of buying a new (non-FireWire) camcorder, and a new (HDMI) TV that Apple seem to think you need to do).

So as yet I am undecided. It might just be that Apple has got the balance between form and functionality a little too much in favour of the former for my liking.