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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Macbook: the Force is strong in this one.


  • Pretty. Ya, this is good, but sometimes I feel like I'm going to open it up and it's going to be full of different shades of eye shadow. There are a lot of people out there who probably aren't man enough to carry one of these around.

  • But it's slim, so it's easily hidden out of sight if you're feeling insecure about your manhood.

  • The keyboard feel is nice and it's probably easier to clean than a standard keyboard.
  • The trackpad click is silent and has a sophisticated feel. It's not cheap and clicky.
  • It's quiet. It's so quiet that I've taken to confirming it's totally asleep by feel instead of sound.
  • Tends to "just work". Installed a beta of Skype to use video conferencing. No configuration needed to get the camera working. It just worked. I plug my camera in to import images, iPhoto required no prompting, it just knew, and it just worked.

  • The OS supports multiple workspaces. The current implementation is user based desktops. If you log on as one user you'll see a different desktop than if you log on as a different user. The difference here is that you can have more than one user logged on at once. Only one is active, but the workspace (which applications and documents are open, etc.) is retained for the inactive user. This is handy if you have more than one person using the machine.

  • Software installs are easy. Install is easy and then software usually just works.

  • Onboard camera and iPhoto, PhotoBooth, iMovie, etc. rock for home use. I have found that these applications aren't very deep. They don't have a lot of functionality. They tend to do very few things, but do them well. The problem here is that you have to conform to the way the applications want you to work. If you bend to their will, like the willow in the wind, the learning curve is quick and the results are polished.

  • The magnetic power cord is one of the best innovations I've ever had the pleasure of using. You get the thing close and it just goes to where you want it. It's like using a little bit of The Force every time you plug it in. This makes me feel like a Padawan.

  • You don't need to know Unix lurks underneath. But if you do know, you're happy about it.


  • Palm rest ends in sharp edge that cuts into my wrists. My grade-school typing teacher would suggest not resting my wrists, but holding them poised above the keyboard. Maybe the palm rest was designed by a typing teacher.

  • Only MacBookPro has the lit keyboard, but looking at the screen in the dark is bad for your eyes anyway. I know, right?

  • The name: MacBook (it's just the wrong name for the thing. "Can I get a MacBook with cheese, large fries and a vanilla milkshake?")

  • Early on it did suffer from the random crash thing. I think from overheating, I think from improperly applied heat transfer goop, that I think must have smooshed around to being properly applied thereby fixing itself as I find many things do if you leave them to their own devices for long enough.

  • Can't close screen without putting the thing to sleep, so screen must be up while listening to music through iTunes which prevents me from secreting it in the black goods cupboard when entertaining guests.

  • I use AirPort Express to pump music to the home stereo on the other side of the room. But AirPort Express only works with iTunes. This sucks because I'd like to listen to DVDs, watch TV, QuickTime videos, etc. through the stereo too. Surely audio-out is audio-out. There's no technical reason I shouldn't be able to use the AirPort Express with any audio. I'm fairly sure there's a $$ reason behind this limitation, but I'm not bothered enough yet to try to hack around it. This works great. It works seamlessly, and it just works out of the box. No configuration or any schenanigans needed.

  • While I'm on the hobbled-application rant, it seems like every Apple application (iThis and iThat) that is "web enabled" or able to publish, goes out of its way to prevent you from publishing anywhere but apple.com. That's the sort of proprietary thinking that's kept Apple in the computing periphery for so long. It's crap to interface to an open architecture like the internet through the pinhole camera of one domain.

  • Also applications like iPhoto and iTunes default to using their own library directories to store your media. The directory structures are labyrinthine and manifold. This affords all of the disadvantages of a database with none of the advantages. It's crap and just makes using the application in unintended ways more difficult than it needs to be. Sure I've found ways around these inconveniences, but I'm also sure there were more elegant ways to solve these problems.

  • Applications in multiple workspaces are only active when in the foreground even though it's Unix under the covers and should be able to allow processes to run the background (i.e. I'd like iTunes to be able continue to run when I switch workspaces/users. I believe this is being addressed somewhere in future operating system releases.
  • My ZIO CF memory card reader doesn't "just work", so I import images directly with the camera which requires that I have charged batteries for the camera.

  • Glossy screen instead of matte finish. It's nice when it's new and the room is dark. But I'm finding it difficult to keep clean. Hand prints (toddlers tend to look with their hands) make it very difficult to see things in bright conditions.

You might notice that the good list is shorter than the bad list, but that's not because I think the macbook is more bad than good. It's actually the opposite. With Apple doing the design and innovation, with Unix under the covers, and with the predominant experience of "it just works" the bads stand out as exceptions. It's like getting laksa splashback on your new white shirt. The shirt is still mostly fine and perfectly capable of keeping your nipples concealed, but it's no longer the ideal that was your new shirt.

Let's face it, the more the computer gives, the more we require. And the more we require, the more complex it becomes. Higher complexity invites uncertainty, which manifests itself as error or other bad things. So the producers of hardware and software "strive". Choosing one flavor over another becomes a political or aesthetic statement about what you endorse as worthwhile to strive for.

It's taken me a long time to make peace with elitism. But buying a macbook surely is analogous to a wedding ring in that uneasy relationship. Probably the only thing surprising about this admission is the idea that I ever considered myself anything but an elitist. I guess declaring elitism was never before as important as it is now. Having emigrated to a country that prides and derides itself in cutting down the tall poppy and watching as my country of birth slides slowly into a quasi-Maoist anti-elitism, I'm finding it necessary to point out that elite is not bad.

Top Gun was a film that celebrated the elite. The film that encapsulated the heady heydays of .com this and eThat was not Stripes. It was a peek into the peak of achievement. And I expect American school children of the future will read in history books that Ronald Reagan and Tom Cruise single handedly toppled the USSR - Mission Accomplished!. In light of that, how can elite be bad?

As fellow elitist Robert Hughes put it on recently Andrew Denton's Enough Rope; "Australians like to think what blazing democrats they are, but actually it’s in their addiction to competitive sport [that] they are total unrepentant, unregenerate, unrelenting elitists.”....“When I say I’m an elitist, I don’t mean I’m an elitist in the social sense. I don’t believe in social snobbery or any of that stuff. But I do mean simply that I’m one of that class of people who prefers well-made things to badly-made things, who prefers articulate speech to mumbling, all those kind of skills and capacities add up for me to elitism. It’s a preference for the best you can do, or get.”

If we demand that much of our sporting heroes, to deride the same in our elected leaders is hypocrisy bordering on the criminally insane. I'm not sure about this, but the mediocre tide seems to be ebbing a little. In a sporting metaphor you might say: the "thumping" Bush mentioned after the mid-term elections was the sound of 50 million Americans stepping on the front foot (the sport somewhat ironically being cricket, Queen of sports. Polo being King of the sporting monarchy). I'd love to see the day where it's not political poison to be branded "the smart one" or "a thinking man's candidate". Until that day...

The irony of taking on elitism is that I've had to abandon idealism. I think there's a fair bit of this going around. The nation-building in Iraq was meant to be the template for a neo-conservative
state. The quickly devolving fact of Paul Bremmer's failure to pummel Iraq into shape with the blunt instrument of idealism was the final nail for the neo-cons ( and for me). The list of man-made failed states is roughly as long as the list of prescriptively idealist regimes.

Also ironic is that elitism is by its nature socially conservative, relying on a consensus establishment view of excellence, but ideologically liberal. The ground is always shifting for the elite, always looking for new peaks. It's the opposite for idealists who prescribe social liberalism and exercise ideology dogmatically. The effect is necessarily staid and conservative. As the bumper-sticker puts it, "conservative: a liberal who doesn't change his mind about anything for more than 10 years"

I've ranged a bit from a purely observational review of the macbook, but only to provide some context. You need to know that I'm not a Mac zealot, that I didn't "switch" from PC. I still use one at work. It's perfectly suitable for those tasks. And there's no reason the review of an artifact like the macbook, a designed statement as emblematic of the naughties as the iPod, shouldn't bear as much weight as art or architecture.

You're wondering if I go to this extent of deconstruction for everything I buy? Everything except wine. I enjoy the mystery and economy of a clean-skin too much to pass up.

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