The Experiment Continues

The MacBook Pro has arrived, and for a nearly four year old PC it’s in very good nick. There’s one unfortunate scratch on the top lid, but otherwise it’s very clean and works well. The 8GB RAM I switched out when I upgraded the Alienware M17X fitted into the Mac with no problems, so it’s now up to its maximum RAM. Installing the 1TB SSD (Moore’s Law now applies to solid state storage!) was also trouble-free.

Installation of Windows was a bit of trial and error:

  1. I did a quick test installation of Windows under Apple’s "BootCamp" environment using the original disk, just to make sure everything worked. That was fine, but not really what I wanted to achieve, so…
  2. What I really wanted to do was clone one of my existing Dell/Alienware images, so I wouldn’t have to install everything from scratch. Restoring an Acronis disk backup and getting Windows to start the boot process was fairly trivial, but even after several hours fiddling Windows wouldn’t boot cleanly. There’s obviously some fundamental difference between the Mac hardware and all my native PCs at the driver level. So a full install it would be…
  3. I then went down another rabbit-hole, by trying to install OSX first, and run Windows under BootCamp.This might work well for someone who is going to use the machine 90% for OSX and 10% or less with a tiny Windows installation, but it’s fairly useless for the other way around. The main problem is that once you’ve run BootCamp the disk partitioning is completely locked down which leaves you with two large, inflexible partitions, one for each OS. So out with the Windows install disk again, and install Windows first…
  4. A clean install of Windows as the primary OS worked fine. You just need to make sure you have the Apple/BootCamp drivers on a USB stick (or pre-prepared on one of your hard disk backups). Windows’ File and Settings Transfer Wizard made a reasonable job of restoring most, but not all, of my settings, and the bulk of my data was on secondary disk partitions which could be restored from backups of my other laptops in their entirety, but it still took about a day’s work to install all the software. Your mileage may vary, as the Yanks say.

To start with the good news, this is a great stand-alone laptop, with a superb screen and very handy form-factor. The screen is bright, clean and viewing-angle tolerant, and I really do like the 16:10 form factor much better. The 1440×900 resolution is high enough, but not excessive (with the concomitant problems of small font sizes etc.). Why none of the mainstream PC manufacturers is just putting this display or something very like it into a slimline high performance model (such as the Dell XPS) is a complete mystery, but they’ve all gone down the 16:9 aspect ratio route, and I have yet to see a PC display which shares the other characteristics either. My big red Alien (maybe I should just start calling it/him "Optimus Prime") is nice and bright and the same vertical size (albeit in a 17" model), but quite intolerant of viewing angle.

Performance is pretty good. OK it’s no match for Optimus Prime, but few things are. However if the experiment works I may end up buying a newer and top spec MacPro which should redress the balance a bit.

The Mac keyboard is great for bulk typing (much better than the Dell Latitude), but the layout is a bit of a mystery and suffers from the usual Apple arrogance which I characterise as "if it was good enough for Steve Jobs, it’s good enough for everyone else". What’s the idea behind swapping the @ and " symbols on a British keyboard, for example? I’m getting used to using the Fn+arrow keys instead of Page Up/Down etc., but the lack of a proper "Delete" key is really clumsy. Fortunately there’s a reasonably easy fix using the excellent little SharpKeys utility, so I now have F12 set up to do this. Similarly, why, in the age of Twitter do we have the fairly useless § and `, but no hash key?

Where the Mac does lose out is external connectivity. Optimus Prime, and his smaller Dell Latitude cousin, both expose USB 2, USB 3, e-Sata and dedicated VGA and HDMI ports. I do a lot of plugging into projectors and external screens, and the Alienware/Dell solution "just works". The Mac has two USB 2 ports, fine, and a FireWire port which seems to work as well with big external disks as the e-Sata ports on my other machines. However everything else, including external display feeds, is channelled through the "ThunderBolt" port.

ThunderBolt seems to be a rather clumsy and immature technology, and I haven’t managed to get it working yet. Known issues include the fact that although the connector is identical to the "mini display port" on a lot of recent PCs, it’s electrically different and the two standards won’t inter-operate. I suspect that I have received a mini-display port display adapter, not a ThunderBolt one. However even when I do get the right hardware, there seem to be some serious limitations. ThunderBolt hardware is not hot-pluggable, and has to be plugged in permanently from start-up to be recognised. While it’s connected the PC can’t sleep (because that would disconnect the ThunderBolt hardware). This is a long way from what I’m used to, and might amount to a "deal breaker". The experiments continue.

One last moan for now. I managed to leave my power supply at home yesterday. No problem, I thought, several of my colleagues use MacBooks and I’ll just borrow one of theirs to recharge, and then work from the battery (which has quite good life). First attempt failed, as Geoff’s Mac is about a year older than mine, and the power connector is completely different. Second attempt was a temporary fix, as Reuben’s laptop is the same age as mine, but not a solution for the whole week. A visit to PC world uncovered two options, as Apple have changed the connector again since my laptop was in production, and it took some time to find someone who knew which was which. This is a long way from Dell, where everything from the tiny power supplies for the projectors through to the brick which drives Optimus Prime are 100% interchangeable.

Oh well. Onwards and upwards…

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