Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Thinking of a MacBook

What Needs Replacing

I'm long overdue for a new laptop. My last was a Dell Latitude C810, purchased in 2001 for college. It served me well for many years, but now it's pretty much dead. Reassembling it from the baseboard up helped matters, but it would still need a new hard drive to regain any usefulness, and the LCD screen isn't at its best. Even then, I'd be limited to 512 MB Ram, USB 1.1, 10/100 wired Ethernet, no DVD writing, and faced with a number of other limitations.

While I have a slightly newer desktop that now serves as my primary PC, it is also going on 4 years old, was already slightly dated when I built it to save on costs, and is certainly beginning to show its age. While it's still meeting my needs, I'm looking to choose a "desktop replacement"-type laptop to become my primary PC.

For a while, I've been looking at getting today's version of the Latitude. A D830 would support up to 4 GB Ram, 256 MB video memory, Gigabit Ethernet, and all of today's "basic essentials", including USB 2.0, DVD+/-RW, 802.11 a/b/g Wireless Ethernet. Built-in Bluetooth is available, which is great for synchronizing my Palm Treo, as well as accessories e.g. cordless mice. The D830 (not D630) also has a IEEE 1394/FireWire port, necessary for some of the A/V gear I have.

A well-configured Dell Latitude D830 system currently prices out at about $2,600:

  • Intel Core Duo T7800 (2.60GHz) 4M L2 Cache, 800MHz Dual Core
  • 2.0GB, DDR2-667 SDRAM, 2 DIMMS
  • Windows XP Pro/Vista Ultimate
  • 256MB NVIDIA® Quadro NVS 140M Graphics
  • 15.4" WUXGA LCD
  • 160GB Hard Drive, 9.5MM, 7200RPM
  • 8X DVD+/-RW
  • No Docking Station

Some Features Still Missing

Unfortunately, even Dell's premiere Latitude line always seems to be lacking in a few places, and even the D830 isn't an exception. There's no DVI output, and no apparent digital audio outputs (though getting a D/Port or a D/Dock docking station provides both). IEEE 1394b/FireWire 800 has been available since 2003, but is not yet included. The processor and chipset are both apparently 64-bit, but Dell doesn't provide any support beyond 32-bit.

Enter the Apple MacBook Pro

Now, while focusing entirely on hardware and ignoring the software, the Apple MacBook Pro looks very enticing, even if a little more expensive. For about $3,150, I can configure a MacBook with almost identical specifications:

  • 2.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 2GB 667 DDR2 - 2x1GB SO-DIMMs
  • Mac OS X Leopard
  • NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics processor with dual-link DVI support and 256MB of GDDR3 SDRAM
  • MacBook Pro 17-inch High-Resolution Widescreen Display (WUXGA)
  • 160GB Serial ATA Drive @ 5400 rpm
  • SuperDrive 8x (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)

The only option I couldn't match too closely was the hard drive. While I matched the capacities at 160 GB, the Latitude runs at 7200 rpm, while the MacBook is 5400 rpm. Apple offers a 200 GB drive that runs at 7200 rpm, though for an extra $200.

Though the MacBook Pro seems to cost about $500 more than the Latitude D830, the MacBook Pro seems to offer a number of features that the Latitude can't compare to, including:

  • FireWire 800 / IEEE 1394b
  • Combined analog/optical digital on audio input and output
  • DVI output
  • Slot-loading optical drive
  • MagSafe Power Adapter
  • Built-in camera (iSight)
  • Apple Remote

The list of items that the Latitude D830 has but that I find missing from the MacBook Pro is rather short. Currently:

The lack of a 2nd mouse button also concerns me somewhat. I know there are numerous work-arounds, including the use of an external mouse (which would also resolve the missing Pointing Stick issue), but it's still a concern. I found a related article that expresses my concerns quite well: Apple’s One Button MacBook Pro Mistake (Apple Matters).

Running Windows: Boot Camp and Parallels

While I definitely don't mind using a Mac, I still feel that I'd be too limited without also being able to run Windows. This wouldn't be so much of an issue if everyone released multi-platform software. Unfortunately, even today, this is not the case - though the situation does seem to be improving, especially with open source software.

Fortunately, there has been considerable improvement in recent years to target this problem, including Apple's Boot Camp and virtualization software such as Parallels Desktop for Mac.

Since Apple is now running on Intel-based hardware, this allows Windows to run natively on Apple hardware. Apple is providing official support for this through their Boot Camp utility. This has allowed Windows to run just as well on a Mac as well as it does on a PC - and as some reports claim, sometimes even better. My primary concern with Boot Camp is comprehensive driver support for Windows and other operating systems - especially when going 64-bit.

Use of virtualization software such as Parallels also looks quite promising. While virtualization usually results in a rather large performance hit, support for Intel's Virtualization Technology (VT) helps to eliminate the concern. Unfortunately 3D graphics and accessing other non-core hardware still seem to pose some significant challenges. VMware Fusion is another possible alternative.

Though a bit dated, one article I found a bit helpful was Apple's MacBook Pro: Using it as a Mac and a PC (AnandTech).


One thing that would really help with the decision would be the opportunity to "test drive" a generic MacBook for even just 3 days - without having to commit to a purchase. (Having the fastest processor, largest screen, or the largest hard drive would not be issues for consideration.) Install Windows and some of my other software that isn't available for the Mac OS - using both Boot Camp and Parallels or other virtualization software, and get a real feel for which problems are real, resolved, or unexpected.

I've mainly documented everything here for my own reference, as I don't plan on making a purchase until closer to mid-year. However, I hope that the information here may prove useful to someone else. Additionally, if anyone thinks that something is missing or needs correcting, or if you have a suggestion regarding the choices, please feel free to comment!

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