PC to Mac: My Not-So-Genius Switch
With the exception of a three-year love affair with Apple’s infamous Newton, I have been a Windows guy since switching to a PC from an Apple //e some 20+ years ago. Lately, with my Dell laptop’s CPU’s lonely single core becoming more and more of a performance bottleneck, I decided it was time to replace the ol' Dell Inspiron. Given that I’ve been interested for quite some time in making the move to Mac, I figured now was as good a time as any to make my new laptop a MacBook Pro. (I do have some experience using the Macs of friends and relatives, so this wasn’t a blind switch.) As it turns out, going from PC to Mac hasn't been a bed of roses for me, mostly due to issues of hardware.
The recent release of what is being called the “unibody” MacBooks seemed well-timed for me, as they represented the latest major update of the venerable MacBook line, and are very innovative in their case designs, the main chassis being carved from a single block of aluminum. This unibody construction seemed to me to be a great way to make an enormously rigid, durable chassis. One thing gave me a bit of pause, and that was the glossy glass screen that inevitably gets brought up in the discussion of these new MacBooks. I decided to see past my fears of the screen gloss, and committed to making the move to Mac.
I decided to custom order (online) the fastest, largest-hard-drive version of the unibody MacBook Pro currently available. (I’ll hereafter refer to the MacBook Pro as the “MBP.”) In case you don’t already know this and you’re considering going Mac, know that Macs are generally substantially more expensive (per unit performance) than competitively spec’d Windows laptops. To my mind, this general price difference can be called the price you pay for the great operating system that is Mac OS X, and it is a superior user environment, in my opinion. There is no arguing, however, the sticker shock that some might feel (myself included) when it's time to hit "add to cart"--my unibody MBP came to almost $3,500, including the $349 AppleCare Protection Plan (and sales tax).
As anyone who has purchased an Apple product can tell you--from the tiny iPod shuffle to a full-size Mac--few companies know how to create an awesome package-opening, product-unveiling experience like Apple can, and the new unibody MBP is no exception. The surprisingly small box it comes in (and the impressively minimal internal packaging bits) is a simple, elegant showcase for the beauty of the new MBP’s unibody chassis. Lifting the MBP out of the box reveals to the hands an immediate sense of solidity, the MBP’s body more inert feeling than any other laptop I’ve handled--I would suspect that it would take a rather great deal of force to deform the main chassis, and any sense of frame flex is all but eliminated. And the unibody is as gorgeous as it is strong, with gaps so small and uniform, tolerances so tight, that, when closed, results in the MBP looking like a smoothly sculpted solid aluminum slab. One imperfection I noticed was the crookedness of the MBP's F-keys row, the tops of the keys angled off-parallel (to the chassis) from key to key--I honestly did not care about this, as it could not be detected while typing, and so did not have any effect on functionality (but thought it worth mentioning for those who would care about such a thing).
Once I was past the joy that is Apple packaging and presentation, I opened that slab of aluminum up, and was greeted by what is easily the most reflective screen I’ve ever seen on a laptop--I was staring right back at me. I’ve seen this new screen style referred to as “glossy,” but, in the context of laptop displays, anything you’ve seen called “glossy” in the past probably pales in reflectivity to the level of shine exhibited by the new MacBooks’ screens, as they’re covered with a perfectly flat pane of just as perfectly reflective glass. Unfortunately, this mirror-smooth glass is the only display surface option available with the unibody MacBooks. There is one obvious positive to such a clear, clean pane of glass, and that’s how it allows the MBP display’s stellar image quality to shine right through unimpeded (assuming there are no glaring reflections at the time), and it is easily among the nicest displays I’ve seen from any laptop, being bright, and with good contrast and color, pretty impressive viewing angle performance, and, again, bright. The screen’s LED backlight does a great job, by the sheer force of candelas, in helping to overcome the reflectivity of the glass surface--most of the time, however, it doesn’t completely overcome the reflectivity problem (and, to my eyes, it is a problem).
<note> It is important to note that the unibody MacBook (the non-Pro Macbook) does not have a smaller version of the screen that comes with the MacBook Pro. It comes with a screen that is far less impressive: less bright, far less vibrant, far less contrasty, and with a rather high sensitivity to viewing angle. I say this only in comparison to the MBP’s screen, but thought it important to mention, as the MacBook otherwise looks exactly like a smaller version of the MBP, and so that assumption might be made. The MacBook Air’s screen--though the same size as a non-Pro MacBook--is a nicer display than the standard MacBook’s, so, if you want a 13” MacBook with an impressive screen, you might have to consider the much more expensive MacBook Air. </note>
Okay, so now I’m on the topic of the MBP’s screen, and this is where my first tale of Mac woe(s) originates. My first MBP (yes first in that there were eventually several) arrived with scratches smack dab in the middle of the screen. Had these scratches been off to the side more, I’d have accepted it and soldiered on. An immediate call to Apple Support was met with very polite and contrite customer service folks. I asked if I could just take it to a local Apple Store location to have the screen replaced, and they said that wasn’t an option at the time, so an arrangement for a replacement was made. I asked if they could do an advanced shipment of the replacement unit, so that I wouldn’t have to have a time gap between the scratched one and the replacement unit, but they apologetically said no. What I did, then, was to simply pay for the replacement unit, with a full refund pending the return of the first one, in order to prevent a time gap between units. While not an ideal solution, this is the best that can happen to prevent a gap because Apple doesn’t offer an on-site service option.
<note> This brings me to one of my first major points to consider when purchasing a Mac for business use: Again, Apple does not offer an on-site service option (that I’m aware of). What they do offer is a $349 AppleCare three-year "Protection Plan," but it’s not really a business-class warranty/support option, as far as I’m concerned. Coming from the world of Dell (almost all of my previous laptops were Dell), I’ve been spoiled by their on-site service options (not to mention available accidental damage coverage), with which (depending on the level of service you choose) the repair technician comes out to wherever you are to fix or replace whatever needs fixing or replacing, based on the result of your support telephone call leading up to the visit. (I believe they’ll even come to your hotel or off-site office if you’re out of town on business when the repair is needed.) Even if Apple offered an expensive $500+ option that offered on-site service, I’d be all over it. That they don’t is maybe the most primary reason for me not recommending Macs as a solid small business choice, as the best that can happen in the event of a malfunction is to have a local Apple Store around for you to take your Mac to if something goes wrong, in the hope that they can fix it on the spot. If that local Apple store can’t fix it, however, off to the repair depot your Mac goes, along with the productivity-killing wait of at least three business days, and quite probably even more, especially if you happen to have the unfortunate pre-weekend or weekend malfunction. Though I knew this before going in, I didn’t expect to have so many problems early on, as my previous Dells might have required, on average, one major service call in each of their service lifetimes with me. In my opinion, the lack of warranty options is a major issue for the business user to consider before switching from Windows to Mac. </note>
The second MacBook Pro arrived, and, sans screen scratches, it was identical to the first, crooked F-keys and all. But since the screen was pristine, I was very happy with it. Everything seemed to be working fine for about five weeks. But one evening while using it, the fans’ rotational speeds started going up and down, up and down, up and down. I downloaded a Dashboard widget called iStat Pro that gives a peek into the various temperature sensors, as well the speed of the fans. The fans were shooting up to 6000+ rpm, and then back down again in a rather rapid cycle, and I noticed this was happening when some of the temperature sensors started reading negative temperatures. I ran Apple’s included hardware diagnostics, and it returned an error code (4SNS/1/40000000:TG1H-128.000). I called Apple Support, and they immediately decided to issue another replacement. I told them I’d rather buy a non-custom unit from the local Apple Store than wait to receive another custom-spec'd replacement, just in case something went wrong yet again in the very early days of ownership. As a result, Apple issued me a full refund (upon return of MBP #2). I immediately ran to the local Apple Store, purchased the highest-level configuration available at the store, restored from backup to that machine, and then returned MacBook Pro #2 to Apple for the refund. (I should note that Apple did pay for all return shipping, too, and reimbursed the initial order's shipping charge. Also, I forgot to pack the USB modem and mini displayport adapter in my return package, and called to notify Apple so they could adjust the refund, and they instead let me keep those pieces for free.)
<note> Here’s another important thing to note: Yes, you can buy a more impressively spec’d Mac if you custom order from Apple’s online store than you can find in the physical store locations (because the brick-and-mortar Apple Stores only carry the standard configurations--and currently that means no fastest-available CPU, no 7200-rpm or SSD drives, etc. at the physical stores). Buying a custom unit, however, means a pretty solid chance of foregoing any shot at an in-store exchange, even if something goes wrong very early on. In other words, if you order custom, any malfunction will likely result in a send-to-depot service solution, which, again, will likely mean days without your Mac. </note>
The store-bought MacBook Pro #3 was initially more perfect than even the MacBook Pro #2 initially was. Though the sensors were acting up on #2, it was still functional, and I was using it until #3 was fully restored from backup. I had #2 and #3 side by side for a while, and noticed some differences. Both MBP's #1 and #2 had screen hinges that were far too loose, so placing the laptop on your lap and then angling your lap up resulted in the screen falling back and closing on you. However, MacBook Pro #3 had a substantially stiffer hinge (but still very smooth in its action) that completely eliminated the screen trying to close under its own weight during normal laptop use. MBP #3 had a cleaner , more consistent aluminum surface finish than MBP #2. Most noticeably, MBP #3 had a screen that wasn’t quite as bright as #2 (but that was still extremely bright), and had the significant advantage of displaying nicer, fuller colors, as well as noticeably better contrast.* (I had previously compared #1 to #2 side by side, and they had screens that looked identical to me.) Also, #3’s F-keys were all perfectly straight, unlike both of the previous units. In short, #3 seemed like bliss in the making. * Search the web for 9c84 and 9c85 displays on the the unibody MacBook Pro. Both MBP #1 and #2 had the 9c84 display; #3 had the 9c85 display. Some people prefer the brightness of 9c84; I personally much preferred the better color saturation and contrast of 9c85. After about a week with #3, a new wide-gamut 24” external display arrived (Hewlett-Packard LP2475w), and, lo, my beloved MBP #3 could not properly drive it--the combo resulted in noise, distortion, snow, and pixel flashing, but no solid picture. Testing the display with other laptops (Windows-based) exhibited perfect operation (and the new monitor looked fantastic with those). I called Apple Support, and the very helpful lady told me it was a known issue with no current fix, and e-mailed me a link to a discussion thread in Apple’s support forums in which many other unibody MBP owners were sharing their accounts of similar (and often identical) problems driving external displays, and what some of these folks were able to do to help ameliorate the display problem (but not everyone could make it better with any amount of tweaking, and I unfortunately fit in with that bunch). This problematic unibody MBP routine I was going through--this painful move to Mac--was starting to get [i]real[/i ] old, and was negatively impacting my productivity.
I set an appointment to meet with an Apple Genius at the local Apple Store I purchased #3 from. The “Genius” that was assigned to me was (and I can’t think of any other way to put it that wouldn’t be lying) an unmitigated ass. Whereas everyone I had theretofore dealt with at Apple was nice and helpful, the Genius seemed irritable from the get-go, and arrogant to boot. While there, I tested MBP #3 on the new 24” Apple Cinema Display, and it worked. I probably would have bought that display on the spot if it had more than a mini displayport connection--yes, that is the only connector type it has, meaning Apple's fancy new 24" display is currently only compatible with the unibody MacBooks, which also means none of my other computers would work with it, nixing it from further consideration. (Not even Apple’s own previous MacBooks can currently work with their new 24” Cinema Display, as there are no such adapters to make the fit. Don't get me started.) We tested MBP #3 on a 23” Apple Cinema Display, and it worked with that, too. At this point, Genius treated me as though I was the one causing the problem, or as if something was wrong with my new monitor (which he did specifically suggest). I reiterated that my new monitor worked fine with my other computers, and that many other unibody MBP owners were posting of identical problems, a couple of whom even posted links to YouTube videos that exhibited exactly what I was experiencing. When I reminded him again that it was a known issue with Apple Support (given his suggestions that the problem was not the MBP), he replied very gruffly, “Yes, I heard you the first time.” He then asked to see the e-mail message the support lady sent me, and I showed it to him. Reading this, he searched the support database, becoming increasingly irritable through it all, and then told me that (even though I had purchased this one just eight days prior) he had no option available to him to remedy the situation, and that I was just going to have to wait for a fix--I am not kidding, I am not exaggerating. I reminded him that some have been waiting for a fix for a couple of months to no avail, and that I needed a solution asap, even if it meant exchanging the unit for an entirely different model that could reliably drive external displays. (At that point, I was ready to go with the 17” MacBook Pro, which is still based on the previous-generation chassis, and which I saw no mention of similar problems with--this wasn’t an ideal solution to me at the time, however, as I had intentionally gone from a 17” Dell to a 15” MBP for the sake of shaving off size and weight from my daily carry.) The Genius’ response was to reiterate that he was unable to offer me that solution, or any solution for that matter, except for to instruct me to wait for Apple to issue a fix. Incredulous and fuming, I told him this was completely unacceptable. He said again that was the only option available. Tension between us was quickly rising by then. At that point, I told him they were taking #3 back regardless of this so-called only option available to him, as I would simply wipe the drive right there on the spot, call American Express to dispute the charge for that computer, and leave it at the store--I also asked to speak with a manager. The manager seemed to sense there was tension building, and quickly reassigned someone else to me--a guy who couldn’t have been nicer, and who, remarkably, was familiar with (and enjoys) Head-Fi.org. He told me that the manager approved the exchange for the 17” MBP (I, of course, had to pay the difference). He was the antithesis of Bad Genius, saw me through the exchange, and couldn’t have been more courteous throughout. I started the Mac OSX reinstall on the MBP I was returning (to erase the drive), and walked off to continue with some holiday shopping while that process ran. When I came back 35 minutes later, the reinstall was complete, the store manager greeted me again and wished me better luck with the 17” MBP, and off I went. (Thankfully, I didn’t see that unfriendly Genius, even in passing, from the moment the manager relieved him of me, and me of him. I still can't believe that guy is allowed to wear the word "Genius" on his name badge, and hope to goodness he was a bad exception, and not the norm, for an Apple Genius.)
This "PC to Mac" story is obviously getting quite long, so let me try to end it quickly. (And I hope this really is the end of this story for me, too.) The 17” MacBook Pro drove my new HP LP2475w display without a hitch. The glass display of the unibody MBP had me running the other way and choosing the matte screen option with the 17” MBP, which is far easier on my eyes. I was suffering from eyestrain and tension headaches when using the unibody MBP, and assumed it was probably due to the LED backlighting, which none of my previous laptops or displays had. However, the 17” MBP causes me no eyestrain or tension headaches; and since the 17” also has LED backlighting, I’m now guessing that it was the reflections on the unibody MBP’s screen surface causing me the eye discomfort, and the associated tension headaches. I hope when it’s time to replace this 17” MBP that Apple has matte screen options available, but it seems for now that they’re definitely moving to glass, if the unibody MacBooks and the new 24” Cinema Display are any indications. (I'll worry about that in a few years, when it's time to replace this one.)
So you might have asked yourself somewhere in all this why I didn’t simply return the unibody MBP and go back to a Windows-based laptop by Dell, Lenovo, HP, or some other outfit that offers more hardware power bang for the buck, as well as the all-important on-site service options. The answer to that is that I would definitely have done exactly that if I hadn’t spent so much dang money on Mac-specific software already, like Microsoft Office for Mac, Adobe Design Premium Creative Suite 4, and others. Also, the problems I had were hardware problems, and those hardware problems didn’t change the fact that I consider Mac OSX a superior user environment hands-down versus any current version of Windows. Some Windows-based laptop models only come with Windows Vista options, and I had no interest in going Vista (and probably don't need to explain that to most of you familiar with Vista). (Most business-class laptops, however, do still seem to come with Windows XP “downgrade” options.) However, what I’ve seen very early on about the upcoming Windows 7 suggests to me that Microsoft might have a their best OS yet coming in 2009, and might cause me some regret again about making this platform change when it's finally out. So, simply put, yes, had I not purchased all that expensive Mac software, I’d have likely gone back to Windows after the difficulties with my unibody MBP's.
But, so far (over a week later), this 17” MBP has been nothing but joy, and I hope it continues. Its built-in display is gorgeous. The eyestrain and tension headaches have ceased, thanks to the matte display option. The MBP 17" drives my 24” monitors flawlessly. It has no problems booting from third-party boot disks (which none of my unibody MBP’s would do, by the way). The screen hinge is perfect (though I do wish the screen could swing open a little further, like the unibody MacBooks can). I prefer the MBP 17's more conventional keyboard to the chiclet-style keys of the new MacBooks. In a nutshell, and most importantly, so far it works! To minimize any service gaps if this unit ever malfunctions, I may buy an extra MacBook (like the previous-generation plastic-body white MacBook that is currently being sold as the entry-level unit in the MacBook family), just to keep on hand to turn to if me or any of my Mac-using colleagues (currently only one) is facing a depot repair.
On the Mac-positive front, again, I do consider Mac OSX to be a superior user environment (compared to Windows), with a user interface that makes immediately more sense to me than even Windows does after 20+ years of using it. If you're an audio enthusiast, there are some key Mac advantages there, too. For example, in addition to kmixer-free bit-perfect digital audio without the need for plugins, one thing that's nice is the ability to tap that through the built-in digital optical output, which allows me to directly feed a DAC without a USB receiver; and my MBP 17" will soon be driving my heavily-modded Wadia-301-as-DAC the moment Wadia installs my input board in it. I won't get into any more detail here, as you can search these forums for plenty more on the subject of the Mac's audiophile advantages.
I would think my experience with the unibody MacBook Pros isn't typical, so consider all of the above just one man's experience going from Windows to Mac, as that's all it is. But hopefully, if you're considering the switch from a PC to Mac, there were some helpful bits in all this for you. For me, the transition hasn't been all fuzzy and warm; but as long as this MacBook Pro 17" keeps working the way it is right now, I should be quite happy for a few more years (knock on wood).