Macbook versus Macbook Pro: my decision

Sunday, 16 March 2008

A few weeks ago, while I was sitting at my computer, I noticed a strong burning smell coming from somewhere beneath my desk. I sent for a computer repair dude, he confirmed motherboard was fried.

So with the old computer completely written off, and Apple just recently having upgraded the specs of their Macbooks, I thought now is as good a time as any to switch to a portable Mac.

So first I must determine my needs: I require a fast, sturdy and highly portable laptop, with good battery life and good wireless support, a nice clearly readable screen suitable for writing papers.

And perhaps I should also specify what the laptop will *not* be used for: gaming of any sort, photo-shopping, video editing, programming.

Based on these requirements, I determine that certainly the midrange white Macbook, with 2GB ram, 2.4Ghz CPU and 160GB hard disk drive, should meet my needs. But I also wonder whether the entry level Macbook Pro won’t be worth the extra investment. So I thought I might post a comparison here and hopefully, by writing this down, I will gain more insight into what I require to help me make the best decision.

So let’s begin with listing some of the most important pros and cons of the Macbook.

Pros:

  • Lightweight, sturdy polycarbonate frame
  • Long battery life
  • Good wifi support
  • midrange white model is 516 euros cheaper than the entry level pro, with same CPU and RAM (I get students discount on Mac merchandise, so this price difference is actually less than what it normally is)

Cons:

  • The magnetic latch system is known to cause chipping of polycarbonate shell after prolonged use.
  • The X3100 graphics with non-dedicated memory bites into RAM memory
  • Speakers on this thing really suck, even for a laptop

And now the pros and cons of the Macbook Pro.

Pros:

  • It has a nicer screen, with better backlighting and greater vibrancy
  • Dedicated graphics card
  • More stylish and thinner than the Macbook
  • Better sound

Cons:

  • 516 euros more expensive!
  • Some users have noted that wifi signal quality of the pro is less
  • I don’t like the keyboard as much as the ‘chicklet’ keyboard on the Macbook
  • The aluminum casing dents easily, it’s not as durable as a Macbook
  • It’s wider and slightly heavier than the Macbook
  • Battery life is not as long as on the Macbook

OK, now to think it over a little better.

Under the “pros” of the macbook pro, I have mentioned the dedicated graphics. But like I said, I do not intend to be gaming with this thing, so I could just as easily get a Macbook and use a 4GB memory set for around 90 euros. 2GB of extra RAM to satisfy the X3100 is a lot cheaper than going for a Macbook pro just for the dedicated graphics memory.

The screen on the Macbook pro looks better, but is that alone worth 516 euros? I also have a 19″ Dell display that I can hookup, so this quality difference will only be an issue when I’m traveling. On top of that, I won’t be doing any of the graphics intensive stuff anyway that would warrant the investment in the more colorful display the Pro version features.

One thing that counts against the Macbook is the problems with the magnetic latch, but from what I gather after much searching on google, is that Apple is aware of the problem and they will fix it for you if this happens to your system. Furthermore, the problem appears to be entirely cosmetic anyway.

The last point is sound quality. To be honest, the built-in speakers of the pro version sound much better than those in the small macbook. However, it still doesn’t sound nearly as good as the perfect stereo sound I get from simply plugging in my Sennheisers. So I’d just be paying for an upgrade that wouldn’t get used.

So I guess the conclusion becomes inescapable: the mid-range white Macbook is simply the best buy for my needs. (Wow, who would have thought that writing everything down like this could *really* help this much ;-)


Solaris “Nevada” build 70 also fails to install: I give up

Monday, 20 August 2007

I tried installing Solaris Express Community Edition, code name “Nevada”, build 70. And this time I got a different error, which ended with the following statement:

Error 28: Selected item cannot fit into memory

After a bit of searching, I have discovered that it is likely caused by an incorrect build of GRUB. If I am correct, this will require rebuilding GRUB and creating a new ISO altogether. Translation: I cannot install this build of Solaris Express, at all, no matter how much I stamp my feet. I have to wait for build 71 to be released. But I am not going to.

It is becoming clear to me that older systems, such as mine, are to OpenSolaris developers what bugs are to windshields. They clearly don’t care, or it is so low on their priority list that they don’t even bother testing builds on these kind of systems. It may be worth noting that, yet again, it worked like a charm on my Athlon XP system.

This is ridiculous, are they just making it up as they go along? I know they make no guarantees regarding stability and such, but I am basing my choice on the HCL and the system requirements. That means I do not expect it to fly on my slow laptop, but it should at least install.

Why waste my time with incorrect minimum system requirements and outdated HCL entries? Or are these purely theoretical system requirements, for arm-chair computer enthusiasts to run on imaginary systems?

If this is the future of what SUN is touting as the “world’s most advanced operating system”, then I do not predict a very bright future. At least, it will be quite some time before I even think about trying OpenSolaris again.


OpenSolaris: no Pentium II support?

Sunday, 19 August 2007

As I wrote earlier, I have been thinking about trying OpenSolaris. I checked the hardware compatibility list on SUN’s website, and my Toshiba Tecra 8000 was reported to work fine. The system requirements indicated that my laptop, with 256 MB RAM, 400Mhz Pentium II CPU and 40GB hard disk drive, should be able to run OpenSolaris just fine.

So I downloaded OpenSolaris “Nevada” Build 69 and burned a copy of the first CD image. Tried it on my Athlon XP machine, and it booted just fine. So I took it home and tried it on the laptop, but then I got the following error that repeated itself over and over again:

WARNING: init(1M) exited on fatal signal 9: restarting automatically

I googled the problem, and discovered that it is related to my Pentium II and its lack of SSE support. I also found the following bugreport: “snv boot failure since snv_66, no support for systems without SSE?

So people with pre-pentium III CPUs are out of luck with builds 66-69, inclusive. Fortunately, it seems that a fix is to be implemented in “Nevada” Build 70, which I noticed became available for download yesterday.

I will try the first CD of that build later this evening and see if that works.


Using external drives: ext3

Sunday, 5 August 2007

It is quite often that people who use GNU/Linux together with Windows are confronted with the problem of cross platform file system portability.

Traditionally, many experienced GNU/Linux users have encouraged others facing this problem to dedicate a FAT32 partition to moving files from Windows to Linux, and vice versa. That’s because files stored in FAT32 can be read from and written to by Linux and Windows alike.

While this may be an adequate solution for small drives, it has been increasingly the case in the last few years, that the sizes of files typically used have grown beyond the effectiveness of a FAT32 solution.

This may be attributed to several factors: faster computers, larger data storage devices and faster internet connections. For example, many people download or rip DVD movies, games and music, which even with compression techniques still make rather large files. And video-capture and editing may also easily create file sizes in excess of 4GiB. Whatever the reason, storing and manipulating large files has become very commonplace.

But therein lies the problem: FAT32 is ill equipped for efficiently handling a great multitude of files, or extremely large files for that matter. Particularly when performing a lot of file deletions and writing. It greatly fragments the drive and furthermore it has a 4GiB file size limit, so it would be better to have an alternative.

And that is why I recommend using ext3 instead. It offers full journaling capabilities when working in GNU/Linux, and any system capable of reading and writing ext2 will also be able to have full read/write access as well, although journaling will not be available when the drive is accessed in this manner. Nevertheless, it’s main attraction is that you never need to resort to defragmenting the drive, and it supports file sizes up to 2TiB.

For Windows, there is the excellent ext2 IFS for Windows project. This is what I am using right now, and it works just fine. There are some minor problems (e.g. I’ve had to change the partition type of my USB drive, see also the release notes), but on the whole I’d say it performs quite satisfactory.

And for the Mac, there’s the Mac OS X Ext2 Filesystem project, but to tell the truth I don’t know how well it works, as I do not own a Mac to try it with.


Thinking about trying Solaris …

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

When I was studying at the university, we used Solaris (up to version 8) on old Sun SPARC workstations. Oddly, at the time I thought CDE was quite a pleasant environment to work in. Though, due to the limited processing power -these were rather old systems- I was usually *forced* to use with WindowMaker instead. Since then, Sun have made Solaris available to x86 architectures and has started the OpenSolaris project.

So finally, I can try running Solaris on my own computer at normal speed. But I do have some doubts …

For example, I rely on a wireless interface to connect to the internet. While the OpenSolaris project are now developing some kind of auto-magic network managing daemon, it is still quite experimental and accordingly marked “Volatile”, which means it’s configuration can change drastically from the current version to the next.

And then there is the lack of software. The whole point of running an operating system at all, is that it enables you to use your hardware and software to be productive and watch porn. It is merely a means to an end. But when I search for Solaris x86 binaries for MPlayer, PAN or WINE, I find very little, or only SPARC binaries, or nothing at all. At least, nothing on the official websites.

There are, however, some third-party packages you can download from personal homepages. But frankly speaking, simply downloading unsigned packages from third-party websites is not something I prefer, for security reasons. That means I’ll probably need to compile these programs from source, which means reading all the README and INSTALL documentation provided with the source. It means a lot of work, and I don’t want a lot of work.

So does that mean I won’t try it? I’m still not sure. I admit I am very curious, but the lack of a desktop userbase as large as GNU/Linux’s also means you will not have nearly as much luck finding answers via search-engines. And *that* is a very, very big problem. For example: just enter “solaris ipod” in google, and then “linux ipod”, and compare the number of results. Solaris gets around 2.4 million results, whereas Linux gets over 97 million! (By the way, there is no out-of-the-box support for the ipod on Solaris. It apparently just mounts as an external disk, but software like rythmbox has no access to its database).

I’ll have to think about this…


MPlayer: the best lightweight mediaplayer for Windows!

Saturday, 28 July 2007

I’ve recently been able to upgrade the RAM on my laptop to an amazing 256MB, which is the absolute maximum it can take. Yes, this is an old laptop. So, first thing I did after that was install Windows 2000, to see if that would actually run fast enough, and I must say the speed surprised me. As a matter of fact, it almost feels fast enough for everyday use. And bearing in mind that this is only a 400Mhz Pentium II laptop, that’s saying something.

But one thing I’ve never been able to do very well with this laptop, is play movies. Even the lightweight VLC player, which was my first choice, delivered choppy playback during scenes with a lot of action. Then I downloaded MPlayer, which is pretty much the most efficient mediaplayer on earth. Still no good. Not even after tweaking the playback options a bit, such as increasing cache to 8192 kilobytes. Of course, I could install Arch Linux again, which is optimised for i686 CPU’s, such as this pentium II specimen I’m using. But really, it all seems a lot of work just to play a movie.

Thus began my quest in search of the most lightweight mediaplayer I could find for Windows. I ditched MPlayer and openend up the Gooooogle page in my browser. And after much searching and gnashing of teeth, I simply ended up installing MPlayer again. That’s because some individual who calls himself “MuldeR” has been kind enough to put together an optimised version of MPlayer, and create an installer for it as well. It’s aptly called MPlayer for Windows, and all I can say is that it’s absolutely brilliant! After installing this player using the “full package” version, which includes the binary codecs, I opened up a movie and it played back perfectly.

In other words: “MPlayer for Windows” is faster than the ‘official’ MPlayer (which doesn’t even include an installer). So if you’re on a slow system that’s running Windows, and you enjoy watching movies, then I highly recommend trying MPlayer for Windows.


The myth that Macs are more expensive

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Yesterday I had an argument with my younger sister, about what kind of new computer my parents ought to buy. I was in favor of a Mac, but my sister (who ironically uses an e-Mac herself) protested quite vehemently.

She claimed that I was being selfish, that I was biased against ‘normal’ computers that run Windows. In short, she accused me of pushing my parents to get a Mac, because what I really wanted is to use it for myself. One of her main arguments for this ridiculous accusation: Macs are far more *expensive* than normal computers!

But then you begin to doubt yourself, and you start thinking: Could she be right? I thought that these days the prices of Macs and PCs where just about evenly matched, but now I wasn’t so sure anymore. I needed to be certain, so I decided to compare a Mac to a PC.

To make the comparison fair, I selected the kind of Mac that closely matches what other hardware vendors are selling: a laptop. I chose the Macbook, because it is probably the kind of Mac I am going to buy myself in a few months, when I begin studying biology. It is well built, very portable and relatively affordable. To represent the PC side of the comparison, I opted to compare it against a laptop from one of the largest online retailers: Dell. And the closest Dell laptop that matches all the hardware on the Macbook is arguably the Dell XPS M1210, with 12.1″ widescreen LCD.

I selected the 2.16Ghz white macbook with SuperDrive for this comparison. Then I upgraded the RAM to 2GB, which is what Dell would recommends for Vista if you are using a computer without dedicated graphics memory. And besides, you can never have enough RAM ;)

All other options remainded unchanged, so the total sum came to €1419,- which includes delivery.

That’s quite a sum of money, so if my sister is correct the Dell should be considerably cheaper. Fearing she may be right, I reluctantly opened the Dell hompage in my browser and set to work.

Well, I selected the same 120GB SATA harddrive (5400 rpm), the same 2GB 667Mhz DDR RAM, the same 2.16Ghz processor, about the same sort of screen with built in camera, the same wireless card, the same bluetooth, the same onboard Intel graphics. I also selected Windows Vista Ultimate, which I think is a fair decision since I am not getting any kind of lesser OS X version from Apple either. The warranty conditions are equally similar, although maybe a little better than Apple’s: one year international on-site.

Now can you gues what Dell asked me for all of this?

The Dell XPS M1210, configured as above, with delivery costs included, costs the following sum of money *drumroll* … €1881,85

Yes, that is a staggering €462,85 more than the Macbook! So even if I’d selected the normal version of Vista, that figure would still have been over three hundred Euros more. So it’s not even close, the Mac wins outright!

Now, I realise of course that the trick with Dell is to keep waiting untill they have a series of discounts on the model you want, like free memory upgrades and free shipping. But the difference I have calculated is so large, Dell would have to offer a discount of around 25%, just to make the prices equal! To be convincingly cheaper, that discount would have to be in excess of 30%. And that is a massive discount, even for Dell.

I realise that this is just one example, but I have performed a similar kind of calculation on the Mac Minis in the past. At the time, I found them to be very good value for money, for the kind of hardware you’re getting (slotloading DVD, powerful Intel CPU in a mini-itx formfactor).

So I think that the claim, that a Mac is more expensive than a PC of the same specification, is not true. Of course I haven’t gone through the whole collection of Macs you can buy, and I’ve conveniently left out PCs that are much cheaper due to having inferior components. But who in their right minds would advise their parents to buy inferior crap anyway?

I can’t wait to rub it in! >:-)