Unibody Macbook Pro 15 Mini-Review

Peeps who follow me on Twitter may have picked up the fact that my 6 month laptop hunt ended with me purchasing a 15 inch Macbook Pro. Sure, it’s the price of two used Toyotas duct-taped together, but it’s also carved from a single piece of aluminum, and the keyboard is chiseled from unicorn horn.

The hardware is absolutely delightful and was the primary reason for me going with this and not a Thinkpad. It’s sturdy and extremely well thought-out. Great keyboard (competes with actual keyboards!) and details such as the power cord being magnetic and working both upside and upside down as well as the battery indicator on the side are all little touches that Macsters have been yelling at us for years. Yes, this is fricken expensive hardware, but you get the feeling that on some level, it’s almost worth it. In fact, the hardware is so much better than nearly every other laptop on the market that I consider this purchase, not an endorsement of Apple (read on), but rather a punishment to all the other laptop makers out there.

There is a downside. Intel Macs have the ability to run Windows, my operating system of choice. So of course one of the first things I have done is to install said OS. As it turns out, however, Apple may be good at building and designing hardware, but their driver-writing skills are in the drains1. The thing is, while most of the innards of a Mac is stock hardware, at least the keyboard and the trackpad is unique. That’s why you have to install a bunch of bundled drivers as soon as you boot into Windows for the first time. Unfortunately, these drivers are so bad that:

  • Windows cannot control the cooling fans, at all. There’s one speed, and one speed only.
  • The multi-touch driver doesn’t work very well, and crashes once in a while.
  • Windows cannot pick between the two GPUs. The fast (and battery expensive) one is always picked.
  • “Hold down two fingers to right-click” works oodles better in OSX than in Windows.

Because of these gripes, which I’m assuming can/will be fixed in future updates, I’m dividing this review into three

Hardware rating:

Windows driver support rating:

Mac OSX Leopard rating: to follow in a future post

So am I happy with the new purchase despite these gripes? Well, I’ve waited 6 months to buy a laptop in the first place so what’s a few more for them to fix their drivers, and through it all, the laptop is still better than any other laptop out there. Which says more about Dell, IBM, Acer, HP and Sony than it says about Apple. J’accuse!

  1. Or they don’t care, which part of me feels is just as likely; people having a bad experience with Windows on their systems may just treat Windows as the “new Classic”, as Gruber puts it, and use OSX instead. Which, as it turns out, will be me, until I either switch or Apple fixes their drivers, so stay tuned for a review.  

Responses to “Unibody Macbook Pro 15 Mini-Review”

  1. You forgot to say that your OS of choice is not just Windows, but Windows Vista.

    Thought I’d just put that out there.

  2. matthew says:

    I assume youre using boot camp hence the driver issues? If youre not playing games or heaily 3D programs did you consider the FREE, yes FREE VirtualBox? Then you can run Ubuntu and Windows 7 too.

    • Joen says:

      Yes, the problems are Windows only related.

      I am playing games, and I know about VirtualBox, which is an excellent piece of software, but which is still virtualization and hence slower… I really don’t mind multibooting. If it works, that is.

    • matthew says:

      I found (3D issues aside) VirtualBox to be pretty quick on both my new Intel Mac pro tower and 2.5 year old MacBokok Pro

    • Joen says:

      That’s good to know, but surely not as quick as native, when it comes to speed hungry applications?

    • matthew says:

      Absolutely, but if youre only using Windows to check sites in IE then you can spend most of your time in The Best OS Evaâ

    • Joen says:

      Well, if it’s any consolation, I will be spending the majority of my time in Leopard, at least until drivers appear that solve my Windows woes.

      So in the short-term, I’ll use workarounds for the games I play, and do my day to day work in Leopard.

      Then we’ll see how it fares when I truly give it the shot.

  3. Winnie Lim says:

    Is there any reason why you’re using Vista over Leopard?

  4. Jenny-fa says:

    I bought the old MacBook about two months before the new unibody ones came out. I was pissed.

    Whaddya mean, “competes with actual keyboards”? Are Mac keyboards not actual keyboards???

    But agreed on the Mac hardware. PC laptops are downright ugly and boxlike next to a Mac. There’s simply no comparison.

    • Joen says:

      Jenny-fa: I bought the old MacBook about two months before the new unibody ones came out. I was pissed.

      They’re still really nice. I honestly think the “shiny” will wear off the new ones fairly quickly. Plus you can marvel at your non-glossy screen, and how your face doesn’t reflect in it, like it does on the new ones.

      Jenny-fa: Whaddya mean, “competes with actual keyboards”? Are Mac keyboards not actual keyboards??

      Well, I mean it competes with separate keyboards, you know, USB keyboards. In sturdiness, in layout, and in “feel”.

      Jenny-fa: PC laptops are downright ugly and boxlike next to a Mac.

      The “pretty” is actually secondary for me. I wanted sturdy and durable. That’s what sold the mac to me. If a PC laptop at half the price but with the same components (not unlikely) was equally sturdy, I’d buy that in a heartbeat, even if it was fugly.

      The problem is, no matter how expensive a PC laptop you buy, the cheapest of the new macbooks is still more sturdy and durable.

  5. James says:

    Congratulations on finally purchasing a Mac!

    Regarding your Windows driver woes, you really have two choices, which Matthew has already outlined.

    1. Boot Camp will be your fastest solution and practically “the real thing”, sans the driver issues. The problem here is that Apple’s Boot Camp team is primarily interested in providing a solid-enough Windows experience to attract new users into trying a Mac and eventually switching. There’s no malice intended, but their time is more invested in OS X rather than Windows.

    2. Virtualization, like Parallels or VirtualBox, may be a better experience usability-wise, but it will be slower and a bit further from “the real thing”. The deal here is that the teams behind the various virtualization systems are not only invested in making a realistic Windows experience within OS X, they’ve staked their business on it.

    In summary, you’ll get a more “realistic” and “native” experience with Boot Camp, but you’ll get better support and a more user-friendly experience with Virtualization.

    I have hear great things about Parallels, and they do offer a free trial which you may want to try.

    Now, don’t get me wrong here, I want to see you become an avid Mac user, but I also believe that the transition should be as smooth and problem-free as possible.

    Regarding your impending transition, you may want to subscribe to The Apple Blog and read what they have so far in the Beginning Mac category.

    If you have any questions, you know that we’re all here waiting to answer them.

    • Joen says:

      James: Congratulations on finally purchasing a Mac!

      Thanks :)

      James: The problem here is that Apple’s Boot Camp team is primarily interested in providing a solid-enough Windows experience to attract new users into trying a Mac and eventually switching.â

  6. matthew says:

    Joen: The other thing: if more people like me have bad experiences running Windows on their macs, they’ll eventually blog about it like I did, and eventually it’ll hit a big blog and possibly garner bad attention towards Apple. It’s not a good business move.

    I think the Boot Camp thing is very much unsupported by Apple and a ‘give it a try if you like’ kind of thing, I dont think Apple will be loosing any sleep over people having problems with Windows on Macs. That said, I would imagine most people wont realise the unsupported nature of Windows on the Mac and if they have problems: Its a Mac therefore its Apple. That said though, how many Mac users install Windows? Very few I suspect, especially in the just moved from Windows category, who probably arent even aware of this ability (which is a good thing IMO, best to have a clean break if possible).

    As for Boot Camp v virtualisation: clearly running natively in Windows under Boot Camp will be quicker as for one thing theres only one OS running, but for many people surely having to reboot between OSs is a far worse user experience than a slight degradation in speed (which may well be unnoticeable if the Mac is an upgrade) but the ability to flick between OSs and apps (its great for testing sites in Win/Linux browsers) would out way that possible speed reduction.

    Games though and fully 3D apps are obviously only fully utilised in Boot Camp (though Ive heard good things about Parallels 3D acceleration).

    • Joen says:

      You make some good points.

      However, I do think that Apple in their advertising Boot Camp as part of the Leopard release clearly uses the Macs Windows abilities as a selling point.

      From Apples website

      Leopard is the world’s most advanced operating system. So advanced, it even lets you run Windows if there’s a PC application you need to use. Just get a copy of Windows and start up Boot Camp, now included with Leopard. Setup is simple and straightforward – just as you’d expect with a Mac.

      Also:

      When you install Windows using Boot Camp, you won’t need to search the Internet for drivers or burn a disc. After you run Boot Camp, simply insert the Leopard DVD to install the necessary drivers. Everything you need to make your Mac work with Windows is right there. When you use a Windows application, you’ll have full access to unique Mac features (iSight, Apple Remote, trackpad, specific keyboard keys, keyboard backlighting) and connectivity (wired and wireless).

      Emphasis mine.

      I honestly think the above would hold its ground in a courtroom (not that we’re anywhere near that, just pointing out the legality).

    • matthew says:

      Yeah fair enough, I was thinking of when I tried running XP under Boot Camp a few years ago and it WAS unsupported (That was back in the days of Tiger).

      Boot Camp took 20gig minimum disk space, VirtualBox takes 6gig :/

    • Joen says:

      So just so we’re clear here, I actually still like the mac quite a bit, and consider the hardware quite superior to anything else. Furthermore, after throwing Apples keyboard driver out the window, Windows hasn’t crashed anymore.

      So to sum things up, what I’m complaining about here is two-fold:

      • Apple needs to release a keyboard driver that doesn’t crash Windows, so I can use the function keys and the multi touch trackpad
      • Apple needs to release a driver that allows Windows to touch the fans so the machine doesn’t overheat. One speed, the lowest one, isn’t good enough.

      These two things should be within the realm of possible, you’d think, for a company that built “the worlds most advanced operating system” :)

    • matthew says:

      Aren’t you using Vista? Is that maybe the problem? Do Apple only support XP?

      When I ran Boot Camp all those years ago there was the same issue with the fans and after having Boot Camp installed and using it to play through Half Life 2 my MBPs hard drive died quite spectacularly. Im not saying the 2 are related, but theres the possibility. And since removing Boot Canp shortly after seeing the tell tail read/write errors in my system log and then having the drive replace – it’s been fine.

      In those early days there was no iSight support or 2 finger click but the updates did come fairly fast and both were supported by the time I came to remove Windows.

      But I doubt its in Apple’s interest to keep the Windows experience as slick as the Mac experience.

    • Joen says:

      matthew: Aren’t you using Vista? Is that maybe the problem? Do Apple only support XP?

      I am using Vista, and I’m pretty sure that the Boot Camp assistant listed a number of Windows versions, including Windows Vista.

      matthew: In those early days there was no iSight support or 2 finger click but the updates did come fairly fast and both were supported by the time I came to remove Windows.

      That’s what they say on the forums. I’m currently playing the waiting game. The waiting and bitching game.

      matthew: But I doubt its in Apple’s interest to keep the Windows experience as slick as the Mac experience.

      Even if it’s Windows on a Mac, it’s still a mac, and if the hardware doesn’t respond to Windows, then surely that puts the mac in a bad light?

    • matthew says:

      Even if it’s Windows on a Mac, it’s still a mac, and if the hardware doesn’t respond to Windows, then surely that puts the mac in a bad light?

      True enough, but assuming youre an average iPod owning PC user who’s just bought a Mac and assuming the next stage youve gone is the astoundingly unlikely decision to install Windows in Boot Camp on your brand now Mac (I really cant believe it’s some thing an ‘average’ Mac or PC user would do, just like theyre unlikely to install Linux on anything) – a none to intimidating process and decision Id say.

      Now lets assume this fiction user has your Windows problems; Do they: A, wait it out and keep using Windows; or B, remove Windows and use the Mac OS?

      I reckon B, mainly.

      Of course option C might involve virtualisation if theyre a brave user.

  7. Joen says:

    matthew: (I really cant believe it’s some thing an ‘average’ Mac or PC user would do, just like theyre unlikely to install Linux on anything)

    Very true, it is an oddity.

    matthew: I reckon B, mainly.

    I reckon D: complain to apple and/or wait.

    :)

  8. erickp says:

    Joen:

    Check out this post I came across. Perhaps it’ll help you out with the drivers issues.

    http://www.v2ex.com/2009/01/07/macbook-pro-unibody-screen-turns-black-when-gaming/

    • Joen says:

      Thanks, but for one thing I’ve already been to that exact page and the fixes didn’t help with the random freezing, and secondly I returned my unit today.

  9. erickp says:

    Really? So what laptop did you wound up getting? Sorry to hear it didn’t work out.

    • Joen says:

      Well so far I have only delivered it to the post office. It’ll be a few days before I know whether I’ll get a full refund, and even then a full refund will be up to 30 days.

      That said, it is not unlikely that I’m simply going to buy a netbook and wait 5 months for Apple to acknowledge, fix, and release a new MBP 15 and then I may try again.

      On the other hand, for the price of one single MBP 15, I could instead get:

      • One netbook
      • One Dell Vostro laptop
      • One Dell Studio Hybrid stationary computer
      • One HD TV
      • One Playstation 3
      • Rock Band
      • Rock Band instruments

      Puts things in to perspective doesn’t it?

  10. erickp says:

    Other than the PS3 (which I have and love), the rest of your list is weak. The MBP more than outshines it all. Remember it’s not just the hardware but the software that comes with the MBP preloaded. The software alone that comes with an Apple computer blows anything on Windows (comparatively speaking). Now, of-course you can compile a list of items that might seem more valuable but it’s all perception. Personal, Apple is in the position they are because they choose quality over quantity. Honestly, it’s only been recent that they’ve been having issue with faulty components. Not for nothing, it’s an epidemic in the industry as a whole due to low cost “over-sea’s” manufacturing. My cousin recently switched and is running XP, 80% of the time on his MBP unibody and for the exception of a few hiccups at the beginning, all is running smoothly and he’s loving it.

    ~e

    • Joen says:

      Despite feeling burnt by this whole situation, I’m inclined to agree with you. The MBP hardware (other than the Nvidia card) was really great, and I feel, almost worth the moola.

      The list is more a comparison list; I still think it does give perspective.

  11. erickp says:

    One other mention… At work I’m working on a MacPro tower and I’m running XP Professional (sp3) via Parallels. From time to time I use the Adobe creative suite on XP and the darn thing runs great. I really don’t notice any slow down. Granted I don’t play any hardcore games on the computer (that’s what my PS3 is for…) but I thought it was worth mentioning.

    In any case, I wish all the best on whatever you choose.

    ~e

  12. John says:

    As someone who is soon to be in the same situation as Joen, I absolutely loved this post! I found it via google and it was a great discussion for someone like myself who has a PS3 for most gaming and is considering dumping 3 pcs (2 desktops and a laptop) for one Macbook Pro 15″!

    I am sorry to hear you sent it back due to the cost and XP issues. It did seem like you were having a great user experience and then suddenly decided you couldn’t live with it.

    I hope I end up doing the right thing as I plan to sell off the parts of my frankenPC (decent graphics, hard drives etc) and sell my laptop to help fund the new apple. I decided that my life is complex enough without having to worry about several PCs, damn useless Vista and using network drives to share data. To simplyfy it I could have one macbook pro and have it back up to a usb drive daily for disaster recovery.

    I rarely play PC games now since I got my PS3 so only older RTS games and possibly games such as Counter-strike/BF2 would be played now, after reading reviews it seems that either virtualisation or Bootcamp would handle this along with photoshop/office etc. The latter I would most likely run natively in OSX rather than windows.

    I would be interested if anyone can report back on the native XP/Bootcamp driver situation as this was clearly the biggest flaw in Joen’s transition to a Mac.

    Also I am on the brink of purchasing a Macbook Pro but:

    1) My local PC World (only popped in it try it, will buy direct from Apple) said they have no more stock and non ordered which indicates new models coming out soon.

    2) Snow Leopard and iPhone 3.0 firmware seem to be getting released next week so this may coincide with some Macbook pro enhancements.

    So I am waiting till at least the week starting 15th June 2009 before committing to purchase as my luck would be to get the Macbook Pro at full cost then find out that days later Apple slip in extra memory for the same price! As someone who bought an iPhone 16gb @

    • Joen says:

      John: I am sorry to hear you sent it back due to the cost and XP issues. It did seem like you were having a great user experience and then suddenly decided you couldn’t live with it.

      To be fair, I have to elaborate on this. Because this was only 14 days (within which I could return the unit for a full refund), things went fast. For most of the time, I figured my woes were mainly driver related, and yes, they are sucky drivers. The fan speed issues, the two finger scroll / right click things just made the Windows experience less nice.

      The reason I returned it, however, were the freezes. And seen through the googles of a few months, I’m fairly certain these freeze were the result of a defective Macbook Pro, which I’m sure I could’ve switched out for one which worked.

      So, just to clarify, the drivers suck, but I don’t think they were responsible for the freezing.