Hardware Reviews

The 13″ Retina MacBook Pro

2012-11-27 by Kyle Cronin. 2 comments

Some background

If you asked me six months ago what I wanted in my next MacBook, I would have said that it should have a super high-resolution screen, a fast SSD, and lots of high-speed external connectors. Yet it should be considerably thinner and lighter than the (then-)existing 13″ MacBook Pro, and be absolutely silent when running, even under load.

Of course, if you asked me how long I’d have to wait to get such a Mac, I would have said it was probably a year or two away, possibly more. Even when the retina 15″ model dropped this summer, I kept my optimism in check for a 13″ model because, historically, the 13″ MacBook Pro is usually about a cycle behind the 15″ when it comes to getting the latest tech. My [2010 13″ MacBook Pro is living proof – back when the 15″ and 17″ models switched to the much, much faster Core i5 and i7 chips, Apple still sold the 13″ MacBook Pro with a creaky Core 2 Duo processor.

So you can imagine my surprise and delight last month when the rumors about the retina 13″ MacBook Pro turned out to not only be true, but to hit every single item on my checklist for what I wanted in a new MacBook! Naturally, I went out and bought one as soon as I could manage it, and it has been everything I hoped for. The price is a bit steep – this is the most expensive computer I’ve ever owned – but I have no doubt that it’s worth it.

Why it’s awesome

First, the screen. The screen! The screen is amazing. The difference is just as profound and revolutionary as the leap from non-retina to retina on the iPhone and iPad. Little things, like reading and writing text, is just fun now. I must admit that part of the motivation for writing this post is because I really like composing text on my new MacBook Pro. I don’t even mind the fact that the “best for Retina” setting provides me with the same sized working space (i.e. 1280×800 logical pixels) as on my last two MacBooks – 90% of the time it’s just fine for what I need to do, and the remaining 10% of the time I can crank it up to get more space and still have a mostly sharp picture.

Second, this thing is light. Now, it’s not quite as light as the MacBook Air, but it’s a lot closer to the size and weight of the 13″ MacBook Air than it is to the size and weight of the old 13″ MacBook Pro. It’s actually smaller than the Air in terms of width and depth, and it stays a uniform thickness throughout instead of having that dreadful wedge shape of the Air. So, all around top marks there from me.

Third, the SSD in this thing is very fast – about 410MB/s write and 450MB/s read. This considerable speed boost manifests itself everywhere in the user interface – apps just launch faster, and the 8GB RAM ceiling doesn’t feel so limiting with the swap speed being so fast (though it’s still an order of magnitude slower than actual RAM). I’ve done some audio editing on this machine with Adobe Audition that involved converting source files to AIFF and exporting the finished product to AIFF. For those that don’t know, AIFF is like the BMP of the audio world – huge and uncompressed. The SSD was impressively fast at doing these conversions, which made the entire task considerably easier and more enjoyable.

Fourth, and I only mention it because I mentioned it in my first paragraph, but the retina MacBook Pro has two 10Gb/s Thunderbolt ports, each of which is capable of driving a 27-30″ class display as well as daisy chaining to fast external storage or pretty much anything that can be attached to a PCIe bus. Then there’s the two 5Gb/s USB 3.0 ports; not quite as fast, but much more widely available on more affordable products. This beats the pants off the FW800/USB 2.0 combination that my previous MacBook had.

Finally, there’s the little things. For one, I really like the keyboard. It looks the same as every other Apple chicklet keyboard they’ve made for the last 5-6 years, but there’s something about it that’s just really nice to type on. I might be crazy, but I suspect that there’s actually a bit more travel to the keys even though the chassis is thinner than the older version – the removal of the optical drive probably had something to do with that. There’s also stereo speakers, which is a nice touch – a first for a 13″ MacBook. It’s also really, really quiet. So quiet, in fact, that at first it makes you worried that there was an error during the assembly process that resulted in the fan not being installed correctly, and that your computer might overheat at any moment. However, after several hours of running processor-, memory-, and disk-intensive operations I can confirm that it runs just fine under heavy load. It gets warm, sure, but the fan still stays eerily quiet.

What could be better

So, I think it’s a given that I like this new MacBook. Sure, some of that might be the honeymoon phase I’m still in with the product, but I’d like to think that a lot of it has to do with the merits of the product. However, as good as it is, there are of course some small things that could be better:

First, the price, The base model is $1699, but that has a paltry 128GB SSD, which absolutely won’t cut it anymore if you want to use it as your main computer, as I do. The $1999 256GB option is what I got, but mainly because I found the price jump of $500 to the 512GB size extremely hard to swallow/justify. I know SSD is expensive, and I know that I just extolled the virtues of the particular SSD Apple is putting into these machines, but I still can’t help but suspect that Apple could probably get that price down if they really tried, especially since entire 512GB SSDs can be had for less than $400 on Newegg.

Second, the 8GB RAM ceiling is annoying, especially since it’s soldered onto the motherboard and can’t be upgraded at all. The SSD, even being a nonstandard size, can theoretically be swapped out for a larger one, but the 8GB RAM limit is permanent. It’s a decent amount of memory in 2012, but in two to three years I think it’s going to seem pretty small. Planned obsolescence?

Third, the GPU could be better. As noted by Patrick Gibson, scrolling some media-rich pages like The Verge can cause some choppiness. I don’t think it’s particularly bad, but it is noticeable. The retina display is most certainly the culprit – the GPU can scroll pages like The Verge just fine on external displays, it’s just on the built-in screen that there are some minor issues. Of course, most pages aren’t as complex as The Verge, and consequently scroll very smoothly.

And finally, the battery life could always be better (though this can be said for every single battery-powered device ever made), and the fact that they’re still using dual-core processors instead of quad-core is disappointing. All in all, however, I think these are minor complaints that pale in comparison to the numerous strengths of the product. I am a completely satisfied customer, and I hope to be enjoying this machine for many years to come!

Mobee Desktop Hardware, Part 1: The Magic Bar

2012-06-21 by Jason Salaz. 4 comments

Back in March I visited the San Francisco Apple Store located on One Stockton Street. It was the first time in a while I’d been to an Apple Store for no specific purpose, allowing me the leisure of simply browsing as well as taking in the wonderful setup they had for their Training Workshops and store layout in general. Upstairs, in their third party accessory section, my eye locked onto peripherals I had not previously heard of, I saw two of them with their own Apple-like, but notably distinct brand. These products were mobee’s Magic Bar, Magic Charger, and Magic Numpad. These three products being accessory pieces for the Apple Wireless Keyboard, Magic Mouse, and Magic Trackpad, respectively.

I immediately locked onto the Magic Bar and Magic Charger for one reason: Wireless peripherals are great and all, but fighting with batteries is a complete and utter pain. The best part of the iPhone is the very capable battery, and only needing to plug it into a computer or a wall outlet for a period of time in order charge it up. When it’s done? Disconnect the cable, and you’re free to roam around. No tearing off the flimsy black cover and replacing a battery, slotting it into a dock or otherwise, plug it in when you need juice, unplug and walk away when you’re done. This is pretty much the only sensible way to work with wireless devices nowadays. My Nintendo Wii-motes have third party battery packs from Niko, and a charging stand that I can simply set the ‘motes on when I’m done playing. 360 controllers? Microsoft’s Play & Charge Kit. The PS3’s Six-axis controllers? Well, those don’t even have user-serviceable battery compartments to begin with, simply a micro-USB connection suitable for plugging into the PS3 directly, or a charging station as well.

And what if you don’t use L-Ion replacements? There’s always rechargeable batteries, of course! Apple seems to agree, given their Battery Charger which appeared along side the debut of the Magic Trackpad. However, rechargeable batteries, in my own purely anecdotal experience, have a much shorter lifespan before beginning to suffer from severely diminished capacity. It’s either that, or I can’t keep charged/un-charged batteries apart (which really, is COMPLETELY possible). Using standard batteries is easier, use ’em and toss ’em, but it does feel like quite a waste, and against the ethos of Apple’s environmental standards.

Enter Mobee, and their line of battery replacement accessories. Today, The Magic Bar.

The Magic Bar installed in a keyboard, Charging Dock, and Box

The Magic Bar is a battery pack and inductive charger set for Apple Wireless Keyboards and Magic Trackpads. I had initially assumed due to width of the box it would only be for the keyboard, but no! Opening The Magic Bar’s box reveals three components, a charging base, a battery pack, and a micro-USB cable. Or is it mini-USB? For the life of me I’ll never remember. Installation is incredibly simple.

  • Unscrew the battery compartment from the keyboard
  • Replace the batteries with the battery pack
  • Since it is presumably your first time, plug in the charging base and slide the keyboard into it.
  • Done! There was a step 3, I guess the iMac is still easier.

Set the battery compartment screw in a safe place, it’s a bit small and probably makes for a nasty choking hazard. Throw it in the Magic Bar box! If you ever switch back, you can simply swap components. Since the Magic Bar components are inductive charging, there is no snapping in, screwing, or other obnoxious process for fitting the two pieces together, this is also why the battery pack protrudes out of the keyboard.

While charging, the base station’s status light blinks a warm green until it’s finished. The inside of the Magic Bar box has a short guide that explains the simple order of information the light conveys:

  • Blinking green, charging.
  • Solid green, charged.
  • Solid red, waiting for a device to be inserted.
  • Blinking red, failure.

Once the device is done charging, I can simply cast the charging base aside, and move the keyboard wherever it’s most comfortable.

The battery pack over the Magic Trackpad

As previously mentioned, none of this is specific to the keyboard, if you’d rather use it with a Magic Trackpad as well, the process is the same. This is actually the absolute best feature of The Magic Bar. After buying The Magic Bar once and having the charging base, simply buy a “replacement” battery pack. One for the wireless keyboard, one for the Magic Trackpad. After installing each battery pack, simply slide the device that needs to be recharged into the base. Simple, right? (The answer is yes.)

One minor note: The Magic Bar only works with 2x-AA battery Wireless Keyboards. Among the wireless keyboards in my household, I do have an older model that took three batteries. Since the battery pack is not wide enough, it fails to make a connection and will not work with those keyboards. Check the underside of your Wireless Keyboard and ensure there are only two battery icons near the battery replacement bay.

My single minor gripe with the device; When placed in the charging base, the device does have a small amount of wiggle to it. When moving my hand back to the trackpad I have occasionally slid it out of the charger on accident, or just kind of wiggled back and forth when going to definitively click in the trackpad button. This comes with the territory of being a loose fit, easy enough enough to slide in and not forcing you to slide, snap, latch, or otherwise firmly connect the device in order to charge it. It’s a tradeoff I’m perfectly fine with, as it’s not a constant problem.

I can’t express enough how simple this has made things for me in the few days I’ve had it. I love convenient devices, and mobee has not disappointed me. In my eyes they are in the same league as Twelve South, being able to eloquently solve problems by manufacturing simple, and aesthetically pleasing devices. Perhaps the best part is that these devices are also incredibly cost-effective. $40 in the Apple Store or online direct from Mobee, $30 for the replacement battery packs. Note also this means they’re selling the charging base rather cheap. A mere $10 premium once.

Next: The Magic Charger.

The New iPad Review / Part 3: Real World Use

2012-03-30 by Nathan Greenstein. 6 comments

Real World Use

The iPad does many things very well. Its amazing display, battery life, and surprisingly good speaker make it very fun and easy to use. It has quickly become my favorite device for having fun, relaxing, and using with other people. I prefer the iPad over my iPhone and Mac for casual web browsing, viewing videos and photos, reading books and magazines, playing causal games, reading news and articles, and participating in social media. These are the things that the iPad really excels at. It does them better, or just as well and more conveniently, than any other device.

There are other things that the iPad can do well, but that I find myself using other devices for. The iPad is okay for things like email, serious web browsing, and writing, but not the best. For anything involving a lot of typing, I prefer a notebook. The built in keyboard is good, and AutoCorrect is smart, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get my typing speed on an iPad up to what it is on a big, chunky, tactile desktop keyboard. Voice dictation helps, but it requires an Internet connection and an environment where you can make noise. I could just get a Bluetooth keyboard, but I’m hesitant to do that. As soon as I have to carry a keyboard in addition to the iPad, it essentially becomes less portable than the a MacBook Air. I also prefer a notebook for anything that involves frequently switching between apps or tabs. The multitasking gestures are helpful, but still nowhere as fast as having two windows side by side (and nowhere near as fast as having two monitors). Something like Windows 8’s ability to pin a compact version of an app on screen with another app would be incredibly helpful.

Finally, there are a few things that an iPad simply can’t do. iPhoto and Snapseed for iPad are a start, but I still need Photoshop for anything serious. The same goes for video editing: iMovie is impressive, but it doesn’t come close to Premiere and After Effects. There are some awesome games available for iPad, but playing most serious games isn’t practical on a handheld 9″ touchscreen. An iPad also can’t do everything I need for school: it can’t upload files to the web or use Flash-based websites. I also find myself wishing for better file organization and management tools. Dropbox is great; it lets me store and access all the resources I need for working on an iPad. It is limited, though: files can’t be moved, copied, or renamed. I’m not saying that the iPad should be able to do all of these things. Pro production work doesn’t make sense to cram into an iPad; the screen is too small and the processor is too slow. Other things, though, seem entirely reasonable to expect. more »

The New iPad Review / Part 2: First Impressions & Features

2012-03-28 by Kyle Cronin & Nathan Greenstein. 2 comments

First Impressions

Having waited in line for hours to buy the new iPad, I briskly walked out of the Apple Store past the outstretched line of people still waiting to get in, and to my car. I was excited – I was one of the very first people in the United States to own a new iPad!

Once I got back to my apartment, I took the plastic off the box and lifted the cover. The tight fit and air pressure made the separation of the cover with the rest of the box take longer than I would have liked, but it is a necessary byproduct of getting the packaging as compact as possible. With the cover off, I was greeted by the new iPad. Removing even more plastic, this time on the iPad itself, I reached for the top of the device, pushed the power button, and the screen came to life.

more »

The New iPad Review / Part 1: Standing in Line

2012-03-27 by Kyle Cronin. 4 comments

Two years ago

Back in the summer of 2010 Apple announced the iPhone 4. At the time I had been using an iPhone 3G for about a year and a half, and I had grown impatient with how slow the device had been operating. When I saw the announcement of the retina screen, the gorgeous case, and the snappiness of the operating system of the new iPhone 4, I knew I had to have one. And when Apple announced that they were moving up the upgrade date for some AT&T customers, I knew I wanted one on launch day. So that’s what I tried to do.

However, my launch day experience for the iPhone 4 was terrible. At the time, I lived two hours away from my nearest Apple Store, and, although I had hit the road around 3:45AM, by the time I got to the mall housing my Apple Store around 5:45, there was already a considerable line for the door opening at 6AM, and the store didn’t even begin selling them until 8AM. I got in line and waited for hours, hoping they wouldn’t run out of stock while they continued to let in people with in-store pickups and kept the line for people that didn’t have one (like me) at a standstill. I was getting hungry, tired, and my feet hurt.

more »

Razer Naga Review: A Keyboard Lover’s Mouse

2012-03-12 by Nathan Greenstein. 7 comments

A bit over a year ago I switched from the Apple Magic Mouse that came with my iMac to a Razer Naga as my primary pointing device. I bought it because it wowed me with its sheer number of buttons– seventeen! I didn’t really know what I was going to do with seventeen buttons, but I knew I was going to do something. Well, it’s been a while, and I can confirm that the buttons turned out to be very useful. But the Naga is more than just a bunch of buttons; it’s a pretty nice mouse in every respect. more »