A layman’s critique of the MacBook Pro 13” with Lion OS X: General impressions on using a Mac

· computer reviewing, Macintosh

This is a little piece of subjective writing discussing the good and bad of my Mac experience so far. Considering the title topic, I acknowledge that there probably are some smart and elegant features of this machine of which I am not aware and which may render some of my points of critique invalid.  That being said, I think that I have gone to a reasonable length of effort to solve some of the problems that I will discuss.  Any comments are of course much appreciated!

This is by no means an in-depth expert review. I will barely touch any technicalities, rather describing my experience as a typical end user.

The looks

It has been roughly 1,5 months since I got my new shiny MacBook Pro. There is lots of it to like even from the start: It is much faster than my old Samsung R510 laptop, lighter, cooler to the touch, a competitive battery life, a clearer and crisper looking display, and the multi-functionality of the track pad no doubt inspired by genius and the result of much hard work. The keys backlighting is a welcome and good-looking feature, and so are the fact that you insert your CD or DVD drive like your bank card in an ATM slot, i.e. without having to open a tray first. The magnetic power cord connector is an interesting and innovative feature, just clicking into place and cleanly removing it again whether by accident (eg. when you trip over the cord) or not, minimizing any wear and tear. However, the two USB slots are a bit too close to each other: Some USB flash drives do not fit if something (like a mouse) is plugged into the other one. I do like the fact that the slots are all on the side instead of the back as you get on Windows systems, which makes plugging stuff in and out easier.

Clicking

After spending more time on actually using it, as a Mac first-timer, having always used Windows systems (with a limited Linux experience on my office machine), encountered some more challenging aspects.  Probably the very first thing that you notice is the lack of a normal right-click option. To be fair, you can set it up so that it right-clicks on the track pad just like on a normal mouse, but in my case, that wasn’t the default option, instead you should use something like Control+click (but which doesn’t help if you need to Control+right click as I frequently have to do in one of my applications). In any case, that wasn’t really a problem for me, since an external mouse is for me absolutely indispensable. Fancy track pad or not, I am much faster using a mouse whether I’m working, gaming or browsing. But of course, we all have our preferences, and variety is a good thing. At the risk of splitting hairs, I suppose making the track pad right click the default option would spare most people the trouble of first trying to find out how to right click before being able to move on.

The keyboard

As you start doing some actual typing, some other problematic aspects quickly make themselves known. Probably the most famous of these is the lack of a Delete key. Confused, I asked my die-hard Mac fan colleagues, then how do you actually delete? The correct answer is of course that you should hold in the Function key and press Backspace. This seems completely inefficient and wasteful to me: First you have to move your left hand from its standard position on asdf, press your weak left little finger on a very small key (Function), move your right hand away from its standard position on the right side of the keyboard (jkl;) and press the Backspace key which is the second most furthest removed key from the Function key (the furthest is the Eject key, which you can quite easily press by accident in this case, ejecting any possible DVDs or CDs and giving you a mini heart attack in the process).

My colleagues also mentioned though that they don’t actually use Delete, instead they use their editing software in such a way that they just use Backspace or replacing text where needed. I’m still having problems wrapping my head around this. For example, let’s say you have a word “mrrrexample” and your cursor is at the letter m and you would like to delete “mrrr” so that only “example” is left. Surely the easiest way to accomplish this is to just press DEL four times? Oh wait, there is no DEL…*sighs*. Yes there are ways to select whole words and lines and then just press a button to replace them but of course you often run into cases like the above. The closest solution I can come up with is highlighting the next four letters by holding in Shift and pressing the Right arrow key four times and then pressing a button to replace the text (or Backspace) but surely just pressing a single button four times is more efficient?

Also sorely missing are the “home” and “end” keys. Sometimes you would of course quickly go to the beginning or end of the line without really stopping with what you’re doing, quickly inserting or deleting (!) a letter or two and then moving to the end again to resume your typing. On a standard Windows keyboard, that would involve moving your right hand slightly to the right, pressing a single button and moving it back. You barely have to move it if your right hand is already on the arrow keys, which is commonly used in combination with Home and End on Windows. On Macintosh, there are two options, as far as I know. You either press Command+Left arrow, or Command+Right arrow.  It’s not so inconvenient but still, you have to move both hands away from their standard resting position at asdf and jkl; respectively. The other option is Control+A for Home and Control+E for End. It involves less movement than the other option but still involves pressing two keys for each action, one of them which involves using the left little finger again, and a kind of awkward switching between the middle finger on A and the index finger in E while holding in Control with the left little finger. It might have been easier if there was a Control key on the right hand side as well, but unfortunately it doesn’t exist. The situation is further confused by the fact that in at least some applications, such as using the terminal, Command+Left or Right do not perform this function but instead switch between open windows, leaving only Control+A and E to do the job. Perhaps the latter involves less movement than pressing Home and End on the other side of the keyboard but for me it is still more preferable to be able to press only one key instead of two on the same hand: I have found that it is simply faster and I suspect that it puts less strain on your hand. To be fair, there are shortcuts in some editing software such as Emacs in which you can use a combination of two keys using both hands without moving your hands much at all which are actually better than using the arrow keys. But of course a keyboard shouldn’t be designed for a single application type, instead it should be easy to use independent of the different ways in which applications require one to type.

There is also the lack of Page Down and Page Up keys. Mac fans will rightly point out that you don’t really need them since you can just use the track pad to scroll, or otherwise using Function+Up or Down. I have a problem with both these options. Firstly, one doesn’t always want to scroll up or down. Yes, it is easy and convenient, but not scrolling is, at least for me, easier on the eyes. If you know exactly how much is being paged up or down (for example while you are reading) you can just keep your eyes on the same place without having to find your spot again. The other option again involves moving both hands away from their standard resting position to, once again, press TWO keys on opposite sides of the keyboard. After having paged up or down, you need to find the original keys again before you can start typing.

The Command key is useful and multifunctional. Its strength is its combination with other keys in using many different keyboard shortcuts to accomplish a multitude of tasks, such as managing applications, viewing information on files and directories, opening windows, switching between desktops, copying, pasting, undoing, redoing and much more. It is perhaps slightly annoying to have to move your thumb inwards to be able to press it (assuming your fingers are in the standard resting position) but at least there is another one on the other side of the space bar and it’s relatively easy to reach. It is also slightly bigger than the Function, Control and Alt keys, which helps.

On the last note, I find that this is the very reason I also have some trouble whenever I have to use these other keys. The Command key is basically a replacement for the Control key on Windows and although it seems to do even more than that, the Control key is also not exactly rendered useless. You still need it depending on what application you use (for example, if you want to “Home” and “End” in a terminal) and often I find myself getting confused between which one to use when. I think it is partly a Windows thing so I just need some time to adjust, but the fact of the matter is that using four of these keys (Function, Control, Alt and Command) instead of just three complicates things a bit. I often find myself pressing the wrong key and accidently switching desktops or something silly like that, requiring me to look at the keyboard before pressing the right combination.  No doubt that I will get it right eventually, but at least in my case (and I suspect in the case of many Windows users) it’s a significant learning curve.

The top function keys are very useful. They are used to adjust screen brightness, access mission control, iterate through and playing iTunes playlists, adjusting the sound, etc. I did have a slight hassle when playing a certain game though, where F3 was the default hot key to load a game but instead it took me to mission control. I would say though that the game is more at fault than OS X though. I also had problems when playing an online flash game, where I often have to use Control and arrow, instead I was switching to different desktops all the time.

In general, I find that some keys are too small. I always find myself pressing back slash instead of Enter, being used to the bigger size of the Enter key on a Windows keyboard, or the back tick instead of the left Shift. The function keys on top are also small and to be able to read them one has to scrutinize them carefully. A standard Windows keyboard is bigger, but I find that the keys can generally be gripped with confidence and vigor. In this case, it will take me a while to adjust. Fortunately, I have an external Apple USB keyboard, which includes Delete, Page Up and Page down keys, and solves some of the above problems. However, the function keys are still very small with small letters on them. I have to be very careful in a game when F5 is quick save and F6 is quick load! Other than that, the keyboard looks very pretty and is very silent to the touch. It is also amazingly lightweight. With both the internal and external keyboards, one doesn’t suffer from the bread crumbs problem, since the spaces between the keys are pure aluminium. A little puff of breath will remove those crumbs!

Thank you for reading! Your comments are very welcome.

Word,

Gideon

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