Notes on new Macbook Pro

So, I got a Macbook Pro from $new_company (about which more later)
and, as I believe is traditional, here are some notes about the experience.


Very nice: no rebooting, things just work from more or less the moment you take
it out of the box. (Compare with recent Samsung N140 netbook, whose Windows 7
install wanted several reboots to install all the additional antivirus and
other crap it comes bundled with.)


My parents, brother, gf, and her mother all have macbooks. And you have to
admit that out of the box they come with a rather well thought out set of
applications for real people. But of course everyone has different needs, and
I immediately installed the following:

(Some are payware, eek! I’m trying them out for 30-day trials, and may get
some through work, others I might be persuaded to pay myself, but lets see)

  • Adobe Creative Suite 4 (Payware, but a friend works for Adobe, which made it seem very much worthwhile, if only for PhotoShop and InDesign)
  • Launchbar (App Launcher. Very nice, and apparently shinier than QuickSilver, but Payware)
  • Things (Task tracker, seems quite nice. Payware)
  • The Hit List (ditto, trying now after finishing the Things trial)
  • Omnigraffle (really nice design tool. Payware)
  • OmniOutliner (outlining tool. Payware)
  • Miro (torrent client and video player, Free)
  • VLC (Video player. Free)
  • VirtualBox (Virtual machine host. Free)
  • VMWare Fusion (Virtual machine. Payware)
  • Skype (VOIP client – yes, proprietary but family and work use it. Free)
  • Telephone (VOIP client without a stupid phone-like UI, yay! Free)
  • Google Chrome (Because Safari still sucks. Free)
  • Firefox (ditto)
  • OpenOffice (Office applications. Now native, so starts quickly unlike the old NeoOffice, yay! Free)
  • TextMate (Text editor. Though why would I want anything other than Vim. Payware)
  • MacVim (Text editor. Free)
  • Cha-Ching (Money manager. Crashed, not impressed. Payware)
  • Moneywell (ditto. Seemed more stable at least. Payware)
  • GitX (Git client. Shiny. Free)
  • The Haskell Platform (Much easier to install than last time I tried on ubuntu… Free)
  • Picasa (Photo manager, though I guess iPhoto is OK. Free)
  • Songbird (Music player. Free)
  • Tweetie (Twitter client. Free I think, I’m certainly not paying for one anyway)

Then some file storage apps:

  • DropBox (Remote file storage. Free)
  • BackBlaze (constant remote backup. Without any options. Yay. Bought immediately after free trial, as I really like the idea of not losing all my data, even though I’m too stupid to manage my own backup).

And some toys for the menu bar:

  • SlimBatteryMonitor
  • MenuMeters
  • MacFuse + fuse-ext2 (to copy my data from external ext3 disk)
  • Growl (Grrr!)
  • Candelair (to attempt to fix apple remote breakage in snow leopard)

And miscellaneous bits and bobs:

  • X-code and brew
  • Xiph-qt, to allow iTunes to play .ogg files

I’ve not had time to play with all of these, but the overall quality is pretty
good. Installation isn’t too bad, though I don’t think it’s intuitive to “just
drag the icon to the applications folder”. You can tell it’s not intuitive by
the fact that every .dmg has a different background image with a large arrow
graphic trying to point it. Or by the fact that my parents launch the one or
two applications they’ve downloaded by opening them from a .dmg that they have
permanently mounted… sigh…

Ah, there’s even an article about this.

But OK, once you know how to do it, it’s easy enough. Though I’d like
apt, and should look at MacPorts. I did install brew which
is nice for command-line apps.


Hardware is nice. Mostly. It doesn’t run too hot. I like the lighting on the
keyboard. Actually the keyboard is much nicer than I’d expected (One of the
few really excellent things about the thinkpad was its keyboard, so I wasn’t
really expecting all that much from these odd scrabble-keys, but I’ll talk
about that in more depth shortly).

The new Mac trackpad is OK. I think I’d rather have a button – it’s not as if
you can click anywhere on the trackpad to click, it has to be near the
bottom, so why not just have a button? On the other hand, tap-to-click works
fine. Not having physical buttons means that there isn’t a middle-mouse
button. Which is inconvenient in an ubuntu VM, as it means there’s no obvious
way to do copy-paste in an xterm… I worried about this for a while, then came
up with the obvious workaround instead — use gnome-terminal… (who needs
unicode, colours, or stability anyway?)

The trackpad seems insensitive too for “click; move; click” sequences. OK,
this is mainly a problem for FreeCell and DiceWars, but annoying in any case.

The screen is nice too. Oh, the screen: this was largely why I had a sudden
wild shift from a 12″ supposedly “ultraportable” thinkpad to a 17″ MBP… I
decided that I couldn’t see enough on a small screen. OK, so the 17″ is
massive… embarrassingly so when you take it out on a train for example, but
it does make for a great machine to work on.

There are a couple of things I’m not so pleased with though: though the machine
doesn’t run hot (like my thinkpad) it does tingle in a semi-electric-shock way
when the power adapter is plugged in (a quick google suggests this is a fairly
common problem). Also the headphones, while loud and crisp, seem quite noisy.
When you have the phones plugged in, every time a noise occurs, the headphone
socket then hisses for half a minute, then switches itself off again.


The most annoying thing about the keyboard is the odd positioning of the keys.
The # key is hidden away in Alt-3 (but without anything written on the keyboard
to hint that). Oddly under my ubuntu VM (with keyboard set to Apple MBP) it
insists on RightAlt-3. PgUp/PgDn are Fn-Up/Fn-Dn, which is reasonable but
unexpected. Also, there’s only one delete key, which behaves badly in until you set the appropriate options correctly (why isn’t that
the default?). Yet, there are some oddities taking up precious keyboard real

  • WTF is the “±§” key for?
  • Why haven’t they moved the Caps Lock key? OK, it’s not entirely useless, but it has very few use-cases: shouting on IM, or writing COBOL. It should be somewhere towards the top-right of the keyboard, and not in a place that’s easy to mistakenly press it. OK, so no other manufacturer moved CapsLock anywhere else, but Apple have supposedly “thought” different about the rest of the layout, so why not this?

Also, instead of Ctrl being at the very bottom-left (a lovely position, which
means you can press Ctrl without using a finger — I use the pad of my left
hand) the “Fn” key is there instead. The Thinkpad shares this idiocy. I’ve
recently been using a 5-year-old HP laptop as a backup, and despite it being
underpowered and falling apart, the 2 things I really liked, after using a
thinkpad, were a) the Ctrl key being in the right place, and b) that it had a
trackpad. (The Thinkpad just had a clitmouse. After 2 years I learnt how to
use it, but still found it hateful. Never again. But I digress.)

Media keys

Another oddity is the media keys. (Where by “oddity”, I’m struggling for a
politer word than “batshit crazy clusterfuck”).

I never really got media keys working satisfactorily under Linux, where they
mainly just spoke to the foreground application. So I was hoping that a bit of
Apple shiny would go a long way. Now I’m not a usability expert, but I’m
hoping that my expectation for what a Play/Pause button should do might not be
entirely insane or impractical:

  • if any running app that knows about play/pause declares it is “playing” then it should pause
  • else if the currently focused app knows about play/pause, then it should start playing
  • else launch the “default media app” and start playing (or, even better: don’t do anything)

What actually happens is this:

  • The Play/Pause event is sent to every open app. So any app that cares about it will:
    • start playing if paused
    • pause if playing
  • also, if iTunes is closed, then it will open

So, if you have VLC open playing a video, and somebody calls you, you press the Pause button. Then:

  • VLC stops playing
  • Oops, looks like you had Miro open, so it now starts playing
  • Looks like you didn’t have iTunes open, you must have wanted that, right? So iTunes launches and then starts playing too…

But that’s OK. You can press the Pause button to stop the chaos right?

  • Now Miro stops playing
  • iTunes stops playing
  • VLC starts playing again

Apparently this is breakage from 10.6 Snow Leopard, having been sane till 10.5.
There is speculation that Apple are trying to make 3rd party apps look bad by
not responding “properly” to the media buttons, while Apple’s own apps do. If
that’s true, then it’s not working. I don’t blame VLC. I don’t blame Miro.
Dear Apple, you fucked up, please sort it out.

(This isn’t just me: various threads including are whining about
this idiocy. The thread mentions a cunning back: if you have QuickTime open,
it acts as a prophylactic against iTunes opening. This is apparently because
the ‘loginwindow’ process has an exception hardcoded into it not to launch
iTunes if it detects QT running. So not in the slightest bit insane then.)

I had the same issue with the remote. Yet it’s shiny, but if it only wants to
play with iTunes and the useless Front Row (where by useless, I mean doesn’t
play my videos, which is what I expected it to) then it’s basically a shiny
paperweight. Thanks Apple. I’ve installed Candelair, which may possibly help
improve this but I’ve been disinclined to test properly.

Power Management

When the machine resumes from sleep, the external monitor shows static “snow”
for half a minute or so. That’s not particularly impressive. A quick google
suggests that older models had similar problems, perhaps this resurfaces every
now and then? I should probably check to see if it’s going to be a
deteriorating hardware issue.

On the other hand, it actually resumes. From sleep-to-ram. And
hibernate-to-disk. Every time. Yes, every time!

(Can you tell I’ve been using Linux-on-laptop for the last 5 years?)

And though I don’t think I’m getting anywhere near the 8 hours advertised, I am
to be fair running with a bright screen, a couple of VMs and so on.


This is a mixed bag. Mainly, the windows are less useful/pretty than Gnome:
you can’t set windows to Keep-on-top. You can only resize using the
bottom-right control, no Alt-to-drag option. No ability to maximize a window
(ok, so the need for this doesn’t come up as often as I’d expected, but when it
does, it’s annoying), and new windows don’t get tiled in pretty places as with
gnome. Also, more often than I remember happening under Linux, popup windows
get placed underneath the windows that created them. Meh.

I’m not sure whether I like Finder better than Nautilus. It seems to be
possible to use drag-to-copy into a folder of folders (rather than into one of
the subfolders). On the other hand “type-to-jump-to-filename” seems to not
work consistently (I haven’t quite figured which state is inhibiting this).

When you’re using 2 monitors, Mac’s single menu bar (on the top of the screen
instead of top of window) becomes a royal pain, as you have to move the pointer
from the external screen back to the laptop’s one to use it. I guess I should
learn the command keys to do this without mouse. Also, if you put the second
screen immediately above the first, you suddenly change the menu bar from being
“a mile high” to being a thin strip of stuff that you have to target. So don’t
do that (or learn those key combinations).

Spaces… wasn’t sure how to move apps between spaces. But the F8 view is
quite cute when you work out what it is (I was confused by it showing me what
looked like a 4×2 view instead of a 2×2 one… but of course I have external
monitor plugged in… d’oh.) Very cute is that Expose works while you’re in
the thumbnail view.

Date/Time applet in menubar is underpowered. Compare to the Gnome one that
has a month calendar view, world date-time and weather. This one can’t even be
configured to show the date in the menu bar. It’s a prime candidate for
replacement with something actually useful.

The only thing I can think of that might explain the weak Date/Time applet is
that they are trying to sell you on the Dashboard one? If so, it doesn’t work.
The Dashboard is a wonderful combination of ugly, confusing, and useless.
Every time I opened it (by accident, mostly) I would struggle to either get it
to do anything useful or, even better, close again. Luckily there is a
‘defaults’ setting that prevents it from opening again. Phew. Bizarre.

Virtual Machines

For dev work, I was planning to use VirtualBox, which has the nice feature of
being free. It has a few problems though:

  • networking seems to be hard to setup to work usefully.
  • Swallows some keys. Particularly Ctrl-Arrow to move between spaces, and Command-Space for launchbar.

VMWare solves these, though, oddly, it actually seemed slightly harder to
setup. Installing the “guest additions” had to download a large package, and
instead of running it itself expected me to read the system documentation to
know what to do with it (I just ran the perl script from terminal, which works
fine… Not sure why the README file couldn’t have just said that). Still,
minimizing friction between guest and host working is probably worth paying


There are some niggles, and some outright baffling brokenness, but actually
I’m quite enjoying working on a Mac.