∞ Downsizing: Going from a 17-inch MacBook Pro to a 13-inch MacBook

I have been a big fan of Apple’s heaviest laptop iron for years. Since the PowerBook G4 days, I’ve been willing to forgo convenience for power and have carried a 17-inch laptop wherever I go. But circumstances change, and with Apple’s refresh to its consumer Mac line in October I decided to take the plunge with new 13-inch MacBook. It’s been quite a change, but it hasn’t been nearly the sacrifice I expected it to be.

macbookMy “daily driver” since 2006 has been a 2.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo-equipped MacBook Pro outfitted with a 17-inch screen. I’ve taken it across the country quite a few times and worked on it daily for years; it was the machine I did almost all of my writing on during my last few years at Macworld, and has served me well. In fact, it continues to serve my family well now, though I admit that time has not been kind to the poor beast: It’s scratched and dented; the hinges need repair and the plastic has worn on the keyboard to the point where I can’t see some letters anymore.

Now, I know full well that Apple will refresh the MacBook Pro line, in all likelihood within the first few months of 2010. But due to a variety of circumstances I can’t wait that long, so when Apple refreshed the MacBook I sat up and took notice.

Small but powerful

The MacBook, which I’d long ignored as too small and too limiting, suddenly looked very, very fine indeed, especially compared with Apple’s 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros, even heavily discounted refurbished units available for sale at the online Apple Store. Paired with an unbeatable $200 rebate deal from national Apple reseller Micro Center, I took the plunge, investing in a new 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo-equipped MacBook. I’ve been using it for about a week now, and I haven’t missed my 17-inch at all.

The biggest change for me was, of course, the screen real estate. While my 17-inch MacBook Pro operates at a spacious 1680 x 1050 pixel resolution, the MacBook works at a more modest 1280 x 800. But thanks to Spaces, the Leopard and Snow Leopard feature that lets you create virtual desktops, that’s proven to be less of an issue than I expected. I can create virtual environments for applications that really demand as much screen space as possible, bringing them up with a key command immediately.

The keyboard on the MacBook is full sized, and it wasn’t much of an adjustment at all. This was important. Last year I spent some time with a netbook, and I discovered that the keyboard was a real problem. The manufacturer claimed the netbook sported a keyboard that was 92 percent the size of a full keyboard, but awkward key placement and lousy tactile response marred the experience dramatically.

I had to recalibrate my visual orientation of where my hands should go in relation to the keys somewhat – the vast width of the 17-inch is like the dashboard of an old Cadillac, it just goes on for miles and miles – but as a touch typist, I was hitting the keys on the MacBook as fast I as I was on the MacBook Pro within a few minutes.

Takes a licking and keeps on ticking

The battery life of the MacBook, compared to my expectations of the MacBook Pro, is nothing short of phenomenal. I’ve been able to leave the house without my AC adapter in tow and work remotely for half the morning and most of the afternoon without depleting the supply. I had rotated two batteries in use on the MacBook Pro, and saw perhaps 2.5 hours out of each of them. This has also translated into another practical benefit for me – I now have a lot less weight to carry. The MacBook is obviously a lot smaller than the 17-inch MacBook Pro, and lighter, but one less battery has translated into less weight to carry in my backpack, too.

The MacBook has a faster bus with faster memory than my old MacBook Pro, though, and the hard disk drive, while smaller than the third-party drive I installed about a year ago, isn’t pokey, either. I will, however, elect to upgrade the RAM on the MacBook from 2GB to 4GB as soon as it’s practical to do so.

Even though the clock speed of the MacBook is lower than my three-year-old MacBook Pro, I haven’t seen diminished functionality or, for that matter, a lot of practical performance differences. I can run all the same software I used to – though I have made a conscious decision not to do so, more on that later. I can even play games on this system, thanks to its use of Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics.

Integrated but not inferior

Some performance enthusiasts are quick to shun any integrated graphics as inferior to a discrete graphics chip. Certainly this is a differentiator for the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pro models. But as an avid gamer, I want to point out that the Nvidia integrated graphics on Apple’s MacBook, Mac mini and low-end MacBook Pro aren’t bad at all. In fact, I’m even able to play EVE Online, a very technically demanding massively multiplayer online game, pretty well on this little machine.

And the quality of the LED-backlit display on the MacBook is superior. This is my first experience with a glossy laptop screen. I had expected issues with glare, especially since I generally like to work out of a living room that gets a lot of morning sun – but it hasn’t been an issue. In fact, I find the glossy screen to be more like looking through a window pane; it’s a richer visual experience for me, especially looking at video and photos.

The downside

The only real limitation I’ve found is the absence of FireWire, an unfortunate omission, especially since the previous generation of MacBook had this feature. I’ve invested in a lot of FireWire gear over the years and literally all my other Mac hardware has it. I’d gotten used to being able to reboot a laptop in FireWire Target Disk Mode (TDM) to transfer large quantities of data. Migration Assistant works over Ethernet and Airport too, so that hasn’t been a show stopper, but it does mean that a few of my FireWire-only storage systems will be relegated to use with other Macs in my house.

Having a smaller hard drive than I’m accustomed to caused me to rethink a lot of how I use my MacBook. I wasn’t anxious to simply dump everything from my MacBook Pro onto my MacBook – that would have left me with less than 20GB of free hard disk space, and that seemed like a lot of waste and clutter.

Rethinking how I work

So I analyzed the way I actually used my machine, what I did with it, and came up with a compromise that caused me to avoid installing many of the same storage and memory-intensive apps that I’d used before. There’s no Microsoft Office on my new MacBook for example – I’m giving iWork ’09 a heavier workout than I used to. And I’ve avoided installing any Adobe products on the new machine, instead opting for shareware alternatives like Freeverse’s Lineform for vector-based illustration, and Pixelmator for image editing. The net result has been a machine that offers similar functionality to my old computer while using fewer resources more effectively.

I’m not suggesting that everyone can throw the baby out with the bathwater when they get a new machine and start over with new apps, mind you. I’m very cognizant of the fact that you develop over time a workflow and habits you’re comfortable with, and that organizational or client demands will require you to favor some applications or methods for working over others.

It’s just that I have been put in a position where I could rethink a lot of fundamental things about how I work, and decided that going in a different direction was the right move.

No buyer’s remorse

In the end, I’m really pleased with the MacBook as a replacement for my 17-inch MacBook Pro. Obviously, three years is a long time in the evolution of computer systems, especially for Apple. When I acquired my previous laptop, Apple was only a year into the Intel transition, having announced its plan in 2005 and executing in 2006. But going from one end of the Apple’s laptop spectrum to the other hasn’t been a sacrifice. In fact, it’s been great.

  • Eric

    How does the plastic Unibody feel compared to an aluminum one?

    • Surprisingly solid, and actually more rigid than my older MacBook Pro does, since it doesn’t feature the “unibody” design. Case flex was a serious problem in those older machines, and I have the bent case to prove it, alas. I also like that the underside of the MacBook uses a rubberized material throughout, so there’s no need for nubbin-style feet (that invariably fell off over time), as there were prior to the introduction of the sealed battery design.

  • I felt the same way moving from a PowerMac to an iMac. We’re coming to a point where we are going to have to replace our old iBook G4, and a MacBook is at the top of the list. The only thing that might sway me is the mythical tablet. If it does indeed come out early next year we might opt for one of those instead. We don’t really need it for anything but Internet access.

  • Funny, about a year ago, I moved from my MBP 17 to a MBP 15 … and now I’m thinking that I’m going to go back. The thought is that while I’m on mobile, I want as much screen real estate as possible … for each window (something Spaces doesn’t help with).

    Furthermore, I’m thinking that I’ll have the weight savings anyway because my 15 needs the external battery, but a new MBP17 would not.

    Don’t get me wrong — the new MacBook is awesome. That’s why it’s Apple’s best seller. But, when I want every ounce of speed and screen real estate, I’m headed back to the MBP 17 I think.

  • Dan

    So how does EVE Online on your MacBook compare to it on your MBP? Do you even notice a difference, given the slightly slower processor, or is that sort of mitigated by the smaller resolution and better graphics card that your MB has?

    • It’s slower, particularly in PvP situations. But it’s more tolerable than I expected. The MB doesn’t have a better graphics card – in fact, it has no graphics card at all. It has integrated graphics which borrow RAM away from main system RAM, while my MBP had ATI Radeon Mobility X1600 graphics with dedicated VRAM. The Nvidia GeForce 9400M is certainly better technology than the Intel GMA X3100 technology that used to be on the MacBook, but it’s still no substitute for a dedicated graphics processor.

      I’ll be interested to see how it compares once I bump up the RAM to 4GB, however. That should give the integrated graphics processor more breathing room, especially for a game that’s dependent on virtualization (EVE Online is a Cider game, which means it depends on a “translation layer” to work, rather than being a “true” Mac game port).

  • BearsFan34

    Excellent read, thanks Jim. I made the decision to sell my late-2007 white MacBook and use its sale to fund my MacBook Pro, basically the same specs as the white MB you have now (though I did upgrade to 4GB RAM and a 320GB 7200rpm HDD).

    I’m surprised to read about your positive battery life experiences. I haven’t really noticed that much of a difference at ALL since I got this unibody MBP. Used to get 3:30 or so on my white MB, and now I get seemingly about that much on this MBP. This is with wifi on 95% of the time, screen brightness down to the lowest or 2nd/3rd-lowest setting; the backlit keyboard off or on the lowest setting; Bluetooth off, no other peripherals. Basically just iTunes playlist sorting, Mail, Safari, TweetDeck, some iPhoto and Pages work throughout battery testing.

    Am wondering if, since I merely swapped HDDs from MacBook to MacBook Pro using Migration Assistant…you think a nuke/pave w/ fresh install would help battery life? I never get CLOSE to the “up to 7 hours battery life” shown on Apple’s website…

    • “Excellent read, thanks Jim.”

      Excuse me? 🙂

  • JohnO

    Thanks for the report, Peter (or should we call you Jim 🙂 ). Since your main downside of the new machine was lack of FireWire, it must not have crossed the $$ threshold to push you into a 13″ MacBook Pro — especially after that lovely $200 rebate at MicroCenter!

    • Jim Dalrymple

      Why would you call Peter, me?

      • JohnO

        …Just riffing off of the earlier commenter (BearsFan34) calling Peter “Jim”. It is what you get for launching your site and being the primary writer for the first number of months 🙂 I think many readers assume you are still the only writer, and haven’t gotten used to looking at the bylines yet.

        Congratulations, by the way. I am enjoying how the site is shaping up, and The Loop is now much earlier in my RSS scan of Mac sites!

    • Regarding the lack of FireWire, JohnO, it’s certainly meant that several storage systems I’ve been using are not compatible with the MacBook, and that’s a bummer. I’m particularly frustrated because FireWire was included on the previous MacBook system, after missing on the one before that. I wish Apple had kept it – it really would have made things easier.

      But due to a variety of circumstances, I need to buy this system now rather than waiting for Apple to refresh the MacBook Pro line, which I expect will happen early in 2010. So I’m content with the knowledge that this MacBook is the best value for my money right now, being fully cognizant of the fact that it will be replaced by something even better before too long.

  • JohnO

    I understand about needing something right now, regardless of what might be right around the corner.

    I just ordered a new 2.66 GHz MacBook Pro 15″ to replace my early 2008 15″ MBP which I’ll be turning over to my wife. A shame MicroCenter didn’t have a $200 rebate on that unit! MacConnection does have a $150 rebate along with a free copy of VMWare Fusion 3.0, so that worked out OK too.


  • I do have the 13″ MBP and love it. I passed on my 17″ Macbook to my other half. This one travels better, can be used in Coach class seats much easier, on the train much easier, and is much lighter. It performs just as good if not better than the older 17″ and fits my needs perfectly.

  • cgrscott

    Good article. My friend told me his 1 GHz G4 iBook is hitting a brick wall in web computability, running OS 10.3.x, and the cost of buying a discontinued install DVD of Tiger or Leopard is dizzying because of demand for those backwards compatible install disks. He also needs to pay someone to replace a failing Apple Superdrive.

    I encouraged him to get the all new Macbook. I noticed on black Friday, Apple was selling the entry level 13″ Macbook Pro for just $100. more than the white plastic Macbook.

    I think he will like stepping up to an Intel based Mac that is running Snow Leopard.