∞ 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.