Making a MacBook my World
July 3, 2006 8:11 PM   Subscribe

Advice for using a MacBook as a primary machine?

I'm giving in to my machine lust and am "upgrading" from an iMac G5 PPC 2GHz (the machine I asked about here) to a MacBook 2GHz. My dream is to use this MacBook as my primary home machine, with the added benefit of being portable. While I'd like to think I'll only carry it with me when I need it, I know the Mac fanboy in me will probably insist it travel almost daily.

Basically, I'm looking for simple tips from others who've used a MacBook or MBP (or maybe, really, any laptop) as a main machine. I want my desktop experience to be equal or superior to the all-in-one iMac, but take it out on a whim.

I'm already going to bump up the RAM to 2GB (the RAM will probably arrive a day before the MacBook - oh, the agony!), and will upgrade the internal SATA HD sooner rather than later. I'm getting a 19" wide-screen monitor (ViewSonic VA1912WB), and my current USB hub will reduce a dizzying array of devices to a single plug. Further minimizing wires, I'll be using my bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

My specific questions - some probably in the "duh" category - include:

1. Even though it's a MacBook and not a MBP, and even though the MacBook has integrated video, this is still an upgrade from my PPC iMac, right? At least with 2GB RAM and using Universal applications wherever possible? I mess around with audio (podcasting) and video (mostly cut-and-paste editing in QuickTime Pro, but the occasional iDVD project as well), so I'm hoping for some improvements on the Intel Core Duo. I know all the marketing says "at least twice as fast," but benchmarks smenchmarks. How is it for real people? I do feel the MacBooks at the Apple Store, even with only 512MB RAM, are snappier in many ways than my iMac (also with 2GB RAM).

2. Recommendations for a monitor stand? To save desk space (it's a small desk), I want to have the MacBook, lid closed, under the monitor rather than in front of it (despite the obvious appeal of an "extended desktop"). This is fine, isn't it? I've read elsewhere that the MacBook is fine in lid-closed mode. Now, there's a cheap, simple stand here, but in addition to being cheap, it's exactly 15" wide, and the ports on the MacBook are on the side, not the front. So obviously I want something wider, maybe sturdier, but I don't want one of the monstrous ones (with drawers and stuff) I've seen out there, either. The simpler the better. Any ideas?

3. I want to go all digital for the display (DVI-Mini/DVI), right? The difference versus analog is obvious, right? I ask only because I already have a DVI-Mini/Analog adapter, but the local stores are out of the DVI-Mini/DVI adapters. Sigh. I might have to live in analog hell for a few days...

4. Of course I'll be gentle, but I'm still worried about plugging/unplugging the display cable, Ethernet cable, and USB cable all the time. (The Magsafe ostensibly saves the power cable from such wear, provided I'm gentle with it, too.) Any reassurance that daily use won't kill the ports prematurely?

5. I have a Wireless G router sitting exactly three inches from where the MacBook will sit. Is using the Ethernet (wired) cable even neccessary?

By the way, the iMac didn't die, but it didn't get better after the archive and restore, either, so they nuked the drive entirely. Since I'm back where I started, anyway, I figured, why not upgrade, and move the Macs in the house down the line of succession once more (iMac to the wife, wife's mini to the daughter, daughter's G4 tower to the son...)

Thanks for any "I do this myself" tips, and even "if I did" tips, too. And a happy fourth to those for whom the fourth should be happy.
posted by pzarquon to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you certain you prefer the external monitor approach? A lot of people I know end up just using the laptop like it was meant to be used. ;)

In which case, I can't help but wonder if you might be better served putting the money you were going to spend on the monitor/stand/etc. and putting it towards a MBP with larger built in screen. (I loooove my 17", but understand that some people find it less-than-portable.)
posted by trevyn at 8:30 PM on July 3, 2006

My MBP is my main computer for work and home. Because it spends at least 8 hours a day at the office, and another 2-5 hours a day (plus weekends) at home, I took the plunge and bought a second power supply, so I'm not lugging that big brick back and forth all the time. It's been worth it, even if Apple extorts a painful price for its power plug.

I also got a Western Digital 120 gig USB-powered external drive for handy-dandy daily backups of my home directory (with a monthly DVD-burn).

Though the MBP has a rep of being flaky with Wi-fi, mine's been fine. The only upgrade I have is an Airport Express right under my end table to extend the network reliably into the bedroom.

I still use my wife's iMac G5 when I need the big screen, or when I'm tired of sauteeing my thighs with my MacCook Pro.
posted by baltimore at 8:40 PM on July 3, 2006

If you upgrade the RAM on your MacBook, it has to be done in matched pairs to optimize the performance of the integrated graphics.

Other than that, the only useful thing I can think is a bluetooth mouse. It frees up a USB port and makes it just a little bit quicker to grab and go.
posted by nathan_teske at 8:52 PM on July 3, 2006

I've found that a nice stand for the laptop works better than an external monitor. But some people like the ability to use a secondary display.

Anyway, the only main difference I can think of in using a laptop is making certain that you've got a good backup routine. All computers crash and burn, of course, but laptops are far more prone to damage and theft.
posted by aladfar at 9:02 PM on July 3, 2006

1. Yes. As long as you're using Universal apps, the Intel machine will definitely be noticeably faster than the G5 at the same clock speed. Integrated graphics is only a drag if you're big into 3D gaming or razzle-dazzle video production.

2. No idea.

3. I've never noticed a meaningful difference between DVI and VGA that wasn't easily corrected by calibrating the external display. You'll be fine.

4. No idea, but then again what choice do you have? Apple products seem to be sturdier than the industry average in this regard at least.

5. You can move data faster over the wired connection than over the wireless, but that only makes a difference connecting to devices on your local network; when it comes to the Internet, your connection to your ISP will be the bottleneck. Might as well go wireless.
posted by jjg at 9:02 PM on July 3, 2006

Best answer: Congrats on choosing the Macbook. I bought one recently and have been very happy with it (after returning the first one because the supedrive was broken). I have 2 gigs of ram in it that i picked up for just under $200, as well as a 100gig SATA drive. It's F. A. S. T. I love this machine.

Now as to your particular questions:

1) Based on my past experience with PPC macs (though I was away for a while in PC land) the MB with core duo is much, MUCH faster. Very noticeably snappy and even faster than my thinkpad when runing XP in Parallels.

2 & 3) I don't have any specific monitor stand recommendations, but I can say that the Macbook drives an external LCD beautifully in lid-closed mode. I use mine daily with a Dell 2001fp 21" running at 1600x1200. VGA will kill your eyes with fuzziness. Buy the DVI adapter as soon as you possibly can.

4) So far so good with my port usage, but these machines aren't really old enough to say for sure for the long run. FWIW, I plug power, ethernet, DVI, USB, and audio in every day, and everything seems just fine. Still fitting snugly & etc.

5) Wired ethernet should only be necessary if you need fast local networking for someting. I do typically plug in because I often use remote desktop to access my thinkpad.

Hope that helps. You won't regret the Macbook.
posted by gkostolny at 9:52 PM on July 3, 2006

1. Yes. Integrated graphics are fine for most things. You need to buy a pair of 1GB modules.
2. Don't know, but I suggest trying using both screens first and seeing how it goes.
3. Won't make a lot of difference for a 1440x900 monitor on a normal-length cable displaying normal images (but images like this look perfect on DVI and horrendous on VGA).
4. It probably will wear them a bit (they'll get looser and the case around them scratched), but I doubt it will kill them.
5. Wireless is fine for accessing the internet, but a fraction of the speed of wired for file transfers over a local network.
posted by cillit bang at 9:53 PM on July 3, 2006

I can't help but wonder if you might be better served putting the money you were going to spend on the monitor/stand/etc. and putting it towards a MBP with larger built in screen.

That's a huge price difference, and unless he needs the screen estate, a waste.

The macbook is enough to haul around. I couldn't imagine hauling a 17 inch macbook pro around.

You'll be happy with the macbook. I love mine. I don't even bother with a bluetooth mouse. Just something else I don't have to worry about carrying around.
posted by justgary at 10:40 PM on July 3, 2006

Response by poster: I love all the answers so far (he said, choosing a "best" only reluctantly), so keep them coming! As to the comments so far:

Yeah, I know a MacBook plus a 19" widescreen LCD gets me into MBP territory, but believe it or not, I did maximize use of my iMac's screen in desktop-land (and may, in fact, come to love an extended desktop setup), but definitely prefer a smaller form-factor in a laptop (all my PC laptops were 505-series Vaios, if that's any indication).

Thanks for the network operations vs. Internet clarification on wireless data transfer speeds. If I'll be able to manage 90 percent of the time without that Ethernet cable, there'll be almost no wires (besides DVI and USB) to mess with. I wouldn't take my Bluetooth mouse anywhere, either, by the way, but since I have the wireless keyboard and mouse setup already, it makes my desktop MacBook setup even more nifty.

Glad to hear that a MacBook is faster, generally, than a PPC G5... so my impressions in the Apple Store weren't entirely rationalizations! I'm also glad VGA doesn't suck, but I'll definitely go DVI ASAP. Finally, I'm definitely buying matched RAM pairs (2x1GB). Not sure what I'll do with the 512 stick in there now.

Thanks, baltimore, for mentioning a spare power supply. I had a spare power supply and two spare batteries the last time I was a heavy laptop user. Wonder which should be picked up first, though - second brick or second battery? Understanding that neither is particularly cheap!

And absolutely, backup is key. I became a convert a few months ago, and it saved my butt when I had The Big Crash last month. Having just put my iMac back the way I like it, I figure I'll be able to make my MacBook feel like home in no time.
posted by pzarquon at 11:08 PM on July 3, 2006

I've got a couple of thoughts...

2. The new Macbooks support monitor spanning. Why not set up your laptop on your desk next to your monitor? Side by side.

You can drag windows from one screen to the other. It sounds like a bit of a gimmick to begin with.. but you're basically going to be doubling your screen real estate. Give it a shot for a week or so, I promise you that you'll never go back.

5. Not so much if it's the only machine you have on your network. But for the occasional copy, it'll be faster to use cable Wireless is 54 MBPS, wired is 100MBPS. Much faster for copying those movies around your network.
posted by snarkle at 11:39 PM on July 3, 2006

On the monitor spanning idea, I do that at work with a laptop (Windows) and it's pretty much become essential to my work habits. Try it out, it rocks, honestly.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:44 AM on July 4, 2006

I have a MBP and find it is totally sufficient for all my computer work. It's awesome for watching movies in the garden (the wireless range is fine, to my mind - can surf the internet whilst sunning myself with no probs). It is crazy fast for Universal apps - really noticably snappier for both UI interactions and just how long apps take to get stuff done. Emulated PPC apps are not things you want to be using on a regular basis. They *do* run slower on Intel than on PPC and, perhaps more importantly, they make everything else run slow too.

Really, the only reasons I can understand for buying a desktop these days are:

a) need *hardcore* processing power
b) price

I never miss having a separate monitor or keyboard or whatever.
posted by pollystark at 6:51 AM on July 4, 2006

I have a 20" Apple display with my 15" MBP and only use the combination once or twice pr. week, and only if I feel that I need the extra screen estate. Spanning rocks, though, and I always use that.

I simply don't understand those who don't use their extra screen and want to lock the one off while using the computer, but it may be that I only know PC-users with inferior screens who do that.

On the other hand, if table space is essential, why have the second screen at all, and a keyboard, and a mouse - you must really want a lot of stuff on your table, don't you ;-) The table I sit at now has one thing on top of it: my MBP. And why being bound to using the computer at only one table. I love surfin' in the couch, on the deck, at the dining table, in bed, etc.

And yes, it is fast :-)
posted by KimG at 8:05 AM on July 4, 2006

I just switched to a MacBook as a primary machine about a month ago.

I have a few thoughts on the subject, which you may or may not find useful.
posted by enrevanche at 8:51 AM on July 4, 2006

4. My PowerBook G4 Titanium has had power, USB, FireWire and ethernet plugged and unplugged about once every two days on average for almost four years now, with nary a problem.
posted by chrismear at 10:03 AM on July 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't have a MacBook (Pro or otherwise) yet, but I'm on my 3rd PowerBook as my main machine. I'll never go back to a desktop.

- Screen spanning: once you've done it, you can't live without it. It's great to be able to tote my 15" PB around, and then when I'm at the office I plug in all my devices, including my 24" flat panel. That + the 15" built-in display? Amazing. Why on earth anyone would have two displays available and then turn one off makes no sense to me. You can never have too many pixels. I understand that you have a small desk, but try and make the room if it's at all possible.

- Multiple power supplies, definitely. Actually, I've got one at the office, one at home, and one in my travel bag. I also have a spare battery, but I find that I rarely use it.

- I've been unplugging and plugging in cables for years on these machines, and I've never yet noticed a problem that I could trace to that.

- Before you've started with this setup it may seem like you're going to do a lot of plugging & unplugging, but I just looked at what I've got hooked up at the moment. I would have sworn that I only plug in 2 or 3 things, but I've got 8 cables going in right now (power, DVI, Ethernet, speakers, USB x 2, Firewire x 2). It's not a big deal at all; it only takes me seconds. And you're likely to put all your USB devices on a hub and then plug in the hub, so those other devices don't ever get unplugged.

posted by Dori at 3:03 PM on July 4, 2006

Concerning the external display: I don't consider the digital vs. analog difference to be so easy to detect, but maybe I just have beer tastes that go with my beer budget.

Concerning plugging and unplugging: I have killed a display adapter dongle thingie, for an older iMac (G3), but I think the weak link is the dongle and not the connector to the machine itself. Plus, in the 3 years I've owned my G4 12" Powerbook I've yet to repeat the feat. So maybe Apple has improved the design.

Consider a 3 year extended warranty if you're wary. It should cover wear and tear type things (like connectors that wear out during normal use) although not damage due to dropping it etc.
posted by drmarcj at 5:34 PM on July 4, 2006

Response by poster: I very much enjoyed your write up, enrevanche. Even when you think you've prepared all you can for bringing a new computer into your life, a good post like that will inevitably have a couple of gems you hadn't thought about.

Insurance beyond what Apple Care covers is something I've thought about, but hadn't seriously considered until now.

I will also be investing in Apple Care. I always wonder if I'm wasting money by enrolling as soon as I have a piece of hardware, rather than waiting 'til the factory warranty is nearly up, but I always trust myself today more than I do the me of next year.

All the raving about spanning monitors has got me very curious. I've never tried it, but already wrestle with arranging windows on my iMac... so I'm beginning to think I too will find it invaluable, and will therefore just have to find a way to fit everything on this glorified computer cart.

Thanks again, all.
posted by pzarquon at 10:47 PM on July 4, 2006

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