MacBook Pro 17″: Sleek, fast and (fairly) quiet

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
May 21st, 2007 • 10:58 am

After six years of decent and loyal service, my wife’s PowerBook G4 (Titanium, 400 MHz) has finally been retired. Apart from really shitty wireless signal reception, it really was a good computer. But it was starting to fall apart physically, especially the keyboard, with its broken “8” key and half-working space bar. Also, lest we forget, its extra RAM slot underneath the keyboard was still only kept in place and prevented from creating a huge bulge under the keys with the help of a bent tooth pick.

The TiBook was also struggling to keep up with the times and especially with Mac OS X 10.4, which definitely needs more than the 384 MB of RAM that the TiBook had.

I would probably have stayed with 10.3 on this machine, had it not been for our disastrous experience with the mooing MacBook last year. When we bought the MacBook, I moved my wife’s stuff to the new machine permanently, including her entire e-mail archive, which was converted to the Mail 2.0 format required by Mac OS X 10.4. When we returned the MacBook because of the mooing and switched back to the TiBook, I thought it would be too much of a pain to try and revert the e-mail archive to the Mail 1.0 format, so I upgraded the TiBook to Mac OS X 10.4 instead. My wife lived with this for a year, but she did complain about the poor speed on a regular basis. I did promise her that we would buy her a new machine, but we thought it would be better to keep the TiBook until after our trip to France, just in case the laptop got stolen or broken during the trip.

The TiBook survived the trip, and so last week it was time to buy its replacement.

After the experience with the MacBook, I decided that we wouldn’t tempt fate again by being “early adopters” and buying a brand new model. I also decided that we would go for a larger machine with more room for heat dissipation. That meant a MacBook Pro, and so the choice was between 15″ and 17″. In our family, the laptop doesn’t really travel all that much. It sits in my wife’s office most of the time. We want the portability, but weight and size issues are not really crucial. So we decided to go for the 17″ model.

After my experience with trying to return the “customized” MacBook and get a full refund, I made sure that I selected the stock model without any customizations (even though, of course, the Apple Store pages still encourage you to customize your computer, still with very little warning about what it means in case you want to return the machine). The stock model comes with 2 GB of RAM and a 160 GB 5400 r.p.m. hard drive, which is fine for our needs.

Since I already had a fair amount of experience with Intel-based Mac computers (both desktop and laptop), I wasn’t worried about the move to this new architecture. My two main concerns, in truth, were noise and AirPort signal reception—since these were the two main issues we had had with our previous laptops.

The MacBook Pro 17″ order was placed on Sunday, May 13 with Apple Canada’s Store for educators. The computer was shipped by FedEx from Shangai, China on Tuesday, May 15. After going through Anchorage, AK, Memphis, TN, and Dartmouth, NS, it arrived in Church Point, NS on Friday, May 18 early in the morning. Not bad at all for nearly instant gratification! My orders from US stores that are shipped by FedEx from somewhere in the US usually take longer than that to get to me!

I decided not to migrate the data from the old TiBook by FireWire during the Mac OS X setup process, and to move it manually later on—because of the age and architecture difference between the two machines, because I didn’t want to use the same hard drive partition scheme, and because I use a number of symbolic links in my user’s library folder to keep all the files that need to be backed up regularly in a single convenient location. (I don’t want to back up entire user folders, because they contain all kinds of unnecessary cached data and other data that can be restored from system and application disks if necessary. So I keep all the really important data in the “Documents” folder and add symbolic links to it in various places in the “Library” folder.)

Nonetheless, the whole installation process was painless, and the laptop was soon fully operational.

Now, what of the two crucial issues mentioned above?

First, the wireless signal reception. No matter how much you know about the model, it really is difficult to predict how good the reception will be in your own environment, simply because each environment is unique and the reception levels depend on a variety of factors: the location and orientation of the base station, the location and orientation of the laptop, the number of walls, the construction materials, possible sources of interference, etc.

I am pleased to report that the AirPort signal reception of the MacBook Pro 17″ appears to be very good indeed. It is not quite as good as the reception of the MacBook was, but it’s pretty close. In fact, given that the MacBook Pro still has a metal-based enclosure, I was actually quite surprised at how good the reception is. It certainly is way better than the TiBook’s reception ever was. (The TiBook’s reception was an embarrassment when it first came out, and it still is an embarrassment today.) So, good news all around: We are actually going to be able to use this laptop almost everywhere in the house, and even on the terrace outside in the back. Maybe this laptop will end up travelling a little more than the TiBook did!

As for the noise, well, the good news is that the laptop is not mooing. It is a relief indeed, although on last year’s MacInTouch survey results, I knew that a mooing problem was very unlikely with this model.

But the laptop is certainly not perfectly silent, and is in fact somewhat louder than the TiBook. In truth, the TiBook always was a remarkably quiet machine, and my wife got used to that. So she did notice the increased background noise of the fans of the MacBook Pro at first. It’s a constant noise that varies little and varies only in very subtle ways, so it should not be too hard to adjust to it—although of course, the increased noise level is noticeable in my wife’s very quiet home office environment.

I am used to a certain noise level in my own home office environment, with the Mac Pro and a couple of external hard drives, so a little bit of constant fan noise is definitely not an issue for me—although of course ideally I would still love a completely silent office environment. The truth is, however, that in today’s world that is simply not possible, either with a desktop or with a laptop computer. Even the quietest of laptops will still make a certain amount of noise, simply because of the heat generated by its core components (CPU, graphics card, hard drive) and the need to fan it out. It is something that we have to live with, and I am reasonably confident that my wife will be able to adjust to this without too much difficulty, especially as she enjoys the far greater speed and general sleekness of the new machine.

Apple will probably come up with new laptop models soon, and maybe some of them will have “hybrid” drives that use a combination of hard drive and permanent RAM technologies to improve performance and reduce battery usage. But I don’t expect this to make a huge difference in terms of noise. The CPU will still get hot, the hard drive will still require some cooling, and so will the graphics card. Performance and battery life are more secondary issues as far as we are concerned (and I don’t think we are going to worry too much about 6-bit screens either), so I really don’t think that purchasing a MacBook Pro now was a bad decision. It’s a mature product. It performs well. And it’s fairly quiet. I guess that, at this point in time, we cannot ask for much more.

7 Responses to “MacBook Pro 17″: Sleek, fast and (fairly) quiet”

  1. ssp says:

    Good luck with that machine!

    I still think it’s fairly embarrassing that these Intel Macs are so hot and noisy. While loving my TiBook _and_ experiencing it numerous technical and engineering shortcomings, it was fairly hard to get the fan spinning on that machine. I still fail to understand how Apple managed to build machines which generate more heat with these new processors which they switched to because they have better power/performance characteristics.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I think there is a distinction to be made between laptops and desktops here. For desktops, the move to Intel has definitely been an improvement. I saw it firsthand when my G5 Quad was replaced with a Mac Pro last year. Same enclosure, much more room for extra drives, and a much smaller CPU unit without the need for liquid coolant. The hardware speaks for itself.

    For laptops, on the other hand, I am not sure there has been much of an improvement. To be fair, it should be remembered that Apple were stretching it with the G4 processor in PowerBooks. The TiBook was quiet because it had a CPU clocked at only 400 MHz or 500 MHz. Then things went into the 1-1.5 GHz range and Apple started having a very real problem with heat.

    During my stay in France, I saw my brother who owns such a PowerBook G4 (with a processor in the 1-1.5 GHz). He was complaining about how much worse the fan noise situation had become over time. He said the machine was fairly quiet initially, but now the fans kept switching to a higher gear at the slightest level of activity. I witnessed it myself when he was just browsing his iPhoto library.

    I don’t think the Intel processors for laptops are worse than the G4 was. They are probably even somewhat better. But the truth is that there is a demand (both from consumers and from Apple and other developers with their ever-more-demanding software) for higher performance, and that means heat. And there is simply no physical way to fit all that power into a laptop without some heat/noise compromise.

    That’s what I was saying above. Maybe I am mistaken and there are actually cooler alternatives out there that make it possible to have a powerful laptop that is as quiet as the original 400 MHz TiBook was. Since noise is such a subjective issue, it’s not easy to get a clear picture of what the situation is in the computer industry as a whole. But I suspect that it’s simply not possible to have alll this power without the heat and therefore a certain amount of noise.

    One day, maybe, we will have computers that are both powerful and silent. But that day is still too far in the future to even think about it.

  3. ssp says:

    Well, while those G4s were starting to be a bit slow they were fairly powerful and can still be used today. Perhaps not for graphics intensive work, but for many other things – including the web, mail and word processing. Even my mum’s G3 Pismo powerbook still handles all those tasks well and we have never heard a fan on that machine.

    While I lack a technical proof for this, my impression of the situation – gained from discussing this with people and playing with the machine’s settings – is the following: The Intel machines are fast and they feel faster than their PPC friends. The raw speed of the machines is rarely needed by the average user. I think of myself as being more demanding than many computer users – and I rarely max out the CPU on my MacBook. Even in the situations when I do, that is mostly for tasks which aren’t time-critical, such as re-compressing a movie I reccorded with eyeTV. To me it feels like the extra processor core is the main thing which makes the machine feel faster.

    If my observations/assumptiions are half-way right, having something like a similar dual core processor at half the clock rate could come really close to being a good solution. It would use less energy and still be fast enough. I really wonder why such things aren’t offered.

    (My MacBook is running its fan much more frequently as well after a year. It’s quite annoying. I think I’ll try to sell it and get a new one because I could do with a fresh warranty as well.)

  4. Shepherdh says:

    Small world. I just upgraded from a TiBook 400 to the 17 inch Pro a couple days ago. I’m thrilled with the new machine. I’m keeping the old one as a back-up. As for you, it’s been very reliable. I replaced the keyboard ($88 new via eBay) about a year ago, and it was very easy to replace–it just snapped into place. My other main problem has been the optical drive, which was replaced once under warranty, and now doesn’t recognize recorded disks. Not a big deal, as I have an external DVD recorder. I’ll probably use it for traveling still, but the internet speed difference is amazing with the new one. The TiBook was very sluggish in all things (I used 10.3.9).

    I’m getting the full four bars ourside separated by a metal front door, vs. one or two with the TiBook, but there’s a big slowdown in communicating with the web.

    The best news is that the original Airport card in the TiBook only gave me half the download speeds I was paying for via Cox cable (3-4 vs. 7 Mbps). Cox just installed fiber optic cables, and I got the new Airport Extreme. I’m getting 15-20 Mbps now. I’m thrilled.

    My new machine is mostly pretty quiet. I think the fan came one once or twice. It’s also not been hot yet.

    I realy agree about buying a machine that they’ve been making for several months. My TiBook was also EOL (I bought it after it had been discontinued) and I had few problems other than cosmetic (the wrist rest got very stained and Apple wouldn’t replace it).


  5. Warren Beck says:

    My Powerbook G4 1.33 GHz has also started running its fan more frequently, and perhaps you are right that this is correlated with the age of the system. I’ll be replacing the hard drive soon (that is to say, I’ll be paying someone to replace the hard drive because I have no interest in trying to open the Powerbook owing to the requirement that perhaps a hundred screws be removed and the case itself wedged open with a special “nudger” tool) so I’ll be interested to see if the heat sink and other contents are encased with accumulated dust and dirt. That would be the simplest explanation for a degredation in the heat exchange rate; the alternative is that the accumulating Mac OS X updates have led to an increasing system load.

  6. danridley says:

    ssp: “Better power/performance characteristics” doesn’t actually mean cooler. The Core chips run hotter than the G4 — a Core Duo 2.16 has a “thermal design point,” meaning the amount of heat which Intel says the cooling system should be able to handle, of 31W. Compare to 20W for the 1.2 GHz G4, and 13-14 for the 400 MHz G4.

    However, they’re so much faster than the G4 that even with half again the power consumption, they still provide much better performance per watt.

    Further, as Pierre mentioned, the desktops have to be taken into account. It’s really the G5 that Core has to be stacked up against, since I don’t think anyone would argue that the G4 is still a practical choice for new kit. The 2.3 GHz G5 in the Xserve had a TDP of 55W, which is almost as bad as the high-end Pentium 4s at 60-65W. (To understand how hot this is, think about the heat of a 60W incandescent light bulb.)

    Personally, I hope Apple comes up with a subnotebook based on the ULV Core 2 Duo. With a 5W TDP, this could be used in a fanless system. It’d be on the slow side — 1.0 and 1.2 GHz, and slightly worse performance per clock — but I’d be all over that system. (My dream setup is a subnotebook that really only needs and TextMate, paired with a Mac Pro for most of my work.)

  7. ssp says:

    @dan: Sure, I realised that. I just wanted to note that only few people actually need that extra performance. I (and pretty much everyone I know) have been buying laptops since 2000 or so and performance never played a big role in the purchasing decision. And I think this choice/behaviour isn’t untypical these days.

    The system you describe is pretty much what I had in mind. Something that’s not mind-blowingly fast but will still be more than fast enough for everyday tasks. And all that without burning your laps, fanning and eating up its batteries quickly. I wouldn’t even need the _sub_notebook part.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.