The New MacBook Pro

After four years of loving my old, 15″ MacBook Pro, one of the first Intel machines to roll out of Apple’s headquarters in January 2006, my well-used friend is going the way of all computers – to the recycle bin – to make way for a new era in WhiteEyebrows computing…

…My shiny new 15″ MacBook Pro!

While the computers share the same name, don’t let them fool you.  This is a great advancement in both hardware and software!

Here is my initial design review after using this computer a week.

Unibody: The biggest design advancement in this machine is the fact that the base is carved out of a single, solid block of aluminum.  Its biggest advancement is also it’s best.  This manufacturing process gives the computer an incredible rigidity not found in any other laptop I’ve ever used.  The case will definitely not suffer from the same fate that my four-year-old Mac did, with the various adhesives and fasteners coming loose and with various parts of the case starting to come apart from the others.

Keyboard: Initially, I didn’t think I’d like the new keyboard.  I liked the look and feel of the old one and thought that the new design would prevent your fingers from as easily sliding from key to key.  However, I like the new keyboard.  It feels less mushy that the last one, and is very tightly sealed.  I’m not willing to spill a Diet Coke on it to test the seal, but my guess is I’d have less seep-through with this keyboard than with the last.  Apple has also updating the functions of the F Keys.  The old MacBook had several functions that were missing (music controls) and were poorly labeled.  It looks like they’ve re-prioritized the functions as well as refreshed the icon design on the keys.  Works for me.

Color Scheme: The introduction of black-on-grey give teh computer a slightly more serious look, and is a bit more dramatic than the old grey-on-grey approach.  Also, the black band around the display helps focus your eyes on the screen, rather than the boundaries around the screen.  Nice touch!

Screen: Speaking of the screen… I have a few gripes here.  Glass.  I hate the glass.  A great majority of Apple users will use this computer around a light source, probably a fluorescent one, which is gonna glare like MAD on the glass covered screen.  I know they offer a non-glare screen (which essentially removes the glass and puts a grey border around the screen), and I would have gotten it had my work offered the option.  Matte!  Matte, people!  I don’t want to be looking back at myself every time I look at this computer!

The glass does offer one or two advantages, though.  My old MacBook, over time, saw permanent imprints from the keyboard on the LCD.  It didn’t degrade the actual usage of the LCD, but was noticeable when the machine was turned off.  Also – fingerprints.  I hate when people come and touch their grubby, oily fingers on my LCD screen, and this glass will at least prevent them from poking their pointy little fingers through the backside of my LCD and permanently ruining the color in that particular spot.

Overall, the LED backlit display is brighter than its predecessor.  I like the power-savings from the LED backlight on this display, but Apple has traded off a lot of color accuracy for brightness in the default configuration.  You’d better believe that a graphics professional, such as myself, will have to calibrate the heck out of this thing so that blacks look black and not grey.  It’s a dirty trick to play on users, but one that makes them look awesome.

Ports Plugs and Drives: This one is easy.  I like the DVD drive’s move to the side of the computer, and the slot-load (as opposed to tray load) has always been one of my favorite Apple details.  With the DVD on the left, all of the ports have been moved to the right, which actually helps the user locate the correct port. No more picking up and rotating your computer looking for the location of a particular port!  Even people who own computers forever forget where their ports are when they are divided between sides like that.  The built in SD card reader is a great addition, but I’m no fan of the new MiniDisplay port.  I just don’t like the fact that it now requires me to carry around and keep track of yet another doohickey!  (A doohickey is the technical term for the adapter that allows you to convert MiniDisplay to VGA or DVI)  I love that Apple lives on the edge and is a leader in display technology adoption, but VGA is just not dying fast enough in today’s world!

Odds and Ends: I like the multi-touch mouse pad, but it has taken some getting used to.  I’m trying to master the art of one-handed drag and drop and other new gestures it has enabled.  Ninety percent of the time, though, I find myself clicking exactly where the the mouse button used to be on the old trackpad.  So, I guess it’s good that Apple left the size and proportion of the trackpad area alone so it wouldn’t be as error prone.

My coworker also pointed out the pointy edges near the trackpad (the part that is carved out so that you can lift the lid).  While I have yet to draw blood on this part of the computer, it seems like something Apple could have very easily refined in the aluminum milling process.

Lack of Removable Battery: This is my greatest point of contention with Apple.  Battery technology has NOT advanced to the point that a computer with a life of 3-4 years will not need a fresh battery sometime in there.  In fact, I changed the battery in my old computer 3 times during its lifespan.  Especially for the everyday user and mobile user, a new or extra battery is crucial!

Software: Snow Leopard is great, though it’s nothing to really write a long blog about.  It’s just better in every way, but not in any single way.  I like the inclusion of a native Cisco VPN.  I like the clean break from the PowerPC architecture.  I like the native Exchange support.

Well, I think that’s all.  Happy computing, everyone!

Terrible (and Not) Retail Experiences

Last night I had another terrible retail experience which has solidified in my mind the reasons why retail stores might ultimately disappear from the face of the planet.

The Experience

I needed a printer. In today’s printer world there are a PLETHORA of options. You can get inkjet, laser, or solid ink technology printers in black only or full color. Each has their pros and cons. Then, to make the decision even more difficult, there are all these multifunction printers as well, which combine scanning, faxing, and copying in many different configurations. Then there is the question of connectivity. USB? Network? Memory card readers? Legacy parallel connections? The list goes on.

I have been putting off the new printer purchase for some time now. I’ve been waiting for the color laser multi-functions to come down in price and mature in quality. I could wait no longer, so I decided to go to Fry’s Electronics and get (at least for now) some simple black laser printer that would get me by for the short term, until I decided on a color-laser-network-scanner-copier-faxer-with-auto-document-feeder-and-network-connectivity-which-is-fully-mac-compatible bohemuth to spend my money on.

Now, I am all about having a premium retail experience. For example, I enjoy shopping at Target instead of Wal-Mart for one reason alone: in Target, they don’t come blaring over the loudspeaker every 2 minutes bellering for so-and-so to pick up the blue line. These small things make all the difference.

When I walk into Fry’s the place reeks of hierarchical struggles. There is a “Person in Charge” podium at the entrance, as well as “Person in Charge” podiums around the store. Usually someone dressed in a suit is standing behind the podium watching the many minions mill about.

Each of the employees at Fry’s acts as though they have some gun pointed at their head; like they might be fired at any minute for any reason. Even stockers and cashiers, who have very simple, limited jobs walk around with a cloud hanging over their heads. I’m not sure why this is, but it is a tense, uncomfortable energy that pervades throughout the store, which puts consumers on edge.

So after perusing the printers for a while, a salesman came over and asked if he could help, and after answering a simple question about where I can find the printers (they weren’t clearly sectioned off into Laser and Non-laser or clearly labeled on their tags as Laser, Inkjet, or other), he left me alone to peruse. After he showed up again, I started telling him what I was looking for in a printer. I only wanted to spend $3-400 if I could get a good multi-function package, otherwise I just wanted a cheap black and white. It was also very important that the printer be Mac compatible, as ALL my systems are Macs. I knew I was in trouble when he responded to my compatibility query by saying, “yeah, well they all should be [compatible].” I know for a fact that most printers are Mac compatible, but multi-functions are basically a coin toss. When I pointed this out to him, especially that scanning software wasn’t always compatible, he offered to get the boxes for the printers I was interested in so he could check specifically.

As I was about to give up and go back to researching online, just by chance I glanced underneath at the boxes that were in stock (rather than the display units), and saw a Color Laser with scanner and network connectivity for $500. It was the CM1017 by HP. “OK this will work,” I thought. When we still couldn’t tell if it was Mac compatible, he invited me to go to a nearby computer to look up the details on it.

When I looked up the printer on HP’s website, I found they were listing the same printer (CM1017) for $474. So I asked if they would match the price ($25 less… come on!), and he looked as though I had just called his mom a four letter word. “No we just can’t match websites… that doesn’t include shipping… we just can’t match websites.” I laughed a bit and was being understanding until he said, “Yeah… we can’t even match our OWN website.” Then I realize, Oh my crap… this corporation is totally backwards!

I showed him that with shipping and taxes from it still was only $508, as opposed to the $540 I would spend at the store. He held his no website matching ground though.

After thinking about it I thought, “you know, I can spend $30 extra, have it in my hand today, and this guy has been helpful to me despite having absolutely no knowledge about sales, mac compatibility, or finding the right product to fit my needs.” So I said I would take it.

The gentleman got a cart for me and loaded it up, then did a “ticket” (the way he gets his commission on the sale). I walk through the aisles toward the register weighing my choice… did I really want this printer? Was it worth the $30 savings to ditch the cart and go order it online? Somehow, I made it to the register with the cart still in hand.

The lady at the register scanned the “ticket” the guy gave me, then scanned the product itself. Then she muttered something to herself, then went to go call the salesman. I looked down on the box, the printed price label said $699. She had muttered that he had gotten the wrong box, and that he’d be back to replace it. I said, “No. This is the right model. This is the printer I want. The sales tag underneath it said $499, the HP website lists it for $474, and now you’re trying to sell it to me for $699??? This is crap. I’m just going to buy it off their website, you guys need to get your act together.” When the manager lady saw I was losing my grip, her reaction wasn’t to try to explain, she just said, “Okeey.. Dank you. Goo bie.”

I ran into the salesman on my way to the exit who was running back to fix whatever problem he had created. I said, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but all I know is I can get that same printer for $40 cheaper online, and you guys need to get your program together.” And I walked off.

It turns out, yes, the salesman HAD gotten the wrong printer. They were not going to let me out the door with the CM1017 without selling it to me for $699. It was the CM1015 that was $499 (the only difference being the network connectivity).

So I went home, and in less than 30 minutes of searching, I found the same printer (CM1015) for $280, and the CM1017 for $360. I bought the CM1015 online.

Why Retail Stores Suck

So… this retail store lost because:

  • Total lack of knowledge about the products you sell.
  • Lack of ability to match needs of customer with product you sell (this is what salesmanship is, BTW)
  • Lack of competitive pricing and website matching (even matching your own company’s website… hello!)
  • Relying on impulse buyers and people who don’t know better to buy their over priced products.
  • A generally uncomfortable atmosphere set by uncomfortable employees and supervisors.
  • Lack of good communication with the customer.

I don’t just want to end by picking on Fry’s. Here are my other big box retail store #1 complaint summaries:

  • Best Buy: Prices are not competitive, but sales staff are generally knowledgeable and less pushy than Fry’s.
  • Wal-Mart/Target: Stock is typically out of date.. as much as a year. And they still sell them for MSRP, when much newer better models are already available. Also, there is NO sales knowledge or customer service.
  • CompUSA, Staples, Office Supply Stores: High prices, but there is a better chance that sales staff are professional and knowledgeable.

So what do you do? What is the answer? Go to best buy if you want to play with the product, go to an office supply store to ask a question about it, then go home and buy it online.

The Exception (the Not)

Now, there is one exception to this rule. (And I swear I don’t work for these guys) But Apple has saved retail! They really have rethought it.

  • You will always pay the same in an Apple store as you will on Apple’s Online store
  • Apple’s employees are INCREDIBLY knowledgeable (about mac products), and if they can’t answer your questions, they will show you to the “genius bar” where the really smart guys are.
  • I can get my corporate discount at any Apple store or online at apple’s store.
  • I don’t have to wait for clearance sales, collect discount coupons, or find redemption codes. None of these exist for Apple. They do not discount merchandise until a replacement product comes out.
  • You can receive Apple support in the Apple stores. Rather than calling India for help, you make an appointment (they respect your time), and you take your Mac, iPod, or iPhone in and they fix it for you on the spot.
  • Apple’s stores are modern, well stocked, easy to visually parse (not too many products, aisles, or shelves), and accessible (if you’re in a major metro area)
  • The staff totally love their jobs, are encouraged to be individuals (not uncommon to see piercings or tats), and genuinely believe in what they’re pushing.

This is a store I can spend my money and time in.