'Book Value

Thoughts on Downsizing from a 17" 'Book to a 13" MacBook

Charles Moore - 2009.11.17 - Tip Jar

Last week, The Loop's Peter Cohen posted his impressions on downsizing from erstwhile his workhorse 17" 2.33 GHz MacBook Pro to the newest 13" MacBook.

The headline grabbed my attention, because some eight months ago I downsized from a 17" PowerBook the a 13" aluminum MacBook, so I was intrigued as to how Cohen's experiences and impressions of the transition would square with my own.

One difference is that I went from a 1.33 GHz G4 processor to a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo, which represented a dramatic (roughly 5x) increase in performance, while Cohen actually downgraded slightly in clock speed from a 2006 vintage 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (C2D) to a 2.26 GHz C2D in the new MacBook, although the more modern CPU in the later machine may well have a performance edge and will almost certainly run cooler.

Another distinction is that Cohen's 17" MacBook Pro would has a 1680 x 1050-pixel display, making the transition to the MacBook's 1280 x 800 screen resolution more dramatic than my downsize from the 1440 x 900 display in my 2004 vintage PowerBook.

Big Notebook Fans

Like me, Cohen says he's been a big fan of Apple's heaviest laptop iron (er, aluminum) for years, and 17-inchers have been his mainstay since PowerBook G4 days. I never did get a 17" MacBook Pro - at least not yet - but I found the 13" Unibody MacBook intriguing and ultimately irresistible.

As Cohen says, it's been quite a change, but it hasn't been nearly the sacrifice he expected it to be. Me neither.

I've always said that as with cars, I prefer my laptops either big and expansive (also expensive, alas) or small, lithe, and nimble. Aside from the smaller display, I much favor the 13" Unibody MacBook form factor, although I do prefer the conventional keyboard in the PowerBook and the pre-unibody MacBook Pros to the "chiclet" 'boards in current Macs.

In Cohen's case, the new MacBook (the previous models of which he'd long rejected as too small and too limiting), suddenly looked very, very fine indeed, especially compared with Apple's 13" and 15" MacBook Pros - even heavily discounted refurbished units available for sale at the online Apple Store.

I part company with him somewhat sharply on that point. I continue to deem the 13" MacBook Pro the hands-down best value Apple has ever offered in a laptop.

However, Cohen decided to go with a new 2.26 GHz Core 2 Duo-equipped MacBook and had been using it for about a week when his commentary was published. He said he hadn't missed his 17-incher at all.

Missing FireWire and the Higher Resolution Display

I'm not sure I can say that. I've been very happy with my aluminum MacBook, which is speedy and has been a rock of no-hassle dependability (other than the major inconvenience of no FireWire support). I don't regret the purchase, although I do wish I'd hung on another four months and gotten a 13" MacBook Pro (mainly because of the FireWire issue), but going down from a 17" display of any resolution to a 13" patch of real estate does require an adjustment. I've found that Leopard's Spaces feature (which I already used a lot with the old 17-incher) made that much less of an issue.

What I miss most is vertical depth. As noted, my old 17" PowerBook had only 1440 x 900 screen resolution, and that was just enough to obviate the necessity of scrolling on certain Web forms I work with regularly. The vertical 800 pixels on the MacBook mean scrolling a tiny bit. I miss the extra resolution.

I'm not a serious gamer, but I was interested that Cohen, who says that he is, rates the Nvidia 9400M integrated graphics, built into every Mac notebook since October 2008, as "not bad at all", which is reassuring. I've personally had no complaints about video support.

USB 2.0 Is No FireWire

Another point of concurrence is that the most significant limitation either he or I have found with these MacBooks is the fore-noted and highly regrettable absence of FireWire. Peter says he's invested in a lot of FireWire gear over the years and gotten used to being able to reboot a laptop in FireWire Target Disk Mode for large data transfers.

I also was partial to being able to boot dependably and speedily from external FireWire drives. My MacBook will boot from an external drive with a system installed via USB 2.0, but it runs so sluggishly booted that way that it's not really usable, as opposed to running from a FireWire drive, which is virtually indistinguishable from normal booting. Dumping FireWire on the MacBooks (again) has been one of Apple's dumbest and most annoying decisions.

MacBook Is Just the Right Size

In general, although it's early days yet, Cohen says he's really pleased with his new MacBook as a replacement for his 17-inch laptop. I can second that as well. The old PowerBook seems awfully ponderous when I use these days, heavy and bulky when I take it on the road compared with the lightness, nimble feel, and easy heft of the MacBook.

Will I ever get another 17" laptop? Never say never, but were I shopping for a new Mac today my short list would be exceedingly short indeed - the entry-level 13" MacBook Pro would almost certainly be my choice, although that base-model 15" MacBook Pro would give me back my 1440 x 900 screen resolution, which would make it a practical and rationally sensible alternate choice, although I don't find the 15" iteration of the aluminum unibody as fetching as the 13-incher, whose proportions are just about perfect to my sense of aesthetics.

The new polycarbonate unibody MacBook? Not so much. I'm delighted that Peter Cohen is happy with his, but there's no way I would go without FireWire as long, as it remains available on some Mac notebook. By the time of my next system upgrade, provisionally scheduled for early 2012, it's likely that Apple laptops will be equipped with USB 3.0, which should address USB 2.0's speed shortcomings. I hope Apple will develop a USB 3 Target Disk Mode to go with it.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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