The Mobile Mac

Icons, Status Symbols, and the MacBook

- 2006.08.03 -Tip Jar

You've seen them everywhere, products that define success, givetheir owners pride, and generally make life a little morepleasant.

It doesn't matter if your looking at the latest video iPod, aRolex watch, or a Ferrari - there are certain products that have astyle all their own, and even when they belong to someone else,they make us smile when we see them.

Most of us spend our lives without extravagant things likeFerraris, and if we do somehow obtain one, we find it to be everybit as wonderful a sports car as we imagined - though it makes avery poor daily driver. Other status symbols, like the iPod, whilea bit too expensive to be an impulse buy, are readily attainableand are extremely practical in their field.

As my MacBook spent moreof its brief five week life in Apple's possession than my own, Ithought about items I've wanted over the years and how they'velived up to the hype in actual use.

No, I don't own a Ferrari or a Rolex, but I have other examples,including the MacBook itself. I don't define success by materialpossessions, but as a gadget freak and car nut, I do get pleasurefrom snazzy computers (especially laptops) and quality cars.

Quality

I started driving 22 years ago, and on the day I received mydriver's license my father took me to the local BMW and MercedesBenz dealers to test drive the base models from those brands. No, Iwasn't so lucky as to be spoiled with such a wonderful car at sotender an age; rather he wanted me to know what quality felt likeso that when I chose lesser used and new vehicles over the comingdecades I would have a benchmark with which to compare them.

The cars we drove were the 1986 BMW 318i and the 1986 MercedesBenz 190E 2.3, and those two cars had profound, but very different,impressions on me. The BMW was everything my youthful soul cravedin a car, while that 190E was the epitome of solidity andclass.

I spent the next 21-years dreaming of buying such cars,alternating between them depending on my mood at the time. And myfather's wisdom paid off with such solid - though lesser - vehiclesas a Toyota Corolla (solid like the Benz) and MazdaProtégé (sporty like the BMW). Last year, I finallybought the real thing, a Mercedes Benz C240, and despite the higherfrequency of problems (minor electrical mostly) compared to theJapanese cars, it has fully lived up to my 22-year-old memory ofthat 190E.

Like many icons, there was substance behind the image.

I decided instead to purchase a laptop, and Ihave never looked back.

Computers are like that as well. I remember back in 1993 when Ireceived an employment offer in South Korea. I was a PC junkie backthen, with a 386 PC that, while a few years out of date, had gonethrough a few upgrades and was chugging along nicely. It was apremium machine (an actual IBM rather than a clone), and I wassaddened that I couldn't bring it to Korea with me because ofduties and tariffs higher than the cost of a new computer. Idecided instead to purchase a laptop, and I have never lookedback.

PowerBook 145b

I knew next to nothing about the Mac back then, but I'd beenseeing the PowerBook ads since 1991. Like the Mercedes, thePowerBook was clearly the machine to have. Where PC laptops hadclunky design and clip-on mice, the PowerBook already had themodern ergonomic package down with a palmrest and center-mountedpointing device. Actually, it was ahead of its time in its use of awidescreen display - if you can call 640 pixels wide.

PowerBook 100 SeriesAs a recentgrad with a small wallet and a new wife, I bought the cheapestPowerBook Apple offered, the 145B, and it served me well for sixyears. It wasn't fast, had a puny 80 MB hard drive, and topped out(the day I bought it) at 8 MB of RAM, but it ran Word andExcel (through version 6) well, was quick enough to not beannoying, and was very reliable.

Like the Mercedes, that PowerBook lived up to the hype. It wasconveniently small and light for its time, powerful and comfortableenough to get real work done, and just exuded a style and classthat belied its low price ($1,500) and specification (monochrome640 x 400 screen, no video out, etc.).

It was my only computer for two years, my only laptop for twomore, and remained my primary writing machine for yet two morethanks to its great keyboard and outdoor-viewable screen. I wish Istill had it.

'Book Quality

Subsequent PowerBooks have come close to the mark or missed itentirely, and while all have been far faster and more capable, onlythe 12" PowerBook has comeclose to giving the same pride of ownership and overall feeling ofquality - until the MacBook, that is.

In between I've owned a 520,5300c, 3400c, a Lombard, a 15" aluminum G4, and two 12" aluminumG4s, but none of them felt natural in the same way the oldPowerBook 145B (or to a lesser extent the 12" aluminum PowerBook)did. The MacBook is a revelation in that regard - with its texturedblack shell and tight build, it may just be the best of the lot,but more on that in a bit.

I've owned portable Macs for the last 13 years and have ownedIBM ThinkPads, which are also icons in the computing world, for thelast nine. For many years these were seen as the only "premium"laptops around, and they have always been marketed as such.

PowerBooks were always my primary computers, while ThinkPads hadbecome my writing machines on account of their superior keyboardsand eraserhead pointing devices (I'm a trackpad hater). I've beenthrough a number of them, starting with a ThinkPad 600 in 1997 andmoving up through a T20, X22, X32, and now X41. ThinkPads alwayssatisfied my need for an ultralight laptop that retains full-sizedcomfort, something that Apple lacked until the 12" PowerBook - andlacks again with that model's discontinuation.

Divergence

The difference is that where PowerBooks started out as themachine to have, something happened along the way. We grew apartspiritually as I looked for lighter and lighter machines withcompact dimensions while Apple went to larger and larger screensand cases.

I hated the WallStreet,Lombard, and Pismo models, atleast when it came time to pack them into a case and carry themsomewhere.

Somewhere along the way Apple also became more about style thandurability. The aluminum PowerBooks were arguably more durable thantheir titanium predecessors, but a 3" drop of my last 12" PowerBookcost me hundreds of dollars in a new case bottom and the labor toinstall it. That's three inches, not three feet, andwhile the electronics were fine, the dented bottom was bothunsightly and prevented it from sitting flat on a table.

Yes, the iBooks were more durable, but their keyboards wereinferior - very inferior - to their delicate aluminumcousins. The one real constant in PowerBooks is that there was noreal constant, with radical changes to the aesthetic every fewyears and litte continuity.

ThinkPad Quality

The ThinkPad, in contrast, has remained remarkably consistentover the years, much like the Mercedes Benz car, the Rolex watch,or, to date, the iPod.

I still see my old 1999 ThinkPad T20, which I sold to a friendduring law school and is now her primary PC as a working attorney.Its 700 MHz Pentium III is slow by modern standards, but it runsWindows XP just fine and surfs the Web beautifully with a 3Comwireless 802.11g PC card. Its keyboard is still one of the bestever. It's been dropped, bumped, and even sat on, but it just keepschugging along looking almost as good as the day I bought it.

Place that 7-year-old T20 next to my 3-month-old X41, and theyare more alike than different. Yes, the X41 is much smaller - it'san ultralight compared to a mid-size, after all - but the design isthe same. They even take the same AC adapter. The same hotkeyscontrol the same functions, and despite seven years and a totallydifferent size and weight class, they feel the same in use.

Return to Greatness

The MacBook is a return to greatness from a form-factorperspective. It actually makes me think of the current FordMustang, which captured the feel and spirit of the great Mustangsof the 1960s while presenting it in a thoroughly new and modernform.

MacBookThe MacBook brings back the best of thePowerBooks of old and the recent iBooks, but in a fresh and newway. While I avoided WallStreet and other G3 PowerBooks (my wifeused the Lombard more than I did) on account of their bulk, theblack rubber-like case was simply to die for (a ThinkPad traditionas well). The black MacBook brings it back.

The glowing white Apple logo always set apart the G3 andespecially G4 PowerBooks, and set against the black case it's evenmore alluring. The huge touchpad is a serious improvement thatrecalls the trackballs of old, while the tight build quality againrecalls the much larger and heavier Lombard.

I even love the strange keyboard, which while looking like a1980s toy and feeling unlike any other laptop I've ever used, is asfast, accurate, and comfortable as the very best.

Where many (myself included) complained about the MacBook designis in its weight of 5.2 lb. This, too, I have I reconsidered.

Yes, it's heavy compared to the 12" PowerBook and iBook itreplaced, but in use the 13.3" widescreen replaces a conventional14" laptop. The MacBook is considerably lightly and trimmer thanany 14" G3 PowerBook or 14" iBook, and it actually comes closest inbulk to the current generation 14" (widescreen Z series andconventional T series) ThinkPads.

That's the true competition for the MacBook, the so-called "thinand light" class, rather than the "subnote" class that the 12"PowerBook and, to a lesser extent, 12" iBook called home. As a thinand light, the MacBook is design perfection: a bit heavier than the14" widescreen ThinkPad, but slimmer and smaller to compensate.

The 15" and 17" MacBook Pros can also be considered thin andlights, but they are considerably bulkier (if not a lotheavier).

As you can probably tell, I'm quite smitten with the MacBookdesign.

My MacBook was an early production model and is in the processof being replaced by Apple. I'm hoping they got the bugs out, asthe design is truly inspired.

Sadly, if reliability doesn't match function, the product willbe a failure. I've not had use of my MacBook for the last threeweeks, which, while annoying, is just an unavoidable fact of lifeand mass production. (In the PowerBook 145B days, there were nosuch things as laptop components generating temperatures highenough to force a shutdown. They didn't even need fans to keep themcool.)

Apple Not Alone

Mercedes uses cheap plastic switches for the power windows. I'vebroken it twice already. That old 190E had power windows, too, butthe switches, like everything else in that car, feltindestructible.

I guess every icon loses a bit of its luster over time. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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