Learn to find stuff first Ubiquity Commands

Andres wrote a nice summary of his experiences with a MacBook Pro as a Windows development machine. I agree with everything he’s got to say, really – it’s a lovely machine but it’s not really suited to Windows development (I set aside only a 60GB partition for Windows XP, but hey, that was all of my “old” laptop) for a number of reasons: -

  1. The heat: actually, I suffer from this less than Andres does but it’s about freezing in the UK at the moment. There are two graphics cards in the MBP – a GeForce 9400M and a 9600M. Windows can only use the 9600M, which is great for gaming but not a deal of use for development, because of…
  2. … The battery life: again, I’m pointing the finger squarely at the graphics card usage here. OS/X uses the 9400M to get as much as 4-5 hours light use out of the machine. You’ll struggle to get an hour and a half out of Windows XP.
  3. The keyboard: As Andres notes, it’s missing a delete key (which is “simulated” with FN+BACKSPACE. This is probably the biggest downside for me. There are other annoyances in the UK too – the MBP does not come with a traditional keyboard layout. Backslash and tilde are in the wrong places, there’s an odd §/± key in the corner, and – crucially for me, particularly when editing CSS or using regions in C#, or even saying C# – there’s no ‘#’ key (though see below for a fix). CTRL and FN are the “wrong” way round – your muscle memory is severely hampered for the first two or three weeks.
  4. The trackpad: it’s a thing of beauty in OS/X, but BootCamp down to XP and you’ll be tearing your hair out. It’s almost as if they went out of their way to deliberately cripple the driver so that you’d hurry back to your new “favourite” OS/X. The “two-finger tap” right-click method I use in OSX is cruelly transformed into a “three-finger-claw click” (even though I’ve told the driver I’d like to tap to click, which it does for left clicks and not for rights). The sensitivity seems off and the tap-drag threshold for window dragging is insanely large.

The above sounds like a fairly exhaustive list of why you wouldn’t want a MacBook. Apple have done what they probably wanted: to make Windows usable but make it so irritating that you’ll long to be back in OS/X just to use multitouch properly. Oddly, though, I love it. This is probably because development isn’t the main thing I do on it. So what is it I love?

  • The keyboard: Yes, the very thing I’m maligning above. The travel is small, the feedback (to me) seems excellent, and typing this post I’m struck by the speed at which my thoughts are hitting the page. Also, I can regain my ‘#’ key (in OS/X) and shift the other keys back where I’m used to having them with the excellent (and mis-spelt) Ukelele. The only thing I still can’t do is swap FN and CTRL or jury-rig a DELETE key on the EJECT button…
  • The touchpad feels lovely once you’ve set it up to taste. The poor Windows drivers are inexcusable when you know how good the pad can be.
  • VMWare Fusion: Weirdly, when running my BootCamp installation through Fusion, the trackpad works exactly as I expect it. This is probably the best way to develop on it. I boot into Windows only when I want to play Fallout 3. Which I’ve finished. So I never boot into Windows.
  • The construction: The unibody construction, the LED backlighting of both screen and keys … it’s got heft and there’s no give or play in any of it. The only downside is that the body is so cold first thing in the morning in this freezing weather we’re having.
  • OS/X: There’s plenty to like. Exposé is as good as everyone says. iTunes and iScrobbler are a joy compared to the Windows equivalents and it all integrates beautifully with the dedicated player keys on the keyboard. Safari is fast and usable (once you’ve installed the excellent Glims). iCal integrates with my Google Calendar well using the excellent Calaboration. I can check my GMail from the great desktop widgets (which knock Vista’s sidebar into a cocked hat). The typography is excellent (especially in the excellent and ubiquitous Dictionary), even if Quartz doesn’t quite come up to ClearENGINE standards at small font sizes. “Spaces” is the first “multiple desktop” solution I’ve ever wanted to continue using. The Unix underpinnings are solid, packed with open source gems and don’t require the amount of tinkering that my last dalliance with Linux (admittedly over a decade ago) did.

It’s a shame that Apple haven’t put as much effort into their Windows drivers as they have the rest of the overall experience. Really, the big two things that the drivers need are: the ability to select the graphics card and the same trackpad driver capabilities as OS/X has. As Andres has already said, this means it’s not the best choice for Windows development – though if you’re close to a power outlet it’s all do-able. However, for personal use and even just as an exercise to see how digital life is through a non-Microsoft prism, I’ve found it to be a thoroughly useful and enjoyable experience.

I’d buy it again, but knowing that I’d only use it for digital photo manipulation, surfing and music. I am trying other languages with it (Python and vim ship with the system and I’ve dipped my toes), but it’s not quite the full ticket for Windows-based .NET development and the keyboard issues, while not insurmountable, do mean that (for me, anyway) it’s better suited for general writing than source file editing.

3 Responses to “MacBook Pro for Windows developers”

  1. Worth checking this post out to get consistent keyboard layouts inside and out of VM

    http://www.harbar.net/archive/2008/06/30/Apple-Keyboard-Layout-for-Virtual-Machines.aspx

  2. Cheers Mark, that’s pretty timely as I chose this weekend to start making VMWare VMs for some of my most-used environments (shame I haven’t found too many you can download off the shelf).

  3. I’m actually thinking of getting a macbookpro as my windows workhorse. good post

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