Lifting the lid
Removing the battery and HDD cover is all well and good, but most of us will want to open the display lid first and have a look at our work space. Here, too, Apple does almost everything differently. You don't need to open a latch to free the lid from the base, because it's held in place magnetically. Just pull it up. The black display bezel is flush with the TFT panel, and a glossy glass screen covers them both. Instead of a single block wedged into the enclosure, the keyboard has each key poking out through the aluminum enclosure. And the trackpad has no buttons.
Let's talk about the display first. I know many of you hate glossy displays, and I'm not going to argue with personal preferences. However, I will say the brightness of the MacBook display's LED backlight more than makes up for the glossiness. Unless you're sitting with your back to a window, you're probably not going to notice any reflections outside the bezel. Besides, it's not like matte notebook displays aren't vulnerable to glare. You just need a sufficiently bright backlight to cancel out other light sources in both cases, and the MacBook's does a fine job of that.
Speaking of the backlight, I thought my MacBook was flaky when I noticed the display brightness dim while browsing the web. Further investigation revealed that the backlight was adjusting automatically depending on how much light the integrated iSight camera perceived. Covering the camera lowered the brightness, while putting it under my desk lamp made the display noticeably brighter. I turned off the feature because it seemed to adjust brightness when I leaned forward too much, but I can definitely see the appeal for people who need to use their laptops on the go.
One aspect where I think Apple could have done better is the display resolution. 1280x800 may be good enough for a 13.3" display, but in a $1,299 laptop, 1440x900 would have been more appropriate. That said, Mac OS X and the multi-touch trackpad really make dealing with limited screen real estate a breeze.
What about the keyboard? In one of our podcasts last month, TR blogger Matt Butrovich said getting used to the MacBook's unusual "chicklet"-style keyboard took him about a month. I expected a similar learning curve, especially since I'm particularly picky about things like tactile feedback. Much to my surprise, I was able to rattle away effortlessly after just an hour or two. Lenovo's ThinkPad keyboard was and remains my gold standard, but I find the MacBook's keys pleasantly comfortable. They need less pressure to hit, and they're just a wee bit bigger. The completely flat design feels a little unusual at first, but because of the marked gaps between each key, you rarely find your finger hitting another key by accident.
While I like the keyboard, I should probably mention the finish issues I've seen both on mine and on display models in stores. Some of the keys are slanted. I can't see it by staring down at the keyboard, but if I look a bit closer from the front, the function keys, the tab key, and the "1" number key aren't perfectly horizontal. This flaw doesn't impede typing at all, but it's a bit incongruous in light of Apple's usual attention to detail and the finish on the rest of the notebook. Here again, some users are crying and moaning about this problem on Internet forums. I'm personally not bothered (I rarely look at the keyboard anyway), but you may want to shop for another laptop if small imperfections like that bother you.
Below the keyboard lies the glass trackpad. Apple is treading some new ground here, since this trackpad is the biggest I've ever seen on a notebook, and it doesn't have buttons taking up space. Instead, the front side of the trackpad depresses to work as a single button. I normally prefer the TrackPoint "eraser head" pointer on ThinkPads and some other laptops, but I've become a big fan of the MacBook trackpad. The large, smooth surface is very comfortable to use, and it leaves plenty of room for gestures in Mac OS X. Wanna right-click? Just click (or tap, depending on how you have the thing set up) with two fingers instead of one. Scroll? Just glide two fingers up, down, or to the sides. Zoom in and out? Make pinching motions. Go back and forward in Safari? Sweep three fingers back and forth. My favorite gestures are the ones that drive OS X's Expose: move four fingers down to get an overview of all open windows, and move the same fingers up to conceal open windows and show the desktop. Window management doesn't get any better than this, folks.
Before we go on, I should spend a little while exploring the MacBook's sides. Apple is quite economical there, too: the left side plays host to all six of the MacBook's ports, plus the very handy MagSafe power connector. Like the display lid, the MagSafe plug uses magnets to stay attached to the laptop's base. It latches on quite securely and almost guides your hand in the process, but it'll unfasten just as well if you trip over the power cord. Handy. To the right of the port cluster, you'll see a small, unlabeled, round button next to a row of tiny holes. Press the button, and the holes light up to tell you how much battery life you have left. Also handy.
The right side of the MacBook houses nothing but the slot-loading SuperDrive. I've used laptops with front-mounted optical drives before, and they were always a pain, so I'm definitely happy with that placement. I also enjoy the slot-loading aspect, if only because it makes inserting a DVD that much quicker and more foolproof. Not having the drive's innards slide out each time is a nice plus, as well. Now I'm just paranoid about getting crumbs in the slot (even if I shouldn't be, because there's what looks like a felt pad keeping it shut).
You won't find any ports at the back. That's because the MacBook's hinge design makes the display slide over that part when you open it, and the rear of the notebook body serves as the exhaust vent. You can feel hot air blowing down under the display when the fan kicks in, but you can't see (or block, for that matter) the vents unless you're looking for them. Thankfully, the fan rarely kicks in to a noticeable degree. In daily web browsing and desktop activities, the MacBook is whisper-quiet and lukewarm to the touch. I can't say the same about my ThinkPad, whose fan has always started emitting a pulsating whine after a few minutes of activity.