Switching from Lenovo w520 to Apple MacBook Pro

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 10:12 AM

I’m going to leave the comments open on this post, but as with all comments on my blog, they are moderated. Just a fair warning: flamers & haters will not be approved. I’m all for a constructive conversation, but this is not a medium for noise.

In December 2013 I made a significant change with my laptop and operating system choice. Part of this change was done under duress… so let me give you a little backstory on how I came to switch from being a Lenovo + Windows 8.x guy to an Apple + OS X + Windows 8.x guy.


Around the mid-2013, I decided that the Microsoft Surface RT was not a device that suited my needs and added to this post in a clarification followup post, Finding that Device Sweet Spot. At that time I ditched the Surface and switched to an ultra book, the MacBook Air and later picked up an iPad Mini as my tablet. This switch worked great for me and what I wanted out of my devices. It was my second time on the Mac OS and this time went much better than the first… for some reason I just got OS X and understood the filesystem more.

In mid-December 2013 I was working on the last module for a my latest workflow course I was delivering to Pluralsight when all the sudden, with no warning, Windows locked up on my Lenovo w520. Long story short, the lockup corrupted something in Windows making it non-bootable. No repairs would fix it because the root of the lockup was a failed Northbridge or Southbridge chipset (confirmed with a low-level disk check and Lenovo diagnostics)… this meant the only way to shut the laptop off was to hard crash it. This makes it impossible to reinstall an OS or even take a drive from another machine because Windows never recognizes a valid restart. Even Lenovo said I had to ship the laptop back for an out of warranty repair… I’d be without it for around 3-4 weeks, and that was optimistic as that overlapped Christmas and New Years.

I was due for a new laptop so I looked at the options… you can’t exactly pop into a store and get what you need to run SharePoint 2013 virtual machines. I’m particular about the laptop I use and want something that’s comfortable and as light as it can be with a solid build feel. Not to slight the other vendors, but I’m a Lenovo guy. Unfortunately their site was reporting a 4+ week delay in shipping for the w530. Why? Because the w540 was recently announced, but it wasn’t available for order… the ETA on ordering that was around January 7. So here I sat, dead in the water looking at the possibility of not having a laptop for at least 6-7 weeks, maybe more, due to shipping and build times. That wasn’t going to cut it.

Not to mention the Lenovo w540 has this horrible off-center keyboard so they had room to fit the number keypad… yuk!

Then I remember seeing a video by Sahil Malik showing a comparison of running SharePoint 2013 on the same w520 I had and a Apple MacBook Pro. I compared the form factor of the two… the MacBook Pro was a solid half-inch thinner and 1.5 pounds lighter and that doesn’t even factor in the dramatic size difference of the power supplies (the Lenovo is about 2x bigger and heavier).

Comparing the Dimensions of the Lenovo w520 and MacBook Pro
Top-down view of the MacBook Pro sitting on top of the Lenovo… I didn’t align them up perfectly… but you can see they are essentially the same length & width… trust me the Mac doesn’t overhang on the Lenovo even though it doesn’t appear so here.

Comparing the Dimensions of the Lenovo w520 and MacBook Pro
Side view of the MacBook Pro.

Then I learn that Apple’s 14-day money back return policy didn’t effectively start until Christmas day during the season, that meant I could effectively get the MacBook Pro that same day from my local Apple store, install what I needed to finish my work before Christmas and continue to play and kick the tires on it until January 7 for free… coincidentally the same day the w540 was available… and if it didn’t work out, I could just return it and order the w540.

No Looking Back

It took all of 10 minutes to appreciate the MacBook Pro. There’s no mistake, Apple makes the best laptop hardware… it’s solid, it’s sleek, it doesn’t feel cheap, and the screens rock. Who cares the OS you use on it, the hardware rocks. We’ve all heard about the retina screens, but until you see one firsthand, behind a piece of glass and not a plastic sheet like most laptops, you’re blown away. I was… I even emailed a friend saying something like “even the word ‘crap' looks beautiful on this screen.”

The real test: performance… how will it hold up with SharePoint? After grabbing a trial copy of VMWare Fusion 6, I created a SharePoint 2013 VM. While installing I was blown away by how fast things were installing. Then after getting SharePoint 2013 installed, configured for apps, installing Visual Studio 2013, I then decided to really push my luck: configure search. Sure enough… this VM was the fastest SharePoint 2013 VM I had ever used using the exact same install steps I’d used multiple times! And here’s the kicker: it’s a single SharePoint 2013 VM allocated just 12GB of RAM as the MacBook Pro maxes out at 16GB (which still baffles my mind how they aren’t up to 32GB yet)!

I know, I didn’t believe it either. Why is it so fast? It’s because the 1TB SSD in the current MacBook Pro’s connects to the board using a PCIeX connection which is effectively 2x as fast as any other SSD I’ve used or seen. I was, and still am, floored that the lack of 32GB is not affecting me in the slightest. Sure, I can’t do a multiple VM set like I’ve been doing, but a single VM works just fine for portable work and is easier to manage as well. If I need a bigger farm like the 5-server farm of servers I use on my server at home, I’ll use the hosted VM farm I’ve created using Windows Azure VMs which all have a lot more RAM.

So what happened? On January 7 I got the email from Lenovo that the w540 was out and sure enough, there were no other keyboard options. I elected to keep the MacBook Pro and I’ve had zero regrets.

More Thoughts on the MacBook Pro

The other thing I love about the machine is the trackpad. Its huge (finally the last few years PC laptops are taking the tip from Apple) and I find precision is awesome, as well as the gestures. In fact on my desk I like to put the laptop aside and “dock” it (more on this in a moment) so all I work with is my two 27” LCD’s and a keyboard & mouse. For the mouse solution, I actually use the Apple Magic Trackpad and positioned it just below my keyboard so it feels just like the laptop.

Again the power supply is much smaller than the Lenovo’s which is welcomed news for my back as someone who travels a good bit.

Comparing the Dimensions of the Lenovo w520 and MacBook Pro power supplies

Having a full-size HDMI port has also come in handy a few times… nice little feature.

And one simply can’t overlook the retina screen… it’s absolutely brilliant.

Living in OS X as a Windows Guy

The first time I had a MacBook Pro back in 2008-2009 (right before the unibody models), I never fully got MacOS. I did the dual boot option and lived in Windows. However after having a MacBook Air for a few months, I got more comfortable with OS X. I find I am spending more time in OS X than Windows 8.x these days. Why? Honestly, I didn’t realize how much the metro interface doesn’t work for me. Aside from a dislike of the start menu (and no, Windows 8.1 didn’t fix it for me… 8.1 didn’t do anything for me to be quite frank except boot into desktop mode and make me say “That’s it? That’s what everyone has been raving about?"), I really dislike this whole move away from information density. I can see more email & folders in Outlook in MacOffice 2011 than I can in Outlook 2013 on Windows.

I’m still not nearly as fast in OS X as I am in Windows, but it’s not holding me back. One thing I do love which seems obvious… not sure how we don’t have this in Windows Explorer (we probably do but I haven’t seen it) is that the equivalent Explorer in OS X is an app called Finder. But get this: you can have tabbed windows in Finder! Very slick.

Other apps I grabbed from the OS X AppStore are Caffeine (keeps your machine from going to sleep during long operations), KeyRemap4MacBook (remap some keyboard keys for those of us long-time Windows folks) and BetterSnap (adds window snapping similar to how it works in Windows… in fact it’s better because you can create snap profiles and snapping areas).

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m also virtualizing Windows. I don’t use Boot Camp to dual boot to OS X and Windows because Windows drivers on the MacBook Pro are notoriously not that great (just try presenting at a conference… it’s a complete gamble if you will connect to the projector from booting in Windows)… plus it doesn’t get me anything. I use VMWare Fusion 6 Professional to create two VMs: Windows 8.1 & Windows Server 2012. Both are allocated 12GB RAM (obviously never running both at the same time) and 4 CPU cores. Both machines run great… love how the networking is shared with the host… no pain and works great with WiFi. I do love how Fusion has this Shared Folders concept where the Documents, Downloads, Desktop and other virtual folders in Windows map to the same folder in OS X so if I put something on my desktop in OS X, I see it on my desktop in Windows. I’ve also added Dropbox and a Repositories Shared Folders so only Dropbox runs in OS X and I can access my source for projects in either Windows or OS X (although I’m still battling an issue where one OS seems to think all the files have been modified in one repo but not in the other OS).

It isn’t All Roses

Is it ever? So there are plenty of things that you have to either put up with or compromise on when going this route. I do miss my fingerprint reader. In addition there’s a common thing that seems to not be a priority at all for Apple: no docking station. I find this curious with all the beautiful displays they offer. The only solution is to either deal with a lot of connections or go third party. I’m holding out until a PC like dock is available form HengeDocks which should be available in 2014Q2 from a recent email exchange I had with them. It will be nice to get more USB ports and be able to simply pop the machine off the dock rather than having to deal with a bunch of connections. A doc would also solve the issue where I am only on WiFi at my house unless I unplug one of the monitors to plug the Thunderbolt-to-CAT5 adapter in for a hard-wired connection… much preferred when moving lots of data to my NAS. Until then, I’m reconnecting it every time I pop it off my desk.

MacBook Pro on my desk

Another very annoying thing is that my Dell LCD’s don’t like the standard connections from the MacBook Pro. I tried using the HDMI port as well as a Thunderbolt-to-HDMI dongle, but the Dell LCD’s would only present at the low 1920x1080… and that sucks when it will go up to 2560x1440. But I was able to get it working… sadly it cost $100 + the cost of a Dual DVI Link cable per LCD. Apple has a Thunderbolt+USB adapter that will make the monitors go to their max display… aside from the cost, it also uses one Thunderbolt and one USB port on the MacBook Pro, and that’s all the ports it has to offer. Thankfully the adapter has a USB port on it so you can plug it into a USB hub of, like me, into the LCD’s if they have USB ports on them (so both LCD’s also act like USB hubs). As you can see from the picture above (click on it to see a higher resolution version), these two sets of adapters account for 4 of the 6 connections when “docked”… the other two being power & to my speakers.

For the LCD’s (Dell U2711’s for reference), I also had to do some color calibration. This post in the Apple forums sent me to the TFT Central | ICC Profiles and Monitor Settings Database where I found a profile for my monitor, followed the instructions and got the colors all cleaned up.

Another thing that sucked was that my Microsoft LifeCam HD webcam wasn’t recognized by MacOS. Well it was, but it didn’t have drivers for it so the video quality was horrible. As such, I had to swap it out for a Logitech webcam… there goes another $50.


All in all, I’m still very pleased with the decision. I love the hardware aspect of the MacBook Pro and have very minor gripes (would be nice for more Thunderbolt & USB ports, even a CAT5 port). As for the software side, I do find I am spending more time in MacOS and switching over to my Windows 8.x VM as needed or when I’m doing development (or over to my Windows Server 2012 VM when doing SharePoint 2013 work). Thankfully this is a super easy thing to do on OS X and VMWare Fusion.

Update January 15, 2014 @1:47p EST

For those of you who’ve asked about, and are curious about this as a SharePoint 2013 kit, let me be very clear on the specs. You only have three things you can configure / customize on the MacBook Pro. This is a 15" with the retina screen (doesn’t matter for SharePoint), the i7 2.5Ghz CPU, 16GB RAM and the 1TB SSD. From what I understand, the 1TB drive is the only one that uses the PCIeX connector which is what makes up for the lack of 32GB for a SharePoint 2013 VM.

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