The end of my Mac journey

It's time to send back my loaner MacBook Pro and iPod Touch to Apple. Were they everything Apple promised they'd be?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

A couple months ago, Apple sent me a MacBook Pro and an iPod Touch to evaluate as an instructional platform. The Apple salesperson essentially dared me not to fall in love with Snow Leopard, the 15" MBP, and the Touch for creating, managing, and pushing educational content to students. I challenged myself to explore the platform more thoroughly than I ever had with my MacBook which I essentially used just like any other computer. Maybe I'd been missing something, since, until that point, the value proposition of Apple hardware had been pretty much lost on me.

Although I'd hoped to chronicle my use of the MBP more regularly, life got in the way, so I set my other computers aside and just used the heck out of the loaner Mac, doing both my daily work and producing as much multimedia content as possible. I managed the content on both the loaner iPod Apple sent me and my son's Touch to get a feel for working with the iPods as 1:1 devices or in classroom sets. Podcasts, music, books, PDFs, you name it - if it was educationally relevant, I pushed it out there. I tested Adobe CS5 (and fell in love with the latest iteration of Photoshop) and had my oldest son (who is headed to film school in the fall) create all of his movies in the latest version of iMovie.

So what happened? Have I been wrong as I fell further out of love with my aging MacBook? Have I been unimpressed with Macs simply because we haven't been pushing them to their full potential?

Read on to find out...

Let me start by saying that I'm absolutely right to fall out of love with my old MacBook. I use the term "old" very loosely: I've only had it for a couple of years. However, the anemic integrated graphics (Intel's GMA X3100), 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo, and DDR2 memory mean that creating the sorts of multimedia content that Apple is promoting to their educational customers is time-consuming at best. My MacBook remains very well-suited to writing, surfing, and generally consuming content. There is certainly nothing on the Web that it can't handle and productivity apps, whether cloud or desktop-based, run just fine. Ever tried encoding a half-hour movie? Not the best of times.

That being said, it was always easy (if on the slow side) to create movies and get them out to YouTube or DVD. When my kids needed to make movies for school, they used my MacBook, not a 17" HP laptop with the same processor but a good discrete video card. iMovie was just plain easy.

So enter the loaner MacBook Pro. Unfortunately, this machine shipped to me just 2 days before Apple announced its fully refreshed lineup of MBPs featuring Core i5 and i7 processors, so this was another Core 2 Duo-based Mac. However, the NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT and nearly doubled RAM and bus speeds certainly upped the performance a bit over my MacBook. I remained uncertain, however, how this hardware, though quick, could justify the nearly $2200 price tag. It had to be about the software and the ecosystem.

So about that user experience...

And, of course, it was. That's what Apple is all about: user experience. Seat of the pants impressions? Snow Leopard was fast, even without the fastest hardware on the planet. It was certainly comparable with Windows 7 (again, in terms of sheer feel; I didn't bother with benchmarks since they're meaningless to most educators) and approaching the speed of Lubuntu. It made me wish I could have gotten my hands on one of the new i7-based Macs because it would have screamed.

The speed is important, but far more important was usability. A lot of Mac fans aren't thrilled with the new version of iMovie, but I have to say that the new interface is so darned intuitive, it almost begs you to make movies. My son, after a few minutes of adjustment from the previous iteration was also really pleased. The same goes for the rest of iLife. Between Garage Band, iMovie, and iTunes, creating professional-looking podcasts and videos was a piece of cake.

We all know that, though. Even if you don't like OS X or Apples in general, it's hard not to admire the ease of use associated with iLife. Most teachers either don't have the time, training, interest, or some combination thereof to learn the ins and outs of non-linear video editing. However, with a single day of professional development, it would be very easy to have teachers creating and aggregating content for students on their iPods or for in-class presentations (at least for all but the most technophobic of teachers).

So can this intuitive set of software tools and an ecosystem of hardware tools on which to disseminate content (iPods and iPads) justify the cost of the systems?

As I mentioned, my son starts a film and communications degree in the fall. His program requires that he have a Mac with specs that can handle pretty serious video editing (although we don't have to buy Final Cut Pro until his sophomore year, which, at $900 academic, is a welcome relief), so a MacBook Pro is the obvious choice for his graduation gift. Even buying through his school's web store, a well-equipped Core i7 15" MBP hits about $2200 and I didn't buy the extended warranty or geek out overly on any category.

We could certainly go lower for a teacher, but if we're investing in the training and student devices so that teachers can rapidly find or develop and deploy educational materials, they'll be needing MBPs as well. The new MacBooks are pretty good, but for anyone who has used a Core i5 or i7 equipped machine versus a Core 2 Duo, the difference is fairly noticeable. So a reasonably-equipped Core i5 15" MBP would set most schools back around $1700. If you want to sync all of the content the teacher is creating to student iPods or iPads, then you better invest in a cart that can handle simultaneous synchronization. There's another $2300 and that doesn't even include the iPods.

Not that creating a comprehensive solution would be cheap using Windows- or Linux-based PCs either. However, there are plenty of good quad-core, discrete graphics laptops running Windows 7 in the $1000 price range. If the iPod is your 1:1 device of choice, then you need a Mac to handle the simultaneous syncs mentioned above. However, videos and podcasts can live in many places and be accessed in many ways by students, many of which are probably cheaper than buying in to the full Apple monty.

So what's the bottom line?

Obviously, I've been wrestling with these ideas over the last two months. Keep in mind that the costs I noted above don't include the virtualization software that Apple provided on my loaner (Parallels and VMWare Fusion) to run Windows software or that the performance of said software was only mediocre. It didn't include Photoshop, which I'm increasingly finding to be really useful in a variety of settings and which actually has some powerful educational applications (although the entire CS5 suite ran like a champ on the MBP). It doesn't include the productivity software of your choice and the Mac doesn't run a particular suite of really useful content creation tools: Microsoft Office 2010 (without that virtualization software, that is).

Office and Photoshop (and whatever else you and your students and staff need) will add costs to PCs, too. Right now, however, the cost of entry into Mac-land is definitely higher than it is for PC-land, even if you're looking at mid-range machines oriented towards content creation.

Which leads me to the bottom line of my adventure: define your requirements and know your users. I know, way to sit on the fence, Dawson, right? But that message is key. If you're ready to push towards 1:1, how are you going to do it such that it's transformative and not just expanded "computer time"? A strategy could very well be built around an Apple ecosystem, using iPads or iPods for every student (or even MacBooks if the UI and iLife suite resonates with students and staff) running content assembled and developed by staff on higher-end Macs.

Equally effective strategies could be built around Classmate PCs, Android smartphones, WebOS tablets (sure, we'll see those soon), standard netbooks, thin clients, or non-Mac laptops. Any of these situations might be cheaper, more flexible, or fit better with existing infrastructures and applications.

In Mac-centric scenarios, the user experience may be such that reduced training costs, simpler administration (Mac OS X Server remains extremely easy to use for schools that lack adequate technical support), or low cost of 1:1 devices (at $200, the 8GB iPod Touch is actually a pretty good deal, although I'd watch out a flood of inexpensive Android-based devices to come) may offset enough of the costs of a Mac deployment to make the higher cost of entry irrelevant. Macs tend to have slightly longer lifespans than other computers as well, largely because the software and hardware degrade nicely for repurposing to less demanding tasks. How many of you still have colored iMacs and big white eMacs in production settings?

Make it happen

The cost itself, though, is irrelevant if teachers don't embrace the solution. If you save incredible sums of money by deploying Linux on computers you and your students assembled, but teachers don't bother creating rich, engaging content for students because the software is immature, then you've actually wasted a lot of money and thrown away a golden opportunity to change the way teachers educate and students learn. If you spend the money on an Apple hardware and software stack but just keep right on teaching the way you've always taught (with some extra web quests and more typed essays for good measure), then you've also wasted money.

Transform education with 1:1, folks. This is where we need to head and I don't just mean having kids type their work. It wouldn't be hard to justify the costs of Apple hardware if you're headed down this road since the user experience itself promotes adoption. My two months immersed in Mac-land certainly demonstrated that Apple products have a lot of value buried under all of those dollar signs.

However, if you, your staff, your parents, and your community have a clear direction and vision for really changing the face of education with technology as a catalyst, then there are plenty of brilliant, cost-effective solutions that aren't ever preceded by a lower-case "i" or followed by the word "book."

The key is transforming education. How you get there is up to you.

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