A pleasant (and surprising) visit to my local Apple Store

I visited my local Apple Store this week. My primary motivation was to get the free replacement for my faulty iPhone 3G power adapter. Coincidentally, I recently noted that my MacBook Pro battery might be eligible for a free replacement. So I took that along as well. Finally, this was my first opportunity to have some "hands-on" time with Apple's newest products (new iPods, new laptop computers and the new LED Cinema Display). The result was a pleasant visit to the Apple Store, one that was both informative and occasionally surprising.

Reservations recommended

As Apple suggested, I made a reservation with the Genius Bar before coming to the store. I am pleased to report that the process worked perfectly! I arrived at the store about 20 minutes before my appointed time. I checked in with a concierge and my name was added to the queue. I was called within about 10 minutes, a few minutes before my scheduled time, despite a waiting list of drop-ins that was over two hours long. In other words, it definitely paid to have made a reservation in advance.

Bootable iPods?

The iPhone power adapter was replaced without any problems. The MacBook Pro battery was a different story.

Before the Genius could determine whether or not my battery truly qualified for a free replacement, further diagnostics were required. To do this, the Genius attached an iPod to my laptop and set about to boot from the iPod. I commented that I thought Apple officially discouraged booting from iPods. He informed me that these were specially configured iPods sent from Apple, designed just for this diagnostic purpose. Sure enough, after holding down the Option button at startup, to get to the Startup Manager screen, the iPod appeared as a startup drive named "EFI Boot."

As you can imagine (given my interest in methods for booting from USB flash drives), I was intrigued by this EFI Boot option. Evidently, this was not simply a case of a standard install of Mac OS X on to the iPod. I asked, more directly this time: "Could I (as an end user) set up an iPod to do this? Could you tell me exactly what Apple had done here?" The answer was "No." That is, he wasn't sure exactly what Apple had done (or he wasn't telling), but he was sure that Apple was not providing instructions to end users on how to duplicate the feat. [I later tried a Google search and similarly failed to turn up any details about an iPod EFI Boot option.]

As it turned out, it may not matter much: the boot process failed to work. That is, my MacBook Pro failed to boot from the iPod, stalling at the gray screen. In the end, the Genius had to refer to an online Apple database to get the needed information. Eventually, he informed me that my battery's serial number was not a "winner": Only some batteries in the cited date range were eligible for replacement; mine was not one of them. I'm not sure why Apple couldn't simply list the qualifying serial numbers online, potentially saving me a trip to the Store. However, it is consistent with Apple's general reluctance to go public with any details regarding problems with its products. Still, given how smoothly the whole Genius reservation process had gone, I was not inclined to complain.

The MacBook Pro & LED Cinema Display play very well together

Having completed the business portion of my visit, I turned my attention to the new products in the Store. I wound up spending most of my time playing with a new MacBook Pro connected to a new LED Cinema Display. Similarly connected to the Display were a standard Apple keyboard and mouse. The overall result was quite impressive.

Set up this way, I could work with the MacBook Pro as if it were a desktop Mac, ignoring its built-in trackpad, keyboard and display and instead using the Cinema Display with its connected components. I did notice an occasional lag when attempting to scroll a window with the mouse. But it otherwise worked perfectly.

Of course, when desired, I could quickly and easily disconnect the MacBook Pro from the Cinema Display -- and have a fully functional laptop computer. For users who want both a laptop for traveling and a full desktop setup when at home, this is as close as I have seen Apple come to both letting you have your cake and eat it too. If you currently own both a laptop and a desktop Mac, it definitely starts you thinking about whether you could get by just as well with this MacBook and Cinema Display combo. As a bonus, the combo offers a dual display capability, without the need to purchase an additional monitor: the screen on the MacBook Pro can be set up as a second display when a Cinema Display is attached.

Two additional notes about these products:

• I tried to operate the Cinema Display with the MacBook Pro in "clamshell mode" (that is, with its lid closed). It didn't work. The MacBook Pro just went to sleep, shutting off the display. I asked a salesperson if clamshell mode was supported. He said yes. But when he tried to show me how it worked, the MacBook Pro again went to sleep. Eventually he gave up, claiming he wasn't sure how it worked after all.

• The new notebooks and Cinema Display all have glossy displays. To put it mildly, I am not a fan of these shiny screens. At the Apple Store, the reflective glare was immediately obvious and distracting. I could see my face in the display almost as if I were looking in a mirror. The store lights behind me were also annoyingly visible. Admittedly, as you start working, you tend to "refocus" your eyes and don't notice the reflections as much. Still, I much prefer a matte display -- such as the older Cinema Display that was sitting next to the new one in the Apple Store and showed no reflective glare at all!