Review: MacBook (13-inch, aluminum)

The best MacBook yet with some sacrifices to reach its goals. (October 20th, 2008)

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $1,599 (2.4GHz, 2GB RAM, GeForce 9400M)

The Good

  • Excellent, durable industrial design.
  • Much faster GeForce 9400M video; good for some modern games.
  • Trackpad is intuitive and a real selling point.
  • Lighter, thinner.
  • Backlit keyboard a useful addition.
  • Eco-friendly packaging.

The Bad

  • No FireWire port.
  • Same lower-quality LCD panel as before, just LED-backlit.
  • Performance updates are minor beyond graphics.

introduction: the pack-ins

On October 14, 2008, Apple released two new MacBook models that stand as its first major overhaul of the 13-inch system since its introduction in May 2006. Apple as always claims a dramatic overhaul; but the real question is whether this is the giant leap promised by the company, a minor step forward in a new disguise, or something in between.

If you buy a new MacBook, the first thing to catch your eye is its box. As part of Apple's continuing emphasis on "greener" technology and materials, the new MacBook package has shrunk 41 percent smaller compared to previous boxes, saving bulk and paper at the same time.



The new MacBook boxes are much smaller and thinner.



Opening the package reveals the laptop on a recyclable plastic tray and underneath is a second recyclable plastic tray that holds the power adapter and cord along with the installation discs in case you need to wipe out your hard disk and restore it to its original factory condition. The entire box resembles a Japanese bento tray with every item in a separate compartment.



The MacBook components are packaged in recyclable plastic trays.



Other use of "green" technology includes arsenic-free glass, a mercury-free LED-backlit display, and the removal of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in logic boards and PVC in cables and connectors. Add to this the recyclable aluminum case and glass used in the display and you have one of the "greenest" laptops on the market.

physical changes and performance

Of course, nobody buys a new computer for the packaging or the recyclable materials, so the main interest is the new laptop's physical appearance. Unlike previous model refreshes that simply added a bigger hard disk or faster processor within the same form factor, the newest models offer a slew of new features both internally and externally. Internally, the main changes are the choices between a 2.0GHz and a 2.4GHz Intel 2 Core Duo processor, 2GB RAM (compared to 1GB RAM), greater hard disk space (160GB vs. 120GB), and an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor (compared to the Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor).

Some other enhancements come through an improved front-side bus, rated at 1066MHz instead of 800MHz. The faster a CPU can retrieve data from RAM, of course, the faster a computer can run. You won't see much of a speed increase doing simple tasks on the MacBook, but you will see a noticeable one when doing more complicated tasks like calculating a large spreadsheet. Further speed improvements come from the use of faster 1066MHz RAM chips, and finally, a similarly-clocked 3MB cache.

The combined boost in power from more standard RAM (2GB) with the NVIDIA 9400M graphics processor should improve graphics performance. If you're just surfing the Web or using a word processor, you won't notice any difference. Even playing a 1080p movie trailer off Apple's website didn't appear to run any smoother than viewing the same trailer on an ordinary Mac mini with 2GB RAM but with an Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics chip like those from earlier MacBooks.

From a performance point of view, there is a big difference. Using the Activity Monitor, the percentage of CPU usage when viewing the movie trailer ranged at approximately 40 percent on the Mac mini while that same percentage of CPU usage on the new MacBook hovered around 6 percent. Behind the scenes, the Mac mini must work harder to display the same graphics that the MacBook can muster with barely any effort at all.

You'll see a far greater difference when playing games. Testing the simple Race Driver 3 Honda Civic demo on a Mac mini proved acceptable, but only just. The graphics were slightly chunky and the gameplay stuttering at times as if the processor were struggling to keep up with the fluid graphic display of the game. Running this same game on the MacBook proved to be a night and day difference.

The MacBook displayed the graphics in far more detail than the Mac mini with its feeble integrated graphics chip. Gameplay proved vastly superior with the game much more responsive on the MacBook without the occasional stuttering audio that the Mac mini exhibited. If you've always wanted to play video games on an entry-level Mac, the MacBook's new graphics processor will finally give you a reasonable and inexpensive video game platform.

Externally, the newer MacBooks have gotten thinner and lighter. The height is a mere 0.95 inches (compared to 1.08 inches), the width is 12.78 (the same as in the previous MacBook), and the depth is 8.94 inches (compared to 8.92 inches). More importantly, the weight is only 4.5 pounds (compared to 5.0 pounds), making the latest model far easier to carry. If you need to carry a laptop for extended periods of time, such as through an airport, this seemingly minor weight difference can be a welcome relief for your shoulders and back.

Flipping the MacBook upside-down reveals a lever that pops open, allowing you to remove a panel that exposes the rechargeable battery and hard disk. Unlike previous MacBooks that also provided a battery indicator, these newer models have moved the battery indicator on the left side. Now you can view your battery's power status without having to flip it upside-down, which is a minor, but welcome improvement.



The removable battery and hard disk can be accessed through a panel in the bottom.



The keyboard retains the same layout and flat, square keys as the previous generation. However, the keys are now black instead of white, which is more effective at hiding dirt and wear on the key surfaces. The 2.4GHz model also offers a backlit keyboard but the 2.0GHz model does not.



The 2.4GHz model offers a backlit keyboard.



Perhaps the most controversial feature of the latest MacBook is the lack of a FireWire port. This generation abandons the FireWire port and replaces it with a Mini DisplayPort to accompany the usual two USB 2.0 ports, the MagSafe adapter plug, an Ethernet port, an audio in and out port, and a Kensington lock slot. If you regularly transfer video through a FireWire cable, this lack of a FireWire port may eliminate the latest MacBooks entirely as contenders; the same applies if you use FireWire external storage or Target Disk Mode. Most newer camcorders use USB, though, so new adoptees are less likely to be hindered by Apple's design choice.



The ports on the MacBook.



The most noticeable external improvement is the new aluminum case. Not only does this aluminum case resist scratches better than the older plastic models, but the aluminum cases are also much easier to clean. Where the white plastic on older models often stained or revealed dirt far too easily, the aluminum case resists such staining. Just take a damp cloth and wipe away any smudges quickly and easily.

The appearance of a laptop's case may seem trivial, but the latest MacBook cases resemble works of art and engineering marvels. The contrast of the silver aluminum case with the black keyboard and the black border around the display creates an impressive visual treat every time you open the lid. This is definitely one laptop that you'll never get tired of using (until the next generation of MacBooks arrive).

Many people have criticized the glossy screen on the newest models. When viewed at an angle, there is a noticeable glare that could be annoying, but when viewed straight-on like most users are likely to do, this glassy screen feels vibrant and colorful. If you absolutely hate glossy screens, you'll be out of luck with these models, but if you don't care either way, you may find the glossy screen acceptable for everyday use.

Notably, the actual LCD panel is sourced from the regular MacBook rather than the MacBook Air, which unfortunately results in narrow viewing angles and not-quite-ideal color. Those who depend on color accuracy for visual editing should look to the MacBook Pro or even the Air for a better picture.



The glossy screen can be highly reflective when viewed at an angle.



the trackpad

The most revolutionary new feature is the trackpad that adapts the finger gestures as a new way to interact with the computer. Gone is the single mouse button, which creates a cleaner look. To press the mouse button, you simply press anywhere on the trackpad surface with one finger. This may feel odd initially, but after a few moments of use, you'll get addicted to this simplicity that returning to any traditional trackpad and mouse button combination will seem antiquated and clumsy.

Right-clicking is now far simpler. Rather than the clumsy Ctrl-click or three-finger click method in previous laptops, you can now right-click merely by pressing two fingers at once. Much like clicking the entire trackpad to mimic an ordinary left-click, two-finger right-clicking soon becomes addictive that you'll find it hard to return to any other laptop again.

To modify the trackpad, the System Preferences window now displays a special trackpad icon. Clicking this trackpad icon reveals a greater variety of options for customizing the trackpad's behavior. More importantly, selecting an option also displays a video tutorial showing how to use these new features.



Trackpad customization options.



For example, you can turn on a Tap to Click option, which lets you tap the trackpad to mimic a left-click, a common feature available on most Windows laptops. There's also a Drag to Lock feature that lets you drag an item just by selecting it and sliding one finger across the trackpad.

Two additional finger gestures on the trackpad allow three and four-finger commands. Sliding three fingers left or right scrolls horizontally, such as displaying the next or previous picture in iPhoto or viewing the next or previous month in iCal. Sliding four fingers up or down runs Exposť to display thumbnail images of all open windows. Sliding four fingers left or right displays icons of all open applications so you can switch between programs.

Using three and four-finger swipe commands on the trackpad may seem awkward, but once again, a few seconds of use makes you realize how useful and simple these commands can be. Once more, trying to return to an older MacBook or any laptop will suddenly feel like a step back in time.

everyday impressions and the wrap-up

The latest MacBook offers enough new and compelling features to differentiate this model from the previous generation. Where the previous MacBook's plastic case looked good when new, it quickly soils and loses its fresh and appealing appearance. On the other hand, the aluminum case of the newest MacBooks not only looks new far longer, but also appears cleaner with fewer smooth, worn out spots at the palm rests or minor scratches from the wear and tear of being carried around.

The solid feel of the aluminum case contributes to the newest MacBook's sense of durability and craftsmanship. Just opening the latest MacBook lid gives you a feeling of prying the metal case open on a precision-made Swiss watch. The glossy screen further accentuates the luxurious look and feel of this laptop. Whether opened or closed, this is one laptop that is aesthetically pleasing to both look at and use.

The new trackpad may take some getting used to, but once you stop trying to reach for a mouse button and get used to tapping the entire trackpad with one finger to left-click or two fingers to right-click, you'll find the trackpad intuitive and far easier to use than any ordinary trackpad with its space-gobbling left and right mouse buttons.

Carrying this MacBook is a breeze due to its thinness and low weight. This is the type of laptop you'll be happy to take wherever you go and even happier to use whenever you need it.

As a result, this new MacBook is more than an evolutionary step in the MacBook line, but falls short of being completely revolutionary beyond its unique trackpad. The MacBook is definitely worth the price for most existing Mac owners looking to upgrade. The only question is whether you'll get a MacBook because you need one or just because you really want one. In either case, you'll find yourself the proud owner of a lightweight, solidly built laptop that advances the definition of a trackpad beyond what you'll find on most any competing notebook.

by Wallace Wang


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