Latest MacBook has a long life but shows signs of aging. (March 7th, 2008)
Product Manufacturer: Apple
Price: $1,299 (2.4GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB, Superdrive)
- Stunning battery life that beats Apple's estimates.
- Faster than a model just a few months old; rivals Mac desktops.
- 2GB of RAM finally enough to use out of the box.
- Best value for dollar in the MacBook lineup.
- Design quickly getting old, prone to cosmetic damage.
- Sorely needs a dedicated graphics option; X3100 too slow in some cases.
- LCD is unnecessarily low-quality compared to the MacBook Air.
While it came as no surprise to close followers of Intel's technological shifts -- the company is rumored to be switching quickly to 45nm chips -- Apple's MacBook and MacBook Pro updates in February 2008 caught a number of Mac owners off guard. Many hadn't been expecting an upgrade less than four months after a low-key refresh in November.
However, with a new processor, the portables are set to not only run faster but, perhaps more importantly, longer. I've set out to learn whether the likely most popular model, Apple's mid-range 13-inch MacBook, sees a genuine improvement or is just an attempt to keep an older design alive.
The MacBook has been Apple's best-selling computer almost since it was released in mid-2006, and there has been very little reason for the company to change its tune in terms of design -- which, in some ways, is evidence of a solid original concept As far as mid-range notebooks go, the MacBook remains one of the thinnest and sleekest of its kind; it's certainly thinner than the Dell XPS M1530 that sits in its price range, and is technically thinner than the more appropriately-matched M1330, if heavier at five pounds versus four.
The "chiclet" keyboard, magnetic lid, and MagSafe power connector remain some of the most well thought-out design touches on notebooks to date, if not without their catches. The keyboard is quick but, compared to the keyboards on the MacBook Air and on the desktop, feels slightly hollow and cheaper than its counterparts. The lid also does require some force to open, and the power connector can occasionally come loose if the notebook is on one's lap. Apple's newer MagSafe design, for the Air, seems to be less prone to accidents.
Nevertheless, the real issue with the MacBook remains its plastic shell, particularly on the inside. While it's tough on the outside, the palm rest has been known to stain from users who frequently rub even slightly dirty hands on its base. Some have also reported cracks and splinters along the edges if the system isn't handled gingerly, and the plastic is susceptible to scratches from rough surfaces or wayward fingernails.
It also has to be said that, quite simply, the MacBook design is no longer as attractive as it once was. After the release of the MacBook Air and aluminum iMacs, the regular design appears plain and unnecessarily thick. It was already effectively an adaptation of the iBook to the Intel era, and loses its luster compared to systems with thinner displays and professional-looking, more scratch-resistant designs.
One of Apple's most controversial decisions when it introduced the MacBook was to switch to a low-cost, glossy display. Day-to-day use has softened my stance on glossy displays: while I would still prefer matte whenever possible, the gloss is only an issue in extreme cases.
What's less forgivable is the quality of the panel itself. An early look at the system suggested that the viewing angles were better; after more testing, it becomes clear that little has changed. Apple still bases the MacBook's LCD on a very frugal twisted nematic (TN) panel that represents a considerable drop in quality. Colors aren't quite as accurate, and the viewing angles are simply too narrow.
To see the full quality of the display, users have to be looking almost directly at the screen; while relatively minor shifts in position don't ruin the image, the difference is clear. This is especially true for vertical angles, as colors quickly wash out and invert with anything less than a level view.
The decision is livable for basic use. However, on a $1,100-plus system, the LCD feels like an unnecessary throwback to an earlier era, especially in light of the Air's much better display. An LED backlight may still be too costly, but the Air's display itself is better quality even without the extra lighting. If any one component needs urgent improvement on the MacBook, it's a more modern display.
The webcam, at least, is up to expected standards. While no built-in webcam is currently capable of producing sterling results, the camera is sharp, reasonably color-accurate, and free of ghosting or other visual artifacts. My only complaint is that noise becomes visible in moderately dark and very dark environments, though this is par for the course for any very small camera.
Ever since introducing the MacBook, Apple has focused on processor speed over graphics, and that remains truer than ever for the early 2008 refresh. The 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo chosen by Apple for its higher-end 13-inch MacBooks is not only the same as for the base MacBook Pro but just 100MHz away from the top-end version. That's an important consideration when raw CPU performance is more important, as there will be very little to gain from the $700 difference between this system and the base Pro model, let alone the $1,200 extra necessary for the 2.5GHz version.
I saw -- or perhaps, didn't see -- this narrow difference in day-to-day use. Anything chiefly processor-driven, such as watching a 1080p QuickTime movie or music encoding, is effectively seamless. It's helped in no small part by an overdue increase to 2GB of RAM on all but the least expensive MacBook. This is the first model that doesn't immediately require a memory upgrade to run more than basic apps smoothly.
Having said this, graphics performance is merely adequate, not stunning. Apple continues to deny even the $1,499 model basic dedicated graphics from ATI or NVIDIA, and the Intel GMA X3100 graphics that are left to the system seem unusually slow considering that many Dell, Gateway, and HP systems at the same price have at least a GeForce 8400M GS to offload some of the 3D work, even with the same processor choice. Cost simply isn't an excuse.
Older games such as Warcraft III play acceptably well, but even they can be hampered in very hectic action. The lack of dedicated memory also leaves the MacBook's video prone to stuttering in some extreme cases for just the operating system itself, such as viewing many open apps in Expose or attaching a 20-inch display or larger and spanning the desktop (lid-closed mode is faster). Such performance is only just acceptable for the price and should really change for the next update.
performance: objective tests
I ran three core Mac-specific tests, each of which tests the full scope of the processor and (in the cases of Cinebench and Xbench) graphics performance as well. Gaming tests were not going to be an option: as most 3D games are extremely dependent on graphics performance, the basic GMA X3100 simply wasn't an option. All tests were run against a 2.4GHz iMac, which uses the previous-generation Core 2 Duo processor but also shares the same 2GB of RAM.
The tests are somewhat surprising. The iMac takes a dramatic lead whenever the video chipset is the most important metric, such as in the Cinebench OpenGL shading test or the Xbench user interface test (a difference which skews the overall results in the iMac's favor). However, the MacBook is often near or sometimes well ahead of the iMac in raw performance, even with obstacles such as a slow notebook hard drive and having to share memory with the Intel graphics. In the Xbench thread test, which checks multi-CPU tasks, the MacBook was a clear 37 percent faster. While Apple is likely to replace this iMac with a new model soon, it can't be ignored that an $1,800 desktop can sometimes be outrun by a $1,300 notebook in pure CPU tasks.
For its latest round of processors, Intel shifted much of its attention from raw performance to battery life, and Apple has followed suit: a change to the company's testing methods now trumpets battery life as it exists in a real-world browsing test with wireless enabled, rather than a theoretical (and often unrealistic) peak.
I saw this in practice. Using Apple's recommended settings of normal power usage, wireless turned on, and half screen brightness, I netted better than expected battery life in the exact same conditions. The test system lasted for 4 hours and 54 minutes, or about 4.9 hours, of average web browsing. This is not only longer than Apple's official claims but leaps ahead of the previous model; most users of the 2GHz and 2.2GHz MacBooks from the fall often net between 4 and 4.5 hours of similar use, sometimes netting less.
The importance of that battery metric can't be overstated. The battery performance is as good or better than the extended batteries for many rival notebooks and is enough to last many students and workers for an entire day. Longevity can still drop quickly if the system is pushed to its energy limits, as with playing back a DVD or processor-intensive tasks, but for many users the need to carry a second battery is that much lower.
In stock trim, little needs to be changed: the 2GB of RAM and 160GB hard drive are enough for most, especially casual users only buying the mid-range system for the sake of the DVD burner. Most other aspects can't be upgraded, which is unfortunate but perhaps not surprising given Apple's insistence on including 802.11n wireless, Bluetooth, and other features that are often left out of other systems (but which also reduce the system price).
One plus point from keeping the MacBook's original design is the ability to replace the hard drive and the RAM after the sale, and those interested in squeezing the most performance possible out of the system are advised to go shopping for third-party upgrades rather than ordering through Apple. Two 2GB sticks of compatible and fairly reliable memory can be purchased for less than $100; a larger (or faster) hard drive an also be purchased for not much more and gives you a spare drive in the process.
It should also be noted that, after the MacBook Air, this is only the second MacBook to ship without an Apple Remote; it's admittedl a less than essential feature on a 13-inch portable, but anyone still intent on using the system as a makeshift home theater will miss the previously standard controller, which now costs $19 as a separate option.
As a performance upgrade to the November MacBook, the new model marks all the right checkboxes. It's not a dramatic leap, but it can slightly edge out considerably more expensive Macs in certain categories. And for longevity, it currently holds the title as the longest-lasting MacBook to date and should outperform most immediate competitors, though few of these have been on the market and in testing long enough to gauge their results. For students and long-haul travelers, the MacBook should be high on the list of notebooks to investigate.
The MacBook does need a dedicated graphics option to be competitive for graphics; anyone looking for a gaming or 3D modeling notebook would be better off upgrading to the MacBook Pro or considering a Windows notebook such as the XPS M1530, especially if price is a sticking point.
In terms of a design exercise, though, the MacBook does fall short: it's overdue for a refresh. While the actual design is not quite two years old, it shares some of the styling traits and technical weaknesses of the iBook, which first saw the light of day in 2001. It's scratch- and stain-prone, and shows too many signs of using low-budget parts, especially with the LCD. The MacBook is still a pleasure to use in many cases, but more than ever it's clear that the MacBook is built to a price, not built to impress. More importantly to Apple, it's also no longer that exciting. The all-white (or black) finish and the basic template have existed for several years; it's time for something new.