by Perry Longinotti
We are in a post-PC era. Our computers are lifestyle devices and many folks want them to express something other than just their ability to browse the web or create documents. The question is, How do we measure the non-technical appeal of a notebook? In a lot of ways the traditional methods of determining value are obsolete because today's desirable computers are more than the sum of their parts. This "non-technical appeal" may be vital to some people, and superfluous to others. Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum are folks who think computers should be nicely designed with solid features while still representing good value. This brings us to the latest update to the Apple MacBook.
As I examine the MacBook, let's start with the easy stuff and save the value proposition and judgment for later. My MacBook is the base model. Vital statistics are as follows:
Apple makes the best packaging in the business. In this case, the box is hardly larger than the diminutive notebook itself. Despite Apple's attempts to please Green Peace by making environmentally responsible products, there is a lot of plastic in the box. Specifically the MacBook is cradled in black polystyrene or plastic.
According to online recycling websites this form of plastic has 'long been on environmentalists' hit lists for dispersing widely across the landscape, and for being notoriously difficult to recycle. Most places still don't accept it, though it is gradually gaining traction.' There is a fair bit of Mylar used to protect the surface finish of the MacBook and its power adapter. Although most owners will keep the boxes and possibly the packing materials, coming up with fully biodegradable packaging might be a nice way for Apple to think different.
I have seen really nice cardboard and paper based packing materials used by Toshiba. Maybe Apple should follow their lead. After all, I think you can get black cardboard.
Build and Design
The notebook itself is constructed of aluminum and glass. The case is a unibody that seems to be machined from a solid piece of billet aluminum. The finish is quite good, and appears to have been anodized to prevent the pitting that afflicted the first generation aluminum PowerBook. Apple has made a notebook that is creak free when carrying it around - this is very rigid and feels like it will still be going strong long after it is obsolete. For reference, I am typing this review on a Dell Latitude E6400, itself made from Magnesium alloy, and the MacBook feels much more robust. The best way to describe is that when you hold it, the MacBook feels as though it is one single solid piece of metal with no seams.
The gray body and black keyboard recalls the Titanium PowerBook. But handling it, the MacBook possesses a solid construction that the TiBook never did - very confidence inspiring. Rather than a LCD latch mechanism the MacBook uses a magnetic latch. Hinge tension is perfect and the assembly appears to be very robust.
LED back lighting makes it possible to produce a very thin cover. MacBook's 13" display is one of the brightest I have seen on a small notebook. At the second lowest brightness setting the screen was quite usable in a dark setting, but most people will probably settle on 50%. It uses a very glossy glass screen which is compensated for by the bright LED back light. Glass may sound fragile, but Apple uses a tempered variety here and on the iPhone that seems quite durable in my experience. There is a subtle rubber gasket lining the screen's perimeter that prevents accidental screen slams and broken glass.
For a screen this size, the MacBook's 1280x800 is a good resolution. Text size and the amount of usable screen real estate are decent. If you plan on doing any video or photo work an external monitor will be a good idea. Viewing angles are good horizontally and poor vertically – this is what I have come to expect from consumer notebooks.
Pressing fingers firmly against the back did not cause ripples in the LCD display. Above the display is the iSight webcam its microphone is above the keyboard.
Apple has employed the thin metal keyboard design that debuted with the new iMac. Key travel is short and the action is quiet. The MacBook's keyboard is reassuringly mush-free. The flat key shape may take a little while to get use to but over-all it is a joy to use. It's lonely at the top for Apple, Lenovo and Dell when it comes to excellence in keyboards. I'll never understand why it is that after so many years other PC makers just can't seem to get this right.
A new touch pad design is incorporated into the MacBook. I have always found Apple's touch pads to be among the best, but here Apple is taking things to a new level. First, they have made it even bigger – which makes a lot of sense paired with the ubiquitous 16:10 or 16:9 LCD screens. In order to reduce accidental mouse clicks while typing, Apple has designed the pad to act as a mouse button across the entirety of its surface.
You also get support for more touch gestures when using the pad. You can rotate pictures, increase/decrease zoom and even change the screen magnification with the touch pad. Apple's control panel offers video demonstration of the actions making it very easy to learn how to fully exploit the new features. This is the sort of well thought out enhancement Apple is known for. The number one item I miss when using a Windows PC is the Apple touch pad.
In terms of human/computer interface the MacBook is close to perfect - screen, keyboard and touch pad are terrific. A matte screen option would make it perfect, that way people could order their preference rather than glossy or bust.
In terms of size, the MacBook is tough to beat if a small notebook is what you need. Dimensions are: height 2.41 cm (0.95 inch), width 32.5 cm (12.78 inches), depth 22.7 cm (8.94 inches) and weight of 2.04 kg (4.5 pounds). Its 60 Watt power adapter is tiny and adds about half a pound to the travel weight. MacBook uses Apple's Mag Safe connector. This innovation eliminates a few risks from notebooks; for example a sudden yank of the cord releases the magnetic connector before the notebook is pulled off the table.
This is another area where PC makers could learn from Apple. OS X Leopard's into movie is simple yet slick and 4-6 screens of info is all that is need to get up and running. If you are already a registered Apple user, simply type in your credentials and the notebook will retrieve all your info from Apple. And finally, if you still have data on your old Mac, OS X can automatically transfer your accounts, personal data and settings to your new Mac. In short, you will be using your new Mac quickly. Windows still has a long way to go in this department.
Apple computers are junk ware free - even the trails of Office and iWork that used to be part of the standard install are gone. Apple's iLife suite is included – iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, iWeb and Garageband. The photo and video tools are really only matched on the Windows side by Adobe's excellent Elements bundle (which is more powerful and also a bit more complex to learn). Your garden variety PC does not come with tools this good. Garageband is cool, but other than playing with NIN's sample tracks (free download – registration required).
Restore and recovery software is included and one of the disc functions as the driver disk for Windows if you decide to install it. The ability to do so is fully supported by Apple and is administered within OS X via Boot Camp. Installing a non OEM edition of Vista on the MacBook took much less time than on any of my other computers due to the narrowly defined hardware components in Macs and the included driver disk (all drivers install from a single executable).
The MacBook's CPU is common in this price range; Intel's Core 2 Duo P7350 CPU. This is a Penryn-3M medium voltage chip. What does this mean?
Less heat? Now you have my attention. As a previous owner of both Core Duo and Core 2 Duo MacBooks (both of which were sold due to heat issues) any technology that can make Apple's notebooks cooler to the touch is appreciated. We'll take a look at heat in a minute.
Next up is the chipset; MacBook uses NVIDIA's 9400m G chipset (nForce 730i). This is a core logic chipset that incorporates integrated graphics (IGP). Before we get to the video system, let's look at the basic features. As a Centrino 2 alternative it features many of the same characteristics; faster Front Side Bus (FSB) speed of 1066 MHz with matching DDR3 which is both faster and uses lower voltage. Unlike Intel, NVIDIA packages all on the chipset's features into a single small chip – it uses space more efficiently.
Apple offers the base MacBook with only 2 GB of this newer faster RAM. Upgrading to a more sensible amount such as 4 GB is going to be an expensive proposition because both of the MacBook's slots come from the factory occupied by 1 GB SO-DIMMs. With 4 GB becoming the new standard and even budget notebooks coming with 3 GB, it will be hard to get sell two 1 GB sticks of DDR3 RAM to anyone.
NVIDIA's GeForce 9400m video system is one of the faster integrated solutions along with the AMD RADEON Mobility 3200. However, this only gets it to the ankle level of powerful mobile GPUs. Apple and NVIDIA each claim that this solution is 5x as powerful as Intel's latest. Apple describes the chip as having 256 MB of dedicated shared memory – very misleading. As an IGP it uses 256 MB of system memory leaving you with approximately 1750 MB free to run programs.
Video playback was good, but that could just be the CPU doing its job. Encoding in iMovie did not appear to be much faster than previous Core 2 Duo Macs – GPU acceleration makes a big difference, so if it was on we would know. Whether future software updates enable PureVideo acceleration, CUDA and PhysX remains to be seen. Hopefully you won’t have to upgrade to 10.6 to see benefits.
Onwards, to the storage system; Hitachi's MHZ2320BH G1 160 GB HDD has a spindle speed of 5400 rpm, 8 MB buffer and SATA-II 3.0 Gb/s interface. This is an OK performer but the size is a disappointment. Even basic notebooks come with 320 GB now – that is twice as much space as what Apple provides.
Optical recording is robust and the Panasonic UJ868A covers all but the most exotic formats (CD-R 24x, CD-RW 4x, DVD-R 8x, DVD-R DL 4x, DVD-RW 4x, DVD+R 8x, DVD+R DL 4x DVD+RW 4x, DVD-RAM 5x). This is a slot loading model so it spares you the wimpy cheap feel of normal tray loading notebook optical drives.
Blu-Ray reading combo drives are becoming common in this price range. This rounds-out my disappointment with the MacBook's storage system. RAM, HDD or optical - none of the storage specs are in-line with this notebook's price.
Networking is handled by a Marvell Gigabyte LAN. No useless 56k modem here.
Wireless networking capabilities are powered by Broadcom's Atheros 802.11n Wi-Fi chip. I expected to find Intel's latest 5100 series chip in Apple's notebook. Apart from the CPU, there is very little Intel inside this notebook.
Realtek provides the HD Audio Codec along with autosensing jacks that seem to work a little better than those of the previous MacBook which were known to get stuck on digital out mode from time to time.
Port layout on the MacBook is sparse; you get two USB 2.0, microphone, headphone, Ethernet and Kensington lock ports. Looking at the MacBook's case and design, I don't know if Apple could have fit anymore ports on this notebook. It's your call whether this is enough, I seldom need this many.
OS X Performance
Apple's OS seems to do a better job handling memory than Vista. Immediately after booting the amount of RAM used is 327 MB. This figure is amazing. Not only does Apple produce an Operating system that is light years more polished than Windows Vista, but it actually uses half as much RAM.
This efficiency means that the MacBook never really struggles when in its native OS. Multitasking with the included applications is a pleasant experience that is lag free. The Xbench score is 119.01 which is 20-25% faster than the first generation MacBook Pro.
Battery life is exceptional in OS X. Apple advertises five hours of use. With brightness set at 50% the MacBook scored the following:
The surfing test is demanding, I spent about 25% of the time streaming video from YouTube. Simple word processing or reading tasks will stretch the life a bit further.
If you install Vista you get a peppy little notebook that only struggles when there are lots of applications open. On first boot, without virus scan installed, 577 MB of MacBook’s memory is used. This is almost double what is used for the arguably superior Mac OS X.
Boot Camp offers a single control panel for configuring Apple's hardware. I had some issues with the track pad working properly in Vista. Specifically I could not get the mouse button to stay 'clicked' when click dragging to make a selection. The right click never registered either. Eventually I gave up and attached a mouse.
The default driver package includes the NVIDIA 176.44 driver. For newer games like Far Cry 2 you will need to update to the latest set. I used Dox's 180.70 optimized driver set (probably the finest modified driver available at the time of testing).
First the synthetic results - the MacBook scores 3,965 in PCMark05 and 2,088 points in 3DMark06. This puts it close to some of the discrete GPU solutions present in notebooks. The MacBook will be slightly faster than notebooks equipped with RADEON 2400 or GeForce 8400m GPUs and approximately the same performance as units with the RADEON 3450 and GeForce 9300m. For perspective, this is half as fast as mainstream dedicated video solutions such as the GeForce 9600m found in Acer and HP notebooks at this price point and one quarter of the performance of a 9800m GPU that can be found in Asus and Gateway gaming notebooks in the price range. Different strokes for different folks, but if gaming is important to you make sure you weigh your options carefully before buying.
Running games like Far Cry 2, Crysis Warhead, Fallout 3 and Call of Duty 4 on the MacBook might seem silly, but for all their visual splendor these games can scale down to pretty low settings. This makes them look a bit older but the game play is mostly unchanged.
Of these games, all except Crysis Warhead ran nicely. Call of Duty 4 ran very well and could probably have some of the detail turned back up (which bodes well for Call of Duty 5). Fallout 3 is eminently playable – so Oblivion should run great. Far Cry was a left less margin for error, but on minimum settings it looks very good.
Here are the numbers:
If you can live with a few visual compromises, you will be happy with the gaming performance of the MacBook. I have to point out, that similar priced notebooks can allow you to play this games and medium settings (Acer 6935G) or high settings (ASUS G50vt-X1). Clearly with numbers like these the MacBook will be able to run World of Warcraft and similar games quite well. For many people that will be enough.
All this video game playing would normally create some serious heat, and with Apple notebooks that is a worry. In a quest to make quiet computers, it has been my observation that Apple sacrifices fan speed (which usually equal more decibels) at the expense of increased heat. This new MacBook is vastly improved.
Maximum temperature after running benchmarks was recorded at the rear vent at 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). This is warm, but it will not sear your skin. Fan noise is bearable and the cooling system tends to kick in early to keep temperatures in check. The following images illustrate temperature captures:
Vista battery life is very different than OS X.
As you can see, without Apple’s software wizardry the MacBook struggles to attain decent battery life.
Wi-Fi performance is very good in Vista and in OS X. The number of networks visible to the MacBook and my Dell are the same. I found that the MacBook could keep a strong fast signal throughout my home.
Audio performance is also really good. For such a small notebook I was surprised by the speakers on the MacBook. They easily outclass the speakers on my Dell E6400.
In terms of design, this notebook is the class of the field. Not only does it look nice, but the materials are top notch and Apple’s thoughtful touches such as the MacBook’s innovative touch pad give it a good balance of form and function. If everything else was equal, or at least close to equal, a recommendation to buy this notebook would be easy to make.
Performance is acceptable. This is certainly a step up from the previous generation MacBook, but it falls short of many notebooks in the same price range. Frankly, the old MacBook was always a disappointment with its weak IGP and temperature problems when pushed through even medium intensity tasks.
Bang for the buck is a letdown. I don’t know how much that pretty shell cost, but it left very little for internal components. Apple skimps on RAM and HDD space, and you are paying a premium for an IGP platform that will be in $600 notebooks soon – just like the comparable AMD RADEON 3200 IGP.
The main advantage of this notebook, and all Apple computers, is the OS. Running Vista, this notebook is no faster than $600 budget model. But the efficiency of OS X wrings more from the MacBook’s modest internals.
Another major advantage is the software bundle. iLife 08 is great and certainly worth its $80 price tag, but with a new Mac you get it free of charge.
In summary, this is a great little notebook that I feel is priced too high. Maybe the high price is to control demand, is Apple worried that they won’t be able to build enough of these things if they were priced appropriately? What is an appropriate price? I think its $999 as reviewed here. That is a $400 premium over similarly spec’ed rivals made of plastic and hobbled by Vista and bloat ware.
Keeping the old plastic MacBook model in the lineup as an olive branch to the value conscious is strange. Its $999 price point acknowledges the unrealistic entry price of the new MacBook, but in and of itself is no bargain either. It’s hard to imagine that in the current economic climate that Apple won’t introduce something to compete with netbooks and entry level machines from Acer and Dell (which are often much better than their prices imply). Maybe this January holds the answer.
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