by Christopher Wyckoff
The MacBook was arguably one of the most anticipated products of 2006 from Apple. The day the Intel transition was announced, fans of the company wondered what the future held for its most popular portable – the iBook. Despite being the most popular, the iBook was next to last to be revamped for the new Intel lineup. A little bit iBook, and a little Powerbook, the MacBook is not only an evolution of the previous line, but a step in a new direction entirely. The real question is does it live up to the anticipation? Or did Apple swing and miss? Read on…
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The MacBook revealed.
- 1.83 Intel Core Duo processor
- 2MB on-chip shared L2 cache
- 667MHz frontside bus
- 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM (PC2-5300) on two SO-DIMMs
- 60GB 5400 RPM HD
- 13.3 inch Widescreen LCD 1280×800 native resolution
- CD-RW/DVD Combo Drive
- Intel GMA 950 Integrated Graphics
- 802.11g/b Airport Express Wireless Card
- Bluetooth 2.0 internal Card
- 2 USB 2.0 Ports
- 1 Audio Input
- 1 Audio Output
The MacBooks ports
As a previous owner of an iBook G4, I was happy with the style, and the ease of use of OS X, but was left wanting in comparison to similarly priced PC notebooks. The main complaints about the iBook were the screen quality, and the lack of real processing power for mobile professionals. Time equals money, and with my previous notebook, tasks simply took more time. With the MacBook, these concerns appear to have been addressed to an unexpected degree. With the MacBook Pro sporting an Intel Core Duo chip, it was widely assumed, the iBook replacement would be equipped with the lower end Core Solo. The fact that it is instead equipped with the same Core Duo as the MacBook Pro, made this unit a must-buy for me.
The 15 inch MacBook Pro was deemed to be too expensive. The new flexibility offered by being able to run OS X and Windows on the same machine made the decision final. The MacBook was purchased from the 5th Avenue, New York store, in the stock white 1.83 GHz configuration. Later 2GB of memory was added. For the purposes of this review, the stock config will be the one referenced, in order to give an idea of the value of this unit for budget users.
Although i would still consider the MacBook part of the old iBook family, there is plenty new in this package. but otherwise the LCD unit seems well constructed. This machine introduces a form factor new to Apple portables.
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The new MacBook from the front and side.
The 13.3 inch screen is absolutely stunning. As a former Apple sales rep, the number one complaint I saw levied against the otherwise popular iBook was the quality of the screen. It was noticeably dimmer, and less sharp than other units in its price range. It lacked the color fidelity and richness, compared to the screens I have seen on more popular PC notebooks. The screen is bright, and lighting is even. I saw no dead pixels in my initial testing of the unit. The colors are very even, and show no drop off or color changes as you view from side to side. Obviously there are slight changes in colors as you shift the screen, or change the horizontal viewing angle, but for the most part, the picture stays consistent, especially when viewing a movie in full screen.
I have heard concerns from potential buyers about Apples foray into the glossy laptop screen market, and those concerns do have merit. Though the glossy surface is reflective in certain lighting, under normal living room lighting the screen is clear, crisp, and sharp. I would venture to say this screen can be compared side by side to any other screen on the market, and it would hold its own. In fact, sitting next to my 19″ Acer LCD monitor, it looks positively vibrant in comparison. In direct sunlight, the screen does wash out on the lower settings; Honestly, I have not found it to be the deal breaker some would say it is. I sit typing this review while on the road, on a bright summer 85 degree day, and the screen is still useable with the brightness at about 25%. The upgraded screen alone addresses my chief complaint about the iBook G4. The unit’s maximum resolution has received a bump from 1024×768, to 1280×800, a godsend for mobile photographers, designers and developers. If there was ever a doubt about the difference a screen can make on a unit, this one is a great example of how big an impact it really does make. After using the MacBook screen, I could never go back to the iBook/PowerBook G4.
Moving away from the screen, the second change is the keyboard. Designed from the ground up, the keyboard is different from any I have seen thus far in a notebook. The look is difficult to describe, but the new design will do plenty to address those of us who ended up with crumbs and other debris in iBook keyboards. It definitely feels like a page from the Powerbook keyboard in regards to the feel. It is much more stiff and tactile than the iBook keyboard, which was described by some as “soft and mushy.” The actual key placement remains the same as the previous generation, so any complaints about that have been left unresolved until the next iteration.
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The new keyboard is a definite plus.
Personally, I found the keyboard to take a small amount of getting used to because of the perfectly flat shape, but after spending a few minutes with it, I was typing as fast as I ever have. The keys have just enough spring to make them feel stiff, but not fatigue your fingers. They are a bit oddly spaced, but this is nothing I wasn’t able to adapt to within the first 20 minutes. I enjoyed this keyboard a great deal more than the iBook, and my previous Dell units.
The trackpad has received an overhaul as well. Visually it’s obviously much wider than the iBook. It retains all its previous behavior with a few additions new to this end of the spectrum. Apple’s trackpad scrolling system once found only in the high end portables makes its way down to the MacBook. For the uninitiated, with a single finger the trackpad acts as normal. With two fingers on the pad, the user can scroll up and down on web pages or menus, as well as horizontally. Two fingers and a mouse click also simulate right click functionality if clicking is not enabled. If it is enabled, a two finger tap gives a right click. Sound intuitive? Not really. It works once you get used to it, but I would have definitely preferred Mighty-Mouse style functionality with the trackpad. It doesn’t feel natural at times to jump through so many hoops to get a right click, though I am a seasoned Mac user, so I have become accustomed. Apple may want to look at an alternate solution if they are looking at attracting Windows users.
A much wider trackpad than in previous units.
A small but important feature is the inclusion of a new latch system. Instead of a mechanical latch that requires a button press to unlock, there is no physical latch at all. Instead the unit opens and closes using magnets housed behind the iSight webcam. Apple hit a home run here, as the opening takes just the right amount of force, without sending your notebook hurtling through space every time you open it. The unit also looks much more stylish without the inclusion of the big grey button interrupting the clean lines. Also, less buttons means less buttons to break, and that’s always a plus, especially in notebook units.
New magnetic latch system.
Apple has taken features from the high end portables and implemented them into this unit. New to the low end is the built-in iSight webcam,, IR remote control (with sensor located next to the sleep light on the front of the unit), along with Apple’s Front Row media software. In a situation where Apple could have easily skimped on the features, they have actually ADDED value to the machine by including these extras.
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Front Row remote, and IR port
The MagSafe power connector makes its appearance in this unit, and while the concept is novel, I found myself knocking the connector out of the machine way too easily. I guess I would rather this, than have the MacBook hurtling to the floor.
The much ballyhooed MagSafe power connector
Design and Build
The design of Apples machines have always been top notch, and the MacBook is no exception. The MacBook is available in two different finishes, the traditional shiny white, as seen in the iBook, or the new matte black finish. It is nice to have the black as an option, but at a $150 price premium, I can’t say its worth the money. The material is also different from the one seen in the white unit, and picks up grease and fingerprints more easily. For this reason the white MacBook was purchased instead.
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Thinner, wider, slightly heavier.
From the exterior, the unit looks near identical to the 12″ iBook, other than the obvious difference in dimensions. The outside on the white model is made of the same polycarbonate plastic, as its predecessor. The unit is sturdy, without being bulky. The screen does show a slight amount of wobble when moving the unit back and forth. There is very little interruption in the lines on this unit, as is customary on Apple portables. The power connector, USB ports, and audio in/out are all on one side of the unit. The back of the unit is completely clear, with the exception of vents which help keep the Core Duo cool.
The MacBook is about in. smaller than the iBook, stacking up at just over 1 inch in thickness. It weighs in at 5.2 pounds, again slightly larger than the iBook, but well within the range of acceptable volume. An ultra-portable it is not, but it is definitely small enough to use on airplanes, or other cramped spaces. I’ve typed the majority of this review while on the road as an example.
A word of note — I believe benchmarks are important in determining the performance of a unit, but I also feel as though real world experiences can be better at determining the value of a unit. As such, limited benchmarks will be included in this performance review.
iBook users have suffered through underpowered machines for years. The Intel transition brought new hope that the Apple machines, already having a great operating system, would now be able to match up to their competitors in raw power, and versatility. How does the MacBook stack up? Better than expected. In fact, some MacBook Pro owners may feel a little threatened by little brother.
The unit comes stock with 512MB RAM, a 60GB 5400 RPM HD, and in a move that may upset previous Mac portable owners, an Intel GMA 950 Graphics solution. Truthfully, a non dedicated card is a slight disappointment for some, but I haven’t found it to make a bit of difference for most everyday uses. The GMA 950 is fully Core Image and Quartz Extreme compliant, so you have the full array of Dashboard and Dock special effects. Even on the included memory, OS X is noticeably faster, and more responsive than on previous Apple portables. With a full load of ram, the machine is an absolute screamer. Most applications open immediately, with the exception of those running on Rosetta. This presents a slight issue for those looking for a design-centric notebook, as none of Adobe’s applications are Universal Binary as of yet. There is another option afforded by the Intel system — running your Windows apps, on your Mac. More on that later.
Rosetta apps, for the most part behave the same way they always would, except for an occasional pause here and there. In most applications, its almost imperceptible, but when dealing with huge image files in Photoshop, or large projects in say, Flash, a pause here and there can mean quite a bit of lost productivity. Microsoft Word also displays a bit of delay occasionally when working with larger documents. It isn’t what I would call a deal-breaker though.
The one area where I would give a slight minus to the MacBook is gaming performance. Simply put, if you are a gamer, then the MacBook is likely not the machine for your needs. Most of the latest games will run single digit framerates due to the limited graphics memory. For a person looking for a mobile gaming system, the MacBook Pro is going to be the best bet. Everywhere else, the Intel Core Duo shines. I would certainly recommend upgrading the memory to the maximum if possible, as OS X is known for being memory hungry.
A side note: Upgrading the memory is simple and easy. The toughest thing will be finding a screwdriver small enough to get into the screws of the memory panel, which is located behind the battery. Once the panel is removed, it’s as simple as pressing in the memory the same way you would on a desktop machine.
Having seen the performance on this unit, as well as a 15 inch MacBook Pro, I am hard pressed to tell the difference. The MBP is available with a few more options, but from a strictly performance viewpoint, the MacBook is a steal at $1099+$130 to max out the memory. Again, I am not a gamer, so the GPU makes little difference to me.
After using this machine for the past couple weeks, it has been completely stable, and smokes my desktop system quite handily in all aspects. I realize that the integrated GPU is going to be a source of much negative commentary, but I truly haven’t noticed anything to indicated where I would be better off going with a dedicated card. I know that its supposed to be better, but I fail to see the actual performance gains in my every day use.
Airport reception is exceptional, and battery life has been in line with what I expect from Apple machines. I got about 4:45 minutes off a charge while writing this review, sans Airport/Bluetooth. I’ve managed to get just short of 4 hours with Airport enabled. Not bad, but definitely not at the head of the class in this price range. One frustration I have with Apple is the lack of an extended battery option. I would gladly pay extra for the ability to work for 8-10 hours without being tethered to the wall. As it stands, battery life is what I would call satisfactory.
Enter Core Duo
If there is one bit of rain on the sunny outlook for the Intel portables thus far, it has been heat issues. The MBP has received quite a few complaints for the amount of heat it generates at full load. I have seen units returned, or sent back to Apple because the computer becomes unstable at higher temps. Since the MacBook also sports a Core Duo processor, this was a concern for me as well.
After running Cinebench, which places 100% load on the CPU, I am happy to report that my particular unit had no issues. It does get a bit hotter than I am used to coming from my previous Pentium M Sonoma, and an iBook G4. Temps ranged between 47 C at idle speeds, and went as high as 76 C at full load. Though I am not accustomed to temperatures that high, it is apparently well within spec for this processor.
To give an idea of the amount of heat the unit generates, I will say that there are times where the MacBook is almost too hot to sit on my lap comfortably, but never to the point of burning. Even Apple doesn’t recommend using the unit while resting on your legs. Despite the advisment, I sit typing this review in that very position, and have no problems. I have not experienced any shutdowns, or kernel panics due to heat, and while I would feel better about cooler temps, the processor I received appears to do a good job of throttling and ramping up the fans when necessary. The Core Duo brings more than heat to the Apple lineup.
The Boot Camp installer
Best of Both Worlds
For many Macintosh purists, the idea of running Windows on an Apple machine is bordering on insulting. For Windows users, the Intel transition has provided an opportunity to appease curiosities about “The Worlds Most Advanced Operating System.” For the rest of the world; it would be amazingly convenient to have a computer that could run Windows as well as OS X without a hitch. Enter Boot Camp, Apple’s software which not only allows you to install Windows on your Intel Mac, but simplifies the partitioning process, and even provide you with drivers for your Mac hardware to work on the Windows side.
Most Mac hardware anyway. Right click functionality was not available on the MacBook without a third party add-on script. Rerouting audio is also not supported, which means if you want to listen to your headphones, while using Windows on your Mac, you are out of luck. The function keys do not work either, with the exception of the eject key. Everything else works the way any Windows computer would. The battery appeared to run out a bit more quickly on Windows. I assume some of the power management features in this notebook don’t work the same way without OS X. The processor gets 3-4 degrees hotter while running Windows as well.
Windows on the MacBook was by no means a perfect experience, but it is convenient, and keeping in mind that this is beta software, it works pretty well. I have yet to see any Boot Camp specific crashes, or glitches. It should go without saying, but it bears repeating that this is a 100% true Windows installation on your MacBook. What that means is, all the problems you had with Windows, can happen with this installation as well. One other issue is that of accessing your drives. OS X reads Windows partitions in NTFS, and read/writes to FAT formatted drives. Windows on the other than will treat the Mac partition as if it doesn’t exist.
If you want to work between platforms, a suggestion would be MacDrive from MediaFour, which will allow you to “see” your Mac drive, on a Windows partition. Boot Camp is a time-limited beta. It is set to expire once OS X 10.5 is released. I feel that even having the option available at all will make the MacBook more attractive to those searching for a budget notebook. Boot Camp is not your only option though.
For those who don’t want to deal with partitioning their drives, Parallels Workstation is available. Parallels works similar to Virtual PC, which runs alternate OSes within OS X. Previously software like this took a huge performance hit, but with the new Intel processor, this is no longer the case. Parallels run at near full speed, as long as you have a sufficient amount of memory. For software such as this I would recommend upwards of 1GB memory.
A great package.
+ New Screen
+ Core Duo smokes.
+ Battery Life
+ Upgrades are a breeze
– No dedicated GPU means little gaming
– Runs a little warm
– New Screen (The gloss can be an issue in the wrong lighting).
Flexibility. Style. Power. The MacBook, while not without flaw, is a great step forward for Apple. It looks wonderful, with clean lines, and stylish design. It retains the easy to use functionality of previous Apple models, while adding new features, and value. The ability to run Windows at full speed for those applications that have yet to introduce universal binaries is tremendous. It is light enough to carry without strain, and yet provides just enough screen resolution for comfortable photo viewing, writing, or design work. I would highly recommend this unit to anyone looking to introduce themselves to OS X, and especially to users of the previous iBook. If you can get past the lack of gaming performance, at $1099, this is one of the best deals on the market.