Apple MacBook First Thoughts Review (pics, specs)

by Reads (379,696)

This is a first thoughts review of the newly released 13.3″ Apple MacBook Core Duo notebook.  I’ve only had the MacBook for 24 hours, but that’s enough to offer some insight on the design and some thoughts from a Mac OS neophyte.  There’s some fantastic things about this notebook, but a major problem with heat has marred what has been otherwise been a great experience.

This review is a first thoughts, I’ve only had the notebook for 24 hours so it focuses on the design and my initial impressions.  I couldn’t possibly do a comprehensive review without a few weeks of usage, but people are anxious to hear about this and potentially buy the MacBook, so thus I write and will provide a more in depth review in the next few weeks.

Overview of the MacBook

The Apple MacBook 13.3″ widescreen notebook (view large image)

After much anticipation and rumors, the Apple MacBook was released this week by Apple (available via now).  It is a 13.3″ widescreen notebook, the screen is glossy and very nice and bright.  It is geared towards those that need to be mobile with a notebook, a perfect match for students in fact.  It’s easy to carry and very sturdily designed with a nice look.  It’s not geared towards business users so much as it has no expansion slots and security is not as robust as it needs to be for enterprise users, and it is not for gamers since it has no dedicated graphics.  It does however fit the average consumer well, that just needs a notebook for communication, organizing, media storage and viewing, web usage and office productivity tasks.

Some competing notebooks with a similar size would be the Sony VAIO SZ series and Fujitsu LifeBook S6000 series — both Windows based 13.3″ screen notebooks.

Specs for Apple MacBook as Purchased

  • 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo processor with 2 MB shared L2 Cache
  • 13.3-inch (diagonal) glossy TFT widescreen display, 1280 x 800 resolution
  • 512 MB (two SO-DIMM) 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM (PC2-5300)
  • 60 GB 5400 rpm Serial ATA hard drive
  • Slot-load Combo Drive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW)
  • Ports:
    • One FireWire 400 port,
    • Two USB 2.0 ports,
    • Mini-DVI port with support for DVI, VGA, S-video, and composite video output (requires adapters, sold separately)
    • Built-in 10/100/1000BASE-T (Gigabit);
  • Built-in 54 Mbps AirPort Extreme (802.11g)
  • Built-in Bluetooth 2.0+EDR

Where and How Purchased

MacBook notebooks on display in Apple Store (view large image)

This MacBook was purchased from an Apple store in Ohio.  If you’re lucky enough to have an Apple store nearby, it’s definitely recommended to take a visit and try out the Macs they have if you’re interested in making a purchase.  Experiencing the use of a product first hand and the ability to ask questions of helpful people is certainly a nice thing and  where the Dell direct model falls apart.  The sales clerks I interacted with at the Apple store were knowledgeable, helpful and sincerely enthusiastic about their job and products they were selling and not at all pushy.

The black MacBook is configured with a 2.0GHz Core Duo processor, something I didn’t want or need so I went with the 1.83GHz white colored MacBook.  I have to say though, the black look is pretty cool and it’s not a glossy piano black finish a la the iPod Nano like I thought it was, so there’d be fewer issues with fingerprints that you get on the iPod (view large image)

After playing around with the 2.0GHz Core Duo black colored MacBook on display and the 1.83GHz white colored MacBook on display I decided to go with the $1,099 1.83GHz, 60GB, 512MB white colored MacBook (the black is only available with the 2.0GHz processor and costs $1,499).  My reason for this was that I was only buying the MacBook for review purposes, didn’t need the extra power, and was more interested in the product design and OS rather than the overall processor speed, power and functionality.  The sales clerk went to the back of the store, grabbed my notebook and I then paid, after an applied Ohio and local sales tax total of 6.5%, the sum of $1,170.44.  With that purchase you get in the box:

  • Apple MacBook
  • Apple Remote
  • 60W MagSafe Power Adapter, AC wall plug and power cord
  • Lithium-polymer battery
  • Install/restore DVDs
  • Printed and electronic documentation

My Background as an Apple User

It’s going on six years now that I last used a Mac.  So yes, it’s been a while.  During school I had a job as a computer lab monitor and a few of the labs I worked in were Mac labs.  I worked to help other students use the Macs to run some anatomy software multimedia programs, do basic internet, email and MS Word related tasks.  I never became a power user of the Mac platform.  As an example of how raw I am with the newer OS look and feel, while in the Apple store I asked the sales clerk “how do you open a web browser.”  He laughed.  I was serious though.

For the past six years I’ve used nothing but various Windows OS platforms and almost exclusively used PC notebooks as my main tool for work.  I review and use a ton of PC notebooks.  I also program, mainly web and database development, all using Microsoft tools.  In other words, I’m as polar opposite Mac user as you can get, but like many other PC users always kind of curious what I may be missing.  Realistically, the Mac OS simply won’t work for me for my work needs, but the hardware has always intrigued me and with the release of the 13.3″ widescreen MacBook I could no longer resist trying out an Apple notebook.

Apple MacBook Product Packaging and Unpacking

As we all know, Apple is very much so about presentation as well as utility in its products.  This starts with the packaging presentation, something many PC manufacturers, except maybe Sony, ignore.  Looking at past Apple product reviews on the web, it seems like it’s sort of a requisite to display the package and unpacking process, so I’ll oblige:

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Look and Design

Elegant comes to mind (view large image)

How can you argue with the look and styling of this notebook?  It’s simply pleasing to the eye.  The clean look, the quality construction, the Apple logo that illuminates, the little green lights on the Caps Lock and Num Lock key (thank you Apple), the stylish lettering of the keys — it all adds up.  Fashion can certainly be expressed through both clothing and technology these days, and Apple realizes the importance of that, especially to many in the younger generations.

Apple MacBook 13.3″ widescreen notebook on the left, my fulltime ThinkPad T43 14.1″ notebook on the right.  They’re just so…different (view large image)

I use a ThinkPad T43 as my main work notebook.  I love it and I certainly won’t be parting with it for this MacBook, but it is refreshing to use a notebook with this kind of look.  I suppose it makes me feel slightly hip, but then I realize I’m still me.

The Apple logo on the lid of the black MacBook has a particularly cool look on the lid due to the contrast with the white lighted Apple (view large image)

My one concern with the white colored MacBook is that it’s going to show dirt quickly.  While working in the office with this notebook a co-worker commented that he had too much black arm hair that would fall off and look obvious and gross on an all white notebook.  I laughed at the comment, then turned to find an eyelash resting on the keyboard — highlighting the fact that no hair or dirt will go unnoticed if it falls onto this thing. 

Build and Design

For $1,099 I was half expecting some shortcuts in terms of overall build quality.  But there are none.  This MacBook feels like a rock, no joke.  It’s very, very sturdy feeling.  It’s coated with a glossy plastic finish, and most of the construction seems to be some type of rugged plastic composite material, it’s extremely durable in feel and there’s absolutely zero flex to the case.  Less flex indeed than my rugged ThinkPad T43.

I give Apple a lot of credit in going with the 13.3″ widescreen design, I’m a huge fan of this form factor, it’s highly portable yet still a big enough size to get decent screen viewing real estate and room for a good keyboard.  Somebody in the industry told me that the 13.3″ LCD is more expensive to manufacture and why brands like Fujitsu killed their LifeBook S6000 line (which was a 13.3″ screen portable).  Even though it may have been more expensive for Apple to go the 13.3″ route, their designers deemed it the best and so went with it.

One thing I like a lot about the way the MacBook screen hinges is that when you open it, the screen actually rests below the base of the keyboard.  You can still see the entire screen of course, but what this means is that the screen isn’t as high up and therefore better for fitting into tight spaces.  In other words, much better for flying and using on a small tray without the screen running in to the chair in front.  The widescreen display also means the screen isn’t as high, further saving vertical real estate.

The lid latch is rather interesting, there is no latch to hold the screen down, it is instead held down by use of a magnet.  This means you have to use two hands to pry it open (one holds the notebook down while the other opens the screen), but that’s much better than having a lid that pops open in your bag and exposes the screen to potential scratching.

Speaking of magnets, Apple implemented the magnetic power cord adapter as well.  This innovation means that if somebody in Starbucks walks through your power cord, instead of the notebook flying to the floor tethered to its power cord lead, the magnetically attached power cord will simply detach and wave harmlessly to the ground.

Above view of the 13.3″ screen MacBook compared to 14″ T43.  Notice the MacBook is wider overall, it is less deep and thinner though due to its widescreen design (view large image)

The protection from the lid is very good, if I push in on the back of the lid there’s no rippling that occurs on the screen.  A sure fire test of a cheap product is finding that the screen lid is flimsy and offers no rigidity and protection, the Apple MacBook does not fail here.

Below is a tour around the MacBook and comparison to the ThinkPad T43 I have.  Notice the MacBook is thinner.  I consider my T43 very portable and easy enough to travel with, and the MacBook even more so.

Front side view, the MacBook has no latch for locking the lid down as you can see, instead it uses a magnet to hold the lid in place (view large image)

Left side view of the T43 next to the MacBook.  All the MacBook ports are here: One FireWire 400 port, Two USB 2.0 ports, Mini-DVI port, ethernet, magnetic power connector

Back side view, notice how the MacBook hinges down lower than the T43, the screen of the MacBook actually rests below the base of the keyboard when opened (view large image)

Right side view of the MacBook and T43, the slot loading combo drive is on the right side of the MacBook (view large image)

Keyboard and Touchpad

I was really taken aback by the keyboard, it’s not at all what I expected.  The keys are actually raised and each key is completely individual.  At first look it seemed like there would be no travel to the key, they looked short and stubby, but in fact the travel is really good and the keyboard could rate as one of the best out there.  There’s no flex (as in zero, none, zilch) to this keyboard, it is completely firm due to the way it is designed.

Check out the raised key styling, to me it was odd looking at first, but very pleasing to type on it turns out.  The large touchpad is much appreciated (view large image)

And the touchpad is just huge for this sized laptop.  It’s super easy to scroll using a two finger down on the touchpad method.  One finger on the touchpad means you move the cursor around, move two fingers along the touchpad and you’ll scroll the active screen.

I’m still getting use to this one mouse button thing though.  You can hold down two fingers and tap the button for the equivalent of a right click on a PC notebook.  But, well, it’s not the same ease.

And, alas, as good as the touchpad is, the ThinkPad T43 pointing stick is still the best input method and fastest way I can control a cursor.  I don’t think I’ll ever waiver in the opiniont that a pointing stick is the way to go with navigation for notebook input and cursor control.

The Mac OSX

I’ve not used this thing for long enough to have any firm opinion.  But I will say the effects and many usability features are nice.  I’m especially enamored by the Dashboard and widgets, not that you can’t do similar things in Windows, but hey it’s built into the OS here and simple to use.

Widgets in the Mac OS X dashboard, for some reason they just enamor me (view large image)

Setting up the notebook was intuitive too, I didn’t like all the registration screens I had to go through when starting for the first time, but I did like the fact it immediately picked up all networks close by and then prompted me for a WEP password for the office wireless network I use.  It was so much more seamless than doing it in Windows.

OS X at work (view large image)

However, I’m feeling a little lost to perform tasks that were natural and easy in Windows.  The whole dragging and dropping a CD to trash to eject it seems kind of silly still (I keep thinking it’ll format the CD or delete all the songs from it or something, even though I know that’s totally dumb to think).  And why oh why can’t I maximize a Window with ease?  I click on the green light in the top left corner to do what I figure is maximize the window, but I’m told it just adjusts to what it thinks is the best size for that window on the screen.  Sorry, but I prefer to decide the best size, and I want it to be easy to maximize a Window.  And how about taking a screenshot?  How do you do that?  Maybe these things are easy, but being a newbie to Mac OSx I won’t say it’s dummy easy like some will suggest and it isn’t crash proof…I found that out rather painfully (see the Heat and Noise section).

Heat and Noise…and Crashing (or, and now for the bad part) (Please see update to this part at bottom)

So far everything is pretty glowing right?  Everything was going swimmingly in using the MacBook during the day, this was after about 2 hours of off and on usage.  But then evening arrived and I booted up the MacBook again for round 2 of playing.  I popped in a CD to listen to and test out the speakers.  I knew people had mentioned that the MacBook Pro got a bit warm so I wanted to run this machine for a bit, over an hour, and see how things would go.  It didn’t go well. 

The heat quickly started building up after 10 minutes of spinning a CD and using the web.  The fans kicked in (they’re at the back) but weren’t terribly noisy, and to be honest, probably kicked in too late.  After about 30 minutes of usage the back left side got extremely hot, then after about 35 minutes this happend:

Oh dear, I don’t think this was what Mac users had in mind when they told me that OS X is user friendly (view large image)

I don’t care what language you read that in, it’s not good, and I couldn’t do anything to recover the web based email I’d just written.  My legs were sweating from the heat on the bottom of the MacBook and now what I thought Mac’s were immune from (that being crashing) had happened within the first 3 hours of usage.

After rebooting the MacBook from its crash I got this. I thought that Microsof had this message copyrighted for Windows usage? (view large image)

I tried to reboot the MacBook after holding in the power button as instructed, but it wouldn’t.  I unplugged it and took the battery out and tried rebooting, and it did, but it crashed again within a few minutes of usage with the same message as above.  I then tried rebooting and this time it flat out refused to boot, the screen was just black.

So I figured it had to be something to do with heat, so I walked over to my wall unit Air Conditioner and absolutely blasted it on the MacBook for 5 minutes.  That cooled things off, and it booted again okay after being super chilled.

I blasted the wall AC on the MacBook to cool it down after it got super hot and crashed.  It booted after being cooled this way.  (view large image)

I decided not to spin a CD in it during my next 30 minutes of usage, it seemed that could have been what was warming things up so much.  But, once again, in the space of about 30-minutes the MacBook went from cold to burning up on the bottom.  The AC was still on and the room was probably about 68-degrees F at this point — quite cool.  My legs began to sweat profusely again with the laptop being in my lap, the back left side got super hot and — crash — same as above.  Very, very dissapointing.  In total it crashed like this 3-times before I gave up and went to bed.

My hope is that I got a bad MacBook unit, there’s no way a notebook should overheat and crash within 30-minutes of just web browsing.  I’m guessing I did get unlucky, which is unfortunate, but it will give me a chance to test Apple support.  As more people buy this and report about their experience, we’ll find if this extremely early production system I got is a bit of a lemon or if we have a serious issue here.  As part of my full review I’ll cover how this issue was resolved and how Apple tech support handles it.

Conclusion of First Thoughts

The MacBook is a beautiful piece of hardware, the design and look is fantastic and I really like the keyboard.  This is all of course dragged down by the heat and crashing issues I’ve had so far.  However, we’ll assume that my early production system is an exception and not the rule and Apple will be able to replace it or figure out why my MacBook becomes a bit of a coffee warmer.  It’s a shame that I can’t recommend buying this right now due to the heat issues since that trumps all the other great things about this machine, if others could reply or chime in on their experience with this notebook and say they don’t have this problem, I would be hugely relieved and could then recommend.  If others are having these same heat issues, well, that’s a big concern then.

Stop back in a few weeks for a full and complete review in which I hope I’ll be more versed in the Mac OS X platform, have an opportunity to run Boot Camp, report performance benchmarks, and put this MacBook to the test!

*** UPDATE 5/20/2006 ***

I returned the original MacBook I bought  in Ohio on 5/17/206 to an Apple Store in New York.  I simply explained to a sales person I bought the MacBook while travelling (as I had) and that since buying it it had been crashing within the first 20 – 30 minutes of boot up.  The store was extremely busy, but the total process of getting an exchange unit took about 30 minutes.  It would have been quicker if the crowds were less.  Thumbs up on customer service once again.

So far with the exchanged MacBook there’s been no crashing so it is definite fact that the original MacBook I had was faulty.  This MacBook does run hot, warmer than I’m used to on a laptop, but seems to be slightly less warm than the previous MacBook for whatever reason.



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