Apple MacBook Review (Late 2008 Model)

by Jerry Jackson Reads (136,852)

by Jerry Jackson

Whether you’re a college student or a graphic artist Apple just added the most desirable item to your holiday wish list: the new MacBook. With Intel Core 2 Duo processors, Nvidia 9400M graphics, an optional 128GB solid state drive (SSD), and a stylish yet tough design, the new MacBook promises to be one impressive 13-inch notebook. This Mac might look amazing, but does it have the performance to justify the price? Let’s take a closer look.

 

The Apple MacBook (starting at $1,299) is available with two choices of Core 2 Duo processors and a choice of hard disk drive or solid state drive. There is only one 13.3″ screen offering, a 1280×800 WXGA glossy display with LED backlighting.

Our MacBook has the following specifications:

  • Mac OS X v10.5.5 (Build 9F2114)
  • Intel Core 2 Duo P7350 2.0GHz (3MB L2 cache, 1066MHz frontside bus)
  • 2GB 1067MHz DDR3 SDRAM
  • 160GB 5400rpm SATA hard disk drive
  • 13.3″ glossy widescreen TFT LED backlit display (1280 x 800)
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics (256MB of DDR3 shared memory)
  • 8x slot-loading SuperDrive (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
  • iSight webcam
  • AirPort Extreme WiFi (IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n)
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate)
  • Mini DisplayPort, Ethernet, two USB 2.0 ports (480Mbps), Audio out and microphone in
  • Dimensions : 0.95″ x 12.78″ x 8.94″ (H x W x D)
  • Weight: 4.51 pounds
  • Integrated 45-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
  • 60W MagSafe power adapter with cable management system

Build and Design

The new “unibody” construction of the MacBook for late 2008 makes this MacBook one of the most impressively built 13-inch notebooks we’ve seen in recent memory. When you pick this notebook up it feels like you’re holding a solid piece of metal. In a manner of speaking, you are. The unibody chassis is milled from a solid block of aluminum, making the MacBook one of the most durable 13-inch notebooks you can buy for less than $2,000. A thickness of less than an inch and a weight of roughly 4.5 pounds likewise help to make this update to the MacBook line a compelling choice for students and road warriors.

Bottom line, despite the impressive thinness of the design, the MacBook is quite solid and durable thanks to the aluminum construction. We don’t recommend dropping the MacBook (or any notebook for that matter) but the MacBook should survive any use and abuse that a college student or corporate road warrior can deliver over several years of travel between home and school or home and work.


The MacBook lid does not have a latch to hold it closed, but the hinge mechanism works well and firmly holds the lid in place. While we’re on the topic of the hinge, Apple made the strange choice of using black plastic around the hinge rather than brushed aluminum like the rest of a the chassis design. This isn’t a major problem, but it looks a little odd and plastic doesn’t give the same impression of durability as aluminum. On  the bright side there is almost no flex to the screen thanks to the metal lid.

Performance and Benchmarks

The MacBook has reasonable performance based on the 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7350 processor. The P7350 isn’t the most impressive Core 2 Duo processor in the Intel lineup, but it certainly performs much better than the processors used in the Apple MacBook Air. The XBench benchmarks indicate that the new MacBook is a solid update in Apple’s current lineup. As you’ll see in chart below, the MacBook has a solid performance boost over previous generation MacBooks. The startup into Leopard is quite fast, and it’s clear that Apple didn’t have to sacrifice processor speed in order to bring this thin unibody laptop to consumers.

The Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics should provide adequate performance for most games and won’t have any trouble with high-definition video output to an external monitor. That said, this isn’t a gaming notebook and won’t break any records with current 3D games.

The 160GB Toshiba hard drive in the MacBook provides a reasonable amount of storage and performance. The 5400rpm 2.5″ hard drive is relatively average for notebooks in 2008. However, since the MacBook is more expensive than your “average” notebook we would have liked to see a faster 7200rpm hard drive at the $1,299 price tag.

You can also configure that MacBook with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 processor (a modest performance increase) and a larger 250GB or 320GB hard drive … or a much faster 128GB SSD. Unfortunately, the faster processor and faster drive increase the price of the MacBook to between $1,599 and $2,199.

With the basics out of the way, let’s jump into the performance benchmarks.

XBench is a comprehensive benchmarking solution for Mac OS X commonly used to compare the relative speeds of two different Macintoshes.

XBench 1.3 summary results:

Model Overall Score
MacBook 2008 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 126.23
MacBook Air (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 50.76
Mac Mini (1.83GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 94.58
MacBook (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 95.89
MacBook Pro (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 106.05
PowerBook G3 Pismo (500MHz G3) 18.47

 

wPrime is a program that forces the processor to do recursive mathematical calculations, the advantage of this program is that it is multi-threaded and can use both processor cores at once, thereby giving more accurate benchmarking measurements than Super Pi. (Lower scores indicate better performance.)

Notebook / CPU wPrime 32M time
Apple MacBook (Intel Core 2 Duo P7350 @ 2.0GHz) 38.421s
Apple MacBook Air (Intel Core 2 Duo P7500 @ 1.6GHz) 68.173s
Dell Inspiron 13 (Pentium Dual Core T2390 @ 1.86GHz) 44.664s
Toshiba Satellite U405 (Core 2 Duo T8100 @ 2.1GHz)
37.500s
Sony VAIO NR (Core 2 Duo T5250 @ 1.5GHz) 58.233s
Toshiba Tecra A9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 38.343s
Toshiba Tecra M9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 37.299s
HP Compaq 6910p (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz) 40.965s
Sony VAIO TZ (Core 2 Duo U7600 @ 1.20GHz) 76.240s
Zepto 6024W (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz) 42.385s
Lenovo T61 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 37.705s
Alienware M5750 (Core 2 Duo T7600 @ 2.33GHz) 38.327s
Hewlett Packard DV6000z (Turion X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz) 38.720s

 

PCMark05 comparison results (Higher scores indicate better performance):

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Apple MacBook (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7350, Nvidia GeForce 9400M) 3,961 PCMarks
Apple MacBook Air (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7500, Intel X3100) 2,478 PCMarks
Dell Inspiron 13 (1.86GHz Intel T2390, Intel X3100) 
3,727 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X301 (1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400, Intel 4500MHD) 4,457 PCMarks
Sony VAIO NR (1.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5250, Intel X3100) 3,283 PCMarks
Sony VAIO CR (1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7100, Intel X3100) 3,612 PCMarks
Sony VAIO TZ (1.20GHz Core 2 Duo U7600, Intel GMA 950) 2,446 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 4,153 PCMarks
Lenovo 3000 V200 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 3,987 PCMarks
Lenovo T60 Widescreen (2.0GHz Intel T7200, ATI X1400 128MB) 4,189 PCMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 4,234 PCMarks
Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400) 3,487 PCMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX) 5,597 PCMarks
Sony VAIO SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 3,637 PCMarks
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400) 3,646 PCMarks



3DMark06 comparison results
(Higher scores indicate better performance):

Notebook 3DMark06 Score
Apple MacBook (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7350, Nvidia GeForce 9400M)
2,116 3DMarks
Apple MacBook Air (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7500, Intel X3100) 502 3DMarks
Dell Inspiron 13 (1.86GHz Intel T2390, Intel X3100) 
470 3DMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X301 (1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400, Intel 4500MHD) 712 3DMarks
Sony VAIO NR (1.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5250, Intel X3100) 504 3DMarks
Toshiba Tecra A9 (2.20GHz Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA Quadro NVS 130M 256MB) 932 3DMarks
Toshiba Tecra M9 (2.20GHz Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA Quadro NVS 130M 128MB) 1,115 3DMarks
Sony VAIO TZ (1.20GHz Core 2 Duo U7600, Intel GMA 950) 122 3DMarks
LG R500 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GS 256MB) 2,776 3DMarks
HP dv2500t (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 1,055 3DMarks
Dell Inspiron 1420 (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 1,329 3DMarks
Sony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 532 3DMarks
Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 1,408 3DMarks
Samsung Q70 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7300 and nVidia 8400M G GPU) 1,069 3DMarks
Asus F3sv-A1 (Core 2 Duo T7300 2.0GHz, Nvidia 8600M GS 256MB) 2,344 3DMarks
Alienware Area 51 m5550 (2.33GHz Core 2 Duo, nVidia GeForce Go 7600 256MB 2,183 3DMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 827 3DMarks

HDTune results:

Screen

The 13.3″ WXGA glossy screen on the MacBook isn’t ideal for HD video, but it does offer sharp contrast, excellent color, and reasonably even backlighting. Unlike many other 13.3″ 1280×800 pixel displays the screen on the MacBook doesn’t suffer from “graininess.” Horizontal viewing angles were excellent although vertical viewing angles were only average. The screen itself didn’t suffer from ripples or stuck pixels, and we didn’t notice any obvious light leakage around the edge of our display.

While we’re on the topic of the display, let’s go ahead and address our biggest problem with this screen: an extremely glossy outer layer that creates reflections so strong you might as well use the screen as a mirror. We’ve discussed this problem before with other notebooks, but unfortunately it appears that the notebook industry continues to think consumers want excessively glossy displays.

Our editorial staff actually likes standard glossy displays on notebooks. Traditional glossy displays usually have better contrast and deeper/richer colors than matte screens. However, over the last year many notebook manufacturers have started placing a glossy transparent protective layer in front of the actual notebook screen. Why should you care? This causes major reflections and serious eye strain problems because your eyes are constantly shifting focus between the reflections on the glossy protective layer and the text/images displayed on the screen underneath. Below are images showing just how reflective the protective layer is:


Dim room lights and maximum screen brightness

Normal room lights and maximum screen brightness

This overly reflective screen surface also makes it next to impossible to use your notebook outdoors in bright sunlight because the sunlight overpowers the screen’s LED backlights and makes the screen look like a mirror.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The full-sized keyboard on the MacBook has no flex and is remarkably solid thanks to the laptop’s aluminum construction. The keys have excellent cushion and response and were quiet during use. The keyboard lacks dedicated keys for home, end, page up, page down and also lacks obvious function keys for those keys. The f-keys also control a range of features (such as raising or lowering screen brightness). The only potential negative issue with the keyboard is that the keys are extremely flat. Some typists enjoy flat keys while others absolutely require traditional curved keys. This may or may not be a problem for you.

The backlit keyboard is a nice touch that proves quite useful when working in low light environments. That said, we would have liked the backlight to be even stronger.

The touchpad is nice and large and features a durable and responsive surface. The multi-touch functionality gives the touchpad some extra usefulness when editing photos or manipulating other files. The touchpad buttons are hidden beneath the bottom edge of the touchpad and the bottom of the touchpad actually presses down when you press the bottom left or bottom right of the touchpad. The touchpad buttons (or button) has extremely shallow feedback with a quiet, cushioned click. That being said, we generally prefer to have a bit deeper feedback in touchpad buttons. In general, the liberal size of the touchpad makes for a genuinely enjoyable experience.

One minor note, when testing the MacBook with BootCamp and Windows Vista Ultimate we discovered that the touchpad drivers provided by Apple don’t perform nearly as well as the drivers under Mac OS X. Although I’m sure Apple wasn’t overly concerned about Windows performance, if you plan to use this notebook with Windows we recommend you use an external mouse.

Input and Output Ports

Ports selection on the new MacBook is something of a mixed bag. While we’re glad to see there are considerably more ports on the MacBook than there are on the MacBook Air, Apple decided to make some strange choices about what to include (and what not to include) on the new MacBook. The complete list of ports includes:

  • MagSafe power port
  • Gigabit Ethernet port
  • Two USB 2.0 ports
  • Mini DisplayPort
  • Audio line in
  • Audio line out
  • Kensington lock slot

Although Apple engineers deserve serious credit for making the new MacBook so thin and so durable at the same time, we can’t help but feel a little disappointed by the lack of ports. The most obvious omission is the lack of a Firewire port. Although USB 2.0 is more popular than Firewire, many Mac accessories require a Firewire port, so now those “Made for Mac” accessories are useless. Likewise, there is no standard video out port so you have to use an adapter (or one of Apple’s new displays) in order to connect the MacBook to an external monitor or projector. Additionally, the lack of either an eSATA port or an ExpressCard slot makes the MacBook one of the least useful 13-inch notebooks on the market when it comes to ports and expansion.

 

Audio

The built-in stereo speakers in the MacBook are surprisingly impressive. After the downright horrid performance of the monospeaker in the MacBook Air, we expected the speakers in the MacBook to be underwhelming. Fortunately, the speakers in the new MacBook produce distortion-free sound at reasonably loud volume levels with excellent highs and midtones. The bass is rather lacking, but that’s not a big surprise in notebooks that don’t have a dedicated subwoofer. In short, the MacBook has reasonable audio performance for a notebook in this class.

The audio out port (headphone minijack) provides excellent audio output. There’s little or no distortion or static and the sound on my earbuds was quite enjoyable.

Battery

The MacBook uses an integrated 45-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery. The lithium-polymer technology should have a longer lifespan than standard lithium-ion batteries found in most notebooks. Unfortunately, there is no higher capacity battery available from Apple.

Apple claims that the battery inside the MacBook provides “5 hours of wireless productivity.” Our real-world tests suggest that estimate is very accurate. With the MacBook’s power management set to maximize battery life and a 100 percent charge the battery life ended up coming to 4 hours and 47 minutes with the display switching between maximum and minimum brightness and wireless on.

Heat and Noise

One downside to an all-aluminum design is the entire notebook acts as one gigantic heatsink. In the case of the MacBook, we expected the machine to run extremely hot when under stress. Thankfully, our tests show that the MacBook manages heat quite well. Even after running multiple benchmarks the MacBook the temperatures remained at perfectly acceptable levels. Below are temperature readings listed in degrees Fahrenheit.

There really isn’t much point in mentioning “noise” when it comes to the new MacBook because this notebook is extremely quiet. I overlooked the cooling fan in the initial teardown because I never heard it running during benchmarks. This thing is very quiet.


Conclusion

You’ll have a hard time finding anyone in the United States today who hasn’t heard the phrases, “I’m a Mac” and “I’m a PC.” Apple heavily invested in both design and advertising around that design over the last decade. Those investments have clearly paid off, but is the new MacBook really as impressive as Apple wants you to believe? Well, the answer depends on your answer to this question: Are you a Mac, or are you a PC?

The lack of ports and overly glossy screen make the MacBook a less than compelling option for students and road warriors. On the other hand, if you specifically need a “Mac” the new MacBook is an excellent value.

Bottom line, if you need a Mac laptop for less than $1,500 then the new MacBook makes a good choice. However, if you’re just looking for a high-performance, portable notebook with rugged build quality I suggest you consider an HP EliteBook 2530p … which retails for just a little more than the MacBook but is a far superior notebook. 

Pros:

  • Slick design
  • Cool touchpad
  • Durable build quality
  • So quiet it seems like it has fanless cooling
  • It’s a Mac

 

Cons:

 

  • No Firewire ports
  • No standard video out ports
  • No eSATA port
  • All the ports are located on one side
  • Flat keyboard keys
  • 13-inch mirror masquerading as a display
  • It’s a Mac


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