The best MacBook yet with some sacrifices to reach its goals. (October 20th, 2008)
Product Manufacturer: Apple
Price: $1,599 (2.4GHz, 2GB RAM, GeForce 9400M)
- Excellent, durable industrial design.
- Much faster GeForce 9400M video; good for some modern games.
- Trackpad is intuitive and a real selling point.
- Lighter, thinner.
- Backlit keyboard a useful addition.
- Eco-friendly packaging.
- No FireWire port.
- Same lower-quality LCD panel as before, just LED-backlit.
- Performance updates are minor beyond graphics.
physical changes and performance
Of course, nobody buys a new computer for the packaging or the recyclable materials, so the main interest is the new laptop’s physical appearance. Unlike previous model refreshes that simply added a bigger hard disk or faster processor within the same form factor, the newest models offer a slew of new features both internally and externally. Internally, the main changes are the choices between a 2.0GHz and a 2.4GHz Intel 2 Core Duo processor, 2GB RAM (compared to 1GB RAM), greater hard disk space (160GB vs. 120GB), and an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor (compared to the Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor).
Some other enhancements come through an improved front-side bus, rated at 1066MHz instead of 800MHz. The faster a CPU can retrieve data from RAM, of course, the faster a computer can run. You won't see much of a speed increase doing simple tasks on the MacBook, but you will see a noticeable one when doing more complicated tasks like calculating a large spreadsheet. Further speed improvements come from the use of faster 1066MHz RAM chips, and finally, a similarly-clocked 3MB cache.
The combined boost in power from more standard RAM (2GB) with the NVIDIA 9400M graphics processor should improve graphics performance. If you’re just surfing the Web or using a word processor, you won’t notice any difference. Even playing a 1080p movie trailer off Apple’s website didn’t appear to run any smoother than viewing the same trailer on an ordinary Mac mini with 2GB RAM but with an Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics chip like those from earlier MacBooks.
From a performance point of view, there is a big difference. Using the Activity Monitor, the percentage of CPU usage when viewing the movie trailer ranged at approximately 40 percent on the Mac mini while that same percentage of CPU usage on the new MacBook hovered around 6 percent. Behind the scenes, the Mac mini must work harder to display the same graphics that the MacBook can muster with barely any effort at all.
You’ll see a far greater difference when playing games. Testing the simple Race Driver 3 Honda Civic demo on a Mac mini proved acceptable, but only just. The graphics were slightly chunky and the gameplay stuttering at times as if the processor were struggling to keep up with the fluid graphic display of the game. Running this same game on the MacBook proved to be a night and day difference.
The MacBook displayed the graphics in far more detail than the Mac mini with its feeble integrated graphics chip. Gameplay proved vastly superior with the game much more responsive on the MacBook without the occasional stuttering audio that the Mac mini exhibited. If you’ve always wanted to play video games on an entry-level Mac, the MacBook’s new graphics processor will finally give you a reasonable and inexpensive video game platform.
Externally, the newer MacBooks have gotten thinner and lighter. The height is a mere 0.95 inches (compared to 1.08 inches), the width is 12.78 (the same as in the previous MacBook), and the depth is 8.94 inches (compared to 8.92 inches). More importantly, the weight is only 4.5 pounds (compared to 5.0 pounds), making the latest model far easier to carry. If you need to carry a laptop for extended periods of time, such as through an airport, this seemingly minor weight difference can be a welcome relief for your shoulders and back.
Flipping the MacBook upside-down reveals a lever that pops open, allowing you to remove a panel that exposes the rechargeable battery and hard disk. Unlike previous MacBooks that also provided a battery indicator, these newer models have moved the battery indicator on the left side. Now you can view your battery’s power status without having to flip it upside-down, which is a minor, but welcome improvement.
The removable battery and hard disk can be accessed through a panel in the bottom.
The keyboard retains the same layout and flat, square keys as the previous generation. However, the keys are now black instead of white, which is more effective at hiding dirt and wear on the key surfaces. The 2.4GHz model also offers a backlit keyboard but the 2.0GHz model does not.
The 2.4GHz model offers a backlit keyboard.
Perhaps the most controversial feature of the latest MacBook is the lack of a FireWire port. This generation abandons the FireWire port and replaces it with a Mini DisplayPort to accompany the usual two USB 2.0 ports, the MagSafe adapter plug, an Ethernet port, an audio in and out port, and a Kensington lock slot. If you regularly transfer video through a FireWire cable, this lack of a FireWire port may eliminate the latest MacBooks entirely as contenders; the same applies if you use FireWire external storage or Target Disk Mode. Most newer camcorders use USB, though, so new adoptees are less likely to be hindered by Apple's design choice.
The ports on the MacBook.
The most noticeable external improvement is the new aluminum case. Not only does this aluminum case resist scratches better than the older plastic models, but the aluminum cases are also much easier to clean. Where the white plastic on older models often stained or revealed dirt far too easily, the aluminum case resists such staining. Just take a damp cloth and wipe away any smudges quickly and easily.
The appearance of a laptop’s case may seem trivial, but the latest MacBook cases resemble works of art and engineering marvels. The contrast of the silver aluminum case with the black keyboard and the black border around the display creates an impressive visual treat every time you open the lid. This is definitely one laptop that you’ll never get tired of using (until the next generation of MacBooks arrive).
Many people have criticized the glossy screen on the newest models. When viewed at an angle, there is a noticeable glare that could be annoying, but when viewed straight-on like most users are likely to do, this glassy screen feels vibrant and colorful. If you absolutely hate glossy screens, you’ll be out of luck with these models, but if you don’t care either way, you may find the glossy screen acceptable for everyday use.
Notably, the actual LCD panel is sourced from the regular MacBook rather than the MacBook Air, which unfortunately results in narrow viewing angles and not-quite-ideal color. Those who depend on color accuracy for visual editing should look to the MacBook Pro or even the Air for a better picture.
The glossy screen can be highly reflective when viewed at an angle.