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Reviewed September, 2006 by Jacob Spindel
A truly well-written book is one that captivates your attention and empowers your imagination. When you find a real page-turner, it's almost impossible to put down. Although it may not be what you're thinking of, Apple has expertly authored their new 13" MacBook. The notebook retains design advantages evolved from generations of PowerBooks while also addressing some of the most serious issues that have sometimes surfaced with previous models. With its versatile functionality and strong performance, the MacBook is certain to be a best-seller.
Chapter 1: Design
This reviewed is based on the mid-level MacBook model, which comprises the midrange of the three versions available. The physical design is identical to the low-end model: a widescreen white laptop with a 1280x800 screen (which is larger than the 12" PowerBook G4's screen in both size and resolution) on one side, and a keyboard on the other with a trackpad surrounded by wrist rests. The trackpad features the two-fingered scrolling capability present on other recent Apple notebooks. The high-end model also uses essentially the same physical design as well, except that it is black in color. The battery is located on the bottom of the MacBook, and it can be removed by the user via the same "coin-operated switch" (a rotating switch designed so that only a coin or similarly shaped object can be used to turn it) as recent PowerBooks. In short, the basic layout of the MacBook is essentially the same as Apple's previously laptops, a design that I have always found to be about as comfortable as possible for a compact laptop.
One difference between the MacBook and previous models is that instead of a physical latch, the MacBook is kept sealed when closed by a magnetic system. In my testing, the system worked well and actually seemed more reliable than the previous latches, with small moving parts perpetually at risk of breaking. The power adaptor has also been replaced by the much-advertised MagSafe connector, which is designed to stay connected firmly unless it is abruptly pulled for some reason (like tripping over the cable), in which case it snaps free to avoid taking the MacBook with it. Although there have been rumors that the MagSafe connector can become disconnected too easily under normal use, nothing like this happened during my testing, and in fact, in my opinion, it actually stays connected more securely than the power connector on my old PowerBook.
Apple has also redesigned the keyboard to try to lessen the possibility that dirt or debris can sink into the keyboard and become stuck. I found that the new design is fairly effective at achieving this goal while still remaining comfortable to type on. The keyboard has 78 keys, including an eject key and an "fn" key that enables the embedded numeric keypad.
As with other recent Apple laptops, the MacBook's MagSafe and other ports and connectors are located on the left-hand side of the unit (from the perspective of someone facing the screen and using the unit). The other connectors include an RJ45 Ethernet connector, a video-out connector, two USB 2.0 ports, one Firewire 400 port, audio in and audio out, and a Kensington-standard locking connector (used by some third-party security devices that tether a laptop to your desk).
The device measures 12.78 inches by 8.92 inches, and when it is closed, its total height is just 1.08 inches. Including the battery, the MacBook weighs 5.2 lbs. Although it is slightly larger than the 12" PowerBook G4, it retains the thin and light feel that makes it a cinch to carry.
If you already own a previous Mac, Apple has included a truly impressive migration assistant, as long as your previous Mac is new enough to support Firewire connections. Simply boot up your old Mac in Firewire target disk mode (connect it to the MacBook via Firewire, and then boot the old Mac while holding command-T), and then the migration assistant can transfer over your documents, preferences, and applications. You can choose to transfer all of these categories, or only some of them - just be sure you realize that you might be transferring a lot more data than you realize (for example, don't forget that your user folder contains your desktop folder). Firewire is fast, but if you are transferring several gigabytes, you can still expect to wait for a bit.
Chapter 2: Intel Inside
The middle and high-end MacBook models each contain a 2 GHz Intel Core Duo dual-processor system; the low-end model uses a 1.83 GHz Core Duo. Although Steve Jobs made some of the Mac faithful a bit nervous when he announced the transition to Intel, using the MacBook has convinced me that he made the right choice.
The MacBook's performance is simply stunning. The benchmarking software XBench gave my model an overall rating of 80.61, which is consistent with the average performance data provided by XBench's developers. By contrast, the average performance score for an aluminum PowerBook G4 is reported by XBench to be 43.18, and even an iMac G5 scored only 62.85 (although XBench's averages indicate that the Power Mac G5 and, of course, the Mac Pro are still faster than the MacBook).
Some testers have questioned the validity of XBench's techniques and results, but the proof is in the computing: the MacBook is simply a joy to use. Whereas ripping a DVD with HandBrake on my PowerBook G4 usually scored an average of about 0.11 frames per second, my MacBook usually hits about 70-80 fps. Whereas playing an "iPod Style" MP4 on my PowerBook would cause everything else on the system to grind almost to a screeching halt, I can comfortably play them in the background on my MacBook while continuing to work on other tasks. Windows, tabs, and other interface items respond much, much faster, and overall, the many lags I had become accustomed to on my PowerBook are almost entirely eliminated.
The low-end MacBook uses Apple's combo drive, which reads CDs and DVDs but burns only CDs, but the midrange and high-end models feature a 4x/4x/8x SuperDrive that can read and burn CD-R/RW, DVD-R/RW, and DVD+R/RW discs. The amount of time required to burn a full CD-R is fairly close on the MacBook to the amount of time it took on my PowerBook G4. Both the combo drive and SuperDrive are slot-loading, so there's no tray to break off, but you'll need an adaptor to play mini CDs or DVDs with smaller-than-standard diameters.
All three MacBook models come with 512 MB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM on two SO-DIMMs, and support a maximum of 2 GB of RAM. The default configuration of 512 MB of RAM is just not enough. Modern operating systems are RAM-hungry, and adding RAM can make a much larger improvement to performance than you may have realized. Although you can build-to-order a MacBook from Apple's online store with 1 GB of RAM for $100 (like I did), or 2 GB of RAM for $500, this still leaves you in a bind if you are planning to buy a pre-configured model from a local store or don't have much time to wait for custom upgrades to be installed. For years, computers have come with insufficient RAM while computer makers blamed the issue on the high price of RAM and the need to keep the base price low. However, RAM prices have been plummeting for years now, and Apple should've included more RAM by default, at the very least in the high-end model.
The high-end model includes an 80 GB internal hard disk, whereas the other two models include a 60 GB drive. In both cases, the drive is a Serial ATA model spinning at 5400 rpm. As with the RAM, Apple's online store allows you to custom order larger hard drives for an additional cost.
Based on the Intel "stereotypes" that Apple once used to promote PowerPC chips, I was pleased to discover that the MacBook actually runs much more quietly and at a much cooler temperature than my PowerBook G4, which is the opposite of what I thought would happen. In fact, if the screen's brightness is turned completely off, I find it difficult to tell if the MacBook is running or sleeping, since it is virtually silent either way. It is possible that my PowerBook's excessive heat emission is caused by its battery, although my serial number was not within Apple's recall, but whatever the cause may have been, it has been fixed for the MacBook.
Whining noises, overheating, spontaneous shutdowns - the Internet seems flooded with horror stories about MacBooks having these or other problems. I did not experience any of these in testing, not even once. Although the sheer volume of these complaints implies that they probably have at least some validity, I believe that these problems are not nearly as widespread as some people seem to think they are.
Intel-based Macs also include Rosetta, Apple's emulation layer that seamlessly runs applications that are still only available in PowerPC versions. Although they are noticeably slower than native Intel applications, their performance is comparable to their performance running natively on a PowerPC Mac. Classic mode has finally gone by the wayside, though, so if you need a program that is not even native to Mac OS X for any processor type, you can pretty much forget about it.
Don't worry, though - this is still Mac OS X. Even though it is now running on an Intel processor, the user interface and design are still exactly the same as on Mac OS X on a PowerPC Mac. I also found system stability to be comparable to Mac OS X on a PowerPC (which was pretty much rock-solid), although apps running under Rosetta do seem to be a bit more resource-hungry and crash-prone than other programs.
Chapter 3: Multimedia
All three MacBook models use an Intel GMA 950 graphics processor with 64 MB of shared video RAM. Though not ideal for advanced gaming, the graphics system is more than enough for almost all other tasks. The video output port is a mini-DVI connector, which can be adapted to DVI or VGA, although in both cases, you will have to purchase the adaptor separately.
The MacBook has an iSight camera built-in above the screen, with a resolution of 640x480. This is both less intrusive and higher quality than most other available webcams. It also features built-in stereo speakers and an omnidirectional microphone, as well as audio-in and audio-out minijacks.
When you first open the MacBook's packaging, you might be a bit surprised to see a small object resembling an iPod shuffle tumble out of the box. However, it's not really an iPod at all, but rather Apple's infrared remote. With the included FrontRow software, you can navigate music and video menus from across the room, using an interface that is overall very similar to that of a video-capable iPod. This is a handy addition if you would like to watch video (or listen to audio) on your MacBook without sitting at your desk. You can even wake the MacBook and put it back to sleep right from the remote! (Oddly, the remote's functionality is much more limited when using it to control an actual iPod via Apple's Universal Dock.)
The screen itself uses a new "glossy" technology that I found to be a major improvement over my PowerBook G4. Although the contrast on my PowerBook's screen was always a bit weak, the colors on the MacBook's screen are far more vibrant. The MacBook's screen also seems significantly brighter than my PowerBook's, even when set to a fairly low brightness setting.
Additional bundled software includes iLife 06 and Quicken 2006, although Quicken 2006 is actually not yet Intel native. The included versions of Microsoft Office and iWork are both only 30-day trials, so I didn't find these to be particularly useful.
Chapter 4: Networking
As with other recent Mac laptops, the MacBook includes a built-in AirPort Extreme wireless networking card, compatible with both 802.11b and 802.11g, as part of the standard configuration. The AirPort Extreme card supports speeds up to 54 Mbps. It also features a standard RJ45 wired Ethernet connector, supporting 10/100/1000BaseT. The built-in Bluetooth is now compliant with the Bluetooth 2.0 standard, boasting speeds of up to 3 Mbps.
The standard 56K dial-up modem is located... on Apple's store, for $49. Yes, the modem is really gone. If you really need one, you'll have to use Apple's external USB model, which is not included. Although I feel like I should be disappointed about this, I have to say that if you have enough patience to deal with 56K, you probably don't even need a fast computer like the MacBook - for that matter, anyone who really has that much patience would probably be happy with a PowerBook 160!
Although there is no included dial-up modem, all the included networking options worked reliably with good range and solid performance in my testing.
Chapter 5: The Power To Be Your Best
The MacBook's battery is a 55-watt-hour lithium polymer, featuring built-in LEDs to indicate charge status. Apple estimates that the battery will last 3.5 hours while using WiFi, or 2.5 hours for watching DVDs. My testing indicates that these estimates are accurate or perhaps even conservative, with the MacBook potentially outlasting Apple's own estimates in some cases.
Chapter 6: Have Your Cake, And Crash It Too
Now it's time for "one more thing:" the MacBook runs Windows too. In the past, some people were hesitant to purchase a Mac because they perceived the inability to run Windows natively as "giving something up." Well, so much for that excuse!
Most people have already heard of Apple's Boot Camp, which enables you to create a separate partition on your hard disk (without erasing existing data) and install Windows XP (sold separately, of course) onto that partition. You can then hold the option key at startup to choose which operating system you want to boot into. So does it actually work?
Apple currently bills Boot Camp as a prerelease, unsupported beta, and you will indeed have to download it separately (the download is about 200 MB) since it is not yet included by default. It is important to follow Apple's directions to the letter: you absolutely must have a installer disc for Windows XP SP2. No earlier versions will work, not even Windows XP SP1, and you cannot install an earlier version and run the updater either. If you have an installation disc for an earlier version of Windows XP, and you want to create a proper SP2 disc for use with Boot Camp, you will have to use a Microsoft technology called slipstreaming, which is similar to sticking your head in a food processor, but less fun. (Slipstreaming will also require you to have access to a PC that is already running Windows XP and can burn a CD.)
However, once you get the system working, it really does live up to the hype. Mac users may be inclined to ask, "How close is it to a real PC?" - but the answer is that it is a real PC, and in fact many users report superior performance to other laptops running Windows. Apple graciously includes drivers to enable the AirPort card, Bluetooth, iSight, the eject button, and various other features. For some reason, Apple neglected to enable two-fingered trackpad scrolling in Windows, although you can connect a standard USB mouse with scroll wheel and use its scroll wheel just as you would with any other Windows machine.
Rather than trying to explain everything you can possibly do with Boot Camp and how you go about doing it, let me just explain that everything that works with a regular PC also works under Boot Camp (even ActiveSync 4!), and thanks to Boot Camp, your really are running Windows XP on a standard Intel notebook PC.
What more can I say about the MacBook? I just plain love it. The performance is almost shockingly fast, the screen is a major improvement, and the elegant design nuances from previous Apple notebooks remain intact. I'm impressed at the MacBook's ability to run quietly without generating excessive heat, and at Apple's continued dedication to detail, with even more "nice touches" than ever, such as the MagSafe power adaptor. If you have ever liked any Apple laptop before, you and the MacBook are sure to live happily ever until an even faster model comes out.
Pros: Amazing performance; excellent screen; light, compact design; well-designed MagSafe power adaptor; handy migration assistant; convenient combination of remote and FrontRow; built-in iSight; Boot Camp works well except for lack of trackpad scrolling; very competitively priced.
Cons: Default configurations need more RAM; a more powerful graphics card would have earned the MacBookk 5 stars.
Read our MacBook Q & A
Read our sick MacBook FAQ (not that they get sick all that often, but a little troubleshooting goes a long way)
Price: $1099, $1299 and $1,499 (good, better, best configurations, see Apple's online store for custom configurations)
Web Site: www.apple.com
Where to Buy
Display: 13.3" glossy widescreen display, 1280 x 800 resolution with millions of colors. Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics with 64 megs of shared memory. Supports external displays up to 1920 x 1200 pixel resolution.
Battery: 55-watt-hour Lithium
Ion rechargeable. 60 watt MagSafe power adapter.
Core Duo 1.83 and 2.0GHz processors available. 2 megs level 2 cache, 667MHz front side bus. 512 megs PC-5300 DDR2 RAM standard, supports up to 2 gigs RAM (2 DIMM slots). 60 or 80 gig 5400rpm SATA hard drive. Slot loading combo drive (CD-RW/DVD) with SuperDrive available as well (dual layer DVD +-RW /CD+ -RW).
x 8.92 x 1.08 inches. Weight: 5.2 pounds.
Camera: iSight VGA camera.
in stereo speakers and mic. Combined optical digital audio input/audio line in (mini-jack). Combined optical output/ 3.5mm headphone jack.
AirPort Extreme WiFi 802.11b/g, Gigabit Ethernet and Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR.
Software: Mac OS X Tiger, includes Spotlight, Dashboard, Mail, iChat AV, Safari, Address Book, QuickTime, iCal, DVD Player, Xcode Developer Tools. iLife 06 suite (iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie HD, iDVD, iWeb, GarageBand). Big Bang Board Games, Comic Life, Omni Outliner, 30 day MS Office 2004 trial.
Expansion and Ports: 1 FireWire 400 port, two USB 2.0 ports, mini-DVI port (mini-DVI to VGA adapter included), RJ-45 Ethernet.