Hands on with Apple's new MacBook with Windows

Apple has released the MacBook, an Intel-based 13.3-inch widescreen notebook which replaces both its iBook and the 12-inch PowerBook. Tonight, I’m using one — and thanks to Boot Camp, it’s running Windows XP as well as Mac OS X. (I’m using the US$1499 black version.)

I haven’t had enough time with the machine to give any definitive verdict on it, but so far I’m having a really good time. The black MacBook isn’t the most feature-rich model in Apple’s new Intel-based laptop line, but it’s probably the coolest…which makes it one of the coolest laptops on the market, period.

A bit of background: For a couple of years now, I’ve been a Windows person when I’ve been sitting at a desk (my work and home desktops run Windows most of the time, with the odd excursion into Linux) and a Mac person everywhere else (my primary notebook has been a 12-inch Apple PowerBook). Being biplatform works remarkably well most of the time, but there are moments — especially when you work for a publication called PC World — when you’ve just got to work in Windows. I’ve used Microsoft’s Virtual PC emulator on the PowerBook to run Windows applications, but while Virtual PC is surprisingly servicable, you’re never going to mistake it for a real Windows computer.

Apple’s Boot Camp gives me what I want: one computer that can run both operating systems. (Has it really been only six weeks since it appeared?) But I wasn’t really tempted by the 15-inch or 17-inch MacBook Pro models, which, besides being on the pricey side, are just too big and bulky to make me a happy traveler.

The 13.3-inch MacBook is still considerably more zaftig than my ideal laptop — before I used the 12-inch PowerBook, I usually opted for an even smaller and lighter Windows machine — but for a notebook that packs as much as it does, it’s reasonably compact, thin (1.08”) and light (5.2 pounds).

And it does pack a lot of stuff: that glossy, bright display, a 2.0GHz Intel Core Duo CPU, 512MB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive with shock protection, a (single-layer) DVD burner, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB, FireWire, a built-in iSight webcam, and a remote that lets you sit back and use the Front Row media software. About the only thing that seems like a significant cost-saving measure is the use of integrated graphics rather than a discrete adapter; so far, though, the MacBook seems snappy in both OS X and Windows, without the lag time that integrated graphics sometimes inflict.

Speaking of display technology, this is the first Mac portable with a glossy screen, something that the Windows world has had for awhile now. Some of these screens have looked too glossy to me; so far, the MacBook’s display looks pretty good, though I do see some reflections at certain angles.

Some of the nicest things about the MacBook don’t relate to specs per se. This black version’s matte case is extremely good-looking; it’s plastic, unlike the aluminum housing on my PowerBook, but if anything, it’s classier and more professional looking. (As well it should be, given that the $1499 black model commands a $200 premium over the version with 20GB less disk space and a shiny, white case that’s more like that of the old iBook.) I don’t think businessfolks who trade in a 12-inch PowerBook for a black MacBook will feel like they’re slumming, even if the MacBook is a mere “consumer model.”

At first blush, the keyboard looks weird — I had flashbacks to the one on Texas Instruments’ ancient 99/4. The keys aren’t sculpted, and there’s what looks like a lot of space between them, but so far, the keyboard doesn’t feel weird in the least. The ports and connectors are neatly lined up on the left-hand side of the case, which opens and closes without a latch. And the unusually compact power adapter has Apple’s MagSafe connector which helps you avoid knocking the notebook off a table if the cord gets yanked. In short, this is a thoughtully-designed, well-built laptop that makes most Windows machines look clunky and compromised.

Oops — this is a Windows machine, or can be with the addition of Boot Camp and a full copy of Windows XP SP2. My install took only slightly more effort and time than a typical Windows install, and XP seems to be running like a champ so far. (Too bad that Apple doesn’t provide a driver for the iSight, though.)

Dual-booting two operating systems isn’t exactly a panacea; I’m going to try Parallels’ virtualization software, which lets you run XP in a window within OS X. But it’s a huge advance over Virtual PC, and being able to hit the road with a real Windows laptop and a Mac that happen to be the same machine is going to be great.

One other obvious question about the MacBook: Is it a bargain or a big-ticket item at $1499? As usual, it’s hard to do a perfect price comparison between a Mac and a Windows-based equivalent. HP’s dv1000 isn’t a precise match — it has a bigger 14-inch screen — but you can custom-configure one with specs are mostly pretty comparable. And while it starts at a thrifty $630, the config I built out that had a webcam, Bluetooth, and bundled software that delivers functionality roughly comparable to that in the MacBook’s iLife suite goes for $1556, a bit more than the black MacBook and more than $200 more than a white MacBook with similar specs.

Of course, adding Windows to the black MacBook makes it into a $1699 system, not a $1499 one. Then again, you can’t add OS X to the HP at any price. Like I say, it’s hard to do the math. All in all, though, this Mac seems to be a decent deal considering that it’s anything but a stripped-down loss leader.

To repeat myself, I like what I see so far with the MacBook, but I need to spend more time with it (for one thing, I don’t have a sense of its battery life yet, and I’m not sure if it runs hot, as some folks have reported with the MacBook Pro). I’ll report back; if you want to read more hands-on impressions, check out this piece by my Macworld colleague Jason Snell, who was trying out his own MacBook. Macworld’s Cyrus Farivar has also posted his impressions and Macworld Labs’ resident director James Galbraith has posted benchmarks.

Oh, and a random side note on the Mac vs. Windows wars. One of the nice things about the Windows install on this MacBook is that it’s unadorned by the irritating applets, marketing pitches, and icon clutter that dog most big-name Windows PCs (and which Apple doesn’t burden you with when you buy a Mac).

Already, though, I’m thinking that it’s going to be tough to keep this XP installation mean, lean, and free of annoyances. After I installed XP on the MacBook, I started installing some Windows apps, including “Triton,” the current version of AOL Instant Messenger. A little while later, I got the Active Update popup from my System Tray.

How irritating. (Shouldn’t that dialog have a third button: “Go Away and Never Bother Me Again?”) And how typical of the way things work in the Windows world. I’m going to be glad to have a Mac that does Windows, but XP is going to bring along hassles that just don’t exist in OS X.

Which brings up another question: Will I spend the majority of my time with this notebook as a Mac person or a Windows one? I’m still not sure…but I’m looking forward to finding out.

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