First Look: MacBook: What you need to know

The release of the MacBook Pro was big news: It was Apple’s first laptop with two processing cores, the first to use Intel chips, and had the feature set and price tag professional users are accustomed to. The new MacBook, on the other hand, replaces both the iBook and the 12-inch PowerBook G4 in Apple’s product line. As you might expect from a product that replaces both a consumer and professional system, the MacBook is a fascinating hybrid of high-end features and cost-conscious engineering. Now that we’ve spent several days with these new laptops, here are some answers to several burning MacBook questions.

How does the MacBook fit into Apple’s portable lineup?

With the release of the MacBook, Apple has discontinued its last two PowerPC-based laptop models: the 12-inch PowerBook G4 and both sizes (12.1-inch and 14.1-inch) of iBook. The 12-inch PowerBook was in many ways a souped-up iBook with a metal skin, so merging the two products together wasn’t that much of a stretch.

So only one size for the MacBook?

Currently, yes. There’s no word on if Apple will ever consider making a larger-screened version of the MacBook. For now, if you want a screen larger than 13 inches diagonal in a Mac laptop, you’ll need to move up to the MacBook Pro.

The MacBook is quite a bit bigger than the 12-inch PowerBook. What if I want a truly tiny Apple laptop?

We can imagine a day when Apple will come out with an ultra-small subnotebook. In fact, we daydream about it on a regular basis. Historically, Apple has shown very little interest in designing very small laptops. But things change, and the transition to Intel has opened up a new world of possibilities in terms of what parts Apple can use to assemble its computers. So you never know.

Why did Apple raise the price of the entry-level laptop? I used to be able to buy one for under $1000.

It’s true that Apple no longer has a $999 laptop, a fact that some have lamented already, as much for the psychological aspect as any other. But if you ignore everything else, this is a consumer-level laptop with a dual-core processor—a feature that can probably justify the price increase all by itself.

Apple could have chosen to release a cheap, underpowered MacBook with an underpowered Intel Core Solo processor—the same approach it took with its Intel-based Mac mini models—but it didn’t go down that path. (Apple’s MacBook product manager told us that the company wanted to simplify its portable product line, and tossing in one model that ran a different chip would have complicated matters.) As a result, even the lowest-priced MacBook is a remarkably powerful system.

So there’s a black MacBook model—what’s it like?

If you’re an old Mac hand, you’ll find the black MacBook quite reminiscent of the “Wall Street” generation of G3 PowerBooks. Unlike the white MacBook (or previous iBooks), the black MacBook has a matte finish. After less than a day of use, the trackpad on the black model was smudged with fingerprints, although the rest of the case remained in pretty good shape.

Other than the color, is there anything special about the black model?

When you get beyond the sheer blackness, the only difference between it and the 2.0GHz white model is a slightly bigger hard drive (80GB versus 60GB)—and a $200 price increase.

Wait, the hard drive upgrade is a $50 option, so does that mean Apple is charging $150 just for the color?

You subtracted correctly. If price is your main concern, then the black model is not a good deal. But with the U2 Special Edition iPod, Apple proved that it could charge more for a tweaked design. And people were ready to storm the Cupertino campus and throw cash at Steve Jobs’ feet when Apple released the iPod mini, which cost nearly as much as a full-size iPod, but with only a fraction of the storage space. Of course, the iPod mini went on to become the most popular iPod model ever. Since it also replaces the 12-inch PowerBook, Apple says the MacBook’s new and different look will appeal to the more professional customer who prefers the MacBook’s small size. Clearly, Apple is banking on the fact that its customers are still willing to pay a premium for a different design.

I hear Apple is using a glossy screen on the MacBook—isn’t that a bad thing? Won’t I just see my reflection all the time?

If you’ve ever walked past a PC laptop (or your TV, for that matter) and noticed that its screen was incredibly reflective, you’ve seen the same type of screen that’s been incorporated in the MacBook. In the right conditions the glossy screen looks absolutely gorgeous; blacks are blacker, whites are whiter, and colors are more intense. However, the screen is also remarkably reflective when compared to Apple’s previous laptop displays. If you frequently work in glare-filled environments, the MacBook might not be for you. It’s safe to say that some people will love it, and others will hate it.

But I liked the old screen—why did Apple change it?

According to Apple, iBook customers have been asking for a glossy screens for about as long as they’ve been available for PC laptops—and that’s been quite some time. But Apple says that it’s only now that the glossy-screen technology has advanced enough so that the company was comfortable adding the feature to its laptops. Apple’s MacBook product manager told us that the two big improvements in the glossy screens were a reduction in reflection levels and the elimination of color-distortion problems. When you consider that the screen is also 79 percent brighter than the one on the iBooks and 12-inch PowerBook, this new screen type might end up pleasing a whole lot of people.

How is the MacBook’s keyboard not like other keyboards?

The MacBook features an entirely new keyboard style for Apple. The biggest change is with its look. Previous Apple laptops have featured keyboards with keys that are wide at the base, but narrower at the top. As a result, even though there are fairly large spaces between the square areas where your fingers contact the keys, there are only tiny gaps down at the base of the keys.

This new MacBook keyboard does away with that approach. The MacBook’s keys don’t get wider at their base. Instead, they’re short, perfectly square key caps—although you can still pop them off if you want to, Apple says it’ll be harder for kids to do so, which is a good news for schools.

Although the feel of the MacBook’s keyboard is hard to describe, it’s definitely different . However, it’s quite usable, and we adapted to the new keyboard almost immediately. It doesn’t feel cheap at all—just different.

I see the MacBook uses the same GMA 950 integrated graphics as the Mac mini—should I be worried?

This is a consumer laptop, and as a result Apple has made some technological sacrifices. One is the MacBook’s lack of a graphics chip with dedicated video RAM. It’s the same graphics as you’ll find in the Mac mini. For most tasks, you probably won’t notice the lack of a video card at all—but if you try to play a 3-D game, you’ll see the difference. And the MacBook’s Core Duo processor can overcome many of the limitations of its graphics system. For example, we played back numerous 1080p high-definition videos with nary a hiccup on both the 1.83GHz and 2.0GHz models. And don’t forget that the MacBook improves on the resolution of the models it replaces.

Why does Apple only sell MacBooks with RAM in pairs that use up both RAM slots? The MacBook Pro ships with one RAM module instead of two.

Like the other Intel-based Macs, the MacBook uses dual-channel memory. Although you can put RAM in just one slot, when installed in matched pairs, the RAM can achieve its maximum throughput. According to Apple, you probably wouldn’t notice much of a difference on the MacBook Pro, which has a discrete graphics card. But on the MacBook, which shares up to 80MB of its main memory with the onboard graphics system, the extra speed you pick up by interleaving two separate RAM modules is vital.

Sounds like the 512MB of include RAM isn’t enough—should I custom-order a MacBook with more RAM?

We wouldn’t use a Mac with 512MB of RAM, so take that as a strong recommendation to upgrade. Apple usually charges a lot more for RAM than you can buy it for by searching a site such as Ramseeker. In the case of the upgrade to 1GB, however, Apple’s prices are pretty much in line with the industry. If that’s all you need, it’s probably best to let Apple do it. But if you want a MacBook stocked with 2GB of RAM, you could save as much as $300 by ordering your system with the stock 512MB, pulling those RAM modules out, and replacing it with modules you bought elsewhere.

How difficult is it to upgrade the RAM myself?

Not very hard at all. If you’re comfortable with a screwdriver and pushing and pulling RAM modules with a little force, you shouldn’t have any trouble. Just flip over the MacBook, remove the battery, unscrew the three screws holding the L-shaped aluminum strip in place, and you have access to the two RAM slots. Push the levers to pop out the modules, and put new modules in their places. (Want to see it in action? Check out our video.)

How about the hard drive?

The hard drive’s just about as easy. Once you’ve removed the same L-shaped aluminum strip that you need to remove to access the RAM, you’ve also exposed the front of the hard drive, tucked away on the left side of the battery bay. Just untuck out the white plastic tab that’s looped under the drive and then use it to slide the drive out into the bay. You can then unscrew the special metal drive enclosure, remove the drive, and attach the enclosure to a different Serial ATA laptop drive. ( Our video covers this process too.)

What other goodies are inside the MacBook?

All models include a built-in iSight video camera, Front Row software with an Apple Remote, a MagSafe Power Adapter, AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0 wireless networking, Gigabit Ethernet, and analog and digital audio input and output.

Speaking of wireless networking, I’ve heard the MacBook has greater AirPort range than previous Apple laptops, and also sees more networks?

In our testing, both of those have been true. We’ve been able to stretch an AirPort Base Station signal a bit farther, and have noticed more networks popping up when clicking on the AirPort icon in the menu bar. Apple says the MacBook’s antennae (there are two, both located by the MacBook’s display: one placed horizontally on the left side and another placed vertically on the right) were designed specifically for the MacBook, and it definitely appeared to have better reception than older models. Although Apple officially supports connections only to 802.11b and 802.11g networks, the MacBook can actually connect to 802.11a networks, too.

I probably sound like a broken record, but there’s no modem, right?

Correct. As with all other Intel-based Macs, Apple has dropped the internal modem, and offers a $49 external USB version for those who need one.

What if I want to attach the MacBook to an external monitor?

You can do it, but you’ll need to buy one (or both) of two $19 video adapters. The MacBook’s video-out port is the same mini-DVI port found on the old 12-inch PowerBook G4. Apple sells a mini DVI-to-DVI adapter, as well as a mini DVI-to-VGA adapter. You’ll need one of those to hook it up to the external monitor of your choice (up to 1,920-by-1,200 pixels).

Won’t hooking the MacBook up to an external monitor just display the same thing that I’m seeing on my MacBook screen?

No. Although the MacBook can do video mirroring (where both monitors display the same thing), it also supports desktop extension—in other words, it can drive two monitors at once, no problem. You can even boot the MacBook with its lid closed, attached to an external monitor, if you want. Although the 12-inch PowerBook has the same capabilities, this is all new ground for iBook users.

I already own a MacBook Pro—can I use the power supply that came with it on a MacBook?

If you hold the two power supplies side by side, you’ll notice that the MacBook Pro’s is larger. That’s because the MacBook Pro uses an 85-watt power supply, while the MacBook uses a 60-watt power supply. Apple says you can use the more powerful, 85-watt power supply with a MacBook without any problems, and that in 80 percent to 90 percent of situations, you can use the MacBook’s power supply with the more-demanding MacBook Pro as well. If you’re really taxing the MacBook Pro’s processor with some heavy-duty work, the MacBook’s adapter will still be able to power the MacBook Pro—but it may not have any power left over to charge its battery.

Speaking of batteries, what’s the battery life like on the MacBook?

We haven’t had a chance to let it run dry yet, but Apple told us that the battery life is close to that of the iBook. Apple claims that in light use, the MacBook can run up to six hours on one charge. With more normal use, you could expect between three and three-and-three-quarters hours.

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