First Look: Minor MacBook changes mean not-so-minor boost

The latest update to Apple’s MacBook line provides an impressive, if not earth-shaking, boost to the popular consumer laptops. Credit the jump in performance over the previous edition of the MacBook to Core 2 Duo processors with slightly faster clock speeds as well as new hard drives.

Unveiled a week ago, the refreshed MacBooks offer only modest changes from their predecessors; for example, the MacBook continues to run on a Core 2 Duo chip instead of a processor from Intel’s newly released “Santa Rosa” chipset. Still, the Macworld Lab is always excited to test any new Mac hardware—after all, it has been nearly six months since we’ve had the opportunity to run Speedmark on any new Mac system.

As a reminder, the updated MacBooks come with the same 13.3-inch screens as before; the price tags on all three configurations are also unchanged. So what’s new? The high-end models now sport a 2.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, up from 2GHz. The 2GHz processor now finds itself in the entry-level MacBook, which used to run on a 1.83GHz processor. Hard drive capacities also increased—the entry-level MacBook now has an 80GB drive (up from 60GB), while capacities on the faster white and black models are now 120GB and 160GB (up from 80GB and 120GB, respectively).

What we found

These changes translate to faster machines. The 2.16GHz black MacBook posted a Speedmark score of 202, about 12 percent faster than the older white 2GHz MacBook Core 2 Duo. (In the last generation of MacBooks, the 2GHz white model edged out the black version and its comparable processor due to a better-performing, though smaller, hard drive. This time it’s the black model that takes top honors, with a Speedmark score just shy of 4-percent higher than the updated white 2.16GHz MacBook’s score of 195.)

Updated MacBooks Tested

Speedmark 4.5 Adobe Photoshop CS3 Cinema 4D XL 9.5.21 Compressor 2.3 iMovie 6.0.2 iPhoto 6.0.3 iTunes 7.1.1 Unreal Tournament 2004 Zip Archive
SUITE SUITE RENDER MPEG2 ENCODE AGED FILTER IMPORT PHOTOS MP3 ENCODE AVERAGE FRAME RATE 1GB FOLDER
MacBook Core 2 Duo (black)/2.16GHz 202 1:30 1:02 2:17 0:52 0:53 1:14 17.8 2:35
MacBook Core 2 Duo (white)/2.16GHz 195 1:32 1:02 2:17 0:53 0:56 1:14 18.4 2:45
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2GHz (May 2007) 192 1:36 1:10 2:31 0:55 0:54 1:08 17.9 2:45
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2GHz (white, November 2006) 180 1:36 1:14 2:43 0:58 0:59 1:15 19.7 2:57
15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.33GHz 223 1:31 0:57 2:12 0:51 0:54 0:54 77.1 2:39
>Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better >Better <Better

Best results in bold. Reference systems in italics .

Speedmark 4.5 scores are relative to those of a 1.25GHz Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. Adobe Photoshop, Cinema 4D XL, iMovie, iTunes, and Zip Archive scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.4.9 with 1GB of RAM, with processor performance set to Highest in the Energy Saver preference pane when applicable. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 15 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. We recorded how long it took to render a scene in Cinema4D. We used Compressor to encode a 6-minute, 26-second DV file using the DVD: Fastest Encode 120 minutes - 4:3 setting. In iMovie, we applied the Aged video effect to a 1-minute movie. We converted 45 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We used Unreal Tournament 2004’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we tested at a resolution of 1,024-by-768 pixels at the Maximum setting with both audio and graphics enabled. We created a Zip archive in the Finder from a 1GB folder. To compare Speedmark 4.5 scores for various Mac systems, visit our Apple Hardware Guide .—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH AND BRIAN CHEN

The entry level MacBook got the most out of this update—not only does it see increases to its processor speed and storage capacity, it also features 4MB of L2 cache and 1GB of installed RAM (just like the other two configurations). We test all models with 1GB of RAM, but even with the memory advantage removed, the new model’s zippier hard drive helped it turn in a Speedmark score of 192. That’s not too far off from the updated white 2.16GHz MacBook’s Speedmark score; it’s a 7-percent improvement over last year’s fastest 2GHz model which scored a 180 in Speedmark.

Graphic observations

Of the many specifications to remain unchanged in this round of updates, the one sure to cause the most grumbling among would-be MacBook owners is the continued reliance upon the built-in Intel GMA 950 graphics chipset. That integrated graphics set-up doesn’t have any discrete VRAM; rather, it shares with the system’s main memory, which can lead to some pokey performance on graphics-intensive games. Indeed, as you can see in the Unreal Tournament numbers, the MacBooks average about 18 frames per second in our tests. That compares to more than 77 frames per second in the 2.33GHz MacBook Pro, which uses ATI Mobility graphics. The end result: Apple’s pro laptop scores nearly 77 percent higher than even the best-performing MacBook on this one test.

Even though the MacBook is still not a gamer’s machine, it’s no pushover when it comes to getting work done. The MacBooks held their own impressively against the fastest 15-inch MacBook Pro model at all non-gaming tasks, including our Photoshop CS3 test suite, Cinema 4D scene renders, Zip Archives and iMovie tests.

We’ll have more analysis of these updated MacBooks’ strengths and weaknesses in our full review, which will be published soon at Macworld.com.

[ James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director. ]

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