capsule review

Review: Aluminum MacBook Core 2 Duo/2GHz and 2.4GHz

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On the inside

The latest MacBooks use the same Intel Core 2 Duo (Penryn) processors with 3MB of shared L2 cache as the previous MacBooks. Whereas the last MacBooks came with either a 2.1GHz or 2.4GHz processor, the new models offer 2.0GHz or 2.4GHz options. At the same time, there are other architectural advances that make up for the small different in processor speed, including a frontside bus that increases from 800MHz to 1,066MHz, and RAM that increases from 667MHz DDR2 to 1,066MHz DDR3.

The MacBooks include the same 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) wireless networking as before. The 2.0GHz model has a 160GB, 5400-rpm SATA hard drive, while the 2.4GHz model includes a 250GB drive at the same speed. For the first time with a MacBook, however, you can opt for a 128GB Solid State Drive (SSD) for $700 extra on the 2.0GHz model, or $600 extra on the 2.4GHz model. Both models come with an 8x slot-loading SuperDrive.

Graphics

Another important advancement with the latest MacBooks is the new Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics processor (Apple is the first company to ship a computer using the 9400M). Unlike the integrated Intel GMA X3100 graphics in the previous MacBooks, the 9400M has its own graphics processing unit (GPU), giving it a lot more power than the Intel chip.

Like the X3100, the 9400M doesn’t have its own memory, and instead borrows main system RAM—but the MacBook now uses fast DDR3 SDRAM and the GPU gets 256MB of RAM, a boost from the 144MB that the X3100 used. With more RAM going to graphics, it’s even more important to max out the MacBook’s RAM than before. Apple currently charges $150 to double the RAM to the 4GB maximum, which is comparable to what third-party RAM vendors are asking at this point. If you get it from Apple, there are no warranty issues, but you also don’t get to keep the two 1GB modules that ship in the MacBook normally to use elsewhere.

Coupled with the power of the 9400M GPU, the result is much better graphics performance than even before on the MacBook. For example, in a Quake 4 test (running at 1,024 by 768 pixels), both new MacBook models managed about 39 frames per second, versus 6.1 frames per second on the previous 2.4GHz MacBook. And with the graphics-intensive Call of Duty 4, the new MacBooks pumped out a little more than 35 frames per second—the older high-end MacBook managed only 10. These numbers back up Apple’s assertions that game performance is up as much five times over previous systems. As a colleague pointed out, game performance on the two generations of MacBook is the difference between actually playing a game and watching a slideshow. Higher screen resolution tests were impressive as well—for complete game testing, see our benchmark.

Also, the inclusion of a GPU means better performance with GPU-accelerated applications (such as Adobe’s Photoshop CS4), and the ability to take advantage of the OpenCL technology built into the next version of OS X, named Snow Leopard.

The other benefit to the new graphics subsystem is its improved ability to connect to external displays. Coupled with the new Mini DisplayPort (used on new MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air models), the MacBook can now drive a 30-inch external display at 2,560 by 1,600 pixels (the previous model could only handle 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, meaning no bigger than 24 inches) for mirroring your MacBook’s built-in display or extending its desktop. And it works with Apple’s new 24-inch LED Cinema Display as well.

Apple doesn’t include any cables in the box for connecting to displays, however. Apple sells adapters to convert Mini DisplayPort to VGA or DVI for $29 each, or to dual-link DVI for $99 (although Apple lists its availability at four to five weeks away)—necessary for connecting the MacBook to a 30-inch display (you won’t find an Apple Remote included either).

Ports

The left side of the MacBook has a MagSafe power port, a Gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 2.0 ports, a Mini DisplayPort, an analog and digital audio input port, an analog and digital audio output port (you can plug your iPhone headphones into it and control iTunes playback the same as you can on an iPhone), and a Kensington lock slot (which, when used, also locks the battery access latch on the bottom).

One thing you won’t find, however, is a FireWire port. The MacBook joins the MacBook Air as the only Mac models without a FireWire port, which has been a common source of concern for some users.

Apple markets the MacBook as a consumer product, and says that USB 2.0 is now being used on most consumer devices. And it is true that most hard drives and camcorders now have USB connections (not to mention the fact that iPhones and iPods now charge and sync using only USB). But for anyone with lots of legacy devices (FireWire-only hard drives, tape camcorders, and audio interfaces, for example), the lack of FireWire on the MacBook will definitely figure into your buying decision. If you need to use FireWire devices with your laptop, the MacBook isn’t for you. It’s sad that Apple is starting to abandon a technology—one it invented—that has many benefits over USB (drive power and higher actual speeds, to name a few), but like SCSI and ADB before it, nothing lasts forever. In the long run, as people replace FireWire-based devices with USB-based ones, the change will be less important. For now, the MacBook Pro is your only portable option from Apple if you need a FireWire port.

Moving data

The loss of FireWire also means you can’t access a feature I frequently use for transferring data between two Macs-FireWire Target Disk Mode. With it, you connect two Macs via a FireWire cable and mount one as an external hard drive on the other. This mode was particularly useful for copying large files without relying on a network, as well as cloning one system to another or migrating data with Apple’s built-in software.

What to do? One solution is to run Apple’s Migration Assistant software over a wired or wireless network, or with two Macs connected directly via Ethernet. To test how well it worked, I connected my first-generation MacBook to a new MacBook using a Cat-5 Ethernet cable and transferred my user to the new system. The process worked pretty smoothly, although it failed (twice, with two different Ethernet cables) to move my 9.34GB Parallels Windows XP drive image, saying it couldn’t be copied because it was too large (at the end, it suggested that I copy the file manually in the Finder). Apple told me there was no size limit using Migration Assistant, but didn’t have an immediate explanation for why I was having that problem. When I connected my original MacBook to the 2.4GHz model of the previous generation via FireWire, however, I was able to migrate all my data without a hitch. Another solution: You can create a Time Machine backup of the old Mac, and perform a data restore on the new MacBook using a USB drive.

Environmental impact

Apple (and other technology companies) have received a lot of bad press over the last few years regarding environmental factors. Steve Jobs was quick to point out, at the launch event for the new laptops, that Apple had put a lot of effort into making its products safer. The aluminum and glass shell is highly recyclable, there’s no mercury in the display or arsenic in the glass, the packaging is smaller, and so on. So your conscience needn’t be the deciding factor in whether or not purchase a MacBook.

Performance

Even with a slower processor than previous MacBooks, the new 2.0GHz model beat the older 2.1GHz model by 14 points on our Speedmark test suite, and even the older 2.4GHz model by five points. The new 2.4GHz model fared even better—perhaps most significantly, it scored only three fewer points (a difference of less than two percent) than the 2.4GHz MacBook Pro, which costs $400 more.

Most gains over previous models were minor, and in some cases non-existent. The new 2.4GHz MacBook was 13 percent faster than the previous 2.4GHz model in our Photoshop CS3 suite, but only two seconds faster at MP3 encoding, and a second slower in Cinema 4D rendering and our iMovie HD test. In our iPhoto test, the new 2.4GHz MacBook beat the old 2.4GHz model by 19 percent, and even the new 2.4GHz MacBook Pro by 10 percent. Yet the 2.0GHz MacBook was slower than either of the last MacBooks in the same test (with a similar pattern in our Compressor testing as well). The biggest improvements were in our game tests.

Aluminum MacBook benchmarks

Speedmark 5Adobe Photoshop CS3Cinema 4D XL 10.5CompressoriMovie HDiTunes 7.7Quake 4FinderFinder
OVERALL SCORE SUITE RENDER MPEG ENCODE AGED EFFECT MP3 ENCODE FRAME RATE ZIP ARCHIVE UNZIP ARCHIVE
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2.4GHz (Aluminum) 212 1:05 0:54 1:52 0:49 1:03 39.4 4:59 1:32
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2GHz (Aluminum) 195 1:08 1:07 2:10 0:55 1:11 38.7 5:34 1:24
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2.1GHz (White, Current) 181 1:17 0:53 2:07 0:55 1:10 7.6 5:25 1:41
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2.4GHz (White, Feb 2008) 190 1:15 0:53 1:57 0:48 1:05 7.6 5:03 1:38
MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.4GHz (15-inch, Unibody)* 215 1:07 0:54 1:53 0:49 1:04 58.9 5:05 1:18
PowerBook G4/1.67 GHz 91 3:02 3:57 7:47 1:59 2:26 19.9 7:14 2:21
>Better >Better

Best results in bold. Reference systems in italics. * denotes testing was conducted using the MacBook Pro’s Nvidia 9600M GT graphics.

Speedmark 5 scores are relative to those of a 1.5GHz Core Solo Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. Adobe Photoshop, Cinema 4D XL, iMovie, iTunes, and Finder scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.5.5 with 2GB of RAM. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 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 Cinema 4D XL. 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 Film Effect from the Video FX menu to a one minute movie. We converted 45 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We used Quake’s 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 duplicated a 1GB folder, created a Zip archive in the Finder from the two 1GB files and then Unzipped it.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH, CHRIS HOLT, AND JERRY JUNG.

Macworld’s buying advice

The latest MacBooks are a big improvement over the previous models—as long as you can live without a FireWire port. If not (or you absolutely must have a matte screen, which is still an option on the 17-inch MacBook Pro) the MacBook Pro might be your best bet. And battery life wasn't as strong as the previous model. Otherwise, the sleek new case design, major graphics improvements, power-sipping LED display, and Multi-Touch glass trackpad make the MacBook a very strong upgrade.

[Jonathan Seff is a Macworld senior editor.]

[Updated at 7:55AM Pacific time to clarify that the matte screen option is only available on the 17-inch MacBook Pro.]

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