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MacBook Core 2 Duo/1.83GHz and 2.0GHz

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Before even reaching its six-month birthday, the MacBook has undergone its first makeover. The changes—a new processor and (in two of the three standard MacBook configurations) more memory, bigger hard drives, and double-layer DVD burning—aren’t quite as substantial as Apple’s recent enhancements to the 15-inch MacBook Pro (   ), but they add real value to a product that had already taken the consumer and education markets by storm.

Core 2 for consumers, too

Headlining the update is a switch to Intel’s latest processor, the Core 2 Duo, in place of the Core Duo chip that powered the first MacBook generation. In the case of the MacBook Pro family, a similar update had a dramatic effect on performance.

With the MacBook, however, the benefits of the brain transplant are more modest. There are at least three reasons for the difference. First, the Core 2 Duo processors in the MacBooks run at the same clock speeds—1.83GHz in the $1,099 base configuration, 2.0GHz in the $1,299 and $1,499 models—as their original core predecessors; in the Pro family, by contrast, the new chips run at slightly higher speeds than the previous processors. Second, while most versions of the Core 2 Duo CPU feature 4MB of performance-enhancing Level 2 cache memory (twice as much as any Core Duo chip), Apple chose to use a stripped-down Core 2 Duo with only 2MB of L2 cache in the $1,099 MacBook. And third, in the updated MacBook Pro models the new processors are combined with improvements in graphics processing; in the new MacBooks, the graphics subsystem is unchanged.

Still, the performance benefits of the Core 2 Duo design are appreciable in many applications. Even the slowest of the new models, equipped with a Core 2 Duo running at only 1.83GHz and backed by only 2MB of L2 cache, finished our iTunes MP3 encoding test 17 seconds (18 percent) faster than the fastest model in the original MacBook lineup; the fastest of the new models did the job 21 seconds (22 percent) faster.

Improvements of that magnitude probably won’t turn you green with envy if you’ve just invested in a Core Duo MacBook. But if you have an older Mac laptop, consider this: the Core 2 Duo MacBooks are 55 to 65 percent faster than the fastest iBook—and 27 to 35 percent faster than the last PowerBook G4—on Macworld’s Speedmark benchmark suite. (According to Apple, the new MacBooks are actually six times faster than the last iBooks on some benchmarks.)

Thanks for the memories

Besides their new processors, the two more expensive MacBook configurations now include a full gigabyte of memory, twice as much as previously; the $1,099 configuration still comes with 512MB of RAM. In all three configurations, the maximum memory remains 2GB—only the MacBook Pros have gone to a maximum of 3GB.

As for hard drive capacity, the $1,099 configuration still comes with a 60GB Serial ATA hard drive, the same as before, but the $1,299 and $1,499 configurations now have 80GB and 120GB drives, respectively, up from 60GB and 80GB in the previous generation. (For all three configurations, Apple now offers drive upgrades to 160GB at 5,400-rpm, or 200GB at 4,200-rpm.)

And while the base model still has only a Combo optical drive (CD-RW/DVD-ROM), Apple has added support for burning double-layer (8GB) DVD+R discs in the SuperDrives in both higher-priced MacBooks.

Leaving aside their differences, all three configurations offer the same great features that have made the MacBook such a hit: the gorgeous 13.3-inch glossy widescreen (1,280 by 800 pixels), built-in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR wireless networking, integrated iSight camera, Gigabit Ethernet connection, scrolling trackpad, both optical-digital and analog audio in and out ports, MagSafe power connector, and a Mini-DVI port that can (with the addition of adapters that cost $19 each) support a variety of external monitors, up to a 23-inch Apple Cinema HD Display.

As in the original MacBook lineup, the $1,499 configuration’s black case comes at a hefty premium: that and an extra 40GB of hard drive capacity are all you get for the extra $200 Apple charges, compared to the $1,299 white version.

Compared to the MacBook Pro models, the main differences are screen size, expandability (the MacBook Pros have an ExpressCard/34 slot, but the MacBooks have no card slots), FireWire 800 (now in all Pro models, but still missing from the MacBooks), and of course performance: the difference in CPU speeds is not large, but the Pro models’ separate ATI Radeon X1600 graphics chip is considerably faster than the MacBooks’ integrated graphics processing. That last point is worth considering not only for publishing and video professionals, but also for anyone looking for a good gaming machine.

Core 2 Duo MacBooks Tested

Speedmark 4.5 Adobe Photoshop CS2 Cinema 4D XL 9.5.21 Compressor 2.3 iMovie 6.0.2 iTunes 6.0.4 Unreal Tournament 2004 Finder
MacBook Core 2 Duo/1.83GHz 168 1:30 1:16 2:43 1:04 1:17 17.4 3:14
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2GHZ (black) 173 1:24 1:12 2:42 1:01 1:14 17.9 3:03
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2GHz (white) 178 1:25 1:14 2:41 0:59 1:13 17.8 2:53
MacBook Core Duo/2GHz (Black) 167 1:48 1:12 3:18 1:03 1:34 17.7 3:03
15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.16GHz 209 1:16 1:01 2:17 0:54 1:11 63.9 2:48
15-inch PowerBook G4/1.67GHz 132 1:35 3:57 6:59 1:51 1:53 19.9 3:30
14-inch iBook G4/1.42GHz 108 1:50 4:31 n/a 2:09 2:18 14.3 4:34

Best results in red. Reference systems in italics . Asterisk (*) denotes system tested with optional 7,200-rpm hard drive.

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 10.4.8 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 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 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, Brian Chen and Jerry Jung.

Macworld’s buying advice

All three MacBook models are fast, sturdy, and versatile computers. Among the three standard configurations, I like the middle model ($1,299) best—in fact, I just ordered one. The $1,099 model, with no increase in RAM or hard drive capacity and a limited version of the Core 2 Duo processor, lags further behind its more expensive siblings than the base configuration did in the original MacBook lineup. (I’d like it much better at $999.) As for the $1,499 version, I don’t think it’s a rational choice, but if you just have to have a black Mac, it’s your only option right now; if you can afford a little extra to indulge your fancy, why not?

[ Henry Norr is a veteran Mac technology writer based in Berkeley, Calif. ]

13-inch MacBook Core 2 Duo
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