- Built-in iSight camera
- Fast Core Duo processor yields great performance
- Attractive case design
- Rough case edge
- Poor 3-D game performance
- Weak speakers
- No video cables included
Replacing both the 12-inch PowerBook G4 and the entire iBook G4 line, Apple’s MacBooks deliver many of the same features as the higher-end MacBook Pro line — including an Intel Core Duo processor and a built-in iSight camera — in a 13-inch case with a glossy widescreen display. Like the Intel-based Mac mini, the MacBook line features an integrated Intel graphics processor that shares its memory with main RAM. This white 2GHz model improves upon the 1.83GHz configuration with a DVD-burning SuperDrive.
The release of the MacBook Pro ushered in a new era in mobile computing for Apple: It debuted two processing cores, a built-in video camera, remote-controlled multimedia software, and more.
The three new MacBooks—one 1.8GHz and two 2GHz models available in either white or black —replace Apple’s entire iBook line as well as the 12-inch PowerBook G4. They incorporate many of the upgrades included in the new Pro machines and offer impressive performance and features for an entry-level laptop line, blurring the distinction between consumer and professional models. We tested the low-end white and the high-end black models for this review.
Even though Apple no longer offers a laptop for less than $1,000, the improvements built into the new MacBooks are well worth the added cost. Despite minor flaws, the MacBooks are a great choice for people who want a laptop, but who don’t need the fastest model available, or who don’t play 3-D games that require speedy frame rates. And with its first black model in years, Apple has given all laptop users a reason to covet the MacBook.
Many observers had expected Apple to follow the same pattern it had established with the Mac mini: that it would release models with Core Solo and Core Duo processors, letting customers choose how much they were willing to spend (and how much performance they were willing to sacrifice to save money). Instead, Apple chose to release three MacBook configurations, all with Core Duo processors, 2MB of L2 cache, a 667MHz frontside bus, and fast RAM. The result is that regardless of which model you choose, you’ll get performance very similar to that of the MacBook Pro line.
The new MacBooks performed well overall, and especially in our processor-intensive native application tests, where they even outperformed the 1.5GHz 12-inch PowerBook.
The MacBooks were three times as fast in our Cinema 4D render test, nearly twice as fast in our Compressor MPEG2 encoding test, and about 1.5 times as fast in our iTunes MP3 encoding test.
What’s more interesting is how little you give up by sticking with the least expensive model—not surprising, perhaps, given the relatively close speeds of the processors inside, but very nice in that Apple hasn’t crippled its entry-level laptop. I installed the Intel-native Final Cut Studio (one piece of this professional suite, Motion, wouldn’t even install on an iBook) on the 1.83GHz model, and found everything quite useable. (Apple says that Final Cut Studio is not supported on systems using Intel’s GMA950 graphics processor, but I found that it worked just fine.) And transcoding video for a fifth-generation iPod using the free iSquint app took roughly the same amount of time as the same operation on a dual 2.0GHz PowerMac G5. All the MacBooks felt fast and responsive at almost every task.
As with all Intel-based Macs, however, applications that have not yet been updated to run natively on Intel chips must use Apple’s Rosetta dynamic translation technology, and those apps perform much more slowly than they do on older PowerPC-based Macs.
In our Photoshop CS2 tests, for example, the 1.83GHz MacBook took almost 68 percent longer to complete our suite of tests than the 12-inch PowerBook, while the 2.0GHz MacBook took 53 percent longer (this was the biggest difference between the two MacBook speeds in our benchmark tests).
|Speedmark 4.5||Adobe Photoshop CS2||Cinema 4D XL 9.5.21||Compressor 2.1||iMovie 6.0.1||iTunes 6.0.4||Unreal Tournament 2004||Zip Archive|
|SUITE||SUITE||RENDER||MPEG2 Encode||AGED FILTER||MP3 ENCODE||AVERAGE FRAME RATE||1GB FOLDER|
|13-inch MacBook Core Duo/1.83GHz||154||2:53||1:25||4:17||1:12||1:37||17.8||3:14|
|13-inch MacBook Core Duo/2GHz (black)||161||2:39||1:13||4:17||1:13||1:32||17.6||3:05|
|13-inch MacBook Core Duo/2GHz (white)||161||2:38||1:13||4:01||1:04||1:26||17.8||3:00|
|14-inch iBook G4/1.42GHz||107||1:49||4:29||8:29||2:07||2:19||14.1||4:33|
|15-inch MacBook Pro Core Duo/1.83GHz (January 2006)||153||2:52||1:19||5:01||1:14||1:29||52.3||3:54|
|15-inch MacBook Pro Core Duo/2GHz (January 2006)||166||2:45||1:11||4:22||1:08||1:17||51.5||3:04|
|12-inch PowerBook G4/1.5GHz||125||1:43||4:16||8:04||1:57||2:14||21.7||3:37|
|20-inch iMac Core Duo/2GHz||217||2:31||1:11||3:22||1:02||1:19||56.0||2:32|
Best results in bold. Reference system in italics .
At the same time, I used some of the applications in the Microsoft Office 2004 suite—which is not Intel-native—and after waiting a little longer for them to launch, I could hardly tell that OS X had to translate the instruction code to run on the Intel-based system.
The first thing most people will notice about the MacBook is the display: Its widescreen format and glossy coating are radical departures from the construction of previous screens.
For the first time on any Mac laptop, Apple uses a glossy coating—common on Windows laptops—instead of an anti-glare coating. The result is a display with much more reflectivity—think of a television set—but also very crisp blacks, bright whites, and vibrant, pleasing colors.
Apple says the MacBook’s display is 79 percent brighter than the models it replaces. And that is obvious when you observe one alongside an iBook or PowerBook—the screen is very bright and works well with the glossy coating.
I quickly got used to the new screen, but some people will find the glare of the glossy screen distracting, especially in offices with bright ambient light or if they’re using the laptop outdoors.
The display is now bigger and better, as well as brighter, and that should be welcome news to anyone who felt constrained by Apple’s smallest PowerPC laptops.
With the MacBook, Apple has now switched all its displays to widescreen format. The 13.3-inch MacBook display offers a 1280-by-800 pixel native resolution, 30 percent more pixels than the 1024-by-768 pixel resolution of the iBook and 12-inch PowerBook models. This is better for watching widescreen DVDs, having multiple windows open at once, or keeping application floating palettes next to open document windows.
Powering the new display is Intel’s GMA 950 integrated graphics processor, the same one Apple uses in the Mac mini. Unlike traditional Mac graphics, the MacBooks’ graphics processors don’t have their own dedicated memory. As a result, the GMA 950 borrows its memory—a minimum of 64MB plus 16MB for startup processes, but sometimes more for 3-D and other graphics-intensive apps—from the system RAM.
The GMA 950 isn’t as powerful as the ATI graphics chip with dedicated RAM that comes in the MacBook Pro, and users who play 3-D games will definitely notice the difference in performance. Our Unreal Tournament Average Frame Rate test, for example, shows the MacBooks pushing out only about 18 frames per second, not much faster than the 14-inch iBook G4 (14.1fps), a little slower than the 12-inch PowerBook G4 (21.7fps), and much slower than the 20-inch iMac Core Duo (56 fps) and 17-inch MacBook Pro (63.1fps). The graphics performance was perfectly adequate, however, for smooth playback of HD video in QuickTime and for adding effects in Motion.
One area where Apple clearly made improvements is in the external graphics connections. You can use the MacBook’s mini-DVI port to connect to an external display (with resolution of up to 1920-by-1200 pixels) for spanning your desktop across two monitors. The iBooks could only mirror the built-in display to an external monitor. Apple’s removal of this restriction is great for those who need extra screen real estate. Unlike the MacBook Pro, however, the MacBook doesn’t include the adapters you’ll need to hook up to external DVI or VGA monitors—each cable is available for $19.
The MacBook sports several additional design changes compared to its lower-end PowerPC laptops. The case is longer and deeper than the previous 12-inch models to accommodate the larger display, yet it is also thinner and heavier. Its sleekness makes it better resemble the new MacBook Pro, while its slightly greater heft makes it feel more solid. The extra weight, along with its rounded rubber feet, also helps anchor it more stably on a desk or other surface; you can open the latchless, magnetic lid with a one finger without having the MacBook slide around.
Apple has also updated the keyboard design: The new MacBooks now have individual, non-tapered keys set into a recessed area that doesn’t reach all the way across the top. I really enjoy the keyboard, and find it superior to the previous design. The keys have a tactile and responsive feel and a subtle, reassuring click, as opposed to the somewhat mushy feel of the detachable keyboards on previous laptop models.
I also like that if you place two fingers on the trackpad, and then click on the trackpad button, it brings up a contextual menu—a big improvement over having to use two hands to invoke the menu.
The only real problem I found with the new design is that the smooth top of the keyboard enclosure doesn’t extend quite to edge of the MacBook, creating a thin, rough-feeling bevel between the top and bottom of the case. Though it’s thin, the rough edge of the polycarbonate bottom running all the way around the MacBook irritates my palm when I slide my hand around to use the track pad, and it feels rather sharp if I rest my hand on it.
All MacBook models include Apple’s Front Row software and the Apple Remote for controlling audio, photo, video, and DVD playback from a distance. Front Row worked fairly smoothly on the new MacBook models, although it didn’t always activate quickly when I pressed the Menu button’s remote control.
The built-in stereo speakers are nothing special: they sound thin, tinny, and too soft. That detracted from the movie-watching experience. But the MacBooks have analog and digital audio input and output ports, so you can connect them to 5.1-channel surround sound speakers to hear better audio. (The 12-inch PowerBook, by comparison, had analog input and output, while the iBook had only analog output, but no input.)
Also similar to the MacBook Pro—and new to Apple’s low-end laptops—is the built-in iSight video camera built into the top of the display. The quality of the camera and microphone are the same as on other Intel Macs. And while you can’t adjust the iSight’s position, as you can with a stand-alone camera, I was able to overcome that problem by changing the tilt of the display.
The MacBook comes in three configurations: all have one FireWire 400 port, two USB 2.0 ports, built-in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR wireless networking, Gigabit Ethernet, a MagSafe Power Adapter, a scrolling trackpad, and Sudden Motion Sensor technology. All models ship with 512MB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM (PC2-5300) on two SO-DIMMs. Although this may be enough for many users, people with graphics-intensive apps will need more memory for brisk performance.
Users will find the MacBook performance on all apps much snappier if they upgrade to 1GB, or even to the maximum of 2GB (for more information on the RAM, see our MacBook FAQ ). The difference the extra RAM makes in the time it takes to launch and run apps is a quality of life improvement that is well worth the extra money.
The $1,099 model comes in the familiar iBook white case, and includes a 60GB 5400-rpm Serial ATA hard drive, and a Combo drive. The $1,299 model also comes in white, and includes a 60GB hard drive, and a 4x SuperDrive. The $1,499 model comes in matte black (a first for Apple since the Pismo PowerBook G3 released in 2000), and ships with an 80GB hard drive, and a 4x SuperDrive.
Battery life was respectable—though not overwhelmingly superior to previous models. I could get about three-and-a-half hours of DVD playback in one sitting without the battery going dead.
Macworld’s buying advice
The MacBook is very impressive, not only compared to the iBooks and PowerBook it replaces, but also compared to its new Pro brethren. It offers almost everything that people would need in a laptop. There’s not much of a performance difference between the 1.83GHz and 2.0GHz models running Intel-native apps, but Rosetta does somewhat better with the faster processor. If you use non-native apps often, and prefer a SuperDrive to a Combo drive, consider one of the faster models. But if you’re a hard core 3-D gamer, the MacBook is not the Mac for you.
And though from a value perspective, the black model isn’t as good a deal as the others, the cool black color will be enough for some people—those who want something different, own a black iPod, or need a more professional-looking laptop for work—to justify the cost.
[ Jonathan Seff is Macworld ’s senior news editor. ]
[ Editor’s Note: This story was updated on June 9 at 5:45 p.m. PT to add a mouse rating and benchmark results for the white 2.0GHz MacBook. ]