The biggest news on Apple’s latest MacBook update may also be the most obvious: it’s not plastic anymore. Apple has canned the old (and iconic) white MacBook look in favor of a new unibody aluminum design that makes the MacBook and its larger brother, the MacBook Pro, much tougher to distinguish now. The company has also nixed another extraneous button with the complete removal of any mouse buttons, replacing them with a mammoth touchpad that actually acts as one giant button, and pulls the same multi-touch tricks as Apple’s iPhone, opening the door to all sorts of convenient shortcuts. While these major changes, along with a handful of smaller ones like an LED-backlit LCD screen, help make the notebook one of the best looking and most solid we’ve ever laid eyes on it, its price takes a hike accordingly as well.
Features and Design
Under the hood, the most basic MacBook gets a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor coupled with 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive, but Apple also offers a 2.4GHz version that also gets a 250GB drive as its base option, with a further upgrade available bumping it to 320GB. This means that the cheapest MacBook available, which is now $1299, actually loses some CPU speed over the older version, which was only $1099. In the graphics department, the MacBook picks up Nvidia’s venerable GeForce 9400M GPU.
Like the MacBook Air before it, the ordinary MacBook now gets an LED-backlit 13.3-inch screen with native 1280 x 800 resolution. But as an added twist, the LCD and the surrounding black bezel have been sealed under a single pane of glass, giving it a sleek edge-to-edge glass look.
Apple’s Ubersexy Unibody
Apple’s old MacBook Pro set a high standard in build quality, but the new unibody design manages to demolish just about every other notebook out there in terms of feel. The tight tolerances, lack of gaps and sturdy construction all make the notebook feel almost like a solid slab of aluminum when it’s closed. According to Apple, that’s because it’s machined from one. And it shows. There’s not a bit of creaking, squeaking of flexing to be found.
Unfortunately, practicality does pay a price in two small ways. First, the aluminum takes on a cold feel when used in cool conditions, or if it’s been transported in a less-than-heated environment (like say, a backpack or trunk in the winter). It doesn’t take long to come up to temp, but in the meantime you’ll be pulling the edges of your sleeves up to cover your wrists. Which also brings us to the next problem: the edges around the laptop’s inner deck are about two strokes on a whetstone away from being razor blades. Apple has given the notebook straight, squared-off edges as a visual effect, but they also have the unfortunate side effect of being harsh on the wrists if you’re operating the laptop from the wrong angle. Neither was a deal-breaker, and seasoned MacBook Pro users are already accustomed to the problems, but the style does come with a price.
Tipping the scales at 4.5 pounds, the new MacBook is about half a pound less than the previous version, but it’s far from a featherweight, given the size. Sony’s 13.3-inch SR-series notebooks, for instance, slide in even lighter at 4.14 pounds, and Dell’s XPS 1330 manages to hit 3.97. Granted, neither delivers quite the solid feel of Apple’s aluminum unibody, but it’s important to note that Apple’s exotic new milling process hasn’t turned this tanker of a notebook into anything less hefty.
Ports and Connectors
Apple has truly kept the MacBook to just the essentials when it comes to connectivity. It includes only an optical drive, Ethernet jack, two USB ports (both on the left hand side, an inconvenience for travel mouse users), a mini DisplayPort, and audio input/output jacks.
Though Apple itself birthed the FireWire standard, raised it up through different generations, and defended its merits against USB 2.0, the company has abandoned the connector on its latest MacBook, which has no FireWire connector to speak of. Most average consumers won’t miss the relatively niche connector, but media types who are used to pulling data from camcorder to laptop via FireWire and spitting back the content onto external hard drives with the same cable will likely find the missing port to be a deal killer.
The mini DisplayPort may be able to turn into both DVI and VGA ports through adapters, but Apple didn’t decide to include to either adapter with the MacBook, making it an essentially a useless port out of the box. We would have rather seen a native DVI port, which would not only provide the same flexibility, it would eliminate the need for Apple’s arcane and expensive adapters, which start at $29 and run all the way up to $99 for the dual-DVI version.
Apple’s signature MagSafe power adapter makes it easy to connect and disconnect the notebook’s power cord by snapping the cord to the notebook with only magnetic cling, but we also discovered an annoying side effect: The magnetized power port sucked up tiny magnetic particles from the bottom of a backpack, jamming it up and preventing the power cord from sticking. The ferrous sandy bits were also difficult to remove, due to the magnetism locking them into the crevice.
If normal touchpads are like backyard swimming pools, the one on Apple’s new MacBook is like the Olympic-sized one down at the YMCA. It spans roughly four inches across and three inches tall, leaving plenty of room for multitouch acrobatics. And as anyone who has used an iPhone or iPod Touch can testify, the ability to use more than one finger to navigate a touch device makes an enormous difference in ease of use after figuring out all the tricks and shortcuts it opens up. A four-finger swipe to the right, for instance, brings up Apple’s application switcher, while the same gesture down opens Expose. Two fingers will scroll, and three act like a back-forward button. After getting the hang of these few basic features, the pad began to feel a lot less like a mouse and a lot more like a desktop control center.
The lack of a mouse button didn’t turn out to be much of an issue, but at the same time, it doesn’t add much to the experience either. It’s clearly an aesthetic choice on Apple’s behalf. While we adjusted easily to clicking down on the touchpad, it did bother us in a few circumstances, like when dragging items. It’s possible to press and hold the pad as a button and simultaneously move your finger (or touch with one finger and move with the other), but it’s more of a pain than with a conventional pad. The one-finger-touch-and-drag really annoyed us for certain applications, like Google Maps (which, oddly enough, does not support any multitouch tricks for navigation).
Image Courtesy of Apple
Our MacBook went from dead to ready-to-surf in a little over 40 seconds, which roasts almost any Vista-equipped laptop we’ve tried. Where it really shines, though, is in waking up from standby. Almost as fast as you can flip open its wafer-thin lid, it’s ready to go. Both are stellar traits for a machine meant to be lugged around everywhere and popped open on a whim.
Wi-Fi has traditionally been a sore spot for Apple’s previous metal MacBooks, since their shells interfered with reception, but the company seems to have found a workaround for the latest version. While it still has some problems finding fringe networks, the MacBook did a respectable job sniffing out usable networks in residential areas, almost on par with conventional plastic-shell notebooks. It also outperformed most PCs in connection time, latching on to networks with a high signal very quickly and with minimal hassle.
As we’ve come to expect from Apple products, OS X responded to input quickly and smoothly, snapping open applications on demand and delivering seamless performance during most everyday tasks. While we were able to get it to choke up a bit under the load of many, many applications, a RAM upgrade would probably get it to handle this unusual workload in stride, and in general the system performed admirably.
Image Courtesy of Apple
The MacBook’s 13.3-inch LED-backlit display looks sharp and vivid under almost all lighting conditions, although the extreme shine produces the usual reflections that can get distracting in certain situations. The gloss black bezel seemed to accentuate it by acting as an opal mirror in almost all lighting, though it has its charm as well. We especially liked how much easier the screen was to clean without corners for dust to get trapped in.
The LED backlighting was also refreshing, firing up the display to full brightness within milliseconds of resurrecting the notebook from sleep.
Unfortunately, the screen only cranes back from vertical about 45 degrees, which isn’t quite enough flex room when you’re contorted into certain tight situations. On the plus side, though, the full-length hinge then runs along the bottom of the screen feels sturdy, and offers just the right amount of friction to keep the screen locked in place most of the time.
Notebooks in the 13.3-inch size class rarely score many points for sound quality, but the MacBook actually produced quite listenable tunes and sound effects, to our ears. Headphones will still be preferable under most circumstances, but for sharing a YouTube clip with friends or taking in few tunes while you surf at home, the the MacBook’s speakers won’t offend the ears nearly as badly as most other notebooks its size. We especially appreciated the volume, which could fill up a decent size room when cranked to max without turning into a crackly, distorted mess.
Like previous MacBooks, the newest version uses “chiclet-style” keys, meaning they’re recessed into the keyboard like individual buttons with aluminum filler between them, rather than with crumb-catching crevices, as on normal keyboards. This definitely produces a clean design, and Apple has complemented it with a respectably neat set of keys, but we weren’t blown away with the typing experience. It felt more muddled than we were used to, lacking the crisp, clean feedback of a keyboard like those found on Lenovo’s ThinkPads. It’s very usable in every sense, but the satisfaction factor wasn’t quite there as much as we’ve experienced on some our top-rated keyboards.
Image Courtesy of Apple
Curiously, the new MacBook’s battery is actually smaller than the old MacBook’s (it has a 45 watt-hour capacity compared to 55 watt-hour on the old unit) but the more miserly internal components manage to squeeze more battery life out of it. In testing, the MacBook clung to its limited reservoir of electrons quite admirably, but not enough to truly be called impressive. We were able to milk about three hours out of it under intense workloads like decoding movies, or about five (Apple’s advertised battery life) under less demanding circumstances, like casual Web browsing without brightness cranked all the way up. Neither really makes it a viable as a road warrior for all-day computing away from outlets, but it’s enough to sneak in one or two movies on a flight or surf the web all afternoon at a coffee shop.
A variety of aesthetic updates, including Apple’s unibody frame, LED-backlit display, and multitouch pad make the latest MacBook sharper than ever, but it may not be enough to justify the $1,299 base price if style isn’t part of your agenda. Though its 13.3-inch frame puts in a highly portable size class, its weight and battery life both speak against it as a truly road-worthy notebook, and many cheaper competitors are more up to the task. However, for style-conscious portable computer users who need a notebook that looks and feels as good as it performs, Apple’s new MacBook truly is the total package.
• Rock-solid aluminum unibody
• Bright, vibrant display
• Multitouch trackpad
• Snappy hardware
• Poor connectivity