All hail the unibody. After the well-received launch of its new MacBook Pros last year, which substituted many interlocking pieces for a single, one-piece chassis, Apple has carried over the unibody approach to the cheaper, $999 MacBook. The aluminum gives way to boring white plastic, but specs and design remain remarkably similar. Is it worth the $200 price drop to go for the plastic? We find out.
Build and Design
Those familiar with the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro will immediately feel at home on the MacBook version, which sports a similar rounded-edge profile, LED-backlit screen, and even the skating-rink-sized glass trackpad. The main difference, as most people will immediately spot, is the choice of materials. This baby’s all plastic.
Apple builds the MacBook from a single chunk of polycarbonate – the same rigid material you might know from Nalgene bottles, CDs, and even bulletproof windows. It’s tough, and the MacBook shows it. From the sculpted edges to the very center, which can typically feel a little soggy on cheap notebooks, the MacBook feels, well, bulletproof. The same solidification that happened on the MacBook Pro carries right over to plastic version, and we love it just the same.
Sometimes, Apple can’t quite seem to decide whether to favor style or comfort. On one hand, engineers have given the bottom a rubberized feel that keeps it from scraping around on desks and feels soft in the lap. On the other, the edges of the notebook when it’s open still feel unnecessarily sharp – a complaint carried over from the last generation.
At 1.08 inches thick and 4.7 pounds on the scale, the MacBook is both fatter than the 0.95-inch MacBook Pro, and heavier. It wears the extra fraction of an inch well, but the weight gets a little embarrassing for this size class: You can find some well-equipped 14.1-inch notebooks with similar weight, and even inexpensive 13.3 inchers like HP’s ProBook manage to land around 3.8 pounds. Tough has a price, and you’ll feel it in the extra tug on your messenger bag.
Specifications and Features
The outside of this notebook isn’t the only thing it shares with its spendier siblings: The hardware inside looks very similar, too. Both use Intel Core 2 Duo processors clocked at 2.26Ghz, 2GB of DDR3 RAM, and Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M graphics processor. When it comes to storage, the MacBook actually has a leg up on the Pro, offering 250GB to the Pro’s 160GB.
Apple may pump out iPod Nanos in every shade of the rainbow, but MacBook buyers get just one choice: gloss white. It hides fingerprints with ease, but it also tends to show off little bits of dirt and lint. And as anyone who has ever trekked along with a Nalgene bottle knows, polycarbonate loves to collect scratches.
We’re not typically fans of Chiclet-style keyboards, which always seem to lack the satisfying click of traditional models, but Apple’s is one of the best in the business. The soft matte-white keys feel velvety under the fingers, exhibit a clean springiness, and look pretty darn good, too. Unlike the MacBook Pro, they don’t light up at night, though, and the MacBook has no overhead LED for illumination, so you’ll be left to type by the light of the backlight.
Cold-cathode backlights, be gone. Just as it did with the MacBook Pro, Apple has changed the backlight on the new MacBook over to LEDs, which use less power and reach full brightness instantly, eliminating the dim, hazy look of a just-powered-on laptop screen. The screen looks spectacular dead on, but seems to exhibit a rather limited viewing angle as you angle it up and down – you’ll want to adjust it carefully to make sure you’re viewing things as they’re meant to be seen. And like all glossy screens, be prepared for an explosion of glare outside or just seated near windows.
Ports and Connections
The barebones selection of connections on a netbook almost look generous beside the MacBook, which has been pared down to the bare essentials, and then some. Although it includes a slot-loading optical drive where a netbook has none, it offers no dedicated analog microphone input (the headphone jack has to be switched using software), no SD card slot, and a mini DisplayPort connector, which can’t actually be used for connecting anything without a $29 adapter. Two USB ports look quite lonely beside netbooks that usually offer three, and since they’re both on the same side and only millimeters apart, oversized devices like thumb drives and 3G modems will prevent them from being used at the same time. Even Apple’s beloved FireWire port has been axed, leaving this notebook neutered..
Inside Apple’s silky white box, you’ll find the same MagSafe power adapter all MacBooks use, which disconnects easily from the notebook in the event you trip over it or walk away with it still connected. Since the power jack is on the side of the laptop, rather than the rear, the cable now terminates at a right angle, a small but clever change that helps keep it out of the way. The small power brick can either connect to the wall directly (which will block out adjacent outlets) or connect with a sturdy, meter-long cable, thanks to a clever swappable plug system.
Much like the MacBook Pro, the MacBook now offers a gigantic multi-touch trackpad with no buttons – the entire thing depresses like one big button. The sheer size of the pad combined with its stick-free surface makes it an absolute pleasure to use, and multi-touch gestures only sweeten the deal even further. Drag all four fingers down, for instance, and it opens Expose.
The Intel Core 2 Duo and Nvidia GeForce 9400M in the MacBook give it some definite kick, especially when coupled with a refined operating system like Snow Leopard. After pressing the power button, it reaches the desktop in only 25 seconds – a sickening display of speed beside many Windows notebooks, even those with Windows 7. And around the desktop, it’s just as snappy, even after getting loaded down with Safari tabs, IM windows, and whatever else you can throw at it. Although OS X suffers from a distinct lack of game titles, the 9400M will even handle titles from a few years back, like Quake 4, without breaking a sweat.
Unlike previous-generation MacBooks, which used swappable lithium-ion batteries, the newest MacBook uses a lithium-polymer battery sealed up inside, eliminating the ability to slap in a fresh battery when one runs down (or even servicing the notebook yourself when the battery inevitably dies). Fortunately, battery life has improved as well, with Apple promising a seven-hour run time. Like all estimates, it’s tilted toward the high end, and assumes you won’t use every feature, but we reached five hours quite easily with more realistic operating conditions, including the screen at full brightness and Wi-Fi cranking.
Apple’s crack team of Cupertino engineers have done it again. The new MacBook rocks. Besides the lack of a swappable battery (which can be seen as negligible for most folks), it improves upon the last generation device in every way, without adding so much as a penny to the reasonable $999 price tag. Hardcore travelers might want to look around to find a lighter notebook, but unless you’re going to have it strapped to your back for days on end, amenities like a giant multi-touch trackpad and rock-solid build quality will likely justify this fatty’s extra weight.