2006 13" MacBook Review


The PowerPC era of Apple laptop computers is now officially over. Like hit TV series that go into syndication after successful production runs, the PPC 'Books will live on for quite some time on the used and refurbished markets, but Apple's transition to Intel is now complete in the portable sector. The last of the G4 Mohicans - the 12" PowerBook and the 12" and 14" iBooks are gone from the Apple store, all three replaced by the new 13" MacBook which features Intel Core Duo processors and a glossy 1280 x 800 widescreen display, in a completely new package that Apple says is be up to five times faster than the iBook and up to four times faster than the 12-inch PowerBook. That would of course be when running Intel-native software.

Unlike the MacBook Pros, which owe a great deal to the industrial design of their PowerBook G4 predecessors, these new MacBooks are a completely new from a clean slate design - and thus the first MacIntel Macintoshes - portable or desktop - with no design carry-over from the PPC era. They also include, and the very top of the line, the first black Apple laptop in more than half a decade, the last being the 2000 Pismo PowerBook G3, (and I was going to say, "the first black iBook ever," except of course these MacBooks are neither iBook nor PowerBook).

Borrowing a livery motif from the iPod and iPod nano, the MacBook comes in both white and black versions, but with a major distinction that you pay a premium for black in the MacBook context. Along with that glossy display you may need sunglasses to dampen the reflective glare in brightly lighted environments. Just kidding about that last. I predict that black MacBooks are going to sell like crazy, despite the inflated price, which is I expect what Apple is counting on.

I am pleased that Apple went with rugged polycarbonate plastic for the MacBook's skin. I love my 17" aluminum PowerBook, and I like the metal case material better than I expected to, but I still think polycarbonate is a better, more practical material for laptop housings, and not just because it facilitates better wireless performance.

I think the decision to merge the market slots formerly occupied by the two sizes of iBook and the 12" PowerBook into a single family is a sensible bit of rationalization. The IBook and 12" PowerBook always had a great deal in common engineering-wise, and the little AlBook was built by iBook supplier Asustek rather than Apple's PowerBook subcontractor of the past eight years, Quanta. The iBook derivation was no bad thing, the dual-USB iBook being Apple's longest in production laptop design ever, albeit in a wide variety of G3 and G4 iterations. Over the past year especially, the distinction between the 12" iBook and PowerBook had been narrowing, with the iBook actually on top in certain aspects (eg: RAM upgrade capacity).

On the other hand, one downside of convergence on a single, larger screen size with the MacBook is that these machines are a pound heavier than the 12" PowerBook G4, and wider in footprint, although slightly narrower in chord and significantly thinner at a svelte 1.1 inches (20 percent thinner than the iBook). Serious road warriors will notice that extra pound, although the MacBook may fit even more comfortably on aircraft seat trays, and a thought that occurs to me is that there is now room - some might contend a glaring vacancy - in Apple's portable lineup for a true subnotebook in the three-pound weight class.

A feature that Apple isn't hyping, but which made me almost want to cheer out loud when I read about it, is that the MacBook's hard drive may be the easiest to remove and replace of any Apple laptop hard disk ever, a 180 degree turnaround from the iBook, in which that task was challenging even for trained technicians working in a well-equipped shop. It isn't totally impossible for reasonably tech-savvy and handy do-it-yourselfers, but it isn't recommended either.

By contrast, reportedly the MacBook's hard drive lives in a bay accessible through the battery cavity on the underside of the computer, and drive swaps won't require major disassembly. Bravo!

The MacBook also supports monitor-spanning (extended desktop mode), which no iBook ever did officially (there were hack solutions), but which was supported on the 12" PowerBook. External displays of up to 1920 x 1200 resolution are supported, including the 23" Apple Cinema Display. The MacBook's graphics port is mini DVI, and any necessary adaptors must be purchased separately.

Speaking of video support, and back in the negative column for a moment, rather than having a conventional graphics processor unit with its own, dedicated video RAM like the MacBook Pros, and PowerPC Apple laptops have, the MacBook uses Intel's integrated GMA-950 Graphics chipset, which was introduced to the Mac platform in the Intel Mac mini back in January. The downside of this is that the GMA-950 expropriates 64 MB of system memory for tis graphics buffer plus 16 MB more for general startup (total 80), which means 80 MB less for running programs and tasks. Not the most elegant solution.

Since we're now on the topic of RAM, also like the Intel mini, the MacBook uses dual-channel system memory architecture, with which it is recommended to install memory sticks in matched pairs. Each of the MacBook's two RAM slots will support up to 1GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM. Unfortunately that means that like the 12" PowerBook (but not the iBook) the MacBook comes with its RAM expansion slots full (2 x 256MB), with optional configurations 2 x 512MB, or 2 x 1GB. Especially if you intend on running PPC native software under Rosetta emulation, the two GB max is recommended if you can swing the cost. At least RAM upgrades are easy, being accessed through the battery cavity.

And while I'm at it, I might as well get a few other gripes out of the way. Like the MacBook Pro, the MacBook has no internal modem, which means that folks like me who have no access to broadband service, of even broadband users who might need to send or receive a FAX from their computer, will be obliged to pony up an extra US$50/Can$70 for Apple's external USB modem, which must be packed around and which blocks one of the two USB ports. Not cool.

Then there's the lack of Classic Mode support, which was a big part of what convinced me to go with one more PowerPC 'Book for my recent latest system upgrade rather than become a MacIntel early adopter. I would happily switch to all-OSX if there were satisfactory OS X alternatives to a handful of Classic apps. and utilities I still depend on for production work, but so far there aren't, so Classic mode stays up and running on my Macs, and this MacIntel limitation is a significant obstacle to my taking the next leap.

OK, lets get back to the positive stuff about the MacBook, of which there is much, including a built-in iSight video camera for video conferencing on-the-go; Front Row media support with Apple Remote; Gigabit Ethernet, Apple's hard-drive protecting Sudden Motion Sensor, a Scrolling TrackPad, AirPort Extreme 802.11g WiFi for up to 54 Mbps fast wireless networking, built-in Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate), two USB 2.0 ports, combination analog and optical digital audio input and output ports, a mini-DVI video output port, and the new MagSafe Power Adapter that safely disconnects from the computer when there is strain on the power cord, helping to prevent the 'Book from falling off its work surface. Hard drives are 5400 RPM across the board, of 60 or 80 GB capacities.

The base 1.83 GHz MacBook sells for $1,099, a $100 price hike ($150 if you require a modem) over the entry-level 12" iBook it replaces, but the value is arguably there and then some. Moving upscale, there is a white 2.0 GHz MacBook at $1,299, and a black 2.0 GHz MacBook at $1,499. The latter model is the one whose value is questionable, although it does come with an extra 20 GB of hard drive capacity for the $200 higher price.

The MacBook's 13-inch, 1280 x 800 glossy widescreen display is 79 percent brighter and with 30 percent more viewing area than the 12.1", 1024 x 768 display used in the 12" iBook and the 12-inch PowerBook, and apple claims that it provides crisper images with richer colors, deeper blacks, and significantly greater contrast.

Software-wise, every MacBook includes iLife '06, the next generation of Apple's award-winning suite of digital lifestyle applications featuring iPhoto, iMovie HD, iDVD, GarageBand and iWeb, a new iLife application that makes it easy to create websites with photos, blogs and Podcasts and publish them on .Mac for viewing by anyone on the Internet with just a single click. All iLife '06 applications run natively on the new Intel-based MacBooks.

In summary, the three MacBook models stack up as follows:

The 1.83 GHz, 13-inch white MacBook, for a suggested retail price of $1,099 (US), includes:
• 13.3-inch glossy widescreen 1280 x 800 display with 250 cd/m2 brightness;
• 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo processor;
• 667 MHz front-side bus;
• 512MB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, expandable to 2GB;
• 60GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
• a slot-load Combo (DVD-ROM/CD-RW) optical drive;
• Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950;
• Mini-DVI out (adapters for DVI, VGA and Composite/S-Video sold separately);
• built-in iSight video camera;
• Gigabit Ethernet port;
• built-in AirPort Extreme wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
• two USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire 400 port;
• one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
• Scrolling TrackPad;
• the infrared Apple Remote; and
• 60 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

The 2.0 GHz, 13-inch white MacBook, for a suggested retail price of $1,299 (US), includes:
• 13.3-inch glossy widescreen 1280 x 800 display with 250 cd/m2 brightness;
• 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo processor;
• 667 MHz front-side bus;
• 512MB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, expandable to 2GB;
• 60GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
• a slot-load SuperDrive (DVDRW/CD-RW) optical drive;
• Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950;
• Mini-DVI out (adapters for DVI, VGA and Composite/S-Video sold separately);
• built-in iSight video camera;
• Gigabit Ethernet port;
• built-in AirPort Extreme wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
• two USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire 400 port;
• one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
• Scrolling TrackPad;
• the infrared Apple Remote; and
• 60 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

The 2.0 GHz, 13-inch black MacBook, for a suggested retail price of $1,499 (US), includes:
• 13.3-inch glossy widescreen 1280 x 800 display with 250 cd/m2 brightness;
• 2.0GHz Intel Core Duo processor;
• 667 MHz front-side bus;
• 512MB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, expandable to 2GB;
• 80GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
• a slot-load SuperDrive (DVDRW/CD-RW) optical drive;
• Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950;
• Mini-DVI out (adapters for DVI, VGA and Composite/S-Video sold separately);
• built-in iSight video camera;
• Gigabit Ethernet port;
• built-in AirPort Extreme wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
• two USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire 400 port;
• one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
• Scrolling TrackPad;
• the infrared Apple Remote; and
• 60 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

Additional build-to-order options for the MacBook include the ability to upgrade to 80GB, 100GB or 120GB 5400 rpm hard drive, up to 2GB DDR2 SDRAM, Apple USB Modem, Apple Mini-DVI to DVI adapter, Apple Mini-DVI to VGA adapter, and the AppleCare Protection Plan.

Notwithstanding my complaints registered above, I think the new MacBook will be a solid home run for Apple, and it's almost exactly what I was expecting. The iBook was getting very long in the tooth, even before Steve Jobs' bombshell MacIntel announcement last June, and the 12" PowerBook had a pretty good run as well. This MacBook is a worthy replacement for both, pretty much just right, and it's great to have the choice of black 'Books again.

Will I buy one? Quite probably in the fullness of time, but not right away. I'm still very much enjoying this new-to-me 17" PowerBook, which is doing everything I require satisfactorily. When the time comes for my next upgrade, however, the MacBook will be hard to resist from a value standpoint.

For more information, visit:
http://www.apple.com/macbook/