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13" MacBook Review (late-2008)


MacBook (Late 2008) "Aluminum Unibody"
by Charles W. Moore

There was such a head of anticipation built up over the new Apple consumer and professional notebooks, that it was going to be very difficult for the reality to live up to expectations, and the sober fact is that it fell somewhat short - to use a seasonably topical analogy - a solid triple, but no home run.

That said, no one turns their nose up at triple base hits, and the new MacBook and MacBook Pro are a strong enough showing to be a game-winner for Apple and also to shake up the dynamic of choice among the various models offered, at least they have for me.

I have been holding off making a decision about what my next Apple laptop system will be until I saw what Apple brought forth, and yesterday’s announcements have given me a lot to chew over, since there is still no slam-dunk obvious choice to fill my particular mixture of needs and tastes.

I guess my biggest letdown, especially after all the speculation about an $800 or $900 entry-level, was that Apple hung tough with price points, with the top of the MacBook line now actually $100 more expensive than its outgoing predecessor. Apple has dropped below the $1,000 threshold, by a margin of one whole dollar, but that only returns them to a price point occupied before by the 12” dual-USB iBook, and filled it by recycling and mildly upgrading the previous price-leader 2.1 GHz MacBook with a 120 GB 5400 RPM hard drive and a slot-load 8X SuperDrive in place of the erstwhile combo drive, while knocking 100 bucks off its price. No disrespect to the 2.1 GHz MacBook, which is a very good notebook and a more than decent value at $999, especially with the specification enhancements, but it’s just not very exciting.

As for the new 13” MacBook and 15” MacBook Pro, they do happily have an excitement factor in play, but it’s not in the price department, with the 15” Pro model at exactly the same price levels as the previous models.

The most dramatic change is with the MacBook, which now shares the all-metal enclosure motif with the MacBook Pro, and to some degree is arguably the replacement for the much-loved 12” PowerBook that the MacBook Air wasn’t. While the MacBook’s footprint is still larger than the baby PowerBook’s was, but otherwise it compares very favorably, actually weighing in at a tenth of a pound lighter, measuring nearly a quarter inch thinner, albeit slightly deeper and substantially wider. It’s certainly small, light, and trim enough to stop my griping about no 12” PowerBook successor.

Here are the respective spec. numbers:

13” MacBook Size And Weight
• Height: 0.95 inch (2.41 cm)
• Width: 12.78 inches (32.5 cm)
• Depth: 8.94 inches (22.7 cm)
• Weight: 4.5 pounds (2.04 kg)1

12” Aluminum PowerBook Size And Weight
• Height:1.18 inches (3.0 cm)
• Width:10.9 inches (27.7 cm)
• Depth:8.6 inches (21.9 cm)
• Weight:4.6 pounds (2.1 kg) with battery and optical drive installed

Speaking of optical drives, the new MacBook and MacBook Pro still have internal slot-loading ones, belying some speculation that they would go with an external optical drive a la the MacBook Air. I’m happy that didn’t happen. I’m also happy that Apple in general resisted going too extreme (viz. the MacBook Air ) with the razor-thin bit. I think the new ‘Books are quite handsome without compromising functionality too drastically.

What has gone missing from both models is the FireWire 400 port, although the MacBook Pro still has a FireWire 800 port that can support FireWire 400 via an adapter.

Gone from the MacBook Pro is a full size DVI video port, which has been displaced by a Mini DisplayPort which requires optional adapter dongles.

All the new models get a 1,066 MHz front-side bus, and all come standard with 2GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM that is expandable to 4GB. Big news for the MacBook is that while it still has integrated graphics support, but it’s the brand new NVIDIA GeForce 9400M chipset rather than the pedestrian Intel GMA X3100 chipset used in the previous MacBooks. NVIDIA’s 9400M is an 3D integrated graphics processor featuring 16 parallel processing cores and delivering up to five times the 3D graphics performance as the GMA chipsets used previous MacBook and MacBook Air models. The new MacBook family will be the first notebook to use NVIDIA’s 9400M graphics processor, which is expected to have sufficient power to run many 3D games that don’t support older integrated graphics technologies. In addition to the 9400M integrated graphics, the MacBook Pro models also get a NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics card with either 256MB or 512 MB GDDR3 video memory.

As had been widely rumored over the past month or so, the new notebooks’ enclosures are made using a revolutionary new manufacturing process in which they are milled from a solid block of extruded aluminum using CNC or “computer numerical control” machines pioneered by the aerospace industry. All material left over from the milling is recycled. Appleinsider has a detailed description of the process with photos here. http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/08/10/14/apple_details_new_macbook_manufacturing_process.html

“Traditionally notebooks are made from multiple parts. With the new MacBook, we’ve replaced all of those parts with just one part - the unibody,” says Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of Industrial Design. “The MacBook’s unibody enclosure is made from a single block of aluminum, making the new MacBook fundamentally thinner, stronger and more robust with a fit and finish that we’ve never even dreamed of before.”

This results in a very strong and rigid monocoque or as Mr. Ive said “unibody” enclosure which should prove admirably rugged and have a very substantial “feel” as well despite being thinner and lighter than the machines these new ones are replacing.

Engineering-wise, the other revolutionary advance with these new machines is their new large glass Multi-Touch trackpads that offer almost 40 percent more tracking area and support more Multi-Touch gestures. The entire trackpad surface is also a button, allowing users to both track and click virtually anywhere on the trackpad, and also Apple says easily enable multiple virtual buttons in software, such as right-clicking.

The new ‘Books get mercury-free LED display backlights that use up to 30 percent less energy than the Cold Cathode Fluorescent tube backlights used in the previous model MacBooks (the 15” MacBook Pro has had LED backlighting since June, 2006), and the displays are made with arsenic-free glass. The displays themselves are the same size and resolution as their outgoing antecedents - 13’3” and 1280 x 800 for the MacBook, and 15.4-inch 1440 x 900 for the MacBook Pro. Both sizes of displays have a glossy finish, behind glass no less.

Apple is also touting the new MacBooks as the most environmentally friendly notebooks ever - all models rating EPEAT Gold status. Products meeting all of 23 required criteria and at least 75 percent of optional criteria are recognized as EPEAT Gold products. The EPEAT program was conceived by the US EPA and is based on IEEE 1680 standard for Environmental Assessment of Personal Computer Products. For more information visit http://www.epeat.net. Each MacBook unibody enclosure is made of highly recyclable aluminum and comes standard with energy efficient LED-backlit displays that are mercury-free and made with arsenic-free glass. The new MacBook family meets stringent Energy Star 4.0 requirements, contains no brominated flame retardants and uses internal cables and components that are PVC-free.

As I noted above, the new 13” MacBook is now a legitimate successor to the erstwhile 12” PowerBook, and essentially the new compact MacBook Pro in everything but name. There are still a few important distinctions - notably the unavailability of the NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics accelerator with dedicated VRAM on the smaller unit, and the lack of an ExpressCard 34 slot and the FireWire port. But then, the 12” PowerBook had no PS CardBus slot and had lower powered graphics than the larger aluminum PowerBooks did.

In terms of processor clock speeds, no big whoop there. The base MacBook actually drops 100 MHz from the previous entry-level model, and the high-end model stays at 2.4 GHz as does the lower-priced MacBook Pro. The high-end 15” MacBook Pro gets a 2.53 GHz processor - all presumably the latest Intel Penryn family Core 2 Duo chips. However, all but the 2.53 GHz unit get 3 MB of shared L2 cache and the latter gets 6MB of shared L2 cache.

Standard hard drive capacities range from 160 GB and 5400 RPM for the $1299 MacBook to 320GB (also 5400 RPM) for the 2.53 GHz MacBook Pro. All the new models (as well as the mildly updated 17” MacBook Pro) are also available with an optional 128 GB solid state drive.

As for the other Apple notebook models, aside from the aforementioned price-leader old school MacBook holdover, the MacBook Air has received an expected, and some would contend overdue, refreshment - updated Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs with 6MB shared L2 cache, a 1066 MHz front-side bus, the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics; the hard drive model is bumped from a marginally-adequate 80 GB to 120 GB and the solid state drive model’s capacity is doubled from 64 GB to 128 GB. Prices remain the same.

For me, I now have some serious thinking to do. The $1,299 MacBook is looking like the sweet spot for value if one can live with a 13’3” display, but it’s early days yet.


13" MacBook Model Chart:

13" 2.4GHz
Aluminum

13.3-inch display
1280 x 800 resolution
2.4GHz Core 2 Duo
2GB RAM
250GB 5400-rpm HD
NVIDIA GeForce 9400M
8x SuperDrive
Gigabit Ethernet
Digital/analog audio
Mini Display Port

$1599

13" 2.0GHz
Aluminum

13.3-inch display
1280 x 800 resolution
2.0GHz Core 2 Duo
2GB RAM
160GB 5400-rpm HD
NVIDIA GeForce 9400M
8x SuperDrive
Gigabit Ethernet
Digital/analog audio
Mini Display Port

$1299

13" 2.1GHz
White

13.3-inch display
1280 x 800 resolution
2.1GHz Core 2 Duo
1GB RAM
120GB 5400-rpm HD
Intel GMA X3100 graphics
8x SuperDrive
Gigabit Ethernet
Digital/analog audio
Mini Display Port

$999