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Sunday, November 02, 2008, 07:35 am PT (10:35 am ET)

Apple's unibody MacBook: the review


A welcome change: the new glossy display

Although the new MacBook represents a major leap in overall design, many of its elements are more evolutions of those from its predecessor versus the major revisions that were almost necessary for the MacBook Pro. Owners of the previous model, for example, will be all too keen to point out that they were the first to be given a glossy display on an Apple computer. They're consequently not being pushed into a display they weren't already familiar with, even if it's not necessarily what they would like.

In practice, the same advantages and pitfalls remain. Apple will tell you that the glossy glass makes colors "pop;" we're not sure that's quite as true as the company claims, but it's arguably more dynamic than a matte display. The gloss is still a problem for reflections, though, and may hurt professionals who were hoping for a reflection-free display or those who don't have much control over bright spot lighting in the background. We're not entirely convinced by critics who say a glossy LCD is useless outside, however. Our experience has both glossy and matte displays being just as useful or useless in direct sunlight. The real solution to outdoor viewability is a transflective display like that on Toshiba's Portege R600, not the level of polish on the surface.

About the only change in the gloss is the edge-to-edge glass, which now introduces gloss to the bezel as well as the main panel. It does draw attention to itself in a way the flat plastic bezel doesn't, but it also doesn't affect real-world use since any pronounced reflections stop at the LCD itself. And while it's an arbitrary change on the MacBook Pro's previously matte-first finish, the black frame and glass are ultimately an improvement in appearance. They're classic tricks to lure in buyers, but they give the appearance of a premium product and put the MacBook in the same upscale design category as nearly all of Apple's circa-2008 lineup.

MacBook aluminum display angle


If there's one change that can be considered a revolution, though, it's the MacBook's LED backlighting. The plastic MacBook's cold-cathode fluorescent (CCFL) lighting and screen were, to put it bluntly, terrible: colors would start changing with anything less than a head-on view, and it wasn't all that bright, either. The LED light is much brighter and more uniform in illuminating the display. In slightly dim lighting, you can easily run the display at one-thirds brightness, We found it generally easier to overpower some reflections in the glossy screen solely by stepping up the brightness a few notches.

The lighting appears to have contributed to an overall better viewing angle. It's possible that panel changes have been made as well, but as a general rule the newer 13" LCD kept more of the original picture color at off angles and was more pleasant to use in the process. If the previous MacBook's screen was frequently a turn-off, the new system's is at least acceptable.

Even so, it's not all sunshine and roses. There's no question that Apple is still deliberately cutting costs by using a lower-quality panel than on its higher-end systems. The evidence is patently clear just by looking at a MacBook Air: while both it and the new MacBook have 13" displays, the more expensive Air's panel is noticeably more vivid, produces deeper blacks, and does a better job of preserving color in less than ideal viewing positions. On this least expensive of new-generation portables, the MacBook's panel is comparatively dull in color and still has a tendency to wash out colors at extreme viewpoints.

MacBook aluminum top-down


That unfortunately rules out the MacBook for color-sensitive editing or for those who assumed the Air's display was an indication that Apple had learned its lesson with skimping on displays. It hasn't, at least not entirely, but now the display is good enough to be very acceptable in day-to-day use. Here's hoping cost savings elsewhere let Apple upgrade the regular MacBook to the Air's screen.