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

Apple's unibody MacBook: the review


Battery access, battery life, and drive/memory expansion

Unsurprisingly, access to internal components is just a downscaled version of what's found on the new 15" MacBook Pro. Rather than fit the battery to an outside corner, it's now tucked inside the system in a special compartment opened with a finger latch. It's not quite as convenient as the old design in that you don't have outside access to the battery, but you also don't need a coin to pry the battery loose, either. The same mixed bag philosophy applies to a choice to move the battery charge meter off of the battery and on to the notebook itself. It's helpful for checking power without removing the panel and potentially saves costs for the batteries themselves, but it also means users can't check the power level of a secondary battery without first plugging it in.

Apple has also shrunk the battery down to a 45Wh (watt-hour) pack. This theoretically shrinks battery life, though not by as much as you'd think in real life. In standard Wi-Fi browsing and with roughly 40 percent brightness, our review MacBook lasts just shy of 4.5 hours on a single charge. That's a testament either to the new NVIDIA chipset or the new 25W Core 2 Duo processor. Either way, it's appreciated that the company is doing more with less, even if it produces slightly less overall for certain users.

For the hard drive, Apple has only budged slightly. Its stock disks are exactly the same as before: the $1,299 model carries a 160GB drive, while the top-end model carries 250GB. Most of the change now comes from expansion options that include 250GB and 320GB drives spinning at 5400 RPM or 7200 RPM as well as a new 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) choice. We see the 7200 RPM hard drives as the best expansion options for anyone not satisfied with the stock hard drives, since hard drive transfer speeds can matter as much as RAM for perceived system speed. The SSD makes less sense here than on the MacBook Air or Pro, though, as few will need the extra speed in a mid-range notebook at the expense of a large amount of hard drive space.

Access to the hard drive is roughly as simple as it has been for the earlier MacBook. There's no L-plate covering the hard drive, but it's also not a tool-free operation; understandably, Apple doesn't want the hard drive sitting loose. The feature is still simple enough that any mildly experienced user can buy and add a hard drive without risking the system itself. If you'd rather upgrade hard drive capacity in a year or two than replace the system outright, the MacBook makes the process fairly trivial.

MacBook aluminum battery bay


Upgrading memory is trickier, however. The plastic MacBook still required the removal of the L-plate, but the brunt of the system remained closed in the process. Now, a RAM swap requires unscrewing the entire back of the system and exposing the entire underside. There's little danger involved, but it's a more laborious task than it used to be. That's also if you can justify upgrading RAM: 4GB is Apple's official maximum, and while 2x2GB upgrade kits are affordable, those from Ramjet for 6GB (the current maximum) can cost as much as $675. We found the stock 2GB of memory acceptable for common tasks.