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

Apple's unibody MacBook: the review


The backlit keyboard

Changes to the keyboard are subtler still. Unlike the Pro, the MacBook has had a through-the-tray keyboard (affectionately nicknamed a "chiclet" keyboard) since it first launched in May of 2006. Very little has changed apart from the minor additions of the Dashboard/Expose and media shortcuts made in late 2007. About the only differences are the smoother black keys and unified up/down directional keys, which are stiffer than the earlier separated layout. The travel is still short and precise, and the keys are reliably attached.

But in keeping with its long tradition of adding pro features to consumer notebooks with major updates, Apple has brought the long-requested backlit keyboard to its ordinary MacBook. Any college student who has had to type notes in a dark lecture hall, or nearly anyone else who types in less-than-perfect light, will appreciate it fairly quickly. As before, the keyboard lighting is automatically adjusted by a sensor and so is almost entirely hands-off from the user's perspective.

If anything, the lighting settings are overly aggressive. The environment is often dark enough to understand why the light would engage, but in some situations the room is still bright enough that it's still very easy to read the key lettering without the backlight's help. You can of course tone down the lighting manually or even force it off if it's unnecessary.

MacBook aluminum backlit keyboard


The only true flaw of the 13" MacBook's backlit keyboard is the cost of ownership. As of this writing, only the $1,599 2.4GHz model comes with this keyboard. With this kind of difference, it's just not worthwhile to buy the more expensive model with the backlighting as a primary consideration. We've tried using the system with the lighting off, and it's more than acceptable to go without if you don't expect to be doing most of your work in low light.

The glass trackpad

The most important hardware design for the MacBook outside of its aluminum chassis is by far its trackpad. In many senses, it embodies everything Apple has hoped to achieve in the 2000s for its designs and seems right at home in an era of iPhones.

To recap the earlier MacBook Pro review, Apple has continued its minimalist, multi-touch streak by removing any dedicated trackpad buttons whatsoever. Instead, the trackpad itself becomes the button with a physical press on all but the very top of the pad registering as a standard click. Apple's ostensible goal is to afford more room for touch gestures and to free users from having to tap a specific area to perform common tasks. The glass surface is chiefly there to reduce friction for gestures and has a strangely smooth yet grippy texture that renders movements fairly effortless.

MacBook aluminum trackpad


It works surprisingly well, though as we've mentioned, it carries its own drawbacks. Apple doesn't let you switch off most gestures aside from tap-to-click, so there's a certain amount of retraining involved: those who don't pay particular attention to their finger positions may find themselves inadvertently pinching to zoom or swiping through pages, though in fairness most of these commands need deliberate movements to take effect. Once you're comfortable, it can become second-nature and is helped along by the addition of four-finger gestures for Expose and app switching.

On our particular MacBook unit, we didn't encounter the occasionally unresponsive click action of the MacBook Pro we tested, suggesting that any problem is more likely to either be Pro-specific or an occasional hiccup in production.

The only true roadblock to the glass trackpad being a uniform advancement for Mac portables is the same decision that led to the Mighty Mouse: it's designed primarily for typical conditions in Mac OS X and iLife, not all apps. It's hard to blame Apple for wanting to tailor its hardware to its software, but there will always be games and other software that won't work quite so well by clicking down the entire pad, and there will be creative tools that could greatly benefit from pinches or swipes but which don't get software support.