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Friday, October 30, 2009, 05:00 am PT (08:00 am ET)

Review: Apple's redesigned, late 2009 13-inch MacBook

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Apple's new 13-inch MacBook delivers a lower cost option to the company's MacBook Pro line of aluminum notebooks, while providing a similar unibody construction, much improved display, glass trackpad, and environmentally friendly design.

Position in the MacBook family

The new 13-inch MacBook brings the company's "white plastic" model in line with the rest of its notebook offerings, but remains distinguished from the 13-inch MacBook Pro by its slightly larger and heavier polycarbonate body, limited upgrade options for CPU and RAM, and a few significant missing features: no FireWire, no backlit keyboard, no SD card reader, no external battery level indicator, and no IR receiver for using an Apple Remote.

Previous versions of the lower-end MacBook cut costs by supplying a whimper GPU or video output options and supplying a slower processor, but today's version uses the same NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics chip supplying the same output display features, and supplies the same 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo processor with a 1066MHz front side bus and the same 2GB of fast DDR3 RAM as the entry level MacBook Pro. The new MacBook also delivers a much improved, LED backlit display that's much closer in quality to the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro.

This makes the new low end of Apple's notebook lineup a compelling buy for users who want to spend less but don't want to end up stuck with a much less capable machine. For users willing to spend more, the 13-inch MacBook Pro offers a variety of options including a faster 2.53GHz processor option and up to 8GB of RAM expansion; the white MacBook is limited to a maximum of 4GB of RAM.

MacBook 2009


The new MacBook also now comes standard with a larger 250GB, 5400 rpm hard drive, with options to upgrade to a 320GB or 500GB disk. The new MacBook is still $999, and it's cheaper than the MacBook Pro line for clear reasons, but its a better deal than ever as Apple's entry-level notebook.

MacBook family 2009


Unibody design changes

The new MacBook's unibody construction not only provides a tighter fit and finish, but also provides the same 60 watt-hour battery that is sealed into the case rather than being designed to pop out for replacement. The new integrated battery means the MacBook now delivers up to 7 hours of "wireless productivity," an exceptionally long capacity for a notebook and particularly an entry level model. A two-hour DVD played through twice before the machine shut down; that's a hair over four hours of continuous DVD-spinning, sleepless uptime on a single charge. In more normal use, where the machine can idle the processor, spin down drives, and fully use its battery saving technologies, the seven hour maximum looks attainable.

The integrated battery also means there's no covers or latches on the bottom. Instead, the notebook's bottom is finished with a lap heat-insulating, rubberized surface held in place by eight screws. Apple says the battery is rated to last through 1,000 charging cycles before its performance begins to wane, around five years or about as long as the system's life span.

MacBook 2009


After the battery begins to fade it can be replaced, but the company says it should last about as long as three conventional laptop batteries, which it touts as a significant edge in environmentally friendly sophistication. However, the new MacBook doesn't have a physical integrated battery indicator like the MacBook Pro models, so if you want to know how much life you have left, you'll need to have it on to check the menu bar indicator.

MacBook 2009 corners


While the aerodynamic curves of the body styling are new, it builds upon design cues from the original MacBook introduced in 2006 as Apple's first Intel Mac: a recessed keyboard frame that backs the keyboard into the top surface of the machine, allowing the lid to shut without the screen hitting the keys; a lid that shuts with magnetic attraction rather than using physical latches; and an internal layout that locates its ports along the left side and places the optical drive in the top-right corner.

MacBook 2009


The white plastic used in the new MacBook design is glossier than ever, with an almost wet look on the top cover and palm rests. This will defiantly show smudges and scratches, particularly when light glances off its shiny surfaces, although the white color tends to hide any minor scuffs in general use. There's no black version this time around, as a dark machine this glossy would look terrible almost instantly. Don't expect this machine to stand up to scratches any better than the backside of an iPhone.

Like the aluminum MacBook Pros introduced last year, the MacBook's display lid and hinge is similarly built tighter and stronger, resembling the design of the MacBook Air. The case is a bit thinner than the previous model, but its rounded corners give it a cleaner, thinner, and more solid feel and appearance. The lid has no 'bounce flop' when adjusting the viewing angle. The lid also opens significantly wider than the previous model, another welcomed change.

MacBook 2009 hinge


The MacBook lid doesn't have the same "fall shut" problem we discovered on the aluminum models, so if you hold the body perpendicular to the ground, its lid won't fall shut by gravity. With Apple's earlier unibody notebooks, if you're laying in bed and hold the screen closer for examination, the lid will fall shut and smack you in the face. The new MacBook lid offers more resistance to closing; its open screen will stay open when held at any angle. The new lid design closes with a more pleasing, smooth action and shuts precisely with an invisible magnetic latch action that sticks the lid shut but offers no resistance when you want to open it.

The new MacBook is 4.5 lb (2.0 kg) and its body is 0.95 x 12.78 x 8.94 inches (24.1 x 325 x 227 mm). The previous white MacBook body weighed in at a slightly heavier 5.0 lb (2.3 kg) and was a little thicker at 1.08 x 12.78 x 8.92 inches (27.5 x 325 x 226.5 mm). There's no longer an IR receiver, only a sleep indicator light on the front right edge.

On page 2 of 3: The glossy LED-backlit screen; and The keyboard and trackpad.