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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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Expansion ports

Last year, Apple incited irritation when it removed FireWire from the 13-inch aluminum MacBook, which has since been renamed as a MacBook Pro and regained its missing FireWire port. The white MacBook has always supplied a FireWire port, but now in its unibody redesign it has lost it, restoring the company's position that consumers don't need it. FireWire still does things USB can't do, so this is disappointing to see, but anyone who uses FireWire is actually quite likely to be in the group that would opt for the aluminum 13-inch MacBook Pro instead.

If a Mac notebook model is destined to lack FireWire, at least it makes more sense to have it missing on the low end model aimed at students on a budget. Also missing is the SD card slot that showed up on MacBook Pros this summer as a replacement for their ExpressCard slot. While this consumer-oriented feature makes sense on the MacBook, it appears it didn't make the feature list due to space constraints. There's two USB ports, so users who want to connect to their camera's SD card will still be able to do what most Mac users have always needed to do: use a USB adapter. The other alternative is to use Eye-Fi's WiFi-enabled SD card to transfer pictures without handling a card at all.

The new model apparently still provides no support for audio output over its Mini DisplayPort connector (which is supported in the DisplayPort specification), so unlike Apple TV there's no way to output both audio and video over the same cable in the manner of HDMI. That necessitates either using a hybrid Mini DisplayPort plus USB cable for driving an HDMI display with audio, or using a separate audio cable from the MacBook's headphone audio output using an analog cable or digital optical TOSLINK cable for audio.

The MacBook retains the excellent audio out options that support both headphone and digital optical mini S/PDIF output, although it does not support S/PDIF audio input on a dedicated port. The headphone jack also supports iPhone-style headphones with an integrated mic and a playback control button. That's a great feature for anyone doing iChat audio or video conferencing or using another VoIP program on the go, as the notebook's built in microphone makes it hard to isolate background noise, and most mics and headsets designed for generic PCs lack the higher line level output required by previous Macs' mic input port.

The MacBook's MagSafe power adapter is 60 watts, and uses the compact style connector of the MacBook Air, although it also works fine with existing adapters that shipped with other MacBook models and the connector used by the 24" LED Cinema Display.

MacBook 2009


For more information on FireWire features, see: Jobs responds to outrage over MacBook's missing FireWire
For more information on audio and DisplayPort features, see: Inside the new MacBooks: Audio and Video
For more information on iPhone-style headphone jacks, see: Using iPod & iPhone Video Out: Background and In-Depth Review

Performance overview: CPU and RAM

The new MacBook offers the same CPU/GPU and standard RAM as the entry level 13-inch MacBook Pro: a 2.26GHz Intel P7550 Penryn Core 2 Duo CPU paired with NVIDIA's MCP79MX controller with integrated GPU, which Apple calls by its marketing name: the 9400M. That chip also provides chipset controller functions (such as RAM, PCIe, SATA, and USB interfaces). Apple uses faster DDR3 "PC3-8500" RAM, which runs at 1067MHz along with the FSB for communications between the CPU, RAM, and the integrated GPU.

The MacBook's GPU supports NVIDIA's PureVideo HD for hardware acceleration of H.264 and MPEG-2. The primary purpose for NVIDIA including this on the GPU is to support Blu-ray, which the new notebook does not support. However, Apple has now added a hardware support component to QuickTime to enable any application that uses QuickTime to play MPEG-2 (DVD Player) or MPEG-4 (iTunes) content to do so more efficiently. Farming video decoding off to the GPU rather than the CPU means better battery life and cooler operation.

For more information on how the NVIDIA chipset compares to previous architectures, see the article Inside the new MacBooks: FireWire, USB, and the NVIDIA Controller.

The performance numbers presented by Primate Lab's Geekbench 2.1 (below) indicate that the new MacBook's performance is very close to last year’s MacBook Pro models, and nearly as fast as a two year old desktop iMac, but not nearly the speed of a Mac Pro workstation. The Core 2 Duo MacBook is a 3-5x jump over performance of a three year old PowerBook G4. Longer bars are better.

MacBook 2009 geekbench


The New MacBook in Review

The new unibody MacBook is better built, more attractive, thinner, stronger and more rigid, with a nicer feel to the tighter-fitting display lid. It delivers a nice balance between weight and performance, using a built-in battery that delivers long life without needing to carry around spares.

The glossy screen will not appeal to some users, but the display itself looks great, and is a significant jump up in quality compared to the previous MacBooks. This model offer a minor jump in overall performance. If you're in the market for a new MacBook, the new model makes a great, well rounded upgrade.

Compared to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, the choice is pretty simple: the cheaper, plastic consumer-oriented version that drops a few hardware features (including FireWire, SD reader, and the backlit keyboard) and upgrade options (a max of 4 rather than 8GB of RAM, and a slightly faster CPU) or $200 more for the aluminum finished, compromise-free Pro.

Rating 4 out of 5

4-stars


Pros:
Greatly improved construction
Brighter, higher quality screen
Great overall value; same base specs as MacBook Pro

Cons:
No FireWire, IR, SD card reader, battery indicator
Few BTO upgrade options outside of the MacBook Pro

Where to Buy

Below is a table of MacBook prices from leading Apple Resellers that was extracted from AppleInsider's MacPriceGuide. Currently, OnSale.com is offering the lowest price on the new notebook at $899.18 after a mail-in-rebate and exclusive 3% discount available only to AppleInsider readers. However, this coupon expires on Oct 31st (tomorrow) and won't return until some time next year.




To see the 3 percent discount and achieve the final price of $899.18, you must first add the MacBook to your shopping cart. The 3% discount is reflected as "Instant Discount(s)" during checkout, after the items have been placed in your shopping cart.

For similar offers on the remainder of Apple's Mac product line, please see our full-fledged Mac Price Guide.