Apple's unibody MacBook: the review
Standing as the single largest change to an Apple portable in recent history, the 13" MacBook completely overhauls the system with a switch from plastic to a strong, thinner aluminum shell and a totally new platform that puts it into a new performance category — albeit with key sacrifices to meet its goals.
Without retreading too much of the territory covered in our MacBook Pro review, the new 13" MacBook represents one of the most fundamental rethinks of Apple's notebook design philosophy in several years and is an even greater change than for the professional-level models.
While still an important change, the MacBook Pro was already made out of aluminum and so has had many of the incidental benefits of using the metal format for years. It was thinner, often lighter for the size, and was resistant to everyday damage from scratches and stains. That wasn't the case for the regular MacBook, which has unfortunately had to contend with a plastic shell until now. It was relatively well designed; having used it extensively here at AppleInsider, though, it was clearly the definition of compromise. Plastic simply doesn't exude confidence. It creaks, it groans, and (in a few situations) could result in cracks and permanent discoloration. We just couldn't get excited about it.
Compared to that model, the new MacBook is a revelation. The unibody process, which inverts the construction from a "bucket" design that fills a bottom tray with contents to a single-piece case with two bottom panels, is absolutely rock-solid. Not once in our testing did the new model appear anything less than sturdy; and while it's not exactly a recommended carrying practice, you can even hold the notebook one-handed from a corner without the chassis giving the slightest hint that it's under too much stress. Apple obviously wants a system that will last for the long haul, and it just happens to look beautiful at the same time. It's Apple's best-looking and durable "starter" system ever, as far as we're concerned.
This structural boost includes the display, too. Despite being much thinner due to the uses of aluminum and LED backlighting, the housing for the screen is equally as sturdy as the shell and is actually more reassuring than the thicker plastic lid of the now-obsolete model. The hinge has been improved substantially as well and has a smoother motion with a wider possible angle than the old version. One caveat, however: the same mechanism that smoothes out the display's movement backwards also removes much of the resistance to moving forwards when the notebook is held near-upright, so those who tend to compute at extreme angles may find the display closing shut. It's a small tradeoff and definitely worth the benefits for the majority of users.
Heat appears to be improved: even while running intensive 3D benchmark testing, the MacBook merely got noticeably warm in the back-left corner rather than scaldingly hot as with earlier MacBook Pro units. Part of this may stem from the use of a cooler-running CPU, but the case and internals combined nonetheless result in a system which can actually be used as a laptop without a cushion or lap board to absorb warmth.
More impressively, Apple has managed to accomplish all this while slimming the MacBook down considerably from its plastic ancestor. The MacBook Pro again didn't have far to go; the new 13" system, however, is more than a tenth of an inch thinner than its outgoing equivalent and exactly a half-pound lighter. It's the first time in ages — if ever — that the company's consumer-level portable has been as thin as the pro system, and the reduced weight is better still than the much-loved 12" PowerBook's 4.6-pound casing. The aluminum MacBook feels tangibly lighter than either the old MacBook or the PowerBook, and that goes a long way towards wanting to carry the system everywhere.
As such, it's hard not to consider the unibody shell a massive step forward. There's an important and well-known concession in expansion that we'll touch on in detail further into the review, but it's hard to argue against the shift to aluminum and new internal construction given the strides in longevity and perceived quality. Most Windows notebooks, even those in a similarly high price range, just don't feel as well-built.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It's undoubtedly stating the obvious that Apple's decision to axe FireWire of any kind from its entry-level MacBooks has been one of the company's most controversial moves of recent years and may well rank as the riskiest design decision for the company in the past decade, short of the choice to scrap virtually all proprietary Apple ports with the original 1998 iMac.
It actually results in less expansion for the MacBook overall than the previous computer and also limits the types of peripherals that can be used: FireWire storage drives, many MiniDV and professional cameras, and even legacy iPods are now all cut out of the mix.
There are potentially good technical reasons for this. A look at the inside reveals very little room for extra ports on either side. However, Apple has also defended itself by arguing that modern users don't need FireWire nearly as much as they did even a few years ago. In fact, company chief Steve Jobs has responded at least twice to fans and journalists alike noting that the majority of new camcorders now transfer video over USB and thus don't need the since-discarded FireWire port.
That may be true, and in our case we're (mostly) placid about the whole affair. Most prospective buyers moving to HD or newer SD camcorders will need to rely on USB regardless; few other modern peripherals absolutely depend on FireWire or substantially benefit from it, and the all-in-one nature of a notebook reduces the need for extra devices.
That said, it's still a significant omission from an otherwise fine notebook and still forces some buyers into an uncomfortable position. Professionals are now excluded from smaller systems not just for high-end video editing but for many audio breakout boxes, which often need the low latency of FireWire to work. And those of us who simply want to use FireWire to free up the two USB ports now don't have a choice. There's always the slight chance that Apple will find time for a slight redesign of the MacBook to fit a port, but we're not counting on it.
Apart from what's missing, there's only one real change to expansion, and that's the addition of a Mini DisplayPort jack. While that has upset MacBook Pro buyers used to a full DVI link, in the MacBook's case it's almost uniformly positive. Even the most affordable Apple notebook can now drive a 30-inch display (albeit with an adapter, at present) and is considerably more futureproofed than the old Mini DVI model. There are very few DisplayPort screens today, but that will change.
Buyers may want to be careful before opting in, though. Apple doesn't include any DVI and VGA adapters in the box and charges a fairly steep $29 for the privilege; it's yet another adapter to fit another new standard. Moreover, it's not as simple as buying a third-party DisplayPort screen, such as those from Dell. At present, there's no Mini DisplayPort to full DisplayPort adapter, and so users are faced with buying a pricey LED-backlit Cinema Display if they want to use the new standard with a direct connection.
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.
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.
Readers are encouraged to read our detailed processor comparison to learn all of what's new in Apple's new NVIDIA-based architecture and an explanation of what determines performance, though there are key differences between the Pro and the new 13" models.
Curiously, Apple has willingly taken a step back in clock speed for the sake of technology. Spending $1,299 now only gets you a 2GHz processor — and it now costs $1,599 for the 2.4GHz that once occupied the $1,299 price point. It's not quite a downgrade: both chips now have a faster 1067MHz system bus and consume just 25W of thermal peak power versus 35W for the older chips. That translates to cooler and more energy-efficient processors as well as a slight gain in performance per clock.
NVIDIA's GeForce 9400M hardware also has a much bigger role to play in the lower-cost MacBook. The MacBook Pro simply uses it to save power; in the MacBook, it replaces Intel's aging GMA X3100 integrated graphics and is claimed to boost performance by roughly 5X in games and other graphics-intensive apps. It also has the side benefit of reducing the footprint of the MacBook's internal components by consolidating the integrated graphics, memory controller and peripheral bus into one monolithic chip.
This two steps forward, one step back approach bears out in synthetic tests as well as less formal, hands-on experience. Testing using Primate Labs' Geekbench, which chiefly focuses on processor performance, shows a slight boost in performance at the same 2.4GHz clock speed in all categories of processor performance, but only a miniscule one. We don't have a 2GHz model to test but expect similar results versus the 2.1GHz chip that now occupies Apple's $999, previous-generation machine. We've also included the new 2.53GHz MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM from our MacBook Pro review to compare performance with Apple's new flagship.
Geekbench 2 tests; higher scores are better.
If we were to base performance solely on these benchmarks, the new MacBooks would almost be considered a failure: users are actually paying between $200 to $300 more for roughly the same processor.
Things start to change, however, when you toss hardware 3D speed into the equation. A test with Maxon's CINEBENCH R10 shows that the new MacBook is actually slightly slower than the previous model in pure CPU (software-based) rendering but utterly decimates the older system when it leans on its 9400M graphics for rendering a scene using the OpenGL video standard. The difference is so stark that it puts the 13" MacBook within spitting distance of the MacBook Pro, which has the benefits of a much faster GeForce 9600M GT, more memory and a faster core.
CINEBENCH R10 tests; higher scores are better.
With speeds like these, the MacBook now effectively has mid-range graphics in a thin-and-light system. We wouldn't go so far as to call a $1,299 or even $1,599 system low-end, but it now saves at least $400 for those who want the headroom for heavy-duty production in a small Mac. Color questions aside, we wouldn't be surprised if Apple opened the doors to officially supporting Final Cut Studio on a MacBook for the first time.
Performance: games and general video performance
At the same time as we've quantified the MacBook's performance on the professional end, we've also run the system through its paces and monitored frame rates during play for some games as a way to test Apple's performance claims.
On the earlier MacBook, gaming for all but 2D or particularly old titles is virtually impossible. In Quake 4, frame rates are so low as to be extremely choppy at 1024x768. An older-still game like Unreal Tournament 2004 does play within a few frames per second of a TV-like 30 frames per second at the same resolution, but it also has much less detail. And some games are entirely beyond the GMA X3100's scope; we wouldn't want to play truly modern games like Call of Duty 4 on Intel's stock hardware at all.
By contrast, the GeForce 9400M is an out-and-out powerhouse. Quake 4 does stutter at points — particularly those with several characters onscreen in complex indoor environments — but holds much closer and sometimes surpasses the 30 frames per second mark with medium-level detail that would crush the Intel video. Unreal Tournament 2004 also runs much more quickly; we never once saw the frame rate dip below 30 frames per second even at the 13" screen's maximum 1280x800, and in-play speed was often significantly higher.
Excluding gameplay, the video speed is also noticeably improved just in general tasks. The previous-generation MacBook would frequently drop a few frames during Dashboard or Expose transitions, especially in heavy use. On the aluminum system's 9400M, those drops never occur. We can also vouch for reduced CPU usage during QuickTime movies thanks to the 9400M's hardware acceleration. When playing a 1080p trailer from Apple's website, processor usage never climbed above 28.6 percent in Activity Monitor where it would at times climb much higher on the earlier MacBook, often hovering between 70 and 90 percent.
If one were to gauge some of the reactions to the redesign of the MacBook, the system would be an abject failure. Without FireWire or a truly vivid display, this notebook just isn't the compact AV editor some want it or even need it to be. And these complaints aren't without their merits. While Apple isn't obligated to please everyone all of the time, it's at least slightly unfair to push customers towards systems that may stretch their budgets or their bags when it may well have been avoidable.
And yet, this may well be Apple's best MacBook to date.
The plastic MacBook is and was less expensive, but it was also built to meet a price and has seemed it with each of its revisions. Mac OS X was always an important draw, but it risked being the only draw as a cheap-feeling case, a particularly poor display and sub-par graphics all amounted to a system that wasn't Apple's best representative in a crowded field.
By most degrees, the new MacBook solves these problems, especially in terms of build quality. Apple has often priced its entry notebooks above basic Windows equivalents; now most users can point to the design and have it speak for itself.
Moreover, it's one of the first examples of Apple returning to a distinctly innovative approach that is hard to pin down in a one-for-one specifications breakdown. No one else manufactures notebooks this way; no one else has a multi-touch trackpad this sophisticated; and as of press time, no other PC maker has this level of visual performance in a system so small and and its price.
Since it's so thin and light, we're even tempted to suggest it as a MacBook Air replacement. It may not have the dimensions or featherweight design of the Air, but it's so tangibly more portable and resilient than the plastic MacBook that some of the reasons to buy the ultraportable have disappeared.
The first-generation MacBook quickly became Apple's best-selling Mac of any type, and so much of Apple's future success hinges on how well the aluminum sequel fares. It remains to be seen whether the higher asking price and the limited expansion will tarnish that reputation, but most other aspects have been so thoroughly polished that the overhauled design has at last earned its top spot.
Rating 4 out of 5
Dramatically improved build quality
Major upgrade to video performance
Noticeably better LCD
Clever multi-touch trackpad
Backlit keyboard on top-end model
Good battery life
Display still not at Air or Pro image quality; gloss may irk some
No FireWire of any type
Price for CPU speeds a partial step backwards
No bundled DisplayPort adapter
No mini-to-full DisplayPort adapter (yet)