In the two and half years since the first MacBook model, Apple has tweaked and improved its consumer-level laptop line three times. But the latest (fourth) version is a giant leap for the MacBook, compared to the baby steps of the earlier updates. With the latest design (both inside and out), the MacBook has become a lot more like a MacBook Pro mini.
Previously, the MacBook was available in three models, with a base model starting at US$1,099, and a high-end, black-encased model at $1,499. The new MacBooks raise the price of entry to $1,299, and the top price jumps to $1,599. (Apple is still selling the previous low-end white MacBook for $999, a $100 drop from when it was initially released in March. It now has a SuperDrive instead of a Combo Drive.)
What's most noticeable about the new MacBook is its design. Apple ditched the MacBook's polycarbonate case for one made of precision-crafted aluminum, the same case design used in the new MacBook Pro. The result is a sleeker, more rounded design; when closed, it looks very svelte, even though the MacBook is only 0.13 inches thinner than its predecessor (the very thin top of the MacBook looks like that of the MacBook Air. It also shaves half a pound off the previous MacBook's five-pound weight; the difference is definitely noticeable and makes the MacBook just a little more portable. Even though the case is made of metal, the MacBook didn't get hot during my testing. Typing most of this review on a 2.4GHz model resting on my lap was not in the least bit uncomfortable and the fans didn't kick in once.
The keyboard is similar to previous MacBooks, but the keys are black across both aluminum models; previously, only the black MacBook had black keys. The keys are easy to type on and have a nice, springy response to them. The high-end MacBook even includes a backlit keyboard, a first on the MacBook line.
Apple also moved the battery indicator lights to the front left side rather than on the bottom, so you don't need to flip the MacBook over to see the remaining charge (it also indicates when the battery is missing). And speaking of batteries, Apple has redesigned the battery itself and how you access it. On the previous MacBook, the back of the battery could be seen as a panel at the bottom of the case, and you needed to unlock the battery by turning a lock with a coin or screwdriver. The battery in the new MacBook is housed underneath a thin metal door that unlocks with the flick of a latch. Remove the door and you have quick access to the battery, as well as the hard drive (a single screw keeps the drive in place) and RAM (after removing eight other screws).
Apple claims five hours of battery life for the new MacBooks, which Apple measures by wirelessly browsing Web sites and editing text in a word processing document with display brightness set to 50 percent. In our testing, battery life was 2 hours and 35 minutes for the 2.0GHz model and 2 hours and 33 minutes for the 2.4GHz model; we tested for watching a movie on an airplane, playing a movie clip in QuickTime ripped from a DVD to the laptop's hard drive. We played the movie at full screen with brightness set to maximum. Although you can't directly compare Apple's numbers and ours, both MacBooks lasted a little longer than the new MacBook Pro models, even when running the MacBook Pros with the 9400M graphics processor (the more battery-conserving option). The previous white plastic 2.1GHz MacBook, however, beat the new MacBooks in battery life, lasting nearly 3 hours.
Apple moved the stereo speakers underneath the keyboard and I expected the sound to suffer. But music played in iTunes was surprisingly loud and clear, and hiding the speakers has the effect of making the sound seem like it's coming from the whole computer rather than from a portion of it. The speakers are some of the best I've heard on an Apple laptop.
Also, the iSight camera and its microphone are now separated. The camera is centered at the top of the display, and the mic moves next to the keyboard. Although the mic is therefore closer to the keyboard, Apple says it has built noise reduction into the microphone (it's on all the time) to reduce ambient noise pick up. In a video chat with a friend 400 miles away, the camera and mic performed very well, and a recording of my voice using QuickTime Player didn't pick up any unwanted hum or hard drive noise.
The next major change from previous MacBooks is the display. Although the MacBook has the same 13.3-inch size screen and 1,280-by-800 pixel resolution as the previous models, these are the first MacBooks to use a backlit LED (light-emitting diode) display. Compared to the screens on the previous MacBook, the new backlit LEDs are thinner, brighter, and more power-efficient.
Resting over the face of the display is a piece of glass with a roughly three-quarters-of-an-inch-thick black mask that replaces the bezel of old (the overall black-and-silver color scheme gives the MacBook a strong kinship with the iMac). Apple says that the flat pane of glass and curved aluminum top provide sufficient strength to protect the screen, and the solid feel to the construction seems to back that up. I was also impressed with how well the glass resisted fingerprints as I ran my fingers over it. Unlike my iPhone, which requires near daily rubdowns from the soft black cloth that comes in the box, I didn't need to wipe off the MacBook at all in my use (there is a cloth included in the MacBook box, however).
A point of contention often brought up when it comes to displays is gloss. Some complain about seeing reflections in glossy screens, interfering with usability. Other lament the glare coming off the glass. Still others say glossy displays are unfit for high-end color work in graphics or video. Whether or not you like a glossy screen is a personal decision, but the LED display used in the MacBook is very bright, which tends to mitigate glare or reflectivity issues. Also, with a laptop you can adjust the angle and position of your computer in such a way to overcome many potential problems. But if the lack of a matte option, for many, is a deal-breaker.
In terms of viewing angle, the MacBook's display performs well, with very little color shift or change in brightness, when viewed from side to side. Looking at the screen from above or below has more of an impact, changing color and contrast dramatically.
You may not know by touching it that the trackpad on the newest MacBooks is a piece of glass, coated with a textured material to match the look (but not feel) of the aluminum body of the MacBook. It's smoother than the case, but strikes a nice balance so that your fingers glide easily across it, with enough texture to give you some traction.
The new trackpad has no button below the trackpad area. The entire trackpad acts as a button, and you can feel the trackpad depress as you push your finger on it to click (there's a narrow strip near the top that doesn't move, but otherwise you can click anywhere you want on it). With no separate button, the trackpad is larger overall. The tactile feedback when you press down to click is very helpful, although using the new trackpad does take some getting used to, especially if you've been using an Apple laptop in the past. I found myself still using my thumb to click on the trackpad (as I did with the button in my earlier MacBook), which sometimes didn't work as expected because I had another finger on the trackpad at the same time. Also, it seems to takes a little more force to press down the larger trackpad than the smaller button of old.
The new trackpad also supports Multi-Touch, which gives MacBooks users access to multi-finger gestures (demonstrated with videos in the new Trackpad system preference). Like on the MacBook Pro, you can now rotate images with a twist of your fingertips, scroll through photos with three fingers, or use new four-finger gestures, where you can swipe fingers up or down to engage Expose or sideways to bring up OS X's Application Switcher. You can also designate the bottom left or right corner as a right-click. Once you learn and get used to these gestures, they can save you time and cursor movement.
On the inside
The latest MacBooks use the same Intel Core 2 Duo (Penryn) processors with 3MB of shared L2 cache as the previous MacBooks. Whereas the last MacBooks came with either a 2.1GHz or 2.4GHz processor, the new models offer 2.0GHz or 2.4GHz options. At the same time, there are other architectural advances that make up for the small different in processor speed, including a frontside bus that increases from 800MHz to 1,066MHz, and RAM that increases from 667MHz DDR2 to 1,066MHz DDR3.
The MacBooks include the same 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) wireless networking as before. The 2.0GHz model has a 160GB, 5400-rpm SATA hard drive, while the 2.4GHz model includes a 250GB drive at the same speed. For the first time with a MacBook, however, you can opt for a 128GB Solid State Drive (SSD) for $700 extra on the 2.0GHz model, or $600 extra on the 2.4GHz model. Both models come with an 8x slot-loading SuperDrive.
Another important advancement with the latest MacBooks is the new Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics processor (Apple is the first company to ship a computer using the 9400M). Unlike the integrated Intel GMA X3100 graphics in the previous MacBooks, the 9400M has its own graphics processing unit (GPU), giving it a lot more power than the Intel chip.
Like the X3100, the 9400M doesn't have its own memory, and instead borrows main system RAM--but the MacBook now uses fast DDR3 SDRAM and the GPU gets 256MB of RAM, a boost from the 144MB that the X3100 used. With more RAM going to graphics, it's even more important to max out the MacBook's RAM than before. Apple currently charges $150 to double the RAM to the 4GB maximum, which is comparable to what third-party RAM vendors are asking at this point. If you get it from Apple, there are no warranty issues, but you also don't get to keep the two 1GB modules that ship in the MacBook normally to use elsewhere.
Coupled with the power of the 9400M GPU, the result is much better graphics performance than even before on the MacBook. For example, in a Quake 4 test (running at 1,024 by 768 pixels), both new MacBook models managed about 39 frames per second, versus 6.1 frames per second on the previous 2.4GHz MacBook. And with the graphics-intensive Call of Duty 4, the new MacBooks pumped out a little more than 35 frames per second--the older high-end MacBook managed only 10. These numbers back up Apple's assertions that game performance is up as much five times over previous systems. As a colleague pointed out, game performance on the two generations of MacBook is the difference between actually playing a game and watching a slideshow. Higher screen resolution tests were impressive as well--for complete game testing, see our benchmark.
Also, the inclusion of a GPU means better performance with GPU-accelerated applications (such as Adobe's Photoshop CS4), and the ability to take advantage of the OpenCL technology built into the next version of OS X, named Snow Leopard.
The other benefit to the new graphics subsystem is its improved ability to connect to external displays. Coupled with the new Mini DisplayPort (used on new MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air models), the MacBook can now drive a 30-inch external display at 2,560 by 1,600 pixels (the previous model could only handle 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, meaning no bigger than 24 inches) for mirroring your MacBook's built-in display or extending its desktop. And it works with Apple's new 24-inch LED Cinema Display as well.
Apple doesn't include any cables in the box for connecting to displays, however. Apple sells adapters to convert Mini DisplayPort to VGA or DVI for $29 each, or to dual-link DVI for $99 (although Apple lists its availability at four to five weeks away)--necessary for connecting the MacBook to a 30-inch display (you won't find an Apple Remote included either).
The left side of the MacBook has a MagSafe power port, a Gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 2.0 ports, a Mini DisplayPort, an analog and digital audio input port, an analog and digital audio output port (you can plug your iPhone headphones into it and control iTunes playback the same as you can on an iPhone), and a Kensington lock slot (which, when used, also locks the battery access latch on the bottom).
One thing you won't find, however, is a FireWire port. The MacBook joins the MacBook Air as the only Mac models without a FireWire port, which has been a common source of concern for some users.
Apple markets the MacBook as a consumer product, and says that USB 2.0 is now being used on most consumer devices. And it is true that most hard drives and camcorders now have USB connections (not to mention the fact that iPhones and iPods now charge and sync using only USB). But for anyone with lots of legacy devices (FireWire-only hard drives, tape camcorders, and audio interfaces, for example), the lack of FireWire on the MacBook will definitely figure into your buying decision. If you need to use FireWire devices with your laptop, the MacBook isn't for you. It's sad that Apple is starting to abandon a technology--one it invented--that has many benefits over USB (drive power and higher actual speeds, to name a few), but like SCSI and ADB before it, nothing lasts forever. In the long run, as people replace FireWire-based devices with USB-based ones, the change will be less important. For now, the MacBook Pro is your only portable option from Apple if you need a FireWire port.
The loss of FireWire also means you can't access a feature I frequently use for transferring data between two Macs-FireWire Target Disk Mode. With it, you connect two Macs via a FireWire cable and mount one as an external hard drive on the other. This mode was particularly useful for copying large files without relying on a network, as well as cloning one system to another or migrating data with Apple's built-in software.
What to do? One solution is to run Apple's Migration Assistant software over a wired or wireless network, or with two Macs connected directly via Ethernet. To test how well it worked, I connected my first-generation MacBook to a new MacBook using a Cat-5 Ethernet cable and transferred my user to the new system. The process worked pretty smoothly, although it failed (twice, with two different Ethernet cables) to move my 9.34GB Parallels Windows XP drive image, saying it couldn't be copied because it was too large (at the end, it suggested that I copy the file manually in the Finder). Apple told me there was no size limit using Migration Assistant, but didn't have an immediate explanation for why I was having that problem. When I connected my original MacBook to the 2.4GHz model of the previous generation via FireWire, however, I was able to migrate all my data without a hitch. Another solution: You can create a Time Machine backup of the old Mac, and perform a data restore on the new MacBook using a USB drive.
Apple (and other technology companies) have received a lot of bad press over the last few years regarding environmental factors. Steve Jobs was quick to point out, at the launch event for the new laptops, that Apple had put a lot of effort into making its products safer. The aluminum and glass shell is highly recyclable, there's no mercury in the display or arsenic in the glass, the packaging is smaller, and so on. So your conscience needn't be the deciding factor in whether or not purchase a MacBook.
Even with a slower processor than previous MacBooks, the new 2.0GHz model beat the older 2.1GHz model by 14 points on our Speedmark test suite, and even the older 2.4GHz model by five points. The new 2.4GHz model fared even better-perhaps most significantly, it scored only three fewer points (a difference of less than two percent) than the 2.4GHz MacBook Pro, which costs $400 more.
Most gains over previous models were minor, and in some cases non-existent. The new 2.4GHz MacBook was 13 percent faster than the previous 2.4GHz model in our Photoshop CS3 suite, but only two seconds faster at MP3 encoding, and a second slower in Cinema 4D rendering and our iMovie HD test. In our iPhoto test, the new 2.4GHz MacBook beat the old 2.4GHz model by 19 percent, and even the new 2.4GHz MacBook Pro by 10 percent. Yet the 2.0GHz MacBook was slower than either of the last MacBooks in the same test (with a similar pattern in our Compressor testing as well). The biggest improvements were in our game tests.
Macworld's buying advice
The latest MacBooks are a big improvement over the previous models--as long as you can live without a FireWire port. If not (or you absolutely must have a matte screen) the MacBook Pro might be your best bet. And battery life wasn't as strong as the previous model. Otherwise, the sleek new case design, major graphics improvements, power-sipping LED display, and Multi-Touch glass trackpad make the MacBook a very strong upgrade.
[Jonathan Seff is a Macworld senior editor.]