capsule review

Apple MacBook (Aluminum)

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Apple MacBook Notebook

    PCWorld Rating

    In October 2008, Apple introduced a new MacBook design that housed the company's consumer-friendly laptop into a MacBook Pro-like aluminum enclosure with a large glass trackpad. Graphics have improved...

In the two-and-a-half years since the first MacBook model appeared, Apple has tweaked and improved its consumer-level laptop line three times. But compared to the baby steps of the earlier updates, the latest (fourth) version is a giant leap for the MacBook. Design improvements (both inside and out) help make the MacBook a lot more like a MacBook Pro mini.

The third-generation MacBook was available in three models, with the white base model starting at $1099, and the high-end black model topping out at $1499. The new MacBooks raise the price of entry to $1299, and the maximum price jumps to $1599. (Apple is still selling its previous low-end white MacBook, but the price of that model has dropped to $999 since its March release. Also, that model now comes with a SuperDrive instead of a Combo Drive.)

Apple ditched the MacBook's white (or black) polycarbonate case in favor of one composed of precision-crafted aluminum--the same unibody design used in the MacBook Air and the new MacBook Pro. The result is a sleeker, more rounded design; when closed, it looks very svelte, despite being only 0.13 inch thinner than its predecessor (the very thin top of the MacBook resembles the Air's. It also shaves half a pound off the earlier MacBook's 5-pound weight. Even though the case is made of metal, the 2.4-GHz unit that I tested never got hot, nor did its fans ever kick in.

Though the new MacBook has the same 13.3-inch size screen and 1,280-by-800-pixel resolution as previous models, it is the first MacBook to use a backlit LED (light-emitting diode) display. The new screen is thinner, brighter, and more power-efficient than its LCD predecessors.

Resting over the face of the display and replacing the bezel of old is a fingerprint-resistant piece of glass with approximately a 0.75-inch-thick black mask to protect the screen. (The overall black-and-silver color scheme gives the MacBook a strong kinship with the iMac.)

The updated MacBook's trackpad is a piece of glass, coated with a textured material to match the look of the laptop's aluminum body. My fingers glided easily across the trackpad, which had enough texture to give me some traction. Whereas the older MacBooks came with a button below the trackpad area, on the new model the entire trackpad acts as a button: You can feel the trackpad depress as you push your finger on it to click. The new trackpad is larger than its predecessor overall. I appreciated the tactile feedback when I pressed down to click.

The new trackpad also supports Multi-Touch, which permits you to navigate by using multifinger gestures. You can also designate the bottom left or right corner as a right-click. Once you learn and get used to the gestures involved, they can save you time and cursor movement.

The keyboard is similar to the ones on previous MacBooks. The keys are easy to type on and have a nice, springy response. The high-end MacBook even includes a backlit keyboard, a first for the MacBook line.

Apple moved the MacBook's battery indicator lights from the case bottom to the front left side, so you don't have to flip the MacBook over to see how much juice you have left. Initial findings by the Macworld Test Center indicate that the new MacBook's battery lasts 2 hours, 33 minutes--almost 30 minutes shorter than the previous MacBook we reviewed.

Apple also moved the stereo speakers--to a spot underneath the keyboard. I expected the sound to suffer, but music played in iTunes was surprisingly loud and clear.

One of the biggest upgrades involves the new nVidia GeForce 9400M graphics processor on the motherboard. It replaces the integrated Intel GMA X3100 graphics used in previous MacBooks and delivers a game-worthy picture. Like the X3100, the 9400M doesn't have its own memory, and so must borrow main system RAM. But the MacBook now uses fast DDR3 SDRAM, and the GPU gets 256MB of RAM, a boost from the X3100's 144MB.

We haven't yet obtained results for the new MacBooks on our WorldBench 6 test suite, but Macworld's tests show significant gains. A few results within Mac OSX: In a Quake 4 test (running at 1024 by 768 pixels), both the high-end and the low-end versions of the aluminum MacBook managed about 39 frames per second, versus 6.1 fps on the previous-generation 2.4-GHz MacBook. And in tests involving the graphics-intensive Call of Duty 4, they pumped out better than 35 fps, while the older high-end MacBook managed only 10 fps. Results at higher screen resolutions were impressive as well; for complete game testing in Mac OSX, see Macworld's benchmark.

Another advantage of the new graphics subsystem is its improved ability to connect to external displays. (Apple doesn't include any cables in the box for connecting to such displays, however.) Coupled with Apple's new Mini DisplayPort, the MacBook can now drive a 30-inch external monitor at 2560 by 1600 pixels (the previous model maxed out at 1920 by 1200 pixels, meaning that a connected display could not exceed 24 inches). It works with Apple's new 24-inch LED Cinema Display as well.

The latest MacBooks use the same Intel Core 2 Duo (Penryn) processors with 3MB of shared L2 cache as the previous MacBooks. CPU speeds are essentially the same as before: 2.1 GHz or 2.4 GHz now versus 2.0 GHz or 2.4 GHz in the past. Other architectural advances account for the small improvement in COU performance, including a frontside bus upgrade from 800 MHz to 1066 MHz, and a RAM bounce from 667-MHz DDR2 to 1066-MHz DDR3.

As before, the new MacBook versions come with 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) wireless networking. The 2.0-GHz model has a 160GB, 5400-rpm SATA hard drive, while the 2.4-GHz model includes a 250GB drive at the same speed. But now you can opt for a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) for $700 extra on the 2.0-GHz model, or for $600 extra on the 2.4-GHz model. Both models come with an 8X slot-loading SuperDrive.

The left side of the MacBook has a MagSafe power port, a gigabit ethernet port, two USB 2.0 ports, a Mini DisplayPort, analog and digital audio input and output ports, and a Kensington lock slot. Absent, however, is a FireWire port. The MacBook joins the MacBook Air as the only Mac models without a FireWire port--a source of concern for some users.

The latest versions of the MacBook significantly improve on their predecessors--as long as you can live without a FireWire port. If not, or you must have a matte screen, the MacBook Pro might be your best bet. Otherwise, the sleek new case design, major graphics improvements, power-sipping LED display, and Multi-Touch glass trackpad make the new MacBook a very strong upgrade.

This story, "Apple MacBook (Aluminum)" was originally published by Macworld.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    In October 2008, Apple introduced a new MacBook design that housed the company's consumer-friendly laptop into a MacBook Pro-like aluminum enclosure with a large glass trackpad. Graphics have improved with the addition of an Nvidia GeForce 9400m chip. While the integrated graphics continue to share memory with the system RAM, there's more shared (256MB as opposed to 144MB) and it's the faster DDR3 SDRAM. Like the MacBook Air, the MacBook no longer ships with FireWire ports -- just two USB 2.0 ports. This 2.4GHz model does feature a backlit keyboard, which is not available in the other MacBook configurations.

    Pros

    • Sleek new unibody design
    • Greatly improved graphics power

    Cons

    • Pricier than previous MacBook
    • Shorter battery life than previous MacBook
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