13-inch MacBook/2.13GHz (white)
If price plays a greater role in a shopper's buying decisions during tough economic times, Apple's recent updates to its entry-level laptop, the US$999 white MacBook, should help push some cost-conscious consumers over the laptop-buying fence.
As the least expensive laptop in Apple's MacBook family, the white MacBook is popular in the education market and with consumers looking for a lower cost Mac experience. While keeping the same sub-$1,000 price tag and the same white polycarbonate shell, Apple has quietly bumped the speed of the laptop's Core 2 Duo processors from 2GHz to 2.13GHz and increased the hard drive capacity from 120GB to 160GB. The white MacBook now includes faster 800MHz DDR2 memory than its last iteration, which used 667MHz DDR2 RAM. These updates amount to not only a better performing entry-level MacBook, but also a system that's faster than the 2.0GHz aluminum unibody MacBook that Apple sells for $300 more.
Aside from the outward appearance and price, these updates to the white MacBook bring its specs up to the same level as the aluminum MacBook. Both systems have Core 2 Duo processors with 3MB of shared L2 cache. They both include 8x DVD-burning SuperDrives, 160GB hard drives, and 2GB of RAM. They both have glossy 13.3-inch LCD displays (a non-glare option is no longer available for the white MacBook) and both have 1066MHz system buses and use Nvidia GeForce9400M graphics.
Despite the similarities, differences do remain. The aluminum MacBook costs $300 more, features the new unibody design, includes the new mini DisplayPort connector, and uses 1066MHz DDR3 memory. The aluminum MacBook also uses an LED backlight and has glass covering the screen for an even glossier (some would say mirror-like) screen. The new white MacBook uses the older polycarbonate shell, has the older mini-DVI port and is the only current MacBook to include FireWire. As a person whose job requires wiping and installing software and operating systems on Macs almost daily, the lack of FireWire on the aluminum MacBook frustrates me to no end. On the other hand, the unibody design generally seems to be more durable over time. Though we did not see any problems during our short time with the white MacBook Pro, buyers may want to consider some of the documented durability issues reported by users of the polycarbonate model.
Using Macworld's overall system performance benchmark, Speedmark 5, we found the new 2.13GHz white MacBook to be approximately 6.5 percent faster than the 2GHz white MacBook it replaces. The new model had faster test times across the board, including about an 8 percent speed up in Photoshop times and iTunes MP3 encoding scores. Cinema 4D was about 5 percent faster on the new white MacBook.
The new white MacBook was just a little more than 4 percent faster than the 2GHz Aluminum MacBook when tested using Speedmark, and proved to be faster at nearly every task. With its slower processor, its no surprise that the aluminum MacBook wasn't quite as speedy at rendering a 3D scene in Cinema 4D, or encoding a MPEG movie with Compressor, but even hard drive tests, like unzipping compressed files were a bit slower on the aluminum MacBook. The one test in which the aluminum MacBook performed better was our Quake 4 test. As both systems use 256MB of main memory, it makes sense that with the faster RAM, the aluminum MacBook would have the advantage.
The performance boost gained from jumping from MacBook to MacBook Pro is still considerable, with the entry-level 2.4GHz MacBook Pro turning in a Speedmark 5 score that was more that 10.5 percent faster than the 2.13GHz white MacBook. The biggest difference was in Quake 4 performance: with the 2.4GHz MacBook Pro's faster Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics processor and 256MB of dedicated GDDR3 memory, it was able to push through about 82 percent more frames per second than the white MacBook. Of course, the 2.4GHz MacBook Pro costs twice as much as the white MacBook, so one would hope to see significant differences.
In terms of battery life, we found that the white MacBook could play a QuickTime movie at full brightness for three hours and 22 minutes, 38 minutes longer than the aluminum MacBook and 28 minutes longer than the MacBook Pro, when the pro system was set to use its battery-saving lower powered graphics.
Macworld's buying advice
If you're in the market for an affordable Mac laptop, the white MacBook is a better bargain than ever. With its impressive performance, battery life, the inclusion of FireWire, and more common mini-DVI connector, the only reason to pay more for the low-end aluminum is the updated unibody design.
[James Galbraith is Macworld's lab director.]