Linuxgruven > Hardware > 13" MacBook Review

13" MacBook Review

2007.06

Update: I found a deal on a first-gen MacBook and have even had experience with recent Apple service.

The following is a review for a early 2007 MacBook. The review is based on a week of use and tends to compare the machine to my existing 12 PowerBook.



The specs for the system are as follows:
  • Black 13 MacBook
  • 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU
  • Integrated Intel GMA950 video
  • 2GB RAM
  • DVD SuperDrive
  • 13 glossy screen, 1280x800
  • Integrated Bluetooth, WiFi
  • 160GB SATA Hard Drive
  • USB modem
  • 5.5lbs
This machine is maxed out for a MacBook. The black version was selected because, at the time, it was less than $50 more expensive than an identically spec'd white MacBook. Having seen first-hand an early white MacBook with pink palm rests as a result of early build problems, I recommended the black to the person who purchased the machine.

The above machine with Apple's educational discount and AppleCare came in at around $1900CDN. This puts it firmly in the mid-range of PC laptops available and still several hundred dollars cheaper than the PowerBook. This laptop is currently the smallest Apple laptop available. Compared to the 12 PowerBook, the 13 MacBook is a bit thinner but heavier and quite a bit larger. The extra size is nicely offset by the much brighter display and far faster CPU.



Build Quality

In general, I found the black MacBook to be a great compromise between the old iBook and PowerBook lines. As you would expect, the build quality is very high, The laptop felt very sturdy. This has been the case with all recent Apple notebooks. They exude quality. After using one for a while, moving to other brands (even IBM's ThinkPad) always seems like a bit of a let down.

The MacBook features the now standard anti-shock detectors for the hard drive. The keyboard was quite nice. Better than the iBook keyboard but not as solid feeling as the PowerBook/MacBook Pro keyboards. It would be nice if Apple offered back lit keys on the high-end MacBook, alas, this is something that they only leave to their highest-end machines. This is a pity, as some of us prefer a smaller laptop but still want high-end features.


Speed (CPU and Video)

The two biggest advantages of the MacBook over the old 12" PowerBook are CPU speed and the higher-resolution display. The old PowerBook had a discrete Nvidia 64MB video card. In my experience, the integrated Intel GMA950 is at least as fast as this card. Sure, it isn't great for playing Quake 4, but that isn't the target market.

For normal desktop uses, the GMA950 never lagged. I ran WarBirds 2007 to stress the video a bit more. Between the decent GPU and fantastic CPU, it ran circles around the old G4 PowerBook. At native 1280x800, framerates were high and so was the detail level. Yes, there are faster GPUs out there but the GMA950 is a good choice offering a nice balance between price, performance and battery life. The only real downside with the GMA950 is that it steals system RAM, so be sure to have a decent amount. As Mac OSX loves RAM anyway, this is always good advice.

The CPU is a no-compromise Intel Core 2 Duo. This is a top-of-the line dual core CPU. It's better than the old G4 in every practical sense. Early versions of the MacBook and MacBook Pro suffered heat problems. These seem to have been handily addressed. The MacBook was no hotter than my 12" PowerBook. Under normal use it was only slightly warm, under heavy use (such as ripping DVDs or playing games) a fan would kick in to keep things reasonable.

How much faster is the Core 2 Duo? As a test, I ripped a few episodes from a BBC DVD. What would take the MacBook 15 minutes would take the PowerBook at least an hour. It really is four times faster. Having said this, unless you rip a lot of DVDs, this won't make a huge difference for day-to-day use. The G4 in my PowerBook is fine for most things. Other than a better startup time for applications, it makes little difference for how I use the computer.


Battery life

While a week of occasional use isn't enough to truly gauge the battery life, I found that the MacBook would get over 3 hours under normal use, and up to five hours with light use and conservative settings. Close to but not better than the 12 PowerBook. It is better than average for typical PC laptops these days.



Sound quality

The sound on the MacBook is pretty good. While there isn't quite as much bottom-end as their was on my PowerBook, the speakers are far better than the ones found in old iBooks. They are also better than ThinkPad speakers. They were about average for most decent PC laptops. This is actually quite a feat, considering how thin the laptop is. MacBooks have both line-in and headphone out.


Screen

I was quite surprised by the screen. of course, the 1280x800 resolution is nicer to use than the PowerBook's 1024x768, but I expected to hate the glossy screen. Much to my surprise, this was not the case. I saw no noticeable glare in or outside, the display was brighter and had much better contrast than the PowerBook display. The only down-side is that the extra display size comes at the expense of laptop size and weight. About an even trade-off, but annoying if you want something small.


Ports

As seems to be the trend with most laptop manufacturers these days, Apple keep dropping ports. While a lack of a PCMCIA slot is excusable with the proliferation of USB and FireWire devices, dropping the modem seems to be a questionable move to me. I can't believe that they couldn't squeeze one in. They had room on my 12" PowerBook and it is quite a bit smaller than the MacBook. No, instead Apple guessed, perhaps correctly, that in 2007 most people don't want a modem and those who do will pay for an external one. I suppose they were right, all the same, the USB modem works but seems to be an unnecessary pain for travelers.



Apple has added a webcam on this model. If you are a heavy Skype or IM user, this would likely be a huge advantage. I did test both PhotoBooth and Skype. Both worked well. Personally, I don't have much of a reason to use such programs but if I had a built-in webcam, I'd be more likely to find ways to use it. This may not be a required feature for most business users but it does fit in with Apple's consumer target market and, like the included remote, is a fun bonus feature.


Conclusion

13 MacBook is a solid laptop. If my PowerBook died tomorrow I would buy one just like the above. Having said this, I'll hold on to the PowerBook for a while yet. The MacBook CPU is MUCH faster but the slightly larger size, lack of modem, extra weight and lower-quality speakers will be things that I will miss when I ultimately replace the 12 PowerBook. Despite being a very solid offering, the MacBook still isn't enough to pull me from my aging PowerBook.

Happily, my main concerns were put to rest: While larger, the MacBook is still a good size and weight, the heat issues have been addressed, battery life is comparable, and the glossy high-res screen is great.

iBook users will love the new MacBooks. 15 PowerBook users might also like the in-between size of this new model. PC users would be wise to look at this machine as well, as a MacBook running Windows would be a very good machine for the money. Yes, there are smaller, cheaper, faster machines, but good luck finding a single machine that comes close to what the MacBook offers for the money.


Question? Comments? Suggestions? Be sure to let me know.


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