Apple's new 13" MacBook is a good buy, but in specific cases

Apple's new 13" MacBook is a good buy, but in specific cases

Summary: Depending on where Google or your favorite search engine takes you when you're looking for more information on Apple's latest notebook MacBook offerings, you're likely to get a different opinion on whether it's worth a looksie.

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TOPICS: Apple
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Depending on where Google or your favorite search engine takes you when you're looking for more information on Apple's latest notebook MacBook offerings, you're likely to get a different opinion on whether it's worth a looksie. What makes the latest round of MacBooks different (I'll refrain from using the word "special" since that's a judgement that not everyone agrees with) is that they're based on Intel's Core 2 Duo technology, versus the Core Duo (no "2") technology found in the previous round of MacBook. 

Just to keep things straight, Apple also has a line of notebooks called MacBook Pros, the most distinguishing feature of which is probably better graphics performance because of the way they use a ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics chip -- an implementation that also involves memory that's dedicated to graphics vs. the shared-memory approach associated with the Intel GMA 950 graphics chip found in non-Pro MacBooks. Display size is also different. Compared to the 15 and 17-inch non-reflective TFT displays found on the MacBook Pros, these "plain vanilla" MacBooks are glossy (somewhat reflective) 1280x800 13.3-inchers.

Opinions vary widely whether the improvements in moving from the Core Duo to the Core 2 Duo are noticeable. On its Web site, Apple shows a bunch of benchmarks and sets expectations, on average, at a 25 percent performance gain. CNET's reviews group has made some changes to its methodology since it last tested the Core Duo MacBook making it harder to do an Apples to Apples comparison (ha ha) of new and old non-Pro MacBooks. But an older Core Duo  (no "2") Mac Book Pro was tested under the newer methodology and, in comparing the two 2.0 Ghz systems, CNET's Dan Ackerman wrote that "the new Core 2 Duo MacBook did show a 26 percent boost over the older Core Duo MacBook Pro, well in line with Apple's claims." A sample of CNET's Core 2 Duo-based MacBook appears below:


While the two chips ran at the same clock speed, the newer MacBook's better performance is most likely due to the luxury of the 2.0 Ghz Core 2 Duo's 4MB L2 cache that's double the size of the 2MB L2 cache found in the 2.0Ghz Core Duo.

These findings are somewhat corroborated by John Poole's findings in one of his posts over on GeekPatrol. Wrote Poole after peforming a fairly extensive battery of benchmarks:

Apple’s claiming up to a 25% performance increase from moving the MacBook from the Core Duo to the Core 2 Duo, and for once, Apple’s claims don’t seem entirely unreasonable.

For those keeping score, the older Core Duo chip hails from Intel's 65 nanometer Yonah family of mobile chips. The newer Core 2 Duo's are product of Intel's Merom descendant of the old mobile Pentium line. The most noticeable and perhaps the most relevant change from Yonah to Merom is the addition of Intel's 64-bit EM64T architecture. What does this mean for potential MacBook buyers? Well, users of some non-Intel (PowerPC-based) systems have enjoyed a modicum of  64-bit support from Apple's Mac OS X, but, for reasons that would take an entire other blog post to explain, those 64-bit capabilities may have tasted great, but they were ultimately less filling.

The fact that MacBook's are gaining 64-bit support for the first time (thanks to the Core 2 Duo) won't change matters much. But what could be a gating factor is Leopard -- Apple's next version of the Mac OS X operating system. Leopard is expected to take Apple's 64 bit support to an entirely new level. More importantly, it can awaken the EM64T architecture in Core 2 Duos in ways that previous versions of Mac OS X (Panther, Tiger) cannot. The net result for Core 2 Duo-based MacBook owners -- particularly the ones running CPU and memory bound applications -- is that they could see a performance gain once their favorite apps are rewritten to take advantage of the 64-bit capabilities.

While such gains are purely speculative at this point (and by the time those apps are delivered, there could be MacBooks on the market that are twice as fast) and mileage may vary fomr one user to the next (what if you don't care about those apps?), prospective MacBook buyers  looking to unlock any 64-bit potential should be probably steer clear of the MacBooks that are based on the 1.83 Ghz Core 2 Duo chip (the low end of the new MacBooks). That's because, in contrast to their 2.0 Ghz siblings which have a 4MB L2 cache, the 1.83 Ghz Core 2 Duos only have a 2MB L2 cache that will be "half" as capable of keeping the processor flush with 64-bit code.

Sure, the same problem exists with the 32-bit code being used today. But 64-bit code takes more space which means less of it can be kept in the L1 and L2 caches (whose job it is to make sure the processor is never starved of instructions) which in turn means instructions will have to be fetched from the slower (and more distant) memory more frequently. If you're hoping for 64-bit driven performance gains, the last thing you want to do is handicap yourself with the smallest of the L2-caches that Apple has to offer.  

Given that there are three Core 2 Duo MacBook models with entry-level one being built around the 1.83GHz CPU with the 2MB L2 cache, I'd ignore the entry level model and focus on the remaining two 2.0 Ghz models if you're hoping to get any enduring mileage out of this round of MacBooks. The first of these is the white MacBook which starts at $1299 and whose only difference when compared to the top-of-the line black MacBook (besides color) is the hard drive (80GB on the white model, 120GB on the black one). The white MacBook can technically be brought up to hard drive par with the black one for an extra $150, revealing the extra $50 in "black tax" that Apple charges for the black model.

As is usually the case, the out of the box experience with one of these MacBooks is going to be a fun one (though I haven't unboxed one of these, Apple has never let me or anyone else I know down with other products). Apple's notebooks have always been good lookers. The dimension on these notebooks are 1"x12.8"x9"  (deep). They come with Apple's built-in iSight camera and Front Row (with remote). iSight can, of course, support video conferencing (more of which is being done in business these days). Front Row is for the most part an application that will get used in the home rather than in business (here's a good review of it if you want to know more). The MacBook is a 5.1-pounder so iit's not quite in the ultraportable range. But it is small compared to some of Apple's other notebook offerings. The AC adapter weighs .6 lbs.  

One problem if you want Mac OS X is that you can only have it on the hardware that Apple says you can have it on. In other words, if you don't like the keyboard or prefer a pointing stick over  touch pad to move the mouse, or you want two mouse buttons instead of the standard one that comes on MacBooks, you're out of luck. Apple doesn't offer those and there's no way to put Mac OS X on some other notebook manufacturer's systems. If there's one great benefit to Windows, it's the way Microsoft's business model and the competition it promotes between hardware manufacturers means that one size doesn't have to fit all. If there's an industrial design you prefer, there's a chance somone makes it.

CNET's review does point out how the keyboard's keys are completely flat (and acknowledges that this is a matter of preference). Flat keys (I've tried them before) drive me nuts. There must be some reason that 99 percent of all keyboards (and typewriters) don't have flat keys. Someone must have figured out ages ago that they're not exactly ergonomic and I'm sure other designers have confirmed that finding along the way. The folks in the labs apparently liked  "the cleaner look of flat keys," but who cares? What matters is how they feel and work on under your fingertips. 

In terms of accoutrements, the MacBookhad two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 400 port, a mini-DVI port to which a $19 adapter must be attached in order to use an external monitor (a must have). For either of the two higher end machines, your only option in terms of optical media is Apple's  slot-loading double-layer SuperDrive DVD (which means it can burn to both sides of a DVD+R double layer disc). With Windows-based notebooks, I have run into problems with slot-based drives. Sometimes, software comes on one of these tiny little mini-CDs that work in tray-based  drives, but don't naturally fit into a slot-based unit. Mabye there's an adapter. If there is, I've never seen one. Not being a regular Mac user, I don't know if any Mac software ever comes on one of these tiny discs (it sometimes does for Windows drivers and apps). 

The MacBooks can't accept any sort of media card, not even the ExpressCards that the MacBook Pros can take. Lack of PC Card support is likely to cause headaches for some businesspeople (see why). The MacBook's connectivity is covered by a built-in Ethernet port, an Airport Extreme 802.11a/b/g wireless card, and the built-in Bluetooth radio. Missing however (important for most businespeople) is a built-in modem. Apple will sell you a USB-based one for $49. 

CNET reports that the the battery lasted 3 hours and 30 minutes which is not nearly enough for most road warriors I know, raising the total investment by at least another $130 in order to have a spare. Speaking of keeping the juice flowing, on the cool-factor front, the MacBooks come with Apple's new MagSafe power adapters. Their cords magnetically attach to the notebooks so that if someone accidentally kicks the cord while it's "connected," your MacBook's aerodynamics don't end up getting tested for their ability to keep the notebook aloft while you make that sacraficial dive that we've all made at least once in our lives (I know, a sad life we lead, right?). Elsewhere in the magnetism department, a magnet (as opposed to a physical latch) also kips the lid closed.

The bottom line: If your on one of Apple's older generation notebooks now and you're looking for a replacement and you want it to be able to take advantage of the next generation of OS X operating systems and software (and you should), the 2.0 Ghz versions of the new Core 2 Duo MacBook are an economical choice if you can't spring for one of the Pro models or you want the size and weight that comes with the non-Pro 13.3 inch MacBook displays. 

As is usually the case, the sticker price and what you'll really pay to make your configuration businessperson ready are two different prices. In my estimation, completing the package requires the $19 external monitor adapter, the $49 modem, an extra battery for $130, and an extra MagSafe AC Power Pack for $79. After $1299 for the base system and the extra $277 in parts, the total package will run you around $1576.

If you're on a later generation MacBook, for example, one of the Core Duo-based systems (meaning you probably just purchased it earlier this year), and you're looking for better performance or 64-bit compatibility, my sense is you'll be happier if you wait a little while for something that represents a quantum leap in performance rather than the 25 percent that Apple is citing. By then, you'll also have a sense of whether or not the 64-bit configurations are really making any sort of difference.

Topic: Apple

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52 comments
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  • A few comments

    I've used Macs for 15 or so years now, and have never seen anything on mini-CDs.

    Why, in your price estimate, are you adding in a second power adapter?

    Also, if you own a previous Mac laptop, all of which used to come with a video adapter, can't you just re-use that one with the new computer?
    tic swayback
    • Answers

      When I used to run a powerbook, I had the power cord nicely tucked away so it was out of site. But to grab it for the road, I had to unfish it out of the special openings and stuff in my desk. To constantly be doing this instead of just having another adapter ready to go for my trips (or to have one adapter at home and one at the office) was a pain. It's hard to realize how much more convenient it is to have a second power supply and then when you do, you swear you'll never go back. But, that's why I print up everything the way I do. If you don't like the methodology, then you can change it for yourself.

      You *may* be able to use an older video adapter. Recently, when we tried to run a Mac's presentation through a projection system at Mashup Camp, I asked if anyone in the audience had the special dongle. The first one that was handed to us didn't fit the Mac notebook that was in front of us on the podium. Eventually, someone else who had the same notebook as the one on the podium coughed up the right dongle.

      db

      db
      dberlind
      • Review?

        Sir,
        These are personal preferences that have no bearing on the
        usability of the product your article was supposed to evaluate.
        I've been using both Mac and PC portables (lugables in some
        cases) since such things existed. I still have a working PB100. My
        first real portable PC was a little 286 powered Magnavox running
        Windows 3.0. Neither PC or Mac laptops come with spares. If you
        feel you need something then you are free to purchase them but
        they are not a requirement to ownership of a product.
        jdbroughton@...
      • RE: Apple's new 13

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  • Modem?

    "Missing however (important for most businespeople) is a built-in modem. Apple will sell you a USB-based one for $49"

    Or you could probably buy a cheaper 3rd party one too. But why? It has built-in wi fi and Ethernet. (for plug-in cable or dsl.) Who is still using dial-up? I'm sure there are some people, but I think it is better to make the better, more popular interface the standard, and leave the modem as an option.
    Now, I'm not a "businessperson," but why would they prefer a modem rather than broadband?
    something I'm missing?
    Tigertank
    • It's not about preference

      I don't prefer a modem over a broadband connection. But I've been stuck in enough places where the only way of connecting is via phone line to know that you have to have a modem. It's not ideal, I know. Once, I was snowed in and the airline took everyone (by van) to a hotel that had no wifi or broadband connectivity. Some airports terminal spaces aren't wired for WiFi yet. But there are public phones with dial up RJ11 jacks on them.

      You get the picture.

      db
      dberlind
      • Maybe...

        but among the many, many road warriors I know, I can't think of
        one who still carries a cable with an RJ11 plug (I stopped years
        ago and didn't even bother to configure the modem in my
        current laptop). To me, a modem is about as useful as a floppy
        drive - and yes, I travel lots of places where wireless is *not*
        standard: I'm just back from Uganda, for example.

        If there's no wireless or regular broadband, I (like most people)
        either use bluetooth to call out via my mobile (far faster than a
        modem, far more flexible and far easier) or use a dedicated
        wireless connectivity card. In that regard, the absence of a card
        slot in the Macbooks is more of a limitation, though I guess it
        can be excused given the market they are aimed at.

        But a modem? That's sooo twentieth century!

        Cheers, Mark
        markdoc.geo
      • By that line of reasoning...

        It should also have ADB and SCSI for those emergency situations where you have to use an older scanner or printer.

        Again, the modem is an offered option, or can be purchased seperately from a 3rd party source, but don't charge 90% of the people for something they will never use.
        Tigertank
      • ... then why not an ext Floppy disk?

        Modems are dead man! get with it!
        Reverend MacFellow
  • Express Card is more important than modem

    Apple is using MacBook Pro as their business model rather than the MacBook. This might be true in their core market - but not true in broader PC market. My company (GE) gives el-cheapo Dell Laptops to all employees including software engineers, etc. These are sub-$1000 laptops. They do have PCMCIA slots, etc. The reason Express Card is important is because they could be used for Cell-modems. Business people travel. They can use WiFi in hotels. But, let us say they are in a motel that does not provide broadband, it is highly likely, the cell-modem will come in handy. With broadband plans with Verizon, Sprint going for $60/month unlimited cell-modem, I can see businesses adopting this.
    bommai
    • Express Card slot

      The MacBook is designed for just the market you mentioned. It can
      easily be had for under $1000. Verizon, Sprint, and Cingular all
      offer phones that can be used as high speed data modems with the
      MacBook through either Blue Tooth (slow) or USB ( fast). A modem
      is like the inclusion of a floppy drive. The main question would be,
      why?
      jdbroughton@...
      • The retail price is $1,299

        Last time I checked that is not sub $1,000. The low end is where Apple's pricing breaks down the most. Items like this MacBook and the Mac Mini cannot compete on price with the PC equivelants.
        ShadeTree
  • Aren't Modems from the last century?

    Some people would refer to me as a road warrior and I have used a modem on the road a few times back in the last century. The writer of this article must be confused about the year we are in. I haven't found a hotel that doesn't have LAN/WAN.

    Maybe the writer of this article also secretly bemoans the absents of a floppy drive but is afraid to state it publicly.
    Robert Evans
    • They are, but sometimes...

      you have no other choice. See my other entry.

      db
      dberlind
      • That doesn't matter

        See my other entry dispelling your other entry.
        Tigertank
        • I have to use dial up several times a year

          I travel to and from TN 2 to 3 times a year and have stayed at several motels/hotels that do not have wifi or any broadband offering and when I get there my daughter lives in a remote area and does not yet have satellite because it costs so much, so I use dial up. Some times I am able to use a McDonalds' on the way or if I travel to a nearby town but on the whole it's dial up only. I have to work on a web site on these trips.

          In short I depend on my laptop having a modem. Yearly we visited family in FL and they had no broadband either so I used dial up there also.

          In short having all the options possible for me is the only way I am going to be sure I will get online when I am not at home.

          BtheB
          Northlite
          • Then buy it. It is an option

            But most people don't need it so they dhouldn't have to pay for it.
            Tigertank
  • Embrace, Extend, Extinguish

    Nice "favorable" review. Thanks for that "specific cases" bone.
    Let's just gloss over the notion that something bigger is in play
    shall we.

    Today Microsoft declared dominion over Linux. Meanwhile the
    flack cannons at ZDNet have declared the Apple platform "anti
    marketplace" because they don't allow choice of hardware. Never
    mind that they allow... you know... other companies. Now that
    Microsoft may see fit to sue us for use of Linux, Apple's IP may
    represent the only alternate and viable desktop OS left? When
    are these magnificant cranks going to understand that choice of
    software is now gone. Between hardware and software, which is
    more important? Are you clueing in yet?

    So thanks Microsoft, for being so pro free market. Thanks for
    your business model, it's been such an incubator for
    competition. Thanks for the OEMs and the "choice" of software
    they provide.

    As Apple hardware now permits running Linux (without a legal
    threat from Apple) OSX, or Windows, and all the third party
    software that comes with them, why don't you tell me again who
    is the champion of the open market. Who has been the real
    incubator of technology. Will all convicted monopolists please
    stand up.

    When this feckless ZDNet crew gets off the payrole and gets over
    it's jones for Microsoft jock sniffing, this particular moment of
    clarity might happen.
    Harry Bardal
    • JAML

      Just another Mac Lemming! In most your posts you at least make an attempt to appear objective not that it has ever fooled anyone. This one comes off as the ravings of another disgruntled Mac Lemming. You tout Apple as the great champion of the open market when everyone with at least one firing nueron sees throught that arguement. It is Apple that locks the OS to their hardware and not the otherway arround. With Apple you can only run their OS on the hardware they decide is acceptable. The reason you can run Linux and Windows is inspite of Apple and not because of them.
      ShadeTree
  • Needed to comment

    Such a weird article....
    I would have mentioned that the "black" tax has gone down from
    150 to 50 - instead you mention things that seem trivial and
    odd...

    ? You need another power supply? Well, if you do, should that
    not be worked into the cost of any computer you buy, as in you
    need an extra power cord, etc?

    ? You need a cable for en external monitor? Well, I guess if that
    is how you intend to use your laptop, but that is odd that it is a
    "necessity"

    ? You need a modem? You know, I have the modem, and I had a
    modem with my last PB G4 built in, and one built into my PC
    laptop. While I felt the need to buy it, I realize I have no phone
    line to plug it into (I use my cell exclusively and do not have a
    land line,) and even if I did I have no account I can use to dial
    into. There seems to be this big thing of "Road Warriors". Do
    road warriors have dial up accounts, or are they using services
    tethered to their cell-phones? I'd say the latter, where you forget
    even to mention that Bluetooth or USB tethering to your phone
    or some other high speed connection device can be achieved.
    The Modem was gotten rid of by Apple simply because no one
    with this kind of modern technology has dial up accounts
    anymore anyway - just because you can find a land line, and
    connect your computer to it, does not mean you have
    somewhere to dial into...

    The ODDEST of all must be this:
    "One problem if you want Mac OS X is that you can only have it
    on the hardware that Apple says you can have it on. In other
    words, if you don't like the keyboard or prefer a pointing stick
    over touch pad to move the mouse, or you want two mouse
    buttons instead of the standard one that comes on MacBooks,
    you're out of luck. Apple doesn't offer those and there's no way
    to put Mac OS X on some other notebook manufacturer's
    systems. If there's one great benefit to Windows, it's the way
    Microsoft's business model and the competition it promotes
    between hardware manufacturers means that one size doesn't
    have to fit all. If there's an industrial design you prefer, there's a
    chance somone makes it."

    Disregarding the fact that the trackpad does support the
    secondary button with two finger clicking, is this a review of the
    MacBook or a diatribe on Apple's licensing of the OS? If it were a
    review of the OS, this might be relevant, but this is a review of
    the specific HARDWARE. You cannot buy the OS for this machine
    separately. The review, from what I understand reviews are
    supposed to be, is not meant to be a rebuke of Apple's Business
    Model (which, as far as I can tell, has done very well for them
    recently). The writer of this review seems to advocate a "desktop
    replacement" approach with his need for an external monitor
    connector - well, if that is the case, get an external keyboard
    and an external mouse. If that was not the purpose, stay away
    from using a review of a product to inject personal bias as to the
    inability of getting Mac OS X to legally run on any old hardware.

    On that same note, could you not claim that the version of
    Windows that comes on Your Dell (in this case, my Dell in work,)
    which cannot be installed on some other desktop due to being
    tied to the hardware by some authentication means, and is not
    being used by me since I have a corporate copy of Windows for
    work, should elicit the same kind of condemnation?

    I am NOT a Mac fanboy, and I have an intense dislike for them
    (fanboys), but this is one of the weirdest reviews for any product
    I have ever read. David Berlind should be embarrassed for his
    sloppy writing and journalism, as should ZDNet.
    ebernet