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

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.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

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.

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