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First Impressions: Apple 13-Inch MacBook

Dual-core consumer laptop loaded with power By Dave Nagel
On only two occasions have I rushed out and purchased a Mac on the day of its debut. The first was my dual 2.0 GHz G5. That was a few years back, and that machine is still going strong as a viable creative workstation. The second occasion was yesterday when Apple introduced the new 13-inch MacBooks. This time around, I bought two.


Apple's brand new MacBook appears to be not only a great deal for a Mac, but a great deal even when compared with somewhat comparable, cheap PC hardware. (Compare, for example, a 14-inch, 1.66 GHz Core Duo-based Dell Inspiron E1405, which will sell for $1,216 when it ships later this month. That's roughly the same price as the 2.0 GHz Core Duo-based MacBook, but is, of course, lacking many of the Mac's niceties, like the built-in iSight camera, gigabit Ethernet, optical audio I/O, built-in 802.11g, built-in Bluetooth, etc., etc. Plus you'd have to tack on an extra $300 just to get that Inspiron up to the same base processor speed as the MacBook.)

That said, I don't want to confuse you into thinking the MacBook is a half-price MacBook Pro. It does share many of the great features of the MacBook Pro, but it's also limited in some important ways for people considering using a laptop for professional production--the most notable limitation being, of course, graphics performance. The MacBook Pro has an ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 with 256 MB RAM, whereas the new, lower-end MacBook non-pro just has some Intel junk with shared memory. There's a big difference in performance there, especially on the 3D side.

But all told, the new MacBook is a fantastic deal with plenty of processor performance, even if the graphics are a bit unimpressive. And it has plenty of other goodies to draw you in as well.

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll be publishing benchmark tests comparing the new 2.0 GHz MacBook (the $1,299 model) with the MacBook Pro and some high-end workstations as well. Following that, I'll give you a formal review based on significantly more usage than a single day. But I've been so delighted in the hours that I've had my new MacBook(s) that I thought I'd share some preliminary findings and impressions before we move on to formal, comprehensive benchmarks.

Processing: the Core Duo juggernaut
Now, the first--and I think most important--thing to discuss about the new 13-inch MacBook is its processor. Both the mid-range ($1,299) and high-end ($1,499) MacBooks feature a 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo processor. As we've learned from our previous benchmark studies, this is an incredibly powerful piece of mobile hardware--at times rivaling even the most powerful quad-core workstations on the market, and certainly beating out mid-range desktop systems, especially on the PowerPC side. For Mac applications written natively for Intel hardware and for Windows applications running on Intel-based Mac hardware, performance is impressive in processor-intensive tasks.

Is the same true of the MacBook's Core Duo processor?

Apparently so.

In previous generations of Apple's "consumer" notebooks (notably the iBook), processors were a generation behind their desktop and pro-level laptop counterparts. But with the first-generation MacBook, the processors are right on par with the higher-end pro notebooks and are in some cases superior Apple's current PowerPC-based desktops.

I've mentioned that we'll be conducting and publishing the results of extensive benchmarking on the new MacBooks over the next couple of weeks. But to give you an idea right now, consider that the dual 2.0 GHz G5 desktop scores 491 in multi-processor rendering in Maxon's Cinebench. The new MacBook (2.0 GHz model) scores 580. The 2.16 GHz MacBook Pro scored 627 in Mac OS X and 560 in Windows XP. So the "consumer-level" 13-inch MacBook is right up there with the big boys.

The rendering test in Cinebench, obviously, doesn't tell the complete story. But it does give you a good preliminary indication that the MacBook has, at its core, processing power that's similar to the much more expensive MacBook Pro.

Graphics and display
But while the processing power of the MacBook may be consistent with the MacBook Pro and even superior to some desktop systems, the graphics capabilities are a different story. Of course you wouldn't expect the consumer-level MacBook to rival in every way systems costing twice as much. And so we get to the principal difference between the pro and consumer models: the graphics and display.

For graphics, the high-end MacBook Pro comes with a 256 MB ATI Mobility Radeon X1600, which is, by all measures, just an outstanding mobile graphics card. The 13-inch MacBook doesn't even come close, with its Intel GMA 950 graphics processor, which has 64 MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared witht he main memory. Again, we'll refer to Cinebench 9.5 for preliminary numbers.

In Cinebench, the MacBook Pro's graphics card scores a rating of 2764 for OpenGL hardware acceleration in Mac OS X. It scores 2204 in the same test running in Windows. An AGP 8x Radeon 9600 (256 MB) scores 1534 on a desktop G5 system. The 13-inch MacBook scores a comparatively paltry 1259.

This particular test only measures OpenGL hardware acceleration, and I don't think too many of you are considering a consumer-level notebook for serious 3D work. But it is, nevertheless, a decent indication of the gulf in graphics performance between the consumer and pro Apple notebooks.

Then again, it doesn't mean anything at all to those of you (us) who intend to use the MacBook for purposes other than 3D animation. There are still plenty of creative applications that rely little on the graphics card, and so you're not going to take a hit in that regard. (Again, we'll have benchmarks in the near future looking at these sorts of applications.)

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