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Review: 13-Inch MacBook

Dual-core 'consumer' laptop delivers pro performance By Dave Nagel
Summary: Starting $900 less than the base MacBook Pro, the 13-inch MacBook from Apple is a budget-priced laptop that offers screaming-fast performance and features that you won't find on any laptop from any manufacturer for anywhere near the price. We take a look here at the $1,299 model, which sports nothing less than a dual-core 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo chip, built-in video camera, optical audio I/O, DVI-out and a number of other goodies--not to mention its ability to run both Mac OS X and Windows fully natively. If you don't need the high-end graphics of the MacBook Pro, the 13-inch MacBook will be your dream notebook.
Manufacturer: Apple (
Platform: Mac OS X and WIndows
Price: $1,299 base price for 2.0 GHz (white) MacBook
Users: Consumer laptop users, creative professionals, graphic designers, audio professionals
Recommendation: Strong Buy

In all the time I've been a Mac user (since 1986 for those of you compiling notes for my biography), there has not been a Mac like the 13-inch MacBook. Certainly there's never been a Mac notebook like it. With processing power to rival desktops and even high-end quad Opteron workstations, this machine blazes through CPU-intensive tasks like rendering 3D scenes and After Effects sequences, applying Photoshop filters, encoding MPEG-2 and H.264 and even rendering out video from applications like Final Cut Pro and Motion.

What's more, the 13-inch MacBook is only the second line of Macs capable of running both Mac OS X and WIndows XP natively (the first line being the MacBook Pro).

What's even more, it's fully loaded with just about all the goodies you'd want in a notebook, from built-in 802.11g wireless networking (at no additional charge) to digital optical audio in and out (plus analog lines in and out).

And on top of all that, it's a shocking bargain. The 13-inch MacBooks start at $1,099 and range up to $1,499. The model we're reviewing today is just $1,299. That's not just cheap for a fully-loaded Mac. That's cheap for a laptop offering these kinds of features from any manufacturer.

All of these aspects of the MacBook make it not just a fantastic machine but the best bargain for a Mac that I've encountered in my 20 years as a Mac user.

Hardware features
The first and most critical feature for me is the MacBook's Intel Core Duo processor. This dual-core CPU is outrageously fast--well beyond any reasonable expectation for a laptop, and even a challenge in some respects for high-end workstations, as I mentioned before. We'll get into more detail about the MacBook's performance in the next section.

Beyond performance, the MacBook offers features that you won't find in any other stock notebook, except, of course, the MacBook Pro, which is considerably more expensive.

In the area of networking and communications, these include built-in gigabit Ethernet (1000/100/10 Base-T), built-in 802.11g wireless networking and built-in Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR. These alone make the MacBook stand out against other base consumer-level notebooks. I should also mention here that it has an IR receiver for use with the included remote control, which activates Front Row. Front Row lets you control multimedia via the remote, so, if you have your computer plugged into your receiver and/or television, you can control content on the computer that way.

For expansion, the MacBook includes a FireWire 400 port and two USB 2.0 ports, just like the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Also of note is the MacBook's built-in audio capabilities. Like the MacBook Pro, it has dual-purpose audio I/O jacks. On the one hand, you can use standard 1/8-inch miniplugs to connect line-level devices (headphones, mics). But the jacks also offer optical audio in and out. So, with the help of an optical miniplug-to-Toslink adapter (about $30 from Belkin), you can plug your MacBook into your home theater system and listen to true surround sound from your DVDs. What other computer system has that? It also has a built-in mic and built in speakers, though the speakers are basically tin cans. If you use the internal speakers at all, you'll need to crank up the volume all the way just to hear anything clearly.

For video, the MacBook includes a built-in iSight camera, which is useful for video conferencing with iChat (or whatever). It's mounted in the bezel above the display. For video output, it also has a mini DVI port. Again, this requires an adapter in order to use it with an external display, but the adapter (DVI or VGA) is available separately for about $20. No major expense there. The DVI port can be used to create an expanded desktop, if desired, so it goes beyond some of Apple's earlier consumer notebooks, whose video ports could only mirror the built-in display.

As for the MacBook's base elements, it offers a 13.3-inch (diagonal) widescreen display that's bright and produces accurate color when calibrated properly. Its only downside really is its extremely limited vertical viewing angle. You get about a 160-degree horizontal viewing angle, but in terms of the vertical angle, there's an extremely narrow range at which the colors will look right--maybe about 10 or 15 degrees--and after that the colors look either washed out (from above) or dark (from below). The screen has a glossy coating, incidentally, which is neither a positive or a negative for me.

The screen's resolution is 1,280 x 800 (native), which is fine for working with video but which gets a little cramped for use with graphics and, particularly, page layout. I should note though that, personally, I prefer a smaller screen on a laptop, like the one on the MacBook, as opposed to the larger screens on the pro models. It just adds to the portability, and, for everyday use, I can hook this up to a larger external display (up to 1,920 x 1,200) should the need arise.

As for graphics performance, we'll get to that below.

On to the keyboard and trackpad. I have nothing specifically negative to say about the keyboard that comes with the MacBook. For functionality, it's about as good/bad as any other notebook keyboard, which translates to me needing an external keyboard for day to day use. You might not be as big a baby about keyboards as I am, but I've yet to find one on a notebook that I like. The keyboard is not illuminated. (The MacBook Pro's keyboard is.) As for the trackpad, I love it, and generally I'm not a big fan of trackpads. This one allows you to use certain gestures to activate functions. For example, a tap with two fingers is the same as a right click; a click and drag with two fingers does an up and down or side to side document scroll. So that's handy. The actual clicker on this unit is a single button, which continues to annoy me about Apple laptops.

The last two items I want to mention under the heading of hardware features are memory and storage. For memory, the MacBook comes standard with 512 MB RAM, which really isn't enough to do anything. I bumped my model up to 2 GB the day I got it by installing it myself, memory modules being much cheaper from third-party vendors than from Apple itself. (Click here for a step-by-step guide to installing memory.) For storage, it comes with a 60 GB 2.5-inch SATA (1.5 gigabit) drive and a slot-load DVD±R drive. The hard drive's storage capacity is, obviously, miniscule by today's standards, though there are only so many options available for 2.5-inch SATA drives. I upgraded mine to 100 GB, again installing it myself, and that's just about adequate for creating separate Mac and Windows partitions with enough room to load up all of my necessary apps. (Click here for a step by step guide to installing a new hard drive.) External drives take care of my storage overflow, which is considerable.

Software features
For software, the MacBook comes with everything any other Mac comes with. For those of you who are currently PC users thinking of switching, this software suite includes iLife 06, which contains several great applications, like iDVD (DVD authoring); GarageBand (incomparable audio mixing/editing/MIDI/podcasting software in the category of free applications); iPhoto for organizing photos and performing mild image adjustments; iMovie HD for capturing and editing DV and HD video footage; and some other miscellaneous productivity apps.

But also significant is Boot Camp, which allows you to create a Windows partition on the Mac hard drive and run Windows and Windows apps natively on the MacBook hardware. Boot Camp doesn't actually come on the MacBook; you have to download it. But the process is incredibly simple, and booting into Windows once it's installed is quick and easy. Windows apps running on the MacBook deliver incredible performance, which we'll look at below.

I mentioned previously that the MacBook's performance is, simply, outstanding. Whether you're running Mac OS X or Windows (or both), applications will scream. I've already spent a considerable amount of time comparing performance of the MacBook with other systems, including desktop G5s and high-end workstations like the Quad G5 and even a couple of quad-processor Opteron systems. The results are almost unbelievable.

Rendering and encoding in Final Cut Studio applications is consistently faster on the MacBook than on a dual 2.0 GHz desktop G5. Faster! In Windows, Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects running on the MacBook rival and even beat, in some cases, those high-end creative workstations. And it even produces fantastic results rendering scenes in Cinema 4D, Maya and LightWave.

Please visit the following links for in depth benchmark tests and explanations of the tests involved.
One thing to note about performance is that we're still in the first generation of Apple systems running on Intel hardware, and not all Mac software is yet written for the Intel hardware. These include some important apps, like Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects and, of course, most of the major 3D apps. These programs do, however, run in Mac OS X on the Intel machines, but they do so under Apple's Rosetta technology. This is, essentially, seamless emulation--in other words, applications behave just as if they were running on native hardware--but performance does take a hit. Adobe won't have its Creative Suite running natively on Mac Intel hardware until spring 2007. The rest of the non-ative apps are sort of up in the air in terms of when ports will be delivered.

Note, however, that these apps that are not yet native for Mac OS X on Intel hardware are native for Windows on Intel hardware, and they run extraordinarily well, as you can see from the benchmark results listed above.

So, for CPU performance, the MacBook is incredible.

That leaves graphics performance. The MacBook comes with an integrated Intel graphics unit with 64 MB of shared memory. Nothing to write home about. In terms of benchmarks, it's much slower than the high-end ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 that comes with the MacBook Pro. But it really doesn't do too bad. I was expecting slow, jerky screen redraws, but the redraws are just fine with native software. Some of this is detailed in the benchmark articles listed above, but just to give you an idea, Apple Motion files play actually about 1 FPS faster on this MacBook than they do on my dual G5 loaded with an AGP 8x ATI Radon 9600. Running in full-screen, high-quality mode, the iTunes visualizer runs between 50 FPS and 65 FPS, which really isn't bad at all. Just don't count on super-speedy OpenGL previews in 3D apps. If OpenGL performance is critical for you, you'd definitely be better off looking at a MacBook Pro.

The bottom line
So let's get down to it. The 13-inch MacBook is an insanely great value. It's incredibly fast; it has features that you will not find in any other consumer notebooks; and it's inexpensive. If you need great 3D display performance, you'll be better off going with a MacBook Pro. But on the whole, this is a great machine. I bought two of them--one for me and one for my wife--and in no way do I regret it; nor do I feel I've sacrificed performance from my old G5 for mobility. Quite the opposite. In most way, this MacBook is faster than my G5. So basically I get it all--performance, mobility, great features--for about half the price of a G5 desktop. I easily give the 13-inch MacBook a Strong Buy recommendation.

The 13-inch MacBook model reviewed here is available for $1,299. Upgrading to 2 GB RAM will run you about $300 more. More expensive RAM upgrades are available as build to order options from the Apple Store. For more information, visit

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