Apple MacBook 13.3-inch (Black) review

Apple goes back to black

TechRadar Verdict

A fast and capable notebook that will run professional apps well. Could do with dedicated memory for the graphics chip


  • +

    It's back in black

    Fast Intel processor

    Super-bright display

    Scrolling finger pad


  • -

    No keyboard backlight

    Quiet speakers

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The MacBook is Apple's new consumer laptop, replacing the iBook.

By now, everyone knows about the speed improvements that Intel chips have brought. We've reviewed the Core Duo architecture on the MacBook Pro, Mac mini and iMac lines, so it's no surprise that this 2.0GHz MacBook is also fast and agile.

Before we delve into the MacBook, a quick look at what Apple has released. There are three on sale: two white and one black.

All models come with the same port configurations, graphics specifications, bus speed, cached memory, glossy 13.3-inch display, remote control, software and resolution.

Three price points are on offer, based on different chip speeds, hard drive sizes, and whether you want the option of burning DVDs in addition to CD formats.

We ran our tests on the topspec MacBook: the black 2.0GHz MacBook Intel Core Duo. This machine shares exactly the same specification as the white 2.0GHz Intel Core Duo (£899), but the hard drive is 20GB larger on the black model.

The third option is the cheapest at £749, another white model for users happy with a 1.8GHz, 60GB hard drive and no DVD burning option.

All models come with two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 400, Gigabit Ethernet, AirPort Extreme wireless networking, mini-DVI port, built-in iSight camera, the new MagSafe magnetic power cord, Apple Remote and identical software - including iLife '06 and Front Row.

Talking points

The main things being discussed when it comes to the MacBook are battery life, the new glossy displays, and the radically changed keyboard and scrolling trackpad.

We can report that battery life is excellent; on full tilt while playing a DVD we got 3 hours 8 minutes from one full charge - that's better than a 15- inch PowerBook, at 2 hours 55 minutes under equivalent usage.

The maximum life, meaning doing next to nothing with the computer, is an hour longer than that of an iBook at slightly less than 6 hours. Both ends of the spectrum are pretty impressive.

The MacBook is lightweight at only 2.3kg; it's compact and easy to carry around. It's less than 4cm thick, just 33cm wide, and slips effortlessly into a small bag. It's very easy to open as there is no latch (just two magnets in the lip and body), and start-up times are extremely fast. All this makes it a great mobile worker.

With the arrival of the MacBook, all Apple's notebooks now come with widescreen displays. It's a sensible move, especially for media playback. The graphics chip powering that display is the Intel GMA 950 graphics processor with 64MB RAM shared with the main memory.

This performs very well on a small screen, but it's not really fast enough for serious gamers. We tried a few, and even a less intensive game like LEGO Stars Wars was a little slow. You can still enjoy games on this Mac, but it's not going to be a selling point for serious gamers.

Staying with graphics, the overall performance has improved significantly over the machines it replaces - the MacBook was twice as fast as our 1.5GHz 12-inch PowerBook and 14-inch 1.33GHz iBook in our Photoshop test, even though there's no dedicated memory for the GMA 950 processor. This is testament to the power of the Intel chipset.

Glossy display

The MacBook introduces a change of direction from Apple regarding displays. Apple withstood the market for a while as PC vendors took up glossy screens en masse, but all that's changed - the MacBooks come with glossy displays as standard.

This is a more reflective surface than matt displays and yes, it's quite easy to see yourself in the display, especially outside in daylight where we could even clearly read the signpost behind us in the reflection!

In terms of usability this is less of a problem than it sounds, thanks to the great brightness of the MacBook screen. Set against a 14-inch iBook, 15-inch PowerBook, and a Sony laptop, with each set to maximum brightness, the MacBook is brighter than all of them - even with its brightness set at 80%.

Despite reflections, the display remains clear because of this. The new resolution of 1,280x800 brings superb definition too, with full colours and brightness.

We found the display to be generally impressive, except for one quirk: the narrow viewing angle. We started to have trouble picking out colours and edges from images on the screen from an oblique angle more than 30 degrees off centre.

If you look at the screen beyond this angle, the contrast loses accuracy, and 30 degrees is a shallow angle for this to be happening. Watching a DVD in the dark really highlighted this weakness.

You need to view the image at virtually a front-on 90- degree angle to avoid seeing greying and contrast changes at the edge of the screen. This was also a problem on the iBook, but less so on the PowerBook.

That new keyboard

The keyboard of the MacBook has been the subject of much debate, as it looks basic - a bit like an old Sinclair Spectrum. We found it perfectly comfortable to use, with no performance troubles. The keys are flat, unlike the sculpted keys on a PowerBook or MacBook Pro.

They press down until flat into the panel of the computer, which is one sheet of metal that has been punctured to let the keys through. One sacrifice that people migrating from a PowerBook will make is the lack of a backlight under the keys. That's annoying. Overall the keyboard does look cheap, but apart from the lack of a backlight, it's great to work with.

The finger pad has been updated brilliantly - it's now wide aspect like the screen and has scrolling functionality. If you put two fingers on it at the same time and pull, the page onscreen will scroll.

A click on the finger pad now also gives you right-click functionality when two fingers are on the scrolling area, which is useful but takes a bit of getting used to.

The MacBook is fast. Our benchmark application, Xbench, looked at the bus's data transfer rate, CPU usage, graphics capabilities, memory access and other components and came back with an overall score of 57%. Xbench uses a PowerMac Dual 2.0GHz tower as the benchmark, so 57% of that machine's performance is a very respectable score for such a small Mac.

The 17-inch MacBook Pro scored 67% in the same test. Calling the black MacBook a consumer-level machine is almost disrespectful in view of its performance: it punches above its weight.

Choosing a MacBook

The MacBook is a great choice if you're upgrading from an iBook, and it'll be tempting for PowerBook owners, too. It's also the only black Mac, which makes it appealing, but remember that there's no real performance difference between the two 2.0GHz models, yet in black it's £130 more.

We recommend the 2.0GHz white model: it's very, very fast, doesn't show up greasy thumb smudges, and you'll be saving yourself £130. James Ellerbeck was the former name of Its staff were at the forefront of the digital publishing revolution, and spearheaded the move to bring consumer technology journalism to its natural home – online. Many of the current TechRadar staff started life a staff writer, covering everything from the emerging smartphone market to the evolving market of personal computers. Think of it as the building blocks of the TechRadar you love today.